SEAMEN / SEE MEN / SEMEN
by Caden Mark Gardner
Kenneth Anger’s experimental films were a cocktail of pop and subversion. A child of Hollywood, he became a pioneer and forefather to the music video, queer cinema, and avant-garde cinema of the latter 20th century. Whether it was dealing with the occult (Invocation of My Demon Brother) or homoerotic gazing towards men in leather jackets while playing rock music over those images (Scorpio Rising), Anger pushed the envelope. This fearlessness was present from the very start with Fireworks, a film he made at the age of twenty on a weekend while his parents were away from home.
A surreal, homoerotic poem of queer desire and sadomasochism, Fireworks was unchartered territory for its time. It straddles and intersects with the realities of being gay in post-World War II America—a time in which being gay was largely illegal, with screenings of Fireworks years after its release resulting in arrests and lawsuits for theaters that played the film—and features open lusting over hyper-masculine, All-American sailors.
Anger films the sailors’ beautiful godlike bodies with a powerful, smoldering sheen in their white sailor uniforms contrasted in the spaces of dark, black night. An undeniable visual inspiration for Anger was French filmmaker Jean Cocteau in its dreamlike quality, the contrasts of night and day, black and white. Fireworks, however, is grounded by social reality. “Inflammable desires dampened by day under the cold water of consciousness are ignited that night by the libertarian matches of sleep, and burst forth in showers of shimmering incandescence,” Anger would state in a prologue he added to later prints of the film. For his character in Fireworks, dreaming while sleeping and bottling up desire is the only outlet, and yet society’s standards cannot help but encroach.
Anger and gay men of his era had limited images available to them that were about same-sex desire for men. However, in Fireworks’ release year of 1947, there was something in the air for homosexual artists who came of age during World War II and were, albeit discretely, putting out images and works that presented the male form as desirable for homosexual consumers.
Jean Genet anonymously published the novel Querelle de Brest (later adapted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Querelle), about a bisexual prostitute who lured sailors for sexual favors, ultimately murdering them to steal. Tom of Finland’s fetish art had unabashedly hyper-masculine forms of gay men, such as a 1947 Untitled print that has a sailor dancing in a tango with another man, giving each other loving glances. Photographer Bob Mizer had not yet published his legendary beefcake magazine Physique Pictorial, but in 1947 he was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison for mailing obscene material of homoerotic imagery (some of which included men wearing sailor caps and very little else) across the country. That same year, future Anger collaborator Dr. Alfred Kinsey founded the Institute of Sex Research at Indiana University, helping to de-stigmatize homosexuality through his groundbreaking research of the diversity of sexuality.
These cultural moments are merely coincidental but were in reaction to their time just after the war. World War II was a war full of patriotic propaganda for both the Axis and Allied Powers of a masculine ideal to celebrate and support. “A man in uniform” as an image of desire, a same-sex object of desire, still permeates in gay culture today.
Of those gay artists, Anger inserted himself the most in his work. As the nameless protagonist in Fireworks, he contrasts his modest, slender form with these imposing sailor bodies that he sexually desires but is all too aware of their capabilities in crushing him. It is fantasy wrestling with nightmare and how these contrasts merge into a form of pleasure. There is brutal pummeling of which Anger is on the receiving end of, but even an early image of Anger in the arms of a sailor unconscious, a damsel in distress, suggests that being dominated by this sailor is something he wants. Fireworks is never too overly serious about its dream logic. Anger is quite playful, making erection jokes when his character appears to wake up with a hard-on. His meet cutes with sailors includes handstands, a lit up roman candle is a phallic stand-in for a seaman’s penis, and in the visceral depiction of innards being removed, it is not a heart that the viewer sees but a compass instead. Is it moral one or about navigating one’s desires? That is up to you.
Fireworks’ significance in the queer cinema canon and the countless works it inspired cannot be understated. The film’s subversive quality may seem tamer today when explicitness is afforded to contemporary queer films versus Anger’s heavily metaphorical imagery. Yet, Fireworks remains potent in portraying desires and dreams that linger in the minds of
queer men that came before and after him. “A dissatisfied dreamer awakes, goes out in the night seeking a `light’ and is drawn through the needle’s eye,” Anger said years later, recalling the film’s synopsis. “A dream of a dream, he returns to bed less empty than before.”
[SEAMEN / SEE MEN / SEMEN is featured along with five other film essays in the Club Jewel Box zine, commissioned as part of a special Flaming Classics event featuring numerous avant-garde shorts and features. You can read the rest here.]
Caden Mark Gardner is a freelance film writer based in Schenectady, NY. He is collaborating with fellow film critic Willow Maclay on the history of depiction and representation of transgender people in film for an upcoming book called Corpses, Fools, & Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema.