Friday, May 7, 2010

Fortune and Men's Eyes

(Harvey Hart, 1971)
Complicated. As a shocking expose of the brutalities of prison life - which is no doubt how it was received - I can only describe it as a failure: the depiction of new inmates as wide-eyed innocents awaiting corruption by heartless homosexuals is a real head-scratcher, especially as it conflates prison sex culture with 'real' homosexuality via Michael Greer's Queenie. A flamboyant drag queen who is dearly beloved by the entire prison population - yeah right! - Queenie is transparently a literary device as opposed to a character, mocking the cruelties of the prison power structure even as she enables them, floating above and alongside the action until her final, definitive intervention. Wendell Burton's transition from lead innocent to heartless exploiter of the moment is so abbreviated that he ends up a symbol as well. But as symbols go, these are remarkably vivid and intimate, performed with great human depth top to bottom, and adapted from the stage with an uncommonly assured sense of cinema. Unquestionably problematic, but if you can give it the benefit of the doubt, the pervasive emphasis on barely-repressed vulnerability can be read as a bizarrely coded/compromised kind of queering, and suggests truths above and beyond its highly dubious documentary value.

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