The groundbreaking and influential Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism and Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall is coming to its 25th anniversary. I talk to Tom Waugh to ask about the intellectual and social context in which the research took place, the methods developed to produce it, the way materials were gathered, who was interviewed, the many barriers to its publication, how the book was received then and why it continues to be so influential now. The video contains images from the book and other sources to illustrate the discussion which albeit vintage are nonetheless explicit. One of the struggles of the book, and one of its glories, was to publish such images in a scholarly context.
For those who need to avert their eyes, or who simply need to wash the dishes, I’ve also turned the interview into a podcast.
In Conversation With…Professor John Mercer on: Rock Hudson; the work of Mark Rappaport and François Reichenbach, currently available to see on the Henri platform of the Cinémathèque Françaisse; as well as on fragments of queer visual histories.
I had been so excited by what I thought was a discovery of two films by François Reichenbach — Last Spring and Nus masculins, both from 1954, — on the Henri platform of the Cinémathèque Française that I wanted to talk to someone about them. Along with the Reichenbach, Henri was also showing Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) so I thought John Mercer, with his work on Rock Hudson and his knowledge of histories of queer visual representation would be ideally placed to discuss the significance of all of these works, which if you listen to the above, will see that did indeed turn out to be the case, and for which I express my thanks.
Rappaport is of course now a famous filmmaker and celebrated as a pioneering video essayist. J. Hoberman wrote of Mike Rapapport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, quite briefly but beautifully I think, in an article for The Village Voice which you can see below:
I knew of Reichenbach as an award-winning documentarian, and I had seen L’Amérique insolite (1961), so I knew that his work had very considerably queer overtones. But I had never seen these two films and I was bowled over by them, seeing them as part of a matrix of confluences of queer mid-century visual imagery that connected Cocteau, Genet and Anger with Reichenbach and in turn connected Reichenbach with later filmmakers such as Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien. It turns out that Last Spring was not as little know as I initially thought, with Julianne Pidduck having written this below in the updated version of Richard Dyer’s Now You See It: Studies in Lesbian and Gay Film, crediting Thomas Waugh with ‘discovering’ Last Spring at the Kinsey Institute:
and Waugh himself writing on the film in his Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall:
I made two trailers to help publicise the Cinémathèque screenings of the films, which I include here because I hope they evoke their flavour; and which will at least allow you to look at some of the imagery contained in them. You can see them below:
Nus masculins( 1954):
and Late Spring (1954):
I also made an ad for the podcast at the very top with John Mercer, which will also hopefully evoke some of the flavour of Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies:
Both Rappaport’s work and particularly Reichenbach’s deserve to be better known,
Late Spring is now on youtube and can be seen here:
I´m a teacher. Few things make me happier than to see students doing well after graduation. And it positively gladdened my heart to see the life that Finn Jackson Ballard has made for himself in Berlin: a PhD in Film Studies, a historian of Berlin queer cultures of the last century with a focus on the Weimar period, a tour guide non-pareil, now himself a teacher and Lecturer. I first met Finn when he was Eimear: brilliant, soft-spoken, brave; mindful of the ways she spoke and conscious of the various effects speech might have on others. I remember meeting Eimear for coffee when she first told me she was transitioning and feeling somewhat like my mother when I first came out to her: I foresaw trouble, danger, possibly a gory death in some ditch. Unlike my mother, I did not say this, and tried to find a way to be supportive but careful. Had she thought everything through? She had.
There´s a wonderful moment in Almodóvar´s All About My Mother where Agrado, a trans person played by Antonia San Juan, gets on stage and tells the audience how much her various body parts had cost. Most of what makes her ‘her’ is artificial. But she ends by saying that one is most authentic, most true to oneself, the closer one gets to the person they imagined themselves to be. It´s telling that a gentle man, a man who is gentle, is Finn´s choice.
The podcast below took place in Finn´s apartment in Berlin, late-night, with his dogs sprawled around us, occasionally biting on some squeaky toy. I´ve wanted to keep the atmosphere, the flow, the ways conversation reveals as it meanders so I´ve not cut anything.
Like many people my age, I feel a bit at sea on trans issues. I want to be helpful but know I also need to change entrenched ways of thinking: to be better informed. We all need to be really, and few people are as knowledgeable and articulate on the issue as Finn.
In the podcast (below, at the bottom) we talk about adolescence and being disassociated from one´s body; hormones, chest surgery, the processes involved in getting closer to the idea of who one wants to be; screenings, psychological evaluations; how it´s a bit like going through puberty again, looking in the mirror constantly to spot gradual changes; how life became easier once people saw him as a man rather than as a trans person; how privileged he feels at having an experience and insight into how it is to live as a woman; how more comfortable he feels with the effeminate rather than feminine. We talk of Northern Ireland and Berlin; we reflect on gender, how theory enable ways of being; how history helps to develop those ideas; the importance of ‘ancestors’; and much more.
Listening back, I´m even more appreciative of his kindness, his knowledge, his openness, his sense of adventure, the lilting accent, the way his answers to my questions are both free-flowing and thought through, precise. We can all learn a lot from Finn. I certainly did.