Hello sailor

Frameline 2009: Cary Cronenwett's Maggots and Men (re)stages a revolution

By Matt Sussman


Revolution seems to be on the minds and in the hearts of many in LGBT folk these days. The desire for change is palpable at the marriage equality marches that have now become regular occurrences, even if one isn't marching under the banner of marriage equality. Indeed, the large and sustained outpouring of grassroots activism that has sprung up since Proposition 8 "passed" last November has been hailed, however ill-fitting the comparison, as "Stonewall 2.0."

Stonewall is undoubtedly a milestone — and its resonance with our current historical moment is underscored by the fact that Frameline 33's closing night happens to fall on the 40th anniversary of the New York City riots. But Stonewall is not our only example of queers taking power into their own hands (San Francisco's own Compton Cafeteria Riots of 1966, in which transgender people fought for their right to occupy public space, immediately comes to mind.) Nor are the social justice movements and underground film culture of the Stonewall era — both subjects touched on in a swathe of '60s and '70s-related films at this year's festival — our only historical models for envisioning and enacting change. There are other histories, other battles, and other scenes to explore.

Local filmmaker Cary Cronenwett's Maggots and Men — a stunning black and white historical fantasia on the possibilities, pleasures, and perils of revolution — proposes such another scene. Set in a mythologized postrevolutionary Russia but based on actual historical events, Maggots marshals early Soviet cinema, the gutter erotics of Jean Genet, and what at times seems like a transgender cast of thousands to build its case for the necessity of queer utopias. "I made a school boy movie, Phineas Slipped [under the name Kerioakie, in Frameline 26], so the next logical step was to make a sailor movie," says Cronenwett, explaining the germ for his film over the phone. "I wanted to make a film that created another world."

Maggots dramatizes the events of 1921, when the sailors of the seaport town of Kronstadt (whose failed 1905 revolution would be immortalized by Sergei Eisenstein in 1925's Battleship Potemkin) drafted a resolution that supported the factory workers on strike in St. Petersburg. Deeming the sailors' declaration of solidarity and demands for food and greater autonomy as "counter-revolutionary," the Bolshevik government launched a propaganda campaign against them, eventually sending the Red Army to take their island stronghold by force. The Bolsheviks eventually won the two-week long battle, in which both sides suffered heavy losses, killing or exiling the remaining sailors.

Told through the fictionalized letters of sailor Stepan Petrichenko (played by dreamboat Stormy Henry Knight, aptly described by Cronenwett as "the transgender Matt Dillon") to his sister and the performances of agitprop theater group Blue Blouse, Maggots repurposes the aesthetics of socialist realism to both pay tribute to the Kronstadt sailors' quashed communal experiment and to use that same history as a means to engage with contemporary transgender lives and radical politics. "I'm wrapping together my different fantasies," explains Cronenwett. "There's the sexual, kinda homoerotic utopia and then there's this sort of communal utopia, where you have a society based on mutual respect."

If Maggots were a poem, it would undoubtedly take the form of an idyll. The sailors engage in a bucolic routine of communal farming and exercise, angelically sleeping in hammocks, carousing with the local ladies, and occasionally engaging in some alcohol-fueled sex with their fellow mates.

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