Friday, June 28, 2013

Art, Sex, and Influence: Part 2

Here is the second part of my article about 20 gay male artists who have influenced me over the years. Read the first part here and celebrate the fact that this week DOMA and Prop 8 were overturned by the Supreme Court, though I have to wince at the margin by which these were barely rejected. 

Roland Barthes (1915 - 1980)
“I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.”

One of the most innovative literary theorists of his generation, this French writer, linguist, leftist, critic, philosopher, and professor is one of the most important personalities of the Post-structuralist school and of semiotics. Educated at the Sorbonne, Barthes suffered throughout his life from tuberculosis, which kept him out of WWII, but also made his academic career more challenging. Barthes helped to re-imagine literary criticism, and developed new language for the interpretation of signs, photography, and the image, of critical importance to film theorists. Though Barthes occasionally wrote about his homosexual flings, he seems to have been largely romantically inactive and spent much of his life living with his mother, who died in 1977. He died a few years later when he was hit by a van and sustained chest injuries. Some of his most important and recommended works include Writing Degree Zero, Mythologies, his essay “The Death of the Author,” S/Z, Empire of Signs, A Lover’s Discourse, Image-Music-Text, and Sade, Fourier, Loyola. Beginners should keep in mind that his writing his highly theoretical and academic. A good place to start is the Barthes Reader (it includes “Death of the Author”) and Louis-Jean Calvet’s biography, which has been translated into English. 

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922 - 1975)
“I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for belief.”

Next to Oscar Wilde, Pasolini is probably the most important person on this list. Known primarily for his infamous film Salo, Pasolini is one of the most difficult men on this list to classify. He was a director, novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher, critic, journalist, and linguist, as well as an actor, painter and art critic. His brief imprisonment by German forces in WWII and his life in fascist Italy led directly to Salo, his final film, an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom set in fascist Italy. It features a number of explicit acts, including shit eating, rape, and murder. Even his less overtly shocking films included brazen depictions of sexuality, and political and religious themes that led to his work being banned. A controversial figure for most of his adult life, part of this was due to the expression of his extreme political and religious beliefs in his conservative, religious home country, Italy. He was also openly gay (one of his earliest influences was Rimbaud, the first person on my list), which led to an early scandal and contributed to his death immediately after the release of Salo when he was murdered by a male prostitute (though in recent years it has been suspected that his death was a political controversy). His neo-realist films are highly recommended and several are available through Criterion, including Salo and his Trilogy of Life. Also recommended is Teorema, one of my favorite of his films. To learn more about one of the century’s greatest filmmakers, check out this Senses of Cinema article and this New York Times article. More academic works I would recommend are Pasolini’s own Heretical Empiricism, Allegories of Contamination by Patrick Rumble, Sam Rhodie’s The Passion of Pier Paolo Passolini, and The Resurrection of the Body by Armando Maggi. 

Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984)
“Death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of man: his invisible truth, his visible secret.”

A contemporary of Barthes, French social theorist/anthropologist and literary critic Michel Foucault is another major personality in philosophy, post-structuralism in particular, and his works on sex, power, knowledge, the prison system, and mental illness are ground breaking. A student of Louis Althusser, Foucault made a name for himself with Madness and Civilization, a historical and theoretical study of the rise of psychiatry and an examination of madness in Western culture. He primarily focused on structuralism and discussions of modernity, which are represented in nearly all of his works, and he was heavily influenced by Nietzsche, particularly in his later years. I would recommend The Birth of the Clinic, The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish, and The History of Sexuality, though keep in mind that all of his works are highly academic. Mostly open about his sexuality, Foucault was occasionally caught up in scandals, and he and the composer Jean Barraqué became known for incorporating drugs and S&M into their relationship. Many of Foucault’s literary influences similarly explored the intersection of sex and violence. Foucault was the first public figure in France to die of AIDS-related complications. His partner of two decades, sociology professor Daniel Defert, became an AIDS activist as a result and founded one of the first French AIDS awareness organizations, AIDES. To learn more about Foucault, check out James Miller’s biography The Passion of Michel Foucault

Kenneth Anger (1927 - )
"I've always considered movies evil; the day that cinema was invented was a black day for mankind."

Kenneth Anger is an influential American independent, experimental filmmaker best known for a number of short films that combine themes of the occult and homo-eroticism and were influenced strongly by early filmmaker Georges Méliès and the Surrealists. His Magick Lantern Cycle comes highly recommended and includes such films as Fireworks (1947), Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1964), Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969), and Lucifer Rising (1972). His innovative use of pop music in film influenced a wide range of directors, including David Lynch. Anger was one of the first openly gay directors in the U.S. and many of his works contain homoerotic elements or gay characters. Some of these films were shot while homosexuality was still illegal in the U.S. and Anger was taken to court on obscenity charges. He’s also well known for having “Lucifer” tattooed on his chest, for following Aleister Crowley's occult practices, and for having a number of famous friends, including sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Jean Cocteau, Anton LaVey, and Mick Jagger. Anger has also written two books, both named Hollywood Babylon, that are essentially gossip memoirs about his life in Hollywood and interactions with various prominent actors and filmmakers. If you want to read more about him, check out Alice Hutchinson’s biography and film book Kenneth Anger and visit his personal site. His films are available in an excellent two part collection from Kino.

Ian McKellen (1939 - )
“There’s no sex in Middle Earth.”

In addition to being one of the finest actors working on stage or screen, Sir Ian McKellen has become a gay icon over the years (he even played someone mentioned much earlier on my list, director James Whale, in the biographical film Gods and Monsters and starred in Bent, about the Nazi persecution of homosexuality), which is especially wonderful considering that he is also one of the world’s biggest action/fantasy stars. He began acting very early on and got his start on stage in the plays of Shakespeare and Marlowe, among others, before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company and proving himself a leading man. If you can track down a video of Trevor Nunn’s production of Macbeth, starring McKellen, it comes highly recommended. During the ‘90s he achieved fame in the film world and has mastered a wide range of genres. McKellen has received basically every available acting award (or nomination) and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire and was knighted, making him the highest ranking member of the British (or any) aristocracy on this list. He is also an LGBT activist and came out to the public in 1988. He is a member and patron of a number LGBT organizations. Learn more about him through his personal site

Graham Chapman (1941 - 1989)
“Dressing up as decrepit old ladies, and even decrepit young ladies, was one of our staples.”

Alongside Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and John Cleese, British actor, writer, and comedian Graham Chapman was a members of one of the greatest (and my favorite) comedy groups of all time, Monty Python. Responsible for the surreal sketch comedy television show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and several well-regarded films, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life, Life of Brian, and more, Graham often played the lead in Python films and was regarded by the group to be the strongest actor. He came to be in the Pythons because he and writing partner John Cleese wrote for a variety of BBC shows before meeting the other members and creating Flying Circus. He struggled with alcoholism throughout his career and kept his sexuality private until 1967, when he was one of the first British actors to come out publicly. From that point, he was an active spokesperson for LGBT rights until he died of cancer in 1989. David Sherlock, Graham’s partner of over 20 years, occasionally contributed to the Pythons and co-wrote Graham’s autobiography, A Liar’s Autobiography. To learn more about one of the most wonderful men in comedy, visit the Python’s website and read the authorized biography
And now for someone completely different... 

Derek Jarman (1942 - 1994)
“Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea.” 

This British set designer, artist, and director was one of the most talented individuals working in British art house cinema and New Queer Cinema. He is best remembered for his inspired set design on Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils (1971) and for some of his own films: the first British film to positively depict homosexuality — Sebastiane (1976), the UK’s first punk film — Jubilee (1977), my personal favorite Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1991), and others. He adapted Shakespeare (The Tempest) and Marlowe (Edward II) and many of his films focus on historical figures (Sebastiane, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein). He captured actor Laurence Olivier’s final film performance in War Requiem (1989). Many of his films include gay themes and characters, including Caravaggio, which is a biography of the gay Renaissance painter, and depicts a homosexual relationship and loose threesome. Because Caravaggio’s life is relatively shrouded in mystery, I left him off this list, but he is one of my favorite painters and Jarman’s film is a good (though fictionalized) introduction to his life and work. His adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II is another important addition to this list because Marlowe was believed to be gay (and a spy — another person whose life is somewhat a mystery) and Edward II is one of the few plays from the Elizabethan period with gay themes. Jarman was an active and often outspoken LGBT rights supporter and AIDS activist until his AIDS-related death in 1994. Though I have yet to read a Jarman biography, I would recommend checking out Tony Peake’s Derek Jarman or Michael O’Pray’s Derek Jarman: Dreams of England, and the documentaries Derek and Derek Jarman: Life As Art, both of which feature Tilda Swinton, one of his regular collaborators. 

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945 - 1982)
“Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression.”

Prolific German director, writer, and actor Rainer Werner Fassbinder is one of my most favorite people on this list, but one that I discovered relatively late. In the 15 or so years that he was active, he made 40 feature length films, two TV series, and directed and acted in a number of plays, and remains one of the most important figures of New German Cinema. Most of his disturbing, unsettling films are deeply personal and deal with controversial romantic/sexual relationships: homosexual relationships, relationships between people of different classes and races, relationships between employer and employee, etc. Known to be particularly brutal to his actors and collaborators, Fassbinder had sexual and romantic relationships with both men and women, often people involved in his films, and he used these relationships to manipulate and control his close-knit group of actors and crew members. His urge to shock, provoke, and confront bourgeois German mentality with cinema and theater also led to many self-destructive behaviors (not that he’s the only one on this list), which ultimately resulted in his death at 37 of a heart attack caused by a drug overdose. Visit the Fassbinder website to learn more about him. It is difficult to recommend just a few of his films, or a few of the biographies or documentaries about him (there are many of these, as well as several collections of his writings), but Criterion has put out some his films and are about to release a box set of his early films later this summer. To learn more, wait for my series on Fassbinder later this summer and maybe start with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kent, World on a Wire, Fox and His Friends, Satan’s Brew, In a Year of 13 Moons, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Lola. 

Divine (1945 - 1988)
“Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!”

Born Harris Glenn Milstead, but later known as Divine, this Baltimore based actor, drag queen, singer, Most Beautiful Woman in the World, and Filthiest Person Alive, Divine is one of my biggest heroes. She was the star of most of director John Waters films, became a cult icon in his/her own right, and a major figure in the fight for LGBT rights. Divine also became a somewhat well-known burlesque and underground theater actor in New York and California and later began a career in the early ‘80s as a disco star, where she topped the charts and toured actively. Divine died of a heart attack in 1988, just before she was about to reach national fame with a reoccurring role on Married with Children, this time with a role as a man (the gay uncle) rather than dressed in drag as a woman. To learn more about Divine, start with (at your own risk) Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1972), Polyester (1981), and Hairspray (1988). Also check out the recently released documentary, I Am Divine, touring the festival circuit now. It comes highly recommended. Divine was openly gay (not transgendered as is sometimes assumed) and overweight all of his adult life and experienced aggressive bullying as a teen, which led to the creation of anti-bully organization The I Am Divine Foundation

John Waters (1946 - )
“If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”

Divine would likely not have become such a sensation without another one of my biggest heroes, Baltimore-based director, writer, and actor, John Waters, aka the Pope of Trash. Known for such films as Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), Female Trouble (1972), Desperate Living (1977), Polyester (1981), and Hairspray (1988), his work is distinctively transgressive, subversive, sleazy, and trashy. He gained enough fame to ensure larger budgets and more famous actors for his later films, such as Serial Mom (1994) with Kathleen Turner, Cry Baby (1990) with Johnny Depp, and Cecil B. Demented (2000) with Stephen Dorff and Melanie Griffith, among others. In later years he has done a number of stand up tours (namely This Filthy World), written several books, and began producing and collecting visual art. His acting troupe, known as the Dreamlanders, which included Divine, Mink Stole, Edith Massey, and Mary Viviane Pearce, have their own official page, where you can learn more about John and his current projects. Also check out his Artsy page to learn more about his ongoing artwork. He is currently writing a book about his recent adventure hitchhiking across the U.S. Until then, you can check out Shock Value, Crackpot, Role Models, and more. He has long been openly gay and a vocal supporter of LGBT rights. I’ve had a few John Waters sightings in Baltimore bars, but have never been brave enough to introduce myself. Earlier this year, though, he was kind enough to respond to an email and read an article on my blog. Thanks John!


  1. McKellen's portrayal of Marlowe's Edward II is also fantastic and can be found on video. Very unusual stage design and some great performances in a time (1960s) that were revolutionary in how the classics were performed.