What is revolution? Is it a moment in time, a cataclysmic break with the past, an ongoing dynamic process of transformation? Is it the overthrow of an oppressive government, the seizure of the means of production, or a complete shift in everyday social relations?
Cary Cronenwett’s 2009 film Maggots and Men, a creative reimagining of the Kronstadt rebellion of 1921, offers one compelling approach to these questions. It is articulated by the protagonist, Stepan, whose eloquent letters to his sister Anya form much of the film’s text, but he attributes it to an elderly woman from a nearby Russian town who carries milk for a living. To the revolutionary sailors, who have overthrown their oppressive officers in the Russian Revolution of 1917, she offers this advice:
We should be like fish, and the revolution should be like water: something we breathe and move through that is all around us, and that is in motion all the time.
As the viewer absorbs this message—intoned in an earnest Russian voice and translated in English subtitles—the camera trains on the last moments of a remarkable scene, in which a group of frisky sailors has stripped naked and dived into a lake, splashing and horsing around with each other. It evokes the carefree joy and comradeship of a group of men building a new world together, having cast off the shackles of the old.
“We should be like fish, and the revolution should be like water: something we breathe and move through that is all around us, and that is in motion all the time.”
What makes the scene all the more remarkable is that every one of the actors is a trans man. Maggots and Men likely includes more trans and gender-non-conforming actors than any other feature film in the history of cinema, from every major protagonist down to the small child picking mushrooms. In the swimming scene, as throughout the film, the camera neither highlights nor obscures bodily cues that might mark the actors as specifically trans, subverting assumptions of masculinity and cisgender identity. The fact that the actors and their diverse bodies are presented as unremarkable is one of the most radical features of the film’s vision. It conjures a world—not unlike the alternative queer San Francisco of the early 2000s in which the film took shape—in which the assumed correspondence between different gendered and sexual signifiers falls apart entirely. A stubbly chin, a male-presenting partner, a sailor’s uniform or a dress: here, none of these index the shape of one’s body, the core of one’s identity, or the angle of one’s desire.
Maggots and Men locates this world within the history of the Kronstadt rebellion, interlacing political and gender revolutions a century apart. As in the advice of the Russian woman, they are linked by the fluid quality of a transformative resistance that suffuses us while remaining in constant motion.
These splashing sailors are indeed like fish swimming in revolutionary waters. The trans and queer actors, like the rebel sailors they portrayed, immersed themselves in revolution as a medium, creating temporary autonomous zones of defiant joy and anti-authoritarian subversion on the set of the film as they excavated it from Russian history and acted it out through the script. The utopias they created in life and on screen, like the ones they brought to life from the past, remain fraught and incomplete, but survive to inspire us in our own experiments with freedom.
The Blue Blouse Theater in Maggots and Men.
Drawing on a rich history of experimental film and aesthetic radicalism remixed through a queer and trans lens, Maggots and Men is a retelling of the history of the Kronstadt rebellion; a sexy and tragic queer love story; a reimagining of masculinity; a parable of gender anarchy; and a utopian meditation on the body, comradeship, and memory.
The film advances via two distinct modes of narration. The first involves a self-consciously performative theater troupe modeled on the Soviet agit-prop Blue Blouse Theater. It lays out key details in the story’s chronology, narrated in English, on a stage populated with visually striking props and costumed performers interacting through highly stylized movements, cheered on by an audience of sailors. The second involves scenes shot in a more realist style, following the Kronstadt sailors as they interact in barracks, on ships, on land, and in snowy battles with the Red Army. A voiceover narrator reads letters in Russian written by the protagonist (modeled loosely on Stepan Petrichenko, the leader of the Provisional Revolutionary Committee at Kronstadt) to his sister, offering a more intimate window into the events.
The film opens with the whistle of cold wind through a snowy forest, as Stepan’s melancholy memories of fleeing Kronstadt lead him to think back to the heady early days of the revolution, “when our future shined before us.” He recalls the intensity of life during the rebellion as flashes of “everyday life, but different and full of meaning”—invoking the sense of enchantment suffusing the mundane that so many of us have felt in fleeting moments of struggle from Occupy encampments to the George Floyd protests, when our immersion in collective resistance distends our sense of time and transforms the ordinary into the magical. His memory arches back to a moment of sleeping with his fellow sailors in hammocks on their ship—masterfully recreating the opening scene of Eisenstein’s classic The Battleship Potemkin, reproducing its homoerotic gaze on the sleeping men, but transformed into a celebration of the transmasculine body.
This scene from Maggots and Men of sailors asleep in their hammocks on board their ship (right) is modeled on the opening scene of Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin (left)
The Blue Blouse Theater troupe sets the stage for the viewer with a didactic agit-prop introduction about the background of the rebellion, replete with period theater costumes, a campy Dr. Frankenstein, and cartoon Soviet propaganda. A scene recreating a worker’s strike observed by the sailors, while portrayed in a highly stylized aesthetic language with echoes of German expressionism, powerfully evokes the chaos and ferocious emotions of a demonstration facing violent repression. After the initial clash of 1917, in which they dispatched their oppressive officers, the Kronstadt sailors “began the hard work of making the revolution,” the narrator solemnly intones.
But in a delightful dissonance, the scene cuts immediately to an idyllic landscape in which frolicsome sailors lounge in the grass, drinking, playing chess, doing acrobatics, knitting, napping, and eyeing one another seductively. The scene is suffused with a sense of play, pleasure, and bodily ease, proposing a radically different sense of what “the hard work of the revolution” might be. It’s not a somber asceticism trumpeting the dignity of proletarian toil for the greater good (or—the good of the Party), but an aestheticism celebrating communal leisure: not in the sense of bourgeois consumerism or capital-intensive recreation, but the simple pleasures of sunshine on the skin, crafts and games, the fellowship of comrades. The subsequent portrayals of the sailors engaged in more conventional forms of labor—preparing food, hauling supplies, planting gardens, splitting wood, and the like—do not valorize work as such, but rather the (trans) body in motion. Such scenes break down the heteronormative boundaries between a feminized domestic sphere in which love and sexuality are privatized and the masculinized public sphere of work and politics. Echoing a long tradition of queer radicalism, this sequence proposes a revolutionary vision of love and desire for one’s comrades in work and struggle as integral to the process of social transformation.
The hard work of the revolution.
Tucked inside from the cold Russian night, a cabaret hosts a raucous party for the sailors. But look a little closer: the sailors are dancing together and with fancy femmes from the city, who are also necking with each other. Pairs and trios swirl around solo dancers, all enjoying the lively music, the plentiful drink, the permissive atmosphere. Mustaches and make-up, stripes and lace, curves and bulges—all signifiers seem to blur and melt into one another, and the flirting knows no bounds. As the party rages, in the shadows of an austere bedroom, Stepan and his sailor comrade Kilgast cling to each other and fuck ferociously.
But there is trouble in paradise. The autonomy from the central government that has allowed the sailors’ dynamic communal experiment to thrive—vividly portrayed in the scenes of cooperative work and bacchanalian play—is coming increasingly under threat, as the Bolsheviks clamp down brutally on urban strikes and the sailors recognize their common grievances. As the announcement rings out for a meeting to discuss solidarity with the Petrograd workers, Stepan observes optimistically, “We no longer fight each other, but stand together and fight for the future.” This plaintive declaration foreshadows the betrayal in which the Red Army turns its guns on the defiant sailors, but it also gestures at the horizontal hostility that suffuses many contemporary queer and trans communities, and at utopian hopes to overcome it.
While the sailors strive to embody and extend the revolution, the Soviet government seems determined to stamp it out at every turn. Lenin and Trotsky—whose portraits hang on the sailor’s barracks—“seem like old friends who have turned their back on us,” reflects Stepan. The film depicts the Bolshevik leaders with a twist of comic villainy, albeit with a dark edge. Trotsky talks on an ornate telephone from behind an elaborate desk featuring a chessboard, while he stuffs his face with fancy pastries; Lenin’s equally opulent office features a staff of cherubic Young Pioneers who serve as his secretaries, shine his boots, and, it is strongly implied, cater to his more sinister erotic whims. Motifs of political authoritarianism, corruption, and sexual exploitation intertwine in the film’s fierce critique of the Bolshevik leadership’s betrayal of the revolution.
Trotsky’s message demanding Kronstadt’s submission to the Soviet government blares out over images of shivering sailors and loudspeakers. The injunction that “those who resist will be disarmed and put at the disposal of the Soviet Command” is juxtaposed with gruesome imagery of flesh coming out of a meat grinder, portending the slaughter to come. As Trotsky threatens to shoot the rebels like partridges, an enraged sailor in the mess hall smashes a plate, evoking a scene from The Battleship Potemkin that foreshadowed the famous mutiny of 1905. Here the film appropriates the tropes of classic Soviet cinema and directs them into a powerful critique of the Soviet regime that Eisenstein’s classic served to legitimize, forcefully refuting Bolshevik claims to be the inheritors of the Russian revolutionary legacy and complicating Soviet cinema’s position within the vanguard of aesthetic radicalism.
“Those who resist will be disarmed and put at the disposal of the Soviet Command.”
The stage has been set—and a clash is on the horizon. In a contentious meeting on the Battleship Petropavlovsk, the sailors discuss the political situation, hearing updates from urban workers and hotly debating the advice of a former general who also hates the Bolsheviks.
In the tradition of classic anarchist films such as Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, the scenes depicting political meetings evoke the complex and conflictual dynamics of non-hierarchical organizing. As the Bolsheviks mount their claims that, knowingly or not, the Kronstadt rebels are counter-revolutionaries—claims that authoritarian communists continue to repeat to this day—Stepan declares, “The sailors have had enough, and we are ready for a new revolution—or at least a good fight.”
The classic debate about the collectivization of land in Ken Loach’s film about the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom.
The first attack comes; ominous music echoes over the stylized fisticuffs of the theatre troupe interspersed with chaotic scenes in the snow. Nothing will be the same after this betrayal. Amid images of sailors hoisting the bodies of their comrades off the snowy ground, a haunting scene unfolds in the same cabaret that had previously hosted the joyous passion of intertwined political and gender/sexual revolutions. The same band graces the stage, but sways tentatively as if they might collapse at any moment, while only a handful of dispirited spectators sit alone, watching their mournful waltz. As Stepan surveys the corpse-strewn snowy battlefield with shock and grief, his lover sits in the near-empty cabaret, swigging vodka and gazing morosely into the distance.
The rebels do not succumb to despair. Mutual aid sustains the hungry as food grows scarce, the sailors fortify their defenses, and the printers turn out copies of their daily paper, the Izvestia. But the strain takes a toll, with conflicts and fights breaking out. Two bearded sailors arm-wrestle as an ominous portrait of Lenin looks on from the background, indicating the origins of the internal conflicts in the Bolshevik power grab. Yet afterwards, they share a conciliatory drink as the spectators applaud: the fragile bonds of solidarity strained but holding fast.
The two clashing sailors, Valk and Perelpelkin, represent the opposing poles pulling the rebels in different directions, laden with gendered and sexual symbolism, and towards different conceptions of time. Valk, who married a local and is raising a family, fears that a conflict will end in bloody catastrophe, and spouts cautionary proverbs about the imprudence of overzealous action. His investment in the feminized, domestic realm limits his commitment to the sailors’ revolution, locking him into a concept of time oriented towards reproduction and the future. Perelpelkin, by contrast, is an agitator who romanticizes the impending conflict. Whatever family (and, implicitly, sexual and romantic connection) he has lies with his comrades, the fellow sailors. He remains in the masculine sphere of militarism and revolutionary ardor, anticipating a glorious clash that will mark a historical break. Towards the beginning of the film, in the heady early days of the revolution before the Bolshevik betrayal, Stepan observes with wonder, “Here in Kronstadt, it feels like we are freed from history.” As the final conflict approaches, the sailors are split: should we be reasonable, thinking of the children and their future? Or should we pursue the queerest insurrection, joining our band of brothers in an orgasmic clash that might rupture time itself?1
As the Red Army closes in, a similar split plays out between Stepan and his comrade and lover Kilgast. In a final heated meeting, the exhausted sailors debate: is it better to make a last stand, whatever the cost? Or, to do justice to the revolution, is it more important to ensure that we live to see another day? Kilgast, committed to fighting to the bitter end, will not abandon his comrades. As the agonizing scene unfolds in which the two sailors bid farewell, Stepan reflects that there is something else with his lover “that is beyond me; a glint in his eye, a thirst…” As Kilgast stares intently into his eyes, Stepan can only look away. Committing body and soul to a queer path—to a revolutionary path in which one’s comrades in love and struggle mean everything—is not for everyone. It is no coincidence that Stepan is narrating this struggle through his letters to his sister—symbolizing the investments that he still has in his family of origin and the feminized spheres of connection outside of the masculine camaraderie of his lover and the sailor’s revolution. In this climactic scene, the men try to part, but their hands nearly refuse to let them, grasping even as Stepan reluctantly walks out the door. As he flees into the snow, he laments, “I never felt so alone in my life.”
Stepan and Kilgast bid farewell.
As tense piano music mounts, the sailors take their positions and the army trudges through the snow. A final climactic montage intersperses the Red Army’s Gatling guns, the chessboard from Lenin’s desk, the fisticuffs of the Blue Blouse performers, and wriggling maggots before fading into grainy white oblivion.
In the final scene, a despondent Stepan writes from hiding in Finland, hungry and hunted, lamenting the slaughter of his comrades. Did Kilgast die in the snow like so many others? Did he escape in disguise to the city with pamphlets calling for a strike? Without the struggle to build and defend a revolutionary utopia and the lover who embodied it for him, he feels lost, clinging to his memories of those days that seemed outside of history. He says, “Every day I feel Kronstadt slipping further away, and every night I dream of going back to Russia.” Kronstadt has become a queer utopia that exists beyond the flow of time, beyond the weight of gender and poverty and state repression.
In the bitter tragedy of Stepan’s vanished utopia, in the memories redolent with traces of sweat, cum, and hormones, we hear echoes of the devastation of the AIDS crisis, in which an unprecedented culture of gay sexual liberation nearly vanished as an entire queer generation fell under the scythe of the epidemic. This is interconnected with mourning the collapse of the urban conditions in which alternative urban cultures of sex and gender rebellion could flourish in the late twentieth century, which were destroyed and erased by gentrification. The queer generation that participated in making Maggots and Men flourished in the time period between these dual tragedies, attempting to reconnect to the legacies of liberation severed by HIV/AIDS while struggling to hold on to territory as developers, cops, and politicians transformed the San Francisco of the Cockettes and the White Night Riots into today’s millionaire tech-bro dystopia. Every day, queer Kronstadts slip further away, leaving the survivors to mourn and to remember.
In the film’s opening scene, a flash-forward to Stepan’s despair, he reflects on how fleeing from Kronstadt was “like waking up from a sweet dream back to real life,” a life that now “resembles a nightmare.” Dreams, like revolutions, distort our sense of time: what seems to be an eternity, immanent with infinite possibility, can unfold and then seemingly vanish in an instant. Even as Kronstadt slips further away—from Stepan, and from us as viewers a century later—the revolutionary inspiration it embodies persists somewhere outside of time, a seed of utopia ready to sprout anew when the soil is ready.
Revolution need not be the glorious cataclysmic moment anticipated by Kilgast or Perelpelkin, nor the melancholy memory slowly slipping from Stepan’s grasp. It can be the water surrounding us, as the old milk woman urged us to understand, constantly in motion as we move through it.2 Here, the political and gender revolutions that the film explores converge. The revolution may be hard work, but it is suffused with pleasure and desire; and in the midst of its ongoing flow, our bodies, the gendered positions they hold, and the types of labor we perform with them can all transform in meaning.
To be honored and accepted as men need not mean conforming to a schema of patriarchal masculinity anchored in cisgender and heterosexual norms. Rather, in the film’s deeply queer and trans utopia, revolutions can be made by loving men—the men we are and are becoming (whatever we were assigned at birth), the men with whom we struggle to build a free world, the men we insist could still be our brothers, even as they march towards us with their rifles across the ice under Trotsky’s orders. Like the early gay liberationists who pointed out the absurdity of punishing men for loving each other while drafting them to kill each other, the trans sailors of Maggots and Men point to a utopia in which the meaning of maleness could be radically transformed, becoming a position from which people of different bodily histories can connect in a collective struggle fueled by eros and solidarity.
But this re-envisioning of maleness need not result in fixed gender roles or homoerotic sexist fantasies of a world without women. In this revolution, the men’s process of gendered and social transformation promotes active solidarity with the liberation of women, as both the historical Kronstadt sailors and the trans actors who portrayed them in the film each conveyed in their message of solidarity for International Women’s Day. In the moments of queer euphoria that it enables, the proliferation of play and pleasure can dissolve into gender anarchy as sailors, femmes, and assorted revelers dance, slide into, and become one another.
These subversions undermine not only the gendered assumptions of conventional revolutionary history, but the narrative norms of popular LGBTQ culture. So many conventions of queer cinema and narrative focus on the individual’s pathway to self-awareness and self-acceptance, a basic bildungsroman arc of budding consciousness that positions the achievement of individual identity as the apotheosis of the queer story. But Maggots and Men offers a profoundly collective vision of trans becoming, anchored in joint struggle and mutual desire. Most of the sailors are unnamed; the Russian-language voiceovers that blot out their individual voices shift the focus from their unique identities to their interactions and dynamics. Even Stepan and Kilgast, the most individualized characters, are primarily symbols of the forces flowing through those revolutionary moments, conduits for the utopian longings of the Kronstadt sailors and the twenty-first-century trans communities portraying them. In this film, history—like revolution—is no longer defined by the transcendent individual and the climactic moment that ruptures time, but the force and desire of the many, immanent within a flow of ongoing transformation, within which each self-redefinition achieves meaning in a collective affirmation of utopian possibility.
The format of film offers a powerful array of tools to deconstruct authority, invoke utopia, and redefine memory. At the same time, cinema was one of the tools the Bolsheviks used to try to contain and control the revolution. From the propaganda film in which actors recreated the battle on the ice—evoked in Maggots and Men as Lenin sits watching it surrounded by his young servants, intoning, “Cinema is for us the most important of the arts”—to Eisenstein’s effort in The Battleship Potemkin to appropriate the resistance of the fed-up sailors to shore up the Communist Party’s legitimacy, authoritarians have harnessed cinema as a tool to control historical narratives. Maggots and Men enters the fray with an anti-authoritarian counterstrike, reclaiming the legacy of resistance with an anarchist sensibility, linking the resistance to state tyranny at Kronstadt to the revolutionary challenges to gender and sexual norms of the twenty-first century.
For those who want to read more, these ideas about time draw on Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”; the discussion of gender, reproduction, and the future touch on Lee Edelman’s No Future, but particular the discussion of these concepts in the first issue of the queer nihilist journal Baeden, especially “The Anti-Social Turn”. You might also want to consult Towards the Queerest Insurrection, the Bash Back! anthology Queer Ultraviolence, and the other issues of Baeden. ↩
Like the slogan emblazoned on Captain Nemo’s vessel, mobilis in mobili—moving within the moving elements, changing within the historical processes of change. ↩