I recently watched John Water’s “Female Trouble”, having bought several such DVD’s back with me from my recent trip to the UK. It features Divine, a Drag Queen in the 1970’s and 1980’s who went on to star in Waters’ original “Hairspray”, and had a number of hits within the gay club circuit. Divine epitomised the worst of the misogyny that professional drag queens can engage in. And yet, she did it so well:
It was a Brando film, “The Wild Ones”, that introduced to me to the theme of degradation, I guess. As a teenager, a couple of my girl-friends were involved with guys in a motorcycle gang, and I had certain fascination for the culture myself before I went to Uni.
The film seems tame now; Hunter S. Thompson revealed a far more gritty picture of the depths to which men can sink when given the opportunity to allow the pack mentality to reign unchecked.
The symbolism of these things escaped me at the time. Around this time, I also puzzled over what was supposed to be going on in films like Warhol’s “Flesh for Frankenstein” and “Blood for Dracula”, or Pekinpah’s “Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia”.
I can trace back my conscious fascination with the degradation of the human soul to the time I worked with drug addicts, when one character would watch “Apocalypse Now” almost daily. I hadn’t owned a TV or been to the cinema for nearly ten years at this time, but because of this person’s fascination, I was drawn to watch the video and see what it was that so fascinated him. The reference to Fraser’s “The Golden Bough” leapt out at me, as I had a copy and had read it; the symbolism of the death of the corn-god/hero who brings new life was encapsulated brilliantly by Brando, a brooding figure who pervades the whole film, and yet who appears in it only briefly.
Following the reference to Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, I soon read that, and I think that and Umberto Ecco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” really whet my thirst for an exploration of degradation. Conrad’s closing sequence in the book is far more chilling than anything in Apocalypse Now, and yet helped me read the end of that movie in a different way than before I read it. The darkness of the movie did not end with the return.
It was not really until I began to understand my own sexuality/gender issues that I could start to see the homoerotic elements of the Warhol movies I mentioned, or appreciate a movie like “Sebastian”. I suspect that acquiring a TV and the then new Channel 4, and reading a bit of Crowley, helped as much as therapy. It was a while before I could appreciate some of his earlier work. I did eventually come to appreciate what I think Warhol was trying to do, along with John Water’s rather detestable offerings; and the first time I watched Trainspotting I thought it was a comedy. These all seem to chart the degradation of the human soul quite exquisitely, just as had Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange”.
In watching these movies and reading these books, I tried to suspend judgement, not question whether an exercise that essentially amounts to crapping on somebody’s soul, is a good or bad thing. I’d see it more as a lens through which a different perspective on culture and society can be gained.
Sad to say, somehow it all makes more sense that way. We erect fantasies, religions and ideologies to protect ourselves from how jaded and corrupt the world is, and try to build ourselves allegorical gated communities behind which we can hide and feel comfort in our being somehow better than all that, in some way retaining our purity, as Christians, Muslims, Radical Feminists, True Transsexuals, Real Intersexes, Butch or Femme Lesbians, Macho Gay Guys, or simply Happy Heterosexual Families. The dysfunction is outside, not in our own homes. But, we construct all these safe identities to try and keep the shit from washing over us, as if we can somehow live in the midst of human corruption and degradation and ensure we can emerge untouched by it.
It may seem odd that as one who for so many years participated in and professed Christianity, should see the world this way. I can recall the moment when this perception first dawned upon me, and it was a visit to a Thai Monastery, where I was contemplating an image of a lotus. One of the monks explained to me why the lotus is such an important symbol in Buddhism, a symbol of the Buddha himself. It is seen as a flower of perfection, and yet it roots are immersed in detritus. For enlightenment to come, it has to grow out of the shit of this life. This was my epiphany. After that, I could only see Jesus as someone wading through all the crap that becomes accreted around humans, trying to cut through it, and drag a few souls out of the mire, redeeming something from the mess, a salvation firmly rooted in degradation.
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