A case could be made that Cary Cronenwett’s Maggots and Men isn’t just the most unique work in the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, a.k.a. Frameline33, but of any festival all year. The black-and-white experimental narrative revisits the 1921 rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base in post-revolutionary Russia, infusing the sailors’ jovial camaraderie and political determination with a poetic trans- and homosexuality. A lovely, bittersweet film that never takes itself too seriously, the hour-long Maggots and Men has its world premiere Sunday, June 21 at 1:30 p.m. at the Castro. Cronenwett was born and raised in Oklahoma, and moved to the Bay Area in 1993 after college. It was here that he transitioned from female to male and discovered film, though any connection may or may not be coincidental. We conducted our interview by email after a lengthy preliminary phone conversation.
SF360: What was the genesis of Maggots and Men?
Cary Cronenwett: The starting point was wanting to make a sailor movie. I wanted to make a film that transports you to another world like Querelle or Pink Narcissus, someplace dreamy and homoerotic. The film infuses the sailor genre not just with the trans guys, but also with anarchist politics. It’s not just cute butts that turn me on, it’s also creative thinking and creative ways of living. Kronstadt was first described to me as ‘an island of anarchist sailors.’ What could be dreamier? I started researching, looking for a story, but also intended to embellish the mythology that surrounded these guys.
SF360: In what way does a film set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution speak to the freedom and desires of LGBT people in contemporary America, as well as their discrimination?
Cronenwett: I think it’s important to contextualize LGBT struggles for equality within a larger social justice movement. The film touches on lots of issues that are relevant today: Labor struggles, police violence, media control, government abusing [its] power to stay in control and using violence over a diplomatic resolution to conflict. The film also references art of current resistance movements (posters, puppetry, cardboard props) that parallel what was happening then. There is not just a conscious mimicry of Soviet art from that time period, but also common trends coming out of common necessity, i.e., building out of cheap materials. The artists who did the posters, Zeph Fishlyn and Alec Icky Dunn, are both activists who are part of collectives (Beehive Collection and Just Seeds) that make poster art as a means to spread information and mobilize.
SF360: The festival program note plays up the transgender angle, setting up expectations that the large cast consists entirely of female-to-male transsexuals. Give us the lowdown.
Cronenwett: I intended to cast Maggots and Men with transgender actors from the beginning. My intent was not necessarily to try to make a historical film that captured ‘the most trans guys on film ever,’ but that quickly became the sensational quality. I wouldn’t think to make a film cast with hot guys that didn’t include trans guys. As a filmmaker I am interested in pushing boundaries and creating spaces. I like the idea of bringing trans guys into the sailor genre and playing with that gay iconography. The film is actually not cast entirely with trans men. The actors cover the whole range of masculine gender expression, including bio-guys. It’s intentionally difficult to tell exactly who is what, which begs the question, ‘Who cares?’ We were trying to have a good time shooting as well as have a sense of humor with the footage. Our main character, played by Stormy Henry Knight, is dressed as a woman in the strike scene. And one of the women being beaten by the cops in that scene, Annie Danger (who’s a trans-woman), makes an appearance in male drag as a sailor. There are also plenty of women who have no trans identification dressed up as sailor and soldiers. For the larger scenes, like the battle scene, anyone we could put a coat on ended up in the film.
SF360: The film meshes a couple of aesthetics, notably silent-era realism (complete with snow scenes, incredibly) and obviously stagy interludes. What was your filmmaking process like?
Cronenwett: The whole project is very process-oriented. I started the project wanting to research the Russian Revolution, rather than out of a previous obsession. In Kronstadt I found a fascinating, unbelievable story. I knew I wanted to play different styles of cutting against each other (quick montage, slower and lyrical) before I knew the words to describe it, but soon discovered Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and everybody else. I first discovered Battleship Potemkin as part of this research. I was amazed at the symmetry with which the different aspects of the project were aligned. It felt magical. I was stunned by the homoeroticism of Potemkin and amazed to learn that Eisenstein was gay. Almost everything I touched from the time period—film, theater, poster art—had some kind of relevance.
Ilona Berger, who wrote the film with me in addition to being the DP, had a background in Russian film and photography and was continually researching and always bringing me something new to watch—and still does. As I started researching, I also enrolled in the film production and history classes at City College and continued taking classes there part-time for three years. The film department at CCSF is fantastic. I ended up working on the project as an independent study with Caroline Blair, and Ilona and I took the project through the production workshop with Dina Ciraulo.
We started shooting in fall of 2004 and shot the last of our pick-ups in spring 2009. In total we probably shot between 50 and 60 days. The longest shooting stretch was 17 days, when we did the meetings and the cabaret. That was pretty difficult. After that we opted for longer set-up time, and fewer shooting dates with more time off in between, which we found much easier to manage. The last year of shooting we set up a studio in Ilona’s basement and back garden. This is where we filmed the strike, the factory interior, Lenin’s office and so on. We would build the set which would takes days or months, shoot for a long weekend, then tear down the set, rest and recover, go back to our jobs, make some money, and then start thinking about what was next.
SF360: In what way do you think Maggots and Men has a San Francisco identity?
Cronenwett: The film comes out of some sort of a Venn diagram of SF queerdos, DIY activists and transgender social networks. The film documents the gender revolution currently taking place. One day we did a casting call for one of the big scenes that needed extras, only to discover that there were two other trans-specific films being shoot that day, Lynnee Breedlove and Jennifer Gilomen’s Godspeed and Luke Woodward’s Tour De Pants (which is also in Frameline33). Only in San Francisco!
SF360: The Eisenstein influence is apparent in Maggots and Men, but Todd Haynes, John Greyson and Derek Jarman, all of whom made period pieces with a queer sensibility, also came to mind.
Cronenwett: In addition to Fassbinder’s Querelle, I also thought of Derek Jarman’s films (Sebastiane and Edward II, particularly), and his use of anachronistic elements to give a costume drama contemporary contextualization. I’m inspired by Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, which I find really twisted and beautiful and sad. Maggots and Men tries to capture this longing and isolation that is both wrapped up in our sexuality and, more broadly, an aspect of living in an alienating society that is based on competition and double standards.
SF360: Any other influences you care to cite?
Cronenwett: I saw Hans Sheirls’s Dandy Dust at Frameline 1998 and thought, ‘Wow, I want to make a movie like that!’ The film that resulted is a short called Phineas Slipped, which I finished in 2002. Flo McGarrelll, who is the Maggots and Men art director along with Zeph Fishlyn, turned me on to Vera Chytilova’s Daisies, which was the first film I saw that felt like what I wanted to do with Maggots and Men. in the sense that it was a series of sequences strung together with different styles creating a sort of a collage. I found that reading Eisenstein gave me a framework for processing and organizing my ideas. And it was fun to look to him for motivation: ‘We must work tirelessly, We must work incessantly. We must work, work, work â€¦ to spread the greatest idea of an era to the millions.’ It’s so over the top! Making this film was such a long haul and pretty hard at times. What helped us keep going was that we all felt like we were on some kind of a mission. Eisenstein writes about utilizing new technologies, taking advantage of the ability of films to reach out to the masses and affect people emotionally, in order to spread new ideas to change society, which I find really relevant to my own intentions as a filmmaker. ‘Behold the new era in art!’
SF360: What’s next in terms of future film projects?
Cronenwett: Flo McGarrell has been directing a community art center in Jacmel, Haiti. I have plans to go and do a project with some of the artists. Tiger Brown (Maggots and Men editor) and I are working on a script for four intertwined shorts that will be set in Haiti, and that is sort of inspired by Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs.
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