Bright Lights Film Journal

Twelve-Tone Cinema: A Scattershot Notebook on Sexual Atonality

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse

Is queerness an angry chord or a beautiful harmony?

Where do we currently stand on the matter of “queer cinema”? If I were to credibly — this is the key term — scribble on the subject now, after essentialist gay identity has been falsely legitimized by the mainstream, and after the vogue for postmodernism has, like a jagged gall stone, painfully yet necessarily passed, I would have to: 1) be contemptuous of the clichés of the retrograde coming-out narrative; 2) be disillusioned by the binary oppositions of indie-film political correctness and underground deviance, and try to create “new spaces of discourse” by “locating divergent viewing practices” of “underrepresented media” (or some such thing); 3) uphold the utopianism of early 1990s postmodern queer theory while remaining skeptical of its real-world impracticalities; and 4) self-referentially, though half-heartedly, use the first-person “I” to deflate the pretended authoritarianism for which the academic voice (even, in its weaker moments, the postmodern voice) once arrogantly strived. I have no objection to these four suppositions; they are burdensome, tiresome, hang around one’s neck nooselike, but are unavoidable and, probably, mostly justified.

But the question then becomes — What kinds of queer films should we now investigate? And how? Must we now choose between a queer cinema of bourgeois romance and one of bourgeois hedonism? Must we, searching for lost, stinging, yet coldly calming voices, nostalgically and with padded confessions resurrect the legitimacy of the “coded” or shyly subtextual gay film? Must we become clever revisionists futilely arguing that liberating “deviance” can be gleaned from homophobic slop like Cruising simply because it’s politically incorrect? Must we amateur sociologists — to decontaminate the names of history — demand that closeted actors of classical Hollywood be exhumed, dusted off, and lionized as unsung pioneers just because their campy double entendres discreetly ducked the Code? How much longer can we, who should be smashing illusory mythologies, obsess about the attractive semiotic histories of Montgomery Clift and James Dean? How much longer can we, who should be lancing forward quixotically, heedlessly, continue rationalizing past mistakes through an ironic queer cinema bound up in camp, parody, send-up, spoof, homage, meta-nostalgia, and other smilingly framed negativisms? Do we really want these things, or only the ability yet not the desire to reject them? We must be bolder than history, lest our future become a footnote to it, and today, we know our history well enough — not perfectly, but well enough. We no longer need to convince ourselves of anything; we no longer need to write for other people. Blinded by backward glances, we grew old and professional writing for others — when did we abandon the idea that we should be writing for ourselves?

Schoenberg’s essays on the development of twelve-tone harmony reminded me that the authoritarian tonality of Western classical music is much — though not precisely — like authoritarian controls over sexual practices and aesthetics. Just as before Schoenberg any deviation from tonal harmony was seen as chaotic, uncivil, dangerously new, even incomprehensible, any deviation from tonal heteronormativity is seen as chaotic, antisocial, immoral, and so forth — but rather than being new, this deviation is unnaturally, primordially old, the Great Negativity predating Creation itself. Furthermore, just as simpler, uncontrived, or “natural” atonalities have long been an accepted part of non-Western musical traditions, so has the natural expression of alternative sexuality been accepted in non-Western cultures, be it the familiar homosexualities of brotherly samurai or Buddhist monks, or the ritual practices of those African tribesmen who gulp one another’s invigorating penile liquors right before battle. To perceive and judge a certain sound combination as dissonant is to preconceive rules of order and structure, and then mistakenly claim that an ordered morality of aesthetics is really an ordered aesthetics of morality — an aesthetics contemptuous or simply incomprehending of the possibility that all harmonies (musical or sexual) are created equal. As Schoenberg says, “What distinguishes dissonances from consonances is not a greater or lesser degree of beauty, but a greater or lesser degree of comprehensibility.1

After the tonal (Western) musical scale became established as a fallacious aesthetics of morality, anything that rebelled against it was considered an alternative, oppositional morality — thus, Schoenberg spent most of his career arguing he was not a reactionary but a progressive striving to unite all sounds with an amoral, as opposed to immoral, aesthetic system. Likewise, queer theory casts itself not as immorally negative rebellion but as amorally positive, all-embracing, post-humanitarian valuelessness. There is, however, a difference between the method of queer theory and that of Schoenberg. Though Schoenberg vehemently denied his “egalitarian” tone rows — wherein notes relate only to one another, not a tonic or dominant, centralized authority — amounted to any kind of philosophical Bolshevism,2 his modern revolution did seek to set all musical values equal through a new yet severely strict set of rules. But queer theory’s postmodern revolution, though often dogmatic, necessarily tries (and often fails) to reject not only centralized authority but all rule-driven governance, including, paradoxically, that of the queer author whose fallible subjectivity lays out the very groundwork — or rules — of queer theory itself.

This distinction between rule-driven egalitarianism (Schoenberg) and anarchic egalitarianism (queer theory) is my starting point, and I will return to it later. But first, I need to remind myself of the best ways to approach that artificial, bogus monolith we call queer cinema before I can imagine how to transcend it. So I’m dashing off a little notebook to keep track of where I’m going — you can read it too.

Don’t Play with Fire (aka Dangerous Encounter of the First Kind, 1980)

Writing on queer cinema is thankfully no longer the exotic or esoteric enterprise it was two decades ago, but the accepted literature remains distressingly myopic: a quick bibliographic browse reveals that a few seminal (and already dated) “greatest hits” articles from the 1980s and early ’90s are still cited obsequiously, unerringly, and with review-of-the-literature perfunctoriness — you know, those articles that, in between clenched mouthfuls of quasi-militant, ho-hum jargon about representation and visibility, inevitably excoriated Cruising or Black Widow or Basic Instinct, and concluded that the problem is not mainstream Hollywood’s blatant homophobia, but the subtle, misinterpreted, and/or invidiously coded homophobias to which only the straining, overeducated brain has privileged access. Had these academics paid attention to films outside the Hollywood farce they tragically suffer, fear, and pity, they might have appended Tsui Hark — yes, Tsui Hark! — to their too-tiny, Americo-centric blacklist.

How much of Hong Kong’s new wave cinema resides in the error of Don’t Play with Fire? Hong Kong critics still lament its commercial failure, and agonizingly wonder with wrung hands and arched brows what might have been had Tsui Hark not abandoned “serious,” unprofitable filmmaking to pioneer the slickly commercialized action franchises for which HK cinema, even after its whimpering, undignified collapse before the turn of millennium, is still best known. I cannot recall reading any acute criticism (let alone demythologizing) of Don’t Play with Fire — for most critics, Tsui’s technically startling dystopic vision, bereft of the bubblegum comedy and simperingly scored courtship that routinely enfeeble much HK product, still qualifies as the rare, antisentimental crown jewel of HK’s new wave. For me, however, the film’s early 80s homophobia makes it the (less titillating) Cantonese equivalent of a Cruising or Basic Instinct, and its allegedly blistering “politics” are a xenophobic travesty: its puerile anticolonialist agenda demands that every gweilo be an imbecilically, monosyllabically dubbed CIA arms trafficker who frequents the gay cruising bar the film’s heroes sneeringly call “disgusting.” Is this hoary, humdrum conflation of anti-Western sentiment, criminality, and homosexuality the great, daring radicalism lost to the commercialism Tsui subsequently embraced? Were Hong Kong critics so starved for anything remotely political in their fatuous cinema culture3 that, after crowning an emperor clothed only in Westernized film technique, they self-deludedly believed the technique substantiated Don’t Play‘s politics, overlooked the paradox of a Westernized technique in the service of a reactionarily anti-Western content, and mistook the film’s commercial failure for an irrefutable sign of ideological legitimacy? But these mistakes are unsurprising — film critics rarely search for philosophy, only the blind style through which its absence can be legitimized.

We are well versed in and well wearied of the two levels of apology available for artists in these uncomfortable situations. The first, prescribed even by Nietzsche, advises us to separate the timeless, abstracted art from its mortal, fallible creator; thus, we divorce Wagner and Voltaire from the lip-smacking anti-Semitisms we imagine or insist lurked far below — not nestled within — their high-born characters. But Don’t Play‘s bigotries aren’t even willfully ideological, as is the errant, spear-hoisting Teutonism of Wagner’s Ring, but are an infantile amalgam of unexamined societal prejudice and knee-jerk neurosis, and thus more like Voltaire’s bilious, despicable, and gratuitously indulgent Philosophical Dictionary, which includes the entry “shekels” only so the Enlightened Gentleman can rhetorically bruise that usurious, whitefish-scented “race” of peoples who trade in the currency. The second, more familiar apology available to the nescient (in this case, homophobic) artist excuses him for being only a relativist animal of his times4 — an argument usually mobilized to defend social realist hymns churned out by malcontent composers laboring under the iron fist of some gulag-happy Soviet bloc dictator, not the precocious film school exercises of autonomous auteurs knowing nothing of the politics (or, in this case, sexuality) they stumblingly try to confront. Admittedly, Tsui wouldn’t make the same mistakes today: his recent Time and Tide (2000) features a non-sensationalized, incidental lesbian relationship as gratuitous as Don’t Play‘s central homophobia, though even this concession merely follows the HK trend, immediately preceding and following 1997, that obligatorily thrust cosmopolitan, democratically-inclined gay characters in the face of the provincial Mainland.

So what is my incentive to apologize for Tsui Hark? We forgive ignorance only in the presence of justice, or when vanity is lacking — Tsui qualifies in neither category. Only cowards reward people for being not ahead of their time.

Cannibal Man (La Semana del Asesino, 1971)

Filmmakers — like the Tsui Hark of Don’t Play with Fire — so often imbued homosexual men with scandalous, fearsome, entirely chimerical (and mostly unrepresentable) powers so far beyond any they actually possessed that these powers, these chimeras, started to become really attractive, insofar as any saber-toothed powerfulness, even a satanic one, is preferable if one is made a pariah. The nonexistence of these powers sadly seems to argue well for gay assimilationism, for the outlawry in which antiestablishment queers seek succor is the very creation of the establishment, just as much-valued “transgression” is, in fact, no greater than the small-minded laws transgressed; that transgression seems mightier and bolder than the laws it crosses is the inflated myth of the lawgiver, who depends on mass hysteria and fabricated suspicion to quash even mild dissidence. (Contrary to what most academics have told you, were I to define myself in terms of my transgressions, I would be a very small man, for any fool can transgress heteronormativity.) Queer resistance to bourgeois capitalism — and its monogamous, possessive, territorial, exclusive, avaricious, envious, spiteful, etc. values — is therefore not really a courageous decision. I myself, excluded a priori from American social norms, too-comfortably fell into this counteractive position; my resistance was never willful or resolute, only a reaction whose righteousness was both involuntary and decided long before I became a self-conscious being. Ironically, it is closeted, repressed (or self-suppressed) homosexuals who demonstrate greater will and courage, for their struggle is, at least quantitatively, truly Herculean in its willfulness and futility.

To rephrase the argument more combatively: given the either/or choice of cold-bloodedly assimilating into consumerist, monogamous, mall-dominated suburbia, or becoming a hot-blooded killer, feverishly stacking fly-pecked corpses behind your bedroom doors, and then disposing of the ground-meat torsos in the sluicing bins of the slaughterhouse where you daily slave, what real man would not choose the latter? Likewise, given the binary choice between the timid, pleading, nonmilitant, and journalistically praised gay cinema exemplified by Trembling Before G-d (2001) or Arthur Dong’s Family Fundamentals (2002), and the murderous, anti-family, torso-grinding freedom of Eloy de la Iglesia’s Cannibal Man, what sane person wouldn’t choose a compromised, malevolent freedom, even if that malevolence lacks courage? Such is our bind — be content as a beggar or live by night as a thief. Deviance begins as society’s fiery false brand, and through oppressive epochs becomes our internalized, misguided desire.

The repressedly homosexual, corpse-stacking hero of Cannibal Man, however, corrects the puritanically derived, topsy-turvy “causality” that usually accounts for the homosexual’s monstrously sublimated habits: rather than killing because he is a homosexual, our hero arrives at a homosexual awakening only after he butchers and industrially grinds his fiancé and, quickly in turn, her brother, sister, father, and anyone else who finds suspicious the malodors of rotting flesh wafting from his bedchamber. In between murders, he is gradually befriended by his nosy gay neighbor Nestor, first seen predatorily peering with binoculars at half-naked, underage soccer boys, and then at our hero as he lies sweatily awake in the sultry Spanish twilight. Surprisingly, the film’s throat-slittings and face-hatchetings are all completed within the first hour; the remainder slyly shifts to the erotic relationship between the two men, as Nestor probes our hero with whispered questions about male loneliness and nonchalant invitations to drunkenness in his high-rise apartment, far above the day-laboring, meat-grinding commoners below. At first, he dumbly ignores Nestor’s advances, but soon his dream sequences reveal him childishly frolicking with Nestor (the first time we’ve seen him laugh) and sharing bare-chested, slow-motion embraces in the luxury of Nestor’s upper-class swimming pool — relatively daring homoerotic imagery for the Franco-era Spain of 19715.

Cannibal Man‘s geeky, verité abattoir sequences and enchantingly putrid atmospheres have earned the film a deserved reputation in horror circles, but political correctness has snatched it from the queer spotlight, even considering auteur Iglesia’s subsequent Los Placeres ocultos (1977), El Diputado (1979), and Colegas (1980), all prime works in emergent gay and/or bisexual realist Spanish cinema. I imagine even potential gay audiences, world-weary of both foisted stereotypes and dead-end transgressions, would echo the standardized sentiments of Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, which asserts the two men’s relationship is ultimately inadequate because it “reinforc[es] the notion that homosexuals have a special affinity with psychotic killers” (the same encyclopedia, meanwhile, uncritically hails the “politics” of the inarguably, unimaginatively homophobic Don’t Play with Fire). Nevertheless, homosexual desire, though ambiguously and (admittedly) clumsily expressed, is subjectively centered in Cannibal Man,6 and is not the decentered abjection it is in Silence of the Lambs and other conservative serial killer narratives whose psychobabble merely repeats popularly homophobic topoi.7 Besides, Cannibal Man‘s homosexuality is not only too palpable, elongated, and intricately orchestrated to be mistaken for a stock homophobia intended to flatter the macho sensibilities of (straight) Spanish audiences; it also goes beyond the one-sided, unreturned affections endemic to the frustrated-gay-killer archetype. Because the heretofore heterosexual protagonist finds himself fantasizing about Nestor even more than Nestor fantasizes about him, the film opens the door for heroic queer revelations and transformations generically denied in hegemonic horror, particularly in so many of Italy’s unrepentantly Roman Catholic giallo thrillers, where irresistible urges for pedophilia or transvestism invariably and inexplicably force social pariahs to don black gloves, slink in backlit alleyways, and displace their perversities (and aggressions) by slitting the throats of some nearby painted slatterns (c.f., Lamberto Bava’s 1983 A Blade in the Dark, et. al.).

Cannibal Man does weaken, however, in its class commentary, which tenders a provincial, lunch-pail equation between lube-riding homosexual sensibilities and Nestor’s effete, upper-class lifestyle. As our hero dreams of Nestor’s embrace, he also, we conclude, longs for the upper-class ethos which attends him, particularly as his working-class family ties now lie maggoty and moldering. Nestor himself dispels our hero’s fantasy of upward mobility by kindly instructing him that offing his ill-bred heterosexual family unit will not translate into class promotion: “Your work in the slaughterhouse is necessary to [rich] people like me — we like to eat the meat, but not prepare it. But you should not relate this to humans.” Nestor, of course, sympathizing with our slaughterous hero’s eroto-economic dilemma but unwilling to renounce the class hierarchies that stifle their sexual union, fails to see economic cannibalism has always related to humans — Iglesia should have included a scene where the two watch and debate Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969)!

Unfortunately, as our hero climactically refuses Nestor’s offer of companionship and conspiracy, the film’s ending closes the queer door its homoerotic second half had gradually, tentatively, tremulously nudged open. But, unlike Tsui Hark, we forgive Iglesia, for he has made a film about monsters for monsters. For the self-enclosed sake of political incorrectness, perverse queer revisionists may wish to pursue guilty, decentered pleasures in films like Cruising, but why not simply watch the equally politically incorrect Cannibal Man, which was intended for unapologetic, sympathetic queer viewership all along?

Drifting (1982) and Dakan (1997)

The interim solution to the dissonantly homosexual, plague-bearing monster was, of course, the saintly, antiseptic, distastefully tonal coming-out narrative; in the 1980s, these narratives sought to instill dignity — now, when they are superfluous, merely watching them robs one of it.

Postmodernism has made us afraid and ashamed to suggest — for benevolent postmodernism must inevitably change minds and twist belief on the old foundations of fear and shame, too — that the coming-out narrative should be equally embarrassing for people living in states even more oppressed and repressed than ours. In fact, neophyte gay films from non-Western countries can make novice American efforts seem embarrassing — indeed, how Mohamed Camara’s French-language Dakan, sub-Saharan Africa’s first gay feature, and Amos Guttman’s Drifting, one of the Arab-Israeli world’s first gay features, surprise and disappoint our presumptuous condescension!

“If the film dealt with social problems, or if its hero were politically aware; if he were a soldier, a social worker, a new believer in God, or a war widow…But if he has to be gay, let him suffer. The country’s in a mess — no time for soul searching. Even gays won’t accept my films — they’re not positive enough.” So narrates Robi, the young filmmaker hero of Amos Guttman’s semi-autobiographical, self-reflexive Drifting; while American coming-out narratives were still struggling to normalize the middle-class deviant and deliver him from Boys in the Band-style masochism, in his opening monologue Guttman already synopsizes, ironizes, and recontextualizes gay masochism — and contemporary gay cinema’s whininess — as a mere peg in the design of a nationwide, wartime suffering. Drifting does feature what may be the least “positive” gay hero in film history: drowning in a defeatist mix of predaceous sexual appetites and pouting egoism, and exploring in life the faint-hearted, sometimes terrific eros he cannot afford to expensively aestheticize on film, Robi spends the film’s bulk jadedly cruising Israeli parks as nomadically and precariously as Palestinian terrorists creep in their leafy shadows. He sexually maltreats the young Israeli runaways he invites into his apartment, but unexpectedly opens himself up to a homophobic Palestinian hustler even more impoverished than himself, seductively stealing into his bedroom, subserviently lowering his underwear, and silently inviting an interfaith penetration (maybe Ariel Sharon could learn a thing or two?).

More memorable, however, is Drifting‘s alternately ironic and prophetic dialogues on gay filmmaking: Robi dreams of going to Hollywood so he’ll “never have to make gay movies again” (is he selling out or moving beyond his narcissism?), and, in the film’s most substantial scene, his semi-estranged father recalls seeing his son’s first gay-themed short: “He loves cinema, but all he wants to tell is his life…I can understand making one such film…but another and another?” How prophetic is this! — how many realist-humanist filmmakers today, gay or straight, can claim to espouse more than one idea, or use auteurism as an implicit, convenient excuse for continually falling back on the same autobiographical motifs? Robi’s lack of “positivity” stems not from his de rigueur self-flagellation and edging ambles around the sexual abyss, but from the same self-absorption that persuades young directors to obsessively plaster their trivial, insular (and usually romantic) universes onscreen time and again, as if numbing repetitiveness, stylistic or thematic, solidifies and broadens, rather than claustrophobically cramps, the trivialities lurking in the auteurist voice. Guttman, at least, is agile and self-conscious enough to critique the narcissism and solipsism of his own deliberately unhygienic coming-out confessional; unfortunately, falling victim to AIDS in his late thirties, he never had the chance to “never have to make gay movies again.”

In Guinea, where homosexuality remains fuzzily, borderline illegal,8 one imagines Dakan‘s very existence would transgress some mean ordinance or sadistically furtive bylaw, or that its lead actors would be caged and caned for enacting the film’s opening scene, where young students Manga and Sori neck in a darkened driveway9, with Manga’s worrisome mother fretting close by (“Were the two of you only studying?… I hope so.”). Director Camara clearly realizes he is, in 1997, making a coming-out film for a country generations behind postmodern (and even modern) times; wisely, he plainly and naturalistically stages in the first five minutes the coming-out confrontation that, in the 1980s, was usually reserved for hair-pulling angst in Act 3 or 4. “Is it bad to be attracted to another boy?” asks Manga, to which his head-in-the-sand mother stoically replies “Since time began, it’s never happened.”10 As in Cannibal Man, homosexual transgression becomes economic transgression, although here the movement is downward, as Sori defies his imperious, industrialist father’s wishes to attend business school so that he and lower-class Manga can retreat to Sori’s agrarian ancestral village, where, presumably, they can exist apart from modern prejudice, or at least live as voluntary exiles.

When the boys’ parents forbid their erotic rebellion, Manga becomes psychosomatically ill, and is ushered far across a spirit lake, its shores teeming with tree dwarves and useless, fungoid superstition. There, a shaman applies premodern balms to alleviate what genocidal, treasure-hoarding African dictators publicly decry as a “modern, Western” illness when they’re not privately accepting billion dollar handouts from the modern, Western World Bank. Though he is drenched in curative waterfalls and smeared with mother earth, Manga is swayed not by ancient spiritualism but old-fashioned guilt. After his mother suffers a stroke, Manga filially agrees to court Oumou, a white girl he meets in the hospital: “Before I met her, I didn’t think I was made for women…I want to forget the past, for you, mother.” Yet in their lovemaking scene11, peppered with soul-revealing, individualistic close-ups — unusually extreme close-ups for a collectivistic African cinema famous for its long shots — Manga cannot help but fantasize about Sori and the true love he sacrificed. Manga’s mother grudgingly accepts her failure to change her son, and allows him to reunite with long-absent Sori, who we now learn lives in his ancestral village with a young wife and child. The two boys happily reunite, as we expect, and speed off into the destiny (“dakan”) of the sunset, promptly and guiltlessly abandoning Sori’s tear-streaked wife and wailing infant son to the mercies of a ramshackle mud hut.

While lesbian critics have always been suspicious of androcentric gay-studies agendas, most leftist movements in the West seldom bother to define or qualify patriarchy: it is the transparent monolith against which both oppressed brothers-in-arms and strange bedfellows rally and mobilize. Rightly or wrongly — and often wrongly — we take for granted that queers and straight women huddle in the same cramped lifeboat, rowing against a state-sponsored tide that, by demonizing all perceived effeminacies, washes together sex and gender without sorting out the social-issue essentialists from the postmodern dreamers. One’s initial assumptions about Dakan result in postmodernism’s usual hermeneutic paradox: the dissolution of binary, static, crypto-Manichean gender structures is precisely what both the boys and the abandoned wife unknowingly need, but postmodernism’s postcolonial mandates prohibit us from dispensing its panacea to those very people who need it most. But the “destiny” implied by Dakan‘s title is a tide that capsizes our lifeboat’s conjectural comradeship — Manga and Sori have real claims to oppression, but they’re still slightly privileged men in a non-Western culture that strategically separates omnipresent, clitoris-slicing misogyny from speechless, legally unexamined (male) homophobia. The destiny in question is actually (if unintentionally) that of Sori’s abandoned wife and child, tossed from the lifeboat and drowning alone. Probably actor-turned-director Camara, who claims to be straight, never intended this meaning: to hell with the heart-shackling wife and kid, true love conquers all. But here, true love conquers too well, claiming not only prejudice but unintended, eternal victims.

If the rote coming-out narrative now robs one of dignity, it is because it usually offers only one theme — repeated with variations and in differently national, religious, and ideological contexts, yes, but still only one theme — which can do little more than recast the final speech of Richard Oswald and Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering Anders als die Andern (1919). “Take heed — the time will come when…knowledge will conquer prejudice, truth will conquer lies and love will triumph over hatred,” says the sexologist (played, in an autobiographical turn, by Hirschfeld himself) defending poor, abused Conrad Veidt, victim to a lowly blackmailer exploiting the money-making potentials of infamous Paragraph 175. Dakan‘s unusual advantage, however, is that it has two themes, or at least one greater, hedgehog theme: righteous selfishness does not overcome injustice.

Gendernauts (1999)

Because most gay cinema, like most gay men, is not queer, but accepts with few second thoughts essentialist sexuality or gender-determinate romance, truly queer cinema is usually defined by the ideologized transgenderism of films like Paris Is Burning (1990), the touchstone for Judith Butler’s notion of parodic performativity, or Shu Kei’s Hu-du-men (1996), whose story of a cross-dressing Cantonese opera star — coping with both an openly lesbian daughter and her own latent, performative queerness — delves into premodern Chinese theater’s more deeply psychological (and more grandly sociological) notions of gender transformation. But exactly how transformative, antibiological queerness can be practically applied on a large scale, beyond the fringes of pariah social movements or cloudy aesthetics, has remained one of academia’s greatest mysteries. If gender is nothing more than a performance, an appearance, and queerness is a self-conscious performance of gender, and we thus can only achieve appearances of gender twice-removed, what is liberatingly queer becomes the idea of removal itself, a theoretically endless removal into oblivion — thus, Butler’s tiresomely circular idea of meta-parody, which became confusing enough to baffle even the most progressive queer films. Look no further than Monika Treut’s Gendernauts: on the surface, the film offers uplifting, envelope-pushing propaganda about San Francisco’s female-to-male transgender community, but it too simplemindedly (and too simple-heartedly) celebrates the jouissance of the deliberately marginal, cabaret-based economy to which seemingly all the film’s subjects magnetically flock. Would-be transgenders eyeing careers as uniformed hamburger salespersons, spandex-strapped pearl divers, toque-topped pastry chefs, green-visored bookkeepers, womanly kindergarten teachers, or surly toll booth attendants had best dash their dreams, shrug on a peppy, gender-ambiguous costume, and invest in cut-price voice lessons, or at least be prepared to struggle as a “self-styled” (i.e., government cheese-collecting) performance artist.

Apart from utterly failing to critique the economic ghettoization of its subjects, Gendernauts unknowingly presents totally contradictory, irreconcilable theses on the meaning of transgenderism. While postmodern hostess-swami Sandy Stone repeats party-line, blurring-the-boundaries arguments about gender-as-performance, Treut’s camera also fetishizes scenes where female-to-male transsexuals inject male hormones and insert erectile shafts into their prosthetic, make-believe cocks. Treut, presumably, doesn’t realize her contradiction — she imagines the queer theory Stone prattlingly espouses is a happy family that uncritically embraces all aspects of sex-and-gender rebellion, when, of course, it vehemently frowns upon anything that seeks to “correct” biology (like hormones) or pays deference to bodily essentialism (like surgery). A woman cannot be trapped in a man’s body, for there is no “woman” to begin with, and to correct biology is to admit a problem exists — the very problem postmodernists claim is the imaginary propaganda of shaming church, priestly doctors, and the medical-industrial state. But it is equally foolish for us to shame women whose voluntary experimentation with biology violates queer theory’s unprovable dogmas. No wonder we became sick of queer theory, and those authoritarian voices who told us how to defy state authority by submitting to a professionally, ungenerously academic authority — whose only lingering, residual value is to spur armchair debates on exactly when we first became disillusioned with academia’s professionalism.

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets
(Sho o suteyo machi e deyou, 1971)

Now that postmodernism’s been (with a wink) flushed, can we, for a moment, glance back wistfully to that cinema of more naïve possibilities, before the insular film school homilies of “queer cinema” swamped us, when post-new wave sex and politics anarchically mixed in ignorance of our contemporary Sundance straightjackets of liberal visibility politics, body image conventionalism, festival entertainment, and jury-prize prostitution? Such films were made not by technofetishistically schooled “filmmakers,” but by renaissance theater artists like Terayama and Arrabal, who would deride with a magnanimous grin all foisted philistine pigeonholes. But prepare for disillusionment, too, for these artists were blissfully ignorant of more than just the watery liberalism we now cringingly sip like gelid, day-old decaf.

The largely one-sided view of Japan offered by recent Japanese cult12 cinema exported to the West offers precisely the opposite of the equally one-sided view thrust upon us half a century ago, when Gate of Hell (1953) was saddled with an Oscar: rather than an intricately tailored, solemnized, prestigious parade of suffering geishas, honor-seeking samurais, tea ceremonies, and swooning moon poetry, we’re now choked with a phonily rebellious assemblage of punk assassins, preening, dishonorable yakuzas, picturesque sadomasochism, hyperbolic gore, masturbating schoolgirls, and calculated film festival shocks — each end of the spectrum, of course, is equally a caricature, and, exoticism still being the rule of distributability, most American audiences are still unlikely to see the normative films that lie dead-center in mainstream Japanese cinema. However, this latter trend, this loudmouthed, galvanic, particularly Japanese brand of sexual anarchy — recently remolded into social satire by Sogo Ishii, into cybernetic apocalypse by Shinya Tsukamoto, and into bratty manga nihilism (is Japan itself based on a comic book?) by the dishearteningly ubiquitous Takashi Miike — was once the revolutionary bread and butter of the new wave’s fringes, most obviously in the films of leftist revolutionary Koji Wakamatsu, and those of the surrealist, expressionist, poet, and professional egoist Shuji Terayama, whose agitprop classic Throw Away Your Books is as good a place as any to begin our search for pre-queer sexual anarchism.

Terayama opens his diatribe with a monologue squarely directed at a longhaired, street-rallying audience itching for antibourgeois, window-breaking, car-tipping revolution: “Everybody here is as sick of waiting around as you are” (if only this were still true! — today, what else can we do but wait?). The actor then ignites a cigarette, and explains to the audience the immaterial freedoms of the cinema in terms of nicotine legislation: “The difference between you and me is that you’re not allowed to smoke [in the movie theater]…but me, I’m free.” Other existential liberations allowable only onscreen include our hero “scribbling his alibi” (his words) across the city (occasionally we see walls graffitied with agitating verse by Mayakovsky and Malraux) and palling around with a sexed-up, nobly savage soccer team that fantasizes about paganistically playing with a man’s hollowed skull in place of an inflatable ball (can the quasi-militaristic organization of a soccer field be a valid metaphor for anarchy?). Meanwhile, the soundtrack’s fuzz guitars and disobedient twistings of Terayama’s handheld camera prompt our hero to run through the streets yelling nonconformist gibberish: “Human strength — terrible! My father is a peeping tom! I’m going to fly one day!” Likely inspired by Brecht’s use of interjected song (without Brecht’s subtlety), Terayama communicates his unexpectedly unadorned, witless (or simply artless?) themes through abruptly inserted, didactic sing-alongs, allowing youths in Nixon masks to scream antiwar anthems, a dozen naked schoolgirls to comment on Japan’s misogynous economic structures by singing, “When I grow up to be a whore,” and the director to summarize his overarching themes with the chant, “The peace movement, what’s it for?… Masturbation, who’s it for?” Only one song manages to be imaginatively perverse: a group of male losers, standing between the spread, towering thighs of a thirty-foot poster of Ken Takakura, execute an ode to the iconic yakuza star, while intercut images of a sword-wielding Mishima-wannabe provide ridiculous counterpoint, revealing the juvenility of the men’s (and all) hero worship (at least I hope this is the point). While today all artless didacticism is potentially refreshing (what filmmaker today has anything to teach?), literal representations of high-decibel leftism will never instigate mass revolt; Terayama’s street-rallying cries are only a superficial gloss on the preexisting sociopolitical conditions that spurred their creation, even if, in retrospect, we now forget those conditions ever existed when confronted with the anachronistic, vacuously semiotic artifact that is this film. But new wave Japanese cinema could be so ferociously, narrow-mindedly topical that often only an artifact remains.

Terayama’s formidable avant-garde reputation notwithstanding, Throw Away Your Books is terribly, alarmingly sophomoric, even jejune (as the above description doubtless testifies), evincing neither the intellectual rigor of an Oshima nor the aesthetic, widescreen niceties of a Masumura. Terayama, were he alive today, would surely concede this point and revel in it — he wants ugly, thrashing freedom, not rigor, and revolution, not nicety (besides, Oshima now presides as a user-friendly television host, opining on “Short-necked Clam Battles” for Iron Chef). But apart from Terayama’s proud, starry-eyed witlessness, the film’s sexual content is (by his own standards) surprisingly prosaic and morbidly unenlightening: a deranged prostitute enjoys offscreen intercourse with a white bunny (symbolic of purity, innocence, etc.), a girl is gang-banged in the soccer team’s locker room, and, again in Brechtian fashion, mostly homosexual, chronically alienated men speak directly to the camera, describing themselves in the third person, as if dictating personal ads (“Hobbies: collecting stamps and photos of men, torture of tight underpants…”), a badly dated scene obviously intending to shock bourgeois sensibilities of the time. Nothing here is as transgressive (forgive the use of a dead word) as the explicit, full-frontal, genuinely antibourgeois, and probably criminal pedophilia recorded a year before in Terayama’s Emperor of Tomato Ketchup (if the actors in Dakan are technically criminals, am I, too, a criminal in the child-panicked U.S. for being one of the tens of thousands who’ve seen Ketchup?)

Occasionally, a slightly more articulate strain of the Japanese new wave peeks through, as when Throw Away‘s protagonist drunkenly shouts an anti-American monologue thematically reminiscent of Imamura’s Pigs and Battleships (1961): “When I was a little boy, I put a lizard in a cola bottle until it was too big to get out. A lizard in a cola bottle! You don’t have the strength to get out! Do you, Japan? Our perpetual humiliation is bubbling in the Korean straits…” Mostly, though, whatever Terayama’s personages poetically declaim, straight to the camera and over a humming chorus, tends toward impassioned, would-be Dadaist nonsense: “Stuttering is an ideology; the sun stutters as it rises between buildings; Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony…it stutters; the peace in Vietnam stutters across fire-swept land…order and obedience are smooth, but the sun stutters…I’m a shamefaced stutterer!” We assume Terayama, too, stutters (though probably not shamefacedly), as his film lurches with uncertainty between episodes of anger far less purposeful than the scorched earth of napalm and agent orange, and metaphors far more arbitrarily introduced and developed than the propulsive first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth — whether this stuttering is “ideological” or merely symptomatic will depend on whether you believe Terayama creates revolutionary activity or only haphazardly reproduces its effects.

To end the film — for it has no other way to end — Terayama himself appears, surrounded by cast and crew, to expose his sincerity: “Now it’s my turn to speak. A film can only live in the dark; in this film I dreamt of the human airplane.” After expounding on the existential melding of art-as-life and life-as-art by informing us the character who plays a father in the film really became like his own father (quite an amazing psychological transformation, considering the film itself is anti-psychological and anti-character!), he, like all anti-realists who don’t know when to quit, reveals that the film we’ve just witnessed is a great lie, apparently not realizing we’ve already accepted a priori the anti-Aristotelian agenda of Brechtian representationality. “Polanski, Oshima, Antonioni…all that is a world that disappears when the lights goes up,” he philosophizes (whoever said Polanski was avant-garde?). As Terayama belatedly concludes, “I loved the whole of that world but I don’t love the cinema…Goodbye cinema!”, he echoes the stale conclusion it had taken Godard too long to reach in Weekend (1967). There is a noble place in the world for unaffected and sincerely flawed amateurism (i.e., anti-commercialism), but, as a filmmaker, Terayama is an amateurish egoist — a controversialist who tells you what you knew all along. This, then, is the exact opposite of a priest — a conservative who tells you lies you’d never have invented yourself. But why should I have to choose between a priest and an egoist, when I myself am both?

I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse
(J’irai comme un cheval fou, 1973)

Though Terayama’s Throw Away Your Books remains a shameless failure of history — even if the incursive, irruptive style encasing its thematic failure spurred on a generation of filmmakers who replaced a shameless failure of theme with a shameful triumph of style — we mustn’t be discouraged from searching out and exploiting polysexual heterodoxies in the works of artists who, by predating queer political movements, could transcend political correctness and academic line-towing. And at first (but not at last), the anagogical and allegorical love at the center (and climax) of Fernando Arrabal’s I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse seems to offer just the liberating surrealist potion for which I thirst.

The film opens with a newscast (helpfully translated via sign-language for the hearing impaired — that is, all of us alienated souls deaf to worldwide dilemma) introducing Arrabal’s apocalyptic, science-run-amok worldview: oil slicks slather helpless cranes, Vietnam-era bombers loose their payloads onto hapless civilians, and a scientist dubiously discovers that “dreams strengthen the memory” — the scientist, presumably, is Arrabal, telling us through that rationally irrational science of surrealism that our presents and futures (and films?) retroactively construct our ever-fading pasts. Enacting Arrabal’s hypothesis, our bourgeois, Oedipal, transvestite hero, Aden (Eden?), strangles his mother during incest, dreams he is Baby Jesus receiving a bloody bris (or is he truly Christ, to be ritually cannibalized at the film’s end?), and imagines (or remembers?) his mother lighting his veined erection like a votive candle. Pursued by one “Detective Gay,” murderous Aden — like all good surrealist heroes armed with a outlaw pistol rather than a legalistic pen — flees to a primeval, Jodorowskian desert and falls Platonically in love with “Marvel,” a sublime, prehistoric, dwarfish guru he discovers frolicking in the dunes.

If futuric dreams strengthen (or replace?) the memory, futuristic technology must hold the key to revelation and identity; therefore, Aden, with Marvel in tow, must leave the paradisiacal desert and return home, to his distraught memory-city, a smoggier, sleazier, altogether crueler version of the French technopolis that was Tati’s albatross in Playtime (1967). There, they encounter totalitarian speechifiers who claim computers will produce eugenically engineered sons for the convenience of housewives, while selfless, childlike Marvel, amused that civilized men suck cigars as infants bite breasts, allows himself to be exploited in the civil man’s freak shows. Aden become obsessed with Marvel’s happiness, showers him with vain gifts, murders the whore who mocks him, and watches as Marvel — for reasons that remain unclear — weds and quickly abandons a mysterious transsexual. Finally, we arrive at what seems the thesis of the ostensible narrative: fugitives Aden and Marvel, pursued along the ambiguous borders between the temporal, civil city and the immortal, asocial desert sands, express with a kiss their equally ambiguous love, nominally physical and mostly metaphysical. Thus does naive Marvel — symbolizing the cosmic eternity fallen Aden’s bourgeois ideology continually diminishes — imbue Aden with redemptive love; he then cannibalizes Aden, fucks his newly purified skeletal remains, and concludes with a recitation of pinchbeck Biblical prose (“I receive the body of your body for the century of centuries!”). Thereby joined into a single body, Aden and Marvel’s unified-transubstantiated being twirls joyously into heaven with the ironic assistance of rear-projection technology.

Though they had their formal rules and games, the early or “proper” Surrealists, who extrapolated mysticism from Freudian dream-play and wove it into polite anarchy, actively discouraged interpretation and reductive allegory. The chintzier surrealism of Arrabal and Jodorowsky’s hippie-era, pantheistic Panic Movement, conversely, insisted on the spiritual authenticity of recognizable, canonical symbolisms, even as it paradoxically demanded that (objective) symbols be catalysts to infinite psychedelic self-reflection, and be woven pantheistically into the fabric of 1960s eclecticism, multiculturalism, and dissident pharmacology. For Buñuel-Dali, surrealism, as a static projection of the unconscious, was a narcotic effect to be represented onscreen, fully formed, impregnable, impractical, defiantly unusable. Panic-surrealism, however, makes manifest not unconscious visions but wholly conscious, purposive allegories whose symbols, in turn, hope to surrealistically effect a therapeutic epiphany in the audience; Buñuel-Dali consumes the narcotic of the unconscious, the Panics produce it. For them, the screen is just that — a screen, a mediation, an organ, through which passes an experience that fully gestates only in the collective brain of the audience. Ideologically, Panic philosophy is more humane than Buñuel-Dali and the salon Bretonists, who cared more about their own artistic expressions than providing their audiences with liberating tools. However, Panic Surrealism is undermined by its very reliance on conscious or “liminal” symbols, which, because they must be recognizable, must also be schematic, easily interpretable, and, if not codified, at least as prefabricated as a pair of dice, all of whose possible games and permutations we know by heart. Thus, Arrabal, like Jodorowsky, visualizes his odyssey in the storybook terms of psycho-mystical clichés: the endless desert as (alternate) universe, sexual perversion as divinity, the primal scene as the source of (arrested) desire, and the liberal use of freaks, dwarves, and assorted human oddities as a parable of Christian meekness.

Do Arrabal and Jodorowksy, who cobble together hippie eclecticism with flashy, conniving sanctimony, truly take solace in their Biblical archetypes, or believe their gory blasphemies can metaphysically transcend the aesthetic banality of the objects they blaspheme? No — eclecticism cannot blaspheme, but even if we actively disbelieve the Panic Movement’s psycho-mystical clichés, we, who currently have no surrealist movement to champion, consent to the dire necessity of their oppositional strangeness. And there’s the rub: the moment we believe there is forever a pole against which the mainstream gravitates — a pole held erect, no doubt, by dwarves, deserts, and the preordained outrage of bodily fluids — surrealism was instantly doomed. Theoretically, surrealism, like queer theory in its more dogmatic forms, should be a transitional stage, not an end unto itself but a mode of consciousness-raising designed to dispel the false aesthetics of realism and prepare us for a new aesthetics beyond petty culturalism, manifestos, rules, shocks, and the very distinction between the rational-consonant and the irrational-dissonant (yet the Surrealists were afraid of truly losing themselves — they needed rational manifestos to instruct them how best to be irrational). But even in its anti-narrative short forms (i.e., Buñuel-Dali), surrealism’s wide-eyed (and eye-slitting) desire to startle and shock was essentially bourgeois, for it presumes, first, that our sensibilities are predictably shockable, and second, that shocks will feed rather than deplete this sensibility of the shockable (there is no catharsis). By eternally preying on this sensibility’s reactions, surrealism’s predatory, degenerate shocks only legitimize the bourgeois civil mores on which its continuing survival depends — just as basking in queer outlawry legitimizes the laws queerness allegedly violates. (Or, surrealism needed the bourgeoisie more than the bourgeoisie needed it, just as heteronormativity needs the Other more than the Other needs it).

Finally, we return to our original question — can we learn from Schoenberg? Because it instinctively and suspiciously cast progressiveness, expressiveness, and experimentation in negative, binary terms, Schoenberg recoiled at the word “atonality”: “I find above all that the expression, ‘atonal music’, is most unfortunate — it is on par with calling flying the ‘art of not falling,’ or swimming the ‘art of not drowning.'”13 Likewise, surrealism, so long cast in the negative, as a shocking event, as an effect without a cause, as the art of not being rational, has never been able to be anything in particular, either moral, philosophical, or political — this is why the surrealist manifestos were sorely needed, and also why their ideologies were doomed to fail. Queer theory attempted to avoid becoming “the art of not being straight” by claiming to liberate everyone (straights more than queers) with ideals so egalitarian (or, if you prefer, libertarian) that there was no longer any question of adhering to a certain type of egalitarianism. Or, to put it another way: Schoenberg is to serial composition is to anarcho-syndicalism as queer theory is to free atonality is to undiluted anarchy. Nevertheless, until a time comes when all values have been revalued, anarchy, like post-Schoenbergian free atonality, will always be misunderstood, and be mistakenly, ignorantly perceived as oppositional rather than progressive. And often this is more than just perception, for queer theory, while embracing aspects of voluntary heterosexuality, must still derive whatever meaning it has through its opposition to heteronormativity. But perhaps even good Schoenberg enjoyed mischievously and rebelliously “not being tonal” — no one could compose the fulsome, assaulting brass-and-xylophone interludes of Moses and Aaron without some bad intentions.

As Schoenberg said, atonality is rejected not because it is ugly, but because it is misunderstood. This, of course, begs the question of “what is ugliness?” — ugliness is often (though not necessarily) strangeness, strangeness is often difficult, and difficulty often leads to misunderstanding. If comprehension rests on our understanding of phenomena in generic or categorical terms, accepting strange and/or difficult categories of sexual aesthetics seems the equivalent of accepting strange and/or difficult categories of musical aesthetics. But, while sexuality can be sometimes strange, can it really be difficult? Sexuality is too sensually transparent to be misunderstood out of pure “difficulty”; complexly composed music can be too subtle for laymen’s understanding, but alternative sexuality in itself has no elitist, intellectual, or technical contrivance that could be labeled “difficult” (the academic jargon used to describe sexuality may be difficult, but this is only a description, not the thing itself). If sexuality is misunderstood, it is done so out of purely generic reasons, without regard to any technical, content-based meaning. Atonal music, like God, is rejected because it is too complex; atonal sexuality is rejected because, like all devilish sexuality, it is understood too well.

Hero Dream (Yam Yiu Ho Ching, 1993)

So, then, how do we progress from tonal tyranny towards the emancipation of sexual dissonance, towards a pure, nonjudgmental, nondiscriminatory, freely atonal sexuality? The first obstacle remains, as it was for rule-driven Schoenberg, the problem of ill-educated, jaundiced audiences: they will not accept what is not comfortably established, and even good artists craft works intended only to flatter them (a spineless consonance) or affront them (a reactionary or unemancipated dissonance). Therefore, we must look beyond intentionality.

Even if we grant that Surrealism, Dadaism, Tachism, certain Buddhistic and Taoistic trances, and post-John Cage aleatory music composition are somehow successful in creating unintentional works of art, their aleatory or spontaneous, random effects are limited to the character of the work itself — the audience, however, is hardly ever a random cross-section spontaneously drawn from all classes of life. A tipsy splatterer of paint, a blindfolded composer who jots down notes at random, or a filmmaker who rolls his camera down a knoll or into a gully can all achieve spontaneity and randomness, but these strange randomnesses are still intended for non-random consumption by an audience of open-minded, usually elitist sympathizers. (An amateur performer plying his trade on a streetcorner, however, has a perfectly random audience.) And in commercial filmmaking, even this randomness of effect seems impossible — a lone artist can work semiconsciously, somnambulistically, aleatorily, but how can an entire cast and crew behave randomly and still be coordinated enough to produce a single, coherent film?

The problem with queer filmmaking is indeed that of its audience: queer films are either sanitized products non-randomly targeted at the middle-class masses (c.f., Arthur Dong’s well-intentioned, gutless documentaries) or more overtly sexualized products intended to flatter an equally non-random class of sympathizers (c.f., Gendernauts, Paris Is Burning, the scores of international films about boy prostitutes, etc.). In this, queer filmmaking is still terribly moral and conventional, far more than it pretends to be. But has there ever really been a public work of art that was not intended for any particular economic, social, political, or sexual class? What would such a work look like? — and what kind of sexuality could be truly amoral, beyond all present social conventions and genres, and thus intended for absolutely no one in particular? In a word, what kind of sexuality is truly queer?

Even the most abnormal, bizarre, queerest kind of sexuality, can, under favorable social conditions, become its own accepted, understood, and intentional genre, and thereafter be placed in retrogressive, reactionary opposition to something else, such that it, as a static category, can be perceived as something negative or dissonant. Furthermore, queer gender performance, which purports to be constantly, freely fluctuating, is still an overarchingly recognizable category — regardless of its fluctuations, disguises, and meta-parodies — and can be rejected categorically. Therefore, the answer to the question, “What is truly, amorally queer?” must not be a categorical sexuality that can be socially pigeonholed and manipulated, but a spontaneous experience of multiple conflicting sexualities which are at present categorically incompatible and whose dumbfounding juxtaposition violates known generic orders and the sympathies undergirding them. Queerness thus becomes a momentary experience of sexualit(ies) that defies categorization, not the lazy stasis that even transgenderism, the present apotheosis of queerness, can in practice reach (i.e., whenever the “gendernauts” realize they’ve had their fill of hormones).

What does this practically mean in cinematic terms? A single film would have to not merely “address” various sexualities in the same theoretical breath or abstractly celebrate sexual diversity for a film festival crowd — this is already normative, accepted behavior. Rather, such a film would have to happily violate conventions of generic sexuality by explicitly eroticizing alternative sexualities for a non-alternative, unsuspecting, uncurious, and unsympathetic audience. In this way, through the audience’s unsuspecting, hopefully cathartic reactions — the same sort of life-changing epiphanies Panic Surrealism futilely hoped to effect — genres of understanding be will tensely stretched and ripped open, and an instructive, amorally queer mass experience will be achieved. The movie theater, certainly, is the perfect place for this kind of politico-sexual instruction, for theater-goers, like all peoples in large groups, can efficiently surrender their wills to a collective, cathartic experience — this could not happen in a classroom. Moreover, a public theater is a relatively safe venue for such experiments, for the offending sexuality is ensconced within the screen; stealth queerness in real, unframed life, however, runs grave hazards, as folk hero(ine) Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena discovered.

Admittedly, more belligerent audience members, threatened with sexualities they perceive as dissonant, are likely to flee the theater, but fearful incomprehension will cease after this cathartic, epiphanic process is confronted and experienced several hundred times, just as becoming accustomed to atonal music changes and neutralizes one’s valuations of music itself.14 After enough mass catharses, “queer” will in truth become what it now only purports to be: not a politicized process of becoming, but an eternal, all-encompassing state of being, where sexualities are forever experienced in all universal combinations and perversions, without any attached values whatsoever. The problem, though, is once again intentionality: in order for the queer collisions and subsequent catharses to occur spontaneously and with minimum public resistance, stealthily queer films would have to be released with no demographic advertising, promotion, or any intended audience, ensuring that all audience members, the unsympathetic and sympathetic alike, could equally enter the theater without being frightened away (or, indeed, attracted and flattered). It would be paradoxical for filmmakers to intentionally create a film with no intended audience; indeed, I am unaware of any such film. However, I have found one sexually explicit film that accidentally, randomly, and amorally — that is, queerly — seems to be intended for multiple and simultaneous conflicting audiencesHero Dream.

When all other queer films have been exhausted, desperate academics may turn to this presently un-interpretable artifact, perhaps holding some intelligentsia bee to determine whose analysis is the cleverest and most quotable. Director Lau Keung-fu’s Hero Dream seems the first and only film of its kind: a low budget, generically macho Hong Kong action film unaccountably interpolated with — in addition to a few prosaic scenes of heterosexual rape and one sequence featuring a nude male bodybuilder — explicit, lengthy, X-rated sexual encounters between male-to-female transsexuals equipped with both penises and breasts. There is some semblance of a plot. To avenge his wife’s murder at the hands of Thai crooks, tough cop Chin Siu-ho — once the stalwart hetero hero of numerous Shaw Brothers adventures and mid-1980s classics (Mr. Vampire) — journeys to Thailand, joins forces with the local, machine gun-toting “Transsexual Gang,” and, with little explanation, occasionally lounges on a hotel chaise while before him two transsexuals have open, tender, full-frontal (if flaccid) intercourse.15 One of the transsexual gangsters falls in love with Chin secretly16, and comes rushing to his rescue with jeep and automatic rifle when he is overpowered by the villains; taking a fatal bullet for his beloved, the transsexual dies in Chin’s arms, a gesture that unintentionally parodies both heterosexual tragedy and the honor-infested buddy-buddy embrace common to the Shaw Brothers martial arts films in which Chin once starred. Flabbergasted and dumbstruck upon hearing the transsexual’s romantic confession, Chin can muster little more than a “Thanks, but no thanks” as his bloodied savior-transgressor slumps limp in his arms. In the grand finale, the entire Transsexual Gang proves sadly impotent and pitifully unskilled in wielding the machine guns we automatically interpret as hard male power; climactically rushing into the villain’s den to assist our hero, the transsexuals are, dozen by dozen, mowed down like trapped turkeys, leaving impenetrably straight Chin to mop up Thai villainy with single-handed, heterosexual zeal, and then shower his affections on a lovely Thai nurse.

Considering the perfunctory normalization of heterosexuality at the film’s close, at whom, exactly, is the film’s abundant transsexual pornography directed? The typical testosterone demographic likely to buy tickets for a Chin Siu-ho B-movie, even one with a tell-tale “category 3” rating (the HK equivalent of NC-17), would surely recoil at the very thought of penises and breasts existing harmoniously on the same body, and nauseate if forced to witness several such bodies rapturously and frequently intertwine. A perverse but unlikely argument might suggest Hero Dream‘s exoticizing of Thai kathoeys is intended as a cynical, repulsive, Mondo Cane-style spectacle for straight consumption.17 Nevertheless, we must conclude the film’s raison d’être is more d’être than raison — a chaotic intermixture of colliding sexualities defying rationally goal-directed (i.e. demographically-motivated) explanation.

Amazingly, Hero Dream does appear to be an example of a coordinated film production that produces random, aleatory generic and sexual experiences (mis-)directed at multiple conflicting audiences — those who enjoy heteronormative B-grade action films and those who enjoy transsexual erotica. But can we ever satisfy the second condition of amoral queerness, an entirely random viewing environment unprejudiced by any advertising or promotion that might disclose that this is a queerly-inclined film to be resisted or avoided altogether? The posters for Hero Dream present it as a superficially generic, violent action film whose shoot-outs and kung fu battles should lure a normative, mass audience — there is no indication or forewarning that unguarded audiences will be soon jolted with dissident, vivid pornography violating demographic norms.18 This demographic violation crucially separates Hero Dream from better-known queer action films like Clarence Ford’s Cheap Killers (1998), which is far too sexually coy to jolt, educate, or effect a change in the perceptions of a mass audience, and Marcelo Piñeyro’s more explicitly gay Burnt Money (2000), which sells its homoeroticism to a sympathetic queer demographic right from the start.

Nevertheless, did any public screenings of Hero Dream ever really attract unsuspecting, random, diverse mass audiences? I was fortunate enough to have experienced precisely such a screening of the film, in 1999, at Manhattan’s now-defunct Chinatown Music Palace, infamous for its general disrepair, slightly urine-scented viewing area (depending on one’s proximity to the uninhabitable bathrooms), and frequent lack of seasonal temperature control. By 1999, first-run HK films were growing increasingly unwatchable, and the Music Palace was attracting fewer and fewer patrons. One week, the owner, presumably defeated, alcoholically desperate, and now indifferent to conventional mores, dug into his archives and unearthed the unheard-of Hero Dream for an unsuspecting audience of beggars seeking shelter, adolescent boys smoking in the balcony, henpecked Chinese husbands escaping their peckers, a few soldiering cineastes like myself, and whomever else happened to randomly stumble in (along with the usual stray cats) from the bitter cold.

It would have been unnecessary to survey departing audience members to gauge their reactions to the screening: during sequences of transsexual pornography, the entirely male audience observed a tangible, agonizing silence broken only by intermittent, derisive, nervous titters (from the boys in the balcony, I’m sure) during the transsexual turkey-shoot finale. To be sure, as a random experiment in cinematic receptivity and education, the screening was an icy, alienating failure, resulting in no catharsis or epiphany. Perhaps if the theater had been sold-out, with unsuspecting viewers piled in shoulder-to-shoulder, unable to make their defensive laughter convincing and unselfconscious, unable to hide their blushing emotions from one another, unable to look down from the screen without their cowardice being judged by an intrusive neighbor, a segment, at least, of the once-uncurious, belligerent audience might have lowered its defenses or burst into revelatory, mass-hypnotic elation, just as worshipful outbursts of laughter occur only in collective spaces, where one’s individuality is irrationally, spontaneously surrendered to the group.

Though the viewing conditions were not optimal that day — they will probably never be ideal — I can nevertheless swear that once in my lifetime I’d not simply seen a queer film, but was in the midst of a queer experience of a film.

  1. See the 1941 essay “Composition with Twelve Tones” in Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg, ed. Leonard Stern. Trans. Leo Black. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. 216. []
  2. See “Is it Fair?” Ibid., 249. []
  3. This search for politics in HK film continues today; Western critics are often taken to task for obligatorily framing HK cinema in terms of 1997, but what other choices have HK filmmakers given us? HK’s art cinema, from Clara Law’s Farewell China (1990) to Evans Chan’s To Liv(e) (1992) to Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer (1998), has given us almost nothing but immigrants and exiles. []
  4. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Hong Kong in 1991, and mainstream, bourgeois coming-out films appeared only circa 1993-94. Earlier attempts at homosexual content in HK cinema — in films such as the campy James Bond rip-off Angel with the Iron Fists (1967), the lesbian-themed martial arts classic Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), and the male hustler drama Sex for Sale (1974) — are as homophobic (in various ways) as Hollywood films of the same period. []
  5. Various sources also list release dates of 1972 and 1974; the film itself is copyrighted 1971, though censorship in some countries may account for delayed releases. []
  6. The English title is a misnomer, and there is no equation between cannibalism and homosexuality. On the contrary, as the film’s hero grinds human bodies into mass-distributed meat products, it is the heterosexual public at large who would become unwittingly cannibalistic. The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies cutely suggests the “semana” (week) of the Spanish title La Semana del Asesino has anti-creation-myth implications, for each day of the week he kills, but “on Saturday [not Sunday] he rests.” However, the attempted allegory seems not only intentionally glib but completely meaningless within the context of the film. []
  7. In his screenplay for Hannibal (2001), David Mamet consciously rebukes the homophobia of its inferior predecessor by having the film’s subsidiary villain be openly homophobic and misogynistic, and finally “cured” with a forced lobotomy from decadent, effeminate aesthete Hannibal Lecter. []
  8. In fact, some sources say the Guinean government will not even disclose its official position on the legality of homosexuality — which means gay Guineans may not be fully aware of the laws they’re transgressing. []
  9. In Guinea, scenes of the two boys kissing prompted run-of-the-mill outrage and protests, though I’ve found no reports of legal action against the filmmakers. []
  10. Though the mother’s viewpoint is obviously ignorant, the word “attraction,” I suppose, is key in the context of traditional African culture — while homosexual initiation ceremonies are prevalent in many tribal societies throughout the continent, these highly formalized rituals seem limited to rigid and sometimes temporary role-playing, and are not tantamount to individualistic romantic attraction in the Western sense. []
  11. It is a depressing yet unsurprising irony that this watershed film about male homosexuality should have only female nudity. []
  12. How I tire of this word! The very possibility of a self-determining cult audience has been long negated by “legitimate” distributors of once-bootlegged genre films — the cult has already become the religion. []
  13. From Schoenberg’s 1923 essay “Hauer’s Theories.” Ibid., 210. []
  14. Is this a fantasy? Of course — but understand the lengths to which we must go to reinvent our values. []
  15. As best I can tell, Chin is present in the background, without edits or splicing, during scenes of transsexual fucking, thus dispelling the suspicion that the film is actually two wholly different, unfinished films spliced together by some unscrupulous producer (as is sometimes the case with B- and C-grade HK films). []
  16. The opposite formula is provided by Blacky Ko’s Invincible (1992), wherein martial artist-turned-pitchman Billy Blanks (of subsequent Tae-Bo infomercial fame) plays a homosexual Foreign Legionnaire who spends the entire film attempting to rape and sodomize the Chinese male hero; Blanks is finally thanked for his efforts with fifty savagely penetrative bullet wounds. It is worth noting, however, that HK films generally portray black men as rapists (c.f., Frankie Chan’s The Good, the Bad, and the Beauty [1988]). []
  17. The film’s Cantonese title, Yam Yiu Ho Ching, may implicitly forewarn audience members about the film’s “exotic” transsexual themes. Literally, the title can be rendered as “Slutty Monsters and the Hero,” but the yam (“slutty”) is punningly homophonous with yan, meaning “human,” which in turn suggests the phrase yan yiu, which literally means “human monsters,” but which is also common derogatory slang for transsexuals. []
  18. The film has been released on video in America under the heteronormative title Naked Huntress; having not seen this version, I cannot say whether it’s been edited to prevent the blush of unsuspecting or unsympathetic viewers. []