Thanks to Netflix, I finally watched Derek Jarman's Sebastiane last night, a compact 84 minutes of casual male nudity, conjunctural and committed homosexuality, and eroticized proto-Christian masochism. The plot is thin ... we know its broad lines going in, after all, so in that sense this movie is about the eloquence of the telling not the mystery of the outcome, using the terms of Kenneth Burke which I discussed with reference to McCabe and Mrs. Miller: "We cannot take a recurrent pleasure in the new (in information) but we can in the natural (in form)" ... the key word is recurrent, we cannot enjoy something again and again when it is focussed on the new rather than on the style or the form.
So let us start by looking at this film as form, not as plot ... as natural in the sense of the action occurring "as if" it does not need an audience rather than as openly contrived for a defined audience whose ignorance of the outcome and desire for entertainment is the force behind not merely the narrative but the fact of the film itself. What is that silly runnaway bus film with Keanu Reeves ... that sort of film is made with the audience in the foreground. Sebastian makes the audience squirm because it does not know if it is supposed to be present.
This seems funny in the first place because of the unflagging eroticism of the film from beginning to end. The first scene is a bacchanal in presense of Diocletian, the pagan emperor who unleashed the last major persecution of Christians before Constantine's decree of tolerance in 313. The ultimately cruel Maximus, one of those coarse jackasses who populate every workplace in history, tells us that he next saw the sublimely sexy and obviously homosexual Sebastian at an outpost to which both were assigned not knowing why. The bacchanal serves only to situate us where we do not belong, to remind us of the mythology of the Christian writing of history and to establish that the auteur sees no there there. It is an empty device, perhaps essential to reminding us that we do not need to be there, but empty in the sense that it does not matter to plot or to us, the audience for whom the author has no time.
Cut to a stone fortress, a rocky desert, an empty scene in which only the nearly always nearly nude soldiers appear. Except for the initial bacchanal, nudity is as natural and unaffected as the rocks in the desert in which Sebastian and his comrades are posted. They fight, and Sebastian refuses to fight. They gambol, and they make crude sexual insults. Male love appears without narrative motivation, as natural as the spashing water in the long, strangely clean scene of wet intercourse between serenely beautiful Anthony and Adrian until they are called away by Severus, the commander in the sun, who wants them to hurt the reluctant and homoerotically charged Sebastian. This is where we first see in its full articulation the play betwen the unsatisfied and lustful sadist ... Severus ... and the passive masochist, the Christian Sebastian. The commander stakes him spread-eagled in the blazing sun rather than raping him.
Christianity is the oddity, here, though it is certainly noble or rare or at least as refined and sublime as the long wrassle in the water. Rape too is natural, like the hot sun, burning, unpleasant, but known and inevitable.
Why is Sebastian a Christian? Why does he never mention Jesus by name? He refers to him as sublimely beautiful, as more beautiful than Adonis, as if he has substituted the unavailable beauty of the invisible unnamed Jesus for the pressing, insistent and ready-to-go beauty of Severus ... as if the new erotic god who cannot be touched supersedes the old gods whose worship always entailed touch and pleasure. Is Christianity, then, nothing more than frustration, the weakness of a character facing his own sensuality who transforms himself so that he has the strength to resist urges, pleasures? Why is Sebastian more sublime than the lovers in the water? Is it because he allows Severus to hurt him while the lovers allow Severus to bully them?
What is at work here is what I like to call the pretense of unselfconsciousness ... it is "as if" we would not notice when things turn into their opposite. You see, and there is no way around this in the film, Sebastian is as gay as anybody else, as wrapped up in his sensuality and his ability to allure as any of them. But he has slyly turned himself into his opposite. He is a gay man whose erotic force has reversed itself so that it is directed not toward the physical men who surround and desire him, but toward an imaginary figure whom he associates with the Sun. He frustrates his willing rapist, Severus, to the point where he can be martyred. And we are not supposed to notice; we are invited to pretend to feel the sorrow of his loss.
Jarman captured an essential fact of pre-Constantine Christianity, that it served in its history to metamorphose the fulminating movements of spritual and emotional change that roiled through Roman life in the second and third centuries, to transform them drip by drip back ino the empire. It took on the cults, overwhelmed them, and made them temporarily into a rebellious if unarmed Christianity, all the better to reharness them after Constantine to empire and dominance. Now, there is a teleology here ... that is, I am implying that those who operated before Constantine knew that he would follow, and this is false ... but Jarman argues from after the fact. His pretense of unselfconsciousness works because he knows what happened, and he allows Sebastian to represent in his martyrdom not the victory of Chrstianity but the defeat of the erotic.
The climax of the film for me is the torture scene in which Sebastian, tied arms over his head is pinched and struck and threatened and hurt by a Severus who ends up being impotent ... the impotence not apparent, but obvious by the fact that he does not rape his prisoner. Masochism triumphant, sadism humbled. Then the soldiers sitting around apparently torturing someone (I think I missed something here because I cannot identify for you the one with the crown of thorns and the wound in his side that the soldiers were hurting) and they are called ... "Sebastian is to be killed."
The execution by arrows is quiet, slow, the pain is on the face. He does not seem to die. The penetration hovers been life giving and film ending. He is an object of desire, penetrated, strung up, inaccessible, unavoidable. It is difficult watching this to distinguish between pleasure and pain. Is that what Christianity was? Did the martyr merely compress all the ecstasy into one auto da fe?
The film ends, and Sebastian is still an erotic object. The patron saint of gay men.
I will try to return to some of these themes in the next few days. I have been reading an essay on Hellenism and Heresy that dovetails nicely. Another weird connection is this ... Severus reminded me of the hippie who rejected me in Yellow Springs. That is a little juxtaposition and reversal.
Other posts on Sebastiane:
Evocative Vocative Disambiguation
More Thoughts on Sebastian
Both images from my TV, the top overlays Sebastian on Severus, the bottom is Severus.