Monday, June 27, 2011

Martyr Complex

One of the things that struck me as I watched the opening scenes of Derek Jarman's Sebastiane (1976) was how closely both it, and through its influence, subsequent gay cinema resembles porn. I mean, the opening pantomime for the pleasure of the court of the Roman emperor, Diocletian, is an art house version of a bukkake reel, what you might get if Fellini decided to film a reel for the gay bathhouse rough trade. And it doesn't change much when it focuses its attention on its (mostly nude) male cast of exiled soldiers a few minutes later. It films their bodies in long, lingering idylls. These are the same kinds of longueurs one finds in any given Emmanuel movie, complete with the slow motion splashing of water and the frequent voyeurs watching the action. Jarman throws in some kink, too, with several flogging scenes.

The story here, adapted liberally from the life of St. Sebastian, finds the title character exiled to the frontier after complaining about the brutality and depravity of the court of Diocletian. On the frontier, Sebastiane is the object of lust and abuse at the hands of the station commander, Severus, who punishes Sebastiane for refusing his advances and for refusing to fight, and at the hands of Maximus, a fellow courtier who has also been exiled. The men of this garrison have no women and no way to pass their time except engaging in various sports and by fucking each other. The movie ends with with Sebastiane's famous martyrdom, predicated by his mocking of Severus's impotence when the commander finally has Sebastiane at his mercy. He is tied to a post and used as target practice.

The male gaze is strong in this one, but it's directed at men rather than at women without any noticeable change to its essential nature. It changes only the objects of its gaze. This, of course, is the point. It upends the heterosexist hegemony of film by applying its means of looking at the world at something that it would never, ever gaze upon left to its own devices. Whether the end result is something truly subversive or is rather a green filmmaker wanking for the camera is obviously going to be in the eye of the beholder. Jarman's frequent quotes of famous homoerotic art, the fact that the movie's spoken language is Latin, and the frequent deliberate flights of anachronism (frisbee on the beach!) certainly suggest a surplus of artiness. Along the way, Jarman has some fun with the notion of placing a Christian into a society of homosexuals as a way of contrasting the lot of gays in a contemporary Christian society. It even finds its gay majority deriding Christians with gay slurs. It's kind of funny, actually. The coup de grace is the way it lampoons Christians who paint themselves as martyrs when they express their dislike of gays. Jarman gives this a further twist by rendering Sebastiane with the EXACT same strokes as he renders his gay characters. He's as much a homoerotic object as the others.

Not that any of that matters. The main object of the movie is to gaze at an idealized male form as it comes into contact with other male bodies, whether in sports, combat, or in sex. The movie lingers on this to the expense of almost all other images. It has BEAUTIFUL men on screen, too. Barney James, who plays Severus, is some kind of blonde god. The movie has virtually no female presence. That bukkake scene I mentioned earlier? It's a hideous parody of femininity only a few steps beyond the conventions of the drag show. Women, in this film, are grotesques. It's only concerned with men. Having established the beauty of male bodies, Jarman proceeds to violate them. There is an undeniable power in the ultimate scenes of Sebastiane's martyrdom. It's interesting that he chooses to film Sebastiane's martydom in much the same way he's filmed the erotic portions of the movie. It occasionally slides into slow motion, and the penetration of the arrows have an almost ecstatic sexual quality to them. Certainly, Leonardo Treviglio writhes in a way that is as suggestive of orgasm as it is of agony. There's a disturbing acknowledgement in this scene that however beautiful the male body may be, it's a fragile thing. As the saying goes, sic transit gloria mundi.


Caroline said...

I'm running out of things to say except "beautifully written." I'm intrigued by your discussion of this film as turning the male gaze on other men and its reliance on pornographic cinematic techniques. Sounds... interesting. :)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Caroline. Thanks for commenting on all my posts! Sebastiane was kind of difficult for me to write about, actually, because Rod over at Ferdy on Film did such a thorough post about it last week while I was still thinking about it.

Aubyn said...

I've never seen this film; both you and Rod did beautiful analysis of it.

"Whether the end result is something truly subversive or is rather a green filmmaker wanking for the camera is obviously going to be in the eye of the beholder."

How much of what we think of as the subversive elements in cinema came from their creator's personal kinks? Quite a bit, I'd say.