There are some who say that homoeroticism itself began on the cold, dreary day Kenneth Anger released his 28-minute short film Scorpio Rising into a world still reeling from the Kennedy assassination. There are others, less prone to hyperbole, who simply regard Angerís leather rebellion as the opening salvo of queer cinemaís assault on mainstream values. And then there is little old me — unworldly, tired, and skeptical down to my fat-encrusted heart — who sees little more than the eruption of the gay ethic on screen, which, from 1964 on, substituted the overtly provocative and deliberately oblique for anything resembling storytelling or character insight. Angerís mission, as with all avant-garde anti-heroes of the age, was to highlight the strange and the impossible, set it free from the chains of heterosexual oppression, and assume the resulting chaos could be re-bottled and intermingled with the dominant culture. To a certain extent, Anger has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, as masculinity, once readily apparent and unambiguous, is now all but impossible to define, and by appropriating the classic symbols of the American male, Anger led the parade to suffocate the last gasps of the perceived ideal. Gay is the new straight. And yet the penis has never been more alone.
Bikers, James Dean, Marlon Brando, and hard-fisted leather: these were once nursed as masculine properties by†vagina hunters†alone. Now, post-Anger, they are the sole property of gay chic; the revolutionary postulate whereby homosexuality is no longer limp-wristed and lisping, but rugged, bruising, and indistinguishable from the former straight world. Or a mere reversal. Scorpio Rising, by virtue of its immersion in physical prowess and hard-driving engines, disallowed any retreat to a less enlightened era; the more innocent time served by the soundtrack of the piece. By juxtaposing these soothing tunes of nostalgia with shots of eye-popping faggotry, it could be argued that the entire Eisenhower era was a conspiracy against waxed chests, tight jeans, and remorseless anal. It was always there, of course, but it took Anger to unlock the cage. Sure, the timing could be a coincidence, but has the American Way not decidedly sucked ass since this filmís release? And what of the cinema? Douglas Sirkís genius alone proves homoerotic undercurrents have always existed, but you had to look hard to find them. Now, gay would be affirmative, expressive, obnoxious; and the brilliance of subtext would have to wait until another time, another genre. Cue Reagan and the action film.
So yes, Scorpio Rising changed the face of American culture. It would get darker and weirder to be sure, but hereís as good a place to start for our collective decline into the abyss. True art seeks to provoke different modes of thinking, but it doesnít crave the stability of a permanent ethos. Art must oppose, not defend from an entrenched position. Now that Angerís vision has prevailed in so many quarters (the worst of the 1960s are impossible to imagine without this film), it is what it never wished to be — commonplace. America was once appalled and horrified by images of mustard being smeared on the torsos of half-naked men, but now the ante has been so relentlessly upped that nothing short of consuming that same torso amidst a pool of liquefied abortions would do. In 1964, the idea that Jesus healed the lame as a cover for his bath house longings could have started a riot in dozens of cities and towns; now itís all but part of the neutered shopping mall Christmas story. Thereís a reason no one blanched in the face of Mel Gibsonís hot oil party. Sorry, Braveheart, that S&M train done already left the station. But imagine trying to make sense of a barbecued savior without first having been weaned off the teat of Mr. Anger. We are all Scorpios now. With no one left to offend.