Hello sailor

Pub date June 17, 2009
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

By Matt Sussman


Revolution seems to be on the minds and in the hearts of many in LGBT folk these days. The desire for change is palpable at the marriage equality marches that have now become regular occurrences, even if one isn’t marching under the banner of marriage equality. Indeed, the large and sustained outpouring of grassroots activism that has sprung up since Proposition 8 "passed" last November has been hailed, however ill-fitting the comparison, as "Stonewall 2.0."

Stonewall is undoubtedly a milestone — and its resonance with our current historical moment is underscored by the fact that Frameline 33’s closing night happens to fall on the 40th anniversary of the New York City riots. But Stonewall is not our only example of queers taking power into their own hands (San Francisco’s own Compton Cafeteria Riots of 1966, in which transgender people fought for their right to occupy public space, immediately comes to mind.) Nor are the social justice movements and underground film culture of the Stonewall era — both subjects touched on in a swathe of ’60s and ’70s-related films at this year’s festival — our only historical models for envisioning and enacting change. There are other histories, other battles, and other scenes to explore.

Local filmmaker Cary Cronenwett’s Maggots and Men — a stunning black and white historical fantasia on the possibilities, pleasures, and perils of revolution — proposes such another scene. Set in a mythologized postrevolutionary Russia but based on actual historical events, Maggots marshals early Soviet cinema, the gutter erotics of Jean Genet, and what at times seems like a transgender cast of thousands to build its case for the necessity of queer utopias. "I made a school boy movie, Phineas Slipped [under the name Kerioakie, in Frameline 26], so the next logical step was to make a sailor movie," says Cronenwett, explaining the germ for his film over the phone. "I wanted to make a film that created another world."

Maggots dramatizes the events of 1921, when the sailors of the seaport town of Kronstadt (whose failed 1905 revolution would be immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925’s Battleship Potemkin) drafted a resolution that supported the factory workers on strike in St. Petersburg. Deeming the sailors’ declaration of solidarity and demands for food and greater autonomy as "counter-revolutionary," the Bolshevik government launched a propaganda campaign against them, eventually sending the Red Army to take their island stronghold by force. The Bolsheviks eventually won the two-week long battle, in which both sides suffered heavy losses, killing or exiling the remaining sailors.

Told through the fictionalized letters of sailor Stepan Petrichenko (played by dreamboat Stormy Henry Knight, aptly described by Cronenwett as "the transgender Matt Dillon") to his sister and the performances of agitprop theater group Blue Blouse, Maggots repurposes the aesthetics of socialist realism to both pay tribute to the Kronstadt sailors’ quashed communal experiment and to use that same history as a means to engage with contemporary transgender lives and radical politics. "I’m wrapping together my different fantasies," explains Cronenwett. "There’s the sexual, kinda homoerotic utopia and then there’s this sort of communal utopia, where you have a society based on mutual respect."

If Maggots were a poem, it would undoubtedly take the form of an idyll. The sailors engage in a bucolic routine of communal farming and exercise, angelically sleeping in hammocks, carousing with the local ladies, and occasionally engaging in some alcohol-fueled sex with their fellow mates. Flo McGarrell’s gorgeous production design and composer Jascha Ephraim’s accordion-rich original score certainly contribute to the film’s reverie-like passages, but much of what is beautiful about the film is due in no small part to the handsome chiaroscuro visages of the film’s primarily trans-masculine actors. Cronenwett is as quick to cite Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950) and James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus (1968) as he is Eisenstein, as influences — and it shows.

But Cronenwett has other things, aside from "dirty sailor beefcake," on the brain. As he points out in a follow-up e-mail to our conversation, the trans actors in Maggots don’t just rewire the long history of the sailor as subject of homoerotic image-making in terms of gender, but also reframe the homosocial world of Krondstadt in terms of anarchist politics. "It’s not just cute butts that turn me on — it’s also ideas, and people’s politics. Not politics, like chatting about Obama or whatever, but people that are into creative ways of living and aren’t into non-consensual domination."

These politics were put into practice, as much by necessity as design, over the course of the four years it took to make the film. Shooting sporadically in rural Vermont (a frozen Lake Champlain uncannily summons the wintertime Baltic captured in photos of the Red Army’s 1921 advance); San Francisco backyards and gallery spaces; and Battery Boutelle in the Presidio and Battery Mendell in Marin, Cronenwett describes making Maggots as a "highly collaborative" process that involved the talents of friends, DIY artists, political organizers, nonprofessional actors, and anyone else who could be tapped via word-of-mouth (the film also received financial support from the Frameline Film and Video Completion Fund). At times, the filming even started to take on the communal can-do atmosphere of Kronstadt itself. "People slept on the floor and took cooking shifts, and helped make costumes," remembers Cronenwett of the Vermont shoot.

As much as Maggots is a homoerotic pastoral, the film doesn’t shy away from exploring the difficult, sometimes painful, realities attendant to any act of self-determination. As its very title — itself a reference to the rotting meat that sparks the sailors’ mutiny in the first act of Potemkim — suggests, the consequences of our actions can fester within us. "The sailors are still lugging around the violence from the revolution with them," writes Cronenewett. "Even in the salad days the violence is there just under the surface."

This violence takes on a different cast in the context of transitioning genders, something which the actors’ own mixed gender expressions continually underscore. "Transitioning is, hopefully, a liberating, positive experience. But it can also have some elements of violence associated with it. That can be a literal kind of violence — like chopping off body parts — or can be something more ethereal, like squashing aspects of ourselves to fit into either gender category."

The film is careful, though, not to hold up the sailors’ bloody defeat as a cautionary example of revolutionary hubris, just as it stylistically evokes Russian cinema of the ’20s and ’30s while avoiding that period’s penchant for egregious hero worship (flirting with martyrdom can be a slippery slope when engaging with the Soviet realism). In a sense, Maggots‘ restaging of history captures the full allegorical meaning of "utopia" — a social ideal that doesn’t exist and yet, nonetheless, remains an ideal. But, as Maggots also proves, film gives us the means to envision such ideals. At a time when our "revolutionary" moment seems blinded by tunnel vision — and has largely become defined by terms we never dictated — Maggots‘ kino eye reminds us that our past and our present are full of radical possibilities. *


Sun/21, 1:30 p.m., Castro

The 33rd San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival runs June 18–28 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Roxie, 3117 16th St., SF; Victoria, 2961 16th St, SF; and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, 2966 College, Berk. Tickets (most shows $8–$10) are available at www.frameline.org.