Hello sailor - Page 2

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

Flo McGarrell's gorgeous production design and composer Jascha Ephraim's accordion-rich original score certainly contribute to the film's reverie-like passages, but much of what is beautiful about the film is due in no small part to the handsome chiaroscuro visages of the film's primarily trans-masculine actors. Cronenwett is as quick to cite Genet's Un Chant d'Amour (1950) and James Bidgood's Pink Narcissus (1968) as he is Eisenstein, as influences — and it shows.

But Cronenwett has other things, aside from "dirty sailor beefcake," on the brain. As he points out in a follow-up e-mail to our conversation, the trans actors in Maggots don't just rewire the long history of the sailor as subject of homoerotic image-making in terms of gender, but also reframe the homosocial world of Krondstadt in terms of anarchist politics. "It's not just cute butts that turn me on — it's also ideas, and people's politics. Not politics, like chatting about Obama or whatever, but people that are into creative ways of living and aren't into non-consensual domination."

These politics were put into practice, as much by necessity as design, over the course of the four years it took to make the film. Shooting sporadically in rural Vermont (a frozen Lake Champlain uncannily summons the wintertime Baltic captured in photos of the Red Army's 1921 advance); San Francisco backyards and gallery spaces; and Battery Boutelle in the Presidio and Battery Mendell in Marin, Cronenwett describes making Maggots as a "highly collaborative" process that involved the talents of friends, DIY artists, political organizers, nonprofessional actors, and anyone else who could be tapped via word-of-mouth (the film also received financial support from the Frameline Film and Video Completion Fund). At times, the filming even started to take on the communal can-do atmosphere of Kronstadt itself. "People slept on the floor and took cooking shifts, and helped make costumes," remembers Cronenwett of the Vermont shoot.

As much as Maggots is a homoerotic pastoral, the film doesn't shy away from exploring the difficult, sometimes painful, realities attendant to any act of self-determination. As its very title — itself a reference to the rotting meat that sparks the sailors' mutiny in the first act of Potemkim — suggests, the consequences of our actions can fester within us. "The sailors are still lugging around the violence from the revolution with them," writes Cronenewett. "Even in the salad days the violence is there just under the surface."

This violence takes on a different cast in the context of transitioning genders, something which the actors' own mixed gender expressions continually underscore. "Transitioning is, hopefully, a liberating, positive experience. But it can also have some elements of violence associated with it. That can be a literal kind of violence — like chopping off body parts — or can be something more ethereal, like squashing aspects of ourselves to fit into either gender category."

The film is careful, though, not to hold up the sailors' bloody defeat as a cautionary example of revolutionary hubris, just as it stylistically evokes Russian cinema of the '20s and '30s while avoiding that period's penchant for egregious hero worship (flirting with martyrdom can be a slippery slope when engaging with the Soviet realism). In a sense, Maggots' restaging of history captures the full allegorical meaning of "utopia" — a social ideal that doesn't exist and yet, nonetheless, remains an ideal. But, as Maggots also proves, film gives us the means to envision such ideals.

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