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It's Art and It's Porn: The Legacy of Arch Brown

It's Art and It's Porn: The Legacy of Arch Brown
By Madam Bubby

 

“Zee art film … “ I remember that campy scene in Valley of the Dolls where the beautiful Jennifer North played by the beautiful Sharon Tate has to get a job making soft porn films for a sleazy French movie director. Jennifer complains that a beautiful scenery and a bare bottom doesn't make art. 


That may have been the case with those many of those XXX movies about "boobies, boobies, boobies, boobies" that Neely O'Hara laments she didn't have, but the gay filmmakers that emerged from the gay liberation movement of the 1970s radically changed in many ways, at least for many communities in major urban areas, the perception that gay films were either pornographic peep shows, exercises in camp, or mainstream films where a gay character commits suicide after being outed. 

 

One of these filmmakers was Arch Brown, who made a number of gay porn classics, including the particularly notable The Night Before, which was created with and produced by Jack Deveau, Bob Alvarez, and co. of the legendary Hand in Hand Films (read more on them in our blog on Hand in Hand/Deveau, our interview with Alvarez, the Hand in Hand Films wikipedia article, or in the book Good Hot Stuff: The Life & Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau).

 

The Night Before poster image


Arch Brown

Arch did not even set out to make gay films, much less films that - because of explicit sex - were deemed pornographic. 

He was born in Chicago as Arnold Kreuger in 1936. After attending Northwestern University, he came to New York City, the destination of so many artistically-inclined and LGBTQ people during the 1960s (and before!). His parents thought it would be respectable for him to go into television (perhaps because less overtly gay-oriented than the actual theater), but he switched majors and decided he wanted to write and direct plays. (Many in the 1970s NYC gay porn world had direct ties to theater, including Alvarez, Wakefield Poole, and Casey Donovan.)

He first worked at Circle Square in the Village, but then he switched careers and got a job in advertising. After contracting hepatitis, he had to quit that job, and ended up, after picking up a guy in Central Park who liked him and his camera expertise, began making “home movies.” But apparently his home movies weren't at the level of crude amateur ones of the peep show variety, and they ended up showing in the private gay movie club, Cinema 7. 

According to an interview in the 1970s gay magazine Michael's Thing, “Andy Warhol's Interview got to him, and Variety sent one of their guys downtown to take a look at these new-fangled movies.”

I wonder if Warhol saw something of his own transformation of new realist techniques such as collage used in his own pop art in Arch Brown's concretely realistic, but also surrealism-infused, films of gay men's sexual relationships. 

These films were realistic because the sex was actually occurring on the screen, themes and characters (and their emotions) came out of real gay life of the time and place, and they also creatively used materials from everyday life at that time, ranging from pop music to advertising. 

Arch Brown perfected the above approaches when he collaborated with Hand in Hand on The Night Before (available from Bijou on DVD and Streaming; images featured below). 

 

This surreal porn classic offers a funny, touching, and realistic look at lovers and their emotional responses to both jealousy and carnal lust. Casting a group of nine men of varied types and cock sizes, the film begins with two average guys, Hank (Coke Hennessy) and Paul (Michael Cade - aka omni-present man of many hats in the NYC gay porn world Frank Ross), who meet and fall in love in New York City when Hank helps photographer Paul with a shoot in the park. 

 

Cast of The Night Before

At Paul's place, they check out photos that he's taken, including one of Paul with another man, both naked. Hank and Paul's ensuing relationship and lust develops through dinners, visiting an art gallery, picking out a kitten, and making out in the dark room. 

They have their first touching and intimate sexual encounter after this (with no live sound, but a great orchestral score by frequent Hand in Hand composer and Arch Brown collaborator David Earnest): Paul passionately eats out Hank's asshole and rolls around the bed with him to fall into a 69 session. Paul later stands and humps Hank's throat before filling his butt with cock; they go to bed after sex. 

Sounds simple enough, but at this point Brown takes us into the surreal world of Hank's dreams (or paranoid fantasies). In his dreams, Hank watches Paul hungrily sucking one man's thick prick after seducing him and fucking another man's tight asshole, while Hank himself sucks, then fucks, a delivery man in the basement of a building. 

Also occurring in this dream sexual montage are: Paul fucking the hairy ass of the kitten seller on a roof, Paul and Hank painting each other's naked bodies and kissing in a shower, cocks appearing through curtains to be sucked, two professional dancers in a vintage Advocate cover photo coming to life and dancing naked to an operetic score, and Hank participating in an orgy where a cock emerges from a fruit bowl and a massive double-headed dildo seems to fantastically penetrate entire bodies. 

Dancers in The Night Before
Orgy scene from The Night Before


The dream depicts what Brown terms "lover's paranoia," the kind of insecurity one feels when one falls too hard for someone too fast. 

What's interesting here is how some elements of the film were influenced by Brown's own life (a camera shoot in the park), and how artistic mediums (in this case, painting and photography, which themselves have always undergone a rather fraught relationship!) can both concretely and symbolically convey various dynamics of sexual attraction. 

In 1974, according to Variety, this classic gay porn film was one of the 50 top-grossing movies at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City, and The Advocate said of this Arch Brown masterpiece, "proves that a little Cocteau, a dash of Fellini, and sex do mix well." 

 

For a deeper dive behind the scenes of The Night Before, check out this podcast episode from Ask Any Buddy.

 

Vintage 55th Street Playhouse movie ads


Starting in 1976, Brown made a series of films for P.M. Productions, including the gay porn spoof of Charlie's AngelsHarley's Angels, and also classics like All Tied UpFive Hard PiecesHot FlashesMuscle BoundPier Groups (which we now carry on DVD & VOD), and Dynamite, which often included popular stars like Jack Wrangler, Jayson MacBride, Keith Anthoni, and Eric Ryan among their cast members. His other work outside of P.M. and Hand in Hand includes such titles as (Bijou releases) Trips and So Many Men So Little Time.

Vintage posters for Dynamite and Harley's Angels


Brown said in his interview in Michael's Thing, that he didn't want to be political; he basically wanted to make a good fuck film, but his films aren't just two guys fucking, nor are they apolitical. They come out of a sociopolitical movement that wanted to carve out a visible niche in New York's arts community, and they also, without hitting the viewer over the head with slogans, realistically show the challenges of gay sexual relationships in a world just starting to break down closets of fear and hiding. (Just observe the interesting commentary on the NYC piers' significance to LGBTQ culture and their looming demolition in Pier Groups and the psychological dimensions of out-ness and gay romance and sexuality in The Night Before.)

Brown himself took advantage of a new climate of tolerance.  According to his obituary (he died in 2012), in the late 1970s, Brown began writing plays, which he continued to do into the 2000s. His first play, News Boy, was his most successful, receiving an Off Broadway production in 1979; it focused on the coming out of the gay son of a conservative politician. 

A 1998 comedy by Brown, FREEZE!, received the Eric Bentley Playwriting Prize that year and has been produced several times. 

During the last decade of his life, Brown founded and ran the Thorny Theater in Palm Springs, which mounted several gay-themed plays each season; the theater closed in 2010. 

After his partner, Bruce Brown, died in 1993 (Arch used his lover's last name professionally), Brown established the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, which ran until several years ago, giving grants to queer playwrights and to theater groups mounting LGBTQ-themed plays, as well as sponsoring periodic literary competitions that awarded prizes to playwrights and fiction writers whose works are “based on, or inspired by, a historic person, culture, event, or work of art.” 

 

And, fascinatingly, an unpublished manuscript was discovered shortly after Arch Brown's death and published in 2017 as his memoir, A Pornographer.

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Whatever happened to a night at the Adonis Theater?

Whatever happened to a night at the Adonis Theater?

I remember reading the book by David Leavitt, The Lost Language of Cranes, published in 1997. The closeted father of the gay main character has spent much of his adult life expressing his sexual desires in gay oorn movie theaters. In one strange scene, he evens runs into his wife on a Sunday while walking to one of the gay theaters in New York City. His wife never questions what her husband does every Sunday afternoon.

 

By the publication date of this book, 1997, the Internet was taking off as a means to hook up, most gay guys owned a VHS player which enabled them to watch porn by themselves, and AIDS had decimated much of the gay population that had experienced sexual encounters in such theaters: was the porn movie theater soon to become an icon of the past? How many guys, married or not, spend Sunday afternoons in gay porn theaters?

 

Recently, in Chicago, the forest preserve has replaced the movie theater as spot of gay sex. Bathrooms are still popular trysting spots (perhaps because they are free, despite the obvious danger). Unlike many of the bathhouses, any of which which closed because of AIDS, the theaters continued their business, perhaps more fitfully, but all these factors seemed to signal an end to that world of endlessly available sex, a world depicted vividly in the classic gay porn film A Night at the Adonis.

 

The Adonis was New York City's famous gay porn theaters in the 1970s. Other theaters included the Eros, Gaiety, Bijoux, and Elgin. 42nd Street was the spot for XXX activity, both gay and straight. In fact, Any movie theater could end up being a space for gay sex, as depicted so brutally in the film Midnight Cowboy in the scene where the cowboy hustler played by Jon Voigt picks up a young kid who can't pay him for the sex. Even the New York Times accepted ads for gay porn films!

 

Jack Wrangler and Malo star in A Night at the Adonis, directed by Jack Deveau for Hand-in-Hand Films.

 

Jack stars as a store owner who has designs on his husky employee, Malo (a.k.a.Roger). Malo turns down a date with his boss and goes to his hairdresser, who promptly fucks him hard on the barber chair. But Jack and Malo do meet later because, as this film demonstrates, throughout the 1970's everybody in New York City wound up at the Adonis Theatre sooner or later.

 

From the balcony to the boiler room, director Jack Deveau does a good job of showing the wide range of customers (from young to mature, from leather to clean-cut) engaging in all sort of sexual enjoyment.

 

In a restroom of the theatre, the manager and a leatherman share blowjobs with one another, the latter blowing onto the sucker's face. Meanwhile, as different Hand-in-Hand films are playing on the screen, Jack and the barber have met up with one another and are busy beating each other off, but disturbed by the constant intrusions.

 

Into another men's room, three men begin to get into one another. Roger is there and has one of the guy's mouth with his big cock while the other watches. The barber goes down on Jack's boner and Roger is shown plowing ass in the bathroom over the sink. Roger soon glides Geraldo's cock into an ass he was sucking, the film here becoming a full-scale orgy. Highlighting this orgy is a dual jackoff session by "two" Big Bill Elds.

 

The Adonis was a place where, as the title of Brad Gooch's book reads, the “Golden Age of Promiscuity” played out, behind those marquees which are now dimmed. But new kinds of lights flash these days, but on cellphones, as the new generation hooks up via Grinder.

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