discovering the tactics of gay survival
by Douglas Messerli
Ron Rice (screenwriter and director) The Flower Thief / 1960
The Flower Thief (1960) declares its difference from the opening credits picturing a string of long ribbons, tacked to the side of a derelict wooden building, blowing in the wind, the camera panning down, up, left, and right to visit the credits on small pieces of cardboard or paper tacked up to the building’s wall. We are no clearly no longer in the realm of “normal” filmmaking. The images of the narrative of this work are captured almost on the sly and its narrative, which fits into no single cinematic genre, appears to be something developed almost by spontaneous chance.
But our San Francisco denizen seems to be a total innocent bordering on a mentally challenged street person who smilingly goes about his journey, at times walking down the middle of the street and at other times clinging closely to the walls of buildings as he makes his way down the sidewalks, almost gleefully stealing a single flower from a streetside vendor.
And for much of the rest of the film he participates in a series of episodes that present him almost like a tourist to the Bay city. He begins his day, with the camera tagging along, by visiting an art show, watching young Chinese-American children on the street, stealing yet another flower which he awards to a baby in a stroller, and attending a poetry reading by San Francisco black poet Bob Kaufman—often described as the American Rimbaud—at a jazz bar, the poet reading from his texts in the audio background while we spot our hero later grooving to the jazz rhythms. The Beats, including the homosexual declarations of Allen Ginsberg, are clearly part of his world.
We soon see Mead back on the street, breaking through a glass window in a large vacant powerhouse in which all the other windows already appear to have been broken. The voice-over seems to represent someone decrying the current prison system as he demands that all criminals receive psychiatric attention. This, in fact, becomes a kind of sub-theme throughout the work, as we see our hero and others, themselves perhaps psychologically “outsider” individuals, bedding down in quite derelict structures. If nothing else, there is a sense throughout this film of the differences of those who are an active part of the normative society and those, like our central figure and his cohorts, who exist on the outside with few if any constraints.
As our flower thief wanders through the
empty space, the beginning of “Afternoon of a Faun” is played, as if he were on
the verge of new encounter, but the music soon darkens as he discovers a door
lying on the floor which, when he opens it, revealing a underground crawl space
Our friend picks up the abandoned bear, taking it up as his companion for much of the rest of the movie. Clearly the meandering “thief” is not the only abandoned structure’s denizen. The “thief” runs into the old bathroom whereupon he discovers a urinal lying on the floor, recalling quite obviously Duchamp’s famed artwork. Mead takes up a toilet brush and proceeds to scrub the teddy bear’s bottom and neck before he kisses it, pats its knap into place and waddles away with it, as if it were his beloved child, looking through the cracked windows upon a nearby painter at work and piles of lumber strewn wherever you look. It is certainly akin to the destroyed world that faced Willard Maas’ central figure in his film Image in the Snow, and we now come to perceive that if this character’s world is not precisely a version “A” narrative of a gay “coming out” story, it is most certainly close to it, the place in which the character now finds himself being a world without access to women and children in which he lies outside of conventional reality. If director Ron Rice’s hero has survived the terrifying “revelation” of his sexuality, we still must ask at what cost. If he is not imprisoned, he lives in a kind of prison of his own making and is still perceived by the society (and the viewers of this film) has being in need of psychological help.
And, as if to prove that point, Mead suddenly falls into the pique of anger, after rocking the bear to sleep suddenly tossing him away and breaking up a nearby crate upon which he was sitting. The tokens of family and home are clearly not enough to replace the realities they represent.
Suddenly a mass of other men come running his way, Mead picking up his bear and running off as a large man (Eric Nord) chases him. He jumps into the basement entry which the man cannot apparently fit in, the “thief” popping up a few feet away through the flooring to mock him.
A heavily bearded elder looks into the dark confines of the building with a look of disapproval, while the camera focuses now on a seeming wall of imprisoned men, a poet now reading a poet about how “mankind must be set free.”
Apparently what was perceived of as the windows of a prison are the structure’s upper wire-laced windows, and the men, obviously now also denizens of the abandoned powerhouse, move downstairs into the main floor, performing a theatrical-like piece that begins with what appears as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man who is pulled out of his universal circle and carried by the six men, calling up the image of a pietà, before they set him and down and push him forward, seeming to scourge him as in Christ’s march to Gethsemane bearing the cross. Some of the men grab up the large metal cross-like figure and run up a small incline to implant at the top, visually playing out the planting of the US flag at Iwo Jima while at the same time signifying the uprighting of the cross for the Crucifixion.
Over a period of just a few cinematic moments, Rice calls up the Da Vinci work, the Pietà image central to Kenneth Anger’s Firecrackers (just prior to removing the man from his circle, the men are all holding sparkling firecrackers in their hands), the iconic act of American bravery on Iwo Jima (a few moments before this Mead himself was waving a small US flag), and finally Christ’s cross, while also hinting of scenes of the Red flag raising in Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World—a vision encouraged by the musical accompaniment of Dimitri Shostakovich’s score for the Eisenstein film of 1928.
The endeavors of all these displaced men and one woman who appears soon after, to survive in a world hostile to their existence is clear for the director is clearly a combination of heroic and spiritual acts. In honor of their achievement the men set fire to a broom held aloft as if they were celebrating the death of the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. The Viruvian Man which they have crucified, after all, is the same representative of normality who mocked their outsider society a few frames earlier.
In homoerotic relief the men strip themselves of their shirts slapping them against one another as in a pillow fight, mock wrestling, and swinging from some of the ropes hanging from the high ceilings in obvious masculine pleasure.
Our shyer hero takes his reclaimed teddy on a wagon ride for a hilarious night on the town as he takes in an ice-skating show, rides a mechanical horse like a jockey, and dances alone in manner than might make even the loose-jointed Groucho Marx jealous. He ends the evening by also setting a broom afire. The imaginary witch haunting their imaginations has clearly been slain.
While the men, meanwhile, engage in some heterosexual roughhousing with the new resident woman—who quickly chalks up her sexual conquests, at one moment even attempting, unsuccessfully, to snare Mead’s character—the flower thief feeds his black cat and introduces the pet to his newly acquired bear, without much success.
Time passes, and our hero feels the “autumn leaves” accumulating (the accompanying song referencing them) and considers, quite comically what he might want to get out and see in the real world that various billboards announce, “Ice Skate or look!,” “Dolls of the World,” “3 ½ Acres of Indoor Amazement,” “The Lord’s Last Supper,” and “Tooth Pick Carnival.” Our thief choses to return to nature, carrying two packages of what appear to be food for lunch as he madly begins to pick wildflowers, putting them as usual to his nose to smell their perfumes.
A kind of crisis evolves, signified by arriving fire trucks and police signaling which way and when people should move, the last of which our confused hero mocks by imitating their hand movements behind their backs. Yet he even spends a day with a beautiful woman obviously in an attempt to return to normality. The day ends, however, with the same large man chasing him as before, evidently demanding orthodoxy of some sort which the free-wheeling flower thief, evidenced by a wild ride down San Francisco’s hilly streets in his wagon while holding his teddy bear, is unable to provide.
Finally, our hero is captured by two vigilante cowboys and taken into a paper hall of justice where he is evidently sentenced to be shot. Tied up to a flag outside of the courthouse, he is shot—with the sound of a pop-gun and car backfiring—and falls dead. Yet soon after we see him running out the real hall of justice, having evidently escaped.
Exasperated, he visits the Giant Camera Shop, a store in the shape of a giant camera, attempting to rewind the fate Rice’s movie has so far doled him out. He falls exhaustedly to sleep in the hind curve of a large stone lion, the proverbial lamb have lain down with the beast.
He has at last reached the ocean, stopping in a small slot-machine arcade at the ocean’s edge where he meets a handsome young man to the strain’s of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for a New Man. When the boy leaves the game parlor, our hero follows him and eventually the two meet up enjoying the evening at the beachside amusement park merry-go-round. In the morning they walk for a bit along the shore, a boat in the distance seeming to come toward them, as if the proverbial “boat has come in.”
We see only the “thief” alone after that, but we know something significant has finally occurred in his life. He has, if nothing else, had a date with a lovely young man. He too, he now realizes, is now a gay man who can find his way in the world with the love and help of others.
As director, Rice has done something rather remarkable in this work. Playing out the basic patterns of the “A” version gay “coming out” or “coming of age” film, Rice has seemingly created a kind of improvisatory picaresque that embraces the works of notable gay figures from Genet (who, if you recall, was a “book thief”) Ginsberg, Rimbaud, Da Vinci, Nijinsky, Eisenstein, Copland, and others, while referencing nearly all the films of his gay peers including Anger, Maas, Schmitz, Harrington, Markopoulos, and even the gay literary and cinematic touchstones such as Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, in order to demonstrate a way out of the bleak vision of gay survival in the early pre-Stonewall years. Here the gay individual’s struggle to survive as exemplified in the form of the brilliantly awkward and intellectually unpredictable actor Taylor Mead, is a comic adventurer who while encountering danger and painful setbacks creates a meaningful if eccentric life in which there no need to symbolically undergo a kind of spiritual death or suicide. After his magical night on the beach, we can only hope our comic fool hurries home to stumble back into our lives once again, deserving now every flower which we can put in his hand or strew through his hair. Rice has created a newborn hero out of a gay cinematic tradition that has suddenly become aware of itself.
Los Angeles, May 31, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (May 2021).