Sunday, March 11, 2012

Queer Anglo Films, Take #3: Sebastiane

For our third discussion, James and I move both forward and backwards in time. We're five years on from last take, Sunday Bloody Sunday, but Derek Jarman's feature debut is set thousands of years back in Ancient Rome. There's something interesting about Sebastiane, and it's not just his penis...

David: Sebastiane was the first film to be recorded entirely in accurately translated Latin. That's a hell of a way for Derek Jarman to introduce himself to cinema. (We should note that Sebastiane was co-directed by Paul Humfress, but since he's done no feature work since, we'll probably talk exclusively about Jarman.) Jarman's films are the type that lie everything controversial on the surface, so that you can't even look at them without confronting these issues and opinions and images, which is why I feel this discussion might be considerably more difficult that our previous two. Sebastiane intertwines religion and sexuality on the level of imagery and of text, and I'm finding the extrapolation of what these mean within the film hard to manage. It's also something we can't avoid, so brace yourself for some inappropriate comments and boneheaded observations.

I want to take this down to the most basic reading I made of the film at the end. If we read the entire film as queer, which seems necessary, then Sebastian, despite his refusal of Severus' advances, is gay too. Only what his rhapsodic words to Justin demonstrate is the purity of his gayness - the separation of love from lust. "You think your drunken lust compares to the love of God?" he asks Severus boldly, even in the face of potential rape. Severus' hazy slow motion views of Anthony and Adrian's wet make it clear that he seems the men around him purely in terms of the bodily, carnal involvement, but I think what the actors do, both in those scenes and later when Adrian is leaning against Anthony, is suggest the genuine affection and coupledom between the pair. Lust is part of love, but Severus' separation from the men around him causes him to objectify and see sex as the only possible connection to them. He's also, along with Max (who momentarily acts as our narrator), the old guard, the remnants of the brutal Roman society they've left behind. One of the most amusing moments is where the camera's so disinterested in Max's lament over how the glory of the past is receding that it lingers heavily over another man shaving his body.

It's easy to criticise the film for baring so much flesh and filming certain scenes in such an erotic way they're straight (no pun intended) out of porn films, but Jarman and Humfress don't use these techniques so basically. The constant appearance of dicks becomes normalised; even comedic when they all try to outdo each other's fake endowments. Especially late in the film, the degree of nudity for the various men seems to reflect social status. Note how emphasised Adrian is in the final scene and how he has to be forced to shoot Sebastian, because he is the submissive partner of Anthony, and has been teased earlier about being a virgin, the younger member of the group at the prey of his superiors. His posing in the final scene is erotic, but it's also so posed that it reflects the kind of emotionless decorative qualities of male flesh that we see in the ornate opening, with a motionless man painted gold and muted.

The film's natural equivocation of sex and violence (swords = penises, you know the drill - and Sebastian doesn't want to have sex so he refuses to clean those swords!) create the natural solution to Severus' sexual frustration - if he can't sex Sebastian, he can reach satisfaction by piercing Sebastian with an arrow. In fact, the involvement of all of the men in this final act is a perverse reflection of the bukkake climax to the dancing scene that opens the film. And now, James, you have carte blanche, because I've just said bukkake. Twice.

James: Maybe we can start a drinking game. Every time we say "bukkake" in this post, the readers have to take a drink. It's really the inevitable continuation of the Bridesmaids girls' "SCORSESE!".

Sebastiane was my first Jarman film. All I really knew about him was that he made queer avant-garde films and that Tilda Swinton was his muse. So, I was actually surprised to discover that Sebastiane wasn't as "out there" as I had feared. Then again, what does it say about me that I did not find a film with a barebones plot and shot entirely in Latin "out there"? Perhaps it was the gratuitous amounts of male flesh on display, unashamed of just how gratuitous it was. Like you mentioned, many scenes were shot like they were straight out of a porno. Perhaps, though, Jarman and Humfress weren't "borrowing" so much as they were influencing that genre. I'm no expert in 70's porn, but a few of these scenes, particularly the one where the guys, nearly naked and wet, start throwing around a ball on the beach, felt completely modern to me: "Oh, look at these strapping young dudes, just tossing a ball around like the hot, macho jocks they are. Hot, macho jocks who are going to fuck each other, that is."

I like what you have to say about the film's "love vs. lust" angle, which I must admit completely escaped me when I was considering Sebastiane's queerness. I was more focused on the relationship between Sebastian's homosexuality and his Christianity. There's no doubt that Sebastian was attracted to Severus--he openly admits it--yet I never quite saw it as something he was interested in experiencing or exploring. In fact, he seems oddly ashamed of it. Jarman and Humfress are not exactly subtle in making Sebastian a Christ-like figure. Over the course of the film, he is brutally beaten for refusing the follow Severus' orders, sexual and otherwise. Instead of getting the punishment over as soon as possible, however, Sebastian refuses to give in, accepting beatings far beyond what his body can handle. It's almost as if he feels he deserves these punishments for the sins he has committed, namely his homosexual desires (It's no coincidence that he mentions his desire for Severus during one of these cruel punishments). The purity of Sebastian's Christianity contrasts strongly with the hedonistic Romans who surround him. He won't allow himself to give into Severus' lust, but he also still has some feelings for him. Besides, as you said, the films shows that love and lust go hand in hand, but neither Sebastian or Severus can see this. In a way, the film's finale is the only way it can end: Sebastian must die for the sins of not only himself but of the soldiers around him.

Let me pose a question that has been nagging at me since I watched this film: Why is it that the movies associate Ancient Rome with male homoeroticism and homosexuality? There are countless examples, no doubt, but perhaps the most glaring choice is Fellini's Satyricon, released just a few years before Sebastiane. That film was an epic about one young Roman's love/lust for an even younger male (a twink, to be more specific) and the journey he takes to be with him. It's a surprisingly brazen film, both for the time it was made and even among Fellini's filmography, but I think it got away with it precisely because of its historical context. Even with last year's The Eagle, many spectators were hoping Tatum and Bell got it on because that's what we expect from Ancient Roman epics. Why is it that Ancient Rome was, and, to an extent, still is a safe haven in films for homosexuality, or at the very least homoeroticism, to flourish? In other words, why is it we got to see bukkake in Sebastiane without UK censors burning every last print of this movie? Is it because of the well-recorded decadence of the empire, particularly during its final years? And why is Rome used more often than Ancient Greece, where homosexuality and pederasty was widely reported and approved?

Max (Neil Kennedy) momentarily acts as conduit
David: I think they key to your last question lies in your final word. It's quite clear that although homosexuality is a common occurrence among these Romans, it's not strictly approved. In Sebastiane, at least - I've not seen The Eagle nor Satyricon, and I'm no expert on Roman history, so I'm proceeding with caution on this subject. But Jarman and Humfress seem very careful to give a fair amount of time to Max, who, even though he admits having engaged in it himself, views homosexuality as inferior, wrong somehow. "They're okay for a quick one." I'd guess that we see much less of Ancient Greece within this topic precisely because it was too normalised. I think the Roman films we're talking about rely, to an extent, on a frisson of deviation from the normal. Sebastiane is a gay film from gay directors for gay audiences, but the central conflicts we've been discussed are powered by that sense of castigation and punishment of someone who is inherently wrong. As you suggested, Sebastiane equates Christianity with homosexuality - at its most essential, the film is an allegory for the homophobia and resulting violence that still occurs in modern society and certainly did in the 1970s, where homosexuality was more visible due to legalisation, but far from accepted. Jarman and Humfress twist these depictions to a brilliantly confrontational degree - the Jewish man crucified by Christians (Jesus) equates to a Christian crucified by Romans (Sebastian) to a gay man attacked by (possibly repressed) heterosexuals (the contemporary audience). The final point is an obvious, but essential one - discrimination is bad. Your excellent perceptions also pick up on the self-hatred that is often induced in gay people by the repressive society around them, becoming convinced that they deserve their punishment, when they are instead essentially suffering because of the self-hatred of people who can't accept homosexuality (their own, but also simply the concept).

I do remember as it began thinking, "this is the weirdest film I have ever seen" - and then ten minutes later, it felt almost ordinary. I think it takes a certain brazen attitude to pull that off, as you suggested - even though it does use the nudity for titillation, it contextualises that within an environment where the titillating elements are always on display, and thus, normalised. The exotic is sucked out of the nude bodies because we see them doing everything naked. And so those scenes you describe are not necessarily pornographic, simply the day-to-day life. You're right, though, since '70s porn (I am honestly not lying when I say I've been reading academic pieces on pornography just hours before I write this - it's part of my module on Exploitation Cinema) was driven by actual narratives, as opposed to the more direct clips we get today. And scenes like those ball games definitely reflect the infamous volleyball scenes in earlier films about nudist camps. How developed pornography was in terms of the slow-motion erotica Jarman and Humfress shot, I couldn't tell you, but I think it's worth noting that they aren't strictly sex scenes - what exuded powerfully from those scenes for me was the good humour of the two men. Porn generally reduces sex to a physical connection and those scenes felt more emotionally driven.

Adrian (Ken Hicks) and Anthony (Janusz Romanov) embrace
I'm most intrigued by the character of Justin. As his relationship with Sebastian seems to strengthen, it becomes clear that he's actually in love with him, to the point of sacrifice (where he's too made to ape the crucifixion, with a crown of thorns forced onto his head). The film doesn't depict any actual relationships that aren't founded on sex - it doesn't seem possible for these men to simply be friends. A society without females seems to suggest that the sexual drive is so strong that homosexual interaction is simply inevitable, which rather shatters the idea of sexual categorisation that our society is based on. It takes a story set in such an ancient time period as this to make these things apparent - which is why I found the character of Max so strange, because he's the only one so insistent on the deviant nature of homosexuality. He isn't strictly judgemental, but he doesn't understand the preference - whereas for the rest, even the idea of preference doesn't seem to exist.

James: Does the film position Justin as the idealized love counterpoint to Severus' lust? I never thought of it before, but now that you mention it, the idea makes sense to me. As you said, Justin is clearly in love with Sebastian. However, we never get the feeling that Justin is lusting after him. He's the pure love that Sebastian seeks, yet he's too racked with guilt over his "unnatural" feelings for Severus to even notice. To put it in terms more people will understand, Justin is the Ducky to Sebastian's Molly Ringwald: he'll always be there and may always have feelings for him, but Sebastian / Molly Ringwald is too caught up in their own little world to take him seriously as a romantic suitor.

Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) lost in his own little world
And now that I've reduced this film to an 80's Brat Pack movie, let's talk about something else. We have talked a bit about how Sebastiane is set in an army post, secluded from the world and, consequently, other women. This seclusion from the outside world is a perfect place for homosexuality to occur, as they are away from societal mores that would normally prevent it (or, at the very least, look down upon it more, as Max does). What's interesting, however, is the fact that the homosexuality of the other films in this series has taken place in seclusion as well. All of the men in Victim hid in cars and kept it quiet in their apartments because they had to. Daniel and Bob were more openly affectionate with each other in Sunday Bloody Sunday, yet they too kept their love secluded in Daniel's apartment. We never really saw them go out in public together. At first, Sebastiane appears to follow the same pattern: the slow-motion lovemaking scene we have hinted at previously takes place in a small quiet beach away from the post. We think that they are secluded even further from the already secluded post. But then we see Severus looking down at them. And, before long, Sebastian stumbles upon it as well. The couple isn't as hidden as we thought, and when they are called out by Severus, we are surprised that they aren't punished or even looked down upon. In fact, it's quite the opposite really. The couple is openly affectionate with each other among the other men. Even Max, who mercilessly goes after Sebastian and his homosexuality, makes a silly one-liner about them and moves on. If we view this film as a metaphor for homosexuality in the 1970's, as you previously mentioned, then perhaps Humfress and Jarman are saying that in gay society, cut off from the heteronormative world, relationships can flourish. It's not perfect yet--we still have those who are self-loathing and those who don't understand--but there is hope, as evidenced by the open affection between these two men.

David: I don't know that it's that positive - after all, this is a society where refused advances lead to someone being crucified and pummelled with arrows. If the film shows a gay society flourishing, it also shows that these are still men - and men have the tendency to deal with their problems with violence. I think the film does still delineate between the butcher men and the more effeminate ones - Sebastian being feminised through the torture he undergoes. This is still a world governed by heteronormative, gendered systems, only mapped onto a society where everyone has a penis. You are right, though - the open affection does seem like a moment of simple, loving interaction between two equals. It's definitely the most content and positive depiction of homosexuality we've seen so far.

Next take: My Beautiful Laundrette