Anatomies of Desire

Fiontán Moran

Tags: Stuart Comer

Reviews / 12.05.2010
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In 1964 Susan Sontag placed Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1964) within a tradition of the 'poetic cinema of shock' that included Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L'Âge d'Or (1930), two films that are often seen as quintessentially 'Surrealist'.1 Situating Smith's camp, ostentatious and observably 'queer' film with such company highlighted a connection that had been ignored and seldom noticed in much scholarship on queer film. Interestingly, Flaming Creatures did not feature in the Tate programme 'Invocations and Evocations: Queer and Surreal', which aimed to highlight and re-evaluate this psychic link between queer film and Surrealism from the 1940s to 1981.2 The lack of previous investigation into this area may be due to the largely masculine and misogynistic nature of the Surrealist enterprise. While the politics of the group, who were chiefly active from the 1920s to the 40s, were anti-establishment, they had an antagonistic relationship towards the emancipated women of New York and the fashion for the androgynous garçonne style amongst Parisian women, and André Breton's homophobia has been well documented.3 However, if we look towards the definitions of 'Surrealism' and 'queer' there are suggestive areas of overlap between the two sensibilities.

The first Surrealist Manifesto (1924) described the movement as: 'Pure psychic automatism by which one proposes to express […] the real functioning of thought…'.4 Henry Benschoff and Sean Griffin have described the theoretical term 'queer' as the exploration of 'the broad, fluid and ever-changing expanse of human sexualities', with queer film depicting 'cinematic sexualities as complex multiple, overlapping and historically nuanced'.5 Given the interest in exploring various forms of desire it is not surprising that the Surrealists would hold an appeal for queer artists.6 Precedents such as Man Ray's photographs of transvestite performer Barbette, or Duchamp's cross-dressing as his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy, already show the deliberate confusion of identities and sexualities that would mark later queer film.

The key theme in this programme was the Surrealists' interest in invoking and evoking the past, which was, in part, a response to the modern world. This was most effectively represented in the earliest films, which dealt with the queer practice of cruising within the context of the post-War city space. For the Surrealists, the modern city was the manifestation of the inner psyche.7 Despite dealing with a heterosexual subject, the flâneur - a figure never quite a part of society - depicted in Breton's Nadja (1928), who wanders through the city following the female protagonist of the novel, could be seen as cruising.8Mark Turner, who writes on this subject in Backward Glances (2003), posits that towards the end of the nineteenth century, cruising became a means of experiencing the modern city and discovering disused spaces for (mainly) men to inhabit; while also offering a form of comfort against the alienating city environment.9

The most emotionally complex representation of this sensibility was Willard Maas's Image in the Snow (1948), which depicts the film-maker wandering alone in a rundown city and a snow-covered cemetery. Maas stumbles to the ground holding a crucifix - a representation of a nude male in ecstatic pain - that takes on highly homoerotic overtones, while a poetic voice-over suggests Maas's inner psychic turmoil. The emotionally wrought film can now appear as melodramatic - at the Tate screening, for example, some members of the audience laughed. But while queer artists often approached serious issues flippantly as a means of subversion, for Maas the film was the result of a 'severe spiritual crisis' after serving in World War II.10 The film suggests, moreover, a key difference between queer and Surrealist experiences of the city: rather than a backdrop for random impersonal encounters, for Maas the city itself becomes eroticised, taking on a personal and moral dimension.

The programme successfully included a range of queer film. Ron Rice's Chumlum (1963-64) was a joyful, orgiastic spectacle of polymorphous sexual activities that reflected Surrealist's interest in gender ambiguity and disjointed narratives. Such a positive representation of queerness, when compared to the films of the 1940s, was also seen in the Warren Sonbert film Hall of Mirrors (1966), in which Warhol Factory habitué Gerard Malanga appears in a black leather jacket reflected across an installation of multiple mirrors. Programme co-curator James Boaden presented the garden as metaphor for fantasy and escape in both queer and Surrealist idioms, and in Kenneth Anger's Eaux d'Artifice (1953), where a Marie Antoinette-esque figure runs around the grounds of the Villa d'Este in Tivoli, Arcadia becomes a space of exploration and fantasy. The garden's evocation of the past, alongside the phallic forms of the figure's headdress and the fountains that she runs past, recalls the Surrealist interest in anthropomorphic motifs and the outmoded, while also drawing on the queer technique of placing hidden references to desire within their work.

The most direct example of a queer film-maker invoking a Surrealist past was Barbara Hammer's Lover Other (2006), which examined the life and work of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, a lesbian couple who left Paris in the 1920s for the idyllic country life of Jersey.11 While the dramatisation of Cahun and Moore's writing often jarred with the narrative quality of the film, it echoed the couple's use of photography - the very signifier of the 'real' - as the preferred medium in their construction of a lesbian identity.12

Barbara Hammer, Lover Other, 2006, DVD, 55min

The films chosen by the Tate film curator, Stuart Comer, investigated the interest in gender and private and public sexuality, using the Narcissus myth to explore identity in both queer and Surrealist precedents. Mes Jambes (1964) by ex-Surrealist Pierre Moliner queered the classically Surrealist motif of the fragmented female body - a misogynistic image associated with violence and objectification - by depicting a man in high heels and suspenders. Much like the Surrealists, Shuji Terayama's work has often used gender play to rebel against the social and political structures of Japan, and Cinema Guide for Young People (1974), which freely blurs the lines between dream and reality, culminates with a man literally pissing into the camera. In such a way he parodies the existentialist and masculine gesture of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, which were considered to be the expression of an unconscious13 - and extending David Joselit's comment that the Surrealist's invention of 'a public language for private emotion and sensation' strongly appealed to New York School painters14 to queer artists as well.

The programme ended with perhaps the quintessential queer film: Pink Narcissus (1971) by James Bidgood. It united the programme's various themes of city, garden and the unconscious in a gaudy spectacle, hand-made in Bidgood's home over six and a half years. The story depicts a young man, played by Bobby Kendall, left to fantasise while his elder bourgeois lover is away. He ventures into the city, has an epiphany in a garden and leaves home wearing the clothes of his keeper. The style of the film has much in common with gay photography of the era, which has led many to consider the film as soft-core pornography. However there was also surprising evidence of a Surrealist sensibility: the shot of Kendall lying in the garden recalls the figure in Duchamp's Étant donnés (1946-66); the production design is full of Dalí-esque sexual motifs; and fantasy and emancipation - themes of great importance to the Surrealists - are at its core. Jonathan Katz presented the film as a parable for the transformative nature of the Stonewall riots of 1969 - a historical contextualisation that was rare in the programme.15

The problems in considering queer film as continuing the legacy of Surrealism, is the fact that both are broad terms for a range of different work and artist. In this context, Boaden highlighted the complex issue of how queer film is viewed, by suggesting that sometimes queer film should be kept marginal as this was the context within which it was made and viewed.16 In the credit sequence of Lover Other, Cahun/Moore works are shown being auctioned at Phillips de Pury. This short scene revealed how work that combines queer and Surrealist ideas has become mainstream, despite having been made in isolation and opposition. It would also have been interesting to look further into more female film-makers, given the tradition of female Surrealists, and also to consider work post-1981, especially in relation to AIDS, which is such a key issue in queer studies. But while 'Invocations and Evocations' may not have been able to present a complete history of the queer and Surrealist traditions, it did break queer film out of its usual sequestered context to uncover new connections for exploration.

Footnotes
  1. Susan Sontag, 'Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures' (1964), Against Interpretation and Other Essays, London: Penguin Classics, 1966/2009, p.227. Buñuel declared in 1929 that 'Un Chien Andalou would not exist if Surrealism did not', La Révolution surréaliste, no. 12 (15 December 1929) p.34, Elliott H. King, Dalí, Surrealism and Cinema, Hertford: Camera Books, 2007, p.19.

  2. 'Invocations and Evocations: Queer and Surreal' took place at Tate Modern from Friday 26 March to Monday 29 March 2010 as part of Tate Film, curated by Stuart Comer with James Boaden, Ed Halter, Jonathan D. Katz and Juan A. Suárez.

  3. Sarah Wilson, 'Feminities/ Masquerades',Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography, New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p.140.

  4. 'Manifesto of Surrealism' (1924), quoted by Briony Fer in Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993, p.171.

  5. Henry Benschoff & Sean Griffin, Queer Cinema, The Film Reader, New York and London: Routledge, 2004, pp.1-2.

  6. B. Fer, 'Surrealism, Myth and Psychoanalysis', Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism, op. cit., p.180.

  7. Ibid., p.171.

  8. Ibid., p.183.

  9. Mark W. Turner, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London, London: Reaktion Books, 2003, pp.7-8. Cruising developed throughout the twentieth century and while civil rights were gained the practice of cruising is still by nature a risky and socially complicated practice.

  10. 'Invocations and Evocations: Queer and Surreal', film programme booklet, p.5.

  11. After the Nazis invaded Jersey in 1940, the couple, who were of Jewish heritage and ignored various Nazi edicts about spreading news on the progress of the war, were imprisoned for a period of time.

  12. Jennifer Blessing, 'Introduction', Rrose Is a Rrose Is a Rrose: Gender Performance in Photography, New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1997, p.8. The idea of fashioning a lesbian identity is brought up by Whitney Chadwick in Lover Other (2006), Directed by Barbara Hammer.

  13. Pollock speaks about his process as coming 'from within' and the importance of the unconscious in William Wright, 'An Interview with Jackson Pollock' (1950) in Ellen H. Johnson (ed.), American Artists on Art from 1940 to 1980, New York: Icon, 1982, p.4.

  14. David Joselit, American Art Since 1945, London: Thames and Hudson, 2003, p.27.

  15. Comment made by Jonathan Katz in the question and answer session after the screening. The Stonewall Riots are credited with starting the gay civil rights movement and were the first time in American history that homosexuals fought back against governmental prosecution of sexual minorities. They were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations against a police raid on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, in the Greenwich Village, New York City.

  16. Comment made by James Boaden in the question and answer session after the screening of Pink Narcissus.