Jean Genet and the Gloryhole as Art

from March 2007

Two convicts make love though a hole in the wall, a hole so tiny that the only object that can pass through it is a straw and the only love that can be made is one convict blowing smoke into the other's mouth.

This is the most famous scene in the dank and languid Un Chant d'Amour (A Song of Love), an underground film made in the year 1950 -- an antique prehistoric moment before the emergence of a forthright gay sensibility -- by Jean Genet, France's most acclaimed thief, pornographer and poet of perversity. (You can watch the complete 25-minute film below, after the break.)

And when I say perversity, I'm not being flip or using an egregious code word for "homosexual" favored by haters of gay people. No, Genet had -- or perhaps, for the sake of his art, for the "beauty of the gesture," affected to have -- a most Satanic taste for true perversity: he once wrote that the greatest act of love was for one lover to betray the other to the Gestapo, while the accused looked on.

Lionized by his French contemporaries the Existentialists, and the occasion certainly for the first foray into powerful, dick-hardening pornography for many a bookish 60's-era teenager (Hello! Yours truly reporting for duty!), Genet was famous for novels such as Our Lady of the Flowers that used the language of saints and roses to describe nasty boy-whores and the criminal mugs that fucked them.

Prisoner and Prison GuardTo be abused by a beautiful and cruel thug, to be spat upon and slapped, pulled by the hair and forced down on a crotch -- this was heaven itself for Genet and the impulse for long passages wrapped in a haze of masturbatory incantation.

It was all about gesture and metaphor -- and insolence, thumbing one's nose at society. Genet self-dramatized himself into a public persona reminiscent of Milton's Paradise Lost, with its vainglorious Lucifer who would "rather reign in hell than serve in heaven."

And so he wrote plays such as The Maids and The Balcony and, most controversially, The Blacks that made of criminality a virtue and its sociopathic practitioners victors trailing pomp and glory.

My favorite moment in Genet comes from his "autobiographical" Thief's Journal (one is never quite sure with Genet, who reveled in being reviled, who claimed to be intoxicated when heaped with shame. He may have exaggerated his crimes for the sake of his art):

He tells how, as a boy on the run from reform school, he would slip in and out of country villages in the dead of night lest his prison-shaved head give him away to "the screws." Once there, he would vandalize churches not so much for the gold sunburst monstrances he could snatch from the altars but because he liked to parade gravely up the aisle and "assume beautiful gestures" in the manner, he writes, of a great actress going to the stake as Jeanne d'Arc.

Un Chant d'Amour, as you will see, is all about beautiful gestures. Sex is never shown directly, but the metaphors employed are of a powerful poetic kind -- visual imagery that pinpoints the essence of pent-up desires and enlarges them, that dispenses with the literal and pornographic which would in their loud, commanding way distract from a more fragile eroticism, that of longing unfulfilled, of eternal foreplay, of hell as limbo -- all master metaphors for the poet Genet.

When Un Chant d'Amour arrived on DVD in 2003, the celebrated British wag Mark Simpson wrote a piece in the Independent that we greatly enjoyed. You can read the full piece on his website. Here's an excerpt

A listless prison guard happens to notice a bouquet of flowers being swung from a cell window, the neighbouring prisoner’s hand, extended between the bars, repeatedly trying and failing to catch it. He investigates, peering through spy-holes and witnesses one male prisoner after another masturbating in different fashions, some dancing frantically, some languorous on their bunks, some standing, some washing -- aroused, either by the scenes or the sadistic thrill of his position, the warden grabs and rubs his own packet. Nearly half a century before everyone had a peephole in their bedrooms called the internet, Genet had envisioned a webcam, Big Brother world of alone-ness and voyeurism, mass separation and observation, tedium and fascination.

And now dish out the popcorn and grab your cumrag: ART IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN.

Nightcharm (and Google) presents Un Chant d'Amour:

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