The American Film Institute Theatre's current series on homosexuality began with a couple of local premieres, "Word Is Out" and "Sebastiane," which established whimsically elastic boundaries on the subject by running the gamut from bourgeois respectability to bohemian inanity.
"Word Is Out," a documentary testament shot for the most part in San Francisco, took a lucid, straight-from-the-shoulder approach. Two dozen men and women, astutely chosen to represent a cross section of social, temperamental and physical types, spoke about the experiences that influenced or confirmed their homosexuality and led to their decisions to "come out."
"Sebastiane" was something else: a homoerotic howler, absurdly pretentious yet desperately low on resources, both financial and artistic.
The film is now at the K-B Studio, where the spell it casts over viewers not dedicated to prolonged ogling of beach boys lounging around in Roman drag is bound to be shaky - something like intense boredom occasionally relieved by bemused incredulity.
As a ludicrous idea for a movie, "Sebastiane" must belong in some obscure hall of fame. The filmmakers - Derek Jarman (a set designer on Ken Russell's "The Devils"), Paul Himfress, Howard Malin and James Whaley - are apparently English, although it's impossible to discern where or under what auspices the production was shot. It looks as if the company had been stranded in some out-of-the-way location - perhaps the Canary Islands? - to bake in the sun: a weirdly appropriate fate for such a half-baked art movie.
The general idea is a soft-core homoerotic reverie inspired by the legend of St. Sebastian, imagined as the winsome but obstinately chaste whipping boy (literally) of a detachment of Roman legionnaires stationed in some stifling, uninhabited outpost of empire. The dialogue is supposed to be in Latin, with English subtitles, although certain colloquialisms - "Bugger off, Anthony!" - tend to throw the stray doubt over the authenticity of the presentation.
The movie begins with an elaborately lewd production number - a phallic ballet supposedly staged for the pleasure of the Emperor Diocletian - that may have exhausted the budget right off the bat. It's certainly all downhill, in terms of "production values," after this madly extravagant, orgiastic opening gambit. For some reason Sebastiane irks the Emperor and ends up in the boondocks, where he and the picture languish for the duration, degenerating into a kind of homosexual "Beach Blanket Bingo Roman Style."
The idle, lusty sodomites who torment Sebastiane sneer at his alleged practice of the Christian faith, but in this context the religious references have no dramatic substances or resonance. They're a transparent cover-up for the fixation on male anatomy that really preoccupies the filmmakers. Occasionally, the same fixation has led to an expressive sort of obsessive filmmaking; the most famous examples may be Kenneth Anger's "Fireworks" and "Scorpio Rising" and Jean Genet's "Chant d'amour." The crowd responsible for "Sebastiane" may have aspired to that rarefied circles of classics, but they'll have to be satisfied with an esoteric klunker.