Thursday, May 6, 2021

Jerry Tartaglia | Ecce Homo

reclaiming desire

by Douglas Messerli

Jerry Tartaglia (director) Ecco Homo / 1989

One of the most important films released at the very height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s was Jerry Tartaglia’s experimental film, Ecco Homo. Not only did Tartaglia, as Vito Russo argued, “reclaim desire in the age of A.I.D.s,” but through his film set out not only to untangle the impossible web in which homosexual cinema and gay porno found itself entwined, but to dissociate those who claimed the power through guns and governmental authority to determine what sexual images and behavior were permissible and those who actually held that power through their communal desire depicted in the images they are watching for very different reasons.

      As his base image, Tartaglia borrows the frames of the guard watching his prisoners have sex through the “stonewall” in which there is a slit for observation and feeding in Jean Genet’s important gay prison film Un Chant d’Amour (1950). The guard watching in Genet’s film becomes a symbol of the police who determined to close down the New York bar Stonewall in 1969 and the police and their surrogates represented in this work as the “doctor” who watch over gay events and films to determine whether people will be permitted to view them with perhaps some of the same “pornographic” desires the guard in Genet’s work. But the actual “personal” desire as expressed in the sex of Genet’s prisoners, the men who have sex in gay porno films, and by those gay men who watch the porno films out of desire is where the true power lies despite those who attempt to usurp it, as the events at Stonewall in 1969 made apparent.

       Tartaglia does not claim that this desire is “safe” nor even suggest that it should be; indeed because it is perceived of as impermissible by those who desire neither the gay bodies nor the sex it details, all gay sex, real or observed is unsafe; but once more in that very fact its enactment is a representation of power that Tartaglia demands that the gay world reclaim.

        His “preposterously” inverted film reveals this through several methods, first by his recitation of a mad mass-like incantation, with Gertrude Steinian logic, chanted with the musical accompaniment of something like a Gregorian chant by monks. While focusing on the Genet image of the guard peeping in the cell, the director overlays what the guard observes in his prisoners’ sexual activities with gay footage of men having sex from porn films, tinted various colors—purple, green, red, blue, yellow, and sometimes in the original colors or black-and-white—which render the images of men with their penis’ inserted to men’s asses and penis’ endlessly spouting semen almost as something like Hallmark greeting cards. No matter how shocked heterosexual onlookers—the doctor, the women and others who might make up any such board of decency—might be when realizing what is being portrayed, they cannot help but recognize them as standing apart from whatever one might describe as pornography: “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.”

     And Tartaglia’s wonderful verbal narrative with its endlessly shifting sense of logic as it unweaves the idea of power and its actuality takes the mind on a flight of alternating logic and illogicalness of any “others” making a decision about what an already “marginalized” and “disappeared” society might or might not see.

       The text is so brilliantly loopy in its logic that it has often been reprinted, which I feel the need to do again here, just so if you haven’t previously, you might experience it’s philosophical equivalents of “pulling out the rug from ‘those in authority’s’ feet.:

          I am watching a segment of Genet’s film, in which the guard is watching

          the men, and when he removes the gun from inside his jacket, he puts the

          gun in the mouth of one of the men and then I am watching two 

          men kissing each other on the mouth and then I am watching homo sex 

          and I am seeing men having homo sex and watching the guard having 

          the gun having sex and watching the film with homo sex, I see the men 

          and I watch how they have homo sex in the porno film which the cop said

          was Genet’s film and the cop with the gun was porno and they said when 

          Stonewall was with the cops and the gun, and the film was porno and they 

          said Stonewall was porno and they said the men were not men and the 

          women were not women, and the men with the women were not porno, 

          and the film with the men kissing on the lips was porno and the cop who 

          was watching the film was a doctor who was watching the film which 

          was not safe porno because it was not safe to be watching a film with a 

          doctor who was a cop in a film of the men having sex which was porno 

          when they said Stonewall was porno, which was not the film they desired 

        to watch, when the film of desire was the film of men having homo sex in 

        the film with the men, and this man, and this man, and their desire which 

        was burning in the film, and the homo sex of the cop who was watching 

        the police, who have the power, and the doctors, who are the men with the 

        women, which is not porno, which is what they said was Stonewall, which 

        was the film with the women and the men who were not the men with the

       women, which was not porno, when Stonewall was power which was 

       personal and not porno when it was never really safe for porno which 

       was in the film in which a cop was watching with a gun when the men 

       were having sex with the men, and when personal desire is power when 

       it is unsafe to be watching porno with a doctor who is not Stonewall 

       and a cop who is not porno, who is watching men having sex with men, 

       which is not safe if personal desire is power and the doctor with the power 

       watches the cop in the film by Genet, which was not porno, and the 

       doctor watches the power which is unsafe and the porno, which 

       is the cop watching with the gun which is in the film which is Genet, 

       who was Stonewall, which was not safe when desire is power, and the

       doctor and the power are watching us watch the film with the men and the

       homosex and the personal desire which is power in the film with the 

        Stonewall homo sex, which is not the doctor and the cop, which is not 

        porno, in the film with the strength of the person and the sex which is 

        power in the film which is unsafe when the doctor is power and the person 

        with the sex, when the men and the men have homo sex and desire the love 

        which is in the film which was Stonewall which was not safe, which was 

        power, which was in the film which is not safe to watch, when the doctor 

        is the power with the cop, and the film which is not porno is safe, which is 

        not Stonewall, and the men who love the men who desire in the film which 

        is power, which is Stonewall, are the men who are alive, which is power 

        which is not safe, when desire is not safe, which is the doctor who is power 

        with the cop, in the film which is Stonewall, which was not safe, which is 


     After a pause to savor the multiplying images the director is presenting, the verbal narrative returns as a two-short line summation which might almost be described as the Mixolydian and Hypomixolydian modes of the final phrases of the Gregorian chant:

           Personal desire is power. Reclaim our desire, reclaim our power.

           Collective desire is power. Reclaim our desire, reclaim our power.

     Coming after more than a year and a half of the sad news of death after death of members of the LGBTQ community—Tartaglia himself working intensely on three important A.I.D.S cinematic screeds gathered as The A.I.D.S. Trilogy (1988-1990), A.I.D.S.C.R.E.A.M (1988), Ecce Homo (1989), and Final Solutions (1990)--this work speaks as almost a joyous invocation of gay body and sexual desire at the heart of LGBTQ filmmaking. Tartaglia, as he himself proclaims, was less interested in pushing a queer normative story which by this was becoming more and more popular to diffuse the fears of the heterosexual community over their associations with the LGBTQ community and disease. Rather, his was an aesthetic that accentuated the differences. As he wrote:

 “I am not very interested in creating narrative forms, which generally are used to show how gay people are supposed to become lavender carbon copies of straight people. Instead, I work with short, personal, experimental forms which explore and celebrate another kind of conscious human identity.”

     In the decades long debate in the gay community between Genet and François Reichenbach, Tartaglia had emphatically chosen the former.

Los Angeles, May 6, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).


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