Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Prison Walls & Eros - Part 1: The Sublime

    We don’t often delve into our psychosexuality when responding to the homoeroticism of sex behind bars. It’s a staple of modern pornography. From a getting-off perspective it’s a no-brainer. One aspect of why prison sexuality continues to figure so strongly in both gay and non-gay male sexual fantasies is quite obvious: incarceration is a very good excuse to fully and without inhibition explore the male taboo of enjoyment of the homosexual experience. The fact that it’s best enjoyed with another man’s body isn’t helpful in honestly addressing what is usually felt as internalized homophobia, but experienced as most pleasurable. In short, choice has nothing to do with men’s attachment to thoughts of prison sex, and that’s its attraction.

But pornography only addresses desire – that’s its band-aid purpose. It doesn’t address existential loneliness, or the pervasive longing which in many ways defines much of our culture and individual selves, regardless of what relationships we may experience (or, all too often, reject).

It’s tempting to imagine that bridging the gap between pornography and longing is a future topic to be addressed by gay men. However, some digging into our culture yields up Jean Genet’s 1950 silent film 'Un Chant d’Amour'(“Song Of Love”). Reviled as pornography from its onset, this short masterpiece of homoerotic existentialism is peculiarly more relevant than ever. It’s still deeply subversive inasmuch as there is no refuge within for the homophobe of any persuasion – the viewer is denied that dubious payoff.

Set in an oppressively gloomy prison, the familiar dance of The Boy’s capitulation to both The Man and homosexuality is perfunctory and speedy – the need for connection jolts him from his narcissistic auto-eroticism. The Man’s tears of nothingness give way to a bashful smile of being, when he's "accepted".  The film has been fairly critiqued as a damnation of the walls men build around themselves.

Juxtaposing the bleakness of the wall of separation, Genet offers a sweet counterpoint fantasy of bucolic contact, respect, sensuality and liberation. Much has been made of Genet’s insistence on aberrant homosexualism as a valid and menacing repudiation of 'civilized society', but 'Un Chant d’Amour' is as decent as it gets for the thinking homosexualist: as it documents immuration, it also documents our lost history when homosexuals (and homosexuality) actually had the ability to transcend age, race, gender and identity.

Grainy, underexposed and moody, 'Un Chant d’Amour' is the visual blueprint for some of Andy Warhol’s more interesting cinematic observations. The richness of fetish-tinged metaphors can’t distract from the bigger picture, and what the intercut escapism suggests: our imprisonment can be both socially enforced as well as self-perpetuated. Certainly the presence of an impotently jealous guard reinforces the former, but the latter deserves our contemporary contemplation. The chanteurs themselves – non-actors drawn from Genet’s own marginalized rough-trade world – are alarmingly modern stereotypes of looks and sensibility: their truth however addresses the guilelessness of eros in a way we won’t. Or can’t.

The film at its core - and most perverse - probably articulates and prosecutes a case for arranged marriage as much as its narrative is of male-to-male longing. The homosexual’s most absurd delusion is that we have unlimited choices, and acting upon that belief is in itself a recipe for perpetuated longing: facticity – not aspiration - being the determinate of situation. The lovers in “Chant” did not choose to be imprisoned, nor did they choose to be in adjoining cells. The entire matter of their situation is out of their hands: seemingly their only choice – as with any arranged marriage – is to acquiesce to the power of love…with homosexual immutability as the solution rather than the problem.


  1. Hi Rick - I've read this piece before, but your recent link in a post about "Great Freedom" afforded me the opportunity to revisit. This Genet film is ahead of its time and you describe perfectly how, in many ways, its time STILL hasn't arrived. I know film isn't your main focus here, so I'm always happy when you cast your gaze on the movies. Thanks!

  2. Google stats (and a huge upswing in readership this year) are telling me that perhaps I should rethink things and focus more on film, since that's what readers seem to be most interested in.

    Your kind words are always encouraging!