Interview with Robert Alvarez, Hand in Hand Films Co-Founder/Editor

In 2019, Robert Alvarez, co-founder and editor of the groundbreaking and influential early gay porn studio and distribution company, Hand in Hand Films, kindly took the time to do a phone interview with Bijou.

Along with his partner Jack Deveau, as well as Jaap Penraat, and, later, Kees Chapman, Alvarez co-founded and was at the helm of Hand in Hand Films. Formed in 1972, a mere few years after more permissive legislation in the U.S. began allowing for the exhibition of hardcore films, the studio undertook ambitious and elaborate cinematic productions, expanding the ideas of what a pornographic film could be, and constructing their ideas into a large catalog of outstanding and entertaining narrative features. They additionally became an early distributor of the work of a number of other gay adult filmmakers, as well as their own product. A highly collaborative enterprise, Hand in Hand's films combine the creative influences of all of their participants. They continued making films until 1982 and distributing until 1988.

Alvarez, a skilled editor with a background in dance and experimental and documentary film, elevated Hand in Hand's output with his technical polish and creative flair, helping to create the distinct style and high quality level of the studio's output. From character dramas, to comedies, to outrageous psychedelic and horror films, his work on Hand in Hand's productions covered a range of tones and genres, but maintained Hand in Hand's cinematic quality and particular sensibility. With some of the studio's wilder and more avant-garde films and sequences, Bob applied complex and experimental editing and post-production effects, leading critics to frequently praise the “Alvarez effects” that enhanced scenes and often created some of the movies' best moments.

In the conversation that follows, Bob discusses his artistic background and influences, Hand in Hand's formation, his relationship with Jack Deveau, his editing style, the studio's philosophy, and more.

Robert Alvarez in front of French poster for Good Hot Stuff, 1975
Robert Alvarez in front of French poster for Good Hot Stuff, 1975
[Image Credit: Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau]

Bijou: I am curious about some of your filmmaking influences and your experimental film background.

Alvarez: Well, I’ve always loved movies. And, in addition to that – this goes back to 1958, maybe – I started going to see some experimental films that were being shown in a little storefront place, and I got to know about Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos, for whom I worked. Not even worked – I assisted [Markopoulos], is more like it. And then I ended up being in one of his films. And then there was Warhol, but Warhol didn’t really influence me that much. I wasn't a great fan of his movies, but I did follow certain ones. Chelsea Girls is one of his early ones that I more or less liked, because it was so outrageous. The most influential [experimental filmmakers] for me were the ones that I just mentioned.

In addition to that, one of the first things that I came to New York to do was to become a dancer, because I started studying in Florida when I was about 18 or 19 and decided that New York was the only place that would be smart for me to go to. So I moved here and I kept studying dance and going to auditions, and so forth. After a while, I wound up doing Summer Stock and then a touring company. I did it ‘til I was about twenty-five and then I just decided that I should not continue to pursue it, that I should do something else. And, of course, the thing that came up in my mind first was film. I worked for [the animator] Francis Lee while I was doing the experimental film part of my life. He worked with this thing called photo animation. And he also made some experimental films, as well as regular ones.

I started getting more into film and wound up working for another animation man who did commercials for NBC, and then from that I went onto NBC and became assistant editor to the supervising editor there, and after that I got my first editing job. And, in between, I did some other stuff and wound up doing the documentaries [Woodstock, An American Family] and working freelance for mostly – it was Channel 13; it’s now PBS - until 1971 or ‘72.

It was my partner who I convinced we should get into the business of making movies, which is a story in itself, but, anyway, we turned out our first film, which was Left-Handed, and it was very unlike any other gay films that I’d ever seen. I became more and more interested in how far we could push the envelope, you know. Wakefield Poole, a pretty good friend of mine, made Boys in the Sand prior to this and that was a big success. And so we decided we would do ours, and that’s when we did Left-Handed. And ours was quite different, of course. We tried to take it from a different gay slant than just porno, give it some kind of a plot and characters and motivations, and so forth, as well as some editing that I did that I think was somewhat experimental.

Bijou: Had you edited any pieces that were that experimental at that point in time, or were you kind of getting to develop some of those techniques in your editing style on Left-Handed?

Alvarez: I actually was influenced by… I never got over being a dancer, and I was interested in dance and choreography, and so forth. When I started editing, I began to feel that there were a lot of similarities in certain aspects of editing to choreographing, and became a real fan of Bob Fosse, among others. So I used a lot of their techniques, but I also used some other techniques that I learned back when I was seeing experimental films, that involved quick cutting and a lot of - especially in Markopoulos - a lot of very extended dissolves, and things, that were quite beautiful. And I used those things, myself, as well as my sense of rhythm and cutting to music, which I loved to do, because that really gave it movement; some emphasis, depending on the music that we used. And we had original music for Left-Handed that came from a friend of ours, a guy that was a sound mixer, who had a small band. He composed some music for us.

Bijou: Yes, those are wonderful pieces.

Images from Left-Handed (1972)
Images from Left-Handed, 1972 (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: Anyway, I really enjoyed it, because I was doing it like I wanted to do it, and I was given a free hand to do whatever I did. So that more or less gives you an idea of how I got started, and where.

Bijou: I didn’t realize you came from a dance background, also. I know some other people involved [in making gay porn in '70s NYC] were from that background. Did you get connected to anybody through the realm of dance that wound up working with you?

Alvarez: Well, I had known Wakefield slightly back in Florida, because he was in a ballet company and I was in a different one. We met at some kind of convention. We got to know each other and we were sort of, not buddies, but… We were in two different locations in Florida. But when I came to New York, I saw that he was dancing, and, also, he did some choreography. So I got to know him pretty well.

Bijou: Do some of the people involved in Ballet Down the Highway come from those connections?

Alvarez: They did, but they weren’t friends or anything. They were people that we cast, who were dancers, to be in the ballet scene, as well as the lead in the movie, who was a Dutch young man [Henk Van Dijk] who came with a choreographer that we got to know from the Netherlands ballet, and became rather close friends with after this lover of his appeared in our film. Anyway, we got this young man, who was studying dance, and he was not a great dancer, but through editing and so forth, I made him look better. (laughs) You know?

Bijou: (laughs) It does look good.

Alvarez: He always remarked on that, you know, how I made it look like he could really dance. Other than that, the other people that were supposedly in this company he was dancing for were cast from, I guess, one of our casting calls. We put out casting calls for some of our films, like in Show Business [the newspaper].

Henk Van Dijk (left) and other dancers & cast members (right) in Ballet down the Highway, 1975

Henk Van Dijk (left) and other dancers & cast members (right) in Ballet down the Highway, 1975 (DVD | Streaming); clips from the film

Bijou: Is that how you found most of your performers - casting calls? I noticed, with Hand in Hand's films, there’s some crossover between people you have in the crew and the cast, and some people that I don’t see in any other [adult] films. I was curious where the Left-Handed cast came from or if you knew some of them from social circles, as well.

Alvarez: The Left-Handed cast, I’m not sure, because I wasn’t involved in the casting, directly. That was Jack Deveau, who was, of course, my partner, and the guy who was primarily the producer/director - you know, the whole shebang. He used to put out casting calls. And, I think, we knew the guy who played the lead. We knew both of them. And so they agreed to be in it. And then we had an orgy scene at the end that was a lot of other people that we weren’t particularly friends with but somehow got to be in this, our first film. And I’m not sure whether they were cast directly, or they were cast through friends, or something. But that’s more or less how that happened.

Ray Frank & Robert Rikas, the leads in Left-Handed, and orgy cast
Ray Frank & Robert Rikas, the leads in Left-Handed, and orgy cast

Bijou: How did you and Jack meet? I don't think I know that.

Alvarez: Oh… That’s a kind of a story in itself. We met several years before. I met him, actually, at a performance of an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti called The Saint of Bleecker Street. It was written up in the papers as being a really good production, and blah blah blah. I had a friend who wanted to be an opera singer, and I think he told me about it and said, “Do you want to go see it?” And I said, “Yes. I definitely want to go see it.” Because I knew who Gian Carlo Menotti was and I’d heard some of his other work and always liked it. But anyway, I went to that and, during intermission, this young man came up to me, you know? And we started talking, and so on, and so on, and so forth. And I had a feeling that we were… we were evaluating each other. (laughs) Also, it turns out that his mother was part of the orchestra. She played the viola. During that intermission, she came out, and he said, “Tell me your name really quick, because there comes my mother and I want to introduce you.” (laughs) So we met and… She’s a wonderful lady. Just a wonderful, wonderful person. Anyway, I immediately got interested in knowing more about him. He invited me to go out with him after the opera, which I did. And that was the beginning, you know? And, little by little, we became more and more involved until we decided to live together. It was good. We had a sort of an open relationship - not completely open, but rather. And so there were a lot of other sexual experiences that I had that were not with him, but were influenced by him. I’ll put it that way. (laughs) He was very interested in people that he’d meet off the street who were either hustling, trying to make a little money, or sailors, you know. He had a very great gift of gab, so he could charm anybody - and did. (laughs)

Bijou: Yeah. It sounds like everyone loved hanging out with him, from all the people I’ve spoken with about him.

Alvarez: Yeah, he was a lot of fun. He was a funny character.

So anyway, we had this relationship, never really committing to a long-term thing, but it kept going, kept going, kept going, and we ended up being together for twenty-one years. And at that point, he died, and so... It was a long, long relationship. And I loved him very, very much. And vice versa.

But I always thought it would be great if we could work together. Incidentally, another person that was greatly responsible for Jack getting the courage to get into this and actually direct people was [Rebel Without a Cause star] Sal Mineo, who became a friend of ours some years before.

Bijou: Yeah! I was so curious where you knew him from.

Alvarez: We met him in Madrid, and he was getting ready to shoot a film somewhere in Europe. I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, we got to know each other, and while we were there, we went out together. And he was sort of… not just coming out, I guess, but he was definitely coming out. (laughs) And so he enjoyed being with us, and was always a good friend.

And then a little later, we got into the film business and decided to become our own distributors, because we didn’t trust any of the distributors. Everybody that had dealt with the distributors had been pretty much ripped off by having copies of their films made and sold, and all kinds of stuff that went on. We felt it was better if we could set up a business to distribute our own movies and not sell them, which a lot of other gay filmmakers were doing. Instead of selling them to make a quick buck, we’d keep the movies and then rent them out to the exhibitors and charge them a percentage of the gross. And, of course, they were never exactly honest, either, but we found ways to kind of get around that. When we showed our stuff in New York, we had somebody counting the number of patrons that would go into the theater, so we had an idea of about how much money we should be getting. But anyways, that’s a whole other area of the business. And, incidentally, that’s how we met [Bijou owner] Steve Toushin, because he started renting some of our films, and we liked him. He was always really very nice and very fair.

Bijou: I was wondering about Good Hot Stuff [Hand in Hand's documentary about their studio] showing in Paris. I read that that was the first gay porn film to show in France. I was curious about that trip over there and what that experience was like.

Jack Deveau & Bob Alvarez in front of French Good Hot Stuff billboard
Jack Deveau & Bob Alvarez in front of French billboard for Good Hot Stuff (DVD | Streaming); excerpt from the film

Alvarez: It wasn't the first film. It was the first American explicit gay film ever shown in France. We hooked up with a man named Norbert Terry in France who had apparently shot one or two movies that were in French. I always wanted for us to go there and be shown with subtitles and (laughs), you know, the whole thing. Because there’s a lot of narrative to Good Hot Stuff; Jack and some of our actors talked about being in the films, and so forth. We opened in Paris at two or three theaters. And they made a big deal out of promoting it. And, sure enough, we ended up outgrossing the [Robert Altman] movie Nashville, which was also playing there (laughs) - and Nashville is a classic film.

Bijou: (laughs) Yeah, that's amazing.

Alvarez: Jack and I had been to Paris a couple of times before, and we loved Paris... I still do. It’s a magical city and I love it. So we ended up, eventually after we made some more films, making a deal with a guy who was a producer in Paris, and contracted to make a movie in French and we would share the profits. It turned out to be a disaster, but we released the movie anyway.

Bijou: Was that Le Musée, [also known as Strictly Forbidden]?

Images from Le Musee aka Strictly Forbidden, 1974
Images from Le Musée aka Strictly Forbidden, 1974 (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: Le Musée, yeah. I had to end up using our work print, because they had confiscated our original negatives from the lab, so I had only the work print to work with.

Bijou: Oh wow, they confiscated it?

Alvarez: Yeah. They figured they had a legal right to do it, because we ran out, I guess. We didn’t continue working on the film. We left, and when we went to get our original negatives, found out that they had already been taken by the production company, and they weren't about to give it up.

Bijou: Wow.

Alvarez: Which is too bad, because it was really a beautiful film in many ways.

Bijou: Yeah, the footage is gorgeous from that film.

Alvarez: Yeah, the color footage is really good. And that’s only the work print, so you can imagine the original.

Bijou: Oh wow. I see, so the B&W is the work print?

Alvarez: Yeah, that’s all from the work print.

Bijou: Oh!

Alvarez: And I decided, from my experimental film days (laughs), “Hell, I’ll just mix them all up,” you know, and we’ll have B&W and color.

Bijou: I like that about it. I thought that was intentional. It felt intentional, watching it. (laughs)

Alvarez: That’s what I tried to do - make it look like it was intentional. I wasn’t happy with it, completely, because I knew what we could have had, but we didn’t want it to go to waste, so we released it. And made some money on it, you know.

Bijou: Yeah, I still think it’s a great one, but that would be sad knowing that you lost a good chunk of footage. What was your philosophy on making the Hand in Hand films at the time?

Alvarez: Well, almost all of them were shot in New York, and we dealt with New York situations and stories. I mean, Left-Handed is certainly that. And several others we did were about typical New York scenes. Some of our slighter stories had New York characters in them, and we used New York as a kind of a backdrop for everything. So we decided our films would have that element, as well as kind of a freewheeling style where we made it seem like being gay was a normal thing, long before (laughs), long before [many gay rights advancements]. We were just assuming that our characters all were gay and that’s how they talked, as normal people would talk.

Bijou: That’s true, that is kind of distinctive about your films - now that you said that - versus some other studios. In Hand in Hand's films, most of the people are already out and it’s set within gay life and that’s not, like, a huge ordeal with it.

Alvarez: Yeah. And another film that we did early was… Well, we worked with this guy Peter de Rome on his first feature-length film. ‘Cause he had done some short films on 8mm. We ended up blowing up a lot of them to 16mm, and then adding a couple of his [other] short movies, and making a movie, after that, called Adam & Yves, which took place in Paris.

Posters for The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome and Adam & Yves
Posters for The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome 1972, (DVD | Streaming) and Adam & Yves 1974, (DVD | Streaming)
 
Jack Deveau and Peter de Rome filming Adam & Yves

Jack Deveau and Peter de Rome filming Adam & Yves; audio and set photos montage

Alvarez: Another chance to go to Paris; I didn’t go to, but Jack did. We made the film that Peter de Rome directed. Well, Jack actually directed it more than he did, but…

Bijou: Oh really?

Alvarez: But we gave him the credit, because it was his idea, and his concept and the whole thing about shooting some of it in Paris.

After Adam & Yves was released, we started working on a film which was a little more intricate… a lot more intricate, actually (laughs), called Drive. And I did a lot of quick cutting and switching from one scene to another, like in the middle of a sex scene; kind of making a comment about what was coming up, you know, sort of like a prequel to what was going to happen.

Bijou: Yeah, I love the edits in that movie.

Alvarez: And it took place in this decadent disco that was run by the character named Arachne, whose goal in life was to rid all men of their sex drive. But she would do it by castrating them, up to the point where she found out that there was this drug being developed... This was funny, too, because this was long before Viagra or any of that stuff. But there was a drug being developed that would kill the instinct or the desire to have sex. So she wouldn’t have to be mutilating people anymore. (laughs) So her goal was to go out and get this drug and the scientist. She was an evil character. But as far as the movie goes and my involvement in it, I was very taken by this and I loved the idea that some of it took place in a disco. And there was a scene that was kind of a tribute or take off on Marlene Dietrich’s gorilla suit sequence in [Blonde Venus]. But we did our version of that with the character Arachne, who was in drag, of course, and I loved it. I think it really works well. And that’s one of the scenes where I cut to the disco. And we had original music for it. Now, I did my best to cut to the music, and then I intercut with the sex between the detective and his partner. So we go back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, until the scene at the disco became a climax when the Arachne character takes off the gorilla head and out she comes. And so that was the end [of the scene], and that was in vivid color. And at the same time, the couple was climaxing in their scene, and so the two climaxes kind of coalesced together.

Bijou: It's a great sequence.

Christopher Rage as Arachne, after emerging from the gorilla suit in Drive, 1974

Christopher Rage as Arachne, after emerging from the gorilla suit in Drive, 1974 (DVD | Streaming); Drive's original theme song by David Earnest

Alvarez: That’s what I mean about our films. I mean, there was so much… Not to make art, necessarily, but to make something that would be contemporary, of the day, and also would get us… We always had the goal, really, to get into regular movies - mass market movies - eventually, and this was sort of going to be our training ground. And, for a while, it looked like we could do it. I know Wakefield had the same desire and almost made it. But the whole business changed so quickly, and it became corrupted, and more of a “quick buck” kind of thing, and so forth. There were exceptions. There were a few filmmakers that were rather important at that time, and one of them was a guy by the name of Tom DeSimone, who ended up working with us on a couple of movies.

Bijou: Right, he shot a couple of them, didn't he?

Alvarez: Oh, he shot many films. That’s a whole other story. It’s in the book [Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau], in the chapter on Tom DeSimone. Anyway, we liked him, because his movies - the movies he made, himself - were more substantial, and often had plots, and so forth. There were a few people like that. Another one was Fred Halsted who, in L.A. Plays Itself, used a rather - not only shocking - sequence, but also some underground film tactics.

Anyway, I was talking about Drive and how that was a departure from everything.

Bijou: Yeah! That’s the first really kind of elaborate effects piece that you did, right?

Alvarez: Yeah, exactly. I took some of the disco stuff to an optical house and had them do several things to make it more unusual. You know? I incorporated a lot of stuff like that in all our films, if possible.

Bijou: Right. Destroying Angel has couple of those great sequences, too.

Alvarez: Right, Destroying Angel, especially.

Bijou: I love that one.

Images from Peter de Rome's The Destroying Angel, 1976

Images from Peter de Rome's The Destroying Angel, 1976 (DVD | Streaming); excerpts from the film

Alvarez: Yeah. And there’s one called Fire Island Fever, which has a sequence where one of the characters accidentally takes a tab of acid and we kind of see what he’s seeing through his eyes as he is high, which is a fantasy sex scene with what turns out to be one of the characters that he meets at the end of the film. Anyway, I tried as much as possible to incorporate some more daring kind of editing. You know, make our films look different. And they did. (laughs) For the most part, they did.

Bijou: Yeah, they did!

Fire Island Fever fantasy sequence
Fantasy sequence from Fire Island Fever, 1979 (DVD | Streaming)

Bijou: Oh, I wanted to ask you about Kees Chapman.

Alvarez: He was also, I think, from a Dutch background. But he was an American; I think he was born here in the States. His lover had been one of our actors early on. [His lover] was actually in Drive. He played the scientist. He had long blond hair. For the movies, he was [named] Mark Woodward; to us, he was his real name, Sydney Soons. And he became an employee of ours, and was helping Jack with keeping track of the finances and getting the movies sent out to the exhibitors, and all that.

Fire Island Fever fantasy sequence
Mark Woodward aka Sydney Soons hosting Good Hot Stuff and slating for A Night at the Adonis, 1978 (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: After a while, he and Kees ended up breaking up, and then Kees kind of took over his job, and became even more of a necessary part of Hand in Hand Films. And he also ended up doing some camerawork for Jack, as well as directing, and so forth.

In fact, he shot the sequence I directed in In Heat, which was shot in a dance studio. It was guys taking a ballet class, and then the teacher takes a break, and during that time, the boys get together and have sex. And eventually, the teacher comes back and he joins the crowd. (laughs) So that was one small segment that I directed, because I’d always wanted to, but I didn’t want to impose on Jack’s ideas, you know, because he had plenty of ideas.

In Heat dance studio segment directed by Robert Alvarez
Dance studio segment directed by Robert Alvarez in the Hand in Hand shorts collection In Heat (DVD | Streaming)

Alvarez: In fact, Kees and I tried to make a full film, with Kees directing, after Jack died, but it turned out that I couldn’t use the footage; it was too dark and just a mess. And I’ve always thought I should take that footage again and look at it again with today’s technology, you know?

Bijou: Oh, you should. I bet it could be enhanced a bit, yeah. That would be interesting. What was the premise?

Alvarez: I’m not too sure, except I know that it had the lead character going to Fire Island and having several encounters there. And finally, at the end, I think he gets back with his lover that he had at the beginning of the movie. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at it.

Bijou: I bet it could be brightened.

Alvarez: Yeah. I think with today’s video technology, especially, a lot of things can be certainly improved. Steven’s done that already. I’m very pleased with the way he has kept our movies up to date.

Bijou: Oh, I'm glad.

Alvarez: Oh, let me finish with Kees. Like I said, he became part of our group that ended up being Jack, Kees, and myself, who were the principal people. We had another partner for a while named Jaap Penraat. But that ended at some point and… Not too happily, but it ended.

And that’s when Kees became interested in working for us and kind of took over Jaap’s position, and started working with Jack directly. He was a terrific guy. And I was very surprised when he died of AIDS because… He must have gotten it from his lover, Sydney, because Sydney also got it and also passed away. And, a year or two later, Kees became ill and he died.

So that left it just up to me, and that’s where I finally decided - after making that little film, which was kind of satisfying for me - that it was time to get out of the business. That’s when I started looking for people that might be interested in buying the business, buying all the material, which turned out to be Steve. And I’m glad it was, because he’s been the most trustful of the ones that I talked to about it. There were other people interested, but I knew what would happen. We wouldn’t be who we are today if it had gone to somebody else and they copied our films badly and, you know. It would have been awful. So I’m glad Steve had some real interest in keeping it as a sort of a record of what was happening in the time when they were made, and so forth, which was one of the things Jack…

Speaking of the philosophy, you know, he said that these films were like literature and that if we kept them - you know, rather than sell them - we would end up eventually having them seen over and over and over again and be a representation of what it was like in the days that we shot them, you know? Because most of them were contemporary stories of people at that time. So that’s kind of what his philosophy was. He would make films and try to incorporate things that were relevant to the time that we were shooting in.

Bijou: Yeah, that was probably a conscious effort from the start, even from Left-Handed?

Alvarez: Yeah. It’s funny. After making Left-Handed, and then making a few others, I kind of became a little bit… It wasn’t embarrassed exactly, but… Left-Handed is, no question about, it a crude film. We didn’t shoot in sync sound, we had to dub in the voices, and so forth, and we did it as best we could. And then, Left-Handed always bothered me, because, to me, it wasn’t professional. And looking back at it now, I find I like it very much, you know? (laughs) I like what we were doing.

Bijou: Yeah, I think it's great.

Alvarez: And the fact that it was different. It was different than any other gay sex film that was ever made.

Bijou: Yeah, it is! It does stand out. Even the non-sync sound does something really interesting in it. Its style feels really different, even from your other work.

Alvarez: Yeah, yeah. To me, now, the dubbing almost becomes like a narration, you know? Like it’s almost purposefully done that way (laughs), you know, after the fact. But anyway, I ended up really liking Left-Handed a lot, because it sort of set the mood, also, of my type of film editing. And a lot of the techniques I used in Left-Handed, I used later on in other films that we made, so it kind of was our benchmark movie, being our first.

Bijou: That’s interesting you mentioned developing some techniques there, because in terms of developing cutting hardcore sequences, since the genre was pretty new in the era, were you sort of figuring that out from scratch or… I mean, you’d seen some other [porn] films, but… What was that like developing how to cut and how to pace those sequences?

Alvarez: Well, for one thing, our films, sometimes they got criticized because they weren’t explicit enough, whereas some films are almost like a medical study.

Bijou: Yes. (laughs) Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Alvarez: Ours were more like – at least I felt and Jack felt – to capture the sensuality of the sex or the dynamics of a sex scene, and whatever shot said that the best is the shot that we used. So we didn’t go in for, like, where you can see every pubic hair, you know? (laughs)

Bijou: (laughs) Yeah. Right. Because that B&W sex scene from Left-Handed is, I think, very beautiful and erotic, but it’s far from being like a medical, durational kind of sex scene.

Alvarez: Yeah. And that B&W sequence in that section, Jack did on purpose B&W, because he said, “We’re going to do like The Wizard of Oz, only backwards.” (laughs) In The Wizard of Oz, it’s in B&W until Dorothy goes through the door, and goes into Oz, and it becomes Technicolor. [And in Left-Handed], when it becomes a dream sequence, it turns into B&W film. And that’s how that came about. And with things like that, you know… I mean, we did that before anybody else [in sex films] did that. Maybe some people followed us, you know, and did the same sort of thing, but… But my cutting, especially, I really loved the idea of creating a piece, a sex scene that had some rhythm to it and some sense of movies, of real movies, you know?


Bijou: Oh yeah, that’s a good distinction, because the sex scenes do feel cinematic in your films.

Left-Handed color to black-and-white shift
Left-Handed color to B&W shift

Alvarez: Yeah. So that’s pretty much the story of Hand in Hand Films. There’s a lot more. If you look at the book, you’ll see that there is a lot more. (laughs)

Bijou: Oh yes, there is. It's a fantastic read. I’m so happy you all put that together.

Alvarez: The book was written by a German guy [Marco Siedelmann] that I met and got to know at a festival where our films were shown, and he said, “I want to do a book on Jack Deveau.” So I said, “Great!” And he said, “And it should have pictures,” and I thought, well, I have some pictures. I mean, Steve has most of them, but I kept a few for myself. You know, things that were duplicates, and so forth. And so, with that, I was able to help him get this book out.

Good Hot Stuff book cover
Book cover - Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau

Thank you to Robert Alvarez for taking the time to talk to us and share stories. For much more information about Hand in Hand Films and a more extensive interview with Alvarez, please check out Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau.

Bijou is very proud to present Hand in Hand's full film catalog! You can watch their movies on DVD and Streaming.

Further Reading, Listening & Viewing for more information on Hand in Hand Films:

Excerpt from the Hand in Hand Films documentary Good Hot Stuff (1975) on Vimeo and more Hand in Hand clips on our Vimeo and YouTube channels
Bijou Blog - Jack Deveau: Vintage Gay Porn Director Profile
Interview with Tom DeSimone (Part 1 and Part 2)
Ask Any Buddy podcast episodes on movies produced and/or distributed by Hand in Hand Films: Good Hot Stuff, Drive, The Night Before, Adam and Yves, The Destroying Angel, Rough Trades, Fire Island Fever, American Cream, Catching Up, The Idol

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What Was Your First Gay Movie? Please Share!

posted by Madam Bubby

 

A friend of mine told me he used to sneak into gay porn movie theaters in the seventies and eighties. At that time in New York City, where he lived, such establishments were plentiful. Specifically, he remembers first seeing Fred Halsted in leather in the movie L.A. Plays Itself (newly restored by MoMA and re-released on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming and never forgot the experience, both watching the movie and the “extracurricular experience” that occurred in the seat next to him. Minus the hanky-panky in the seats, the grandparents and even great-grandparents of the current generation can tell a similar story, going to the movies to see a particular movie star they idolized, even seeing a movie that changed their lives and made them decide to go into show business. 

 

Fred Halsted
Fred Halsted

  

Now that most guys can get their porn over the internet, in fact, any movie via streaming and youtube, the “big event,” almost like a coming out to oneself (or in some cases, others as well) of going to see a gay movie may have lost its social and psychological importance. By gay movie, now, I don't just mean a gay porn movie. It could mean any movie with an overtly gay character or a gay theme. More of these movies were appearing in the seventies and eighties, following the wake of the groundbreaking Boys in the Band. Check out Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet (the book and the documentary film) to find out more about some of these movies, such as Sunday, Bloody Sunday and Making Love.

 

The Celluloid Closet book cover

 

One of these movies was my first gay movie: Victor, Victoria. I saw it when it first came out, in 1982. I didn't know at the time about the movie's gender-bending and gay content, nor did I know that the person who asked me to go (who was ostensibly dating a female friend of mine) was gay. I got more of the humor about opera and singing and cockroaches in restaurants than its complex, contradictory messages about who is really a man or a woman in this movie about a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman.

 

Victor Victoria poster and image
Victor/Victoria

 

Overall, the movie seemed more escapist for me at that time, an escape into a fictitious Paris of the 1930s where you could be gay (even though that term was not used at that point, and I still tended to see that word as meaning happy) and go to fancy nightclubs and live in art deco hotels. Maybe all the singing and costumes appealed to a stereotypical “gay” sensibility in me, but I'm not sure. Other than the initial poverty of Julie Andrews and Robert Preston before they concocted their brilliant scheme, the movie was nothing like my current reality of being a college student in a sheltered Chicago suburb that seemed leagues away from what was happening on Wells Street, the center of gay nightlife in Chicago at that point and where the Bijou Theater was showing gay porn films starring Al Parker and Jack Wrangler. Looking in hindsight, I see a profound disconnect between what I thought I knew and what I really didn't know about sexual identity, not unlike the appearance versus reality conflicts the characters in the movie experience.


What was your first gay film? Reply to this blog and share with us! 

 

 
 
 
 
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Carlos
Hi, about the subject, the first gay movie I saw, there were two actually, I don't recall which one was first but I saw them about... Read More
Friday, 28 January 2022 19:12
DAVID MCKELLAR
The first gay film I saw was 7 In A Barn by J Brian, around 1972. I screwed up my courage to go in and see it. What an experience... Read More
Friday, 28 January 2022 20:40
Lawrence King
My first gay movie was actually an ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK. "That Certain Summer" with Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen. Funny how pla... Read More
Sunday, 30 January 2022 07:18
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Mad Scenes

Posted by Madam Bubby

 

Usually a “mad scene” specifically refers to a particular scene from an opera written by bel canto composers of the early 19th century, such as Donizetti and Bellini. A soprano, usually suffering from a romantic love crisis, goes insane, and expresses her insanity, paradoxically, in difficult, complicated coloratura passages that require great vocal control.

The most famous occurs in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia, in love with the family enemy Edgardo, is forced to marry someone her brother chooses, Arturo. Lucia kills Arturo on her wedding night. I grew up hearing the gay icon Maria Callas singing this scene on record, and I was mesmerized that she was able to invest the scene with such drama and a dark, complex timbre. Here was no Snow White singing tra la la to the birds. But, interestingly enough, the opera does not end with the mad scene. Lucia dies offstage, and her lover, Edgardo, kills himself. He actually gets a kind of tenor mad scene. But it’s generally the ladies who go mad, which reflects quite blatantly the Victorian view that women, the weaker sex, were more prone to mental disturbance: potential hysterics.

 

Callas as Lucia

Callas as Lucia

 

The mad scene by the middle of the last century started moving to the end of movies, crystallizing to some extent in the grand dame guignol movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The end of Sunset Boulevard, the famous “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. DeMille,” scene of Norma Desmond, deconstructs the mad scenes of operas, because she thinks she is playing the necrophiliac Salome. One even hears a bit of music from the Strauss opera as she descends the staircase (that prop usually occurs in Lucia mad scenes). In fact, by the time Strauss wrote his opera Salome, one could even say the female protagonists of many operas written by that time were mad for the entire opera (or most of the time).

 

Noma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard

Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard, Source: https://icsfilm.org/essays/the- devil-is-a-woman-sunset-boulevard-norma-desmond-and-actress-noir/

 

Thus, Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? dancing on the beach with ice cream cones and others of her ilk come out of a rich tradition. The director Robert Aldrich really seemed to build his grande dame guignol films toward a final mad scene for the female protagonist, though in his underrated Autumn Leaves shows a male, played by Cliff Robertson, going mad, and he gets several scenes, but the most terrifying one occurs at about midpoint.

But it is also a scene of horrifying domestic violence (he throws a typewriter at his wife, played by Joan Crawford, after slapping her around). Like Edgardo in Lucia, he accuses her of treachery, but she is innocent. In reality, his father slept with his now former wife (she a willing accomplice), and discovering them together precipitated his descent into what, based on the movie, is paranoid schizophrenia.

 

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves

Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson in Autumn Leaves, Source: http://graham-russell.blogspot.com/2018/10/reflections-on-autumn-leaves-1956.html

 

Aldrich created another mad scene in The Killing of Sister George, a groundbreaking LGBTQ movie on so many levels, not only for its filming a scene in an actual lesbian bar, but, for the fact that the protagonist, June Buckridge played by Beryl Reid (known as George because of the character she plays in a soap opera, Sister George, a jovial country nurse in an English village) is out and proud as a lesbian. Many critics today tend to place this move in the “self-hating” LGBTQ subgrenre. Yes, George is certainly not the most stable person. She yells a lot, drinks a lot, and certainly, which one could argue isn’t really a character flaw in some of the situations she encounters, shows no compunction about telling some persons off in not the most dainty language.

Her relationship with Alice does not strike one as being the healthiest by today’s standards. I remember watching the scene where George, always jealous, punishes Alice for a supposed flirting (with a man) by making her kneel before her and eat her cigar. For the mid 1960s, this scene was risqué, and I perceived that perhaps there was some element of BDSM play involved, but it also seems to be moving into the realm of emotional abuse. And it’s not Alice as the victim of the “bull dyke” George. Alice is blatantly egging her on, and by pretending to enjoy eating the cigar; yes, she does take back control of the dynamic, knowing she is hurting George by, as George both yells and cries, “ruining” it.

Thus, one can see the characters aren’t camp caricatures. The character George plays gets killed off in the series (hence the title), and the fate of her career and relationship gets wound up in the machinations of the cliched reptilian predatory lesbian, played by Coral Browne.

Spoiler alert: she loses her job and her lover; the Coral Browne character in a scene of underhanded viciousness at George’s farewell party at the television studio suggests she get a job playing the voice of a cow in an animated puppets series for children. A gut-wrenching scene occurs when Alice leaves her. Reid masterfully plays it as both horribly hurt and horribly angry together, the emotion much like that of another spurned operatic character, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana (from the time of whole “mad operas”). Shortly thereafter, George enters the empty studio, smashes the camera equipment, and beings mooing like a cow. She is wordless. No romantic words, no ecstatic high notes like Lucia sings, no cameras for a Norma Desmond close-up.

 

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George

Beryl Reid as George in The Killing of Sister George, Source: https://thelastdrivein.com/category/1960s/the-killing-of- sister-george-1960/

 

But, is she really mad? Does she really enter another reality like Lucia and Norma Desmond and Baby Jane? She’s not fantasizing about a marriage that never took place, and she’s not retreating into memories of a forever lost stardom. It seems she’s justifiably enraged, but also, given her indomitable character, understanding that she will do that job. She knows she has lost. She knows it’s degrading.

And like many LGBTQ persons, she knows who she is, and because she knows, she can choose, or at least to try and choose, what happens in her life. What’s sad is that she feels like she can only choose her losses. I just wonder if she’s really at the same level of victimization and its sister, in those cases, madness as the Romantic heroines of opera or the characters like Baby Jane who are both torturer and victim in grande dame guignol cinema.

Similarly. the complex dynamic where the madness, or appearance of madness exists perhaps to crystallize at the highest level of tension the torturer/victim binary, appears in a retro gay porn movie, Drive, directed by Jack Deveau (which Bijou carries on DVD and streaming). The mad Arachne plots to kidnap a scientist and eliminate everyone’s sex drive.

 

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

Christopher Rage as Arachne in Drive

 

Arachne (Christopher Rage aka Mary Jim Sstunning) certainly camps it up as she attempts to set her diabolical plot in motion. But the movie unveils at the end how the one who desires to castrate is actually ferociously repressing her own sexuality. She is last seen in a dungeon with the men she had imprisoned. Secret agent Clark liberates the prisoners, and Arachne is left alone. But this whole mad porn opera contains a moment of somber lucidity. Arachne holds a glass bottle with a severed penis. She knows she is forever trapped in a cycle of endless desire like a spider in a web, consuming its mates but never satiated:

“I hunted at night until it wasn’t enough to hunt only at night, and then I hunted during the day too. I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. My thoughts were only of hard bodies, rigid with the desire for me — beautiful men swollen with the need for me. They were all around me and I chose the ones who looked most eager.

“Until I saw a man who was so perfect, with a hunger in his eyes that reflected my own hunger — and I knew he was the one. I knew we could feed from each other, claw at each other with a need we didn’t care to understand.

“Drugged with desire for each other’s hot naked skin, tense muscles pushing — and then filling me with his need, white and hot. Crushing me with his strong arms, pressing down on me and into me, until I closed my eyes with the ecstasy and perfection of him, and I screamed for him — and I screamed for me. 

“And I opened my eyes and I was alone.

“And I vowed then that I would bring an end to it all. Man would have to search no more: Arachne would be the answer.”

She knows. She knows who she is, ultimately more frightening than the mad scene at the end, which usually ends in the liberation of death.

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The Backstory of Peter de Rome's THE DESTROYING ANGEL Revisited

 Posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

Vintage poster for The Destroying Angel

For today, I wanted to resurrect an old blog I wrote on my personal favorite movie in Bijou's catalog (and one of favorite movies in general), the 1976 Hand in Hand Films classic The Destroying Angel, which insightfully and provocatively examines one man's internal conflict over his sexuality and his place in the Catholic church. The film follows a man on sabbatical from his priestly studies who becomes - in this case, literally - fragmented into two selves in his inability to reconcile his sexual desires with his call to the cloth, while having a series of bizarre sexual experiences under the influence of psychedelics.

The Destroying Angel images

"It started with the thought that gay films had been made in various forms, but that they hadn't yet tackled the horror genre," starts celebrated gay porn auteur Peter de Rome's backstory write-up on his truly unusual 1976 horror/porn hybrid, The Destroying Angel - an entertaining, disturbing, and hallucinatory film about Catholicism, sexuality, doppelgangers, and psychoactive mushrooms. "Almost at the same time came the idea to write a story about twins - one that had been lurking in the back of my mind for a long time."

Peter de Rome and Jack Deveau on the set of The Destroying Angel
Peter de Rome and producer/cinematographer Jack Deveau on the set of The Destroying Angel

British filmmaker Peter de Rome, who passed away in 2014, was the subject of the 2016 documentary, Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn. His work, which is both avant-garde and explicitly gay and erotic, has been widely critically recognized and written about in recent years. Working independenly on shorts in the late '60s/'70s and then with Hand in Hand in New York City in the early days of hardcore, de Rome's body of work consists of many short films and two features (1974's fascinating Adam and Yves, shot in Paris and featuring the last known footage of Greta Garbo, along with The Destroying Angel).

Vintage Adam and Yves poster

Eight of his shorts made between the years 1969 and 1972 (notably, the well-known Underground, which depicts a real sex scene shot on an active NY subway train) make up the collection The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome, released by Hand in Hand Films as the follow-up to their innagural film, Left-Handed. (For more of the studio's history, read our interview with editor/co-founder Robert Alvarez, our blog on Hand in Hand, and the 2019 book Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau.) Hand in Hand also released de Rome's two features and included a few more of his short films in their compilations In Heat and Private Collection.

The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome poster

De Rome was an atypical pornographic filmmaker, largely because he had little interest in the straight-forward depiction of sex or the conventions of pornography, prefering to focus on exploring a broad, suggestive, and multi-dimensional look at sexuality through his filmmaking. "My feeling is for eroticism. And that, for me, is 'leading up to the sex.' Once you're at the sex stage it can quickly get terribly boring," he told HIM Magazine. "For me, a lot of the arousal is in the mind and the imagination. That is what really turns me on. Most of my ideas, therefore, are concerned with how we get there."

Peter de Rome directing Destroying Angel stars Tim Kent and Philip Darden
Peter de Rome directing Destroying Angel stars Tim Kent and Philip Darden

In an interview with In Touch Magazine, de Rome elaborated, "I think that we've barely scratched the surface of pornography in filmmaking, and that it has become a sort of mandatory thing in sex films to show a positive view of sex and all of sex is supposed to be the ultimate, the pinnacle of excitement, and life simply isn't like that. It seems to me that sometime we've got to get honest about sex and admit to ourselves that very few sexual encounters do work out agreeably or are completely successful. And that's one of the reasons that I did the first scene in Destroying Angel as a 'down'; it was meant to be an unsuccessful sex trip. I have a very simple if not simplistic attitude toward sex films, and that is that sex is just as much a part of life as living, eating, breathing, sleeping - it's just another function of life and I don't see why it can't be depicted dramatically just as those other funcitons are and as honestly, too. And I think we have to show every aspect of sex in films before we can really say we are making sex films."

Bill Eld in a Destroying Angel publicity photo
Star Bill Eld in a Destroying Angel publicity photo

Hand in Hand's press sheet on The Destroying Angel discusses the elaborateness and complexity of the production. It was shot in ten days, with twenty-two scenes in nineteen different locations "from Montauk Point to The Spike [a NYC gay bar] to Christopher Street to Brooklyn to an eighteenth century cemebery in a forgotten spot in rural New Jersey." The Spike sequence includes a barely-discernable cameo from Peter Berlin in the background. Though he's hard to spot in the film, itself, there are a few clear behind the scenes photographs of him on set.

Peter Berlin in The Spike during The Destroying Angel's filming
Peter Berlin in The Spike during The Destroying Angel's filming

The press sheet also mentions that post-production took a considerable time to complete - about a year - and cites some of the filmmaking challenges present during production, primarily finding a double for the lead (Kent) with an identical body but larger cock, and shooting and constructing the doppelganger threeway scene through camera and editing tricks.

Slating, recording sound, and Peter de Rome with Tim Kent and his body double
Slating, recording sound, and Peter de Rome with Tim Kent and his body double

Hand in Hand make-up artist prepping Tim Kent, his body double, Philip Darden, and Bill Eld
Hand in Hand make-up artist Gene Kelton prepping Kent, his body double, Darden & Eld

In Peter de Rome's backstory write-up from our files, 'Genesis of The Destroying Angel,' he goes further into the film's origin story:
 

By chance, I happened to read John Allegro's fascinating study, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, that seeks to equate Jesus Christ with a mushroom, the Amanita Muscaria. This, in turn, led me to R.G. Wasson's Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, which traces the same mushroom to the Soma plant in the ancient Rigveda of India. The whole incredible story seemed to me to be a natural for erotic treatment. But how to blend the two ideas together?

I sat down at the typewriter and looked up at the painting hanging on the wall before me. It could have been a portrait of myself, except for the way he was clothed and the caption underneath: Edgar Allan Poe. Was this a sign? Maybe, but inspiration eluded me. So I went back to his stories and, sure enough, there was the answer.

Peter de Rome in front of a portrait of his look-alike, Edgar Allen Poe
Peter de Rome in front of a portrait of his look-alike, Edgar Allan Poe

"William Wilson" provided just the sort of structure I was looking for with one important change: the twins became one troubled young man and his alter ego. A few scenes in the film are direct parallels to the story, but mostly only the structure is retained.

And then, because of the religious aspect of the mushroom story, it seemed logical to make the principle character a young priest, sorely tempted beyond his means to resist.

Destroying Angel stills featuring Tim Kent as the priest

The urination scene derives from the hypothesis that the sacred plant called the Soma in the Vedic culture was, in fact, a hallucinogenic mushroom, a plant with miraculous inebriating virtue, enjoyed both by the peoples of the Valley of the Indus and the cattle they tended. The juice of the Soma had a similar intoxicating effect on the animals, and is excreted still in its purest form in the urine, only to be ingested once more by the peasants. This way they could stay high for days!

 

[This likelihood of this urine-drinking claim of Wasson's has been debated, but it seems to have caught de Rome's piss-fetishistic interest (piss-drinking also makes a tiny appearance in Adam & Yves).]

The hallucinatory piss orgy from The Destroying Angel
The hallucinatory piss orgy from The Destroying Angel

Orgy scene cast
Orgy scene cast

De Rome's write-up concludes:
 

Small wonder that the sun became a compelling metaphor for the gleaming red-topped mushroom, and the urine its golden rays.

Destroying Angel still featuring a mushroom, knife, and cross necklace

The Destroying Angel has a heavy focus on religious themes, and this was hardly first time de Rome tackled these in his films. Adam and Yves features a masturbation sequence (starring muscular Bill Eld, who also plays a prominent role in The Destroying Angel) in an 11th century French chapel, and two films in The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome (The Second Coming and Prometheus) also come to mind. Prometheus, a sort of reinterpretation of the Greek myth, focuses on a man who is brutally used by a group of strangers ushered into a room by a figure resembling Christ. The Second Coming starts off as a lark, as two men (one played by Peter de Rome, himself) travel across Europe, collecting clues that lead them from city to city. One of them winds up in an old village, where he wanders into a cathedral. A group of men are huddled together inside, looking at what initially appears to be a large crucifix on the wall in front of them. However, the figure on the cross moves - it is not Christ, but a live nude man mounted there, who ejaculates, hands free, all over his own torso.

Image from Prometheus
Image from Prometheus

Peter de Rome and Bill Eld on The Destroying Angel's set
Peter de Rome and Bill Eld on The Destroying Angel's set

The Destroying Angel - a film that is simultaneously complex and campy, hot and disturbing - was de Rome's final feature, as he was, at this point in his career, growing uninterested in the increasingly graphic sexuality being demanded in pornographic films by producers and audiences. This film (referred to as "a mess but a masterpiece" by Rupert Smith) spends a larger portion of its running time on sex scenes than does Adam and Yves or most of the rest of de Rome's work, but this is not to say that it abandons de Rome's preference for erotic imagination and the underpinning motivations and forces behind sexual acts. Its sex scenes are very unlike most others, growing organically out of the lead character's inner states, becoming increasingly surreal and deconstructed over the course of the film, and serving as the means of relaying the film's themes and character development; they are integral to the movie, not diversions from the plot. And The Destroying Angel fully fuses the genres it is tackling - its sex scenes are horror scenes, making it one of porn's best and most effectively creepy horror entries.

Images from The Destroying Angel's doppelganger threeway
Images from The Destroying Angel's doppelganger threeway
Images from The Destroying Angel's doppelganger threeway

The sexuality depicted in the film is complicated, conflicted, compulsive; the priest character's internal struggle - rooted in religion and made terrifyingly manifest by way of hallucinogens - the source. Psychological and emotional concerns are primary within the sex scenes, which serve as the narrative, helping to make the full runtime of the film engaging as a piece of cinema (particularly as brought to life through its compelling performances, Jack Deveau's expressive camerawork, Robert Alvarez's trippy, frenetic editing, and the evocative music selections). Porn certainly needn't operate on all of these levels in order to be interesting, hot, or significant, but the multi-layered, experimental, and cinematic work of Peter de Rome is a unique and compelling type of pornographic filmmaking.

Illustration from Peter de Rome's Destroying Angel script
Illustration from the cover of Peter de Rome's Destroying Angel screenplay

Learn more about the backstory of this classic (including other interpretations of the film's meaning) in the Ask Any Buddy podcast episode on it.

You can watch the trailer for The Destroying Angel at BijouWorld, where you can also read more about its storyline and get the full movie on DVD, or go to our Video on Demand site to stream it! Bijou also carries Peter de Rome's other films released by Hand in Hand on DVD and Streaming.

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Solo Sex

Posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

 

As many of us are currently spending a lengthy stint without sexual partners as we practice social distancing during this pandemic, I’ve been reflecting on eroticism that does not involve physical engagement between people.

Non-in-person sex work (via phone or the internet) and viewing pornography can play a huge part in helping folks through this necessary dry spell - though, of course, the coronavirus relief package explicitly excludes applicants who earn money from performances, services, or depictions “of a prurient sexual nature” from being eligible for loans. (There has been an increase in internet censorship and policing of consensual sex work and sexual materials under this administration done in the name of decreasing sex trafficking and exploitation. SESTA/FOSTA, which passed in March of 2018, directly led to the shut down of sites that enabled sex workers to operate more safely, porn companies and performers having their personal data deleted from their private drives, and the major social media platforms increasing their content restrictions and banning countless users. The currently-proposed EARN IT Act looks to extend internet surveillance under the same guise, further putting at risk sex workers and other marginalized groups who would likely be targeted and increasing the possibility of additional sexual content restrictions on social media platforms, as well as compromising the privacy of all internet-based communication and data.)

There are countless ways of sexually engaging with others through distance, many via technology - such as swapping nudes, dirty talk (see our recent blog discussing the Old Reliable audio collection), video chatting, sexting, video games, and even internet-controlled sex toys - through which each individual involved may be physically alone. And, of course, there is also a wide array in the realm of sexuality in which the inspiration for excitement doesn’t necessarily come from another person at all: object fetishism, autoeroticism, and more. A plethora of imaginal and tactile erotic experiences can be explored while physically by one’s self.

One fascinating cinematic look at solo sex and object fetishism exists in Czech artist Jan Švankmajer’s 1996 film Conspirators of Pleasure, which follows several characters’ independent fetishistic rituals. One man builds a masturbation machine with many motorized hands attached to televisions, which he operates during broadcasts of a lusted-after news anchor. Another man creates homemade sex toys - rolling pins covered in materials of different tactile natures like tacks and fur - which Švankmajer live-action animates rolling all over the man’s body. A couple of neighbors create effigies of each other, which they violently torture.

 

Stills from Conspirators of Pleasure
Images from Conspirators of Pleasure

 

In some of these scenarios, the object of desire is a person represented by the masturbation object, while in some, the contraption and/or tactile materials seem to be the objects of desire, themselves. But in each scenario, the rituals are performed in isolation.

Though best known as an animator/filmmaker, Švankmajer works in a wide array of mediums, including poetry and sculpture, and uses all to grapple with tactilism. From 1972 until 1979, he was banned from directing films by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia, who considered his films subversive. During this span, Švankmajer went into extensive exploration of the sense of touch and tactile art, including writing a book, Hmat a Imaginace (now translated and available in English as Touching and Imagining), “of which he produced five copies in 1983, all with ‘tactile’ covers. Featuring rabbit fur along the spine and a hand shape cut out of sandpaper on the front, these copies circulated as samizdat, that is works which were clandestinely produced and distributed to evade officially imposed censorship.” This book details Švankmajer’s Surrealist experiments with touch and tactile art and “is a kind of alchemist’s philosophical treatise.”

 

An original copy of Hmat a Imaginace
An original copy of Hmat a Imaginace

Švankmajer tactile poem and sculptures
A Švankmajer tactile poem and three tactile sculptures

 

Upon his return to filmmaking, he brought what he had learned about tactilism into the medium through content, concept, and technique, trying to create synesthetic experiences for viewers. “Film animation is just another alchemical aid to the performance of a magic ritual in which Švankmajer summons the immanent vitality that resides in the inert material... This capacity for metamorphosis extends to moving images… Švankmajer’s work explores the idea that both direct and indirect tactile experience is mediated by the ‘tactile’ imagination.”

The development of a new personal relationship to touch is described in Švankmajer’s poem “The magic ritual of tactile initiation,” featured in Touching and Imagining, which concludes:

Make the cold warm and the soft hard!
Make the loose compact!
Make the course slimy!
Make the hurtful pleasurable!
And vice-versa!
So that the eye will not perceive and give touch timely warning, constantly confuse his utilitarian habits of touch by disorientation, mystification and panic!
Bear in mind that our entire body is a unified erogenous zone!
Do not smooth down the crumpled sheets!
In winter kick off the bedclothes!
On hot summer nights crawl under a heavy quilt!
Do not scorn masturbation!
Do not have your old shoes re-soled!
Do not urinate before going to bed!
“Be repulsed by all objects yet touch them all!
Learn to love insects!
Tire yourself out!
Only when Touch is freed from its utilitarian context, not constantly forced into a self-conscious moment, will it reach the point where it transmutes the barrier of its identifying existence, and without being aware of it, becomes the language of the poet.


Eroticism is frequently a focus of Švankmajer’s work, as he observed that “if there does exist one aspect of human perception where Touch still has a position dominant over all others senses, it is in the field of eroticism.” The realm of pornography extensively explores “indirect tactile experience” and the sensations this depiction evokes in viewers, also striving to inspire corporeal responses.

Countless approaches to solo sex can be found in pornography. Object eroticism is certainly common, from fetish magazines eroticizing attire and materials such as leather and rubber, to the use of sex toys and such things as household items, balloons, and food as tools for self-pleasure.

 

Stills from Mansize & Food Sex
Stills Michael Zen's Mansize (top) and the Bijou Video compilation Food Sex (bottom)

 

The object in question’s sexual appeal may stem purely from the physical sensations it creates and one’s tactile relationship with it, or from a more symbolic place of connection or memory. And inanimate objects, themselves, can seem to carry inside them their own energetic life. As Švankmajer said, “a strong emotion leaves an indelible imprint on the objects touched.”

Erotic inspiration can be found in the natural world. Director Peter de Rome’s lovely short porn film, Green Thoughts (1971), features a man who becomes stimulated by the plants in a conservatory. Porn star and sex educator Annie Sprinkle has recently been spearheading an “ecosexual” movement, reframing nature as “your lover, not your mother” in an effort “to make the envirnomental movement more fun and diverse.”

 

Images from Green Thoughts
Images from Green Thoughts

 

Acts of self-pleasure may be performed not just as the result of the absence of a sexual partner, but because one’s own self or body or personal sexual technique are, themselves, the source of excitement. Many Bijou titles feature examples of this: enthusiastic solos, autofellatio practitioners, people jacking off to their own reflections, fantasies of self-fucking (brilliantly staged in Jaguar’s Grease Monkeys and in the short film Double Scorpio featured in Hand in Hand’s Private Collection), and intricate autosadism rituals (as in the Jason Steele segment of Big Bear Men and the sounding demonstration in another Private Collection short, Penetration).

 

Nick Rodgers seducing himself in Grease Monkeys
Nick Rodgers seducing & fucking himself in Grease Monkeys (1979)

Jason Steele in Big Bear Men (left); sounding film Penetration (right)
Jason Steele in Big Bear Men (left); the sounding film Penetration (right)

 

One of the true masters of inventive autoerotic practice in porn is “Sultan of Solo Sex” Scott Taylor. Taylor never performed a full partnered sex act in any of his films (the closest is perhaps in Surge Studio’s Strange Places, Strange Things, in which he and another man wildly enlarge and distort their cocks together with vacuum pumps), but he did many solo jack off sessions, as well as self-sucking and creative bodily play. In the Steve Scott masterpiece, Turned On! (1982), Taylor performs a remarkable display of dance and movement, in which he stuffs his own cock and balls up his ass. Al Parker stated, in a Manshots interview, “Even though Scott only has sex with himself, I think he is one of the most erotic people in this business, because you can’t pay somebody to be as crazy as Scott Taylor is in a movie.”

 

Scott Taylor
Scott Taylor


Scott Taylor in Turned On!
Scott Taylor's performance in Turned On!

 

Another artist of self-fucking in classic porn is Chris Burns. Having well-earned the title “the Ultimate Bottom,” Burns certainly can take it from others, but just as aptly can dish it out upon himself. In Steve Scott’s Dangerous (1983), he exchanges dirty talk over the phone with Rick Faulkner (who beats off in a phone booth) while he shoves massive dildos up his ass. Jason Bleu’s fascinating S/M video, Black on Red (1987), takes us into the interior life of the submissive, as Burns literally bends over backwards to punish himself at the feet of and worship a mature dominant, who stands over him throughout the tape's runtime, nearly silent and umoving, like a remote God. Burns, here, performs nearly all of the actions upon himself, shoving more enormous toys (as well as enema tubing) up his ass, putting sounding rods in his dickhole, piercing his nipple, and shaving his pubic hair off with a straight razor.

 

Chris Burns in Black on Red
Chris Burns in Black on Red

 

Not requiring a partner to explore one’s own body and sexual interests can be a liberatory element of sexuality. Illustrations of this can be found in some of the feminist pornography of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which encouraged women to learn about their bodies and personal sexuality - for example, the classic 1992 instructional, How to Female Ejaculate, and the odes to self-pleasure in Annie Sprinkle’s Sluts and Goddesses: How To Be a Sex Goddess in 101 Easy Steps. I’ve personally found developing solo kink practices to be useful and exciting. I taught myself how to do play piercing by practicing on my own body, with the help of online technique/safety tips and instructional video examples. This was a helpful way to learn (without risking fucking up an early attempt on someone else’s body), but maintaining this as a solo practice has also served as a way for me to engage with sadism and masochism on my own, without being reliant upon a partner for outlets.

Some porn makers depicted solo practices as a part of the exploration of various types of safer sexual expression during the AIDS crisis. Artist Michael Goodwin, whose late '80s Goodjac video series focused on handjobs and masturbation, brought creativity, playfulness, and enthusiasm to his documentation of solo sex.

 

Solos from The Goodjac Chronicles & Goodjac Too
Solos from The Goodjac Chronicles and Goodjac Too

 

And we can take eroticism outside of the tactile entirely. There’s the far-reaching imaginal realm of fantasy, which can draw eroticism from endless places. There are erotic responses to music and other audio, such as the visceral and abstract sound textures and vocal intimacy explored in ASMR videos, popularized over the past decade, which for many enthusiasts are not erotic, but can be for some. And there’s spiritual yearning, which can often take on an erotic coloration.

One may find eroticism with and without other people; erotic touch with and without other people; eroticism with and without touch. Perhaps we can use this time away from parntered sex to find ways to connect with our own erotic imaginations and to deepen our relationships with our own bodies, whether by nurturing their health (as a part of the project of collective health) or developing our solo sexual practices, whatever the tools and objects of erotic excitement may be.

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