“Define Frenzy” is a series essays published throughout Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read previous essays form previous years here.
We are deep enough in the late-stage Pride cycle that the discourses around who and what is important to Pride—as celebration, iconography and historical reference point—has looped around to mythology and, if 4chan were to have it, conspiracy. You have memes, both ironic and earnest, about brick throwing, recasting trans people of color less as people and more as political iconography; if you’re extremely online, you have handful of younger people positing that Pride parades should be safe for families and children, and therefore unwelcome to sex workers and those in the kink community. The unmanageable flurry of discourses, whose veracities are increasingly hard to measure due to their immeasurable solipsism, has been shaped by broad, easily accessible representations (as has, in a way, a lot of the perception of LGBTQ people), so I can kind of see where the historical significance of open sexuality got lost in the mix. You won’t find Love, Simon or Call Me By Your Name or even the slightly more libidnious Rocketman admitting gleefully that, at least when it comes to gay and queer men, sex was a crucial point of personal and artistic expression. Moreover, you won’t find them treating sex as social.
A couple of films in the last few years have giddily confronted sexual spaces as social spaces, and vice versa, like Robin Campillo’s BPM, which saw the Paris chapter of the AIDS activist group ACT UP as a space where sex was politics. Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s Linklater-ish Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo (2017) has its eponymous leads meet at a Paris sex club. For the most part, though, contemporary films tend to shy away from this idea that queering spaces, casting them as sexual, had (has?) value—historically, personally, politically—and that doing so did not necessarily decouple them from platonic or social value. Quite the opposite: They could be spaces of community.
Evan Purchell’s queer essay film Ask Any Buddy, culled from hours of footage of vintage gay porn from the likes of adult filmmakers like Joe Gage, Wakefield Poole and Arch Brown, functions as, amongst other things, a reassertion of the importance of the social space as a sexual space, and the fundamental fluidity of those areas. It’s a stitch in time to save a part of gay culture, the part of queer history covered in grime and crisco, beaming beneath the sweat, and thoroughly disinterested in the possibilities of prestige. The easy punchline is that calling for a pizza guy or going to a discotheque or going to a movie theater is the setup to a porno, but, like, so what? They could be where gay men could find each other, the only representation needed being a pair of voracious eyes.
If Ask Any Buddy, with its often mustachioed, denim-donned performers, risks romanticizing a period where sexual difference was more harshly regulated, especially institutionally (lots of discourse on the romanticizing of cruising in the age of Grindr), what’s crucial to consider is that the documents themselves exist in a kind of liminal space where real world politics do and do not exist. On the one hand, the fantasy of cruising for a sex partner is exponetially amplified, the thrill written on various actors’ faces, the directors taking careful note of expression and gesture. On the other, in this “pornucopia” (a term coined by scholar Steven Marcus) sex is available at any time, partners wanting and willing and ready. It speaks to the rather specific sociocultural temperature of gay people in the immediate aftermath of the Stonewall Uprising, right before the AIDS crisis. These places, be they movie theaters, alleyways or bathhouses, are where gay and queer men met, became friends, traded news, traded trade; intimacy was not necessarily transaction but a way of fostering community and camaraderie.
But the delight to be found in Ask Any Buddy—perhaps somewhat of a magnum opus for Purchell, who has long documented the ways in which gay adult films were advertised in print on his Instagram account its immersion in the liberative feeling of gay sex in the 1970s. As Purchell connects one social space to another, be it in New York or San Francisco or anonymous dance halls and bathrooms, there’s discernible wit to the footage he’s pulled and collaged. Porn is projected onto people’s bodies and faces, and the film ends cheekily with Poole looking at the audience from behind a camera of his own, saying with amusement, “I’m out of film.”
Poole and the other filmmakers featured in Purchell’s film weren’t the only ones with a self-reflexive sense of humor, or the ability to connect homosociality with smut. Gay filmmaker and activist Arthur J. Bressan Jr. documented how inextricable gay sex was from culture and politics. With a cleareyed understanding of gay sex’s impossiblity of existing in a vacuum, he bounced back and forth between observing organization in Gay USA (1978), which documented gay rights and Pride parades across the country in 1977, to the impact that the AIDS pandemic would have on social relationships and historical records in Buddies (1985), the first narrative film to do so. (For a more thorough overview of Bressan’s work, check out Caden Mark Gardner’s essay on the director.)
Bressan’s 1974 Passing Strangers, recently restored and available on PinkLabel.tv to stream, exists at the exact midpoint between the birth of the gay liberation movement and the AIDS crisis, and even in this film, an experimentation with the porno form, there’s the self-awareness to wonder what might become of sex as social bonding. Tom (Richard Camagey) and Robert (Robert Adams) have made contact via the personals in San Francisco, trading letters back and forth, becoming gradually more open with one another about their respective anxieties and frustrations. Passing Strangers comes off like Bressan mixing his professional experience making porn and his personal preoccupation with considering the various desires of gay men at the time, where enough had supposedly elapsed for (at least cisgender white) gay men to contemplate the various liberties they were entitled to but not yet granted. (Ask Any Buddy also features footage at a demonstration.) Between sex scenes, which are less contrived and oriented more towards matter of fact, Robert speaks of his inability to enter the gay community easily and Tom speaks of his hum drum job and his general unhappiness. Passing Strangers gestures towards the frustration of emerging from marginality, the social and emotional pressure to want what straight people have and the odd feeling of wanting those ideals but realizing how much work is left to attain them—never mind the rights and justices for other people in the community. While its final sequence follows Tom and Robert at a gay Pride parade, the film casts an uncertain but hopeful eye on the future of gay liberation and gay sex.
Francis Savel’s Equation to an Unknown reframes some of these social scenarios as confusing, empty, full of despair. The film, which was recently restored by Altered Innocence and served as heavy inspiration for Yann Gonzalez’s lurid neo-giallo masterpiece Knife + Heart, feels almost prophetic in its mitigating of these various relationships as spectre-like. A soccer game, a motorbike ride and an orgy in what appears to be a dilapidated shed are not as they seem, but rather a logical end point in search of meaning. There’s a question stirring in the film, released in 1980, asking what the next step might be if the politics of gayness were to, you know, just become a politics of straightness but with glitter.
Even if Equation to an Unknown tonally speculates about a kind of existential longing within gay people, it still preserves these rooms, literal and metaphorical, to couple sex and society, sex and longing, sex and politics. Certainly, the disappearance of movies that libidinally embrace gay history has been impacted by AIDS and, maybe moreover, by a politics of assimilation. But as teen dramas like Love, Victor take a strange one-step-forward-three-steps-back approach to gay storytelling, Skittles are for the fifth year in a row doing an unhinged campaign of white Skittles and contemporary queer filmmaking remains mostly only sexy outside of the U.S., one wonders when Amazon will post a banner that reads, “Throw that brick, Marsha!” over Prime collections including Bohemian Rhapsody and End of the Century, or if American queer filmmaking will ever return to the back room of the bar, ready for a new kind of history lesson.