*This post is dedicated to Lawrence LaFountain-Stokes who introduced me to the films of Kenneth Anger nearly 18 years ago. Check out his wonderful new book, Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora.
In the 1950’s the consumer culture emerging since the 19th century reached new heights after the devastation of The Great Depression. World War II precipitated an economic boom and the reconversion of the economy from a war footing to consumer goods occurred after the horrific conflict. A major component of this revitalized economy was the rise of the automobile. After the war, everyone wanted a car and it became a new technological, cultural, social and decidedly masculine symbol of the United States.
Against this historical context, Kenneth Anger made Kustom Kar Kommandos in 1965. It is an erotically charged film that explores masturbation, sexual intercourse, homoeroticism and the car culture of the 1950’s. In this short film, the masculine archetype of this decade, the Greaser, obsessively and meticulously polishes his customized hot rod with a large white puff in an almost dreamy series of images. Through the actions of the Greaser, the attributes of his specially made car, and the haunting soundtrack of a revving engine and the song “Dream Lover” (originally recorded by Bobby Darin in 1959, but sung in the film by the Paris Sisters from 1964) presents a strange and wonderful narrative of queer desire.
With the sounds of a revving engine, the film depicts a pink background with the word Kustom. The next image shows a custom-made burnt orange hot rod with an exposed engine of shiny chrome, revving and running. Then, the film switches back to the title sequence which adds the word Kar interspersed with a shot of 2 Greasers admiring the engine of the burnt orange car. Then back to the title shot where the final word of the title Kommandos is added.
The title shot dissolves and the opening notes of “Dream Lover” begins to play over an image of a black car door opening revealing car seats of red leather with white leather trim and a brilliant chrome dashboard and stick shift. This shot of the car interior dissolves and then the Greaser, the owner of the car I assume, emerges from behind the car’s open engine. He is wearing a fitted turquoise t-shirt and tight turquoise jeans with no belt. The camera lingers on his crotch, thus signaling the erotic nature of the film from its very beginning.
Every night I hope an pray that a dream lover will come my way.
The crotch shot dissolves and then the Greaser begins to slowly and methodically with an almost dream-like quality buff the already shiny and immaculate car with a large, fluffy white puff. The camera focuses on his repetitive, circular motions with the puff. The incredible shine of the black car and the chrome engine reflects the puff, the arm and hand of the Greaser and at one point his entire head and torso. This act of polishing is clearly and distinctly a metaphor for masturbation or foreplay. One could argue that the reflection of the Greaser in the car (itself an extension of his penis) is like Narcissus mesmerized by his own reflection in the pool of water. He gazes upon his own reflection and pleasures himself with and to his own image. In this sense, the car becomes an almost fetish used to achieve orgasm and gratification.
A boy to hold in my arms, and know the magic of his charms.
Or one could argue that as the Greaser “gazes” at the car, it in turn
“gazes” back at him by showing him his reflection. In this sense, the shining of the car surface can be understood as a symbolic enactment of foreplay- the caressing of a lover in anticipation of penetration and fulfillment. This boy is in love with his car.
‘Cause I want (yeah-yeah-yeah) a boy to call (yeah-yeah-yeah) my own (yeah-yeah) I want a dream lover, so I don’t have to be alone.
But what is the subject position of the Greaser? What is the nature of his relationship to his hotrod besides love/obsession? Cars, like ships are usually assigned a feminine gender. But can a “hotrod” really be feminized? Could it be a “she”? The dreamy, mesmerizing soundtrack of “Dream Lover” sung by the Paris Sisters changes the gender of the song’s original object of desire when sung by Bobby Darin from a she to a he. In this context, the car and the Greaser could be conceptualized as same-sex lovers and the film, therefore, becomes a homoerotic tableau of their sexual interaction.
Dream lover, where are you, with a love, oh so true? And I hand that I can hold, to feel you near as I grow old?
After his obsessive burnishing of the car, the Greaser opens the car door and gets inside. Strangely, he wears no shoes only turquoise socks that match his pants and shirt. The act of “getting in” the car is the act of penetration and the culmination of the buffing foreplay. The Greaser symbolically “fucks” his car. Intercourse is further suggested by the red seats of the car which in their shape and color are reminiscent of an orifice, either an anus or vagina.
Someday I don’t know how, I hope he’ll hear my plea, some way, I don’t know how, he’ll bring his love to me.
Sitting in the driver seat, the boy in turquoise manipulates the controls of the car on the dashboard and particularly the two chrome stick shifts with large globular knob heads of this custom-built car. The stick shift is a stand-in penis and this car has not one but two! Is his action a reenactment the rhythm of intercourse?
Dream lover, until then, I’ll go to sleep and dream again, that’s the only thing to do, till all my lover’s dreams come true.
The song ends and once again there is the sound of a revving engine. The camera moves over the top of the car which has a opening or cutout like a sunroof. The movement of the camera creates the illusion that the car is driving away. The scene is then cut and the next shot displays the revving and running car engine of the burnt orange hotrod from the opening title sequence.
Please don’t make me dream alone, I beg you don’t make me dream alone, no I don’t want to dream alone.
In the last shot of the film the Greaser wipes the head casket of the car engine with a rag. This action is the final culmination of the interaction between the boy and his car. It suggests the symbolic cumshot of film. In this final image, the turquoise boy wipes the “cum” from the engine that has just shot its load.
‘Cause I want (yeah-yeah-yeah) a boy (yeah-yeah-yeah) to call my own (yeah-yeah) I want a dream lover so I don’t have to dream alone.
In the end Kustom Kar Kommandos reflects the postwar culture of the automobile which achieved dominance and ubiquity after World War II. It also represents a disruption in the naturalized link between traditional masculinity and the car. It problematizes that link revealing its fetishistic nature or by making that relationship a homoerotic one. Within this homosocial culture, men identify with and indeed “love” their car. It becomes an extension of this penis (mis)recognized as the Phallus. One need only think of the cliché of middle-aged man who buys a red sports car to prop up his “sagging” life.
What is also intriguing is that while the car achieved prominence in the 1950’s, there was also a growing same-sex culture and non-heterosexuals were beginning to demand equality. The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950 and the Daughters of Bilitis was organized in 1955. These groups pioneered the struggle for same-sex freedom which culminated at Stonewall in 1969. Kustom Kar Kommandos is a testament to a burgeoning gay/queer culture and it’s just a wicked piece of filmmaking.
PS See my earlier post on another Kenneth Anger film: A Disruption of Masculinity: Masochism and Homosexuality in Kenneth Anger's Fireworks.