Netflix Recommends: Sebastiane

Feb 26
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Netflix has been in Canada since late 2010; it allows you to stream HD shows and movies straight to your TV or computer for $8 a month. Not to plug it or anything, but you’d have to be kind of crazy not to subscribe. That said, Netflix Canada is not without its challenges. A lot of web-based distribution in Canada is dominated by our TV networks; they have licensed the rights to distribute a ton of stuff in Canada.   They’re not distributing it, but by virtue of the fact that they hold the rights, they prevent Netflix from doing it.  In the US, this is not a problem because the networks that create the shows have no problem licensing out their own stuff for money — this is basic tertiary distribution.  But in Canada, where networks act primarily as middlemen for the distribution of American content, well, they’re not so happy to see other people carving up this turf.

The net effect: a lot of Netflix’s fare so far is, to be honest, kind of the dregs.  But mixed in all those mediocre teen comedies and straight-to-DVD slasher pics, there’s the odd little gem.  And that’s what our new feature Netflix Recommends is here for — to peer deep into Netflix’s back-catalog and find interesting but neglected titles just off the beaten path.  Of course, you don’t have to get Netflix to find these movies; you can always see if your local video store carries them — but if you do subscribe to Netflix, you know these titles are just a click away.

First up: I don’t know what piece of queer cinema I watched to prompt Netflix to recommend Derek Jarman’s 1976 homoerotic romp (although I suspect it’s the excellent But I’m a Cheerleader!); in any case, Sebastiane found me.  At first blush, this movie is just a flimsy pretext to watch a bunch of guys cavorting in loincloths (back in ’76 you still needed a pretext), but Sebastiane actually holds an interesting place not only in the history of queer cinema, but in cinema as a whole.  For one thing, in 1976 openly gay films were far from the mainstream — this was only 7 years post-Stonewall — so explicitly queer scenes (intended for queer audiences), while common in underground arthouse flicks like 1968’s Andy Warhol’s Flesh (actually directed by Paul Morrissey) or 1971’s outsider-art Pink Narcissus, were still exceedingly rare in widely distributed films.

The following is not safe for work, unless you work in a gay bathhouse:

Watching this, you could be forgiven for thinking this is just a blue movie shot on a shoestring budget.  But believe it or not, Sebastiane is the first film ever recorded entirely in Latin, including vulgar Latin, prefiguring the trend towards lingual historic realism so boldly capitalized upon by Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ 28 years later.  Far from being “just a gimmick,” my suspicion is that cloaking a movie with dangerously gay content in this high-brow art-film conceit was meant to give it an air of legitimacy it could not perhaps afford to attain with A-list actors and huge set-pieces (in a similar vein, Caligula tried the same thing 3 years later, minus the Latin, and failed to earn reputability; its exquisite cast couldn’t compensate for the fact that it was just an excuse to watch sex and torture, although it did effectively kill the Romansploitation fad).  As it is, Sebastiane was shot almost entirely in the sundrenched, windswept sands of Sardinia with a mostly unheard-of cast, so the film is carried by dialogue and the tension between characters.  It’s successful to a point, but the ability of the actors to naturalistically deliver lines in a language they almost certainly can’t speak fluently varies wildly, and the attempts at broad humor sometimes fall flat, much as Shakespearean japes so often do for contemporary audiences.

Speaking to the content: Sebastiane was able to break new ground by mining myths for queer subtext; the obvious is the homophilia among soldiers of the Imperial Roman Army.  Scantily clad, sharing close quarters, starved of the companionship of women, and utterly free of the hang-ups Christianity would later bring to homosexuality — this is rich territory for homoeroticism between oiled-up dudes; it wouldn’t be the last time the Roman army became a backdrop for tales of queer lust.

But just as important is the significance of the titular character.  Hopefully it wouldn’t spoil anyone to learn that St. Sebastian has been something of a gay icon for centuries, probably thanks to his tendency to be portrayed nearly naked and penetrated by arrows — that’s as close to a spoiler as this will article will get, and given that it’s on the movie poster I hope you’ll forgive it.  In an anecdote I suspect describes an experience common among gay boys raised in the era before Internet pornography, Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima fictionalizes, in Confessions of a Mask, an account of discovering, as a boy, a “secret, radiant” “pagan joy” when looking at an image of St. Sebastian — the first depiction of an undressed ephebus he had seen. He also notes:

It is an interesting coincidence that [Magnus] Hirschfeld should place “pictures of St. Sebastian” in the first rank of those kinds of art works in which the [transsexual] takes special delight. This observation of Hirschfeld’s leads easily to the conjecture that in the overwhelming majority of cases of [sexual] inversion, especially of congenital inversion, the inverted and the sadistic impulses are inextricably entangled with each other.

There is certainly an argument to be made that St. Sebastian’s depictions by Renaissance artists were deliberately sexualized.  There is, of course, no indication that the actual St. Sebastian was gay, so it’s interesting to consider why he may have become a gay icon; Sebastiane is both the result of and a perpetuation of St. Sebastian’s status as a gay icon.

There are clues to this mystery in the film, imperfectly historical though it may be.  In reality, St. Sebastian was shot with arrows for being a Christian.  In Sebastiane, he is shot with arrows for … more personal reasons.  In effect, St. Sebastian’s outsider status hinged on the fact that he was a Christian among pagans; co-opted as a gay icon, his outsider status is heightened by his homoeroticization; dropped into an atmosphere of homoeroticism, his outsider status is redefined in terms of his being a gay Christian among gay pagans (and so it goes; the next iteration will doubtless be his reconfirmation as an outsider as a gay Christian among born-again Christians).  In reality, St. Sebastian survived the arrows and went on to defy the emperor and earn his status as a saint; in the film … well ….

Sebastian’s beauty is cardinal to his persona; in Sebastiane he is declared to be the finest of the soldiers and is the object of Maximus’s desire.  His nudity is also crucial — it’s not for nothing that he became a sex symbol.  Just as important is the iconography of the arrow (or, in the case of Mishima’s self-portraits as St. Sebastian, the sword); it doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to figure out that the arrow is a phallic symbol, and Sebastian’s sexualized representation as he is penetrated is a metaphor for penetration of a different kind.  But the sense of victimization in the scenario is not incidental — it’s the victimization the gay viewer identifies with.  Sebastian is not just an object of desire, like Adonis or Narcissus, he’s a representation of the gay viewer projected into the scene.  Certainly this imagery has been co-opted elsewhere; for example, 2002’s The Matthew Shepard Story, based on the true story of the beating death of the eponymous Wyomingite in 1998, contained a climactic speech about the metaphorical slings and arrows Matthew endured before his murder:  “It isn’t a joke! It’s a little piece of hate, shot like an arrow. My God, how did this kid do it? How many arrows struck him every day?”  The myth of St. Sebastian as a gay martyr is so persistent that modern-day gay-bashing is still understood on his terms.

And ultimately, Sebastian’s punishment is as much a part of what makes him an icon as his beauty; his victimhood is inextricable from his gay identity.  The character in the film spends most of the film being tortured — tied up, kicked, flogged, and yes, executed.  Horrifyingly, his execution comes at the hands of his fellow soldiers.  So sexualized is all of this that it flirts dangerously with becoming torture-porn, the sleaziest of all the porns.  But in the end, I think Sebastiane is validated.  He is, as I said, not just an object of lust.  Neither is he just a martyr.  Both are equal components of his myth.

Like the saint, this movie came back from certain death to win the hearts of critics and audience members — including me.  If you’ve watched the clip above, you’ll understand how one could sit through most of this film thinking, “What a piece of camp, this is just glorified softcore porn.  Not even glorified!”  But I hope you’ll trust me when I say that Sebastiane overcomes its campier or trashier sequences to produce a climax that is, if not exactly tasteful, at least powerful.  The final synthesis of suffering and sexuality is really effectively carried out, and leaves the viewer with a visceral sense of how sex, violence, and the identity of victimhood can merge.  If this sounds vaguely masochistic, that isn’t entirely accidental.

Posterity has been kind to Sebastiane; metacritic doesn’t acknowledge the film’s existence, but the critics on Rotten Tomatoes declare it 100% fresh.  Granted, only 5 of them have weighed in, but perhaps with its availability on Netflix more people will have access to a film that has been unobtainable and neglected for years.  An additional 3 critics don’t give it a fresh / rotten label, but 2 seem warm towards it: Derek Adams at TimeOut London calls it “compulsively interesting on many levels,” and film4 calls it “cerebral” and “compelling.”

Obviously, like all the films of Netflix Recommends, Sebastiane is not for everyone.  A high tolerance for camp and homoerotic horseplay are a must; a sense of patience is also recommended.  But if that warning doesn’t put you off, you may find this particular artifact of culture worth the time.  If nothing else, it stands alone as a representation of unashamed queer cinema, albeit one still bound by a sense of victimhood queer cinema has yet to fully overcome.

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