COMES NATURALLY #69
Spectator Magazine - April 3, 1998
(c) David Steinberg. All Rights Reserved.
TO BE FULLY ALIVE OR NOT TO BE, THAT IS THE QUESTION
In 1583, Veronica Franco was the most famous and sought-after courtesan among the pleasure-loving aristocracy of Venice. She was a brilliant thinker, a published poet and, according to historians Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser, "concerned about the plight of other prostitutes, those not as fortunate as she was. She petitioned the Venice senate for realistic measures to help prostitutes with children.... She was trying to make it clear that prostitutes were not an alien species to be punished or raped or saved. She tried to show that these women were just like any other group of working people, trying to survive and help their families survive, in the best way they could."
Franco's 400-year-old advocacy for respect and decent treatment of prostitute women is alive and well in the growing contemporary international movement for prostitute rights, and the current film, "Dangerous Beauty" -- appropriately subtitled "a life without compromise" -- is as direct and outspoken a presentation of the issues being raised by that movement as one could imagine.
Far from the stereotype of the pathetic, broken woman of ill-repute, Franco is shown in "Dangerous Beauty" to be cultured, intelligent, witty, self- possessed, successful, and totally unwilling to take insult from anyone -- man or woman -- who would treat her as anything less than a fully worthy fellow human being. In contrast to the socially respected but intellectually and sexually ignored wives of the Venetian aristocracy, she is her own woman, with her mind, her passions, her finances, her self-respect, and her ambitions intact and outside the control of the men around her. She is involved in affairs of state of the highest order (her triumphant will and sexual ministrations persuade the vain, young King of France to commit his navy in support of the Venetian war against the Turkish infidel). She even triumphs over the cruel and seemingly unlimited power of the Inquisition by refusing to repent for her life or for her profession, and by inspiring the upstanding politicians, businessmen, and even clerics of Venice to stand up and be counted as being among her customers.
The film, directed by Marshall Herskovitz of thirtysomething fame, is lavish, romantic and, like its stars, Catherine McCormack and Rufus Sewell, unrelentingly beautiful to the point of the absurd. But the issues it raises are right on the mark, and point to the parallels between contemporary struggles around the politics of sex and pleasure and those of sumptuous Venice stricken by Bubonic plague. In the words of the publisher of "The Honest Courtesan," the biography of Franco upon which "Dangerous Beauty" is based, "it is Veronica Franco's insight into the power conflicts between men and women -- and her awareness of the threat she posed to her male contemporaries -- that makes her literary works and her dealings with Venetian intellectuals so pertinent today."
Helen and I went last night to see "Bent," the brilliant, minimalist playput -to-screen about the Nazi persecution and death-camp confinement of gays. The film is thankfully modest in its serving up of physical violence, but almost unbearably brutal in its portrayal of the sadistic emotional manipulation that the Nazis were so talented in designing. (Remember "Sophie's Choice," where a mother is forced to decide which one of her two children will live and which will die? That sort of thing.)
"Bent" centers on the numbing dilemmas of trying to physically survive and to preserve scraps of one's humanity in a circumstance of complete and arbitrary totalitarian control mixed with this sort of mental cruelty. To make one part of a long story quite short, Max (Clive Owen), the film's main character, is rounded up by the police during the Night of the Long Knives, when Nazi police went on a rampage terrorizing gay men in Berlin. He is shipped off to Dachau. On the way, he meets Horst (brilliantly played by Lothaire Bluteau of Jesus of Montreal), another gay man being sent away. Horst knows something about the detention camps and warns Max about what plays, and doesn't play, in the mad nether world they are about to enter.
At Dachau, Max bribes a guard to have Horst transferred to his work detail. The two men have the task of moving rocks from one side of the compound to the other and, when that is done, returning them to their original place. It is, Max decides, work designed to drive them insane. Their task of resistance is to find a way to hold onto their sanity as they go through the meaningless ritual, day after day, month after month, through the blazing heat of summer and the cold of snowy winter.
Horst wears the pink triangle that identifies him as homosexual, but Max has bribed a guard to obtain, instead, a yellow star identifying him as Jewish, because Horst has told him that in the camps it is better to be addressed as "you, Jew," than "you, pervert." The guards, unaware that Max is gay, are blind to the friendship, love, and sexual attraction that gradually emerge between the two men.
Every two hours, Max and Horst are allowed a three-minute break, for which they must stand at attention, side by side, unmoving, their eyes fixed straight ahead. During one of these breaks, Horst asks Max if he misses being sexual. Max at first denies any sense of sexual loss, but when Horst persists, he admits that actually he only wishes he didn't miss sex, and then realizes that he misses it very much indeed. Horst then starts to talk Max through the details of the two of them being sexual together. "I'm touching you now.... Can you feel me?" At first Max thinks Horst is simply speaking a fantasy, but Horst pushes further, demanding that Max actually experience what he is describing, not as fantasy but as reality -- pushes Max to experience, in the moment, the two of them actually doing what they say they are doing. To Max's amazement and delight, he does begin to feel what Horst describes, and finds that he can pass feeling back to Horst with his own vivid description of his feelings.
Without touching, without moving, without looking at each other, their backs to the guard the entire time, the two men talk each other into higher and higher states of excitement, faster and faster, until they are both gone, lost in that place of sexual transformation, their shirtless bodies pouring sweat, their eyes rolling back in their heads. They are not imagining they are having sex; they are having sex, and good sex at that. The scene is utterly breathtaking.
"Did you?" asks Horst, after they stop and come back to earth.
"Yes," Max confirms, then asks in return, "Did you?"
"Yes," Horst answers.
Smiling but still not moving, they exult that even under these extreme circumstances, even with the guards and the machine guns, the shaved heads and the inhuman work, the daily threat of death from betrayal or disease, they have been able to have sex together -- powerful, personal, meaningful, intimate, exciting, satisfying sex. And they realize that as long as they can do this, they can stay human; and if they can stay human, they can survive.
It is a stunning portrayal of sex as a fundamental expression of human connection and essential life spirit triumphing over even the most systematic and brutal attempts at its annihilation. And, not coincidentally, it is also a sex scene as hot as any more conventional, hands-on interaction you're likely to see in either mainstream or adult film. I was trembling at the end, both from the intensity of the sex itself, and from the giddy victory of possibility over impossibility, life triumphing over death.
(In an interesting reversal, the power of this scene, lost on many reviewers, was well understood by the ratings board. Dismissed by critics variously as "unintentionally funny" or "near-camp," the "strong scene of graphic sexuality" earned "Bent" its NC-17 rating.)
"Bent" doesn't seem to be in wide distribution and is not (yet) available on video. But if it shows up at a local theater, as it has in Santa Cruz, don't miss it.
On April 25, 1990, a group of FBI agents and officers of the San Francisco Police Department raided the studio of photographer Jock Sturges, seizing his cameras, his prints, his computer -- everything relating to his work as an internationally recognized fine art photographer, much of whose work involves nude portraiture of children and adolescents. The law officers discovered that they had taken on one of the art elite's own as art communities, both in San Francisco and nationally, rallied around Sturges, his work, and the legitimacy of respectful nude photography of children and adolescents. Eventually, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors condemned the raid, and a San Francisco grand jury refused to indict Sturges on any charges.
Sturges' work focuses primarily on nude, entirely non-sexual, portraits of adolescents and children from naturist communities in France and Northern California that Sturges has been associated with for decades. The photos, in museums and private collections around the world, are delightful in the completely natural and powerful personal presences they capture. The unpretentious sensuality of children and adolescents, before they become self- conscious about their sexuality, is not exploited, but neither is it covered up or ignored.
Now Sturges' work is again under legal attack. Grand juries in Montgomery, Alabama, and Franklin, Tennessee, have indicted bookseller Barnes & Noble on child pornography and obscenity charges for selling Sturges' book, "Radiant Identities," as well as the work of British photographer David Hamilton. Grand juries have been impaneled in two additional states and others may follow, according to Sturges. Supporters of Randall Terry and his organization, Operation Rescue -- best known for their protests against abortion clinics -- take credit for bringing the books to the attention of prosecutors by such actions as physically destroying books in Barnes & Noble stores.
"People need to realize that a cultural war has been declared here," Sturges says strongly. "A virulent, aggressive minority has decided that Americans don't know themselves what it is they should see, and need to be protected by people who are wiser than they are, even if they are only a tiny sliver of the population. This represents a whole new level of attention to the arts by repressive forces. It's very scary and it has to be withstood.
"The state attorney general in Alabama, a man who is running for re-election, postulates that my work is 'obscene material of people under the age of 17 involved in obscene acts.' This is pretty chilling language because, in fact, the people in my pictures are not engaged in any acts at all. They are living in contexts that are naturist, which is to say that when it's warm and people feel like it, they don't wear clothes. He finds that, by virtue of the language of his indictment, somehow inherently obscene."
"It's laughable and we'll win these cases, however far it has to go," Sturges continues. "If it gets to the Supreme Court, I'll have the directors of every museum in the country as expert testimony that my work is legitimate art. If obscenity is simply a matter of somebody being without clothes, then there are so many other things that would be inherently obscene -- medical books, the National Geographic."
Sturges does not relish being back in the legal limelight. Although the indictments are not directed against him, his legal expenses will be substantial. In the meantime, the turmoil pulls him away from his work and his normal life. "It's a madhouse around here," Sturges says with more than a little exasperation, when I go to talk to him about his current situation. "Thursday we had 140 phone calls."
As we're talking, the doorbell rings. Sturges stiffens. "I hate it when that happens," he says with an edge.
"When what happens?" I ask.
"When the bell rings and I'm not expecting anyone. I still remember the time that happened when it was the feds and the police who had come to turn my life upside down."
Sturges' work is available in three published volumes, "Radiant Identities," "The Last Day of Summer," and "Jock Sturges: Photographs."
Did you catch Steve Rubenstein's cute feature in the San Francisco Chronicle a while back, the one that noted how it's actually codified into New York City's manual for taxi drivers that passengers are entitled to have all the sex they want in cabs without having to worry about disapproval or interference from their cabbies? Well, that is indeed the current word on the matter.
Seems it's all part of a Big Apple program to promote courteous attitudes by drivers toward the city's bus and taxi passengers. The city itself is on record and is actively instructing its cabbies that if passengers want to have sex in their cab, the driver must mind his or her own business, as long as the sex doesn't interfere with the safe operation of the cab. "Does sex [necessarily] interfere?" asks Terry Gelber of the Master Cabbies academy of cab-driving etiquette. "I don't think it does."
So if you're getting it on in a New York cab and your driver tells you to cut it out, or even so much as throws you a disapproving look, you could (if you wanted to) take down the driver's name and number and report him/her to the authorities for uncabdriverlike behavior. And, just by the by, the new mandatory sensitivity training course for cabbies makes clear that gay and lesbian riders are to be accorded fully the same sexual privileges as their heterosexual co-passengers, thank you very much.
Now this is a sensible enough policy, but as we all know from the grand antisexual reality we have to deal with from the day we are born, common sense about sex is distinctly uncommon, so I found myself doing something of a double take when I read about this little island of sexual sanity. I called my friend Jon Bailiff, a former driver for Veterans Cab in San Francisco, to find out if this was a uniquely New York sensibility, or if sex-tolerant vehicles for hire also existed west of the Hudson. The info on New York was no surprise to Jon. Indeed, he says, the situation is quite the same in San Francisco.
"As long as the driver can maintain control of the vehicle," says Jon, "people can do anything they want, as long as it's not illegal. You're basically in a private room, not out on the street." Without going into details, Jon told me that there were any number of times when he had had the pleasure of people having sex in his cab. In fact, he said, there had been times.... Well, he might not want me to go into that.
As of the last time I looked, having sex was still legal. So if you're in a cab and you and yours are in the mood, know that the rule book stands solidly behind your libido, at least in these two bicoastal urban breeding grounds of sin and degradation. Remember, you do still have to avoid breaking the laws about indecent exposure. If you put your sex in the face of people outside the cab you run the risk of getting popped by a frustrated cop, which would make you in violation of the taxicab rules as well. But with a little attention to keeping it all below the window line, taxis are one place where sex actually seems to have the right of way.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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