Art Criticism / Film Criticism / Gay History / Gay Studies / Gender Studies

Christmas U.S.A (1949) Dir: Gregory J Markopoulos

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Christmas U.S.A is a work of utter privacy, operating, thriving in a filmic universe of unnoticed corners, secluded rooms, forests and darkly lit row houses, even the outside world seems filtered through the eyes of a lingering phantom. Gregory J Markopoulos might be Queer cinemas most elusive phantom of them all. An Ohioan born in 1928 to a Greek Immigrant family, Gregory, much like Kenneth Anger  (his contemporary) established himself as an enfant terrible in the thriving  Avant-Garde film scene that would produce such film makers as Stan Brakhage and Maya Daren. Exiling himself to Europe with his life partner, Robert Beavers, Markopoulos saw to it that his entire catalogue be taken out of circulation, his work unseen for decades. What has been revealed, thanks to the Internet, is a treasure beyond comparison, a time capsule into the queer psyche in Post War America.

The queer narrative of Christmas U.S.A is the split identity of  masculine/feminine, the inside world/outside world. The inside world and the outside world parallel and interact with one another with great caution. Who will stay in the private of the inside world, eating dinner with Mom and Dad, observing mother put on her make up?  Who will go into the outside world to observe the way the other halves live? Masculinity and femininity align in two aligning shots, the boy holding a jack knife, dressed in a bathrobe, while his alter ego opens a delicate jeweled box on the forest ground, wearing a wilting kimono. The two identities communicate over a phone, a call from nature, collect. One world calls upon another, the world of boiling, contained sexuality.

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The outside world is a world of fairgrounds, the more deserted parts of an American town. To be a homosexual male in post war America is to be a freak, an outsider. The camera that films merry go rounds, a glowing ferris wheel in the sun, is never an active participant, but a conscientious outsider that roams the outskirts. Even inter cuts to the bustling black night club called ‘The Harlem’ with its dancing participants, with their elegant clothes are a group of outsiders, minorities in their natural habitat. As the camera seems to capture them from afar, perhaps the narrative wonders exactly where homosexuality, another minority, belongs into the hierarchy of American society? The narrative longs to become a part of something, to attain a self awareness and understanding.

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It is inevitable to return to Markopoulo’s contemporary, Kenneth Anger while watching Christmas U.S.A. Markopoulo’s was 21 when he finished it, his third film, in 1949. Kenneth Anger, aged 20, finished Fireworks two years earlier. Both films involve narratives of gay youth, festering in the dark of an disapproving society. Fireworks, based on an teenage erotic dream, revels in homosexuality with abandon, and its varying branches of sadomasochism, seeming to exist in a Universe primarily evolving around the act like the works of Genet, or even Sade.

But Christmas U.S.A is not a primarily erotic film, containing no nudity or even nods to the act of gay sex. Instead, the film is a narrative about the gay psyche, surviving, enduring and eventually defeating oppression by the America so lovingly elevated in Post War America. Markopoulo’s looks upon the familial unit with revulsion and fear. Mother is haggard, kid sister is suspicious, even Father with his newspaper looks to his shirtless son in fear. The boy of our narrative wanders a Kafka-esque homestead of conservatism, kept propped up by mothers domesticity and fathers glowering presence. His mere presence, glowing shirtless like a ivory Greek statue, makes the dark rooms glow with eerie brightness, as he rests his head between his masculine arms. He cannot be contained, a ceremony occurs beneath a bridge, perhaps a known cruising spot in our humble town, a clean cut boy holds a candle stick, walking towards another boy, his arms spread like Saint Sebastian, bowing to him.

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Where Fireworks is sexual darkness, primordial night in all its debauchery, Christmas U.S.A is the light of gay identity, the clairvoyant light of self awareness. The gay psyche, split between two males beneath the bridge, have conducted a ceremony of self discovery, of beauty, of youth. Our film ends with the boy, tucking his coat collar, as his family looks on, looks of suspicion and hatred upon their faces. The boy walks down the steps, undeterred, aware of what must be done. Christmas U.S.A may be the first, if not only positive Queer Narrative in existence during the first twenty years of Post War America, its power still fresh, magical, its discovery made all the more illuminating after its disappearance of many years.

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