A Tribute to a Controversial Queer Icon Is Savaged, Underscoring His Lasting Power
Gay pride season is upon us. We’re awash in celebrations of LGBT life, history, struggles, and triumphs. Parades, film festivals, and countless parties, galas, and fetes are all on the overbooked schedule. It’s hard, however, for some in the community to not long for queerness that has fewer corporate sponsors, queerness that manifests in bodies whose minds are less preoccupied with heavy-lube assimilation than with critiques and actions that challenge the status quo. There’s nostalgia for minds that connect queer struggle with other interlocked battles around race, class, the power of church and state, and the central role that corporate interests now have in shaping everything from individual identity to public policy.
Yes, such thrillingly complex minds are still around and kicking. Judith Butler, Sarah Schulman, Yasmin Nair, Kenyon Farrow, John Keene, and Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, are just some of the folks queerly wrestling with the complexities of our time without merely agitating for the unassailable right to participate in business-as-usual. (Click here for a review of a timely new book that examines the role LGBT folks played in the US labor movement; click here for an interview with book author Miriam Frank.) These are some of the most thrilling, provocative, proactive minds at work today, but they are usually marginalized – toiling either in academia, grassroots activism, or challenging art (or all of the above) that doesn’t pull the spotlight toward them. The work they do doesn’t build their “brand” for maximum cash-in/cash-out options. They’re not the kind of facile heroes and heroines the culture (queer / straight / whatever) calls for now.
“We don’t need another hero,” sang Tina Turner years ago, lyrics that powerfully resonate when you look at how the terms for queer heroism have been flattened. The late Pier Pasolini – Italian filmmaker, poet, painter, political activist, genius – was a queer hero before the term signified a resolutely non-threatening entity. His politically charged work still has the power to shock – or disgust – years after his bloody death nearly forty years ago.
Last month, Thomas Micchelli wrote a fantastic article about Pasolini for Hyperallergic. The piece gives a thorough breakdown of Pasolini’s art and life, showing how they were inexplicably linked, and noting the various powers-that-be that had vested interests in him no longer being around. His death remains shrouded in myth and intrigue. As Micchelli notes, “Officially, he was brutally murdered on the beach of Ostia, beaten to a pulp and then run over by his own Alfa Romeo, after picking up the wrong kind of rough trade; unofficially, he was assassinated just weeks before the release of the most politically scalding work of his (or anyone else’s) career, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.”
The article was prompted during Micchelli’s recent stroll through Rome, where he came across the image of Pasolini, “in a life-size piece of street art, wheat-pasted on a wall in Rome…. The image was also odd – a standing Pasolini cradling a dead Pasolini in his arms – a self-reflexive Pietà. There was nothing on the work to identify him other than his bony, pugilist’s face – nothing else was needed. Like Che or Bob Marley, he’s an icon of an Age of Rebellion whose mystique remains undiminished.”
Micchelli goes on to explain how the poster’s defacement, “may have been done by a city worker, an unthinking teenager, or a still-virulent opponent of all Pasolini stood for – though with such a contradictory figure, it is hard to tell just what facet of his career is objectionable to whom.” That last possibility for a culprit is the most giddy-making. It speaks to the potent, sustained power of Pasolini as an outspoken, fearless political artist. Some of his enemies might have outlived him by decades, but he might still be haunting them.
If you add a pointedly queer layer to the context Micchelli creates to explain the perverse appropriateness of the image being savaged, if you examine Paolini through the historical lens of radical queer art, artists, and activism, the violent erasing of his face is even more telling. It’s symbolic of the process of “evolution” that queer politics and activism has taken the community. The truly radical/progressive figures of queer history are often either erased or have their goals flattened to align with the assimilationist bent of contemporary mainstream queerness. That too is a kind of violence, an appropriation of the work and struggles of past (and some contemporary) figures in order to uphold a status quo they were working to dismantle, not join.
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New YorkTimes, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism,Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.