Outlines: A Queer Reading of Some Silhouettes | Features

Outlines: A Queer Reading of Some Silhouettes | Features

That friction is amplified by a queerness within the film, and otherness in the characters, a sidestepping of traditional and heteronormative values and instinctual trust in socially dominant ideas of production and reproduction, or sex and the continuation of family lines: Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), as do the other women of the “Cell Block Tango,” do away with their spouses and partners, intent on self-fulfillment no longer based on marriage or making a family. And both, not so much different sides of the same coin so much as pairs, or dyads, in visual and aesthetic approaches to the same goal (fame, spectacle, performance), become instantly recognizable within the world of the film. Their image and persona become what we are buying and selling, in our seats and out in the world. This seems to be particularly of interest in a queer cinematic history in that their persona, the language of why they are famous in the first place, is an avoidance of heterosexual dynamics that are created from social pressure and expectation. But as compelling as Roxie’s blonde kewpie pie looks are (certainly director Rob Marshall’s own adaptation of blonde starlet looks, not so far off from Fay Wray), turning to Zeta-Jones’ Velma finds fertile ground for queer identification. No, dis-identification. 

And what are we looking at when we just look at these silhouettes? Not the person, certainly; an idea, a construction that’s also natural, a shadow that somehow shimmers with substance. You can reach out to a silhouette and only grab what’s most elemental, like a trick of the light that continues to seduce. When queerness is introduced to shadows, a space that queer people themselves have found a home in, they find power in what José Esteban Muñoz calls “disidentifcation,” meaning “to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect.’” We dare to question them, but shadows are unanswerable, and queer people will fill in those blanks to find parts of themselves. With certain performers, like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Marlene Dietrich, and Liza Minnelli, their shadows melt into something more illusory and complex; they become a triad of duplicity that has become its own visual grammar within gay and queer culture. 

Velma’s severe bob, as precise and sharp as her dancing, nods to Louise Brooks’ Earth-shattering naughtiness—a siren ringing the alarm bell for timeless sexual power, transcending the era of film in which she left a scalding burn—and Zeta-Jones’ embrace of the costume creates its own self-aware wink. At the beginning of “And All That Jazz,” the platform raises her, the blue light and white flame of the spotlight creating shadows around her body, outlining not only Velma the performer (now alone, her sister gone), but Velma the nightclub act in dialogue with Brooks. She wears a flapper dress to establish her own theatrical and performative presence (as well as independence), and that murder becomes an added element to the persona of Velma Kelly as public figure, so do the parallels between her silhouette as itself an extension of her persona and its relationship to Brooks in a film like “Pandora’s Box,” another story (with Sapphic flavors) of a woman subverting and transgressing her role, the bob adding androgyny and ambiguity that is especially accentuated when reduced to its most elemental features and flattened in silhouette. In short, the bob in silhouette makes Velma’s (and Louise’s) gender walk a fine line between what we understand as male and female, aesthetically. And yet, in the aftermath of “Chicago”’s original release, Zeta-Jones as Velma has become iconic, on its own terms as well as itself paying homage to an older performance. (And it’s clear also given that “Chicago” is both an adaptation and a remix of Fosse.)


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