hard to get a good’s night sleep
by Douglas Messerli
John Schmitz (screenwriter and director) Voices / 1953
Given their close friendship, the shared distribution of their films, and the similarity of the structures and tropes of their early works, you might describe the works of Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington, Gregory Markoupolos, and John Schmitz as a Los Angeles-based school of LGBTQ cinema in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were it not for the fact that both Anger and Harrington move off in rather radically different trajectories. Certainly they shared a cinematic vocabulary and a viewpoint regarding how they might best express the gay experience of their day.
One need only to compare three films, Anger’s Fireworks (1947), Harrington’s Picnic (1948), Markopoulos's Christmas, USA (1949)—films I discuss in detail earlier in this volume—and Schmitz’s Voices (1953) to recognize the obvious similarities. All four works might be described as testimonies of gay men struggling with the dominant heterosexual culture into which they were born. Their beautiful male heroes attempt to find sexual satisfaction with the female sex without success, expressing their tortures through nightmare and, in Anger’s case, raucously dangerous homoerotic fantasies. Their dreamlike encounters with their hidden selves reveal not only the struggle to engage with the opposite sex but demonstrate ritualized representations of the impossibility of that demand, ending in renunciation, sacrifice, and in symbolic if not actual death.
You might describe Schmitz’s Voices as a kind of blueprint of the four works, while also representing its most cautious depiction of the hero’s “other” desires. Indeed, Schmitz’s work seemingly is so heterosexually-oriented that a reader new to early LGBTQ experimentalist depictions might have difficulty reading the important subtext which defines the work as a gay one.
As in Fireworks a handsome young
man is laying shirtless in bed, in Voices surrounded by Renaissance
drawings of muscular men instead of Anger’s endless
Suddenly we see him standing, still half-nude, walking toward a large set of doors, a crucifix held high in his right hand. At one point just outside the doors, he pauses, bringing the crucifix closer to him and examining it as if to check out if it is working as if it might be a device controlled by a battery that may need replacing. I say this, obviously, a bit jocularly, but is our third major clue among a series of almost humorous signs that point to the real concerns of this narrative. The beauty of the boy, the nude drawings and reproductions which surround him, and now his need to know whether the crucifix actually holds the power to protect him almost as if he were intending to slay a vampire are all clues that any gay reader would need to immediately perceive that our handsome hero is a gay man terrified, almost as in a horror story, what might lie just beyond those foreboding doors, which soon open up of their own accord, he entering into the darkness within. There seems, thankfully to be nothing there as the camera focuses on a nearby plant and the wallpaper of the room, panning over to the now empty bed upon which he was previously writhing in his troublesome sleep.
The camera cuts to a scene in which the young man, still half naked, looks into a mirror, apparently a bit like Narcissus approving of what he sees there. Yet a second later he holds a knife in his hand directing it at the image in the mirror, almost licking it with strange animal reverence.
The screen goes dark before we return to the scene of him thrashing about on the gurney now in a sweat. Slowly the body begins to rise out of itself—very much like the scenes we observe in gay photographer Duane Michael’s double exposures, his “The Fallen Angel,” or the works in which he summons queer spirits—while in the distance this other self observes a woman with a white dress and small head vail approaching him, touching his face gently. He reaches to her as if in an attempt to kiss her, but she breaks away and backs off as the spiritual body returns to the physical one. Obviously, this troubled soul is perfectly comfortable about heterosexual sex in spirit, but cannot engage with it through the body. His potential bride moves away gradually shifting into the vague blur in which he she first appeared to us.
The scene now shifts, as our young man, fully dressed is seen on the street, walking, smiling as he moves toward the camera, which pans down to show a woman lying on the ground who our now swaggering young hero walks past as the camera continues to further pull down to her feet.
Slowly the boy begins to climb a nearby fire escape ladder, moving in labor up and up much like the character climbing the stairs in Harrington’s Picnic. Almost in slow motion and as if in a trance he continues climbing until he reaches a window, sneaking a peak at a woman who is busy putting the final touches to her dress suit. In a nearby window he witnesses another woman undressing, taking off her watch, a decorative flower from her hair, and her blouse before sitting on the bed naked. She quickly puts on a negligee and crawls into bed as the screen goes black.
Finally reaching what appears to be a stream or a small lake the man, naked to the waist of his suit pants walks directly into the water, moving forward until he gradually begins to sink out of sight with only his crucifix remaining for a moment above the water until that too disappears.
Whether or not the hero has actually committed suicide or it is just another “voice” calling out to him, representing a kind of imaginative or symbolic suicide, it is nonetheless a kind of death.
A couple of years earlier in 1955 noted critic Jonas Mekas had delivered a screed against the infantility of experimental film, describing it as a kind of “conspiracy of homosexuality.” He described the typical work of which he was speaking in a way that might fit any of the four films to which I am referring:
“The external theme of these films is a young frustrated
man...a youngster tragically aware (in his eighteenth year
or so) that he can’t “be one with the world.”
Escapism, unresolved frustrations, sadism and cruelty,
fatalism and juvenile pessimism are the fundamental and
recurrent themes of these films. The protagonists seem to
live under a strange spell. They do not appear to be part
of the surrounding world, despite many naturalistic details
that we find in these films. They are exalted, tormented,
not related in any comprehensible way to society or place
or family or any person.”
It’s rather amazing how precisely Mekas was able to characterize these and other such films, in which we might even include A.J. Rose’s Penis of 1965, although by that time the trope had begun to incorporate a notable sense of parody. Mekas has certainly, to hammer it in with the old cliché, “hit the nail on the head.”
But rather than seeing this as something deplorable, as somehow interfering with the growth and development of experimental cinema, I would argue that for their slowly developing LBGTQ audiences the pattern Mekas discerned was, in fact, these films' very strength. US experimental cinema had accidently stumbled upon a kind of midway between the French gay friction of the tough and dirty depictions of gay life as represented by Jean Genet and the prettifying images of gay men by François Reichenbach. By laying their homosexual characters out on a kind of Freudian couch, Anger, Carrington, Markopoulos, and Schmidt were able to explore and reveal the angst of LGBTQ figures in the years following World War II, when gays and lesbians because of their sexual desires were indeed locked outside of “society or place or family or any [normative] person[al relationship],” forced to live the life almost of a peeping-tom, having to live lives outside the society into which they were born looking in. If they were absolutely under the strange spell of the same-sex body, which at moments is an absolutely exalting and exciting condition in which to find oneself, the torments of the society at large—the sense of displacement in which one discovers oneself, the self-doubts that arise from feelings of abnormality, and the mockery, familial rejection, and possible imprisonment that results does not exactly permit an open expression of any joy discovered by coming to terms with one’s sexual being.
Finally, in order to accept those contrarian sexual desires one has indeed to sacrifice the values and sureties upon which most from birth have come to depend. To accept the powerful urges and emotions tugging on the LGBTQ individual, as surely as a religious believer, who has to give up his past life in order to be reborn in another “body and soul” so to speak. The deep sleeps and deaths that the central figures of these films endure represent the lengths—abandonment, hanging out with strange individuals, and various attempts at poisoning--one had to go to be kissed and awakened into a new world like Disney’s Snow White. Any gay, lesbian, or transsexual knows that you have to die in order to come alive again, recognizing that it is necessary to abandon what everyone around him believes in if she wants to accept the self as wonderfully different and sacrosanct.
We can now recognize in these early works the structures and tropes of what in the 1980s will become the "coming out" or "coming of age" genre. If that genre now shows its characters often joyfully coming to terms with the difficulties of LBGTQ sexuality, these early figures had far fewer positive models to help them to find happiness, and the society in general was far harsher in its judgments. These earlier versions might be described almost as variant C-1 of the later C-2 works centered on coming to terms with gay sexuality of the late 1990s by filmmakers such as Hattie Macdonald, Simon Shore, and David Moreton.
It’s almost hilarious, in the end, to note that Schmidt’s almost impenetrable gay myth—numerous viewers gay and straight have been unable to recognize this as a homosexual story—was confiscated along with Anger’s Fireworks by the Los Angeles Police Department Vice Squad on the day of their October 1957 showing. We can only wonder what the police made of their viewing? I’d guess they saw it as a film promoting pretty boy peeping-toms.
Los Angeles, April 3, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (April 2021).