Friday, July 6, 2018

Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress | Sebastiane

splendor in the sun
by Douglas Messerli

Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress (writers and directors) Sebastiane / 1976

Surely the only soft gay porn in which the characters speak Latin, Derek Jarman’s 1976 film, Sebastiane, is like no other movie ever made. While it is true that this work begins with a long orgy scene in Diocletian's court that might have come out of a film by Fellini, and then shifts, throughout the rest of the film to long Pasolini-like images and story; and while the hilarious orgy dance itself that might have choreographed by Busby Berkeley is performed in front of an audience that includes at least 3 Rocky Horror Film alumni, the whole is a product only of the imaginations Jarman and his co-director Paul Humfress.

      This is not your mother’s Christian saint, despite small bows to church history. Yes, Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) here is also a captain of the Praetorian Guards, but unlike the saint’s hagiography, Diocletian does not personally order his death, and the handsome Christian youth is most definitely not a figure who converts others. His major action in this work is to attempt to dissuade the Roman emperor from killing his two current boy bedmates, the second of whom, Diocletian claims, tried to set his bed afire. His interference does not save the boy and gets Sebastiane, in the first of his endless acts of martyrdom, sent off to a desert garrison headed by the hunky ruddy-faced Severus (Barney James), who, stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no battles to fight, simply wants the beautiful young man to share his bed now and then, a pleasure which time and again Sebastiane refuses.
    It’s not that the eventual saint is against homosexual dalliances. As one of the favorites of Diocletian he must surely have also had to share his bed (he kisses the Emperor in the very first scene); and his relationship to his friend Justin (Richard Warwick) comes very close to being sexual while presumably chaste, about which, nonetheless, even his fellow soldiers describe Justin as a Sebastiane-lover—and, finally, there is that blue-eyed mysterious young Leopard Boy (Gerald Incandela) who shows up as a vision while Sebastiane is bound and staked out naked in the desert sands; although he expresses his love in semi-natural terms, as is his wont—nearly everything he speaks is about the sun and water—even he declares he loves this boy, whom he has only glimpsed as in a feverish dream, and whom Justin cannot even imagine exists.

   Besides what else is there to do in this desert, heated-up outpost but to wander around naked or in cod pieces, eying the other eight soldiers with whom you’re daily sharing your lives? One of their group, the least beautiful of them, wants nothing more than to return to Rome and get himself a female whore. Another young boy seemingly resists all attempted assaults. But all the others, particularly Adrian (Ken Hicks) and Anthony (Janusz Romanov), spend most of their days, when not being forced by Severus to play out mock battles and enter into wrestling matches, to put it simply: kiss, make-out, and fuck. Indeed, Jarman’s and Humfress’ depictions of their tender love-making is the closest this film gets to the truly spiritual, as one of the pair is even allowed to get an on-camera erection. And almost all of these thin and muscled soldiers spend most of their days in naked 
splendor in the sun, a bit like a gathering of gay magazine models, entertaining both the voyeur Severus and the audience itself. I think anyone who likes the male body, man or woman, might enjoy just staring at the directors’ screen.
      Yet Jarman well knows the entire genre of gay film-making, spending long periods with S&M scenes in which Severus, the continually spurned lover, finds new ways to torture the boy he so admires. There’s whipping, hanging, binding, and staking enough for any S&M admirer (of which I’m not). But this is, if you recall, a supposed rendition of the martyrdom of a saint.
      Finally, after a particularly frustrating night alone while drinking, Severus orders up the famed scene of arrows being flung through the air into Sebastiane’s body. It can hardly be a surprise that this scene of a naked beauty being put to death by other naked beauties attracted nearly every Renaissance painter. Only Christ and Sebastian might have been painted naked, or at least, semi-naked, a titillation for both Renaissance men and women. If in the saint’s story Sebastian survived all the slings and arrows, and he was ultimately killed with cudgels, Jarman and Humfress know a good image when they see one and end their Sebastiane’s life with an arrow through his neck, the whore-loving rascal organizing and overseeing a death which he has long been wishing for, particularly since it is now a war between the beauty and the beast.
     One can well understand why this film was so controversial in its gay and unauthorized telling of a Christian believer who had attempted to stop Diocletian from his endless murder of the converted. How Jarman even cleared the British censors is beyond me. While the US was trying to recover from The Boys in the Band tame row-line dancing, Sebastiane presented its hero in a wild dance to the sun and body that Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis might have died for.
      Yet, for all of its languishing over male buttocks and genitals, there is something very pure about Jarman’s and Humfress’s work. In their simple celebration of the male body we do come to a kind of testament to the human bodies that God chose us to inhabit, with all of its appendages and beckoning entries. Eyes, nipples, noses, and yes, penises, buttocks, and any other orifice is explored here, not in titillation (although these directors are not against that, and certainly Severus is not appalled by all their sexual exploration), but in a kind of expression of the sacredness of human life. We know that in killing of Sebastian that Severus and the others who are charged to carry out the act, they all have certainly lost something of their own sacred existence in that act.
      And, in large part, Jarman’s “gay” film is not simply about homosexual lust, but about the power of sex of any kind: transgender (as in the film’s first scene), lesbian (Diocletian’s wife has her own favorites), and, perhaps too shocking for many, man-boy love. It’s a bit strange, but perhaps appropriate that in casting his figures in Latin, Jarman is restating that these loves are those that still cannot speak their names—at least in English. What is there left to do but to witness and watch?

Los Angeles, July 6, 2018

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