Tag Archives: Jean Genet

The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

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Borges & Frampton

It’s interesting to consider how the depiction of memory has changed since the 19th century.  Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life Of Charlotte Bronte, James Boswell’s The Life Of Samuel Johnson and James Longstreet’s From Manassas To Appomattox all read of their time when it was taboo to detail personal relationships to persons, events or otherwise.  Since the 20th century it is standard for any art form to depict that that is wholly personal to its author.  This is true of the artist’s approach to memory.  Where Longstreet would restrict his accounts to statistics and figures, Frank Harris would supply a reader with a story warts and all in My Life & Loves, but specifically with his own ideas included.  Hollis Frampton does the same, but transposes a biographical account to the medium of film.  Is a biography not just one man’s account of his life as memory serves?  This is the question of 20th century art forms.  Frampton may even go so far as to dissect this proposition of biography in Nostalgia (1971), much as Borges did in his text Borges & I, though with the elegance reserved for such endeavors as proposed by Bergson’s work that made both men’s works possible.   Yet, the question is, within art, how does the incorporation of “time” (reflexive or not] manipulate the memories which the artist depicts?

In Creative Evolution, Bergson proposes all experience takes place in time, and for a film artist such as Hollis Frampton this is inescapably true.  Film as a medium manipulates and transposes time in an accepted narrative line whilst still adhering to it’s very own duration as a piece.  Frampton works his art on Bergson’s “sensory plane”, in that his piece Nostalgia is both visual and audible; however Frampton takes one step beyond this in how he manipulates this ‘sensory plane” to be even more reflective of his film’s duration.  To put it simply, the audio of Michael Snow’s voice-over narration’s content does not sync with the image which Frampton presents his audience.  Therefore, the audience must do two things which, as a byproduct, bring the film’s duration in time to a sensory forefront.  First, one must pay close attention to that which Snow describes, for it will be the backstory to the anticipated image yet to be seen.  Furthermore, one must retain the content of the image, to better understand the preceding explanation Snow has given the audience.  This is a process as muddled as it appears here, hence, the primary sensation Frampton has given his audience is not one of a documentary (which Nostalgia essentially is as far as content is concerned), but rather illustrates, through the audience, the time it takes to remember and the sensation of remembering.

Frampton’s background as a photographer, which is the focus of Nostalgia, has conditioned him to deal with time in a unique way.  As is well known, photography began as a documentary tool in the 19th century and has arguably never lost the association.  Therefore, it seems fair to suggest that Frampton manipulated his film with the essence of the photographic purpose in mind.    Justifying the duration of shots as well as documenting in real time the experience he meant to capture.  That is to say as a recording tool, the movie camera operated within the parameters of Bergson’s “mechanical time” whilst documenting the organic, which in this case are flames.

On the other end of the avant garde film spectrum is Jean Genet’s The Song Of Love (1950).  Genet comes from a literary background similar to Pasolini, though with a stronger, overriding concern with the novel as a means of dearranging linear narrative time.  To illustrate the emotional content of his memories of incarceration, Genet employed many of the effects pioneered in the fantasy films of Jean Cocteau [who often visited Genet’s set].  Genet opts for emotional content and emotive experience through expressionistic terms and tactics over the reflexive technicalities of Hollis Frampton, with a result more instep with Alfred Doblin’s depiction of memory in the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz.

“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” (Borges, page 246]  It’s that sensation of remembering from the present that Borges makes tangible in his story Borges and I, and is also the aesthetic sensation of the author in Frampton’s Nostalgia, the author who is Frampton himself, just like Borges.  Borges uses his “present voice” to recall his past in the third person, and splitting the identity of Borges into the Borges of then and now.  Frampton makes the same tactic applicable to film in an arguably reflexive manner in that the image is the work of Hollis Frampton photographer made in the early 1960s, while the voice of the now (during screenings] is of Mike Snow, a filmmaker.  The change in identity, Frampton to Snow is just as significant and meaningful in the continuity of continuous time as the change in career, photographer to filmmaker.  Hence the identity of both Borges and Frampton has been split by past experience to present “shared” experience with their respective audiences/readers.  This division of identity over a matter of time reinforces Bergson’s idea of “organic time”.

Borges’ approach to the theory of “organic time” is of the very poetic, in which he juxtaposes the physical author with the mental representation of the same author, and though they share one identity, only the “mental” is given a voice.  Throughout the piece allusions are made to the everyday life of the writer Borges, yet, according to Bergson, no act can ever be exactly repeated by an organic entity.  Thus, Borges, when writing Borges & I, was remembering uniquely, as will his reader.  But upon a second read, all will not be as remembered, which is a point the voice of the “mental” makes in the piece.  It is then arguable that Borges’ piece is as reflexive as Frampton’s.

“Efforts stored up in the present is indeed also a memory,”[Bergson, page 51] describes perfectly the sensation the audience feels while ingesting the works of Frampton and Borges.  Though the audience/reader feels they are taking part in both respective works in one single moment, in actuality they are experiencing physically the passage of time.  Thus the suspension of mental awareness by stimuli creates a plastic sensation of time, which both Frampton and Borges exploit in their audience/reader as well as depict within their pieces.

The latter proposition seems particularly relevant in Nostalgia.  Film is the physical representation of time in it’s passing, which the audience surely knows though is compelled to understand the plastic time of the film as a given reality.  Thus, as each photograph in Frampton’s piece is burnt and replaced with a new photograph, the audience resets its mental clocks.  When a film is understood on such a compartmentalized level, one begins to understand better the beginnings and endings which exist within a film working down from scenes to sequences, sequences to shots, shots to frames.  The construct of Frampton’s film, it’s repetition, disjointed information, and split author all work in unison to likewise compartmentalize the audience’s sense of time.  For instance, at the start of a new shot it is typical that a viewer will ponder the facts before, the photo now, and the photo to come; in other words they are remembering to remember what they remembered while only being conscious of the now while sub-consciously acknowledging the passing of time.

Bergson’s phrase “organic time” has some rather unique ramifications.  “Organic Time” when put in the most simplest of terms means that organisms, always undergoing the process of change and development, cannot repeat the same action twice.  This opens up a new theory in the interpretation of Nostalgia.   Though Snow’s voice over is a constant mechanical recording, a change will occur within the audience.  No audience member will view the film and take part in it’s process of remembering the same way twice according to Bergson.  Thus it is proposed that Frampton has constructed a film which builds layer upon layer of remembering to remember having remembered again; a process so complicated in the mechanics of the mind, yet trivial to human experience.

Which is where the before mentioned concept of plastic time becomes dominant.  Borges’ construction of time in Borges & I is stilted in it’s retrospective observations since text must occupy a “mechanical time” in contrast to Borges the man who exists in “organic time”.  This is not so much a juxtaposition as an ending achieved through contrasting means.  For only in the medium of “mechanical time” can Borges illustrate the sensations of “organic time” which are then shared with his readers.  It is an uneasy contradiction which is addressed with in the text itself.  The “mental” of the author in Borges & I experiences organic time, but perceives his physical counterpart to inhabit “mechanical time”.  It may even be read as a dehumanization of one in favor for the other by Borges himself [outside his text that is].  The same is applicable to Nostalgia.  The mechanical time of film embodies in it’s visual illusions the organic time of the director and his audience.

It seems a justifiable counter argument that film and literature are void of “organic time” because such a sensation is only achieved via an illusion.   But it is the illusion which is the sensational for the persons observing, the tangible to those unaware of the nuanced mechanics within the mediums that the pieces exist.

It is through such rigorous manipulations of time that the sensation of memory and in turn self reflection can be emoted through a piece and to it’s audience.  As a race, humanity has been obsessive  about shared experiences; one may argue that all art is fundamentally inspired by such a drive.  Yet, it seems relevant that the pre-occupation with time, which so clearly defines humanity on a person to person basis, should provoke the highly conceptual planes of experience that Borges and Frampton strive to lift their audience to.

The plane of experience though mathematical and calculated in Frampton’s work, does lack the lyricism of Borges.  Borges has the ability to, in his fiction, wed the differing approaches to the experience of time and sensation of memory which Jean Genet and Hollis Frampton represent.  The poetry of lyricism is a human sensibility, and may indeed move Borges’ piece deeper into the spectrum of “organic time”.   Consider the emotive quality of poetry, and it’s contrasting meaning to those who have varying experiences and backgrounds.  Thus it seems reasonable to propose that poetry has the organic quality that most writing does not.  Since Borges [being a skilled poet himself] plays with time through his poetic sensitivity; isn’t it fair to speculate that his work will posses the merits of “organic time” more dominantly that Frampton’s Nostalgia?

Bergson’s notion of “organic” and “mechanical” time define the back bone of the works Borges & I and Nostalgia.  The pieces differ immensely in form, medium, and reflexivity, but share the common concern of what does memory mean to human kind and how is it felt?  Perhaps too broad or too vague, but none the less, Borges and Frampton endeavored to search themselves for an answer.

-Robert Curry

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