Sunday, August 25, 2013

Desire and Difference: Hidden in Plain Sight

Emerging from the distant darkness, a glowing young man walks toward the foreground wearing a white shirt and tan pants. He is carrying some sort of stick or staff aloft in the air. Waiting in the foreground is a shirtless young man with his arms outstretched in a peculiar angle.

What is happening here? The image evokes such a strong sense of sweet hungry anticipation.

It turns out the story of this particular image was not hard to uncover. It comes from a film made in 1949 by Gregory J. Markopoulos, a 21 year old gay man. A little bit about the filmmaker before we get to Christmas USA...

Rarely seen and nearly forgotten, Markopoulos' films were once compared to the works of Joyce, Proust, and Einstein. --Kristin M. Jones, ArtForum

Markopolous was born in Toledo Ohio and raised by immigrant Greek parents. He started making movies when he was 12 years old with a borrowed 8mm silent movie camera. His work has been described as "dreamlike, dialogue-free mini dramas, filled with images of myth and symbol, and highlighted by conspicuously attractive young men" and "...shows excessive scenes of homosexuality and nudity [including] closeups, in color and often protracted, of such things as a male nipple, a painted and coiffured male head, a buttock, and two-shots of a facially inert girl and boy." 

How shocking, indeed. [n.b. sarcasm] 

The 1950s and 1960s (and 70s, 80s, 90s, and...) were a horrifically oppressive time for anyone who experienced same sex love and attraction. To that point, observe the quote in To Free the Cinema written by Andrew Sarris:

Markopolous ... is a really nasty, unpleasant person, who really plays hardball, really gets angry, vicious about things, because of this homosexual thing. 

Markopolous responded to his critics by calling them "soulless morons" and asked that his films be removed from American distribution. Markopolous was a gay filmmaker attempting to depict gay people and their lives on screen at a time when being deep within the closet was de rigueur. It couldn't have been very easy for him.

The average man is destroying beauty. The average man no longer looks into another man's eyes. Everyone is afraid . . . sometimes I think the only way to save the United States is by going somewhere else--just as the ancient Greek philosophers fled to Asia Minor and Italy. --Gregory Markopolous

Once hailed as "the American avant-garde-cinema's supreme erotic poet," Markopolous (March 12, 1928-November 20, 1992) nearly vanished from the American consciousness by his own volition. After prohibiting all his films from distribution in 1967, Markopoulos and his lover, filmmaker Robert Beavers, left the U.S for Greece. The couple also refused interviews and demanded a chapter on  Markopolous be removed from P. Adams Sitney's book Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde.

It wasn't until after Markopolous died in 1992 that Beavers allowed his partner's work to be shown in the United States.

Christmas U.S.A is not a primarily erotic film. It contains no nudity (unless shirtless men is considered nudity), no lingering looks at nipples (okay, maybe a couple nip slips here and there), and no depictions of sex (okay, maybe a little suggestive hunger). Instead it offers a look at the painful repression people with same sex desire experienced in the late 1940s and early 50s. There is an equal amount of shimmering excitement of desire. 

As the movie starts, we watch as our main character moves through a dream sequence of a carnival, alone and hidden in plain sight among the rides, freak shows, and passing crowds. In another scene, we see our main character, a clean cut young man, shaving in the bathroom mirror. In another series of dream like images, we see a reflection of himself emerge from the forest like a woodland fairy dressed in a flowing kimono. Two worlds collide when our clean cut boy communicates with his inner woodland fairy on the phone. Desire and difference  hidden in plain sight.

We move on and meet our character's family. A rather worn out looking mother, busy performing the domestic rituals expected of a woman in this era. A prim looking sister, reading a comic book suggesting the traditional roles expected of women. A father in his chair, barely able to contain his fear (or contempt) for his youthful shirtless son.

Our protagonist strips, sits in the tub, and closes his eyes. There is a hint of sensuality and sexuality in the air. The door knob rattles and we are reminded of the fear of being discovered, being exposed, being found out to be homosexual. 

Our young protagonist embarks on a journey carrying a candle aloft in the air across town, over train tracks, and under a bridge. He finally encounters a shirtless young man standing motionless with his hands outstretched. The young boy bows before the statue and we are left with the sense that some sort of connection happened. 

Hidden and exposed. Safe and vulnerable. Take the time to watch this 13 minute film with all its subtle details and moments. As far as I know, this is the first positive depiction of gay people in the movies.

The original film was silent. Music, composed by Larry Marotta, was added by someone at a later date. 

Christmas, U.S.A. (1949) from Sbignew Rustaveli on Vimeo.
directed by Gregory Markopoulos

Read more about Gregory Markopoulos here, here, here, here, here, and here.

For more images of vintage men and their relationships (some gay, some straight) visit: Vintage Men: Innocence Lost | The Photography of William GedneyIt's Only a Paper Moon;Vintage Gay America: Crawford BartonThese Men Are Not Gay | This Is Not A Farmer | DisfarmerDesire and Difference: Hidden in Plain SightCome Make Eyes With Me Under the Anheuser BushHugh Mangum: Itinerant PhotographerTwo men, Two PosesPhotos are Not Always What They SeemVintage Sailors: An Awkward RealizationThree Men on a HorseWelkom Bar: Vintage Same Sex MarriagePretty in Pink: Two Vintage Chinese MenMemorial Day Surprise: Vintage Sailor LoveMemorial Day: Vintage Dancing SailorsThe Curious Case of Two Men EmbracingThey'll Never Know How Close We WereVintage Love: Roger Miller Pegram,Manly Affections: Robert GantHomo Bride and Groom Restored to DignityThe Men in the TreesThe Girl in the OuthouseTommy and Buzz: All My Love,Men in Photo Booths, and Invisible: Philadelphia Gay Wedding c. 1957. You can also follow me on Tumblr.

No comments:

Post a Comment