Subversive Love – Amelia Jones Art Historian Amelia Jones celebrates the transgressive power of love

Subversive Love – Amelia Jones

If the amateur filmmakers living and working in Poland in the post-WWII period made a ‘space’ for themselves through the filmmaking process, as Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska eloquently argue (virtually stealing their film stock and equipment from the regime that sought to siphon off their dangerous effusions of creative display by enlisting their camerawork in the service of communist propaganda), then it must not be understood as a space functioning alongside but against the grain of official late Cold war culture in the Soviet Bloc. Largely untrained except by the joys of watching films closely, these filmmakers scoped out the scenes around them and came up with narratives of love and loss; with stories about people relating to each other (or not), and, perhaps most interestingly of all, abstracted streams of bodily imagery that evoke the pulsations of skin-to-skin eroticism in a deeply subversive – because insistently embodied – way.

Streams of film-as-flesh radically undermine the instrumentalisations of Soviet-style communism as well as US-style late capitalism (but that’s another story).  While these state systems work to instrumentalise the body – to contain it and its functions within the rigid mechanics of industrial production – these films render the technological apparatus of cinematic image-making (the camera, the film stock) as extensions of the violently erratic vicissitudes of the human body-mind complex.  The totalitarian dream of controlling (clocking, regimenting, rationalizing) every aspect of human life is thwarted in particular ways by the films collected under the rubric of Love by Cummings and Lewandowska, with their fleshy imagery and inventive stories of the affections and stresses of familial love or of amorous attractions that are either all-too-clearly consummated or desperately unrequited. The bodies and their desires as narrated in these films can never be contained. They can never be made, simply and seamlessly, to serve the needs of the state or the economic structures that substantiate it.

The subversion of these films is multiplicitous. They address or purvey, and thus strategically subvert, three different aspects of love: the association of love with bourgeois and Soviet-style communist conceptions of the nuclear family; sex as a mode of economic (cum erotic and/or familial) exchange; and the role and meaning of the body, in its rude, brutal materiality, as inexorably connected to mental/emotional processes, as a driving force implicated in every act of ‘love.’ What follows then, is a personal and deeply embodied analysis of the films according to these categories, conditioned by my own ability to see, hear, and otherwise engage with these various aspects of love.


1. The heterosexualised nuclear family and the Subversion of Flesh 

In the first film, Ryszard Wawrynowicz’s 1963 Birth of Man, we are treated to a seemingly predictable narrative of familial life.  The film begins with a sensual close-up image of a man and a woman’s bodies making love. The film then unfolds through two intertwined narratives depicting the life of a heterosexual couple: scenes of the husband’s life as a train engineer in the outside world of labour, intercut with scenes of domestic life where the wife dominates through her properly “private” ministrations. She enacts a particular, feminine kind of “labour” literalised through a birthing scene where she, seemingly about 10 months after the birth of their previous child, gives birth to a second—the “product”, presumably, of the love-making we were treated to at the film’s beginning. 

Midway through the film, however, it is clear that not all is well. The impending birth produces anxiety in the man – the breadwinner who must also “labour” to support his burgeoning family.  As he drinks beer at a pub harsh music plays over the image, airplanes fly in formation overhead and the film cuts to her having the baby, and then back to him working machinery.  Anxious thoughts are invoked through the man’s relationship to procreation and the pressures exerted through (it is implied) the wife’s fecundity and domestic needs, whereas when the wife is shown performing domestic tasks (cooking, washing, breastfeeding) the music and expressions generate a more sunny and optimistic tone. But the glories of breastfeeding the newborn are set in contrast to the harshness of growing up; she pushes the (barely) toddler rudely out of the way as she rushes to answer the baby’s cry for food at the end of the film. 

Cries of babies; the howling of engines and airplanes… the pressures of caring for others, whether literally or through the alienated labour of work in the outside world… Birth of Man ultimately tells the story of the inexorable anxiety underlying parental and marital responsibilities – responsibilities that propel both men and women continually across the boundaries of public and private. Ultimately, it is the alienation between the husband and wife – formerly lovers, now soldiers fighting the battle of domestic and worldly survival – that is the greatest cost of the instrumentalising logic of modern life. 

This anxiety is humorously deflated in the next film in the sequence, Eve and Her Husband, 1968-69, made by husband and wife team Krystyna and Jozef Czoska, in which the seemingly conventional thrust implied by the opening scene of a woman and man in bed is weirdly – and wonderfully – undermined throughout the rest of the film. To the tune of an easy-music version of the Beatles’ Something in the Way She Moves, the husband turns into a life-sized humanoid robot standing at the side of the bed. From there on, he (returning to human form) is at her beck and call, making her breakfast in bed, vacuuming, and scrubbing the floor. It is his sexual servicing of her needs that turns him back into robot form: she “seduces” the patently unsensuous form of the robotic “man”, only to cover it with a cloth at the end and return to bed with a stuffed animal.

If the nuclear family represents the most codified (and sentimentalized) form of love in the modern and postmodern eras, then these films’ subtle (Birth…) or blatant (Eve…) subversion of its mythical forms undermines our most basic beliefs about love. If “love” is what binds people (over and over and over again) into the structures of the nuclear family, it cannot make up for the suffocating patterns of exclusion and inequity that these structures seem (over and over and over again) to entail. It is a battle, then, to maintain the life and breath of love within these structures – a battle that can only be won in the tiny synergetic moments, such as that sparked by the meeting of nipple and lunging, hungry newborn mouth in Birth… or that revealed in the curl of the wife’s sexually voracious lips at the end of Eve…. It is precisely in the breathless escape of the grossness of human desire from the cloying sentimentality of mass-media love that holds the brief promise of the transcendence in everyday life – moments of flesh-touching that raise us above the brute labour involved in keeping ourselves alive (so often at the expense of our beloved). 


2.  Sex as an Exchange, and the Value of Waste

Clearly, as Birth… narrates and Eve…seems to parody, the heterosexual nuclear family matrix requires – paradoxically – that we relinquish the flesh in order to accede to its terms. Repressing or sublimating the raw irrationality beckoned forth by the charged moments of human contact for the certainties and “safety” love (in its most codified forms) seems to offer. The violent (and orgasmic) charge of the trembling mouth meeting the turgid, dripping nipple is arrested and contained by the narrative of responsibility reeled out by the role of “wife/mother”, a role, like that of “husband/father/labourer”, which requires submission to a set of coded beliefs. In turn, these are beliefs that legislate the repression of the kind of explosive desires that threaten the seamless functioning of the larger economic and political systems that define but also depend on the structures of the heterosexual nuclear family.

In the 1978 film Misunderstanding directed by Piotr Majdrowicz the cost of buying into these structures is starkly narrated. Here, a young man lusts after another young male athlete (a sprinter, his body shown straining and glistening provocatively with sweat) – the ‘male gaze’ of the film subverting from the very beginning the heterosexual matrix assumed in the mainstream Hollywood love story. Furthermore, the young man is shown longing after the runner through a doubled voyeuristic look. He gazes directly at the runner sprint around the track, stares longingly at his lustrous body through the mists of a shower, and ultimately spies on the runner (traumatically) snuggling up with a girl in a moment of heterosexual suture. But he also looks through a gaze that is clearly marked as mediated: as viewers of the film, we are made to see through his camera as he photographs the runner (later on, looking through his gaze as he pours over the photographic images he has produced of the runner’s body).   Finally, the young man’s camera is, of course, doubled by that of the filmmaker. The viewers of the film join the young man in his longing.

In a scene that so explicitly parallels a moment in Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s 1969 movie Flesh that it can hardly be a coincidence, the photographer is shown gazing at homoerotic pictures of male bodies from Classical and Renaissance art (the Discobolus, Michelangelo’s David) and then convincing the runner to mimic these figures in front of his camera. In one highly charged scene, the photographer and the runner gaze at these images of ideal male bodies together – substantiating their forbidden love through the agency of our gaze, as we watch them linger together erotically in their own private act of looking. The film quite brutally (and quite brilliantly) narrates as well the runner’s disavowal of homoerotic longing towards the end of the film, as he brutally attacks the photographer after seeing the latter jealously tear a photograph of the runner and his girlfriend to exclude her from the picture.

The ruptured image literalises the challenge to the dominance of the heterosexual matrix posed by the men’s homoerotic longings for each other.  And the risk taken by the filmmaker in openly narrating these longings in the context of a regime that strictly repressed or explicitly outlawed such representations in official state media representations cannot be overstated; for this reason, and for the poignant force of its story, Misunderstanding became an underground hit, a cause célèbre within the nascent gay culture just beginning to emerge in Poland.

Our complicity in their homoerotic bond (also narrated in the shower scene, where we find ourselves, like the photographer, longing to see the runner’s body below the waist) ultimately implicates us as well in the final act of violence. The vicious attack of the photographer by his object of desire, which on first glance seems to be motivated by the runner’s desire to flagellate the protagonist’s queerness out of his skin and bones, perhaps on a deeper level aims to dispel the homoerotic longing from the attacker’s own psyche. As film viewers (sutured into an erotic triangle, as it were) we too are “beating up the fag”, participating in his humiliation at the hands of his beloved.  Ironically only the girl, whose tendency to blindness (she apparently sees/knows nothing) is marked by her over-large spectacles, is left free of the cost exacted by an irrational passion in a society ruled by rigid conceptions of human love relationships.  

Against her will and knowledge, the girl, too, is drawn into and contained by the closed system that is the heterosexualised sex act in western culture – a system fully narrated, but also partially interrogated, by Birth… and Eve…. If the sex act is choreographed inexorably into the rigid structures of the ideological system of capital – what is put in must come out, neatly, at the other end in the form of a baby whose needs, like those of the toddler in Birth…, must be sublimated back into these closed structures as soon after birth as possible – then the erotic desire spewing forth from the eye of the photographer (from the camera itself, both contained within and produced by the film) must be annihilated through violence. And so it is. 


3. The Flesh of the Body, the Text(ure) of the Film

The explosive energy of human desire allows it to rip through (to rip out) the containing and restraining forces of capital – the crushing forces of the market, solidified through concepts such as ‘free enterprise’, ‘consumer choice’, etc., that are celebrated in American-style democracy and scrupulously channeled, stymied, or veiled in the cultures of the former Soviet Bloc. It is precisely the violence of this energy of human desire that brings us to a rapturous new level of sensual subversion in the two most abstract films in the Love collection.  Love, these films say, is precisely what escapes the conventions of narrative film.  Love is the erotic and, by definition, perverse tactility that ruptures the material and historical link between the film apparatus and the structures and institutions of state and economic power. 

In Zdzislaw Zinczuk’s Function, 1981, a short film focusing around a pair of black and white animated lips that become tomato red with the application of lipstick, the eroticism of this most luscious of body parts is mitigated by a pop sensibility. Displayed in its capacity as a conduit, the mouth smokes, licks a stamp, takes a bite of food, sips from a spoon, and opens for a toothbrush. It is captured in its most visceral role as an essential hole through which things pass.  The mouth, one might say, drawing on the theories of Jacques Derrida, is a hymen: a threshold where the inside meets the outside, where the body meets that which sustains it, as well as potentially welcoming other less life-sustaining objects that might, nonetheless, fulfill other kinds of desires. 

The siphoning of all human effort – no matter how sweaty, irrational, or grotesque – through the sieve of communist ideology (such that the human becomes metallic, geared into the machines of production), is put to shame (literally) by the velvet textures of a film like Tadeusz Wudzki’s  Anatomy, 1974.  Here, luscious black and white images show close-up fragments of a woman applying make-up, the smoke curling upwards from her fruity lips ten times as erotic as the slippery fake bodies making love in a porn film (or for that matter in a romantic comedy issued by the entertainment industry). The smoke curls like a bud unfolding in space (a bud, a flap of flesh, pulsating and ripe with life). The razor cutting the eyebrow pencil scrapes loudly, raspingly like the sound of fingernails against stubble…. The lipstick thrusts upward like a spear of flesh (more sexy than any explicit rendering of an erect cock, it awaits contact with her bulging, hot, labial oral orifice).

It is only when the camera retreats, revealing a scene of a fifties-style bombshell at her vanity mirror primping herself for an evening out that the spell of sex is broken. When the body is made whole, it is no longer violent in its explosive sensuality. While the castrated corporeal fragments earlier in the film managed to sustain their tactility and depth, the whole body is only a fetish containing and palliating (rather than stroking, licking, bringing to life) the viewer’s desire.


While in its conventional forms love is the most colonized of all human emotions – the most often canned and regurgitated through the sentimental lenses of popular culture and the lugubrious pretensions of the cultivated ‘high’ arts – it becomes a highly subversive force in these films.  Even those that narrate the story of a nuclear family strew the debris of ruptured flesh behind them, disturbing the complacency of the family romance.  And those that choose more abstract means flagrantly corporealise objects and fragment the body into shards of limpid flesh so as to put a wrench in the mechanical process of its instrumentalisation. The body becomes useless, a kind of waste or remainder suitable only for the endless seductions of an embodied visuality stoking the fires of uncontainable human desire. 

It is the body pressing through the translucence of celluloid that rather violently “tactilizes” (for lack of a better word) these films, opening the door for a kind of spectatorial connection that deeply perverts communism’s weird confluence with the oppressions exacted by late-capitalist media culture.  It is the body that, after all, brings love to life in its subversive textures – potentially against the grain of the discourses and institutions of capital and state power that have had such nefarious effects in twentieth- and twenty-first century culture. It is the body (of the people in the film, of the enthusiast making it, and of the viewer) that turns film skin into flesh skin, film work into a potential playground for highly irrational desires. In the most captivating moments of these films, the body is produced as pulsating, yearning, trembling flesh – gross materiality and/or penetrable mass.  Our bodies are drawn into the body of the film, making love subversive as well as making film, its production as well as its reception, into an act of making love.  

This essay was deeply informed by the catalogue for Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’ accompanying Enthusiasts, a project at Centre of Contemporary Art, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw June–August 2004, as well as by Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004, and Laura U. Marks’ The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2000.  On the “hymen”, see Jacques Derrida’s 1972 Dissemination, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981.