Futurism, Queerness and the Cult of Death

This is a little piece I wrote for a certain institution that was shortlisted and subsequently not used. It seemed a shame to just let it rot, so I’m posting it here. Again, disclaimers ahead, I don’t speak for and neither am I a part of the LGBT community, I just like Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Anger. I’ve added bracketed notes here and there and a few links to try to make this applicable to a wider audience. Thanks for reading!

On the fifth of February 1909. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published a work in La Gazzetta dell’Emilia titled “Il Manifesto del Futurismo.” The work was everything a struggling Italy, stagnating both culturally and politically, needed to pull itself screaming into the twentieth century. It had everything: Strong rejections of the past, fast cars, youthful empowerment, and an almost unhealthy obsession with the now resurging phrase “live fast, die young.” Marinetti himself admitted in his work that conflict was almost a necessity for the soul to flourish, and if death was an inevitable side effect of the struggle to achieve one’s ideals, then so be it. However, it’s first worth addressing the elephant in the room. While it’s most certainly the case that the fascist adoption of futurist principles is what Marinetti will most prominently be remembered for, the influence his philosophies had on subsequent developments in Avant Garde theory helped produce some of the most notable and culturally impactful artists of the Twentieth century. While I’m certainly not advocating that fascism was a necessary evil, or some other nonsense, I want to reinforce the point that counter-culture comes from perceived injustice, more specifically, that mass societal misinterpretation of a philosophical or artistic movement is where counter-culture comes from. Put simply, when something artistically pure is misappropriated by a group, complex systems come into play, and the minority will attempt to reseize the movement, caricaturing it until it returns to its original form.

Before moving on, however, it is important to note the work of Renato Poggioli. Born in Italy just prior to the release of Marinetti’s work, Poggioli emigrated to America a few years prior to the second world war. There he taught the prolific Avant Garde poet Frank O’Hara, and his work into political radicalism, based on the revolutionary activity in late Nineteenth century Paris (here see the Paris Commune – Zola wrote a great book titled La Débâcle, you should read it) arguably directed the course of counter-cultures and communities for the next sixty years. Antagonism characterised his writing, with a deep-seated political and social mistrust. Poggioli sought to instil aggressiveness not only in his followers, but to the unsuspecting audiences that stumbled across his work; here the link with Futurism lies. This “transcendental antagonism” (I’ve quoted this because I’m not fully comfortable using it as a phrase, you’ll find it in the majority of work done on avant-garde theory, but I think it’s just a fancy way of saying nihilism.) was inherently self-destructive for whichever movement adopted it, and the agonism, the positive channelling of political conflict, was perceived by some to be near fanatical cultural terrorism. (If you’re left leaning and want to read into Futurism as justification for Red Action, I highly recommend Violence by Slavoj Žižek.) But what does this specifically have to do with Futurism? Well, it’s Futurist principle: hit hard, hit fast, burn-out as soon as possible and move onto the next antagonistic ideal. So began a constant spiral of death and rejuvenation among the micro-movements of the Avant Garde, desperate to destroy the work of their cultural forefathers (and mothers), these men and women burned artistically bright and fast, leaving their mark and recoiling into nothingness at the hands of a fast living, frequently dying cultural history.

This antagonism and the Futurist obsessions with speed and technology were perhaps most evident (Yes, it was also present in lots of other facets of society, but this essay is about gay biker death cults) in the ever-growing gay scenes both along the east and west coast of America. In keeping with Poggioli’s beliefs that “the route of all vanguard movements is alienation,” in the summer of 1954, McCarthy began a systematic campaign to alienate and delegitimise the gay residents of Washington. Leslie Fielder, a hugely influential critical writer and literary psychologist, noted that “the definition of the enemy [was] complete – opposite in all respects to the American ideal, simple, straightforward, ungrammatical, loyal, and one-hundred-percent male.” (If you’re interested in this facet of American history, this particular incident was colloquially referred to as the Lavender Scare.) Through a seemingly outlandish perversion of advertisements and propaganda, (my personal favourite is this) the likes of Kenneth Anger and Jack Smith had successfully achieved the unsettling recognition they desired for their art. This began, like many purposefully antagonistic, cult-like initiatives do, with the search for an appropriately ridiculous figure to revere. For Kenneth Anger, this was Aleister Crowley, the turn of the century English occultist. Crowley was synonymous both with an obsession with death and the iconography and mysticism that would go on to be adopted by both the Nazi’s and the San Francisco speed cults. A strong adherent of Thelema, the religion Crowley founded, the occult connotations run deep in Anger’s work. Fireworks, his first breakout film, (viewable here) opens with the most profound of occult depictions: two men are framed, one cradling the other in an almost certain pastiche of La Pieta, the famous Michelangelo sculpture of the virgin Mary and Jesus, post-crucifixion. What Anger attempts to achieve here is the juxtaposition of a hetero-normative, mother-son bond, in fact the most purely platonic, loving moment one could experience in the face of death, and replaces it with an inherently sexual, almost dominating male figure, clasping the body of a young man and glaring deeply into his face with a smile. (As was shouted out when I watched this short with some friends: “You don’t have to be gay to admire the balls on this kid.”) Anger seamlessly integrates the two most unsettling, to his intended audience, sexual aspects, homoeroticism and necrophilia. This achieves his intended goal, in keeping with Poggioli’s philosophy, of clear antagonism. Anger creates conflict, he creates a battlefield for his counter-culture to combat cultural normalities through caricature and pastiche, following Marinetti’s example and proving the worth of his ideas through a trial by fire, so to speak. There’s far more I could say about Fireworks, but I’m not a film student, and it’s only ten minutes long, so if you haven’t seen it, you might as well, it’s not exactly subtle in its imagery. (Not to discredit the achievement, but there’s subtle metaphor, and then there’s digging around inside a man’s insides to find his “orientation.”) I will, however, come back to it briefly here and there.

Instead I want to move on to another significant member of the San Francisco Renaissance, Robert Duncan. Inspired by Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of a male torso, he wrote a poem dedicated to the sexual fetishisation of something that was intended to be a demonstration of the pure love of art. (Readable here) Under Ezra Pound, Duncan had learned that by eliminating form entirely, in essence putting the traditions of poetry to death, he could bring his art to new heights, destroying that which came before in order to make something new. You can’t help but see the similarities between this ideal, and Anger’s myriad of opening shots in Fireworks, not only with his satirical view of the Pieta but with a bust of a hand lacking certain fingers being shown. Not only is it a clear hint to thelemic hand signs, notorious in occult mysticism, most importantly, the middle finger is shown broken and discarded, here representing the obvious impotency of the movement’s rage, so to speak. I would imagine that Anger is here trying to express why he felt the need to make something so intentionally jarring: with no physical way of expressing his feelings, muted by overarching public opinion and societal pressures, what choice did he have? He’s most famously quoted as saying “this flick is all I have to say about being seventeen, the United States Navy, American Christmas and the fourth of July.” (I imagine it would certainly make for an interesting christmas movie with your nan.)

It’s also worth pointing out the similarity between one of Firework’s final scenes, and the fascist obsession with the fasces, a bundle of sticks with an axe in it, that served simultaneously as the implied logo of many militaristic regimes, and the two pillars on which Lincoln rests his hands. In the scene, Anger is presented with an overtly masculine figure who models his strength and physical attributes for both him and the audience. When prompted for a cigarette lighter, he reacts with intense physical retribution, instead presenting Anger with a burning faggot, in the sense of a bundle of twigs, not the colloquialism. It seems that what is trying to be depicted here is the unconscious hatred for progression held by society; men are strong, muscular and primitive, unlike Anger, and quick to physical aggression to express themselves. The tried and tested methods of past generations, while seemingly still relevant, fall short when applied to newly evolving practices; it is always more practical and beneficial to use a match or a cigarette lighter to ignite a cigarette than a burning faggot. The same is shown in the constant long shots of the motorways littered with cars speeding through intersections. Futurists were of course obsessed with motor travel, the faster the better, and Anger finds these sailors, perhaps lost and confused in his dream sequence, far away from their old world Conrad-ian maritime homes aboard slow-moving, colossal ships.

The most important part of Anger’s Fireworks, in relation to death and rebirth, is the overtly sexual beating he sustains at the hands of the group of men. In an almost cult-like initiation, a laying on of hands so to speak. The group sets upon Anger with chains, cutting him open to locate his orientation deep inside. It’s a particularly violent sequence, with clear BDSM and masochistic undertones. This perhaps is own personal pastiche of mainstream, hetero-normative cinema, like Jack Smith did in reference to Maria Montez after him. Smith notes in reference to her acting that “there is a (unsophisticated, certainly) validity there – also theatrical drama (the best kind) – also interesting symbolism, delirious hokey, glamour – unattainable (because once possessed) and juvenile at its most passionate.” This is to say that Anger’s metaphors are in no way subtle, the aggressiveness and violence of the scene and the clear juvenile insistence in an ideal are mere methods of conveying the intended meaning more vehemently. Maria Montez was in no way, even objectively, a good actress. Her presence upon the screen was to command the attention of the male gaze, to grab the attention of those who sought to “get off” to women in peril and unattainable beauties. The imagery Anger intended to convey sought to strike hard and bright at the audience, to place them in situations of discomfort, the bathing in “milk” he is subjected to is by no means intended to be subtle; it is purposefully vivid and provocative, with the intent of provoking backlash. It is also riddled with Crowley’s insistence on bacchanalian excess, littered with recreational drugs, aggressive and extremely fetishized sex and deep, heavily metaphorical art. But this is exactly what Poggioli had in mind, artists metaphorically asking for death at the hands of the socio-normative mob in order to portray their intent; a true Marinetti death-cult.

In the following years, Jack Smith, heavily influenced by Anger, released Flaming Creatures. An ode to bacchanalian excess, it featured extended scenes of rape, homosexuality, lesbian intimacy, cross-dressing and genitalia in full view of the audience. (It features the Warhol superstar Mario Montez, the similarity in names to the previously mentioned actress is a coincidence.) In reality, it would appear to give the general public exactly what they had wanted since cinema had begun; a full feature complete with sex, music and misconduct. While tame by today’s standards, and not showing any actual intercourse, Smith regularly flips the purposefully jerky camera between shots of male and female bodies in order to confuse and desensitize the audience to sexual arousal, to make them feel as a queer man or woman would. It’s obvious that it was intended to be as shocking as possible, with its seven minute long rape scene attempting to accommodate sexual violence in the mind of the viewer. Like Anger, Smith was attempting to initiate a fight, begging for repercussions so as to generate free exposure for his work and his ideals, and like Duncan, Smiths aim was to completely remove the pre-conceived notions of cinema that Hollywood had built, tear it down and murder it, with the express purpose of allowing his own art to flourish from the ashes. It’s safe to say that this technique was similarly employed, if not by accident, by the famous beat poet Alan Ginsberg. I think it’s fair to say that Howl, his greatest work, wouldn’t have had the mainstream recognition it has today if it weren’t for the sham of a court trial it was subjected to. Disorientation plays a large part in Smith’s featurette, with the sexual being mirrored very closely by the technical, in all regards it is a nauseating trip. It is alleged that Smith purposefully edited the cutting and overlays in a sub par manner to further accentuate this. Most interestingly, at just over forty minutes in length, the speed at which everything moves, and the frantic nature of the camera seems to cause time to even dilate. It is safe to say that in all cases, it is an experience to be beholden to the senses, it does feel like an endless ordeal. Over the course of the years following its few private screenings, arrests were made and court sanctions imposed for the sake of cleaning up the city of New York, mirroring what had happened to Ginsberg before him. The controversy only sought to reinforce Smith, who was now regarded as a cinematic revolutionary in many artistic circles. His new-found fame opened him up to all kinds of threats, anonymous letters promising retribution and the like. However, death surrounded more than just Smith’s artistic intent, during the filming of Flaming Creatures, Joan Adler noted that the orgy scene was shot “in broiling sunlight with the set falling all over, [the performers] high as kites, Jack pouring ceiling plaster all over them… and careening dangerously above on some swinging homemade contraption.” The reason artists such as Smith and Anger seem to fit so well into the Futurist manifesto despite not being explicitly involved in it, can be explained by the length that they go to for their art. It is not necessarily the case that their works always focus on obsessions with death and speed, but it is most certainly the case that they put themselves at risk of death for the sake of getting what they wanted, getting the perfect shot or the correct interpretation of their work and solidifying its intended meaning.

Scorpio Rising, Anger’s next release, is without a doubt the clearest encapsulation of the Futurist death cult within the Avant Garde movement. Referred to by Anger as “a death mirror held up to American culture… Thanatos in chrome, black leather and bursting jeans,” it was, in essence, a eulogy to the trifecta of progressive American male culture, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley. In keeping with Poggioli’s mandate that a strong perversion of advertisements and propaganda be enacted, Scorpio Rising’s soundtrack is laced with hetero-normative love songs, sweet and innocent ballads presented over powerfully forceful images of homosexual culture and gay iconography, much in the same way as Flaming Creature’s ending sequence, but a fraction more coherent. It lures the innocent and non-expectant into a false sense of security and then jolts them to awareness of the goings on of progressive counter-cultures. The images themselves are regurgitated and filtered Futurist obsessions of machinery and technology, presented by men clad in an appropriated fascist sense of dress. It goes without saying that the homoerotic connotations of men straddling powerful machines was clearly a centre motif. (Again, Anger was never subtle.) What’s most interesting about the adoption of Nazi and fascist motifs by members of the gay community, is that they feel almost like a call to death, or an open mockery in the face of it. Anger would have been privy to Freud’s notion of the “death drive,” the erratic race that “leads organic life back into the inanimate state,” as Crowley was a proponent of such beliefs, and within Thelemic mysticism, the need to dispose of self-consciousness in favour of transcendental consciousness was well documented. (The point here is as before, caricature, ridicule, own, eradicate. Schopenhauer talks about the philosophy of will, and this principle, at length, and does a far better job than Freud.)

Freud noted that trauma ridden soldiers returning from war would often endlessly re-enact the traumatic experiences they were put through, in much the same way it could be argued that the wearing of fascist articles of clothing by the gay community was not only a re-enactment of trauma, but a systematic attempt to absorb and “make queer” that which had tried to destroy them, almost like wearing the defeated heads of your enemies to make an example. Anger notes in his lecture on Crowley that like him, he was “not afraid of anything on the other side.” This is especially clear in the focus Anger places on the men getting dressed, ceremonially and almost reverently, like soldiers dressing for battle. This masculine obsession with triumphant death was then fetishized, with the death of James Dean almost ten years prior in a high-speed traffic collision undoubtedly inspiring many a young queer activist to take to the road, with the interspersed clips of Jesus amassing his followers concreting this. It is this primary emotion that rules over Scorpio Rising, the young living fast, erotically, using the risk of death as a method of arousal and binding together to briefly revel in it. Perhaps the intent of Anger’s movement was to sexualise the fear that de-humanised us, thus removing a certain amount of its venom and replacing it with pleasure. Whether it be death or fascist extremism, if it was made inherently sexual, there was no need to fear it and if there was no need for fear, then purer art could be produced, lives could be lived free and the movement could prosper even in the face of societal disapproval. In the Crowley tradition, this hedonism would be more than smiled upon and more than acceptable, so too within the Futurist philosophy. The ending sequences of Scorpio Rising become quickly more and more irreverent and increasingly disorienting, culminating in a muscular man clad in leather, reminiscent of a cheap male stripper, presenting Nazi iconography and disorganised dance moves atop an altar and a confessional booth, while images of Hitler and swastikas flash. (I feel that this sequence needs no explanation, it’s not subtle, and was never intended to be.) It feels, at this point, that Anger has left no stone unturned in a search for a visual sequence that could both offend and overwhelm such a wide demographic of people. (what would the average american be more afraid of than militant gay faux-nazis.) Again, encapsulating Poggioli’s intent and riding full force, as Marinetti would have wanted, into the face of death.

The queer movements of east and west coast America were the breeding grounds for the development of Marinetti’s philosophy. Without them, Futurism would be remembered as nothing but an enabler to fascist dictatorships and autocratic rulers. It is instead remembered as something these counter-cultures clung to in the face of enormous social pressures and political ostracization. In retrospect it makes perfect sense, for someone who is so alienated by their community, the obsession with death would almost come as second nature, but it was the redirection of this emotion that enabled the gay scene to break out and mould themselves into society, shouting as loud as possible, living as fast as possible and then falling silent, waiting for the torch to be taken up by whoever was brave enough.

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