Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks was one of the first films I fell in love with when, in my first semester of film school, I started watching American Underground film from the mid-century. After saw it, I spent a good five, six months obsessing over his small body of films.

Over the years, I’ve seen and liked a lot more underground films of the period, some of them better, but none of them have managed to dislodge this film from it’s pride of place. It’s too knowing and too young at the same time to be anything but wonderful.

At home and in a mood I found myself watching it tonight alongside Genet’s objectively better Chant d’amour.

To achieve harmony in bad taste is the height of elegance.

—Jean Genet, The Thief’s Journal

Billy Budd

iurI have a personal interest in Melville that is not academic or systematic. In my early years at university, as a history major angling to write about writers, I went bonkers over Typee, Mardi and Omoo. Moby Dick was (and is) a favorite novel, and I’ve read it regularly for years. I’ve read other tales and novels randomly here and there. I just like these stories of the sea, all of them twisted into metaphysical knots.

So I’m surprised I hadn’t read Billy Budd before because it’s short and comes up regularly in criticism. But I hadn’t, and when I was putting together my “gay canon” list, I decided to use Eve Sedgwick’s early work in queer theory, as an excuse to add it.

As I read, I saw where Sedgwick is coming from in her discussions of the tale. There are long descriptions of Billy’s beauty and of the place that the “beautiful sailor” held among a ship’s crew. The captain’s affection for Billy reminded me of Fassbender’s adaptation of Genet’s Querelle. There is even a scene were a crewman offers to pay Billy for sexual services. Yet despite all of this, once I was past the opening chapter or two, I didn’t experience the book as particularly queer. I was just too distracted by the ship’s villainous master-at-arms.

According to the narrator, this character is the principle problem the narration attempts to address. He is diabolical, is driven by a malice that has no discernible source or rationale, and as a result, the depth of his cruelty is easily misunderstood. The narrator hopes to capture the motives and sensibilities of the character if he is able.

The story is short enough to read in a sitting, and I did, and as I did, I couldn’t tear my mind away from the descriptions of this character. Not even when my eyes were reading about other things. By the end, I was shaking.

Melville’s prose is tortured whenever this character appears and you can feel it trying to hit its mark, to avoid the poorly chosen word or the weak sentence that would allow the character to appear as a lesser or a less awful type. Melville makes no mistakes though. He succeeds. He captures the devil, and it’s terrible.

Worse, I put down the book convinced this type is still with us.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Our Lady of the Flowers CoverSomething of the poetry of this book is suggested by the scene of Divine’s death in its final pages.

In that scene, Divine pulls her watch from between her thighs, hands it to her mother. Their hands meet, rest together for a moment. Then as she lies there Divine releases from her bowels a warm lake of filth. She sighs, spilling blood from her mouth. Then, sighing again, she breaths her last.

Divine’s funeral occurs in the early pages of the novel, so her death has been long in coming. But when it arrives, it happens unexpectedly at great speed and is horrific and deeply moving. Sentiment is not however its purpose, and the imagery of the scene, as tightly stretched and as densely packed here as it is everywhere in the novel, alludes to grand histories of noble defeat while offering an ironic negation of the trinity. Divine’s dirt, blood and wind echo the divine abstraction, rooting it in the earthiness of her body.

Divine is an assemblage, a magnificent, poetic creation. So her death, a scene conjured by imagination and arranged by figures, is not an end. Immediately, the narrator-protagonist (a prisoner named Jean) anticipates the pleasure of imagining new stories for Divine and closes his book with an account of a wonderfully lewd letter she received from her pimp.

The book lives.

Poetry is a vision of the world obtained by an effort, sometimes exhausting, of the taut, buttressed will. Poetry is willful. It is not an abandonment, a free and gratuitous entry by the senses; it is not to be confused with sensuality, but rather, opposing it, was born, for example, on Saturdays, when, to clean the rooms, housewives put the red velvet chairs, gilded mirrors, and mahogany tables outside, in the nearby meadow.

–Jean Genet, Notre-Dame des Fleurs

Confessions of a Mask

Confessions of a MaskThis is the first book I’ve read by Yukio Mishima. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I found was completely disorienting. Mishima is something like a Japanese Jean Genet: a gay man exploring abjection during a particularly repressive historical period. But he’s also very different culturally and in terms of class.

The novel plays out in scenes set before and during World War II, and it concludes in the months following the bombing of Hiroshima. Although the novel has nothing to do with battle or soldiers, the war sets the tone of the scenes and organizes the lives of the people from whom the protagonist is cut off by his emerging sexuality. What’s more, the war seems to stand in allegorical relationship to that sexuality, and the protagonist perceives violence–especially martial violence–in explicitly sexual terms.

When I finished this novel, I thought I was done with Mishima. It was a dark and alienating book. But it is also a powerful one that feels major. And soon, I found myself at the library, standing in the stacks reading the first pages of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I checked it out and now appear to be in for the long-haul. Mishima’s writing is difficult, heavily patterned and strange, but it’s also controlled. And I’m curious.


The book has four chapters each self-contained. The first tells of the protagonist’s infancy, his time living with his grandmother, and his fascination with the violent deaths of knights in fairy tales.

The second tells of his precocious sexual desires and their formation in response to Guido Reni’s painting of Saint Sebastian. (The young protagonist is looking at this painting the first time he masturbates, a scene that reminds me of moments in Mario Vargas Llosa‘s In Praise of the Stepmother). Later the protagonist describes his crush on an older boy by recalling a moment in which the boy strips to the waist and does pull-ups, a posture that echoes the painting and reveals, to the protagonist’s great delight, his armpits.

The third chapter tells of the protagonist’s flirtations with a friend’s sister during the final years of the war. This experiment is his effort to understand his desires and their connection to the feelings he sees the people around him experiencing and the relationships he sees them maintaining. From it, he discovers that he is 1) attracted to men and 2) not attracted to women (two facts that today we take to be synonymous).

The final chapter tells of the protagonist’s brief, post-war flirtation with the same woman although now she is married. The novel concludes with these two having a drink in a seedy dancing club. As they sit both knowing that by bringing her here the protagonist has ended their affair, the protagonist watches a muscular bare-chested thug and fantasizes about tying his hands above his head, stabbing him delicately with a knife, and watching the blood run down his side and onto his pants.

La genie, c’est la rigueur dans le désespoir.

–Jean Genet

Chant d’Amour

I showed Jean Genet‘s Chant d’Amour to Big D and The Beav. Twenty-five minutes of experimental queer cinema, and they watched without being bored for a second. And when the film was over they had questions:  When was this made? Who are these actors? Listening, I wondered how many films are ever that successful?

I hadn’t seen the film in over five years. So watching it on the spur-of-the-moment, I was caught off guard by how beautiful and how shocking it is. Big D kept saying that the film was ahead of its time and couldn’t be shown today. My sense is that he’s right, and it’s because it’s erotic rather than pornographic. Which makes it much more difficult to dismiss.

A happy rediscovery.