film: sebastiane

guido reni

guido reni

Viewers seem to have a love/hate relationship with Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane – loved for being “ground-breaking” and “masterful,” hated for being “low budget soft core porn.” And while it definitely wasn’t made on the budget of a blockbuster, part of the questionable quality may simply come from the 1976 aesthetics of independent film. The other part, I’m thinking, comes from the low expectations and classifications of films that offer a lot of flesh.

I’m not as familiar with Jarman’s films as I should be, having come across him because of my interest in Tilda Swinton’s work. But I wanted to see Sebastiane solely because of the subject.

I know the story of Saint Sebastiane – I’ll stick with that spelling – through the many works of art recreating his martyrdom. There have been sculptures and stories… My fellow writer and wurbling buddy Anna Reith wrote a beautiful story about Sebastiane called Chiaroscuro. Sebastiane was painted by El Greco, Rubens, de La Tour, Carracci, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Dali… you name it, they all loved him as a subject. One artist, Andrea Mantegna, painted Sebastiane three times.

andrea mantegna

andrea mantegna

Mantegna’s love for Sebastiane is said to have come about because of the saint’s purported ability to offer protection from the plague, which Mantegna managed to survive and so was duly grateful. But it’s the method of Sebastiane’s suffering that is the big fascination. Body riddled with arrows, he remained beatific and beautiful, even sensual.

He was one of the unlucky Christians persecuted by the Romans, but what made Sebastiane special was that he survived his trial by arrows. He was a sneaky undercover Christian, converting followers when he was supposed to be cleaning house. As a captain of the Praetorian Guard, this was a major betrayal. Diocletian was pissed off, and had him tied to a post and executed by a slew of arrows – or at least that was the plan. Sebastiane recovered and resumed his conversions, and apparently he was feeling rather invincible because he got cheeky with Diocletian by taunting him from a street corner. The emperor wasn’t having it. He said enough was enough, clubbed Sebastiane to death and tossed him into a privy. The story goes that he later appeared to some ladies, not to offer heavenly inspiration, but to ask if they might fish him out of the sewage and bury him properly. But despite that rather inelegant ending, he became the twice martyred saint of soldiers and protector from the plague, which came in handy during the medieval period. He is always portrayed as beautiful, always young, and always has a glow of serenity about him.

niccolo renieri aka nicholas regnier

niccolo renieri aka nicholas regnier

So it’s easy to see where the fascination comes from, and why the iconic portrayals are hugely influential. Then this little movie comes along and has its way with Sebastiane – it was bound to rouse admiration and ire. I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for Jarman’s portrayal. Right out of the gate we get a lurid Dance Of The Phalli, culminating in a cream off. And while watching this opening scene, one does have to wonder how this applies to Saint Sebastiane, and gamely theorize that perhaps in some avant guarde way the phalluses are arrows and the, uh, stuff that shoots out of them represents strikes to the body. But the opening seems quite disconnected from the rest of the movie. It gets better from there, or shall I say less anachronistic and more focused and historically faithful, if drawn with a free hand. It may have been made on a tight budget, but care was taken. I liked the authenticity of the props, the setting, the Latin dialogue, and the nudity is not gratuitous. Not in my opinion, not for the setting, as Roman soldiers were known to train starkers (or at least the Greeks did and that’s close enough), and frolic in the sea and rub their bodies down in the baths after their workouts. The camera lingers on their wet bodies, rippling muscles and perky arses, lovingly stroking all that divine golden flesh on our behalf, thank you very much. Perhaps this is disturbing to some in such close proximity to the story of a saint?

Oh, pish-tosh. Everyone’s had a go at Sebastiane, why shouldn’t Jarman have his say, too? He’s just as qualified to give us his rendition, and he portrays the saint faithfully and well. The most striking images are given to us at the end, as Sebastiane suffers his martyrdom with as much radiant tranquility as in any other artistic rendering. Are the naked bodies, the kisses and wrestling, necessary? In Jarmal’s portrayal, yes, they are, because he gets to decide how he will depict the story. I don’t think his depiction is at all far off, given Sebastiane’s consistently portrayed artful eroticism.

nicholas regnier apparently he had a thing for him, too

nicholas regnier
apparently he had a thing for him, too

This is why I liked this movie, because this is what I’ve been yammering on and on about: sensuality and sex do not undermine storytelling, can in fact faithfully aid in it. Whether it’s the story of a saint or sinner, whether it’s identified as lit-rah-chah or a cheap and cheerful quickie, sex is an ever present and influential facet of all our characters. In philosophy, in religion, sex is frequently a front and center aspect of the concepts, the earthly pleasures that often throw a wrench in the progress toward enlightenment. That’s because it’s a powerful thing. Discussions and depictions of sensuality are incredibly enthralling, even saintly sensuality. Especially saintly sensuality. Symbolically, the sensual nature of rapture through pleasure or suffering looks the same, and maybe that’s frightening, too. Taboos are all about fear, and the refusal to acknowledge how close we are to losing ourselves every second of every day. We don’t want to look, and that’s exactly why we should.

I’m grateful to Jarman for his Sebastiane, for remaining true to the beauty of the saint’s yielding to the fervency of his flesh, and finding that, instead of compromising his devotion, it strengthens and restores his conviction.

spit out the kool-aid (it’s a sugary trap)

If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it—Robert Hughes

but is it art?

but is it art?

I just spent a depressing hour and fifteen minutes watching Robert Hughes’ documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse. This was made in 2008 – I’m always the last to discover nearly everything, and this is partially due to my avoidance of the media. That’s a choice, and I pay for it by remaining unconversant. But eventually I’ll come across things on a journey that is most likely motivated by a need for inspiration or a necessity of research, and that’s how I stumbled upon this documentary.

Hughes’ statement was made in the last few minutes of the program, which focused on the monetization of art, and art appreciation being usurped by monetary value driven up by clueless but rich investors rather than artistic merit.

I mostly avoid the media because nearly everything in it is scary and sad. The scene he painted for us is very scary, terribly sad, and that’s because it’s pretty accurate. It’s not a fantasy depiction of dystopian society, it’s fact. But this quotation, “If art can’t tell us about the world we live in, then I don’t believe there’s much point in having it,” which is meant to denounce contemporary art, is, I think, somewhat missing its own point. Contemporary art is telling us loads about the world we live in. It’s a chilling point, but a precise one.

Modern humanities scare the shit out of me. I suppose that looks to put me squarely in the camp of those who shake their fingers and say “when I was young,” even though a) when they were young is was fundamentally no different, and 2) it’s a little early for me to be setting up my tent. Aside from being untimely, I’m also outside of my demographic in my tastes and viewpoints. I know this, and yet I solidly agree with him in my existentialistic way: Everything’s shit, it’s all shit, and we walk around with this shit on the soles of our feet, oblivious to the fact that we’re the ones spreading the stench.

I’ve tried really, really hard to understand contemporary art. I’ve studied and observed, and I want to see the meaning, the beauty, the reflective messages, but more often than not, I can’t. Hughes stood up and pointed out the nakedness of our praise, and that’s a brave action to take. He was not afraid to be loud, clear, and direct—the way he laid into Jeff Koons was turn-your-head-away “ouch!” And the really painful thing of it was the integrity behind the observation. I think Hughes earned the right to make his declarations based on his nearly 50 years as a professional art advocate and critic. And before you think, “50 years? Yeah, but he was ow-uld!” consider that he started out in the 60s, right when pop culture had stepped into the forefront of expression. He was a young man in the thick of it, so I think his perspective has a generous dose of validity.

Art is subjective, I’ve echoed that sentiment a million times, and I believe it. But it’s also become subject to a popularity contest driven by mob rule. Artistic culture is being piloted by publicity and profit—the very things it’s meant to analyse and decry. Scary and sad, scary and sad.

Why am I so obsessed with this? Because we’re standing around letting it happen, and I really do think that we, the non-moneyed masses, are better than this, and much more powerful than we believe. Unfortunately we’re also apathetic, and more than willing to go with the flow if it means we don’t have to pick up an oar and paddle against the current. Politically, artistically, theologically, we’ve castrated ourselves. And you know what? That sucks.

sad peonies

peonies in happier days

peonies in happier days

Do you know what a sad peony looks like? Its little red heads, all swollen and ready to burst, lay huddled beneath a layer of prophylactic plastic, calling out to be set free.

This is what happens when it snows in May. Lilacs have frozen smiles on their wee little purple faces, roses look shocked and offended that they’ve been caught half dressed out in the cold, hollyhock leaves are sagging mopily on the ground, and columbine blooms are defiantly standing erect, shouting out “fuck you!” to the grey skies.

And me? I’m tromping around in the cold and wet, two layers of woollen winter socks shoved into rubber gardening clogs, t-shirt sopping and too-loose yoga pants sagging lower and lower as I beat the snow off of newly hatched leaves, stooping to peek underneath makeshift shelters for the smallest and most tender lodgers to make sure everyone is still with me. I never fully dried out yesterday, and this morning I was in past my ankles in last night’s freshly fallen snow – that’s a brisk waker-upper.

Tonight it’s supposed to freeze. And to that, I say FUCK.

one of the few welcome multi-eyed creatures in my garden

the bumblebee is one of the few welcome multi-eyed creatures in my garden

I used to think gardening was such a leisurely and refined little hobby, effortlessly sinking perky plants into soft earth and plucking a stray weed here and there while I stroll around, admiring my lush and beautiful borders. Ha. It’s plunging a shovel down with gusto, and ricocheting off of a boulder one half inch beneath the soil. It’s scattering seeds and seeing nary a sign of life. Ever. It’s bending down to smell a rose and coming face-to-face with a wasp, or reaching out to pick a flower, to meet up beneath the stem with the ugliest damn spider on eight legs. It’s surrendering to the weeds, which have launched an overthrow in numbers so vast, it’s useless to fight back. It sucks.

And yet, I am compelled to begin again and again, a staunch pessimist turned eternal optimist every spring. It’s a joke on me, my masochistic nature forcing encounters with arachnophobia, fear of hard physical labour, and continual disappointment. Are the occasional blooms from struggling survivors worth all the pain and heartache? I don’t know—when I see the lilacs in full bloom and contemplate crawling in between the bushes to live there for the next two weeks, when the roses are budding out and the peony is showing off and I’m excitedly waiting to see what colours the hollyhocks will be this year, I feel like Gertrude Jekyll and Beverly Nichols all rolled into one. I’m a gardening fool, a horticultural stud.

cardinal de richelieu, the most beautiful rose ever

cardinal de richelieu, the most beautiful rose ever

So yeah, I’ll continue to tromp around, shivering and hoping for the best as I fight to save my budding buddies from snow in May, cursing and dripping and crying on the inside at the very likely possibility that not all these little beauties will make it through the storm. And when the sun comes out again, I’ll peel back the plastic and give everyone an encouraging little fluff, hoping the little beggars will perform for me.

less of a drag, more of a race

a tribute to jinkx monsoon as little edie

a tribute to jinkx monsoon as little edie

So far I’m still on with season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I enjoyed the first two seasons, but three, four, and five left me tepid so I wasn’t counting on six to hold my interest. But I’m on board with this one, the queens are diverse enough to keep things interesting and I find redeeming qualities in most of them.

Last night was the Snatch Game episode, everyone’s favourite, although usually there’s really only one or two on the panel who have any chops at all, so I never got that. We made out better this time around, though there could’ve been a few little tweaks. Time for my unsolicited and too-late opinions.

Bianca as Judge Judy and Adore as Anna Nicole were wonderful. I was more impressed with Adore’s performance because Judge Judy was an obvious fit for Bianca. Courtney should’ve been Ukrainian Human Barbie, don’t you think? She could’ve switched out of her naturally bubbly spirit and taken things into plasticville, talked about her air and light diet, and pulled it off beautifully. Milk is the personality twin of Phyllis Diller – she could’ve even brought that pinocchi-nose of hers into play! And Laganja should’ve channelled personality twin Mariah Carey. I love Darienne, she has chops but I don’t think we’re seeing the best of her. If she would’ve gone a little more pop culture forward with someone like Rebel Wilson, she would’ve stood out more. She could’ve at least focused on a parody of current day Paula Deen, apologizing awkwardly over and over again for everything she said, and sticking her fingers up some cream filled Twinkie holes for a new ladyfinger dessert. Oh, Gia. I don’t know about her. She needed someone to whom she could apply her natural snark, but I can’t think of a celeb fit. Which I guess kind of sums things up. I liked Joslyn as Theresa Guidice, but she proved she could’ve been a better Fran Drescher than Courtney. And Ben was surprisingly the perfect Maggie Smith. I think Trinity could’ve pulled off Nicki Minaj if she had focused on her twitter personality.

So here’s where I think we’re headed with the top three: Ben and Bianca, of course. For contenders for the third spot, at this point it’s a four-way between Darienne, Adore, Milk, and Joslyn. Courtney will win Miss Congeniality, she’s such a package of sweet cheerfulness and girl power support.

I miss April.

looking for now, losing out later

Jonathan Groff as Patrick, Raúl Castillo as Richie

Jonathan Groff as Patrick, Raúl Castillo as Richie

I caught up with Looking last night, thanks to my free-for-three months gift of HBO due to a cable billing boo-boo. Damnit, I’m getting hooked on this program so when my time is up, I’ll be facing some serious withdrawal. Program pushers. They aren’t being generous, they’re being sneaky! But I can’t afford it, so although I was glad to hear that Looking has been renewed for a second season, I’m already grumbling about missing out.

I wasn’t completely sold for the first few episodes, and I was especially unhappy with Mister Patrick’s shady reaction to Richie, the charming guy he meets on a bus. Patrick is supposed to be from Colorado, and yet, he has an oddly ignorant reaction to Richie being Latino. What? Realistically, Patrick would have had a much greater chance of meeting and dating Latino men in Denver than he would in San Francisco. So why is he acting like he’s from Ohio? It’s inaccurate, and frankly, a very off-putting aspect of his character. He’s either completely oblivious, or a complete dick.

But overall, I found these men to have potential for developing into complex and complete characters. I like the quieter tone the show is taking, because we don’t need more riotous and goofy shows about gay people. I got my fill of that in the 90s. This is a fresher take on friendships and relationships, and doesn’t shy away from the many facets of these characters’ personalities, good and bad. Could Patrick be racist in spite of what we presume, having grown up in Colorado, would have been wide exposure to Latino culture and people? Yes. And I’m interested in seeing what he does with that, having met a perfectly sweet and adorable man who happens to be very attached to and proud of his culture.

Russell Tovey

Russell Tovey

I am pleasantly surprised to see Russell Tovey on the series, and find it kind of amusing that everyone is gushing over how hot, hot, hot he is, considering his previous roles in a number of British programs as the awkward one, sweet but definitely not gush-worthy. The boy had grown up nicely, though. Great guns!

I’m interested in all of their stories, and find the secondary characters as filled with potential for development as the core group is. Too bad I won’t be seeing series two as it happens. Damn you, evil enabling cable provider. Damn you.

crushed as the goal is reached

the walk - falling leaves  Vincent Van Gogh

the walk – falling leaves
Vincent Van Gogh

I’m back in the mode of thinking about art. Fine art – paintings. Out of any artist I can come up with, Van Gogh’s art is the most intimately communicative of his state of being. You can see what he’s feeling in the colors he uses, the textures of the paint – not just the concept he wants to capture, but his emotions, his connection, his outward expression of inward perception. That’s why I love him so much, and why his art hits me right in the gut when I look at it.

When I saw my first Van Goghs at the National Gallery in London, I reflexively let out this little squeak, almost a distressed sound, and several people turned to look at me, probably to make sure I wasn’t about to upchuck on the heels of that crude display. Sunflowers, a chair, a pair of crabs – fairly simple, innocuous stuff, no hidden messages or symbolic meanings, no profound statements or grand, sweeping canvases, and yet, there’s a poignancy in these paintings, as if he’s left pieces of his self inside the images, with their shaky edges and thick slaps of paint.

One of my favourite paintings, not at the National but at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, is The Walk – Falling Leaves. I first saw a picture of this painting many years ago, when I was reading Jean Paul Sartre’s “Nausea,” and it seemed to me the perfect representation of Antoine’s confrontation with existence in the park, a sort of melding and separating that he experiences between himself and in particular, the trees, and describes as the melting of a veneer, a residue of “soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder—naked, a frightful, obscene nakedness.” He’s frightened, horrified, and also mesmerized and grasping for understanding within himself, in the deepest resonance he can manage.

Van Gogh’s paintings seem to me to exist on this level of revelation. In The Walk, the trees are lovely and majestic representations of a fall day, and also twisted and blackened around the edges and at the roots, grasping at the earth as their temporary death approaches. They are, as Antoine explains, a breathless understanding, a “belonging… that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that the green was a part of the quality of the sea.” The objects and landscapes he painted belong in that same way: the chair a part of the quality of the man, the sunflowers a class of yellow objects, external things he managed to capture without changing anything in their nature. They live in a way that, as Antoine explains, inconveniences us – or me, at least. A wonderful, breathless, squeaky inconvenience.

I think that’s the best individuals can hope for when searching for some form of elevation. I think it’s a mistake to believe that a sense of achievement ultimately comes in the form of spiritual comfort. Or no, that’s not quite what I mean to say. I guess it’s the thought that we’re really getting anywhere by seeking comfort that is the mistake.

Not that I think Van Gogh was an enlightened man. I think he was a troubled man, battered by his own emotions and his inability to control all that he thought and felt, until he picked up his palette. Then, there is evidence of controlled chaos on his canvases. Controlled chaos is the true awakening of the “spirit” as it’s known. I’m not suggesting this comes with self mortification or the slashing off of body parts – not the sense of being in the way as Van Gogh felt himself to be – nope. Controlled chaos is the trick of it. To see with an “artistic eye” the abstractions of life, to allow ourselves to actively experience the horror, and obscenity and the nausea, and then to be able to find our way out of the park, stand opposite of the image, and smile back as it smiles at us. To be conspirators in the depictions.

That’s what his paintings are. That’s why they are so much more than paintings.

i sing the body electric

Whitman-leavesofgrassI recently watched a wonderful biography of Walt Whitman (American Masters). I knew beforehand about the significance of his lifelong work, Leaves of Grass, but I didn’t know anything about Whitman outside of what he presented through his poetry. He is the inspirational icon we all need, and this is why.

He came from a lower middleclass background, with little to inspire hope for something more. His father had big dreams, but became more and more bitter and unbalanced as he continually failed to fulfil them. He wasn’t a good example of perseverance and grace in the face of setbacks. But it didn’t discourage Walt. He maintained his own visions of success, incredibly lofty ones.

As a young man, he marched into the middle of New York with the idea of changing the world through his poetry. What? Really? Who the hell thinks they have the ability, much less the opportunity, to change the world through verse? Walt did. And though it took a lot longer than he had hoped, he did end up making a huge impact. Perhaps not world-changing, but certainly inspiring and thought provoking and incredibly forward thinking.

His first edition of Leaves of Grass was a small collection of poems, self published, with an irreverent full body sketch of Whitman in plain clothes and an almost cocky stance as the first visual. It was a “here I am” presentation that went directly opposite of the usual portraits of poets in their best clothes, and looking dignified in a cameo sort of way. It was a proper warning for what the reader could expect.

His poems gave the same full exposure to the workings of the human animal, mind, body, and spirit. There especially was a great focus on the body, the beauty of its functions, and how cleverly bodies fit together to precisely express what it is to be emotional, sensual, physical. And he didn’t hold back on claiming the same sensations, the same achievements of physical fulfilment between a man and a man. Whoa. In 1855, that took some great big balls. But if anyone was packing, it was the poet of the people, Walt Whitman.

The sheer force of the sensual experiences that he put forth – sensual in every possible connotation – brought tears to my eyes. Because how does a person live so boldly, so all-embracing, so fully engaged with the world? It would tear me apart to attempt such a thing. But his full-on embrace was the driving force behind his belief that he could be the Great American Poet, that he could put an end to the ills of mankind, including slavery, through his words. That he could so beautifully express love in all its varieties, and the sensuality of the grass beneath our feet, and the sky above our heads, and how fortunate we are to be surrounded by innumerable opportunities to engage our senses.

If that isn’t the world-changing model of how we should grab on and experience life – not just as observers, but as wholly committed participants… why finish that thought? It unequivocally is.

inspiration, agitation, sweet libation

Not quite an end of the year roundup because that no longer applies, but rather a brief account of what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about, what I’m planning, what will most likely not get thought about/planned/done this year.

iris apfel at home

iris apfel at home

My last post was a tribute to Isabella Blow, and I feel compelled to give a shoutout to another fashion icon, Iris Apfel. Ninety-one years old, this lady has scads of style – literally. She loves decorative chaos, from her modern take on Victorian clutter in her home to being up to her elbows in bangles at all times. It’s an artful chaos, the kind that, like a Jackson Pollock painting, keeps your eyes darting about, fascinated by the layers upon layers of clashing patterns and colors that somehow come together to create a cohesive look. She designed textiles with her husband, and has an eye for curious creativity. She’s amassed a clothing collection that has been on display several times, because it’s just that interesting. I admire the peanuts out of her.

Speaking of clutter (and nuts), I’m working on several different pieces at once—unusual for me, but right now, while I’m having trouble keeping my mind on any one thing for an extended period of time, it’s working remarkably well to jump from one to another during the day. I’m editing one piece, writing two more. Because they’re so different in tone, it’s surprisingly easy to shift about with renewed enthusiasm. I long for the days of unbroken concentration on a single piece, but until I can reclaim the ability, this is a great way to keep me going. I get a little nutso when I can’t write steadily. It’s like going stir crazy, all blue-balled in my head until I become an impossible bundle of nerves. This is the release.

The stress I’ve been under with some family issues, mostly stemming from my mother’s death a year ago, year and a half, has created monkeymind. I don’t think I’m thinking about it, but it’s there, disrupting my calm and consequently, my concentration. I’m hoping that will change this year. Either there will be progress, or I will have learned to back away.

There’s a new way to stay mellow in Colorado. Well, an old way that’s newly legal. Weed, of course. I’ve had it only sporadically since college, I’m lazy and antisocial, so I don’t like to go around looking for a source or a circle to insert myself into. Now I don’t have to. I’ve yet to go a-shopin’ but in a day or two there will be a place opening up about a mile from home. Seems I’m out of touch on methods of partaking. Vaporizers? And here am I, sloppy joint rolling my only method to date. I don’t mind pipes, like bongs, but I’ve never eaten it. I hear that’s a whole different kind of high. I’m planning on finding out.

Hey, there is a purpose to this. Monkeymind needs taming.

my mind was blown

Isabella Blow at the American Embassy in Paris, 1998

Isabella Blow at the American Embassy in Paris, 1998

…By this iconic Ms. Fanciful. A cheeky, insightful, unapologetic fashionista with a natural exoticism that she played up and played with, and shared with others. She is one of my first fashion idols, who taught me what that world is truly about: play-pretties and dress up, pantomime and art. Performance art, yes, but also about inspiration and inborn talent, things that can be faked and mocked and copied, can even be bought and sold, but can only be found in the heart of a true artist. She knew how to find it and nurture it and extoll it, but I don’t know whether she realised that she was IT, smack in the middle of it all.

Dress-up is a great game for those who are hesitant to reveal the uncertain underpinnings beneath it all; to others, and to themselves. At some point, the veil between worlds grew too thin, and she couldn’t cover for herself anymore. I miss her, but I’m still inspired by her. That’s the effect you have when you’re an icon – you never go out of style.