(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: