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Jean Genet and the Gloryhole as Art

by John Calendo
un_chant_damour
A NIGHTCHARM CLASSIC
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:

©2009 Nightcharm

27 CommentsLeave a Comment


  • george

    7 years ago

    thank you David. It looks like you are the only webnmaster out there that has the sensibility, or the guts, or the education, to understand the thin line that ‘porno’ and ‘art’ shares. Further more, you have the audience, as well.

    More, please!

  • Sonny

    7 years ago

    Calendo: more achingly and unsatisfying beautiful stuff; on re-discovering Genet this reader says Thanks; and the reference to Mark Simpson.
    Peter Weiss’s MARAT/SADE,” the strands of meaning of the play pass to and fro through its structure and the result is a very complex form; like in Genet, it is a hall of mirrors or a corridor of echoes–and one must keep looking front and back all the time to reach the author’s sense.”

  • Daniel

    7 years ago

    That was beautiful. I didn’t want it to end. I’ll be watching it again.

  • Domo

    7 years ago

    … “assume beautiful gestures”

    Yes. Jeanne d’Arc was played by Renee Falconetti in perhaps the greatest performance ever put to film. It was in Carl Th. Dreyer’s “The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc” and something of a prerequisite for anyone claiming to be a witness of great cinema.

    But that’s a mere aside, so…

    Yes

    Assume beautiful gestures.

    After watching this I’d like to be told that by some big hairy daddy who whispers it in my ear as I’m tied to a cross, gagged and spread eagle, ready to be whipped, flogged, fucked, feltched and fucked again (and again) in some darkened alley that smells of piss and rotting garbage that I will the scent of roses…yes …

    assume beautiful gestures and share your pearls.

    Thank you. I never expected a “porn” site to be so illuminating. I love you guys.

  • Roberto C

    7 years ago

    Wow, that was great!

  • David K.

    7 years ago

    George:

    David here.

    I wish I’d written this wonderful paean. But this is yet another faboo piece by Nightcharm’s editor John Calendo.

    DK
    publisher

  • Matt P.

    7 years ago

    Wow, that video is incredible. It’s probably naive to imagine people living in the early 1950s were somehow less sexual or expressive than we are today, that they couldn’t produce or appreciate a video like this – especially in Europe – but still, given today’s distorted, telescopic attitudes toward that time period, I’m surprised to see something as radical as this.

  • james

    7 years ago

    I love you, Nightcharm. If I were Roberto Benigni, I’d make love to you on Jupiter. I loved it.

  • raymor

    7 years ago

    Simply amazing. Like the other commentators, I was awed by the style, symbolism, and eroticism of this piece. Haunting.

  • Thorn

    7 years ago

    Wow…just…wow. I had no idea such a thing existed. I’ve never equated grace with prison before. Also, the elegant eroticism in the smallest things is really hard to come by in modern cinema. Or, perhaps more accurately, *mainstream* cinema.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Palomar

    7 years ago

    I understand that this is considered an underground film classic, but the price of its DVD is just not fair.

  • jude

    7 years ago

    Best Erotic film I’ve ever seen. Makes Shortbus seem like a Carol Channing show.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Sonny

    7 years ago

    Matt, exactly! The Eisenhower/Hoover clouded 50′s; this gives a renewed embrace of our identity, being part of a shared historical continuum. Big thanks again to Calendo and Simpson, this epoch’s ‘out-law Saints’

  • fenomanalogy

    7 years ago

    That is so beautiful. I’m kind of speechless. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • Mike S.

    7 years ago

    Breathtakingly beautiful — what a find. Makes me proud to be a Nightcharm subscriber!

  • AndyM

    7 years ago

    Who wants a free copy? Go to: (link)

    You need to download a Streamplug player, and it will help if you speak French, as there’s lots of other freaky stuff to uncover. But don’t tell Mark Simpson. He’s a big enough freak already – Bless!

  • TOM B.

    7 years ago

    HAVEN’T SEEN THIS SINCE 1964. THANK YOU FOR REAWAKING GENET’S POWER WITHIN ME & ALL MEN. THERE WERE OTHER FILMS OF HIS WHERE
    CAN THEY BE FOUND?

  • Troy

    7 years ago

    Thanks for posting this! I’ve read some Genet, but had never seen any of his films. Reminded me of a cross between Cocteau and Jarman. Wish there were more pieces of lyrical film like this being made today than there seem to be. Porn should be more dream-like and poetic, considering that the brain IS the primary sex organ.

  • Troy B.

    7 years ago

    Wow! I love the feelings that this clip invokes and will watch it again. I do believe that men in prison and women also are totally in touch with their sexual feelings and how else do they act on them. The video shows how lonely they are also and how someone can take advantage of their energy. Show more this is great!

  • Si

    7 years ago

    Take away gay mans fantasy if you can for just a moment. I know it will be difficult. . And then realise that yes, this could be classed as art, but the male erection should not be used in ‘art’. For the erection is an intimate and personal reaction to sexual arousal. A female can act aroused but a male has to be physically aroused and not just act it. Therefore a personal intimate reaction has to take place. The chemical reaction that happens to men when they get aroused is as a result of sexual fantasy or reality. For a female nothing. Therefore it is pornography, for pornography is defined as explicit printed or visual material displaying sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings. The erection is most definately unquestionably ‘activity’ and therefore pornographic. The vagina when covered in hair is not visible. In nature, the sight of an erection will generate arousal or different feelings as oppossed to the flacid penis. In nature. the sight of an erection demonstrates the will desire and ability to procreate. In porn or something calling itself art, the penis leaves a man open to judgement and comment. Comparison and ridicule. Jeff Stryker in black and white does not = art.

  • hxczach

    5 years ago

    wonderful. truely beautiful.
    i teared up a little bit,
    and to think that this was made in the fifties.

  • ericthewriter

    5 years ago

    there’s a lovely rendering of genet in tod haines’ gayfest film ‘poison.’ it’s a great intro, cuz even in translation the books can be tough to just dive into.

    i’ve always thought that kenneth anger’s Magic Lantern cycle were as close to ol’ johnny broom as an american fillmaker could get.

  • Mike

    5 years ago

    Si,

    Take away your sophomore soc & hum texts if you can for just a moment. I know it will be difficult.

    Your phallacy is belied switching grammatical mood from the second to third sentences. Though you are certainly to be congratulated for differentiating pornography & art — a nomological feat that has failed generations of US Supreme Court justices, it is specious to jump from such a mode to “the anything should / could / ought (not) anything-else.” You don’t even attempt, were such a link possible, to legitimize why the argument in one might project validly to the other — you simply juxtapose the two and expect buy in.

    So put aside your Kant and take a linguistics class. Not only will it help you understand fully the prior, but you will also be less inclined to proffer definitions of something as indeterminate as “porn” or “art” when your prof illustrates, in a classic example, the impossibility of defining “berry” necessarily & sufficiently.

  • craig from holland

    5 years ago

    chilling, heart-, ball- and cockthrobbing masterpiece!
    Thanks so much.
    Love to you all across the waters!!

  • leftypower

    5 years ago

    to Mike from the UWS:

    That SI struggles with defining smoke exhalation through a Capri-sized gloryhole compels me to celebrate this piece of art created by Jean Genet.

    If only we could have seen the House and Senate hearings about pornography. Barney Frank, Jared Polis and Tammy Baldwin would have been more respectable than Larry Craig, Mark Foley et al. Just sayin.

    And why are Karl Rove and Dick Cheney still news commentators?

  • austx03

    5 years ago

    first time i ever read Genet i was in paris. i had a copy of Our Lady of the Flowers. i only left the room to get something to eat and drink. went no where else. i spent the rest of the day reading and jacking off. i was there for 4 days…that is all i did in paris that visit.

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