(Originally written November, 2016)
Watching examples of Jack Smith’s drag performance in American underground cinema between the late 1950s and early 1960s, both in his own films and others’, one immediately notices recurrent themes of childhood, violence, female superiority and dark reflections on what one might label “alternative sexuality.” Whilst psychoanalytical interpretations of gender and sexuality in cinema are common within the Freudian and Lacanian schools, Kleinian perspectives on queer cinema are largely notable by their highly remiss absence, considering the uniqueness of Klein’s work for its interest in children and, often, children’s sexuality and aggression. It is the purpose of this essay to correct this, certainly by analysing Little Stabs at Happiness (Ken Jacobs, 1960), Blonde Cobra (Ken Jacobs, 1963) and Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963) from a Kleinian perspective, but also by analysing these films as criticisms of that same perspective, or at the very least, of the “normality” whose achievement marks, for Klein, a successful treatment of the analysand. It is my intention to reveal that it is not merely through queer performances and narratives that this is achieved, but also through the cinematic form, itself.
Smith’s method and indeed philosophy of drag seems to presuppose queer theorist Kate Bornstein’s own: namely, the assertion that drag is not merely the potential mindful performance of multiple genders, but also “race, age, class, religions, sexuality, looks, disability, mental health, family and reproductive status, language, habitat, citizenship, political ideology and humanity.”[i] In Little Stabs at Happiness (Ken Jacobs, 1960), Blonde Cobra (Ken Jacobs, 1963) and Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963) we can observe evidence – however fleeting – of almost all these statuses and notions being mined for parodic, performative potential. Crucial for the sake of this investigation, however, is age. In Little Stabs at Happiness, Smith is seen, dressed as a baby, whilst in Blonde Cobra, he is credited via the juvenile diminutive “Jacky Smith,” and relates the tale of “a little tweensy, microscopic little boy.”
In Klein’s documentation, Oedipal anxieties relating to castration seem to appear not only in seemingly heterosexual boys, but also in girls and boys displaying homosexual tendencies:
In uncovering bit by bit the primal scene I was able to gain access to Peter’s very strong passive homosexual attitude. After having depicted his parents’ coitus he had phantasies of coitus between three people. They aroused severe anxiety in him and were followed by other phantasies in which he was being copulated with by his father. These were portrayed in a game in which the toy dog or motor-car or engine – all signifying his father – climbed on to a cart or a man, which stood for himself in this process the cart would be injured or the man would have something bitten off; and then Peter would show much fear of, or great aggressiveness towards, the toy which represented his father.[ii]
However, the analysands are seen constantly to be fluctuating in their chosen roles during playtime and, it seems, more often than not portraying the abusive adult figure, “not only expressing his wish to reverse the roles, but also demonstrating how he feels that his parents or other people in authority behave towards him – or should behave.”[iii] The acts of violent play phantasy throughout The Psychoanalysis of Children therefore routinely exist in quantum states, in which both injured party and injurer may simultaneously and paradoxically hold both positions (“…the child was also the mother, turned into a child”[iv]). Thus, in Blonde Cobra, Smith’s recounting of one little boy burning the penis of another’s with a lit match, we can quite easily understand this not merely as a tale of psychotic sadism between two children, but as a very clear reflection of transferred persecution complex, centered around castration anxiety, not least of all because of the manner of Smith’s narration:
…One day the little boy found the other little boy that lived upstairs the family who lived upstairs in the upstairs floor and the little boy who was less than seven, the lonely little boy, the lonely little boy was less than seven, I know that because we didn’t leave Columbus until I was seven, I know it, I was under seven and I took a match and I lit it and I pulled out the other little boy’s penis and burnt his penis with a match!
Smith’s account fluctuates rapidly between the position of third-party-omniscient, to a strong implication that he was in fact the “other little boy,” to the perpetrator, himself. Such clearly intentional confusion of identities reveals a strong parallel not only with the basic appearance of aggressive, neurotic play, but also with Klein’s underlying interpretation of these events: that such acts of hatred are in fact personifications of internal battles between a child’s super-ego and id, escaped by the ego through the means of projection, and/or allegiance with the super-ego.[v] It is for this reason I find it particularly pertinent that this act of violence occurs in the upstairs of the house – in this we may draw parallels to Slavoj Žižek’s analysis of the floors in the Bates house in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), which he divides as upstairs – super-ego; ground floor – ego; basement – id.[vi] As such, from a Kleinian perspective, we may understand this phantasy as a child attacking a parent, in retaliation for the abuse he perceives himself as receiving from them – in this particular case, it seems clear the parent in question is the mother and, as such, much of Blonde Cobra bears a fascinating resemblance to Klein’s case of “Erna,” a six-year-old girl, who had paranoiac and aggressive obsessions directed towards her mother, with “excessively strong” homosexual tendencies.[vii]
Immediately preceding this violent story are two accounts: the first is an ecstatic reference to necrophilia and bodily decay, the second relates to the little boy’s relationship to his mother, as indicated by her giving him a strictly limited amount of chocolate. Perhaps most interesting during the first of these two accounts is Smith’s reference to “Renfield, my friend,” the insect-eating lunatic in Dracula who represents for Robert Azzarello a plethora of queer ambiguities. These ambiguities not only trouble the concept of man/animal, natural/unnatural, but in fact render indistinguishable from one another the very concepts of love and cruelty.[viii] Naturally, apparent ambiguity between love and cruelty plays a central role in the perception of children like Erna, whose play represents seemingly imagined abusive acts on the part of her care-givers.
The story relating to chocolates is, however, considerably more telling, still:
The little boy would…look for his mother, but she was never there, and so he would finally pass out…and fall asleep just weary with loneliness and longing…until there was his mother, and she always had…the chocolates with little indentations on them and they came to peaks on top! And the little ones had the white stuff all over them and he would eat it and she would give him some but not much, just a little because she would save most of it for herself and then she’d go away again.
Here, we encounter a metaphor which seems almost entirely free from ambiguity, Smith having made every effort to liken the chocolates to breastfeeding, complete with “white stuff,” whilst the theme of loneliness and withholding of the food in question reflects yet another common phantasy theme for Klein. Erna’s phantasies, for example, would routinely depict a mother and father “enjoying marvellous foods made of whipped cream,” that were denied to the child, “used in endless variations to represent the exchange of substances during coition. Erna’s phantasies that, in coition, her mother incorporated her father’s penis and semen, and her father incorporated her mother’s breasts and milk formed the basis of her hatred and envy against her two parents.”[ix]
Despite the usefulness of Klein’s psychoanalysis as an interpretive tool for this essay’s discussed examples of queer underground cinema, we should be under no illusions with regard to the fact that her theory and approach are distinctly heterosexist, and she considers it to be a great success when she manages to “greatly strengthen [her analysand’s] heterosexual tendencies and diminish her homosexual ones.”[x] For this reason, the parallels being drawn between Klein’s recorded case studies and the words and performances of Jack Smith et al should not be considered evidence of any sort of empathetic allegiance. However, we should recognise in the parallels the force and depth of drag’s parodic potential – not merely parodying normativity through overexaggeration, but also the formation of the normative, and explanations of the deviant, as proposed by object relations theory. At no point should it be considered my proposition that Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, and others involved in these films had in fact studied in any detail the work of Melanie Klein; rather, this essay analyses in detail their responses to the elements of object relations theory that had entered the realm of “pop psych” discourse.
The psycho-political resistance against the normative as I interpret in these examples of drag cinema are, in essence, two-pronged in such a way as one might crudely divide as pre-emptive positions of queer theory and screen theory. For the first, we must consider some of the most central elements to Erna’s behaviour: an obsessional sexual/masturbatory precocity and a deep-seated aversion both to reality and education[xi] – in short, growing older – explained later by a perceived withdrawing of sexual gratification from the mother.12 I argue the “age drag” performed by Smith in both Blonde Cobra and Little Stabs at Happiness is, at its most fundamental, a resistance to the type of psycho-social development Klein’s practice sought to encourage in children towards a life of heterosexuality, good parenting and labour production. Smith dressing as a baby, smoking marijuana and delighting in exhibiting oral-genital sadism, repeatedly chewing the crotch of a baby-doll is an ecstatic representation of queer time, established in opposition to what Jack Halberstam characterises as the “middle-class logic of reproductive temporality.”[xii] Images of the anal insertion of butcher’s knives with the narration “sex is a pain in the ass” again wantonly confuse the binaries of anal love/sadism, rejecting any notion of heterosexual idealism reflected in normal society.
Such confusion only greatens in Flaming Creatures: Smith’s queer “placeless and timeless” aesthetic was to such an extent that Jonas Mekas reported hearing it erroneously described as a “’remarkable first public screening of a film made fifty years ago.’”[xiii] Flaming Creatures continues in its ambiguities, “casually blurred genders and abstract body tangles…There’s a serious lack of gravity, an absence of perspective…[for such graphic sexuality] Flaming Creatures is notable for its absence of tumescence.”[xiv] Naturally, considering the prominence given to a scene of cunnilingual rape and, later, a drag queen Marilyn Monroe vampire, feeding on and resurrecting the titular creatures, we once again encounter instances of oral and genital love/sadism confusion. This time encountering an actual vampire, rather than simply passing reference to the vampire’s devotee as in Blonde Cobra, we come face-to-face with an icon of queer time: animated non-linearity, disrupted futurity and alternative (to) reproduction. However, the key to grasping the full potential of Flaming Creatures as opposition to the normal society that might be ensured through the psychoanalysis of children lies not just with queer sadomasochism and supernatural creatures but within the film’s aesthetic, both at its most avant-garde and also, perhaps surprisingly, at its most conventionally cinephilic.
To summarise briefly Jean-Louis Baudry’s “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” cinematic specificity is defined by mechanical processes which act to mystify the transformation of an “objective reality” into individual photographic images with Renaissance perspective, and then into a fluid, singular stream of coherent vision and narrative. Accordingly, the cinematic-spectatorial process is founded upon multiple psychological fictions, only one of which has anything to do with the story itself. Thus, although it may be argued by Klein and others that a fundamental aspect of development out of infanthood is the discarding of phantasy for reality, there remains a dominant culture of fantasy, functioning wholly on the obfuscation of the divide between reality and fiction.
In Flaming Creatures, Smith employs multiple techniques which could paradoxically be classified either as narratologically-justified formalism or as veritable verfremdungseffekt – as P. Adams Sitney describes:
In the first scene, as figures pass back and forth in front of a poster on which the credits of the film have been ornately written, the grey, washed-out picture quality gives the impression that he was filming in a cloud. The narrowing of the tonal range obscures the sense of depth, which Smith capitalizes on by cluttering the panning frame with actors and with details of limbs, breasts, a penis, and puckered lips so that not only depth disappears but the vertical and horizontal coordinates as well.[xv]
Indeed, through processes of visual abstraction, non-professional acting, obviously painted sets and the extreme disturbance of the rape scene itself, with the victim’s screams battling and besting the score’s control of the aural space, Flaming Creatures proves a challenging spectatorial experience, whose effects of interpellation and alienation oscillate wildly throughout its 43 minutes. Simultaneously affective, however, is Flaming Creatures’ overt reference to recognisable Hollywood tropes, in their most concentrated forms. Sitney again:
Flaming Creatures deliberately manifests what [Smith] finds implicated in Maria Montez’s and von Sternberg’s films, and without the interference of a plot. When he brings to the fore what has been latent in those films—visual texture, androgynous sexual presence, exotic locations (the Araby of Montez’s films or the Spain, China, and Morocco of von Sternberg’s)—and at the same time completely dis cards what held these films together (elaborate narratives), he utterly transforms his sources and uncovers a mythic centre from which they had been closed off.17
Indeed, by making such references to the camp potential of Montez and Sternberg, whilst eschewing the “serious” elements of the plot, Smith’s cinema does not just showcase the drag performances of its cross-dressing and/or otherwise openly mannered actors, but it in fact may be understood to characterise the Hollywood aesthetic with just the same mindful, parodic drag performance as defined by Bornstein.[xvi] The mindfulness of this performance, as well as its disregard for the carefully constructed stories of its source material goes some way to address and challenge the interpellative nature of these hegemonically-sanctioned fantasies, whilst giving space to the riotously confused, queer and violent phantasies of neurotic children with homosexual tendencies who would be “cured” by psychoanalysis. The American underground’s camp, queer position in relation to Hollywood (not just limited to Smith and Jacobs but also George Kuchar and Kenneth Anger to name but two others) is defined by Hoberman as an “obsessive ambivalence,”[xvii] a term which, aptly enough, is nothing more than a succinct condensation Klein’s description of Erna’s relationship to her own parents. Perhaps this truly reflects the position of the American underground drag cinema in contrast to its Hollywood parent figure: challenging the transcendent ego of interpelative conventional narrative and form, parodying the super-ego of heteronormative hegemony and linear time, and reveling in the unbridled phantasy of a destructive id.
Azzarello, Robert. “Unnatural Predators: Queer Theory Meets Environmental Studies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” In Queering the Non-Human. Edited by Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird. 137-158. Hampshire and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008.
Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus.” In Film
Quarterly 28, no. 2. (Winter, 1974/1975): 39-47.
Bornstein, Kate. “Do Your Gender Mindfully.” In My New Gender Workbook: A Step-ByStep Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity.
199-226. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Halberstam, Jack. “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies.” In In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. 1-21. New York: New York University Press, 2005.
Hoberman, J. “Treasures of the Mummy’s Tomb: The Lost Films of Jack Smith.” In Film
Comment 33, no. 6. (November/December, 1997): 42-47.
Hoberman, J. and Jonathan Rosenbaum. “The Underground.” In Midnight Movies. 39-76.
Boston: Da Capo Press, 1991.
Klein, Melanie. “An Obsessional Neurosis in a Six-Year-Old Girl.” In The Psychoanalysis of
Children. Translated by Alix Strachey. 65-93. New York: Grove Press, 1960.
Klein, Melanie. “The Psycho-Analytic Play Technique: Its History and Significance.” In
Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963. 122-140. London: Vintage, 1977.
Klein, Melanie. “The Technique of Analysis in Puberty.” In The Psychoanalysis of Children.
Translated by Alix Strachey. 122-141. New York: Grove Press, 1960.
Sitney, P. Adams. “Recovered Innocence.” In Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde
1943-2000. 315-346. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Blonde Cobra (Ken Jacobs, 1963)
Flaming Creatures (Jack Smith, 1963)
Little Stabs at Happiness (Ken Jacobs, 1960)
The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006)
[i] Kate Bornstein, “Do Your Gender Mindfully,” My New Gender Workbook: A Step-By-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarchy and Sex Positivity, (New York: Routledge, 2013): 200.
[ii] Melanie Klein, “The Technique of Early Analysis,” The Psychoanalysis of Children, trans. Alix Strachey, (New York: Grove Press, 1960): 46.
[iii] Melanie Klein, “The Psycho-Analytic Play Technique: Its History and Significance,” Envy and Gratitude and Other Works, 1946-1963. (London: Vintage, 1977): 127.
[iv] Melanie Klein, “An Obsessional Neurosis in a Six-Year-Old Girl,” The Psychoanalysis of Children, trans. Alix Strachey, (New York: Grove Press, 1960): 72.
[vi] The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes, 2006).
[vii] Klein, “Six-Year-Old Girl,” 78.
[viii] Robert Azzarello, “Unnatural Predators: Queer Theory Meets Environmental Studies in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Queering the Non-Human, eds. Noreen Giffney and Myra J Hird, (Hampshire and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008): 142-143.
[ix] Klein, “Six-Year-Old Girl,” 72.
[x] Melanie Klein, “The Technique of Analysis in Puberty,” The Psychoanalysis of Children, trans. Alix Strachey, (New York: Grove Press, 1960): 136.
[xi] Klein, “Six-Year-Old Girl,” 77. 12 Klein, “Six-Year-Old Girl,” 82.
[xii] Jack Halberstam, “Queer Temporality and Postmodern Geographies,” In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives, (New York: New York University Press, 2005): 4.
[xiii] J. Hoberman, “Treasures of the Mummy’s Tomb: The Lost Films of Jack Smith,” Film Comment 33, no. 6 (November/December, 1997): 43.
[xiv] Hoberman, “Treasures of the Mummy’s Tomb,” 44.
[xv] P. Adams Sitney, “Recovered Innocence,” Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 335. 17 Sitney, “Recovered Innocence,” 334-335.
[xvi] Bornstein, “Do Your Gender Mindfully,” 200.
[xvii] J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Underground,” Midnight Movies, (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1991): 40.