Monday, November 21, 2011

Fearless Photographs
From its inception in 1839, photography has taken an often convoluted evolutionary course—a meandering path governed by the ebb and flow of faux pas, random chance, and blind luck. Mary Warner Marien expounds upon this seeming randomness by observing in her book, Photography: A Cultural History, “If the invention of photography had depended solely on the availability of materials, it could have taken place during the late Renaissance” (p.1); yet, it would take 200+ years before the camera would finally see photographic fruition. This delayed actualization, when combined with randomization and the fact that “from 1839 on, twenty-four persons claimed to have invented photography” (p. 15), only adds to its mystique and makes for one of its most significant aspects. As historian, Tertius Chandler, remarks in Duplicate Inventions?, “photography is one of the few genuine cases of simultaneous invention.” (p.496), and there is an abundance of documented proof that it was simultaneously invented by insular individuals scattered across the continents.
Chandler continues his sentiment, “It is really quite remarkable: Niepce and Daguerre were inspired by lithography…and their rival Talbot was set off by something quite different” (p.496); yet, both Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot were not the only ones laying claims to being the original creator of the photograph. With other inventors such as Hippolyte Bayard and Antoine Florence constructing similar inventions, “there was not one but several photographies. Some had failed or were destined to be forgotten. Some, like Daguerre’s process, produced single images; others, like Talbot’s, were potentially capable of making multiple prints” (p.23). As to why so many people were conceiving of photographic inventions at or around the same time, Marien offers the reader “the notion of simultaneous invention—that two or more people can develop the same concept at about the same time” (p.8); an idea that is still baffling but very relevant even into the early 21st century. Some contemporary scientists have further elaborated upon and placed an entirely new spin on simultaneous invention—scientists like Rupert Sheldrakewho have proposed the theory of ‘morphic resonance’ (or simply: ‘morphic theory’) to better understand such occurrences throughout the whole of human history.
Comprised of what he calls ‘morphic fields’, Sheldrake suggests in his book, Morphic Resonance, that behavior in humans is contained in a hierarchical schema of nested levels within levels and—once a certain level is attained through imitation and repetition—any human being that has reached that level will then be attuned to a specific mindset and an awareness that becomes instinctual to said mindset: “An individual is initiated into particular patterns of behavior by other members of society…the performance of a characteristic pattern of behavior brings the individual into morphic resonance with all those who have carried out this pattern in the past” (p.190).
In the context of simultaneous invention of the photograph, Sir Isaac Newton’s famous (and often misquoted) citation—“If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”[1]—comes to mind. Every device, from the European cathedrals with small holes carved out in their roofs to the pantograph to the camera obscura and lucida, had culturally accreted around, amassed before, and accelerated this batch of 19th-century inventors into a similar mindset… or as Sheldrake puts it, “learning is facilitated as the individual ‘tunes in’ to specific morphic fields…Thus, for example, it should have become progressively easier to learn to ride a bicycle, drive a car, ski, or play a video game, owing to the cumulative morphic resonance from the larger number of people who have already acquired these skills” (p.190). Again, in the context of Sheldrake’s morphic theory, the reason simultaneous invention of photography occurred when it did is because of the previous generations’ inventions stacked atop one another into a innovative spire of inspiration, which served as a beacon for individuals such as Talbot and Daguerre to reach an unknowable new perception and an unforeseen advancement constructed solely upon the acquired knowledge of the past.
Think of it this way: like a logical progression up a craggy slope, each invention that aided in optical accuracy before photography had been minor steps taken while scaling a somewhat daunting incline with an unanticipated photographic peak. Thus, the properties and components comprising photography were easily attainable to individuals like Daguerre, Bayard, and Fox Talbot because they were synchronized with a particular morphic resonance—or mindset. And like those adventurers desirous of reaching a mountain’s summit before their mountain-climbing competitors—photography too had its many adventurous inventors and innovators all blindly vying for the same mountaintop.
Additionally, Marien notes that “although it seems that the invention of photography should be related to the start of the Industrial Revolution, its connection to the technical, social, and political changes that accompanied the initial mechanization of production during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Europe is not easy to establish” (p. 2). However, when factoring morphic theory into the equation, photography’s inception during the drang and drone of industrialization makes complete sense; regardless of whether or not the Industrial Revolution itself had brought about daguerreotypes, calotypes, etc. As Marien observes, “the photographic process began to be linked and experimented with in an era when practical, commercially feasible applications of scientific experiments were encouraged” (p.3); yet another piece of the photographic jigsaw that fits perfectly with Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance.
As if that weren’t enough evidence, Marien further remarks that two of photography’s simultaneous inventors—Fox Talbot and Florence—suggested the process of simultaneous invention as an answer to the coincidental surge of photographic devices: “Simultaneous invention…was mentioned by Florence and by…William Henry Fox Talbot” (p.8). Thus, even photography’s inventors were attuned to similar explanations as to how it was possible that so many individuals were coming forth with their own version of the photograph. Further fuel to add to the ‘morphic’ fire.
Another fire that the invention of photography ignited was—and some would say has yet to entirely extinguish—is, as Marien mentions, the “debate about its worth as art” (p.79). The process of photography being no stranger to antithetical mixtures, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the innovative invention was forced to navigate between polar opposites: the Karybdis of art and the Scylla of science. This duality of extremes served as ammunition for those advocating photography’s invention and those admonishing it. Likewise, this dual characteristic also forced both photography’s proponents and critics to cogitate, question, devise, and debate what exactly were the concrete properties governing the lofty ideals of art and science. Thus, the photograph’s status as unifier of these two extreme enterprises into one singular, cohesive entity is yet another significant aspect in its evolutionary history, and, as Mary Warner Marien indicates, “Photography was flexible and experimental, neither a sharply delimited art form nor quite the product of science” (p.28).
During its fledgling years, photography was “regularly called an ‘art-science’” (p.26), and Marien further elaborates that this term “recognized that photographic images were not only generated by a mix of science and art, but also applied in both activities” (p.26). It would seem that, at least for the first 20 years after photography’s inception, a cohesive unity between the two disciplines emanated forth from photography. However, Marien also notes that “the ambiguous character of photography in its early years was fostered by the equally uncertain definitions of art and science” (p.26).
Even with luminary proponents of photography, such as Edgar Allen Poe, “reactions to early photography ranged from the exuberant to the cautious” (p.28). As the years progressed, a “belief in the objectivity of photography took hold” (p.76), as Marien points out and adds, “The medium was belittled as a potential art form” (p.76). And several of photography’s artistic protagonists—individuals such as British critic, John Ruskin, and, artist, Eugenie Delacroix—had changed their minds about the photograph into one of antagonism.
 As time progressed, photography began to be considered as “a science imposing its mode of dogged imitation on art” (p.77). The amicable cohesiveness between art and science had deteriorated into us-vs.-them mentality and abrasive contempt. To make matters worse, as Marien describes, “Talbot, Daguerre, and Niepce all shied away from explaining photography as an invention that makes images through human agency” (p.23); thereby exsanguinating it of its creative cruor. Marien further explains that each of these men “insisted that photography originated in nature and was disclosed by nature” (p.23), removing it of its artistry and into the lofty confines of scientific logic. What’s most surprising—and a true symbol of its historical significance in photography—is that the debate whether photography is an art or science has never been wholly resolved and continues to this day.
This furor over a concise definition indicating photography’s true allegiance to one or the other brings to mind a quote from 20th-century French anthropologist and ethnologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, and his concepts of ‘bricoleur’ and ‘bricolage’: “Art lies half-way between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought. It is common knowledge that the artist is both something of a scientist and of a ‘bricoleur’” (p.22) ); an idea that fits perfectly with what one commentator for The New Yorker stated when describing the photograph “as ’more like some marvel of a fairy tale or delusion of necromancy than a practical reality’” (Marien, p.25).
Yet another significant aspect in the early history of photography revolves around the reversed tones of the negative image—or, more specifically, around Fox Talbot’s creation of the calotype process—which, as Marien observes, “Produced a negative, from which many prints could be made… [and] would become the basis for modern photographic reproduction” (p.19); an advantage that Daguerre’s daguerreotype did not have. Of course, one of the true ironies about the above statement—and a sign of things to come—is that, although Daguerre, a Frenchman, was the first vocal inventor of the photograph and had the backing of his country behind him and his daguerreotype, it was the British inventor, Fox Talbot, whose calotype process was chosen by France’s politically-motivated Historic Monuments Commission over Daguerre’s government-supported daguerreotype…regardless of “France’s political and economic rivalry with Britain” (p.57). As Marien notes, “The commission rejected the daguerreotype’s cold metallic tinge in favor of the…calotype” (p.57), and was also chosen for “its ability to produce negatives from which multiple copies could be made” (p.57). Even the French had enough sense and foresight to put aside petty national rivalries for the better (and foreign) photographic process of the two.
However, the negative did more than that; it would become the focus of whether or not the photograph could truly be considered a trusted source of informational authenticity. As a result of this, the public’s perception of the world around them was experiencing a paradigm shift in conscious approach to documentation and commemoration. Moreover, with the introduction of negative, photography—which was often seen as a reliable source of objectivity—was no longer an article of unyielding truth, but rather was the “photographers’ efforts to intensify the appearance of truth” (p.74). Initially, such revelations were greeted silently with a feigned ignorance by proponents and opponents of the art/science debate alike. As Marien asserts “In public discussions and literature, the capacity of the photograph to seem whole and complete, while omitting relevant truths, was rarely addressed directly” (p.74). However, such selective myopia would not last long…
The negative also opened up the possibility for photographic manipulation, which sent those individuals in the art world who felt confident in “the idea of photographic representation as acutely accurate” (p.85) (and, therefore, inartistic) into a paroxysmal panic. One proponent of this manipulative technique—now titled ‘combination printing’—was Oscar Rejlander, whose most famous photographic work, The Two Ways of Life, was a time-consuming composite of “more than thirty individual negatives…which required a great deal of hand-work” (p.91). Rejlander took his inspiration for the manipulated photograph “from a Renaissance source and…distanced the work from ordinary photography” (p.91), likening it to the process of painting. Unsurprisingly, this only fueled further debate about whether the photograph was an art, a science, or an art-science. Much like the The Two Ways of Life’s visual display of the antithetical and archetypal symbols of sainthood and sin—and the two youths represented in the combination print who are torn between these two divergent paths—so too were the opinions in support of and against combination printing—a technique that foredoomed those opinions insisting that photography “was not a medium open to imagination or subjective response” (p.87).
As famed German sociologist, philosopher, and literary critic, Walter Benjamin, keenly observed while discussing the artistic merits of the photograph in his book, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, “It [photography] can…place the copy of the original in situations beyond the reach of the original” (p.6). Benjamin astutely concluded that the reason photography has such divergent opinions amongst its supporters and critics alike stems from issues surrounding its ‘genuineness’ and that, ultimately, the photograph represents “an upheaval of tradition” (p.7).
With Benjamin’s words in mind, there’s little doubt that the introduction of photography marked an end to the way people perceived not only the world around them but themselves as well. Likewise, due to photography, presumed notions of what was considered art and what was considered science were brought into question and re-examined under an intense new scrutiny. But above and beyond all else, photography helped to blur the derisive line between reality and imagination and, like the scores of its simultaneous inventors, the photograph offered the world a multitude of realities and in multiple copies to be shared not solely by the select few but by the masses as well. A new, modern era with panoramic vistas and snapshot horizons was expanding and growing at an exponential rate upon the unsuspecting populaces of Earth as the 20th century slowly crept into existence—an era that the photograph had helped to reshape and reinvigorate…an era advancing the vision of the human race as a whole.


Benjamin, Walter, and J. A. Underwood. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Chandler, Tertius. "Duplicate Inventions?". Wiley Online Library. N.p., 28 Oct. 2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2011. <>.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Print.
Marien, Mary Warner. Photography: a Cultural History. Upper River Saddle, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.
Sheldrake, Rupert. Morphic Resonance: the Nature of Formative Causation. 4th, rev. and expanded U.S. ed. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2009. Print.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

No Respect:
A Symbolic Interpretation of a ‘Halloween Knock-Off’
As I was watching Kill Bill, Vol. 1—specifically, the scene where Beatrix Kiddo lodges a hatchet in the skull of one of the Crazy 88—it occurred to me that I had seen this gruesome image the week before while watching Friday the 13th. There too, a hatchet is firmly embedded down the middle of, camp counselor, Marcie’s forehead. So then, was Kill Bill director, Quentin Tarentino, paying homage to Friday the 13th? If so, it would mean Tarentino’s tribute to the 1981 slasher film was part of an infinite regress in cinema semiotics considering that the aforementioned axe-murdering scene from Friday the 13th’s takes place in a Camp Crystal Lake shower stall; itself, an obvious homage to the shower-scene murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
This, of course, contradicts film scholar Vera Dika’s observation that “Friday the 13th has no artistic pretensions, no film school ‘allusions’ or ‘homages’” (Sleaze Artists, p.230). Dika’s examination of the slasher flick—which Matt Hills discusses in his essay “Para-Paracinema”—seems either wholly uninformed or peripheral at best. Whether it was consciously or subconsciously intentional, Friday the 13th’s creators and scriptwriters managed to allude to several primal, semiotic images within the film’s mis-en-scene; thus, making it manifest to dismiss Dika's exceedingly shortsighted remarks. It doesn’t take an academic scholar endless hours in the corner of some marble-hall’d library—his/her eyes permanently affixed to countless volumes of books that have acquired several layers of dust from disuse—to point out that there are several antediluvian, metaphoric constants in Friday the 13th. Just a quick skim through my copy of Dictionary of Symbols, requires little brain power, elbow grease, or burning of midnight oil, yet can turn up some surprising results.
So, let’s start with something in Friday the 13th that’s central to the film and important to its mis-en-scene: its spatiotemporal setting at Crystal Lake. Under its entry in Dictionary of Symbols, lakes are considered “an occult medium in mythology and legend, linked particularly…with feminine powers of enchantment, through the feminine symbolism of water, and more widely with…death” (p.118). Considering that both the protagonist and antagonist of the film are women—and that the two do battle and meet their fates on the shores of Crystal Lake—it deepens the significance of Alice’s and Pamela Vorhees’ final confrontation there. Thus, the use of the lake as a visual platform fortifies the film’s revelatory gender ambiguity/specificity duality as well as its cinematic centrality in Friday the 13th.
The same entry in Dictionary of Symbols also states that the lake is “in effect a two-way mirror symbol” (p.118). Again, whether intentional or not, there’s little doubt that the mirroring effect of Crystal Lake is utilized as a nexus point, paralleling the gender identification (or lack thereof) between the protagonist and antagonist as ambiguous females; furthermore, it parallels the camera’s voyeuristic projections—taking ocular possession of  both characters’ perspectives throughout the film and transmits them into that of the viewers. This diegetic interchangeability between hero and villain via gender revelation is intermixed with the Droste-effective transfer from Alice’s and Mrs. Vorhees’ perspectives to the camera to the viewer; ultimately,  systematizing this two-way mirror exchange and extending it further by taking moviegoing possession of the viewer's vision.
Additionally, in Greek myth, the lake was considered another entryway into the underworld.[1] When you combine these symbolic meanings for ‘lake’ in their totality and then adjoin it with Dictionary of Symbols’ entry for ‘crystal’, the choice of Camp Crystal Lake as  Friday the 13th’s predetermined location—where eleven characters meet their deaths—makes symbolic sense. Likewise, the metaphoric use of ‘crystal’ signifies “the notion of passing or looking beyond the material world” (p.59), and intimated “clairvoyance [and] supernatural knowledge” (p.59). Therefore, Crystal Lake can be interpreted as a crux between the physical world and the afterlife, which then fortifies the worldly/otherworldly duality of Pamela Vorhees’ drowned son, Jason, and his ability to transcend death as long as he remains in the lake’s depths; thus, it serves as both a watery grave and an aquatic refuge for the dead/alive deformed boy. Caveat: obviously, Jason crosses over from this in-betweener state and into the physical world in the Friday the 13th sequels where he attains his slaughterhouse apotheosis from ‘lad of the lake’—complete with his modernized variation of the sword, Excalibur—into the iconic hockey-masked monster of contemporary popcultural myth; however, for now, let's focus solely on the original film.
Moving away from the film’s location, the semiotic significance of Friday the 13th’s protagonist Alice Hardy—yet another of Camp Crystal Lake's counselors—is what Carol Clover identifies in her essay “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film” as the 'Final Girl’ archetype common in slasher films. Clover observes, “The Final Girl is boyish, in a word…she is not fully feminine…Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters and sexual reluctance set her apart from the other girls” (p.204), and continues by noting that the Final Girl’s “unfemininity is signaled clearly by her exercise of the ‘active investigating gaze’ normally reserved or males…the Final Girl looks for the killer” (p.210). This unfemininity and boyishness that the slasher film’s Final Girl embodies is indicative of her role as hero-androgyne, and, by logical extension, Friday the 13th’s Alice is every bit the gender-ambiguous champion.
Throughout the film, the viewer can observe Alice’s subtle, genderless mannerisms and proactive attentiveness, which Carol Clover emphasizes, are key components of the Final Girl paradigm. For example, Alice’s hairstyle is somewhere between that of figure skater, Dorothy Hamill, and Jedi Knight, Mark Hamill. Her clothing is muted in tone and sexually nondescript with little-to-no accentuation of anatomical correctness. She is seen repairing the gutter on one of Camp Crystal Lake’s cabins as well as spending time in the kitchen. In one scen, after taking a shower, Alice is garbed in a full-length robe concealing any hint of her sexuality and, when she shrieks from the phallic snake slithering about her room, the viewer is left wondering if her panic is due to the snake itself or to her involuntary penis removal. Later in the film, while playing a game of ‘Strip-Monopoly’ with fellow camp counselors Bill and Brenda, Alice is the only player who, quite miraculously, hasn’t removed one article of her clothing. No-one can be that lucky. No-one except for Alice, that is. And her providence at ‘Strip Monopoly’ perhaps foreshadows her being the only fortunate soul to survive the forthcoming Crystal Lake massacre.
Symbolically speaking, Alice’s androgynous state might be interpreted as a metaphor for “divine wholeness—[the androgyne is] an ancient symbolism derived from widespread worship of primal gods who were simultaneously male and female” (Dictionary of Symbols, p.12). Thus, Alice’s preservation of gender neutrality during her bildungsroman from the feminine archetype of passive witness of the killer’s carnage into that of the masculine archetype as heroic aggressor and “killer of the killer” (Clover, p208) is one which ultimately leads to a figurative transfiguration into what I will term as ‘exosexual’ restorer of contextual order and cinematic balance.
 By ‘exosexual’, I mean that Alice (and, to some extent, all slasher-film Final Girls) is outside of and an outsider to her own sexuality; she is neither wholly female nor wholly male and maintains this sexual ambiguity throughout Friday the 13th. Therefore, on a purely symbolic level, Alice’s sexual drive can be seen as neither focused on procreation nor on recreation, but rather on upholding filmic stabilization in contrast to the killer’s vengeful acts of devastation against the body and, by logical extension, the voyeuristic terror-reaction roused within moviegoers witnessing the killer’s on-screen massacre.
Likewise, the character of Pamela Vorhees toys with androgyny to a lesser extent. As Clover points out, the viewer—via the killer’s perspective in Friday the 13th—is led to believe that Mrs. Vorhees isn’t a ‘Mrs.’ at all. Instead, the viewer assumes that the killer is male throughout most of the film: “’we’ [the moviegoers] stalk and kill a number of teenagers over the course of an hour of screen time…we are invited, by conventional expectation and by glimpses of…a heavily booted foot, a roughly gloved hand—to suppose that ‘we’ are male, but ‘we’ are revealed, at film’s end, as a woman” (p.216). Clover considers this to be “the most dramatic case of pulling out the gender rug” (p.216), and so right she is.
However, unlike Alice’s androgyny that subverts the classic ‘heroic male’ paradigm, Pamela Vorhees’ androgyny is one based on trickery in the context of the film’s semiotic subtext. The viewer is misled into believing that the killer is an antagonistic male aggressor in opposition to the androgynous Alice when, in fact, this isn’t the case. It is only after the killer is ‘unmasked’ and revealed to be Mrs. Vorhees that the viewer then realizes that he/she has been duped into believing otherwise and the killer’s androgynous masquerade has been exposed; yet, Pamela’s figurative meaning is still transfiguring on other levels.
Mrs. Vorhees also serves a dual role as both vengeful mother and slaughterer of camp counselors and can be metaphorically understood as that of the archetypal ‘mother-devourer’ found in countless world myths and religions. In the Dictionary of Symbols, this mother-devourer duality is identified as “Kali, the ‘Dark Mother’ of Hindu mythology [who] is the most alarming image of creator-destroyer” (p.138). Keeping this in mind, Mrs. Vorhees is imbued with the aspects of mother-creator—having originally given birth to her drowned son, Jason—as well as those of mother-destroyer who blindly seeks retribution for her son’s death via executing anyone associated with Camp Crystal Lake, the site of Jason’s watery demise.  
Furthermore, Pamela is indicative of psychology’s ‘terrible mother’ who symbolizes “possessive love and the danger of an infantile fixation persisting and blocking development of the self” (Dictionary of Symbols, p.138). In the film, this ‘possessive love’ arises within Mrs. Vorhees due to motherly instinct to protect her child…even if the child is already dead and it means she must continually satiate her unquenchable, psychotic desire for vengeance by upsetting the balance between birth and death.
Matt Hills’ remark that—to film scholars and movie critics—Friday the 13th is considered “to lack originality and artfulness, to possess no nominated or recognized auteur, and to be grossly sensationalist in its focus on…special effects” (p.232),  but to simply dismiss it as assembly-line slasher-flick fodder is doing the film an injustice. In the context of horror film history, it is unique regardless of its pandering to box-office sales and partaking in the “time-honored 1950s and 1960s tradition of a major studio knocking off the genre success of an independent production”[2]. Although it might not be the first slasher flick to introduce the concept of ‘Final Girl’—that honor goes to John Carpenter’s Halloween—it does succeed where Carpenter’s film fails: that of fully transfiguring the Final Girl from stereotypical ‘damsel in distress’ who is saved in the nick of time by a heroic male figure—and thus, maintaining patriarchal order within the film’s 95-minute run—into one who needs no male hero to be saved by for she has appropriated those heroic qualities of self-reliance, independence, and assumed the role of ‘vanquisher of the enemy’.
With that said, Friday the 13th also stands apart in slasher-film history and originality with its subversion of the stereotypical enemy. Not only is the film’s killer the first female ‘slasher’, but she’s also a contemporary reinterpretation of the classic ‘mother-devourer’ paradigm. The fact that this film was exploring new boundaries with women’s roles in cinema and questioning otherwise implicit sexual stereotypes often relegated to female characters AND doing all of this in a commercially-successful motion picture, one would assume that film scholars and movie critics alike would be lauding Friday the 13th; yet that’s not the case.   For reasons that I as yet cannot fully fathom, this singular slasher film hasn’t received any further scholarly examination beyond that of peripheral criticism and/or myopic dismissal. Furthermore, virtually nothing has been written about its re-appropriation of mythic and religious symbolism and their re-interpretations onto late-20th century cinema screens—and interwoven with sexual politics, I might add. Friday the 13th proves that some slasher films just get no respect (…but plenty of sequels).

Clover, Carol J. "Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film." Representations, No. 20, Special Issue: Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy (Autumn 1987): pp.187-228.
Friday the 13th: Uncut – Deluxe Edition. Dir. Sean S. Cunningham. Perf. Kevin Bacon, Adrienne King Betsy Palmer. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2009. DVD.
Hills, Matt. "Para-Paracinema." Sconce, Jeffrey. Sleaze Artists. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. pp.219-239.
Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox Uma Thurman. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2004. DVD.
Tresidder, Jack. Dictionary of Symbols. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1997.

[1] Tresidder, Jack. Dictionary of Symbols. London: Watkins, 2008. Print. p.117.
[2]  Hills, Matt. "Para-Paracinema." Sconce, Jeffrey. Sleaze Artists. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007. 219-239.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Second Examination of the Towering Inferno

In Cinema Studies, Susan Heyward states in her entry for ‘Queer cinema’ that “Queer theory can be seen as a desire to challenge and push further debates on gender and sexuality…It is a concept that embraces all ‘non-straight approaches to…film and popular culture…it seeks to confuse binary essentialisms around gender and sexual identity…and suggest that things are far more blurred” (p.331). With this in mind—and with Queer theory as the subtextual compass pointing to the animal-magnetic queer ‘pole’—the film, The Towering Inferno discontinues solely being a disaster film and can be viewed as a visually semiotic exercise into gay pornography, 165 minutes of failed conversion/reparative/reorientation therapy, and, ultimately, a queer political commentary on closeted homosexuality (and subsequent ‘spring cleaning’ of said closet) in the 1970s.
Firstly, obviously, and most importantly, it should be noted that The Towering Inferno’s story takes place in the city that every dollar-store drag queen, hanky-literate leather daddy, and flannel-loving bulldyke considers to be, at least historically, the American gay capital: San Francisco. According to, the Northern Californian city “has enjoyed an undisputed reputation as a ‘gay mecca’ since at least 1964, when Life magazine published a path-breaking feature article, “Homosexuality in America,” that described the city by the bay to be the ‘gay capital’ of the United States” ( With such a reputation firmly entrenched in the average American psyche by the 1970s, the construction of an immense gleaming glass phallus casting a glittery shadow over the nation’s late-20th century ‘gay capital’ seems less subconscious and more strategic if anything.
Furthermore, the filmic worship of a gargantuan glass phallus firmly planted in the heart of the Frisco skyline is not only a diegetic exercise in excess—and therefore an homage to gay camp—but also carries on a subtextual dialogue with gay-pornographic, fetishistic institutionalization of penis size being an a priori requirement of the gay-porn industry’s stars. In his article “When Size Matters,” Drew Rowsome addresses the ‘size queen’ and the recurring theme of disproportionately enormous penis sizes popular in gay culture. He notes that the term ‘size queen’ is “frequently used by gay men in a disparaging way” (, and that “a lack of endowment is more likely to be mocked during gay banter” ( Rowsome also discusses the obsession in gay culture with penis size: “Personal ads brag of endless inches of gargantuan [phallic] girth. [Gay] Pornstars trumpet their enormous erections and add inches of plastic to their namesake dildos” ( Just as the “breasts had become a sign of the women’s sexual appetite” (Hatch, p.151) in Russ Meyer’s films, the enormously erect phallus becomes a sign of a gay man’s sexual appetite in Irwin Allen’s cinematic disaster opus.
By logical extension veering into the realm of reductio ad absurdum, the focus of the enormity of size in The Towering Inferno runs parallel to the gay community’s fetishistic and masturbatory fascination with the well-endowed, which incessantly and obsessively pops out of every page in gay porn magazines and permeates gay skin-flicks with imagistic attention paid closely to the erect endless inches of the phallic endowment.  Furthermore, the fixed location of the permanently-erect Glass Tower in The Towering Inferno is the metaphoric equivalent to the spatiotemporally-fixed fixation of the monumentalized ‘money shot’ in every form of gay pornographic material. The ‘money shot’ is that moment in gay porn when sole attention is paid to the erect, stimulated penis before, during, and after ejaculatory emission. And much like gay-pornographic film where the money shot usually occurs towards the end of the film, The Towering Inferno does the same with its simulated ejaculation of water gushing from the tower’s 135th floor.
Additionally, the allusion to homosexual sex in The Towering Inferno removes any and all notions of the reproductive capabilities inherent in its heterosexual equivalent; thusly, this reproductive void transfigures homosexual sex into one of pure hedonism and pleasure; this is intimated in a particular The Towering Inferno scene that might go unnoticed by the viewer if he/she isn’t paying close attention. During the post-coital immolation by fire of Dan Bigelow and his secretary/mistress, Lorrie, the Glass Tower’s main offices are burnt to a cinder right along with two characters. Here, the textual reproductive assertion of ‘Built for Life’ is etched onto office decorum and seen burning into collapse; thereby, signifying that reproductive sex has no place in this film. That this film is ablaze with desire and absolved of any and all reproductive associations; yet another diegetic suggestion of homosexual sex. Likewise, the fervent, frenzied activities of the film’s characters going in-and-out, up-and-down the levels of the Glass Tower simulates both mutual masturbatory and anal-sexual penetrative motions in gay pornography.
And speaking of characters, those that appear in The Towering Inferno serve the dual metaphoric function as representations of both sexual fantasy played out to maintain the Glass Tower’s constant erection and individual spermatozoa during their travels through the excited erection of the fiery glass phallus, each on its way to find ejaculatory escape from the truly Towering Inferno.  In his essay, “The Bug in the Rug,” Maurice Yacowar observes that, in the disaster film, the various stars that appear are often dependent “upon their familiarity from previous films, rather than developing a new characterization. Plot more than character is emphasized…In The Towering Inferno an inherited sentiment plays around Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn repeats his corrupt politician…and Richard Chamberlain reprises his corrupt all-American” (p285).  Likewise, in gay pornography, plot—insofar as the attainment of orgasmic climax—overrides and often supersedes character development. The viewer of gay porn recognizes the porn stars from their previous work, which renders the necessity for character development null and void.
However, in the context of the juxtaposing The Towering Inferno with gay pornography, the sole porn stars of the former are the phallic skyscrapers of the city and not Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, etc. of the film. As I previously mentioned, the actual stars of The Towering Inferno serve as semiotic surrogates for sexual fantasies played out in the minds of the film’s porn-star equivalents: the San Francisco skyscrapers. Moreover the film’s stars equally serve as a microcosmic view of the stimulated penis, constituting its erection as well as the biological act of ejaculatory emission of seminal discharge during The Towering Inferno’s ‘money shot’ ending.
As for the disconnected, often interruptive, fantasies played out by underdeveloped characters to maintain an erection for the duration of the film, considering that this was 1970s—a time when conversion therapy was still believed to be a plausible means of quashing homosexual desires/tendencies/behavior through elaborate system of behavior modification and, more often than not, was legitimated by a somewhat surprisingly large number of practitioners in the psychological and psychiatric fields. Keep in mind, it was only one year prior to The Towering Inferno’s theatrical release that “the American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Trustees removed homosexuality from its official diagnostic manual…The experts found that homosexuality does not meet the criteria to be considered a mental illness” (   Additionally, this was the era of ex-gay ministries supposedly flipping homosexuals like light switches back into a heterosexual lifestyle, while steadfastly maintaining that heterosexuality was “God’s creative intent for humanity and subsequently view[ed] homosexual expression as outside of God’s will” (
Is it really any wonder that the actualized sexual fantasies drifting in and out of The Towering Inferno’s mis-en-scene are heavily heterosexual-laden in nature? Mind you, both post-coital reveries (that of Glass Tower architect, Doug Roberts, and his romantic interest, Susan Franklin, and Dan Bigelow and his secretary, Lorrie) revolve less around the sexual act and more around pillow talk of living the heterosexual lifestyle. As a viewer with the abovementioned knowledge of the tortures the Glass Tower must endure due to late-20th century societal disapprovals of homosexuality even in the gay capital, one cannot feel empathy for the Glass Tower as it attempts to cope and come to terms with its sexuality. Furthermore, in the context of the 1970s, one cannot reproach The Towering Inferno for its attempts at conversion therapy via heterosexual fantasies that appear towards the beginning of the film; thereby, remaining in the closet. By the time the Fire Department Battalion Chief, Mike O’Hallorhan, enters the picture the viewer notices as markedly different change in the Glass Tower’s sexual fantasy.
Not only is O’Hallorhan emblematic of homoerotic fantasy in his fetishized and fire-manly sartorial plumage, he is also indicative of a shift in desire from one of heterosexual to that of homosexual. His purpose is to extinguish those flames of desire welling up in the erect phallic edifice; yet his presence has quite the opposite effect. Considering that the semiotic image of a fireman with fire-hose in hand, ejecting jets of water to snuff out the burning homosexual lust is one rife with phallic extensions and orgasmic climax  itself, it’s no wonder that the entrance of O’Hallorhan does little to end the now pervasive homoerotic fantasy welling up and exciting the phallic construction.
Moreover, once O’Hallorhan enters into the picture, he constantly materializes in the presence of Doug Roberts, disrupting the architect’s dialogical, interactive scenes with love interest, Sarah Franklin; often leading to Roberts being distracted from his romantic efforts with Franklin and giving O’Hallorhan his undivided attention. To the viewer, it becomes plainly obvious that the Glass Tower’s ultimate autoerotic sexual fantasy would be under the gay-pornographic purview of sexual intercourse between Roberts, the architect of the massive phallic extension, and the fetishized fireman, O’Hallorhan.
This repressed burning drive to actualize O’Hallorhan and Roberts attainment of sexual consummation via sexualized fantasy is best exemplified towards the end of The Towering Inferno and before its final ejaculatory scenes. Here, the San Francisco Fire Department strategizes to shoot a ‘breeches buoy’—a name suggestive of the ‘daddy/boy’ paradigm in many gay pornos, the breeches as garment enshrouding both the anal-sexual orifice and the phallus, and the act of ‘breeching’ or penetrating—to the Glass Tower via a helicopter; thereby connecting one enormous phallic edifice to another, the adjacent Peerless Building. This unification of two symbolic phalluses is orchestrated by Roberts and O’Hallorhan and is representative of the gay-pornographic scenes of foreplay and mutual masturbation; both of which ultimately lead to the orgasmic money shots by film’s end…and The Towering Inferno is no exception here either.
It is also here that the ‘fireman’ fetishization is fully realized as O’Hallorhan’s superior officers materialize in fully-regimented military regalia. This recalls Harry Benshoff’s essay “Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film,” which touches on the military fetishization in gay culture. Benshoff observes that homosexuality in military films of the 1950s and ‘60s was hinted at “in oblique ways, but maintain[ed] plausible deniability should they [the filmmakers] be suspected of actually being ‘about’ homosexuality” (p.75). A character named ‘Johnson’—a slang-word for the male member—is working in conjunction with the fire dept. Johnson also uses the choice words of ‘blow’ and ‘load’; yet again, two more slang-words that, when used in conjunction with each other—as in ‘blowing a load’—they form a catchphrase synonymous in gay porn with the ejaculatory seminal discharge during the orgasmic money-shot scene. This is similar to what Benshoff asserts are allusions “to homosexual meanings in more-or-less coded ways” (p.75) in the homo-military films released 10+ years prior to Inferno’s ’74 release; here too, we have a fetishized regiment of keepers of order, peace, and law inferring homoeroticism.  
Likewise, just prior to The Towering Inferno’s orgasmic climax, O’Hallorhan alerts Roberts that the flames of desire are “out of control and coming your way!” The Battalion Chief is obviously referring to the impending ejaculation and discharge of seminal waters from the phallic Glass Tower’s head. As noted in Biology: Discovering Life, “ejaculation is involuntary, so it cannot be controlled by the male” (p.735); thus, O’Hallorhan’s ‘out of control’ comment. Obviously, his use of the term ‘coming’ is in reference to the discharge of semen, which is often referred to as ‘cum’ (verb ‘to come/cum’).
In the moments leading up to The Towering Inferno’s the money shot, O’Hallorhan—with the mutual masturbatory assistance of Roberts—blasts the water tanks above the 135th floor of the Glass Tower, unleashing a flood of water/semen out onto a room filled with only male characters (the homoerotic, orgiastic sexual fantasy fully realized). This seminal water is then ejaculated out of the Glass Tower in all directions from its 135th floor’s sky-rise windows and discharged onto the city, leaving a ‘cumstain’ of hedonistic release across the San Franciscan skyline. …Phew! I think I even need a cigarette after all of that.   
Grant, Barry Keith. "The Bug in the Rug." Film genre reader III  . Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2003. 277-295. Print.
Hatch, Kristen. "The Sweeter the Kitten, the Sharper the Claws." Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. 143-155. Print.
Levine, Joseph S., and Kenneth R. Miller. Biology: Discovering Life. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1991. Print.
Mills, Kim I. . "Mission Impossible: Why Reparative Therapy and Ex-Gay Ministries Fail." California State University, Fresno. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011. <>.
"Questions about Sexual Orientation." The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource - The Body. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011. <>.
Rowsome, Drew . "When Size Matters." fab Magazine. N.p., 17 Mar. 2010. Web. 1 Aug. 2011. <>.
"San Francisco." glbtq: the world's largest encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Aug. 2011. <>.
The Towering Inferno. Dir. John  Guillermin. Perf. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Fiery, Towering Phallus

As if inspired by the nine sister Muses of Greek myth—or maybe I’m still being held sway by Susan Heyward’s entry for ‘Queer cinema’ and her snippet about Queer theory—I found myself motivated to take a slightly slanted turn when viewing Towering Inferno. But before I even delve into those infernal depths of semiotic lust, assertions of patriarchal virility, and, yes, simulated gay sex concealed among the smoldering shrapnel of this disaster flick from ’74, let me address the points Maurice Yacowar makes about disaster films in general in his essay, “The Bug in the Rug.”
Firstly, Yacowar notes that “people [in disaster films] are most dramatically punished for placing their faith in their own works and losing sight of their maker. So their edifices must crumble around them.” (p.279); this succinctly summarizes Towering Inferno. Furthermore, Yacowar lists the conventions of disaster films and, in the context of Towering Inferno, is uncannily close to the mark. Firstly, he describes the first convention as one without a “distancing in time, place, or costume…the threatened society is ourselves” (p.284) In Towering Inferno’s case, the timeline appears to be contemporary San Francisco of the 1970’s; perhaps, only slightly out of step with our own timeline. By that, I mean that the technology appearing within the Glass Tower seems to be advanced and outside of our own timeline—or rather our own timeline during the late 20th century. With a vast and spacious security monitoring room complete with blinking lights that signify some level of importance, the constant chattering of computers tabulating their results, and an endless sea of symmetrical knobs and dials that, if turned, might mean the difference between order and chaos for the next 2.75 hours of your life. Additionally, each floor of the towering glass phallus appears to be furnished with a miniaturized version of this advanced monitoring system—each with its own set of lights, knobs, and dials. Thus, I suggest that Towering Inferno is a many-worlds interpretation of 1970’s America where, unlike our own reality, theirs is one that has attained a slightly higher level of technological advancement.  Still, it’s close enough to our own.
Yacowar’s second convention listed is that “the basic imagery of the disaster film would be disaster…spectacular destruction” (p.284). Thanks to alcoholic electrical engineer, Roger Simmons, choice in substandard wiring, the Glass Tower is doomed for the most spectacular of destructions. The third convention in disaster films revolves around an “entire cross-section of society…usually represented in the cast” (p.284); in Towering Inferno, not so much. Other than OJ Simpson supervising all of that high-tech surveillance gadgetry and some random firefighter, this cast is about as white as they come. Sure, the aged, deaf, and obese are represented but they’re all lily-white. So, here, Yacowar might be describing other disaster films but not Towering Inferno. Though he does note that the various stars in the film “depend upon their familiarity from previous films, rather than developing a new characterization. Plot more than character is emphasized…In The Towering Inferno an inherited sentiment plays around Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn repeats his corrupt politician…and Richard Chamberlain reprises his corrupt all-American” (p285); nevertheless, 99.999996% of this cast—including its extras—is of the Caucasian persuasion.
Yacowar’s fourth convention asserts that “the disaster film often dramatizes class conflict” (p.285), which for this film is true. However, the class divide is simplified: working class is represented by the average-joe firefighter, while the upper class is indicated by anyone who can afford the luxuriant comforts contained within the Glass Tower. Though, in the context of the film, there is an obvious class divide and not much is done to question it or, at the very least, offer some scintilla of all-illuminating insight into the irony that it’s the working-class firefighters that must rescue, protect, and clean up the opulent upper class’ mess. As is often the case, it’s the working-class that must deliver the rich from their evil pride and vanity, and be the better of the two classes, overriding their socioeconomic differences to maintain the illusion that all life is precious and sacred (praise the angels!). Ultimately, the firefighting joe receives little to no recognition for risking his life to save the wealthy, which logically leads back to the perpetuation of the corrupt system of excess and big business.
A perfect example of the wealthy interacting with the working class materializes between Battalion Chief, Mike O’Hallorhan, and Glass Tower owner, James Duncan. As O’Hallorhan enters the 135th floor to inform the attendees of the Tower’s ceremonial extravaganza that they must vacate the building, Duncan confronts him and attempts to exert his social and financial, O’Hallorhan responds, “Alright, it’s your building but it’s our fire. Let’s get these people the hell outta here.” Duncan growls back, “Hold it! The mayor’s out there. Do you want me to pull rank on you?” O’Hallorhan acts as if he expected such a response and appears unimpressed, which nonpluses and infuriates Duncan; in the end, the rich must yield to the working class.
Yacowar’s fifth convention is the use of “gambling [as] a recurrent device” (p.285). Yep, Towering Inferno’s got it. When the emergency helicopter attempts a landing on the Glass Tower’s roof to rescue those rich white people stuck inside, O’Hallorhan tells the building’s architect, Doug Roberts, to get ten people out on the roof. Roberts takes paper, pencil, and a large brandy snifter and hands it over to Susan Franklin, his romantic interest, to do the dirty work. That’s right it’s “high-rise roulette”, for the landed gentry tonight! Mesdames et Messieurs, draw a number and wait your turn; wielding wads of cash from your wallets ain’t gonna get you on that chopper any sooner. Producer and co-director, Irwin Allen, should be applauded for transfiguring Towering Inferno from a mindless disaster film into an illuminating commentary on the socioeconomic illusions of our contemporary culture. Whatevs.
Skipping over Yacowar’s sixth and seventh conventions, I move to his eight: “The characters’ isolation is exacerbated by the various conflicts between them…people must unite against calamity…personal and social differences pale beside the assaulting forces in nature” (p.287). Lisolette Mueller dismisses Harlee Caliborne’s confessions that he’s a conman all for one last strained stab at love. Susan Franklin decides to sacrifice her dreams to be managing editor of a magazine for a life of domestic bliss with Doug Roberts and his baby-blues. Dan Bigelow no longer cares that he and Lorrie, his secretary, have surreptitiously been having an affair as they succumb to the purifying blaze that will cleanse them both of their adulterous sins. Security Officer Harry Jernigan, the token black man, saves both Mrs. Allbright, the token deaf woman, and Elkie, the indifferent cat.
The ninth convention advocates that the disaster film shares “the further sense that savagery continues to underlie a pretense to civilization. Thus disasters usually breed a lawless anarchy” (p.288). In reference to Towering Inferno, Yacowar offers, “They [civilized humanity] build towers higher than their [the firefighters’] hoses can reach” (p.288), and that “peoples works are dangerous…even the earphone transistors…in The Towering Inferno deafen the boy to the danger around him” (p.288). On a purely reptilian-base-of-the-brain level, Towering Inferno endeavors to visually remind and reconnect we hairless apes with our repressed lawless and godless origins. As Duncan struggles to direct throngs of tuxedos and aerosol hairstyles to use the scenic elevators, one of the express elevators’ doors slide open and it’s every man, woman, and full-length evening gown for him-/her-/itself. Another scene of savagery happens much later in the film when that dastardly Roger Simmons—who’s been intravenously connected to the 135th-floor bar all night yet somehow never appears the least bit intoxicated—challenges Yacowar’s fifth and makes a mad dash for the breeches buoy in a vain attempt for survival, pushing off and kicking at a gaggle of not-so-gentlemen who’ve also decided not to wait their turn. Proof that civility is a myth or God doesn’t give a rat’s ass…or both.
Jumping to his thirteenth convention because numbers ten through twelve are either irrelevant to Towering Inferno or redundant, Yacowar discusses the hero of the disaster film and how he is “usually a layman with practical sense but without specialized knowledge” (p.289). He even mentions the Inferno’s very own Doug Roberts who is “a specialist, an architect, but his knowledge is leavened by his rusticity” (p.289), which is true, but he makes no mention of firefighter Mike O’Hallorhan who serves as the working-class hero. Towering Inferno is noticeably different in its approach to the heroic archetype, imbuing both Roberts and O’Hallorhan with heroic qualities as well as equal screen-time.
Roberts is the former counter-cultural college student who would’ve hightailed it to Canada if he’d been drafted and O’Hallorhan is the high-school graduate who was prepared to fight and die for his country if he’d been drafted. As Yacowar notes, “The disaster [film] cycle of the 1970s followed the slow ending of the American presence in Vietnam” (p.287), and, with that in mind, creating a hero duality between Roberts and O’Hallorhan—watching their blind strides to reach an understanding of the other amidst the chaos surrounding them—is quite telling…if not, confined to the cultural and political chaos of its era.
…And I didn’t even get to my rather long-winded dissemination about the Glass Tower being symbolic of one transcendent, dominating phallus that: is eternally petrified by patriarchal machismo; is riddled with the fires of desire that work their way upward to reach final orgasm; partakes in a homosexual act with the Peerless Building; and lastly reaches its orgasmic climax as cascades of water are ejaculated from the 135th floor. Oh well, perhaps another time.

Grant, Barry Keith. "The Bug in the Rug." Film Genre Reader III  . Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2003. 277-295.
The Towering Inferno. Dir. John  Guillermin. Perf. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Perils on the Poop Deck: the Voyeurs 3
Imagine my shock upon reading the entry for ‘Queer cinema’ in Susan Heyward’s Cinema Studies and gradually realizing that my knack for subverting just about any film I’ve ever seen with a homosexual subtext had an actual name—Queer theory—having been in practice since the era that gave us Reaganomics and Rubik’s Cube.  I automatically felt this overwhelming blush of embarrassment, uttering under my breath, “So, it’s called Queer theory, huh? Well, it looks like I missed the boat on that one.” And speaking of boats… The film, Billy Budd, is awash with maritime mis-en-scenes and seamen (or is it semen?) adrift in the bare-chested posturing of homoerotic semiotics, phallic extensions, and dialogic double-entendres—all under the purview of a queer-theoretical lens, mind you.
Before I get too involved in the examination, exposal, and transduction of these diegetic gay signifiers in Billy Budd, let’s look at Queer theory’s description. According to Heyward, “Queer theory can open up texts and lead us to read texts that seem straight differently—or view them from a new and different angle. Thus queer reading can reveal that you are watching (reading) something far more complex than you originally thought you were” (p.309). This aptitude to supplant the deeply-rooted heterosexual traditions instituted in most contemporary cultures and enforced by the doctrines of patriarchal society isn’t as easy as it sounds. However, as Heyward noted, once such a subversive interpretation has been attained, it can lend clarity and insight to an otherwise stagnant sociocultural assertion/assumption.
Under the scrutinization of this queer lens, Billy Budd transcends its rather narrow, narrative limitations based on 18th –century British naval history, in 1960’s cultural norms, and under the watchful gaze of Hollywood’s  Production Code Authority (PCA); thereby, attaining queer-political transfiguration within the film’s 123-minute run. As Harry Benshoff notes in his essay, “Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film,” from the book Sleaze Artists, such films like Billy Budd “raised significant and complex questions about masculinity and sexual identity and that the borders between male homosocial and homosexual desire…were not always clear cut” (p.90). In this cinematic adaptation of the Herman Melville novella, we find these questions manifesting themselves in their totality within the cores of Billy Budd’s three main characters: Master-at-Arms Claggart, Captain Vere, and Billy Budd himself. Upon a queer-theoretical reading of the film, each of these characters assumes a pre-Stonewall perspective on homosexuality in a society and culture firmly entrenched in heterosexual society and culture.
For instance, John Claggart “can best be understood as a repressed homosexual: he is both attracted to and repulsed by Billy…and so will not allow himself to be physically or emotionally touched by him” (Benshoff, p.78). Within the films first 15 minutes, Claggart’s fascination with Budd is established as the master-at-arms exchanges prolonged glances with young seaman. Claggart’s penetrative stares at Budd do not go unnoticed either. Amidst the film’s first flogging scenes, the camera cuts from Claggart’s stare to Budd’s several times with a slightly extended cut of Capt. Vere observing the two men’s exchanged glances in-between; this third gaze—Vere’s invisible gaze—prefigures Claggart’s voyeuristic fascination with Budd throughout the rest of the film as well as an eroticized fetishization of a later flogging. Vere’s third stare establishes the ‘love triangle’ aboard the Avenger and the focus for the rest of my discussion.
Love triangles aside, Claggart’s sexual repression is transmogrified by his own self-loathing over internal desires into externalized acts of sadism disguised as anal-retentive adherence to military rules and regulations. This adherence is made visible in the master-at-arms’ rigid body posture, immaculate attire, and constant tapping of his cane to the polished sheen of his black boots; in fact, one could argue that Claggart’s cane is a semiotic extension of the phallus. His disgust for his own carnal needs and self-sexualized body manifests itself via snarling reproaches to anyone who dares to touch him. This is exactly what happens when crew-member, Jenkins, approaches Claggart after a homoerotic ‘test of strength’ has ended between Budd and himself. Upon being grabbed by Jenkins, Claggart lashes out with his cane at him and growls, “Watch what you’re doing. Don’t you ever touch me!” The master-at-arms’ outward disgust over physical contact cannot disguise his inner, primal desire to touch and be touched. This unfulfilled, subconscious lust is externally expressed through Claggart’s constant assaults on the crewmen via his flailing cane, and thus, by logical extension, the weapon master is molesting them with his substitute phallus.
  Additionally, Claggart is more than a mere case-study in homosexual repression; he is also a paradigmatic example of ‘the bitter queen.’ This bitterness materializes later in the film when Budd attempts to have a conversation with Claggart on the eve before both men will meet their demise. While Claggart glares out across the roiling waves of ocean beneath him, Budd asks him if it would be alright for him to stay topside awhile. Claggart almost enviously replies, “I suppose the handsome sailor may do many things forbidden to his messmates.” This statement is an echo of an earlier scene where Claggart purposely bumps into Budd and knocks his food rations out of his hands in order to have Jenkins clean it up; here, the master-at-arms remarks to the young seaman, “Handsomely done, lad. But then handsome is as handsome does.” However, the latter of Claggart’s two ‘handsome’ comments directed at Budd is more of a repressed homosexual desire for Billy, while the former is one of covetousness.
Regardless, the topside conversation between Claggart and Budd the evening before the two rendezvous with their fates is also important because Billy astutely observes the source of the master-at-arms’ misery: “I [Budd] think that sometimes you [Claggart] hate yourself.” Benshoff makes note of this scene as well, stating that Budd “comes close to diagnosing Claggart as an ego-dystonic homosexual…but the cause of that self-hatred is never made manifest” (p.78). Additionally, Claggart’s use of words like ‘fool’ and ‘ignorant’ in the context of this tête-à-tête to describe Billy are meant to belittle and berate the young sailor; however, Budd is blithely unaware of the master-at-arms’ slanderous, indirect jibes toward him. In fact, Billy utters a sincere line laced in double meaning when he remarks to Claggart, “I’ve never met a man like you before.” Such a statement might be alluding to Claggart’s misery or to an attraction that Budd himself is feeling for the master-at-arms. Keep in mind, Claggart hasn’t been the only one caught ogling by the camera; Budd too has been returning his stares in kind.
However, unlike Claggart’s repressed homosexual—and, therefore, an older generation of gay men who kept their closets locked up tightly—Budd is representative of a new breed of younger homosexual. He does not loathe who or what he is like Claggart because he feels no shame over it. He is ignorant to his sexual ambiguity. Budd could be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, but it doesn’t appear that he would be unfazed by any label. Billy is indicative of the ‘60s youth culture, its push to re-evaluate accepted societal norms, and, most importantly, its burgeoning sexual liberation. His youthful exhilaration exhibits a genuine affection in body contact, which is antithetical to Claggart’s repulsion of being touched. For example, Budd doesn’t mind the heated, close contact he is sharing with fellow messmate, Jenkins, during their fight below decks nor does he seem to mind that his genitals are pressed and brushing up against his opponent’s—a scene where director, Peter Ustinov, has focused the camera’s lens upon the two men’s pelvic regions—in fact, he appears to enjoy it; thereby, metamorphosing a wrestling match into a lovers’ embrace.
And much like his invisible voyeurism close to the beginning of the film, Captain Vere is an unseen queer caught between Claggart’s Scylla of self-loathing homosexual and Budd’s Charybdis of sexual confidence and fluidity. Unlike Claggart, Vere does not hate his homosexuality; however, he doesn’t embrace it like Billy does either. Instead, the good Captain gives the air that he is above both. In contemporary gay culture, Vere would be deemed a ‘sophistafag’—outwardly logical, highly enlightened, and higher than the straightest highbrow; both sex and sexual repression are below him.
Vere’s sophistafaggotry in Billy Budd is first recognizable in the scene where he materializes topside, bespectacled with book in hand. The Captain exudes a façade that implies that he is too busy reading his novel to notice his crew working diligently around him; however, this ruse is ultimately foiled. As he peers upward, Capt. Vere notices Billy carrying out his topforemanly duties high above the Avenger. Yet again, Vere believes himself to be the invisible voyeur/warrior as he catches a biblio-shaded glance at Budd’s derriere. The anatomical focus of Vere’s attention is unmistakable since, visually, his eyelining mirrors the direction of the angle of his book; furthermore, Billy’s most pronounced body part from the Captain’s perspective is the youthful sailor’s buttocks. With that said, Vere’s voyeuristic invisibility dematerializes as Budd catches the Captain checking out his ass. Billy simply responds with a smile and a wave of ‘hello’; thus, sending Vere into a stolid embarrassment and ending his rapturous few moments of shedding his guise of sophistafaggotry and letting his bookworm squirm with sexual desire.
Director, Peter Ustinov, deftly interweaves this torrid triangle of homosexual desire throughout the film and summarizes each man’s sexual identities in the Captain’s cabin where Billy is confronted by Claggart and his accusations of Budd’s mutiny, and during the trial of the young sailor for the death of the master-at-arms. Here, Claggart is the unadulterated embodiment of the bitter queen: since he cannot have Billy, the master-at-arms has taken it upon himself to make certain that no-one else will either. Like some spurned lover—or, perhaps, like some jealous lover sensing Vere’s attraction to Budd—Claggart meets with Vere in private and accuses Budd of conspiring with other crew members against the Avenger.
When Budd is brought in to confront his accuser, Claggart’s words are inundated with psychological self-projections and dialogical double meaning: “This William Budd acting so out of angry resentment against impressments…against this ship, this service…against the officers, the mates, and me. And urges them to the outrage of mutiny…I surprised him in the forechain…and both saw and heard him conspire with known malingerers…men who continually growl about unfair pay.”   Obviously, Claggart is the one who is filled with bitter ‘resentment’ over his unrequited love for Budd. The master-at-arms’ choice of the words ‘mates’ and ‘urges’ suggests further jealousy. His line about surprising Budd in the ‘forechain’ could easily be interchangeable with foreskin. Claggart’s accusation that Budd is hanging around with ‘known malingerers’ growling about not getting adequately paid intimates something seedier; perhaps, a suggestion that Billy is a whore—harsh words spoken by Claggart and like a true spurned lover.
Brought about by Claggart’s soap-operatic accusations and/or sensing that Billy isn’t likely to be a chubby chaser, Captain Vere’s own concealed jealousies rear their ugly mastheads during the trial of Budd. Here, Vere chooses not to embrace Budd—and, by logical extension, Billy’s liberated sexuality—but to embrace his sophistafaggotry and quash any sexual desire he might have for the young sailor by hiding behind his esteemed logic. Regardless of his own personal feelings for Budd, the Captain  doggedly pursues the topforeman’s death with lustful obsession, which is striking similar to Claggart’s obsessed outburst of mutinous accusations all in pursuit of seeing Budd hanged. Vere protests  the secret court’s verdict of Budd’s innocence by boldly stating, “Which one of us here has rights? It is my duty, and I must perform it…your verdict sets him [Billy] free, and so would I wish to do…We cannot have warm hearts betraying heads which should be cool…Our consciences are private matters…but we are public men…I feel…for myself revulsion, shame, and rage.” By hiding behind the Mutiny Acts Provision Vere spares himself from the temptation of the lowly sexual act of carnal lust, while simultaneously persuades the members of the court to switch their decision from one of ‘innocent’ to that of ‘guilty.’
Both Vere and Claggart deal with their sexual demons in different ways, but both men reach the same decision: the use of their military rank to condemn Budd to death for his good looks (and the powers of temptation that they contain), his sexual freedom and ambiguity, and his inability to give them what they desire most—his sexual intimacy and affection. In the film’s final moments after Budd has been hanged, a broken-up Vere loses his sophistafag cool and remarks, “I’m only a man not fit to do the work of God or the devil,” and walks away from his duties as Captain of the Avenger to hide the tears he has shed over Budd’s hanging. In the end, the whole crew meets a similar fate as Billy’s off the Spanish Coast as the Avenger is sunk into the ocean deep by a French naval vessel. Under the lens of Queer theory, Billy Budd is ultimately a movie comparable to a women’s film period piece— a gay weepie or ‘weepenis’ if you will—and, yes, I did just go there.
Benshoff, Harry M.. "Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film." Sleaze Artists:  Cinema at the Margins of Taste, Style, and Politics. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. pp. 71-95.
Billy Budd. DVD. Dir. Peter Ustinov. Perf. Robert Ryan, Peter Ustinov, Terence Stamp. Warner Home Video, 2007.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies:  the Key Concepts. 3rd ed. London: Routledge, 2006.