Abstracting The Gaze: The Queer and Erotic Cinema of Flaming Creatures and Fuses
by J. Simpson
Queer and erotic cinema have been experiencing a renaissance in the 21st Century. On one hand, formerly marginalized communities no longer have to hide in the shadows, concealing their true faces and desires from mainstream culture. On the other hand, however, this is leading to a sanitization of queer and erotic cinema. Mainstream successes like Moonlight; Love, Simon; Blue is the Warmest Color; or Call Me By Your Name are great, and performing a powerful service for those who used to have in secrecy and shame.
A certain vitality, edginess, and desire to subvert heteronormative society is lost, however, as queer and erotic cinema is sanded down for polite society. Speaking on the power and potential of queer cinema in the movement dubbed New Queer Cinema, film analyst E. Alex Young discusses the evolution of Queer Cinema in an essay for Slate Magazine.
“New Queer Cinema had punch and swagger; it was acerbic, witty, subversive, and campy, spanning a vast range of aesthetics, genres, and histories, led by a group of filmmakers and artists that eventually included Haynes, Van Sant, Jennie Livingston, Isaac Julien, Sadie Benning, Marlon Riggs, Cheryl Dunye, and many others. Most importantly, they didn’t care about approval or acceptance.” Film scholar Michele Aaron wrote that the defining feature of New Queer Cinema was an attitude of “defiance”—whether it was the HIV-positive cop-killers on the run in Gregg Araki’s The Living End or the homicidal couple that consecrates their self-sanctioned marriage by murdering a child in Tom Kalin’s Swoon, these were filmmakers who found liberation by embracing the margins. They were bold, sexy, dangerous, and depraved—radical in content and form. Instead of running away from the accusation that queers were deviants, degenerates, and criminals, NQC films embraced it. When the Gay Liberation Front called out “Perverts of the world unite!” it was NQC that heard that call.
Speaking on the power and potential of queer cinema to disorient, causing viewers to reassess their assumptions and categorizations of the world around them, film scholar Julian Clamouns writes: “These films help us confront our own conflicted sensory responses to abjection, to that which threatens to shatter our structured, discrete lives. They explore pre-subjective states of being and transformative encounters with the unbearable. The films do not necessarily offer subversion, but rather a way of approaching the void that looms in us all, inspiring both fascination and horror, waiting to rupture our bodily boundaries.”
Movies are particularly adept at recontextualizing the world around us into new, exotic, potentially unrecognizable shapes. The magic eye of the camera lens zooms in or out at will, showing a situation at the macro- or micro-level, exalting in the textural details or detaching for a God’s eye-gaze of a moment. Literary devices, such as narrative and linear plot, can be similarly uprooted. In the black box of the movie theater, time and space dissolve. The “I” is uprooted, unsettled, cut loose from its physical limitations, in a way similar to the ego annihilating rush of an orgasm.
In this essay, we will be looking at abstraction in both queer and erotic cinema. Both genres deal with matters of the flesh, being intimately intertwined with sexuality and sensuality. We will be focusing on two particular films, as excellent early examples of queer and erotic cinema, respectively. For the purpose of this essay, we will be focusing on the broader sense of the term “queer,” not just films that depict gay characters or on-screen sexuality. We’ll be focusing on the “erotic” rather than the “pornographic,” although that distinction is often in the eye of the beholder. Special attention will be paid to feminist erotic cinema, unpacking the potential of the cinema in subverting the male gaze.
Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures
Jack Smith’s legendary featurette Flaming Creatures is so much more than just a queer or erotic film. Flaming Creatures is the embodiment of queer liminality, existing in a state of flux, prescribing to its own dream logic. It’s fluidity extends beyond its sexual orientation and identity, as well. Flaming Creatures exists in the strange gray zone between high art, queer camp, and sex romp. It’s the culmination of Jack Smith’s “secret flix,” a netherworld of alternative art. B-grade horror films, smut, Hollywood musicals, and exotica. This intersection accounts for both Flaming Creatures reputation as well as the hardships it endured.
Flaming Creatures was released in 1963. The lurid, dream-like black-and-white images of drag queens, transgender women, and nearly every other embodiment of gender fluidity you can think of, are played out in an Arabian Nights-style reverie. The film opens on an abstract landscape of intertwined body parts—breasts and cocks are liberally interspersed, making it difficult to discern where they’re coming from or who they belong to.
The narrative is every bit as abstract and convoluted as the images depicted therein. In the film, a group of drag queens rape a woman, who screams so loud it shakes the world apart. The scene shifts—a vampiric drag queen emerges from her coffin, sashaying to Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” before falling on her gender-bent victim, a pretty boy in a satin dress and pump heels. The vampiress drinks in ecstacy, eyes rolling up in opiate thrall, teasing out the inherent druggy hedonism of the vampire myth. Finally, the action gives way to a free-for-all dance montage, somewhere between the works of Kenneth Anger and Derek Jarman and Hee-Haw, cementing its reputation as an early example of postmodern pastiche.
Flaming Creatures’ eroticism caused the film untold grief. In March 1964, the film was seized by New York’s district attorney. All showings were subsequently banned in New York, the spiritual cradle of its inception. This caused a number of influential thinkers, most notably film historian/activist Jonas Mekas and feminist poet Susan Sontag, to speak up in its defense. Flaming Creatures was dubbed a “sex film,” in no uncertain terms, lopping off the potential critical threads reaching into other artforms as genres. As Jonas Mekas wrote for the Village Voice, “Jack Smith has just finished a great movie…and it is so beautiful I feel ashamed to sit through the current Hollywood and European movies… The film will not be shown theatrically because our social-moral-etc. guides are sick. This movie will be called pornographic, degenerate, homosexual, trite, disgusting, etc. It is all that and it is so much more than that.” (1)
We cannot help but wonder what might have been, had Flaming Creatures not been so easily codified. Film scholar Marc Siegel notes, “[Flaming Creatures’] strategic disruption of gender and sexual norms [is] ultimately an attempt at expressing the possibilities of an eroticism that is always beyond the reach of [identity and] representation.” (2)
With gender and sexual identity being such a hot topic, these days, it seems safe to argue Flaming Creatures was ahead of its time. You could extend that further, postulating that Jack Smith and his merry band of androgynous angels, helped dream this world into being from the rooftop of a movie palace that no longer exists.
Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses
Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses received an even stronger critical response when it first screened at Cannes Film Festival in 1968. Speaking on the film’s hostile reaction, rivaling that of Stravinsky’s The Rites Of Spring, Schneemann told film critic Scott MacDonald, “One of the most extreme things happened when I was in the audience at Cannes. About forty men went berserk and tore up all the seats in the theater, slashed them with razors, shredded them, and threw all the padding around. It was terrifying, and peculiar.”
It wasn’t just men who had problems with Schneemann’s intimate depiction of physical love between her and her then-husband, composer James Tenney. Lesbian separatists objected to the film at a showing at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1972 or 1973. “They said, ‘There’s no role model for us in here, and we don’t want to have to look at it.’ Well, of course, I felt that, first, they didn’t have to look at it, and, second, they were perfectly justified to object to it, because if they needed a role model, the heterosexual one in Fuses was going to be antagonistic. But then a woman yelled to them, ‘All my life I’ve been pushed around by fascistic men telling me what to look at and what it means, and I’m not going to be pushed around by fascistic women telling me what to look at and what it means.’”
Part of the dilemma around the reception of Fuses was whether or not the film was “pornographic.” Audiences also weren’t sure whether or not Fuses was “serious art.” Writing about Fuses, film analyst Ian Bryce Jones notes, “The artist as a not to be acknowledged entity has been around long before avant-garde cinema. The male- dominated realm of avant-garde cinema participates in this trope and wishes for the work to speak for itself. However, when it comes to Carolee Schneemann you will find she comes attached with her work.”
He goes on to speculate why that is, commenting on the “male gaze,” which even permeated the avant-garde underground in the late ‘60s. “In a culture where men still tend to be trained to deny their emotions, the assumption that the making of ‘serious’ art must involve detachment implicitly promotes art produced by males.”
Fuses was created as a response to influential underground filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving, which depicts the birth of his first child, Myrrena. Although Brakhage and Schneemann were friends and collaborators, playing an important part in each other’s artistic development, Schneemann was one of the first to critique Window Water Baby Moving via a feminist framework. Schneemann felt that Brakhage’s camera, as well as the fast-paced editing style, were too ensconced in the male gaze. As noted by film analyst Lexi C M K Turner, in her essay Bodies in dialogue: Fuses in conversation with Window Water Baby Moving, “the camera-eye remains inherently male, explaining Schneemann’s concern that “the male eye replicated or possessed the vagina’s primacy of giving birth.” The exceptionally fast-paced cutting in Window of extreme close-up shots of Jane’s body take on a fragmenting effect, seeming in the words of Roxanne Samer, “either to fetishize or commit violence to [her] body.” Thus, the “intimacy” of Window may strike the spectator not as romantic connection, rather relating to an intimate knowledge—the patriarchal and “unlimited access [Brakhage] has to his subjects’ lives.”
Instead of the objective, detached vantage point of Brakhage’s film, Schneemann wanted to show sexuality, “the fuck,” as she put it to interviewer Kate Haug, as a “discursive praxis of gender equality.” Instead of the handheld, first-person gaze of Window Water Baby Moving, Schneemann set up a stationary camera in her home with James Tenney, capturing the couple’s real love, life, and eroticism in a series of surreal, abstract, beautiful, and disorienting images.
This is precisely what makes Fuses NOT pornographic, which further added to the confusion around its reception. Men didn’t know what to do with its raw, real physicality or its non-linear storyline. A wank off flick Fuses is not. It is one of the most vibrant, real, and relatable depictions of feminine sexuality, however, making it 10 times as sexy as your average stag film.
Instead of moving towards an inevitable climax, Fuses veers off into tangents, interspersing physicality with shots of the ocean, fields of wheat, a black cat. The film itself is subjected to a similar abstraction—degraded, rubbed down with caustic, corrosive substances, then paint upon. Instead of the linear, climactic build of the male orgasm, it is a representation of the inner experience of the erotic. Phantasmagorical images swim in and out of focus, scenes dissolve like dream sequences, only to re-emerge like something rising out of a dark sea. It’s truly beautiful, and powerful, sexually charged with images of Schneemann’s vulva, James Tenney’s spent, semi-flacid cock. It gives the avant-garde cinema an erotic punch, sending your nervous system into overdrive, flushed with libidinal energy.
It is, as film critic Gene Youngblood wrote in Expanded Cinema, “‘Sex,’ as Carolee might say, ‘is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations. By interweaving and compounding images of sexual love with images of mundane joy (the sea, a cat, window-filtered light), she expresses sex without the self consciousness of a spectacle, without an idea of expressivity, in her words, ‘free in a process which liberates our intentions from our conceptions.’ Carolee and her lover James Tenney emerge from nebulous clusters of colour and light and are seen in every manner of sexual embrace…one overall mosaic of flesh and textures and passionate embraces. Every element of the traditional stag film is here—fellatio, cunnilingus, close-ups of genitals and penetrations, sexual acrobatics-yet there’s none of the prurience and dispassion usually associated with them. There is only a fluid oceanic quality that merges the physical act with the metaphysical connotations, very Joycean and very erotic.” (3)
This is the power of queer and erotic cinema. It can act as an acetylene torch, cutting through your comfy reality, making you look at the world in a fresh, new way. What does it mean when boys can be girls, when girls can be boys, when every shade and texture and permutation of desire is possible? This thought makes the straight world highly uncomfortable, and that’s part of the point.
NOTES & REFERENCE
Mekas quoted in Juan A. Suárez, Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996) 182.
Marc Siegel, “Documentary That Dare/Not Speak Its Name: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures,” Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1997) 104.
Youngblood, G. (1971). Expanded cinema. Place of publication not identified: Studio Vista. P
J Simpson lives in the interzone between criticism and creation. An independent music journalist, cultural critic, and academic writer, J peers into the darker realms of life, the strange, the looked over, specializing in the horror genre, the supernatural, and the occult. He lives and works in Portland, Or.