Growth & Futurity in Fitzgerald’s “The Hanging Garden”

Thom Fitzgerald’s “The Hanging Garden” is perhaps the most beautiful film I have seen in quite some time. I found the film particularly compelling given our course and the conversations we have had with one another, and with the text. I found quite the parallel with Kathryn Bond Stockton’s image of growing sideways with the teenaged version of Sweet William. A number of different moments related to Sweet William and his use of food to hid his sexuality. Perhaps most damningly, he remarks that he eats so that no one would find him attractive, thus he would not have to worry about his queerness. Continuing this relationship with food and his mother, upon returning as an adult, Iris continues to nurture him with food as if she only knows how to care for things if she is feeding them. I found this also to be true with the garden. After Sweet William leaves his home, his mother takes over the nurturing the garden.

His mother has several coded messages throughout the first third of the film, all read as AIDS messages. She alludes to Magic Johnson in the film, who was one of the most visible people living with AIDS at the time. Further, she also remarks several times, as do other members of his family, about how thin he looks. This can be taken as a concern for his health, and an assumption of illness upon his body. The film continues a narrative of sickness, of otherness upon Sweet William and the queer body throughout the film. One of the most painful moments of the film is when Sweet William is brought to Black Eyed Susan, a prostitute in town.

The prostitute scene is the only scene in the movie that takes place in a non-organic space. Every space until then has taken place either outside of the house, in the house made of wood, or on a road surrounded by trees. This scene finds Sweet William in a room to engage in a sexual act with a woman against his will, in a space that is reminiscent of a dungeon. The walls are made of stone and it looks like a very cold space, a space where we might send a prisoner. Further, when making the decision to take Sweet William there, Iris has a conversation with a woman who suggests Black Eyed Susan, stating that “she did it for the O’Leary kid, you know the slow one”. This equation of queerness with mental illness is something that has historically been done. Foucault shows us how historically “sexuality was a medical and medicalizable object, one had to try and detect it – as a lesion, a dysfunction, or a symptom” (Foucault, 1990, pg. 44).

The entire film is about growth. This growth is perhaps most obvious in the garden for which the film is named, but it is also the growth of the characters within the film, most obviously Sweet William. This growth is in girth and size, but also in age. The film ends with a rejection of the idea of anti-futurity within the embodied experience of Sweet William when we discover that Sweet William has fathered a daughter, Violet, with his sexual encounter with Black Eyed Susan. Sweet William also grows into the role of father, or perhaps importantly, a gay father, an image not often seen in the 90’s in film, and perhaps just as rare today. This experience of Sweet William becoming a father is a rejection of queer negativity, or queer as death, and is a signifier of a rejection of anti-futurity. Of note with Violet, is a crass understanding of the transposing of embodied queerness. While we do not discuss the sexuality of his daughter, initially Sweet William assumes that his daughter is his younger brother. This mistake in both the parentage, but more importantly of gender is important in the familial understanding of queer expression of gender and sexuality. Much like Scrooge in Edelman’s analysis, Sweet William is “converted to futurism through his life-changing vision of a futureless future”, though in this case, he is converted to futurism, through the literal embodiment of his off-spring (Edelman, 2004, pg. 50).

 

References

Edelman, L. (2004). No future: Queer theory and the death drive. Durham: Duke University Press.
Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality. Vol. 1: The will to knowledge. London: Penguin Books.
Stockton, K. B. (2009). The queer child, or growing sideways in the twentieth century. Durham: Duke University Press.

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