Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Through the Past Queerly

Representations of sexual preference or orientation are complex processes in the cinema. From the classic scene in the Maltese Falcon in which Humphrey Bogart, having knocked Joel Cairo out, removes and sniffs Peter Lorre’s pocket square – scented, one might recall, with gardenias – to the more complex inferences of queer identity in films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, what emerges is a visual language that is both expressed and sublimated at precisely the same time.

I begin here because when one encounters the film works and installations of Christopher Lowther, one enters, perhaps unexpectedly, into this non-verbal language of sexual desire. His works explore the subtleties, both reflected and constructed, between seemingly straightforward imagery, if I can use the term, to the constructions of motivation in works such as A Queer Shadow, Rope Reconstructed, and Rebel Love.

Begin, however, with Cowboy Cruising. Here, we encounter the climactic scene from Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The scene, which will be familiar to many readers, consists of a gunfight that takes place on a flat stone piazza in a cemetery.

The protagonists glance towards each other, tracking a pattern from eyes to hands to guns, looking for the telltale moment at which one will draw on the others. In Cowboy Cruising, Lowther has dissociated the glances from their original contexts, reconfigured them, and created a language of visual selection, or, a cruise.

Perhaps the most unspoken element of his deconstruction is the unspoken homoerotic element that had been sublimated throughout the film. One encounters it subtly, from the nickname given to Lee Van Cleef, “Angel Eyes”, to the sharing of a cigar between Eastwood’s Man with No Name and a wounded union soldier. But when the action is limited merely to the movements that take place in the cemetery, one experiences a clearly delineated language of the casual encounter.

Lowther explains that his motivation for this reconfiguration came while reading Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys, a book exploring erotic male friendships from the nineteenth century. What Queer Cowboys does is explore the terrain of the male friendship, particularly that of the cowboy and his sidekick, and the apparent, though usually unspoken bond that unites the two. I should state here that Lowther began his creative investigations prior to Brokeback Mountain’s appearance, which in many senses merely served to reposition the historical into the present. At a deeper level, Lowther explains, “I think those cinematic instances in which there is a possibility of re-contextualizing something intended as heterosexual or for heterosexual audiences are special because they offer access to something that usually excludes us[.]”

One might think of the bond that unites The Man with No Name with Tuco, the sidekick played by Eli Wallach. Time and again we encounter the two, with Tuco hanging at the end of a rope, and Eastwood responsible for his freedom.

Finally, one might consider the absent phallus, the object of their desire, which is, in a sense, made evident by the missing digit on Lee Van Cleef’s hand, which transforms into that something other than a hand which is moving slowly across his belt. Taken both in and out of context, what we encounter are a group of men, glancing furtively at each other, watching slowly as each moves a hand across his belt. Given this description, in the absence of the accompanying story, one could only reach the conclusion that they were cruising each other.

This serves to reposition both the story and the subjects. What Lowther does, in this moment, is shift the discourse to that of the sexualization of the space. One might recall that, after having been left to hang in the cemetery yet again, Wallach (who is slowly being asphyxiated, and, one must assume erotically) calls out to Eastwood that his mother is a…but the music swells and the word is obliterated, obliterating the idea of woman at the same time.

This inability to speak is not evident in Lowther’s next project, the conceptually and architecturally adventurous Rope Reconstructed. The work explores the hidden spaces of homosexuality in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Rope itself was a complex film, famous in part for Hitchcock’s uses of architecture and set design which allowed for the film to be shot in a series of continuous takes. For Lowther, however, the significance of the film lay not in the architecture of the space, but in the psychoanalytical space of gay experience.

If you are unfamiliar with the film, its plot, at the most basic level, revolves around two men, Brandon and Phillip, a gay couple, who engage in the murder of one of their classmates. Their motivation comes, in part, from a statement a former prep school teacher had made about the perfect murder, and their misguided interpretations of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy and the idea of the overman. In the stage version of the play, written by Patrick Hamilton, the relationhip between the characters is evident, but in Hitchcock’s version it is simply implied.

As a result, Lowther conceptualized a visual extension to scene that Hitchcock has revealed. He commissioned a scale model of the apartment, and included their shared bedroom, an architectural element that never appears in the film. As he rightly observes, this second bedroom is crucial to the late-1940s ambiguity of their sexuality, remarking that “[o]ne bedroom would be suspicious, but a second bedroom has the ability to project the image of platonic living arrangements, as long as the details of the bedroom confirm this convincingly.” Their relationship is, with hindsight, evident throughout the film, but only made apparent through subtleties like an alarm clock on each bedside table.

In Rope Reconstructed, we become complicit voyeurs who are witnessing a scene that takes place before the arrival of their victim. We see them packing for a trip, and what we encounter is the seed of their homicidal event. Philip goads Brandon with suggestions of a dalliance, in a sense taunting him with suggestions of sex, but Brandon inverts the veiled threat, creating something entirely more menacing.
The work itself is a three-channel projection in which we encounter Brandon and Philip speaking to each other as if across their shared bed. This hidden object is in fact the signifier of their closeted relationship. I am reminded here of Georges Bataille, writing in Erotism: Death and Sensuality, where he remarks:

[m]en as discontinuous beings try to maintain their separate existences, but death, or at least the contemplation of death, brings them back to continuity.

The implication here is that Brandon and Philip experience a disconnect between their actual lives and their outward manifestations of a closeted life. As a result, this disconnect becomes manifest in an action that provides them with a sense of agency. This is not no suggest that this is either a moral imperative or the only way they could have regained the experience of continuity, but Bataille does suggest that this taboo action creates an experience in which everyone who remains experiences a continuity in which everything is united.

The challenge stems from the competing modes of interpretation. The moral imperative is that the crime that has been committed is wrong, and it obviously is. In the film, this action is partially mitigated by the protagonists’ interpretations of Nietzschean philosophy, and this nihilism is, in part, certainly echoed by Bataille. Lowther creates a motivation, cinematically, and he creates a socially and sexually charged space architecturally. It is the responsibility of viewers to understand the distinctions between the two.

Questions of a shift from interior, domestic space to exterior, sexualized space, inform A Queer Shadow, Lowther’s single projection interactive installation. It explores the spaces of being followed, or shadowed, with the allure or horror that the experience brings. The act itself is ambiguous, prefiguring both horror and delight, from the terror of gay-bashing to the delight of anonymous sexual encounters. Lowther remarks that “[f]or my purposes I am interested in situating the project on the edge between knowing and not knowing.”

The cinematic experience is drawn predominantly from film noir. Lowther was exploring the space of the detective, and situating the experience historically. For gay men, this is not unexpected, particularly given the oscillating relationships many homosexuals have with the authorities. History recounts a legacy of harassment and arrest for sexual orientation and sexual practice. So in A Queer Shadow, the figure that is following the viewer is both threatening and enticing at precisely the same moment. And in a culture in which the language of cruising has been adopted by police departments as a method of targeting gay men and limiting their dalliances, the work is entirely undecideable. Lowther has stated, “the vagueness and open-interpretation that the shadow motif provides are the essential ingredients of re-contextualizing noir for queer purposes.”

What we experience is a coded exterior space, a space in which one encounters a pick-up machine, to borrow a phrase from Guy Hocquenghem. As he observes, “[h]omosexual encounters do not take place in the seclusion of a domestic setting, but outside, in the open air, in forests and on beaches.” So when Lowther creates what, to the casual observer, appears to be an innocent scene, he is instead representing the experience and language of cruising.

What is significant is that it is a coded language. Men familiar with its nuances are able to decode its subtle meanings, and draw a range of meanings from even the slightest gesture.

Turn, finally, to Rebel Love: A Woman Scorned, in which Lowther deconstructs Nicholas Ray’s classic film Rebel Without a Cause. Widely regarded as having the most overtly homosexual subtext of any of James Dean’s films, Rebel Love: A Woman Scorned recuts and recontextualizes the work to make this more apparent.

For those unfamiliar with Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean, in his final film, plays the young Jim Stark, who has just moved to a new town. There he encounters the attention of both Plato, played by Sal Mineo, and Judy, played by Natalie Wood. Although perhaps not overt at the time, Mineo’s character is gay, suggested often, but subtly, as Roger Ebert has noted:

at the planetarium, he touches his shoulder caressingly. After Buzz dies when his car hurtles over the cliff, the students all seem curiously -- well, composed. Jim gives Plato a lift home and Plato asks him, "Hey, you want to come home with me? I mean, there's nobody home at my house, and heck, I'm not tired. Are you?" But Jim glances in the direction of Judy's house, and then so does Plato, ruefully.

To highlight these instances, Lowther has created a two channel installation in which all the scenes with Jim Stark and Plato are played on one monitor, and the scenes of Judy, alone, are on another. What we encounter is a double longing, one in which James Dean is unable to direct his desires towards the expected object of his affection. By removing Judy, Lowther brings to the fore the issues inherent in the histories of gay representation, grounded in the belief that these images should tell the stories that had previously been denied.

Cinematically, this repressed desire and the fact that it is thwarted, what we might describe as Plato’s inability to consummate his relationship with Jim is signified, in part, by the fact that he has a gun that should, but can’t, fire. Near the climax of the film, when Plato is shot, but apparently not killed by the police (leaving us to infer that homosexual desire is dangerous, perhaps, but not deadly) Jim shouts:

“But I’ve got the bullets! The gun was empty!”

and later asks the officers,

“What did you have to do that for?”

Plato is carried away on a stretcher, wounded, but not dead, and the film itself can climax in a swirl of acceptable heterosexuality, with Jim saying, “Mom, Dad, this is my friend Judy.”

As a creative artist, Christopher Lowther is not afraid to take risks. His is an ongoing interrogation of the creative practices that serve to hide issues of sexuality and desire. Whether through the deconstructions of unspoken narratives and subtexts, as found in works such as Cowboy Cruising or Rebel Love: A Woman Scorned, or through creative constructions of duplicitous desires, Lowther brings the questions of identity to the fore. His works are not based in repression or shame, but are, instead, challenges to admit and allow that these narratives exist and that their stories are both valid and valued. One might think finally of Rope Reconstructed, where Lowther seeks to unpack the travel chest of revulsion and bring a more understandable, more human face to questions of desire.

I am reminded here of an essay by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. While discussing Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams, he suggested that censorship is not resistance. What he meant by that phrase was that the mere exclusion of something did nothing to alter its basic structure. Although he was writing about the interpretation of dreams, what he said I will modify only slightly here:

To say that identity is placed in a psychic locality is to say that it isn’t simply inscribed as the parenthesis of self. It is placed and defines itself in another locality, governed by different local laws, the place of the symbolic exchange, which is not to be confused, although it is embodied in it, with the spatio-temporal dimension in which we can locate all human behaviour. The structural laws of the dream, like those of language, are to be found elsewhere, in another locality, whether we call it psychic or not.

In Christopher Lowther’s works, then, we see the emergence of a subtext, an excavation, and interrogation of meanings. We see the subtleties of gesture and language made evident and manifest. We see desire, unspoken and unrequited. Each brings us towards a deeper understanding of the issues of queer identity, and each asks as many questions as it answers.

Christopher Lowther's exhibition Out of the Myth: Censorship and Film, continues through April 11th at the Visual Arts Gallery, The University of Alabama at Birmingham.

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