Published: July 2, 2002 By

[1]   In the early 1960s, a group of artists and filmmakers working primarily in New York City began to make and exhibit films that displayed the kind of willful excesses that would later define the decade as a period of cultural and sexual upheaval. For many audiences of the time, these films appeared to uncover previously hidden worlds–underground worlds– whose inhabitants eschewed 1960s American middle-class values. In fact, the makers of these films often encouraged audiences to regard their films as documentaries of subterranean communities. Kenneth Anger, for instance, has stated that his film Scorpio Rising (1963) documents the exploits of an actual motorcycle gang from Brooklyn (295). Meanwhile, Andy Warhol has presented his films as the records of real-life people involved in real-life events in real-life places: “I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie” (110). Hence, critics and audiences dubbed these films underground films and referred to those who made and appeared in them as denizens of this underground. In actuality, underground films were neither purely documentary nor purely fictional; instead, they borrowed from both approaches. They were fictional in that their makers staged the situations they recorded. Nevertheless, in accordance with their makers’ claims, these films were documentary as well: they recorded the spontaneous behaviors of performers who acknowledged both the artificiality of their dramatic situations and the presence of rolling cameras.

[2]   The fact that many underground filmmakers belonged to the very sub-cultures that they documented further confounds categories of fiction and documentary. By making films mostly about themselves, their friends, and each other, these filmmakers fostered an underground world whose raison d’être was largely their recording of it. Moreover, these filmmakers completed the reflexive loop by showing these films mostly to themselves, their friends and each other. Significantly, many of these underground filmmakers identified as male homosexuals, and their films openly explored male same-sex desire. Thus, these films arguably formed the first cinema made by, for and about male homosexuals. Indeed, several critics have equated the rise of the American underground cinema with the emergence of gay identity (Waugh 67-73, Suárez 260-262, Finch 112-117, and Dyer Now 102-173). Such a parallel, however, is a bit too neat. Although the two events are linked, the line from underground cinema to gay identity is, as one might imagine, far from straight. Rather than instituting the first gay-identified cinema, these films more accurately mark a pioneering moment for queer cinema, in keeping with the more contemporary usage of queer to mean sexualities that resist easy categorization.

[3]   Of these avant-garde filmmakers, Kenneth Anger was the most publicly and spectacularly queer. Before Jack Smith unveiled his first flaming creature and before Andy Warhol spied his first male nude superstar, Kenneth Anger’s 1947 Fireworks was tackling same-sex attraction in relation to sadomasochism, self-loathing, and anonymous sex in pubic toilets. Perhaps Anger’s most famous film, however, is his 1963 paean to motorcycles and leather, Scorpio Rising. David James notes, “Of all underground films, Scorpio Rising secured most notoriety and the widest circulation, and, much more than any other, it became itself a pop a cultural item” (155). Undoubtedly, much of the film’s general appeal lay in its unabashed celebration of American popular culture: Anger’s film exults in Top-40 songs, Sunday comic strips, Hollywood B-movies, and clippings from fan magazines, often juxtaposing these elements in startling ways. The film similarly revels in sexual imagery, particularly homosexual imagery. In fact,Scorpio Rising joins mass culture and queer desire in a way that opens up a space for considering how strategic appropriations of the former may give shape to the latter. This essay will show how in the early sixties, Scorpio Rising inaugurated innovative representations of same-sex desire through its cinematic juxtaposition of such mass-mediated images. Moreover, its montage often playfully foregrounds contradictory conceptions of same-sex desire that continue to influence our thinking about sexuality and identity today. Perhaps the best way to appreciateScorpio Rising‘s advances in queer representation is to review the state of homosexual visibility in popular culture upon the film’s initial release.

Homosexual Self-Representation

[4]   Audiences and critics of the 1960s could not help but notice the decidedly queer imagery that saturated underground films likeScorpio Rising. Nonetheless, they generally viewed this imagery with heterosexism and homophobia. In fact, the response of Jonas Mekas, the critic most responsible for the success and widespread fame of the underground cinema, proves the point. Here’s how Mekas describes these films’ depictions of same-sex desire in his 1963 Village Voice “Movie Journal” column:

These movies are illuminating and opening up sensibilities and experiences never before recorded in the American arts; a content which Baudelaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Rimbaud gave to world literature a century ago and which Burroughs gave to American literature three years ago. It is a world of flowers of evil, of illumination, of torn and tortured flesh; a poetry which is at once beautiful and terrible, good and evil, delicate and dirty.

A thing that may scare an average viewer is that this cinema is treading on the very edge of perversity. These artists are without inhibitions, sexual or any other kind. These are, as Ken Jacobs put it, “dirty mouthed” films. They all contain homosexual and lesbian elements. The homosexuality, because of its existence outside the official moral conventions, has unleashed sensitivities and experiences which have been at the bottom of much great poetry since the beginning of humanity. (85-86)

Here, Mekas rightly connects these films’ experimental styles to their then unprecedented displays of queer sexuality. Nevertheless, Mekas misrepresents the innovative familiarity with which these films approach same-sex desire. When Mekas announces that these films are “illuminating and opening up sensibilities and experiences never before recorded in the American arts” (85), his language suggests exotic images of an allegedly scary, aberrant, underground homosexuality. In short, he encourages audiences to view these films from the viewpoint of normative heterosexuality. His advisory obscures the fact that the cast-and-crew audiences attending Mekas’s late-night underground film screenings at the Charles Theater (and then the Bleeker Street Cinema, and later the Gramercy Arts Theater) were largely homosexual and probably found many of these images more amusing than disturbing.

[5]   With some qualifications, Mekas is nevertheless right to describe these films as rare glimpses into queer sub-cultures. His uncritical invocations of Baudelaire, the Marquis de Sade, Rimbaud, and Genet’s “world of flowers of evil” (85), however, suggest that these films attest to a homosexual demimonde that is somehow trans-historical and monolithic. Meanwhile, the films themselves, most particularly Scorpio Rising, reveal something else entirely. They show homosexuality located in a contested epistemological space at a very specific moment in time. In fact, they appear to meet several of the criteria for what the anthropologist George Marcus has termed modern ethnography. Marcus distinguishes modern ethnography from traditional ethnography by emphasizing how the former complicates, and often undermines, the distant observing gaze to which the latter aspires . By recognizing the similarities between those who study and those who are studied, Marcus proposes a reflexive ethnography that imagines its subjects and objects as equal partners in the existential project of constituting identity (43). In addition, Marcus explains that modern ethnography can break “with the trope of a settled community in realist ethnography” (43) in order to recognize cultures that claim no geographic territories. Thus, according to Marcus’s definition, underground film’s exploration of free-floating homosexual worlds easily qualifies as ethnographic work. Through these films, a group of homosexual men in New York in the 1960s were able to confront the problem of constituting identity by acting this process out for themselves on screen.Here, Mekas rightly connects these films’ experimental styles to their then unprecedented displays of queer sexuality. Nevertheless, Mekas misrepresents the innovative familiarity with which these films approach same-sex desire. When Mekas announces that these films are “illuminating and opening up sensibilities and experiences never before recorded in the American arts” (85), his language suggests exotic images of an allegedly scary, aberrant, underground homosexuality. In short, he encourages audiences to view these films from the viewpoint of normative heterosexuality. His advisory obscures the fact that the cast-and-crew audiences attending Mekas’s late-night underground film screenings at the Charles Theater (and then the Bleeker Street Cinema, and later the Gramercy Arts Theater) were largely homosexual and probably found many of these images more amusing than disturbing.

[6]   Moreover, underground film’s displays of homosexuality and Marcus’s modern ethnography likewise share a common dilemma: how does one use a representational system to express ideas that contradict this very system’s enabling assumptions? In the case of portraying homosexual desire, the conflict between the intended articulation (same-sex attraction) and the predominant cultural form of expression (heterosexist discourse) is especially strong. While the dominant culture fundamentally defines desire as an attraction between differences, the very etymology of the word “homosexual” proposes an attraction between similarities. This misfit is so disruptive that homosexual desire is often framed through supplementary differences, such as those between class, race, and age. On a very basic level, then, the very term “homosexual desire” appears oxymoronic in a heterosexist culture: how could one have desire without difference?

[7]   Because of this seeming conceptual conflict with the dominant language, same-sex desire only attained what little visibility it did in the first half of the twentieth century through indirect, and therefore ambiguous, metaphors. For instance, gay film historian Vitto Russo proposes that classic Hollywood cinema of the twenties, thirties, and forties predominantly depicted male homosexuality through gender inversion. In these films, homosexuals appeared as sissies, often narratively deployed as supercilious fools and the butts of jokes. But, Russo notes, because Hollywood avoided overt references to homosexuality, these recurring sissies could easily pass as overly fussy heterosexual men. Russo’s point is that this representational strategy was so tenuous, so prone to foundering that it was tantamount to invisibility.

[8]   In the fifties and sixties, the popular arts began to portray same-sex longing more sensually, and at times more sympathetically, but these images likewise depicted homosexuality through the guise of something else, specifically self-absorption. Gay critic Richard Dyer has written extensively on this representational strategy, which primarily envisions homosexuality through the figure of the inward-turning, sad young man. Dyer’s tersely listed evidence of the ubiquity of this self-obsessed figure during the time period is worth quoting in full:

The stereotype of the sad young man is found in probably all representational media, from novels and ‘non-fiction’ accounts (e.g. Man on a Pendulum, ‘a case history of an invert presented by a religious counselor’, told in a style broadly indistinguishable from novels like The Divided Path or All the Sad Young Men) to plays, films, even dance (e.g. Monument for a Dead Boy) and song (‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men’ recorded by Petula Clark and Roberta Flack). It is equally present in high and low culture, from critically acclaimed fiction (James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room) to soft-core pornography (Joe Leon Houston’s Desire in the Shadows a.k.a. The Gay Flesh), and from avant-garde cinema (Fragment of Seeking, Twice a Man) via porn again (Pink Narcissus, Passing Strangers) to entertainment movies with ‘serious themes’ (Rebel without a Cause, Tea and Sympathy, Victim), though it seems to have remained doggedly middle-brow in the theatre (The Green Bay Tree, The Immoralist, The Boys in the Band). It is an important element in highly public star images such as Montgomery Clift, Sal Mineo, James Dean, Farley Granger and Dirk Bogarde just as in the more restrictedly circulated paintings of Christopher Wood or Cedric Morris. (Matter 74-76)

[9]   Although Dyer finds this figure everywhere, he stops just short of attributing its prevalence to heterosexist culture’s predilection for imagining same-sex desire as a form of narcissism. Nonetheless, the representational strategy of the sad young man depends upon an implied equivalence between the two. In fact, this confusion of homosexuality with narcissism often becomes quite explicit. For instance, throughout a pornographic film from this time period entitled Pink Narcissus (1971), a young man initiates intimate relations with a series of men in sequences that the film codes as his fantasies. When the young man finally encounters another man in the movie’s real-life sequence, however, this other man turns out to be himself. Here, even a film that anticipates an exclusively male homosexual audience cannot sustain a display of male same-sex desire without collapsing it into a figure of self-absorption. As in the case of the sissy figure, the very device that ostensibly gives form to same-sex desire overtakes it. Homosexuality achieves a kind of visibility through images of effeminacy (gender inversion) and exaggerated self-consciousness (narcissism), but it disappears into them as well.

[10]   Thus, the underground cinema’s aforementioned attempt to self-determine homosexual representations on film was moreover an attempt to create any sustainable depictions of same-sex desire. Paradoxically, it sought to invent such images by relying upon cinematic devices rooted in a culture that imagined same-sex desire through simplistic correspondences with such things as gender inversion or self-infatuation. Perhaps a good way to frame the difficulty of this aim is to compare it to a similar project almost simultaneously undertaken by the French historian Michel Foucault. In 1961, when the underground cinema was just getting started, Foucault, who, like many of the underground film directors, identified as a male-homosexual, published Folie et dêraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. (Foucault’s abridged English language version of this text appeared four years later under the title Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.) Jacques Derrida’s 1963 analysis of this book explains Foucault’s revolutionary intentions:

Foucault wanted madness to be the subject of his book in every sense of the word: its theme and its first person narrator, its author, madness speaking about itself. Foucault wanted to write a history of madness itself, that is madness speaking on the basis of its own experience and under its own authority, and not a history of madness described from within the language of reason. (34)

Foucault’s attempt to grant madness its own liberating voice from within the language of its oppressor (reason) parallels the underground film movement’s attempt to give homosexual desire self-expression by drawing on cinematic tropes of the dominant culture (Hollywood).

[11]   As much as Derrida applauds Foucault’s project, he also explains the obstacles that make it a self-contradictory, and maybe even an impossible, endeavor:

It is a question, therefore, of escaping the trap or objectivist naiveté that would consist in writing a history of untamed madness, of madness as it carries itself and breathes before being caught and paralyzed in the nets of classical reason, from within the very language of classical reason itself, utilizing the concepts that were the historical instruments of the capture of madness– the restrained and restraining language of reason. (34)

Here, Derrida complains that Foucault’s hope of giving madness the right to determine itself through language ignores the fact that madness is defined by the very fact that it cannot productively engage in language, which is governed by rationality. A similar impediment stood in the way of the underground filmmakers. Trying to depict homosexual desire through Hollywood tropes without having it collapse into something else, such as gender inversion or narcissism, was as impossible as trying to “write” madness without re-inscribing the dominance of reason. No cinematic tools yet existed to depict more complex understandings of homosexual desire, the kinds of understandings that queers had been and were still in the process of developing for themselves.

Montage, Metaphor and Metonymy

[12]   Anger’s film met this challenge by altering the already existing cinematic apparatus so that it would serve new representational purposes. He turned to montage. The ideas of anthropologist George Marcus suggest why. Marcus explains how montage enables experimental ethnography to interrupt the assumptions of dominant ethnographic discourse:

 Of a deconstructive bent, [the montage approach of] modernist ethnography counts on not being first, on not discovering. It remakes, re-presents other representations. Experimental ethnography thus depends on preexisting, more conventional narrative treatments and is parasitic of them. Such ethnography is a comment, a remaking of a more standard realist account. (45)

As Marcus indicates, the parasitic nature of montage allows it to make points that are antithetical to the representational system that acts as its host. Thus, montage is able to deconstruct what it cites; it alters language systems as it adopts them. In Scorpio Rising, montage specifically “remakes” and “re-presents” heterosexist symbol systems in order to envision sustainable homosexual desire.

[13]   Other critics of Anger’s Scorpio Rising have noted how its montage strategies plunder pre-existing sign systems, but not how fully it subverts them to its queer ends. For instance, David James highlights the way that Scorpio Rising and other films by Anger seem to recall the cinema of classic Hollywood. Writing in the 1980s, James claims, “The structural irony engendered by an independent film practice’s reference to its industrial other reaches its apogee in the work of Kenneth Anger” . Even though it “proposes itself as the subversive alternative to Hollywood, Anger’s cinema is constantly traversed by Hollywood” (James 152). Here, James sees Anger’s parodic intentions leading him to reinstate the classic Hollywood style he allegedly mocks. Moreover, Carel Rowe reads Scorpio Rising as the recuperation of an even earlier artistic model. Writing in the 1970s, Rowe returns to Mekas’s above-quoted statement that the underground cinema returns to “a content which Baudelaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Rimbaud gave to world literature a century ago” (Mekas 85). Rowe builds on Mekas’s conceit to argue that Anger and the other underground filmmakers revisit six specific characteristics of the French Decadent and Symbolist movements in art and literature: “dissatisfaction with civilization, pessimism, dandyism, sterility, a view of women as the destructive femme fatale, and androgyny” (35).

[14]   Although James and Rowe usefully connect Anger’s film to Hollywood symbology and French Decadent thematics, Scorpio Rising engages the representational devices that it borrows from these systems more fully than even these critics suggest. For example, although Rowe delineates French Decadent and Symbolist themes in Anger’s work, even closer attention to Anger’s montage reveals howScorpio Rising revives and extends this movement’s formal devices as well. In fact, Anger’s montage remakes and re-presents Decadent and Symbolist explorations of metaphor in a cinematic context. Rowe, although refraining from such formal analysis, cites a definition of Symbolist metaphor from Alfred Garwin Engstrom’s 1974 Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics that allows such a cross-comparison between it and Anger’s montage:

Symbolist poetry is a poetry of indirection, in which objects tend to be suggested rather than named [e.g. Paul Verlaine referring to a cloud writes “The black rock”], or to be used primarily for an evocation of mood. Ideas may be important, but are characteristically presented obliquely through a variety of symbols and must be apprehended largely by intuition and feeling. Symbolist poets use words for their magical suggestiveness. (Rowe 30)

Here, Engstrom explains that Symbolist poetry tries to expand the range of language by privileging indirect correspondences, a process which Engstrom links to magical suggestiveness. Already, Anger and the French Symbolists unite in preferring the obscure, sympathetic logic of magic to the logic of reason. Anger, in fact, has throughout his career publicly cited the self-proclaimed magus Aleister Crowley as his model and inspiration; he has even explicitly referred to his own films as incantations.

[15]   Still, Anger’s cinema intersects with Symbolist poetics at a more specific level. As Engstrom notes, Symbolist metaphor imagines direct substitutions, but it constructs such substitutions obliquely, so that they “tend to be suggested rather than named” (Rowe 30). Thus, in its desire to evoke intuitive rather than rational responses, Symbolist poetry seeks metaphoric exchanges, but it nonetheless interrupts these exchanges with long series of partial, or metonymic, correspondences. In this way, Symbolism blurs the distinctions between metaphor and metonymy. Scorpio Risinguses montage to imitate this process. Like Symbolist indirection, it too begins to dissolve the distinction between metaphor and metonymy, and in doing so, begins to reassess the shape of sexual desire.

[16]   Roman Jakobson’s 1956 essay “The Two Aspects of Language” helps bridge Symbolist poetics and Anger’s montage. At around the same time that underground filmmakers were beginning to re-imagine depictions of homosexual desire, Jakobson’s essay was exploring the ways in which metaphor and metonymy differently structure both thought and language. A review of his distinctions between these two modes clarifies the boundaries between these devices, which Scorpio Rising, like Symbolism, strategically begins to erode. According to Jakobson, any symbolic process has both metaphoric and metonymic poles. Jakobson defines these poles as operating according to different logics:

The development of a discourse may take place along two different semantic lines: one topic may lead to another either through their similarity or through their contiguity. The metaphoric way would be the most appropriate term for the first case and the metonymic way for the second. (109-110)

To clarify these ideas, Jakobson gives the example of a verbal statement and explains how it conveys meaning along two axes. First, each word, especially each substantive, connects vertically through similarity to other similar but unspoken words from which it has been chosen. According to Jakobson, these correspondences are metaphoric relationships that engender substitutive processes. Secondly, each word of the statement also connects horizontally to the other words in the statement. These horizontal connections arise through a hierarchy of contiguity. They are thus partial correspondences. According to Jakobson, these partial correspondences are metonymic relationships that engender predicative processes.

[17]   Although Jakobson’s above example only identifies metaphoric and metonymic poles in language, he also sees this “same oscillation [of poles] occur[ing] in sign systems other than language” (111). In fact, just as Mekas and Rowe define the aims of underground film by alluding to late nineteenth century Symbolism, Jakobson explains how metaphor and metonymy differently affect more complex symbol systems by alluding to more prominent nineteenth century artistic and literary movements, Romanticism and Realism. He designates Romanticism as metaphoric and Realism as metonymic. Jakobson argues that Realism is metonymic because “the Realist author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time” (111). In other words, the Realist aesthetic is metonymic because it must construct its symbolic logic detail by detail, contiguity by contiguity, proposition by proposition. Unlike Romantic metaphor that claims connection to already assembled symbolic structures beyond the text, Realist metonymy imbues its imagined realities with symbolic meaning by methodically proposing and constructing partial correspondences within the text.

[18]   Jakobson’s distinction here and above between substitutive and predicative processes is significant. By ascribing substitutive processes to metaphor and attributing only predicative processes to metonymy, Jakobson is using these terms in a very special way. Because Jakobson deems all substitutive processes as metaphoric, the metaphoric pole marks all of the unspoken contexts of the statement. Meanwhile, because Jakobson defines metonymy as primarily a predicative process, the metonymic pole of language signals only the self-reflexive, propositional aspects of the statement, or how the statement says what it says.

[19]   Jakobson’s specific definitions of metaphor and metonymy reveal how Scorpio Rising makes meaning by traversing these two aspects of language and thought. In fact, Anger’s film often mobilizes metaphor and metonymy at cross-purposes in order to unsettle the usual conflation of homosexuality and narcissism. Specifically, the film presents images that metaphorically signal heterosexual masculinity, but it situates them in a context that metonymically invokes solipsistic desire. For instance, in one notable sequence of the film, several tough-looking young bikers slowly dress for the camera to the accompaniment of Bobby Vinton’s rendition of “Blue Velvet” (figure 1 and figure 2). In terms of metaphor, these young men refer to a very specific symbol system beyond the world of the film. By donning the iconography of postwar biker culture, they evoke masculine heterosexuality at one of its most aggressive extremes. Meanwhile, the film metonymically constructs the men as narcissists by foregrounding their fussy attention to their appearance. Here, the film metonymically equates heterosexuality and fussy self-consciousness. The equation seems jarring; in fact, it is so unexpected that it operates as a joke, a witty reversal of how we usually define heterosexual manhood and over-refined self-consciousness against each other.

 A young biker pulls a tight-fitting shirt over his torso during the "Blue Velvet" sequence in Scorpio Rising (courtesy Kenneth Anger).    Another biker primps during the "Blue Velvet" sequence in Scorpio Rising (courtesy Kenneth Anger).

[20]   Nonetheless, this sequence’s vertical montage, its juxtapositions of sound and image, draws on metaphor to correct this joke and return the more familiar conflation of narcissism and male homosexuality. Michael Moon, for example, explains how the music in this sequence metaphorically codes boys as girls: “as Bobby Vinton croons, ‘She wore blue velvet,’ the film represents not a woman in blue velvet but a bike boy (three of them, in fact) in blue denim” . Moon then recalls ideas from Laura Mulvey’s influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to interpret this mismatch as a joke on gender: “While the song invites its auditor to fantasize a specularized and fetishized girl or woman– [. . .] Anger’s film presents specularized and fetishized boys” (29). Moon is right to note how the song’s lyrics reverse gender here; still, what is most interesting about this sonic gender reversal is the way that it dismantles how this sequence would otherwise equate heterosexual masculinity, rather than homosexuality, to narcissism. The song’s lyrics, by apparently referring to each of these bikers with the pronoun “she,” insist on these bikers’ femininity. It is as if the film’s visual connection between heterosexual masculinity and self-obsession are untenable. The song must interrupt this connection by asserting that these men before the camera are not really heterosexual men, but that they are somehow women, or, more precisely, that they are inverts.

[21]   Still, this same vertical montage also participates in a sort of meta-metonymy that is at odds with its metaphoric function. The sound track that metaphorically reverses gender by referring to this sequence’s bike boys as if they were girls metonymically parallels, and thus emphasizes, the visual reversal that treats heterosexuality as if it were homosexuality. Thus the same vertical montage that draws on metaphor to counteract this sequence’s visual metonymy establishes an audiovisual metonymy whose sonic reversals of gender call attention to its visual reversals of sexuality. The aural register’s metaphoric equation of inversion and self-directed desire thus indirectly mirrors the visual register’s metonymic meshing of heterosexuality and narcissism. As a result, the vertical montage’s meta-metonymic register depicts these competing assertions as culturally, and playfully, constructed, rather than disinterestedly discovered. Likewise, the film’s humor plays these allegedly pathological models of homosexuality for laughs. It proposes no clear equation between gender, sexuality, and narcissism, and appears to have little interest in doing so. Instead, Scorpio Rising revels in complex combinations of all three.

[22]   Scorpio Rising‘s purely visual montage strategies likewise alternate between metaphor and metonymy. One montage unit in particular replaces homosocial idol worship with homosexuality by drawing on the metaphoric principle of montage. Soviet film theorist Sergei Eisenstein describes the metaphoric potential of montage when he writes that “depictable” images can express “undepictable” concepts:

The point is that the copulation (perhaps we had better say, the combination) of two hieroglyphs of the simplest series is to be regarded not as their sum, but as their product, i.e., as a value of another dimension, another degree; each separately, corresponds to an object, to a fact, but their combination corresponds to a concept. From separate hieroglyphs has been fused– the ideogram. By the combination of two ‘depictables’ is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable. (29-30)

In such montage, the conceptual pull between the two images begins to erase their differences, leading the viewer to infer how they metaphorically correspond to express a single concept.Scorpio Rising exhibits this metaphoric process in the montage unit that cuts from a shot of the character Scorpio lying on his bed (figure 3) to a shot of the L’il Abner comic strip from the Sunday paper that he reads (figure 4). In the first shot, Scorpio, in frame-left, faces to the right. Meanwhile, in this same shot, a pinned-up photo of James Dean, which appears in frame-right, faces to the left. The photo thus mirrors Scorpio’s head. In effect, Scorpio simultaneously appears to be meeting the eyes of his idol and the eyes of his own reflection. The second unit of this montage then presents a panel from a L’il Abner comic. This panel graphically matches the previous shot. It shows two boys on either side of the frame staring into each other’s eyes. Shown apart from its original context, this image of two boys, face to face, locked in a moonlight embrace seems strongly homoerotic. Through the montage of attraction, Scorpio and Dean retroactively seem to reproduce the romantic gaze of the boys in the panel. Consequently, through metaphoric substitution, idol worship, narcissism, and homosexual desire collapse into each other.

 Scorpio mirrors James Dean's pin-up in Scorpio Rising (courtesy Kenneth Anger).    Homoerotic L'il Abner panel from Scorpio Rising (courtesy Kenneth Anger).

[23]   A metonymic interpretation of this same montage, however, questions the way such substitutive processes naturalize these total correspondences. After all, male same-sex idol worship, self-obsession, and homosexual desire, although arguably related, are not identical. Instead, their relationships are partial. Thus, a metonymic approach seeks the predicative logic behind the proposition that equates the three. Rather than reading montage here as a process of direct substitution, a metonymic approach might instead read this latter montage unit as something more complex, such as the conclusion of a syllogism. In such an interpretation, the premises of the syllogism arise in previous montage units.

[24]   In fact, a montage unit arrives earlier in this clip that seems to set up both the major and minor premises of the syllogism that the above-discussed montage unit concludes. Moreover, as if to reinforce the idea of syllogistic montage, this earlier montage unit features the same shot of Scorpio facing into the Dean pin-up that figures in the later montage unit (figure 3). This first montage unit sets up the major premise of the syllogism by inter-cutting the previously discussed Scorpio-Dean shot with a televised image of Marlon Brando from the 1953 Laslo Benedek film The Wild One(figure 5). Here, the montage parallels Scorpio, who lies alone in his bed, and Dean, who mugs for his publicity photo, with Brando, who, by appearing decked out in motorcycle gear, recalls the narcissism of the bike boys from the previously discussed “Blue Velvet” sequence. Thus, this two-shot montage unit establishes a major premise of shared narcissism among Scorpio, Brando and Dean.

 The TV image of Marlin Brando from The Wild One seems to leer at Scorpio in Scorpio Rising (courtesy Kenneth Anger).

[25]   Meanwhile, this same montage unit also uses eye-line matches to propose a minor premise. In the first part of this montage unit, Scorpio and Dean appear to face each other off in a two-shot. In the second part of this montage unit, the shot fromThe Wild One, Brando leers towards the left of the screen, creating an eye-line match with Scorpio, who, in the preceding two-shot, squints towards frame-right. This minor premise sets up a system of scrutinizing glares among these supposed narcissists. The concluding montage between the Scorpio-Dean shot and the L’il Abner panel then caps off both the major and minor premises of the syllogism with an assertion of homosexuality.

[26]   Although both the metaphoric and metonymic readings of this concluding montage unit assert a conceptual slippage among male same-sex idol worship, self-directed desire and homosexuality, the metonymic critique begins to analyze the logic that structures such a slippage. Most importantly, it dissects the cultural conflation of homosexuality and self-absorption rather than merely reproducing it. Like Symbolist poetics, Anger’s montage here may imply an overriding metaphoric correspondence, but it more productively charts partial correspondences that metonymically fragment the metaphor that they comprise. For instance, the above montage at times depicts homosexuality as intensified masculine gender performance. Then again, it constructs same-sex desire as a circuit that moves from self-comparisons with other men to acquiring gazes of other men. Anger’s film may still link homosexuality and solipsistic desires, but it visually opens up complex conceptual routes between the two. It creates a cinematic space in which queer desire appears as something much more complicated and deeply embedded in popular consciousness than its common appearance through such simplistic tropes as gender inversion or narcissistic fixation would suggest.

Homosexual Poetics and Rhetoric

[27]   Scorpio Rising likewise initiates other means of envisioning homosexuality by reviving French Symbolism’s preference for over-developing the vehicles of its metaphors. This poetic treatment of metaphor differs in both process and aim from Symbolist indirection. Engstrom, for instance, above suggests how Symbolist indirection inserts partial correspondences within the substitutive link between a metaphor’s tenor (or subject) and its carrier (or object). Indirection thus partitions substitution to integrate metaphor and metonymy. Bernard Dupriez, however, explains that this other Symbolist metaphor differentiates itself from indirection by stressing direct substitution. Dupriez clarifies this point by citing the French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé and analyzing how metaphor operates in one of his poems:

Mallarmé: “I am crossing the word like out of the dictionary.” In other words, “I prefer metaphor to simile.” He tried to go even further, reducing the tenor almost to nothing, even trying to suppress it altogether. For instance, in “Brise Marine,” birds,drunk, foam, skies, seas, steamer, masts, anchor,storms, shipwrecks, and fertile islands all belong to the phore; only a few words– books, heart, andempty paper –refer to the theme. There is no sign to mark the analogy, and most of the elements in the vehicle have no particular link with the tenor. (277)

[28]   Nonetheless, Dupriez’s example also reveals how this same device overburdens and thus erodes the metaphoric procedure that it exploits. Mallarmé’s “Brise Marine,” for example, reinforces metaphoric substitution by elaborately describing its controlling metaphor’s carrier with the aim of better evoking its absent tenor. Still, the poem’s central metaphor collapses under this excessive attention to the vehicle. As Dupriez states, “There is no sign to mark the analogy, and most of the elements in the vehicle have no particular link with the tenor (277). Ironically, this metaphor’s fracture leaves metonymy in the foreground by default. For instance, continuing with the example of “Brise Marine,” only the contiguous relations amongbirds, drunk, foam, skies, seas,steamer, masts, anchor, storms, shipwrecks, and fertile islands will yield this metaphor’s missing tenor. Thus, the original substitution reveals itself only through the metonymies of the protracted vehicle.While indirection hinders substitution by intervening in the actual metaphoric exchange, Mallarmé’s metaphor emphasizes direct substitution by counterbalancing either side of the metaphoric equation. Thus, when its description of the carrier swells, its statement of the tenor shrinks in equal proportion.

[29]   Anger’s film similarly embellishes the carrier of its own central metaphor. Specifically, Scorpio Risingoverall proposes a metaphoric substitution between homosocial gang relations, its metaphor’s vehicle, and homosexuality, its metaphor’s theme. At times, this correspondence is direct. For example, during the aforementioned “Blue Velvet” sequence, the elaborate costuming rituals of the motorcycle gang convey ideas about homosexuality: although these bikers relate to each other only homosocially in the film, each one nonetheless defines queerness as he primps and poses to Bobby Vinton’s adoring male voice. Thus, this metaphor’s presumably heterosexual vehicle directly comments upon its tenor, homosexual definition. Still, at other times in the film, such correspondence falters. For instance, just as Mallarmé’s metaphor inflates its phore to deepen the complexity of its theme, Scorpio Rising intensifies its depictions of motorcycle culture in order to complicate its conception of homosexuality. As in Mallarmé’s poem, this strain on the metaphor’s vehicle causes the controlling metaphor to break down. For example, in Scorpio Rising, representations of motorcyclists increase out of proportion with their homosexual tenor until the metaphoric relations between carrier and tenor collapse. When this happens, the over-extended vehicle’s components break off into cinematic facsimiles of other poetic devices. Even though this fracturing disrupts the film’s overarching metaphoric strategies, some of the resulting cine-literary devices nonetheless continue to explore representations of homosexuality.

[30]   Two such breakaway devices emerge from the way that Anger’s film weaves in found imagery fromThe Wild One. For instance, as Scorpio Rising‘s controlling metaphor founders, the inserted shots of Marlon Brando as The Wild One‘s conflicted motorcycle gang leader begin to resemble a cinematic version of literary prosopopoeia. Dupreiz defines prosopopoeia as the “presentation of absent, dead, or supernatural beings, or even inanimate objects, with the ability to act, speak, and respond” (357). Brando appears inScorpio Rising as such an absence made present. In fact, as James might argue, Brando’s figure here summons the institution of Hollywood cinema, against which Anger defines his filmmaking style. If Brando’s figure merely appeared here statically as an index of Hollywood, however, his presence would be only an instance of signification. What instead renders Brando’s presence as an instance of prosopopoeia is the way that he appears to interact with the other characters in Anger’s film, even though he belongs to a different diegesis. In fact, as detailed above, both Brando and the James Dean photo seem to exchange sexualized glances with Scorpio. Thus, as prosopopoetic figures, both the shots of Brando and the pin-up of Dean help define the same-sex desire that they invoke. Indeed, they begin to articulate homosexuality as an extension of Hollywood’s models of masculinity.

[31]   Scorpio Rising‘s borrowed imagery from The Wild One also mobilizes the cinematic manifestation of another poetic device, homonymy. Dupreiz defines homonymy as “single words for different things” (133).Scorpio Rising visually imitates homonymy by modifying The Wild One‘s bike gang imagery so that it simultaneously conveys two distinct meanings, homosocial bonding and homosexual desire. For instance, the “Party Lights” and “Torture” sequences of Anger’s film mirror the rowdy scenes of bikers invading the soda shop from The Wild One. In both, men roughhouse in otherwise domestic environments, which they then overtake by infusing these spaces with chrome, leather, and motors. Similarly, both The Wild One and Anger’s sequences center on two kinds of male-male physical interaction, fighting-for-show and mock-intimacy. Nonetheless, The Wild One carefully codes its bikers as heterosexual in these scenes by including women for them to ogle, admire and generally harass. Anger’s film, in contrast, keeps the focus on the men. In fact, even though Anger readily states that the actors in the biker party sequences all had “girlfriends [who] were present during nearly all of the filming” (Landis 111), his framing carefully excludes them. Thus, when Anger’s bikers horse around with a dildo, display their buttocks for the camera, or pounce on each other’s backs, their images signify homonymically; while their careless camaraderie conveys homosocial bonding, their sexual play simultaneously seems homosexual.

[32]   In fact, as these last two figures, as well as Scorpio Rising‘s previously discussed montage strategies demonstrate, Anger’s film throughout describes and articulates homosexuality through the language of exaggerated homosociality. Much as Marcus’s modern ethnography redirects anthropological language against its assumptions, Anger’s film directs its images of male bonding and macho posturing towards their charged boundaries with homosexuality and narcissism. By playfully mocking these boundaries, and at times crossing back and forth between them,Scorpio Rising‘s montage calls attention to what queer theorist Lee Edelman has called homographesis. Edelman explains his theoretical term:

 [H]omographesis (in its first, identity-producing sense) can be unpacked as a compulsory marking or cultural articulation of homosexual legibility that proceeds from a concern that the homosexual might be inscribed, as I would put it, in the purview of the homograph. As an explicitly graphemic structure, the homograph provides a useful point of reference for the consideration of a gay graphesis. A homograph, after all, refers to a “word of the same written form as another but of different origin and meaning”; it posits, therefore, the necessity of reading difference within graphemes that appear to be the same. (12-13)

[33]   Anger’s film, however, innovates at a cost. Its representational strategy relies on a contradiction, which Edelman’s comments above both share and reveal. Edelman, for instance, proposes a second point. He claims that homosexual subjects and heterosexual subjects are essentially homographic, that without homographesis, they are indistinguishable from each other. Edelman’s implied claim here is deeply paradoxical: his language both asserts and denies the existence of distinct sexual identities prior to representation. Anger’s film also partakes of this apparent inconsistency. It corrects a previous fallacy, the conflation of homosexuality and narcissism, but it entertains a new one, the conflation of homosexuality and homosociality. The film presents homosexual self-representations that differ from those authored by the status quo culture, but even as it asserts this difference, it displays a kind of sameness. Its representational counter-strategy continues the tradition of depicting homosexual desire in terms of something else, here familiar images of exaggerated homosociality.Here, Edelman describes homographesis as a cultural process that inscribes otherwise identical male bodies as either homosexual or heterosexual without recourse to showing these bodies actively engaged in explicit sexual activity. When Anger’s film recodes macho posturing, a common marker of heterosexuality, as homoerotic narcissism, he begins to unravel the dominant culture’s homographesis. He subverts the metaphorical distinction between homosexual and heterosexual bodies by attaching a common marker of heterosexuality to a body expressing homosexual desire.

[34]   Anger’s paradoxical achievement, however, is no failure. Instead, it is strategic. After all, it is through this ability to relay such contradictions that Anger’s film crosses the line from art into document, from poetics into rhetoric. It weds paradoxical representational strategies to jump-start a conceptual shift in thinking about queer desire. Here, Scorpio Rising once again intersects with Foucault’s ideas about conceptual representation. French philosopher and literary critic Gilles Deleuze explains Foucault’s belief that pursuing paradoxes can produce historical shifts in thought, which he terms statements:

Statements are not words, phrases or propositions, but rather formations thrown up by the corpus in question only when the subjects of the phrase, the objects of the proposition and thesignifieds of words change in nature; they then occupy the place of the “One speaks” and become dispersed throughout the opacity of language. This is the constant paradox in Foucault: the language coagulates around a corpus only in order to facilitate the distribution or dispersion of statements and to stand as the rule for a “family” that is naturally dispersed. (18)


I would like to thank Scott Nygren, Maureen Turim, Robert Ray, Sylvie Blum, Indré Melynis, Kenneth Kidd, and the reviewers at Genders for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this essay. I would also like to thank Kim Emery for her generous help with the final revisions.[35]   Anger’s film articulates such a statement. It thoroughly alters the subjects, the objects and the signifieds of both homosexuality and homosociality. It reapportions the meanings of its borrowed signs and overturns simplistic devices for depicting same-sex attraction in order to render queer desire as something more complex than it previously appeared to be. By reassembling signs from 1960s popular culture to embody this conceptual shift,Scorpio Rising not only documents this period’s radical reevaluation of homosexuality, but it simultaneously participates in it. It also displays how subverting common tropes for depicting gender and sexuality can open up a space for rethinking the complex connections among popular culture, queer culture, sexuality, and identity, a project whose liberatory potential remains as important now as it ever was.


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