Kenneth Anger made the short film Fireworks in 1947 at the age of 20 while his parents were away for the weekend. It is an extraordinary film- witty, erotic and disturbing. What follows is quite a long post (but worth it!) analyzing the film in terms of its display of a spectacular masochism. Along with the text I have added various images of sailors dating from circa World War I onwards which complement and parallel the text but are not specifically addressed within it.
Introduction: A 1961 Misreading of the Film
In order to initiate my exploration of Fireworks by Kenneth Anger, I want to consider a striking and obvious misreading of the visual text by a 1961 spectator of the film named Rolland Howard. This visual misrecognition determines the central argument of an essay written by Howard entitled, “Homosexuality as a Vehicle for Masochism Symbolized in the Film Fireworks”. The essay appeared in the July 1961 issue of the Mattachine Review, the magazine of the homosexual rights organization, The Mattachine Society, which was founded in the early 1950’s.
I am interested in engaging the Howard essay not only its mistake, which produces a negative relationship between masochism and homosexuality, but also in its conceptualization of the construction of homosexuality and masculinity in Fireworks as well as the role of the sailor within these constructions. This engagement will, I hope, facilitate a wider discussion of the film in terms of masochism, homosexuality and masculinity in relation to the historical context of the film.
Howard’s visual misrecognition of the film occurs in his description of an early sequence that immediately follows the “Pieta prologue” in which a sailor holds the protagonist in his arms as Mary held the dead Christ after crucifixion. Instead of describing one male figure who has perhaps been masturbating or has awoken from an erotic dream which produces a (false) erection, Howard contended that there are actually 2 men within this sequence who have just had sex.
He stated: Visualize: Subject, asleep, nude…his homosexual partner- he might be anybody- asleep beside him. Subject presumably sexually satiated experiences sado-masochistic fantasy (dreams) brought by the unconscious guilt he feels now that the sex-need is satisfied. Such guilt could drive him to alcoholism or to insanity or to suicide, but nature dislikes the cessation of life. Survival is nature’s prime concern, so the subject relieves his guilt by dreaming of self-punishment. (Rolland Howard, “Homosexuality as a Vehicle for Masochism Symbolized in the Film Fireworks”, Mattachine Review, July 1961, p. 6.)
The understanding of the subsequent cinematic mauling of the male protagonist by first one sailor and then a group of sailors is predicated on this misreading of the initial bedroom sequence. For Howard, the beatings are a form of masochistic self-punishment in which the male protagonist dreams of being beaten in order to expiate his guilt for having just engaged in sex with another man.
However, for Howard, the film not only describes the internalized self-hatred of one homosexual man. Instead it offers a vivid and visceral testimony to the connection between this internal punishment and the external, societal sanction against same-sex desire. These sanctions seek to prohibit or negate the actual experience of the same-sex desire, but also become a type of psychological mechanism of internal disgust that causes homosexual men to punish themselves even prior to societal discipline and even after fulfilling their same-sex desires.
In a sense, Howard identified with the young man in Fireworks because he saw his masochistic situation and identity as common to all homosexual men within his historical frame. Masochism emerging from guilt he argued is “commonly and consistently found” within homosexuality.
According to Howard, then, the film concretizes and makes visible the relationship between homosexuality, guilt and masochism in order to demonstrate the need to disrupt this connecting sequence. At the conclusion of his essay, he wrote, “Awaken from your self-punishing dream, my friend! Look at the young man beside you there and respect him as a worthy human being. Equally important respect yourself as one…Be courageous enough to share a little love with him whether the rest of the world approves or not.” (Howard, p. 8.) The film is, therefore, from Howard’s (mis)perspective, an attempt to destabilize the connection between external sanctions against homosexuality and the internal guilt and masochism which are the result of these very societal factors.
Masochism as an Act of Subversion
In contrast to the negative relationship posited by Howard between masochism and homosexuality, I am not willing to see the spectacular masochism of Fireworks as merely the result of the guilt of same-sex desire. Clearly, my difference of opinion emerges out of a particular historical moment when the ability to disrupt the equation between same-sex desire and guilt is greater than the pre-Stonewall moment in which Howard fashioned his essay.
The picturing of masochism within Fireworks needs to be examined as a potential site of subversion which disrupts the construction of traditional masculinity as represented by the sailors within the film and the foundation of this subject position in the (mis)equation of the phallus and the penis.
The term “phallus” is understood here in terms of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The phallus is not an actual or imagined organ, but rather an unobtainable signifier which generates meaning. Despite the continual imaging of the phallus/penis equation within culture, no one can really possess the phallus because the subject is never at one with language, but always symbolically castrated. Traditional masculinity is predicated on the denial of this symbolic castration and the equation of the phallus with its lesser anatomical stand-in the penis.
This (mis)equation of the phallus and the penis enables conventional masculinity to deny castration and lack as part of the production of all subjectivity while simultaneously assigning this lack a corporeal meaning: the “castrated” female body. Femininity is understood as constitutive of both castration and lack against the wholeness and unity of the masculine male body. It is this (mis)equation which is central to the structuring of sexual difference and its accompanying system of privilege, exclusion and negation in which the masculine body becomes the dominant term.
The construction of sexual difference and the phallus/penis (mis)equation occurs in what film theorist Kaja Silverman designates as the dominant fiction in her 1992 book Male Subjectivity at the Margins. The dominant fiction can be understood as a representational system which “functions to arouse in the subject the conventional Oedipal desires and identifications.” (Silverman, p. 39-40.) Thus, the conventional (or positive) Oedipal scenario of the male subject is structured in terms of identification with the father and desire for the mother. Such a model of desire and identification serves to foreground the rigid binary opposition of male and female and to ensure compulsory heterosexuality.
In accordance with its fostering of positive Oedipal desires and identifications the dominant fiction “offers a seemingly infinite supply of phallic images and sounds within which the male subject can find himself…(and cover) over the lack upon which access to language depends.”(Silverman, p. 44-45.) In other words, the dominant fiction provides both “images and sounds” which seek not only to maintain, but also to promote the (mis)recognition of the phallus and penis to in turn insure male heterosexual power and privilege.
This equation enables the constitution of orthodox masculinity as being uninscribed by lack as well as further facilitating the construction of sexual difference which is dependent upon the production of male somatic wholeness in opposition to female corporeal disfigurement.
In terms of the film, could one not designate the uniforms of the sailors as “phallic costumes” which serve to foster the identification with traditional masculinity? Does the masochism and the same-sex desire of the main character deconstruct these phallic costumes, thereby challenging the privileged place of conventional masculinity? Does the protagonist refuse to wear these “phallic costumes’? And how is this refusal enacted in the film?
This deconstruction and refusal occurs through the practice of masochism which is viscerally visualized within the film. Masochism can be understood as a practice which is resistant to the ideals of the dominant fiction. In the male subject, masochism can be understood as “a form of phallic divestiture” that negates the phallus/penis (mis)equation on which rests both traditional masculinity and the social order in terms of sexual difference. (Silverman, p. 10.)
In contrast to the male subject of the dominant fiction, the male masochist “exhibits his castration for all to see, and revels in the sacrificial basis of the social contract. (He) signifies the losses and divisions upon which cultural identity is based, refusing to be sutured or recompensed. In short, he radiates negativity inimical to the social order.” (Silverman, p. 206.) By celebrating his castration, his entry into language, the male masochist dissolves the phallus/penis (mis)recognition, as well as rupturing the male/female opposition of sexual difference. This ecstasy of castration simultaneously denies the social hegemony and privilege of conventional masculinity.
The Construction of Homosexuality and Masochism within the Visual Text
Having defined the potential subversive nature of masochism, I now want to return to its representation within Fireworks and its relationship to the film’s production of same-sex desire. If one discounts Howard’s negative conflation of masochism and homosexuality as a misreading of the visual text, how then does one reconfigure these practices in terms of their relationship within the film? In addition, how does the masochism and same-sex desire of the male protagonist within Fireworks function as a “form of phallic divestiture”? What textual elements foreground this divestiture?
How does the construction of homosexuality fit within this relationship if indeed the object of homosexual desire within the film is the phallus as represented by the sailor? Does this desiring relationship to the sailor enact a reinvestment of the power of the phallus, negating its displacement by the male protagonist’s masochism and same-sex desire? Or does his masochism and homosexuality expose the phallus of the sailor as only being a penis?
Prior to the excessive masochistic display of the main character, Fireworks displays his same-sex desire. His desire is deployed in order to enact a form of phallic disinvestment, thereby fracturing and interrupting orthodox masculinity. The production of homosexuality within the film can be considered descriptively in terms of the negative Oedipus complex as it is discussed by Silverman through her rereading of Freud. (Silverman, p. 339-388.)
In this construction, male homosexuality stands in opposition to the dominant fiction because it reverses the desires and identifications fostered by this representational system. Instead of desiring the mother and identifying with the father, the subject within this model identifies with the mother while desiring the father. By aligning with the mother, the subject within this paradigm of homosexuality is understood to occupy the position of classic femininity in that this model is one of inverted heterosexuality based upon gender inversion.
In occupying this position the subject is defined by sexual receptivity, narcissism and exhibitionism, in other words, the classic feminine position. Silverman states that the receptivity of this subject serves to eroticize the anus and/or mouth, thereby releasing “the male body from its phallic stranglehold” and diffusing erotic pleasure over the entire body rather than just the genitals. (Silverman, p. 363.) This feminine identification of the subject is also emphasized through the act of desiring the father which forecloses a connection to conventional masculinity (desire instead of identification) and thus enables the subject to relinquish what Silverman describes as “the phallic legacy”.
The Visual Text: Prologue
With the Pieta prologue the film begins to foreground a connection between the male protagonist, homosexuality, femininity and masochism. Although the main character in the prologue occupies the position of Jesus Christ, the gender identification of Christ is not stable, but rather one of oscillation between masculine and feminine poles. Indeed, Christ can be seen as an extremely feminine figure in terms of his body which is literally transformed into food like the body of a woman during pregnancy and breast feeding. Finally, since Christ can be considered the ultimate masochist, this opening image foreshadows the subsequent prominence of masochism within the film and its connection to the sexuality of the lead character.
The Visual Text: The Protagonist Wakes
Following the prologue the main character is seen lying in bed. A seemingly large erection forms a sort of tent-like shape with a white sheet that partially covers the figure. However, what appears to be a large erect penis turns out to be a non-Western fetishistic idol. The male protagonist removes the idol, looks at it with an expression of seeming disgust and places it on the table next to the bed.
This sequence constructs an opposition between the potency (in terms of size, hardness) of the lead character’s (false) penis and the actual fictive nature of that organ and its abilities. This opposition can be mapped onto the phallus/penis equation reproduced within the dominant fiction. The phallus, as a signifier of male privilege and power seems to be aligned with the initial (false) erection in contrast to the actual penis of the protagonist.
Yet, this sequence in Fireworks does not seem to suture the commensurability of the phallus and the penis, rather the act of humorous revelation exposes the phallus as separate and distinct from the penis, therefore perhaps disrupting sanctioned masculinity. As P. Adams Sitney states regarding this shot, “He takes out an African statue which breaks the phallic illusion.”( P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde, p. 97.)
Thus, the presence of the phallus as corporeally inscribed on the male body and the centrality of that inscription for the production of traditional masculinity is revealed as a work of illusion. Within Fireworks, the phallus is shown as a type of prosthesis which is not naturally inherent to the male body or any body. The denial of the phallus/penis equation by the protagonist suggests the production within the film of a different system of gender and sexuality which challenges the orthodox masculinity of the dominant fiction.
Moreover, the male figure does not appear to want possession of this phallus, not only because he removes it, but also because he does not take it with him when he cruises sailors who inhabit the space behind the door marked “GENTS”. In disavowing the phallus. the male protagonist simultaneously de-emphasizes the penis and suggests the production of another sexual economy in which the male figure is released from his “phallic stranglehold” of sanctioned masculinity and its emphasis on genital sexuality.
The femininity of the male protagonist occurs through a displacement of the principal erotic zone of masculinity, the genitals (the false penis), that is removed, to perhaps other body parts such as the mouth and the anus which would further announce the feminine and homosexual position of the main character. This genital displacement is indicated and concretized by later events within the film.
The Visual Text: The Protagonist Gets Dressed
After removing his phallus/penis, the young man gets up from the bed and proceeds to get dressed, an action which is meticulously followed by the camera. The camera moves up his pants, momentarily lingering on his crotch as he zips the fly of his jeans as well as subsequently focusing on his shirt as he fastens each button except one and tucks it into his trousers.
The emphasis on the act of costuming seems to be another way in which the figure is coded as feminine even though he puts on “masculine” clothes. As he dresses, the protagonist seems to look directly at the camera as if he was gazing at his reflection in a mirror and watching the act of dressing. The act of self-reflexive looking suggests the narcissistic nature of the traditional feminine subject.
Within this shot, the male figure is shot in depth and framed by the African statue/phallus which is cropped by the left edge of the frame so that only half of it is visible within frame. This image produces distance between the phallus/masculinity of the idol and the femininity/homosexuality of the male protagonist.
In addition, the placement of the phallus aligns it with the fictitious mirror of the camera, perhaps suggesting that the dominant fiction can be conceptualized as a mirror in which the penis is (mis)reflected as a phallus. However, within this shot, the incompleteness of the phallus/statue cut by the frame of the shot appears to reaffirm a gap between the masculine phallus and the feminine position of the main character. Such a point is emphasized by the circular wall hanging which enframes the male figure and is suggestive of femininity as receptacle. Indeed, if one conceives of the dominant fiction as a mirror, it has traditionally never allowed the homosexual man to see the phallus within his reflection, but rather only femininity, just as the mirror has reflected the absence of a penis on the body of a woman as the sign of her lack and sexual difference.
The Visual Text: Beyond the GENTS door
While the bedroom of the protagonist is produced as a space of femininity, the space beyond the GENTS door is the terrain of orthodox masculinity. Within this space of masculinity, the main character is even more profoundly understood as embodying the negative Oedipus complex through the coding of his body as a feminine. Importantly, the sequence within the GENTS space further displaces the penis as a site of erotic pleasure on the body of the protagonist. In place of the penis, the anus and the mouth will become the corporeal sites of sexual excitement and fulfillment.
In his first encounter beyond the GENTS door, the male protagonist watches a bare-chested sailor flexing his muscles. After this virile display of masculinity which contrasts with the slight (more feminine) physique of the leading character, the protagonist asks the sailor to light his cigarette. This act, occurring after the erotic viewing of the sailor by the main character, can be seen as a fulfillment or climax of this erotic gazing, its metaphoric orgasm.
However, this orgasm is destined to take place at the site of the leading character’s mouth rather than the genitals. The sexual meaning of the question is quite clear when the sailor as the dominant fiction expects and commands, refuses to give the protagonist a light, to fulfill his oral orgasm, and engages in a mock struggle with the main character. The falsity of this struggle parallels the fake backdrop of a bar which provides the setting for the encounter, thereby suggesting the falsity of the sailor’s refusal.
With a jump-cut the protagonist and his now willing companion are returned to the bedroom and are located in front of the fireplace. Within the bedroom, the cigarette of the leading character is lit by a “flaming faggot” held by the sailor, another example of the humorous nature of the film. The protagonist smokes the cigarette and thus fulfills the desire initiated by the display of the sailor’s body at the site of his mouth rather than his genitals.
The Visual Text: The Spectacular Display of Masochism
Still smoking this cigarette, the lead character is once again cruising within the GENTS space where he notices a group of sailors. Some of them are holding chains and their overall posture suggests imminent danger and violence. Despite this impending violence, the main character does not move, but simply stands and watches the seamen. In fact, he is waiting for the beating which they will inflict on him.
Within this suspenseful sequence leading up to the vicious bashing and particularly within the beating itself, the male protagonist exorbitantly and spectacularly displays his pleasure in this unpleasure. It signals the completion of the phallic divestiture which began with his refusal of the phallus at the beginning of the film. His body is literally fragmented as is the somatic notion of conventional masculinity as a whole, unified and uninscribed by lack.
The suspenseful nature of this sequence is a further indicator of the main character’s masochism and his pleasure in this unpleasure. Silverman has identified suspense as a primary component of masochistic fantasies as a way in which the fantasizer is able to increase and prolong the pleasurable unpleasure.
This temporal extension for the effect of tension and suspense occurs within Fireworks. Although the gang of sailors appears to understand the presence of the young man and his sexual goal, they do not immediately move toward him or attack him. At first, the seamen walk slowly towards him, some of them swinging chains as an indicator of their intended action, yet still the young man does not move and passively waits for his beating.
The group of sailors then pick up speed; one slows down to grab a metal rod. As they surround the main character, they do not start to beat him immediately, but rather just encircle him. Once again the tension is heightened by the momentary pause in the action. The protagonist drops his cigarette falls to the ground allowing the mauling to begin by the gang.
Moreover, the bashing sequence foregrounds the mouth and the anus of the main character as sites of erotic pleasure. As the sailors strike him, one sailor shoves 2 fingers into his nostrils of the young man. This action causes blood to spurt from his nose and mouth.
The signification of this image revolves around the act of penetration. In allowing his body to be penetrated, the central character is declaring the feminine nature (in terms of cultural constructions) of his body. In contrast, a man within culture enters other bodies. His body is never breached, it remains fictitiously unified, whole and phallic. In this sequence, the central character fulfills the definition of masochism as a form of phallic divestiture.
The site of the penetrating act further suggests this divestiture. Within the image of the pierced nostrils, there is a metaphoric slippage between the 2 holes of the nose and the holes of the mouth and the anus. In a sense, the protagonist is being symbolically penetrated by the sailors at both ends of his body.
During the beating, a bottle, apparently containing milk, is smashed its broken glass is used to cut open the body of the main character revealing some sort of metering device. The young man’s body is completely penetrated, ripped open and exposed, an image which strongly counters the unified body of sanctioned masculinity and its basis in the phallus/penis (mis)recognition as exemplified by the sailors.
The Visual Text: The Cum Shot
Following this shot, the body of the lead character is again whole. His chin and neck are parallel to the picture plane against a dark background forming a arresting abstract image. From the upper left, milk is poured over his mouth, chin and neck.
In the next shot, one sees the torso of the protagonist with no trace of the earlier violation except a trickle of blood. In a very beautiful image, milk pours over the torso, particularly the nipple and washes away the blood.
These scenes stand in strong contrast to the earlier picturing of the brutal beating. Together, they form a moment of healing in which the body of the main character is cleansed and made whole. The cleansing with milk seems to suggest simultaneously the moment of ejaculation and the very next moment in which the shattering nature of sex and orgasm (Freud called sex the little death) is followed by reintegration and unity. Masochism can be understood as a vivid form of this shattering particularly in terms of masculinity in which the (false) wholeness of the male body as represented in culture, its power and privilege, is undermined through the masochistic act.
Fireworks and its protagonist challenge traditional masculinity through the picturing of a different corporeal paradigm and desiring structure. The male body of the main character disavows the phallus/penis (mis)recognition and gains pleasure through this disavowal. Thus, the milk can be understood as the ejaculation of the central character and his visible pleasure in his marginal subject position.
The centrality of the milk also counters Howard’s notion of the mauling as atonement for the sin of same-sex desire. Rather, the visibility of homosexuality and masochism within the film fractures to a degree the conventional masculinity of the sailors. One might also consider the milk as the ejaculation of the sailors, (their se(a)men), a reading which raises issues concerning the role of violence and domination within the sexuality of orthodox masculinity.
The Visual Text: At the Urinal
The last sequence which occurs within the space behind the GENTS door additionally foregrounds the feminine body of the protagonist. The camera pans across a row of urinals, particularly focusing on the hole at the bottom of the toilets. Clearly, this shot connects with the GENTS label and also suggests the role of the public toilet in homosexual culture. Moreover, this imagery supports the reading of the milk as semen or perhaps urine through the emphasis on a receptacle in which fluid is discharged from the male sexual organ.
Immediately, following the urinals, one briefly sees the lead character reclining on the floor in front of the toilets. His one leg is bent at the knee eliding his penis. His posture, supine and passive, is in stark contrast to the upright and erect urinals. By lying on the floor his body is visually connected with the holes of the urinals which serves to indicate his receptivity, as a receptacle for the fluids of the sailors.
Indeed, the urinal is a device of sexual difference in terms of the act of urination. The protagonist does not stand in front of the urinals as would the sailors rather he reclines in front of them. Finally, it appears as if the recumbent young man is wearing a sailor’s cap. Could this be considered a souvenir of his encounter? Or does it function as yet another destabilization of traditional masculinity by questioning the very gender and sexual position of its original wearer. the sailor?
The Visual Text: A Return to the Bar and the Muscular Sailor
The ambiguous nature of the sailor’s cap serves as the starting point for an examination of the final sequences of the film. Additionally, this ambiguity raises important questions and qualifications about the subversive nature of the protagonist’s masochism and same-sex desire in relation to the conventional masculinity of the sailors. A consideration of the function of orthodox masculinity within the negative Oedipus complex is warranted in order to qualify this relationship.
Within the desiring structure of the negative Oedipus complex traditional masculinity is the erotically-charged and desired object of the subject. In other words, while the subject within this model identifies with the mother, an action which is subversive because it negates “an identification with (orthodox) masculinity (and) obstructs paternal lineality”, the sexual fulfillment and the erotic life of the subject is predicated on the very thing which his subject position is supposed to undermine in the first place (Silverman, p. 36). Therefore, could the “feminine” body and masochistic display of the protagonist constitute a strong negation or destabilization of the sanctioned masculinity of the sailors when it is that very masculinity and body which is desired by him?
The reinscription of masculinity and its concomitant compulsory heterosexuality is vividly expressed by Howard in his 1961 essay on Fireworks. In the essay, Howard enacted this reinvestment by accepting the “difference” between himself and the sailors within the film in terms of masculinity. He accepted the construction of homosexuality as gender inversion, thus securing the dominance of the masculine heterosexual term.
Describing the encounter with the lone bare-chested sailor in the bar, he stated, “We see next a ‘masculine’ type, a sailor, stripped to the waist exhibiting his muscles. This is, of course, virile masculinity personified. Sailors, cowboys, leather-jacketed motorcyclists- all are ‘male’ types, stereotypically reckless, adventurous, courageous. Their appeal lies in our own deep conviction that these culturally admirable characteristics are not part of us…Subject (protagonist) admires this man (bare-chested sailor), or, rather this symbol of masculinity. (What I want to be. and feel convinced I cannot be, I must admire- even worship- in others.) Subject can express his insufficiency and desire only by seeking to submit to this ‘superior’ and desired object” (Howard, p. 6-7.)
Although one can sense an ambivalence in Howard’s writing in regards to the construction of his identity within the dominant culture, in the end, he, like the Fireworks main character, must “submit” to the masculinity of the sailor. Clearly, this submission must be understood as historically contingent, as part of an era prior to the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement.
Yet, still within Howard’s conceptualization, masculinity and heterosexuality are confirmed through this submission and more specifically his acceptance of the inferior and negative nature of his own subject position within the social order. Masculinity is that quality he can never possess, but only “worship” from a distance. Within this social order, homosexuality, femininity and masochism are negative terms which serve to secure masculinity.
However, does the pleasure of the protagonist within Fireworks, his revelation in his own marginality and symbolic castration of homosexuality, femininity and masochism reconfigure this negativity with a subversive agency which fractures masculinity instead of reinscribing it? And does the construction of the sailor present a unified masculinity in structural opposition to the femininity of the main character?
I will now return to the bar room scene described by Howard because it concretizes for him the rigid distinction between the bare-chested sailor, the protagonist and himself. From my perspective, this scene possesses a degree of ambiguity in its construction of the masculine term that perhaps precludes a total reinscription of orthodox masculinity. Although the main character within this scene is constructed by his difference from the masculinity of the sailor (in terms of the protagonist’s physique and the displacement of erotic satisfaction from the genitals to the mouth), thus securing traditional masculinity, this gender position is also strongly destabilized within the scene. By narcissistically gazing at his own muscular body and allowing himself to be both visual and sexual object for the lead character, the sailor enacts a disruption of the solidity and wholeness of his own supposed traditional masculinity. Lacan called bodybuilding the most feminine of practices.
Furthermore, the constructed nature of the backdrop, its blatant falsity, suggests the artificial nature of all subject positions, thereby perhaps rupturing the phallus/penis equation which establishes masculinity within the dominant culture. Possessing a certain anatomy does not predicate a particular position of gender and sexuality, an idea which is fully exemplified by the protagonist’s masochism and his erotic investment of the mouth and anus over the penis.
Finally, this scene as well as the entire film plays upon the fluid nature of the sailor’s sexuality as it is produced within both homosexual and mainstream culture in terms of representation and lived experience. In this sense, the sailor was already inscribed prior to Fireworks as a site of unstable and ambiguous masculinity.
The Visual Text: The Roman Candle
At the conclusion of the film, the GENTS door opens to reveal the prologue sailor whose outstretched arms move slowly towards his crotch as if to display his penis. Instead of the expected penis, the sailor reveals a large roman candle which ejaculates metaphorically with sparks and light. This image parallels an earlier sequence in the film in which the lead character exposes a detachable fetishistic idol in place of his penis. In regards to this earlier scene, I argued that the removal of the idol represented a disavowal of the penis and its displacement as the principal erotic zone of the protagonist.
I also suggested that the idol could be conceived as the phallus and thus its removal enacted a rupture of the phallus/penis equation which founds sanctioned masculinity. Does the action of the prologue sailor at the film’s end continue to enact this rupture? Or does this action instead suture the penis and the phallus by producing a gap between the sailor and the main character in terms of their phallus/penis?
In this regard, the prologue sailor and his ejaculating roman candle not only indicates the protagonist’s desire for the phallic attributes of the sailor, but also constructs a structural gap between the masculinity of the sailor and his functioning, attached to the penis in contrast to the impotent and removable penis of the main character (his femininity). Thus, the image of the prologue sailor seems to reinscribe and consolidate orthodox masculinity through the very defining of the protagonist in terms of homosexuality, femininity (and masochism).
The return of the prologue sailor seems to indicate the return of conventional masculinity and its reinscription. But, I would argue that this reinvestment is neither stable nor complete. The film continually destabilizes the equation sailor/masculine. And more importantly, the spectacular display of the protagonist’s perversion, his masochism and phallic divestiture as well as his pleasure in this perversion, overshadows this return to traditional masculinity and challenges the hegemony and power of the dominant fiction.