Red Alert

SIMPLE INTEREST: When I was in high school in the 1970s, there could be found in every English-literature class some student whose critical views could be reduced to a single thesis: "That guy must have been high." Though the simple-minded search for a chemical inspiration for every metaphor or symbol may have fallen out of fashion, its counterpart in contemporary scholarship may be the practice of outing historical and literary figures, the kind of facile speculation on sexuality that claims to have cast a new light on the likes of William Shakespeare, Henry James, Emily Dickinson, Huckleberry Finn and Tinky Winky.

Those who don't mind gossip and rampant guesswork taking the place of scholarship will probably find much to enjoy in Mark Rappaport's The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (Water Bearer Video), a clever and almost convincing argument for a gay subtext to the cinema of the past. Rappaport has scoured the video shelves for just about every limp wrist, every sissy joke, every cross-dressing scene or effeminate gesture in the combined ouvres of Danny Kaye, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Randolph Scott, John Wayne and Walter Brennan and even takes a side step into European films just to draw attention to a few homoerotic moments in the work of Luchino Visconti. (Gosh! The director of Death in Venice and The Damned was gay? Who would have guessed?)

It's a clever performance, more effective than Rappaport's earlier attempts to convert old movies into a lesson in Semiotics 101, but much of its cleverness is simply an effort to disguise the faulty reasoning. Rappaport's film clips -- often taken out of context, or barely acknowledging the possibility of other, more likely readings -- rest on two misconceptions: that audiences of the '30s and '40s simply didn't see or understand the things that we, the more enlightened souls of 1999, can now recognize (Rappaport ignores most of the more overt references to homosexuality that would call this into question, though he includes Cary Grant's classic line "I just went gay all of a sudden" from Bringing Up Baby), and that what he defines as gay messages and imagery in the films of the studio era emerged subconsciously (a notion that simply disregards the way films were made in Hollywood and implies that "sissy" comic actors like Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton were unaware of their own images).

The Silver Screen is provocative, even insightful, but as film history it's lazy, preferring the easy laughs of camp to getting its facts straight.

SHELF LIFE: Disney has just released two new videos -- the documentary Frank and Ollie, an intimate look at animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the last of Disney's "Nine Old Men"; and the original, animated version of 101 Dalmatians (though the latter will be withdrawn from stores in 101 days -- which is longer than The Rescuers lasted in stores!).

March 16 was a busy day at the video stores, but though The Waterboy will probably be taking up most of the shelf space, there are alternatives. From First Run Features, two documentaries, Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So-So, about the Polish director of The Decalogue and the Three Colors trilogy; and Paul Monette: The Brink of Summer's End, about the author of Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir and Becoming a Man. From Kino on Video, Alexei Balabanov's Russian gangster movie Brother and Carlos Marcovich's charming semidocumentary portrait of a young girl, Who the Hell Is Juliette? From New Yorker, Carlos Saura's mesmerizing performance film Flamenco. From Disney/Touchstone, The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit, directed by Stuart Gordon, written by Ray Bradbury and starring Joe Mantegna and Edward James Olmos.

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