I’ve always admired Eyes Wide Shut. People poo-poo’ed over its release, which can mean either one of two things: it deserves it or people just don’t get it. When I first saw the Masked Ball scene, I firmly decided that people just didn’t get it. They were looking for more Tom and Nicole. They got people in cloaks and masks. And abstract rituals of desire and longing.
Any basic definition of queer will situate queerness as strange, unsettling, apart from the norm, or against the grain: that’s how I would describe Eyes Wide Shut. I must have been the only one in the theater clapping to it. In fact, I was the only one in the theater! The reviews butchered the film so much that only those in the know made the trek to watch Tom Cruise in a mad streak of subconscious confusion and jealously wander the streets of New York; or to watch drug-addled half-naked masked women perform Dionysian rituals without a second’s guess. Honestly, though, what were they expecting? Some re-enactment of Tom and Nicole’s beard-riddled Hollywood romance? Perhaps Kubrick nailed something primal about the human experience: we hardly know ourselves, lest each other. The joke was on Tom (and the audience) when, at the end of its long road, his character found a mask.
I glance towards my mask and laugh.
Masks are an important part of our very Being. Oscar Wilde said it best when he declared that “Man is least himself in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Listen, queers. We can’t have it both ways. We’re fighting for our right to be against the grain and then we get all bent out of shape when people don’t recognize it as such. Patience, queens. They didn’t get Masked Ball then, nor now; what makes us think we’ve got the key in? Tattoos won’t do it. Neither will lesbian farm communes. Want our voices to be heard? Get into people’s comfort zones and piss them off; that’s how it’s always been done.
Healer. The lazy cries.
All this infighting. Listen. Why play this “queerer than thou” game involving competing strands of marginalized identity, cats, and Snuggies? We’re all in the gutter together. Anyone who goes that drastic route to identify themselves as “queer” automatically makes the checklist. Haven’t they already had enough? Do they need to be welfare queens or Arab terrorist bombers to win the queer ribbon award?
Lampshades doused in gasoline.
Rust Cohle must have been peeking into FIlthy Dreams when he ranted about flat circles: we’ve been bark-bark-barking about the same thing since day one. We’ve read our Neet-chee too, and then our Heeey-degger; and then back to our Neet-chee, like a madcap dance. Take a step out of the (flat?) circle of identity politics and witness its futile nature: essentially, nothing really changes; sure, certain groups win struggles and gain rights but then people find new targets. Someone always has to be right; someone always has to be wrong. Someone always has to be oppressed; someone always has to be the oppressor. Is it our political system of power and privilege that set up this endless back-and-forth as such? Perhaps. But look through the sheer lace to breathe in the enveloping darkness. It is human nature itself that propels us towards notions of difference.
Healer. Our last goodbyes.
Human nature is programmed to notice difference. How do we come to recognize ourselves? By differentiating ourselves as Self from Other. Lacan calls it the Mirror Stage at which the child recognizes itself as different than mother–but it goes farther than psychology. In literature, the stories we tell, the creation myths, the religions we establish–god and man, man and nature, tribes, parents and children–all emphasize the differentiation Self, whether individually or on larger scales of membership, from Other. But, again, it goes much deeper than this, friends. The way our minds work privileges (there’s that dirty word, again) difference not just for the psychological establishment of Self from Other but also to develop understandings of things, concepts, and their relationships: our minds analyze, label, and categorize according to similarities and difference. The basis of our knowledge depends on our ability to identify a thing, then a concept, and differentiate it from others. For example, we understand blue as blue and differentiate it is from yellow or red. It’s something particular and distinct from others. See where I’m going with this? How about humanity? Man is different from animal (but not by much) so we have been hard at work locating understanding where these differences lie: the way our bodily systems work, our instincts and habits, our capacities for rationality and emotion. How about within humanity? Some persons or groups of people are different from others: skin color, height, gender, ethnicity, bodily makeup, and ability. And, yes queens, sexual desire and preference.
We are programmed psychologically and intellectually to locate difference and to label and then categorize it as such. We then place value judgments on these categorized items, as, according to relations, some things are more desirable than others. Things that provide pleasure are more desirable than those that provide pain. Certain foods are, according to nutritional categories, better to eat than are others. Certain flowers are, according to aesthetic categories, more pleasing than others. Towards abstraction, certain historical events are more important than others, certain philosophical arguments are more plausible (or interesting) than others; heck, we’ve even arranged the plant and animal kingdoms into their relationship of value to man (dogs are more valuable than are tigers because their bark is worse than their bite). Simple enough, right? Then how did we make the leap towards making value judgments on differences within humanity? Scratch that, we’ve come to understand what a perfect (utopic?) idea of the human being looks like. The question, then, is why do we running so hard and carrying these notions of difference within each other?
Is it not pleasing in some way for us to declare allegiance with some notion of individual difference? Look no farther than with sporting matches to see how much fun it is for people to choose a team and lose their collective minds over it. Then with regards to race, gender, class, nation, regional identity, alma mater, sexuality, and so on in a never-ending deconstruction of human logic and reasoning. These differences we latch onto are not just pleasing to us; they are formative to our notions of Selfhood–and then, towards establishment of the Other. Politics comes out of this. It’s all one big fucking sporting event, and we keep deluding ourselves with cries for progress when we still decorate ourselves according to the teams we root for, whether it’s with bumper stickers and flags or with tattoos, nightclubs, and communes. We need to root for these teams, we need to fight for them and call the Other the enemy, all because we’ve constructed our identities through them. And, let’s face, it, we’ve invested so much into all this. This is the natural culmination of identity politics: progress, in small steps, gives way to overwhelming team frenzy as we root for our different strands of identity like drunken half-naked and painted-up frat boys rooting from the 40 yard line. Queers, deluded too with notions of progress, have exposed this process and now they’ve stretched it to its limits by attacking each other for not being different enough in this game of “queerer than thou.” At long last, queens, we’ve arrived at the mainstream.
Why are the queens dancing, then?
Waving from rusted balconies.
Kubrick got this basic understanding about humanity, and he pricks and prods at it with masked balls, walks through darkened Manhattan streets, and the refusal for men and women to meet in the middle without losing their sense of self in Eyes Wide Shut. Through our refusal to surrender ourselves, we continue to ride this endless circle, this eternal recurrence, as Nyeet-chuh (gesundheit!) calls it. Brice Dellsperger gets this, too, and he camps it up for the queer sect through Body Double 22. In this adaptation of Eyes Wide Shut, Dellsperger uses one drag queen, Jean-Luc Verna, to play all the characters. She’s Tom, she’s Nicole, she’s drug addicts and prostitutes, and she’s tattoo’ed up for all you queers out there! And she’s really bad at it, too: prosthetic breasts are displayed for all of us to see, and the wigs look like something straight out of a Spirit Halloween store. More so, Dellsperger’s direction exposes the implausibility of this enterprise through shoddy green screen technology, where backgrounds look slightly off in comparison to the actors; and shots of the characters are not smoothly layered and aligned, so that one character looks much bigger than the other. The lines are delivered terribly, too: either they come off as flat or they’re lip-synched terribly. It’s all a delightful, comical failure, and a good one at that.
There is one scene in particular, though, that I can’t get enough of: the dance scene between Nicole and her flatterer, as they enter the circle of courtship and temptation (4:20-7:56). They drunkenly dance and enter a the cycle of power and destruction as they shed layer upon layer of marital discourse towards innate desire. Though Nicole here doesn’t ultimately surrender herself to this dance, she doesn’t leave unscathed. Neither does Tom, here, for although he wasn’t part of this dance, he becomes thrust into his own spiral through jealousy and rage.
What makes this scene even more tantalizing, though, is its depiction of identity and desire: it’s all flat. We finally get what we want with the distinctions among gender, sexuality, and identity all blurred; and it’s ultimately unsatisfying. It just doesn’t look real. Is Dellsperger suggesting here that it can’t happen? Perhaps. While the Dionysian erasure of self and identity never truly happens, we do become swept by the dance’s camp artificiality, by its bad wigs and by its bad cinematography. We realize that erasure cannot truly happen, though we simultaneously celebrate the dance and its plastic artificiality.
This is the secret of queer identity politics: through our endless efforts to become “queerer than thou,” we become trapped into our discourse of identity and difference, and it all becomes one cheap wig. It’s too late, queens, we cannot escape. All we can do is celebrate the endless dance of identity, difference, and the exposure of its ultimate artificiality.
This idea of circles, dancing, and artificiality is an important component of queer culture. There’s Camp, of course, but think back to our obsession with Salome.
There she is, spinning away, tearing away layer after layer to expose desire and sexuality all in effort to seize control over John the Baptist. Though she dazzles us with her unrestrained beauty and eroticism, in the end, Salome, too, must surrender to Herod because she can never fully escape the discourse of gender.
We’ve been obsessed with dancing, circles, and artificiality from Dave Gahan’s Salome-inspired spinning red-lined leather outfits and raw male sexuality in Depeche Mode’s “A Question of Time”
to Blood Orange’s queens’ individual sense of gender, sexuality, and queerness spinning in a flat circle in the video for “Champagne Coast.”
In a sense, then, while we do not have the key out of this endless charade, we have enough of an understanding of how it works to pick away at its locks. We can’t win, of course, but that should not preclude us from giving it our very best (or worst). That’s where we here at Filthy Dreams come into play! Think of us as mad barkers who welcome you in. Recruiters, even! We’ve come to the end of the rope, and things are looking mighty fine.
Forget utopic glances at queerness; forget anti-relational ones, too. We dare not delude ourselves any longer with visions of becoming, nor do we seek to separate ourselves from the world-at-large. We celebrate the ritual, the dark game we play with each other. We get human nature, and because of that, we accept that we cannot ever truly escape this sporting game of identity and difference, so rather than seeking to answer it through some new strategy of relationality or temporality, we surrender ourselves to the artifice and throw on our masks. It doesn’t matter how queer you are. We’ll take you all! Indeed, everyone is invited to the party! Come in with your tattoos, with your bare-chested painted-on team logos, come as as you “are.” Bring your tired, your poor, your deranged. Step into the full range of Dasein and move in circles like dancing queens. We’re all as mad as hatters, here! It’s all one song and dance, one nightclub act happening hour upon hour, all one cheap wig; and rather than fight it, why not applaud it forever and ever and ever. So grab your confetti and toss it as high as you can: it’ll be a gay, old time.