“QUEER AS FILM”–back in the day

“QUEER AS FILM”

Back in the Day

Amos Lassen

“Queer as Film” (New York Film Annex). A collection of four films that many though were lost is something that many gay film buffs have longed to see and it is finally available. The New York Film Annex has managed to find four films dating back and restored them so that we can see what the beginnings of gay film is all about. It is a blessing to have these movies again.

Leading the quartet is Jean Genet’s infamous “Un Chant DAmour which is the highlight of the disk. This was Genet’s only film and it is an exploration of lust and desire among prisoners confined to solitary with their warden.  The dehumanizing effect of prison life leads to fantasy and fantasy sometimes leads to delusion. One prisoner’s fantasy shows how he dreams of being with his lover on the countryside.

Genet’s influence n both gay and experimental film cannot be discounted and his one film has been hailed as a classic of homosexuality, raw and unbridled. The film was banned in the United States by the Supreme Court. Made in 1950, it was way ahead of its time. This is the original uncut and unedited edition with an added soundtrack, It is classified as quasi pornographic and was miraculously preserved by the British Film Institute. At 25 minutes long it lies between three genres—pornographic, surrealism and poetic realism—al of which seem contradictory. There is not much plot and I will do my best to describe to you what happens as I am sure t will be almost impossible to get in Arkansas..

The film begins when a prison guard who arrives for work notices a convict’s arm hanging out of a cell window and he is attempting to pass a bouquet to the man in the cell next to him. Once inside, the guard peeks into the various cells to see who is involved in this liaison. In one cell is a beautiful dancer who is busy dancing with himself and caressing his own body. In the next cell is an Arab prisoner who is lovesick over a younger man and is busy weeping over his unrequited love. The last cell holds prisoners involved in self pleasure.

A lovesick prisoner tries to reach out to a younger prisoner and pulls a piece of straw from his mattress and pokes it through a tiny hole in the wall so that he can share a cigarette with the young man. His beloved ignores the invitation but eventually gives in. The prison guard becomes excited and disturbed by all of the sexuality around him and enters the Arab’s cell and begins to whip him with a belt to relieve his frustration and at this time each man succumbs to his own private fantasy. The prisoner dreams of a forest clearing, an Eden, while the guard dreams of a succession of gropes and grinds when he realizes that the Arab is due more punishment and he forces his pistol into the Arab’s mouth simulating fellatio. As the day ends, the guard leaves his shift and the movie ends.

What we have seen is extremely stung homoeroticism. Just the subject of the film elicits eroticism. We have seen things that up to that time had never been seen on the screen—fetishistic close-ups of hairy chests, armpits, naked crotches, erect organs. In Genet’s presentation they seem to be stanzas of erotic poetry. The exchange of cigarette smoke between two men separated by wall is highly erotic and very suggestive.

Obviously this is not a film for the masses but it did herald a new age in cinema. It is absolutely amazing if you consider when it was made and what you see. It will always remain a landmark film in gay cinema as well as a great film of the underground movement. For me it is a must-see (if you can get the chance—or come to Little Rock and I will be glad to show it to you.

Also on the DVD is a 60 minute black and white parody of the Old Testament made in 1933. Made by a duo known as Watson and Weber, “Lot in Sodom” is complete with gay orgies, sensual dancing and, but of course, a pillar of salt. It is photographed as if a dream sequence with its own early sound . There is not much plot that you don’t already know but it is an interesting retelling of the fate of those that lived in Sodom.

“Yes!” made in the United States in the 1960s and running a mere five minutes was screened only one time and that was at an underground film festival in New York in 1969. It disappeared afterwards. Explicit in its nudity and sexual activity, it can be seen as the precursor to modern gay porn.  A young man is hiking through the woods when he comes upon a fountain and decides to skinny dip. He is unaware that he is being watched and when the voyeur presents himself, the two men engage in sex.

Finally there is “24 Boys Per Second” which was made in the U.S> sometime in the 1970s. It is nothing more than a seven minute parade of sounds, photographs and images which woven together explore a gay sexual encounter. Take my word for it, it is wild.

To sum everything up, I have to say that “Queer as Film” fills a gap in gay film. Perhaps the movies are not to everyone’s liking but they are important in understanding the evolution of gay film and like Dolly Levi, it is good to have them home where they belong.

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