by Richard Dyer
In The Times Educational Supplement of 16 May 1975, Robin Wood published a short article on the work of Pasolini, concentrating on The Arabian Nights. Robin Wood discussed, amongst other issues, the question of the place and political importance of male homosexuality in Pasolini’s films. The article ends with the following statement on the subject:
‘Pasolini’s recent trilogy (of which Arabian Nights is as much the best as Canterbury Tales is the worst) can be seen as attempting to create a “liberated” world of pure impulse and essential need, beyond ideological determination, a world in which the living, ‘magical’ identity of things can be perceived. The frank homosexual impulse behind the films is important for several reasons. Certainly anyone unable to respond to Pasolini’s celebration of male beauty is missing one of their major delights. One might argue that the uninhibited pleasure in the male body expressed so naturally and unashamedly, never self-conscious or propagandist, seldom even reaching thematic explicitness, gives the film a particular significance for the cause of Gay Liberation; and, unlike the films of certain other homosexual film-makers, they are free from any tendency to degrade women. It is, above all, this aspect of Pasolini’s work that facilitates the distancing from bourgeois norms of marriage-and-family, and from the notion of an inevitable association of sexuality with procreation.
The following essay constitutes the response by another Gay Liberation activist arguing that in Pasolini’s work, the representation of the male figure is in fact embedded in a tradition of self-oppressive rhetoric.
I should like to take up a couple of the points made by Robin Wood in his article. Let me preface this by two remarks. First, the gay movement has always placed considerable emphasis on the political importance of ‘coming out’, declaring one’s gayness openly, and I salute Robin’s1 doing this in this article (— and in The Times Educational Supplement too!). Second, what follows are genuinely exploratory notes, suggesting the kinds of problems and materials one would need to look at in order to take Robin’s observations further. They are in no way a fully worked out extension of what he says.
The points in Robin’s article that I am mainly concerned with are (1) Pasolini’s aim of creating a film world ‘beyond ideological determination’; and (2) the celebration of the male body in his films.
Robin’s view that the trilogy seeks to create ‘a “liberated” world of pure impulse and essential need, beyond ideological determination, a world in w’hich the living, “magical” identity of things can be perceived’, is very close to the view expressed by Noel Purdon, who sets this project rather more explicitly within Marxist struggle. Pointing to the ‘male puritanism’ of the ‘Stalinist left’, Purdon writes:
… (Pasolini’s) decision to continue making mass visual fantasies of the great erotic books of historical cultures is an act of mass liberation as well as the purging of personal demons and the airing of personal angels. It is, as he insisted, a political choice to make films such as these, the reverse of the images of television and respectable entertainment.2
The problem is, to what extent are the trilogy’s images the reverse of mainstream cinema? Indeed, to what extent can they be? The answer to that lies partly in the problem of ideology and partly in the problem of how images work.
Both Robin and Noel Purdon do seem to be operating with a model of ideology that sees ideology on one side and individual human values on the other. It is the men of vision, or good-will, who act as a repository of human values to set against the iniquities of bourgeois and/or Marxist-Stalinist ideology. What seems to have happened here is that the notion of ideology has been taken over from Marxist thought without the attendant notions of structure, class and social being. The absence of these crucial underpinning notions means that ideology can be seen as the very generalised dominant set of values in society as a whole which the great individual adopts, adapts or resists as he (or she?) sees fit. What is lacking is a sense that, on the one hand, the dominant ideology is located in the interests and activities of those who dominate in the social structure, and, on the other, that all individuals are placed in the social structure, and it is their place within it that provides them with their ideological point of departure. Thus it is, as Robin suggests, because he was gay that Pasolini was able (in so far as he was) to imagine alternatives to ‘bourgeois norms of marriage-and-family’. However, this is not because gay people have any premium on liberated values, but because gay people are that much more structurally dislocated from the norms that dominate, ideologically and structurally, in society. This does give us, potentially, a distance on society and ideology, and certainly helps to account for the radicalism of otherwise extremely privileged artists such as Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Andre Gide, Christopher Isherwood and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Yet this radical potential is counteracted by an equally powerful tendency. For, precisely because dominant ideologies and structures do dominate, gay people have tried to think and feel their gayness in the terms of heterosexual norms, which means in terms of guilt, sin, sickness, inadequacy, perversion, decadence …. These categories deform the self-images of gay people and arc inscribed in our cultural traditions.3 The work of Pasolini is deeply scarred by them.
Indeed, it cannot help but be scarred by them. Not only because he was isolated (the Italian gay movement Fuori has emerged only in the last couple of years), but because any artist uses a language over which he or she has very little control. Whatever Pasolini may have meant his images to mean, they have built into them meanings that he could not control and that he may very well have been unaware of. Moreover, Pasolini’s very commitment to letting images (‘the world’) speak for themselves reinforces this. Images don’t speak for themselves; rather the dominant ideology speaks through them unless subverted in some way or other.4 The face of Mary at the opening of The Gospel According to St. Matthew is dwelt on for some considerable time; we are meant to respond to the meaning inherent in it; but what we actually respond to is the cultural tradition of imaging the Virgin. In this sense then, it does not really matter what Pasolini consciously thought about gay people (though even his recent coming-out in the Corriere Della Sera does not seem to be especially affirmative about gayness); inscribed in his images are the dominant ways of thinking about gayness.
Consider two images of male attractiveness: one of Franco Citti in Accattone, the other a pin-up by the gay photo studio Per Noi. These could be supplemented by images from other Pasolini films (including Franco Citti elsewhere, Christ’s followers, many in the trilogy, and Laurent Terzieff in the early film Pasolini scripted, based on his own novel La Nolle Brava), as well as other films (for instance, Simone in Rocco and His Brothers, the chauffeur and prostitute in The Conformist, Adriano in Anima Nera, Fiorello in I Ragazzi del Massacro). Moreover, they compare with images in post-war Italian fiction – not only Pasolini’s own Ragazzi and Una Vita Violenta, but also Alberto Moravia’s ‘Agostino’ (in Two Adolescents), Alberto Arbasino’s The Lost Boy, Mario Soldati’s The Confession, and several of Giorgio Bassani’s novellas, including The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles and Behind the Door. Take this description from the Moravia:
… the third was fair, and by his carriage and physical beauty struck Agostino as being better bred than the others. But as he got nearer, his ragged bathing costume, full of holes, and a certain coarseness in his handsome face with beautiful blue eyes, showed that he too belonged to the people.5
And of course it was at the hands of just such a boy that Pasolini met his death, an irony noted by James Kirkup in an elegy in Gay News –
So Momma Roma got you in the end –
the bitch goddess and her instrument,
a bit of teenage rough trade, one of those
subproletarian ragazzi di vita you immortalised
in poetry and film – one of your own sorry passions.6
What kinds of meaning are condensed in these images? Let’s consider the emphasis on adolescence and poverty. Even the pin-up, not benefiting from a surrounding story to anchor its meaning, immediately suggests these qualities – the age of the model, his slightly unshaven face, the broken-down wall and bare wood of the setting, the sullen expression, the quality even of a slight deformity of appearance, a hint of malnourishment. What is implicit in these images is that the person looking at them is older and middle-class. Pasolini himself has spoken of the impact made on him, a figlio di papa (a son of the bourgeoisie) of the sub-proletariat life he came to know in the slums of Rome – a life more vital, spontaneous and virile than the repressed, inhibited and anaemic world of respectability above it.
There is, of course, nothing either specifically Italian or specifically gay about this – the interpenetration of class and race with sexuality is widespread in Western culture (e.g., very randomly, Wuthering Heights, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Valentino, Dietrich, Emmanuelle, Mandingo). Yet it does seem to be a more insistent feature of how gayness is imaged. It is true that gayness does permit the creation of milieux in which barriers of class and race can be bridged; but this is not what comes across in the images of the adolescent and the older man, or the sub-proletarian ragazzi and the bourgeois admirer. Rather what is stressed is inequality. It is as if precisely the quality that homosexuality promises, of equality based upon the same social status of the partners (both women or men), has to be denied by insisting on built-in inequalities of class and age. This is partly because the heterosexual norm of inequality between partners exercises its influence over gay consciousness, so that some form of inequality has to be reinvented (– there is a complex interplay in gay fiction between the characters acting out ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles and their class, race and age differences); and partly because an equalisation of differences of status, including differences of gender, would present a far too attractive image of homosexuality to set against the in-built inequalities of heterosexuality (in-built, that is, as long as men and women are socially unequal). Thus, far from being a straightforward expression of gay consciousness, the images of men in Pasolini’s work are scarred by an ideology that denies gayness its validity and its subversive implications.
This is reproduced in the narratives of the books and films representing gayness. Death in Venice as a film becomes a study of the coquettish power of the young (and vital) over the old (and dried-up); novellas like those of Bassani, Soldati and Arbasino all play upon themes of betrayal and humiliation, of old by young (Bassani, Arbasino), of working-class and middle- class (Bassani); and Pasolini’s work does not alter this. From La Notte Brava, where the poor boys rob the rich boys who have, implicitly, been exploiting them in their turn, to Arabian Nights itself, where the selection of boys and girls by a man and woman respectively turns out to be part of a game of heterosexual competition, and where the greatest humiliation threatened in the film is in the final scene where Zumurrud, disguised as a man, threatens to fuck Nuredin. Indeed, the association of gay sex with humiliation – a very common image in gay self-oppression – seems to be something of a feature of Pasolini’s work. It is implicit in Theorem, and as far back as his second novel, Una Vita Violenta. In this, there are three episodes in which the hero, Tommaso, tries to earn money by hustling. He is only successful once. The first attempt, with a teacher, involves his adopting a degrading posture on the school bench, to no avail. In the second, an extended sequence full of easy parodies of queens, he is not degraded by actually having to have sex, and gets the money by beating up an old lady. In the third, he is masturbated by a man in a cinema whom he then intimidates into giving him money (hence reinstating his virility). It is significant that this is Pasolini’s most extended treatment of gayness in a direct fashion; that elsewhere, significant in itself, he keeps it marginal: and that where it does surface it bears these marks of association with humiliation and machismo.
To turn now to the second general point; that Arabian Nights is a ‘celebration of the male body’.
The basis for discussing images of nudity in our culture has been radically altered in recent years by the impact of women’s liberation. It is now’ no longer possible to write innocently of the ‘beauty’ of a painting, sculpture or photograph of a naked woman, without also taking into account the charge of ‘objectification’. The tradition of the nude extolled by Lord Clark can be seen as merely another example of men treating women as sex-objects only this time tarting it up and legitimating it as ‘Art’. We are bound I think to pose this question of Pasolini – is it celebration or objectification of, this time, the male body?
The distinction between celebration and objectification is one that is very hard to draw. The ‘objectification’ position can look very like older puritan proscriptions against looking at naked bodies at all, and a frank enjoyment of nudity is often taken to be a sign of a person’s ‘liberatedness’. Behind the latter assumption is a belief in certain basic innocent pre-social ways of being human. One can see how Robin’s use of‘celebration’ in his article is consistent with the implied opposition of ideology and human values, the latter being just such things as a ‘natural’ sexuality that takes ‘innocent’ pleasure in looking at the bodies of others. Yet sexuality, no less than any other aspect of human thought, feeling and behaviour, does not exist in a social vacuum. It is always formed and experienced within a specific historical and cultural situation.7
What this means with regard to looking as celebration or objectification is that one cannot consider the issue separately from the matrix of power relations, sex roles and moral precepts in which the looking (any looking) at naked bodies occurs. This emerges quite clearly from John Berger’s polemic analysis of the nude in Western art in his Ways of Seeing. Pointing out that since the Renaissance the nude means the female nude, Berger argues that the nude in art is essentially an expression of the power of men over women – in her stance, her gaze at the spectator, the symbols and settings associated with her, the nude bears witness to the social being of women in this society, existing not in their own right but as objects to be possessed by men.8
We have already noted above the way that conceptions of power in sex developed in heterosexual society may infect the thought and feeling of homosexual people. This is both in the sense of recasting the potential social equality of gay relationships in unequal forms, and in the sense of delimiting the norms of attractiveness. This last point needs expanding a little. The insistence on youth, slimness, muscularity in images of male attractiveness in Pasolini as elsewhere, has the effect of narrowing down the range of men it is possible to find attractive. Old men, fat men, effeminate men – such tastes are not respectable, such bodies do not get celebrated. (It should be added that a glance at Playboy etc. will show an even more restricted field of attraction).
John Berger stresses that the implication of spectator power in the nude is carried above all by her static quality, for ‘in lived sexual experience nakedness is a process rather than a state’ and cannot be reduced to a static object. This point is also made and taken further by Laura Mulvey in her article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.9 She shows that one of the aesthetic consequences of the objectification of women is a tension in the story film between the woman as spectacle, that the film wishes to stop and contemplate, and the man as protagonist, whose story we wish to pursue.
The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. (…) According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like. Hence the split between spectacle and narrative supports the man’s role as the active one forwarding the story, making things happen.
The assumed male spectator of the film wants both to stop and look at the woman and to know what is going to happen next. It is in juggling these two elements that much of the skill of mainstream cinema lies.
How far does this apply to Pasolini’s work, where it is men rather than women who are the spectacle? Looking is a recurrent motif. To take only the trilogy, there are the nuns and the gardener, the women spying on the student lodger taking a bath, the older couple watching the younger couple in Decameron, Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights respectively. Yet here the person looked at, the spectacle, is also an agent in the story – and one could say the same of Pasolini’s use of Franco Citti, or of Terence Stamp in Theorem. In this way then, the two elements that Mulvey notes as in opposition in mainstream cinema, coincide. But of course it is not just a coincidence. In effect, it reinforces the image of male-sexuality-as-activity just as relentlessly as the standard images of women enforce the concept of female- sexuality-as-passivity. That is to say, it reiterates heterosexual norms.
This goes right against the grain of what gay liberation is trying to do, in two senses. First, gay men are brought up to despise themselves, and one form that self-oppression takes is to despise, as a consequence, all other gay men too, so that only ‘normal’ men are attractive. It is this that seems to be asserted in the indelible heterosexuality and inalienable normalness of Pasolini’s ‘stud’ figures. Second, it is one of the projects of gay liberation to extend the social definitions of what may be thought beautiful or male – passivity, for instance, or gentleness, or camp, as well as activity and muscularity. There is some of this in Pasolini, and it is not his ‘fault’ there was not more. But it is much harder to bring down the imagery of oppression than we like to think.
1. I follow here the practice in gay liberation writing of calling fellow gays by their first names, regardless of whether one knows them personally or not.
2. Noel Purdon: “The Erotic Cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini’, Cinema Papers, July-August 1975, pp. 113-115, 180.
3. For development of the concept of gay self-oppression see Hodges & Hutter: With Downcast Gays, Pomegranate Press, 1974.
4. For the development of this idea, in the context of the depiction of women, see Claire Johnston’s article in Notes on Women’s Cinema, S.E.F.T., London, 1973.
5. Alberto Moravia: Two Adolescents, translated by Beryl de Zoete, Penguin, 1960; p. 24.
6. Gay News, no. 93, p. 15.
7. For further development of this, see J. H. Gagnon and W. Simon: Sexual Conduct, Aldine, 1973.
8. John Berger: Ways of Seeing, Penguin, 1972.
9. Screen, vol. 16, no. 3;pp. 6-18.
SOURCE: Paul Willemen (edited by), Pier Paolo Pasolini, BFI, 1977