Lagniappe Podcast: Equation to an Unknown (1980)

For this lagniappe episode of the podcast, Boomer and Brandon discuss the vintage, oddly melancholic French porno Equation to an Unknown (1980), which is cited as partial inspiration for the recent giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019).

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– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond

 

Bat Pussy (197?)

Bat Pussy has proudly earned two distinguishing titles in the annals of schlock history. It’s believed to be both the first feature-length Porn Parody film and the absolute worst porno ever made. The first claim is the most difficult to verify since no one knows exactly when Bat Pussy was made or who was involved in its production. The film was discovered in a Memphis porno theater store room in the 1990s. The only indications of its time of production are a 1970 issue of Screw Magazine featured heavily in its opening scenes and the fact that it was a contemporary spoof of the Adam West-starring Batman television show, which ended in the late 60s. Thus, the exact whos, whens, wheres, hows, and whys of Bat Pussy are likely never to be solved, other than in vague estimations like “sometime in the early 70s” and “somewhere in the American South.” What’s much easier to verify is that it is, in fact, a spectacular failure of a porno film and very likely the worst of its kind to ever achieve theatrical projection (and decades-delayed home video distribution through AGFA & Something Weird).

A bitter married couple have fumbling, non-starter sex after finding foreplay inspiration in an issue of Screw. They are aggressively Normal people working mostly unscripted, obviously just having a goof. As the couple feebly attempts to mutually perform oral sex, the man struggles to maintain an erection while the woman frets over the tussle’s damage to her beehive up-do. Unsure what to say or do as the sex is obviously going nowhere, they riff in a faux-agro banter, like a shittily improvised spoof of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where every other word is “motherfucker.” They’re incredibly Southern and likely just as drunk. The bedroom set where they’re fooling around echoes as if it were a cavernous warehouse instead of a private home. 35 minutes into the 50-minute runtime, the titular superhero Bat Pussy arrives to rescue the audience from these hostile, lazy sex acts. She’s immediately stripped of her superhero costume and joins the couple for an equally uninspired threeway, which continues until the production abruptly runs out of celluloid.

Obviously, the main attraction of this pioneering Porn Parody is Bat Pussy herself. The second she’s announced as Dora Dildo, aka The Mighty Bat Pussy, it registers as a huge relief, as her far-off Pussy Cave (later revealed to be an outhouse) is our only locational reprieve from the frustrated sex in the married couple’s “bedroom.” The hope is that Bat Pussy will break up the proceedings with some much-needed levity, but the reality is she takes her sweet time getting there. Apparently, her crime-fighting motivation is an urge to stop all citizens of Gotham from making “fucking movies” unless she is involved herself. Superpowered vaginal twitches alert her that the married couple is planning to make a porno without her involvement, so she dresses in her knockoff Batman costume (an awkward ceremony we watch in real-time), and speeds off to the couple’s “bedroom” via an exercise bouncy ball while nondescript surf rock drones in the background. It’s a hilariously vicious prank on the audience, then, that she’s immediately stripped of her costume once she arrives at the couple’s bed, joining the impossibly shitty sex instead of putting a stop to it.

Dora Dildo is too limited of a player here to totally save the movie from its aggressively unerotic tedium, so the remainder of its entertainment value lies in its Ed Woodian incompetence. The most alarming, memorable moments are when the three actors are unsure about what to do next in bed, and fearfully look to the crew behind the camera for direction (which is sometimes audibly shouted back to them mid-scene). Those frequent fourth wall breaks feel like a violation of an unspoken artist-audience agreement and add an even more sinister tone to the endlessly awkward sex that eats up most of the runtime. My favorite moment of the entire picture results from the mean-drunk husband repeatedly referring to Dora as “Batwoman” in the midst of their threeway, until his costars finally can’t take it anymore and correct him, “It’s Bat Pussy!”. Then they all laugh. It’s moments like that and the bouncy-ball Pussymobile that make me want to hail this film as classic underground schlock, but the eternal belligerent improv that fills the gaps between them are too torturous to fully forgive. Bat Pussy may very well be the worst porno film I’ve ever seen, bless its drunken Southern heart.

-Brandon Ledet

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

If you look at academic writing on the artistic & cultural value of vintage pornography, most discussion tends to focus on the genre’s usefulness as unintentional documentary footage. The renegade, unlicensed location shooting and footage of real people acting semi-naturally in their actual day-to-day wardrobes end up serving as time capsules of place & time as classic porn ages, when those effects were often just a byproduct of the films’ severely limited budgets. If you asked golden-era pornographers themselves at the time of production what the artistic or cultural value of their work might be, you’d likely hear a much different answer: defiance of censorship. Many of the pioneers of the “mainstream” porno business had to fight long, vicious courtroom battles to earn the right to make a buck, or even to publish their product at all. Major names like Hugh Hefner, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein come across as grotesque sleazebags at first glance, and maybe a lot of that reputation was earned. They also did a lot of great work in dismantling the unconstitutional “obscenity” laws that made the production of pornography (and any other artistic materials deemed immoral by highly subjective, Conservative standards) illegal, often explicitly out of a “You can’t tell me what to do” indignance. Many arrests & appeals later, these anti-censorship efforts did eventually chip away at the boundaries of what media was permitted to be published & distributed, paving the way for more mainstream industry shifts like the obliteration of the Hays Code’s lingering restrictions.

If you’re interested in vintage pornography’s history as anti-censorship activism but don’t want to watch something as anarchically lurid as the enema bonanza Water Power, In the Realm of the Senses offers an interesting, accommodating case study. That’s because it’s not exactly pornography in the strictest sense, even though it features lengthy scenes of unstimulated sex between its two main actors. Director Nagisa Ōshima at least partially intended In the Realm of the Senses to be a refutation of the “pink film”, the industry standard of Japanese softcore that’s heavy on eroticism & sexual play, but also incredibly demure in terms of depicting actual penetration or genitalia. Ōshima knew his film would not be permitted in its intended form due to Japanese censorship laws, so he exported it for processing in France and had it shipped to international film festivals as a French co-production. It’s been banned & censored in many countries over the decades since its release but none as harshly as in its native Japan, where it’s still to this day never been officially screened without the blurred modesty pixilation that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Japanese porno. And yet, even though the film explicitly depicts sexual acts from its first scene until its last, calling In the Realm of the Senses a porno at all feels highly reductive. It’s more an intense romantic drama & erotic thriller that just happens to feature unstimulated sex, one that puts just as much effort into its slick production values as it does into its eroticism. If it’s a porno, it’s the only porno I know that’s earned a coveted spot in The Criterion Collection – which I usually wouldn’t point to as a benchmark of legitimacy, but does feel like an indication of artistic & cultural value in this specific case.

Set in 1930s Japan, In the Realm of the Senses is a historical drama retelling the infamous tabloid spectacle of Sada Abe. Abe is the exact kind of public figure John Waters would have written loving fan letters to if she had survived just a couple decades longer: an unlikely celebrity who earned their revered status through manslaughter & debaucherous sex. Sada Abe started her professional life as a prostitute, then found fresh-start employment as a hotel maid. She quickly became sexually & romantically involved with the hotel’s owner—a married man—and the two allowed their initial spark of lust to explode their lives as they essentially just fucked every waking moment away until one of them died. The partner who died happened to be the married man, and Abe was still so mesmerized by her connection to his penis that she severed it and took it with her in her travels, leaving the rest of his corpse behind. This proto-Lorena Bobbitt tale afforded Sada Abe a kind of vulgar celebrity, which she used to support herself in her remaining years as a macabre entertainer. The movie abruptly ends at the moment of genital mutilation, however, so we never get to see that fame-through-killing epilogue. Instead, it covers the time from the lovers’ initial sexual encounter until the violently kinky one that ended their tryst (through overly excited experiment in breath play, which is always a major risk). It’s basically a story about the intensely intoxicating lust period that accompanies the beginning of all new sexual relationships, pushing that mutual-obsession eroticism to its deadliest, least dignified extreme.

I personally most appreciated In the Realm of the Senses as a gorgeous, fully committed precursor to the 90s era erotic thriller, one that’s much more daringly direct about its ugly psychosexual impulses. Any tales of mutual erotic obsession you’d see from mainstream American sleaze-peddlers like Adrian Lynne or Joe Esterhaz are likely to be much more moralistic & sexually timid than this arthouse Japanese predecessor. Ōshima’s film fully captures the unstoppable, life-consuming fervor of intense erotic fixation, and it’s wonderfully tragic to watch two people fully give into their mutual obsession as the world watches them fuck each other into oblivion. It’s clear that Ōshima intended to challenge the boundaries on as many sexual taboos as possible here, though, so that the film also works as an anti-censorship provocation. Lengthy depictions of public sex, cunnilingus, menstruate, piss play, breath play, crossdressing, and selfish female pleasure all feel like they’re designed to push Japanese censors’ buttons even beyond the initial shock of the unstimulated PIV intercourse. What’s incredible, though, is that the film never feels like Pornography in the traditional sense, in that the actors aren’t performing sexual pleasure for maximum visual spectacle. Their encounters are intimate, contained, sensual – even when they involve genital mutilation or the vaginal insertion of food. It’s an oddly tender film about mutual self-obsession that just happens to include hardcore sex scenes. The question, then, is where does the boundary between fine art & pornography truly lie, and what use is artistic censorship if that line can be so easily blurred? In the Realm of the Senses was brave to ask that question so bluntly, but it’s also just a gorgeously sinister love story beyond that provocation.

-Brandon Ledet

Ask Any Buddy (2020)

Austin-based genre aficionado Evan Purchell’s depth of knowledge for obscure, disreputable schlock has long impressed me as an online follower of his work. Purchell’s Letterboxd lists, Austin-area repertory programming, and contributions to the Rupert Pupkin Speaks film blog always seem to uncover some grimy, unsung genre gem that no one has yet to highlight as a forgotten trashterpiece. Watching him fall down one hyper-specific rabbit hole within that larger fascination with low-budget genre relics has been especially rewarding, though, and I selfishly hope that he never climbs out of it.

Starting with an Instagram account (and most recently evolving into a weekly podcast), Purchell’s multi-media project Ask Any Buddy is an archival, celebratory effort to gather as much vintage ephemera he can find from the golden era of hardcore gay pornography. Like with the (mostly hetero) Rialto Report podcast & blog or HBO’s dramatized The Deuce, Ask Any Buddy sets out to highlight the underdog circumstances of independent filmmakers who produced vintage pornography in the days when it had delusions of Going Mainstream. There’s an academic, documentarian quality to this work, which seeks to preserve the real-life stories of an outsider film industry that was effectively outlawed in its time, making the allure of its circumstances irresistible to fans of low-budget, transgressive art. Purchell’s focus on the gay hardcore of the era offers an even more distinct POV within that vintage pornography academia, though. Through the Ask Any Buddy project, he’s effectively arguing against the fallacy that there was no solid queer filmmaking identity preceding the New Queer Cinema boom of the 1990s, as posited in works like The Celluloid Closet. In Purchell’s view, queer filmmaking already had its own established tones & tropes long before folks like Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, and Bruce LaBruce arrived to the scene to greater critical acclaim; the earlier films just needed to include unsimulated blowjobs to secure financial backing and a guaranteed audience.

The centerpiece of this Ask Any Buddy project is its incarnation as a feature-length film. Currently making the “theatrical” rounds through online film festivals (after COVID-19 fucked up its initially planned distribution through AGFA), the movie is both a transgressive piece of D.I.Y. outsider art and a vital work of archival academia. A post-modern mash-up piece, Ask Any Buddy is composed of pre-existing clips from 126 gay porno films from the genre’s golden era in the 1970s & 80s. Rather than contextualizing these clips with any narration or talking-heads interviews, Purchell has simply edited them together in a linear, remarkably cohesive narrative that highlights the various tropes & collective fixations of vintage gay hardcore as a genre. The film loosely constructs a morning-to-night day in the life of an urban, post-Stonewall gay male archetype with an incredibly bustling sex life. With characters from over a hundred films taking turns amalgamating a single protagonist, we watch “a” gay man awake from a loopy wet dream, brush his teeth in the bathroom mirror, venture out into his city’s various cruising spots (bathhouses, the docks, drag clubs, porno theaters, etc.), celebrate with his local community at a house party, and then return to bed with his long-term partner to repeat the loop again. If vintage porno is supposed to have a documentary quality built into its unpermitted, renegade filmmaking style, here’s proof that you can repurpose that effect to loosely construct a typical day in the life of one of its subjects (one with an incredibly high libido and an incredibly short refractory period).

Approaching this film from a purely academic, documentarian lens is actually selling its merits short. Its deliberate inclusion of vintage Pride march footage, mapping out of glory hole etiquette, and illustration of what public cruising looked like in the 70s & 80s land it squarely in the realm of academic discourse, but that framing doesn’t fully capture how it works as an in-the-moment cinematic experience. By removing the typical signifiers of a documentary or essay film and instead assembling a found-footage tapestry narrative, Ask Any Buddy leans into the dreamlike, surrealist quality of cinema as an artform. In that way, it’s more akin to Kenneth Anger’s incendiary landmark short Fireworks than it is to anything like The Celluloid Closet, even though it is directly commenting on the history of queer identity & queer sex onscreen. Its disorienting match-cuts, its interchangeable characters & locations, and even the intentional surrealism of its source material all make the film more of a sensual, cerebral experience than a coldly academic one. By the time the “protagonist” reaches the celebratory house party at the film’s crescendo, the shared lived experience of the larger narrative comes into sharp detail, making the whole picture feel like a communal vision of political defiance & erotic imagination rather than anything as pedestrian as a mere documentary. Its overall effect is more hypnotic & psychedelic than it is intellectual.

The Ask Any Buddy film could easily have been tediously academic or pointlessly provocative in the wrong hands, but it instead comes across as a playful, genuinely loving catalog of tropes & narrative throughlines clearly assembled by a true fan of this supposedly low-brow, disreputable genre. As a stand-alone specimen of transgressive outsider cinema, it has plenty to offer its drooling spectators, including out-of-nowhere fistings and stunt “celebrity” cameos from the likes of “Gene Simmons” & “Marilyn Monroe”. Obviously, it also functions as commentary on pre-existing transgressive cinema from outsider artists of the past, whose contributions to the queer cinema canon Purchell argues have been undervalued. This film is a strikingly surreal, hallucinatory correction to that oversight, as much as it is an academically crucial one.

-Brandon Ledet

Inserts (1975)

When the New Hollywood movement made movies dangerous & vulgar again in the 1970s, there was a kind of nostalgia in the air for pre-Code filmmaking of the 1920s & 30s. It’s the same way that punk dialed the clock back from mid-70s stadium rock to straight-forward 60s garage. Counterculture touchstones of the era like The Cockettes, Cabaret, and Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle all pulled influence from an idealized vision of Old Hollywood hedonism in the industry’s pre-Code era. The forgotten X-rated drama Inserts is no exception to this indulgence in pre-Code nostalgia, but it takes a more direct, literal approach to mourning the loss of the Hollywood that could have been if it weren’t for the moralistic censorship of The Hays Code and it’s fiercest enforcer, Joseph Breen. While most 1970s artists were romanticizing the first couple decades of amoral Hollywood excess at its heights, Inserts instead visits the era at its death bed to have one final swig of liquor with its corpse before it’s hauled off to the morgue. It’s more of a grim memorial than a celebration, which likely contributed to the film being forgotten by critics & audiences over time.

A pre-Jaws Richard Dreyfuss stars opposite a pre-Suspiria Jessica Harper as a 1930s director/actress duo scrounging at the outskirts of the Old Hollywood system. Dreyfuss is the lead: a once reputable Silent Film director who floundered when the industry shifted into making Talkies. Bitter about his fall from fame and, subsequently, blind-drunk, he wastes his directorial talents by shooting stag pornos in his decrepit Los Angeles mansion. Harper enters his life as a wannabe actress who volunteers to shoot anonymous “inserts” for an incomplete porno that goes off the rails when its original star overdoses on heroin. In exchange, she pushes Dreyfuss to return to his former glory as a fully engaged, passionate filmmaker and to teach her the ropes of her desired profession as a Hollywood starlet. Their miserable struggle to complete the picture is sequenced as if in real-time, while other doomed characters drift in and out of the shoot (most significantly Bob Hoskins as a blustering porno financier and Veronica Cartright as a more, um, experienced performer). The whole thing feels like a well-written & performed but incurably misanthropic one-act stage play.

While Inserts is effectively about the death of Hollywood’s hedonistic first wave, visions of that fallen empire are mostly left to play in your imagination off-screen. Names like Strondheim, DeMille, and Gish are shamelessly dropped in non-sequitur anecdotes. Meanwhile, the much-buzzed-about new kid in town Clark Gable periodically knocks on the door of the mansion the movie rots in, but he’s never invited inside. Hollywood is changing outside, but it’s not deliberately leaving Dreyfuss’s drunken misanthrope behind; that’s a decision he’s made himself. We’re mostly left to rot with him in the choices he’s made: his choice of cheap booze, his choice of self-destructive associates, his choice of violent, vulgar “art.” The core of the film’s overwhelming sense of boozy, sweaty desperation is in his budding relationship with his newest starlet, Harper. The volatile pair turn shooting inserts for a throwaway stag porno into a game of dominance & mutual self-destruction. It’s a sick S&M game where he tries to scare her away from the industry by referring to her naked flesh as “meat” and acting as the domineering auteur. In turn, she playfully tops him from the bottom – mocking the sexual & creative impotence caused by his alcoholism in a humiliating display. Their collaboration is the act of filmmaking at its ugliest and most corrosive, an extreme exaggeration of the industry’s worst tendencies.

Inserts isn’t all smut & gloom. The film is viciously miserable, but it’s also shockingly amusing when it wants to be. It’s darkly funny the way a lot of stage plays are, often interrupting its cruelest offenses with a withering quip or a burst of slapstick humor. It constantly tempers its 1920s filmmaking nostalgia with Hollywood Babylon-style shock value in heroin addiction, necrophilia, and casting-couch abuses. Still, that nostalgia manages to shine through the grime, and the film mostly feels like a belated funeral for a well-loved era that was cut short by Breen & Hays. It might not be as fun to watch as a Richard Dreyfuss porno-drama sounds on paper, but it’s a rattling, captivating experience that deserves to be dusted off & re-evaluated now that we’ve all had enough time & distance to properly sober up.

-Brandon Ledet

Pink Narcissus (1971)

I’ve been seeing a lot of Pride-themed recommendation lists circling around the internet in recent weeks, many of which are taking into account the peculiar circumstances of this year’s Pride Month concurring with COVID-19 related social distancing and the additional pandemic of police brutality meant to squash the global upswell Black Lives Matter protests. In general, this year has been a difficult time to recommend any specific movies to watch in light of our current Moment, both because cinema feels like such a petty concern right now and because the nuance of the moment is so vast & complex that it’s impossible to capture it in just a few titles. The intersection of racist & homophobic institutional abuses should certainly be pushed to the forefront of this year’s Pride Month programming – something directly addressed in titles like Born in Flames, Paris is Burning, Tongues Untied, and countless others that film programmers & political activists far smarter than myself could point you towards. However, I was also struck by how much James Bidgood’s art-porno Pink Narcissus feels particular to this year’s quarantine-restricted Pride Month, even though it is a film that has nothing useful or direct to say about race discrimination. It’s too insular & fanciful to fully capture our current moment of mass political resistance, but those exact qualities do speak to its relatability in our current, simultaneous moment of social isolation.

James Bidgood’s D.I.Y. gay porno reverie was filmed almost entirely in his NYC apartment over the course of six years. Using the illusionary set decoration skills & visual artistry he honed as both a drag queen & a photographer for softcore beefcake magazines, Bidgood transformed every surface & prop in his living space into a fantastic backdrop for his rock-hard fairy tale. Pink Narcissus is a pure, high-art fantasy constructed entirely out of hand-built set decoration & an overcharged libido, a Herculean effort Bidgood achieved by living and sleeping in the artificial sets he constructed within his own living space. If there’s anything that speaks to me about the past few months of confinement to my home, it’s the idea of tirelessly working on go-nowhere art projects that no one else in the world gives a shit about. Bidgood was eventually devastated when his film was taken out of his hands by outside investors who rushed the project to completion without his participation in the editing room (so devastated that the film was credited to “Anonymous” and was rumored to be a Kenneth Anger piece for decades), but I’m still floored by the enormity, complexity, and beauty of the final product. A lot of us having been building our own little fantasy worlds and arts & crafts projects alone in our homes over recent months; I doubt many are half as gorgeously realized as what Bidgood achieved here.

There is no concrete narrative or spoken dialogue to help give Pink Narcissus its shape. The film is simply pure erotic fantasy, explicitly so. A young gay prostitute lounges around his surrealist pink apartment overlooking Times Square, gazing at his own beauty in his bedroom’s phallic mirrors and daydreaming about various sexual encounters while waiting for johns to arrive. This is more of a wandering wet dream than a linear story, with the erotic fantasy tangents seemingly having no relationship to each other in place or time. The sex-worker Narcissus imagines himself caressing his own body with delicate blades of grass & butterfly wings in an idyllic “meadow” (an intensely artificial tableau that resembles the opening credits of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). An anonymous blowjob at a public urinal drowns a gruff stranger in a sea of semen (staged in a baby pool full of thickened milk in Bidgood’s kitchen). A premonition of a dystopian Times Square where ghoulish hustlers openly jerk themselves off below advertisements for artificial anuses, frozen pissicles, and Cock-a-Cola flutters outside his window. A few of these tableaus uncomfortably skew into racist culture-gazing, treating matador costumes & a sultan’s harem as opportunities for bedroom dress-up scenarios. That’s par for the course in the context of old-fashioned porno shoots, though, especially before no-frills hardcore became the norm. What’s unusual about it is how Bidgood transforms those artificial, fetishized vignettes into high art.

If there’s any one movie deserving of a Blu-ray quality restoration treatment, it’s this. Bidgood may be frustrated by the way his vision was never completely realized thanks to outside editing-room meddling, but even in its compromised form it’s an intoxicating sensory experience. It stings that you have to look past the shoddy visual quality of its formatting to see that beauty, as it’s been blown up from its original 8mm & 16mm film strips into depressingly fuzzed-out & watered down abstractions on home video. Looking at the gorgeously crisp, meticulously fine-tuned prints of Bidgood’s beefcake photography (collected in the must-own Taschen artbook simply titled James Bidgood), it’s heartbreaking to see his one completed feature film so shamelessly neglected. Even in its grainy, sub-ideal state it’s still a fascinating watch that pushes the dreamlike quality of cinema as an artform to its furthest, most prurient extreme. It’s also a testament to how much just one artist can achieve when left to their own maddening devices in isolation for long enough. If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll emerge from this year’s stay-at-home chrysalis period with some equally beautiful, surreal art that some horned-up weirdo has been anonymously toiling away at in private. Considering how shitty & distracting the world outside has become, however, the likelihood of that possibility is highly doubtful.

-Brandon Ledet

Circus of Books (2020)

As a tribute to a queer cultural institution that survived decades of political & cultural turmoil only to eventually be done in by the convenience of online shopping, the Netflix documentary Circus of Books has an almost impossible amount of history to cover in a mere 86 minutes. The now-defunct adult bookstore the movie profiles was a cornerstone of gay life in West Hollywood (a neighborhood historically referred to as “Boystown”) for half a century. Opened in a gay nightclub space that was unjustly shut down via 1960s “morality” raids (the same policing era that incited the Stonewall Riots) and persevering through crises like the AIDS epidemic & the Reagan Administration’s crackdown on obscenity in published media, the Circus of Books storefront saw a tremendous range of gay life, gay sex, and gay political action in its time. You can feel a communal reverence for the store in the film’s interviews with former customers & employees (notably including Drag Race celebrity Alaska Thunderfuck) that extends far beyond its function as a porn distribution hub. Circus of Books wasn’t just revered for its facilitation of anonymous hook-ups or its extensive catalog of gay porno (in a time when that was the only medium where you could see men kissing onscreen). If that were the case, the movie would have to cover all gay bookstores in the US instead of singling out one in particular. The store was revered because it survived several waves of cultural & political unrest to serve generations of gay men (and other queer customers) in a prominent queer neighborhood that suffered those same waves of strife.

So how does one documentary cover all that ground without spiraling out into a Ken Burnsian tome? Smartly, the Circus of Books doc doesn’t even attempt that feat. Instead, the film focuses on the unlikely suburban, heterosexual couple who owned & operated the store for the bulk of its historic existence. This film is less of a comprehensive document of gay life in West Hollywood during the bookstore’s operation than it is an intimate, humble family portrait. Even with all the cultural context it could distract itself with in the moment, Circus of Books is most fascinated by how an unassuming, wholesome straight couple stumbled into becoming the largest distributors of hardcore gay pornography in the US (for a time). There’s almost a true-crime style sensationalism to this dynamic, as the couple who owned the store hid the nature of the family business from their neighbors & children – explaining only that “We own a bookstore,” and not “We own a hardcore gay porn empire.” This is hardly the seedy unearthing of dark familial secrets doc you’ll find in movies like Stories We Tell or Capturing the Friedmans, though. Barry & Karen Mason’s energy here is that they could be practically anyone’s grandparents: sweet, doting, and sometimes politically infuriating old-timers who just happen to sell poppers & lube at their day-job. If there’s any sensationalist detail here it’s that these lifelong pornographers are exceedingly wholesome & ordinary – a normalizing presence in an industry that’s long been inaccurately demonized by Conservative pundits as morally corruptive.

A significant aspect of this film’s normalizing tone as a family portrait is that it was directed by the owners’ own daughter, Rachel Mason. Initially, this insider perspective is valuable as a means of access, especially in Mason’s camcorder footage from her childhood and insight about how her parents’ good-cop/bad-cop dynamic at home translated to their management style as employers. There’s also a peculiar parallel to establish in how both generations are filmmakers in their own right, with Rachel in a documentarian role and her parents producing a portion of the content that Circus of Books distributed in-house (they just happened to produce titles like Rimnastics Gold, Riverboat Sea Men, and Meat Me at the Fair). Where the movie really touches on something special, though, is when those initial shocks of her upbringing’s bizarre circumstances fade to the background. When the film’s not chasing down decades of queer culture history or attempting to (mildly) shock the audience with the details of the Mason family business, Circus of Books strikes gold in capturing the mundane, day-to-day bickering & kindnesses shared between its director and her parents. There is something vividly, universally relatable about the film’s various mother-daughter disagreements (which include whether or not an adult bookstore is worthy of a feature-length documentary in the first place); they just happen to take place in front of unusual backdrops, like an enormous wall of assorted dildos at a sex industry convention. It’s in those intimate, domestic exchanges where the film stumbles upon something uniquely worthy of documentation & broadcast.

Despite the peculiarity of its gay porno industry backdrop, Circus of Books is a fairly low-key, small-stakes family portrait. I don’t think it’d be outrageous to claim that it’s one of the most wholesome films about hardcore gay pornography you’ll ever see. Anyone looking for a comprehensive gay culture history of West Hollywood centered on the eponymous bookstore or a shocking exposé on long-buried family secrets will likely be disappointed by this film’s kind, intimate temperament. It is a fascinating, endearing work as a family portrait, however, one that establishes the production & distribution of hardcore pornography as being just as wholesomely, quintessentially American as baseball or apple pie.

-Brandon Ledet

The Story of O (1975)

For the first half of the 2010s we lived on a street that was absolutely perfect for yard sales. Our version of Spring Cleaning was always kicked off by a seasonal yard sale to get as much accumulated junk out of the house as possible (a tradition that has since been supplanted by the hassle of hauling our excess bullshit to thrift stores & second-hand shops), and they were always a success. They were such a success, in fact, that friends & family would dump their junk on us to help distribute it into the ether (for a very minor payout). This ritual frequently involved my sister handing off giant Rubbermaid bins overflowing with DVDs she was eager to get rid of as streaming movies online became more of her standard entertainment routine over that half-decade. The shameless movie nerd that I am, I’d always pick through those bins myself before offering them up to the vulturous public and pull out a few titles here or there to store up in my own house, where they’d also go unwatched. My sister’s cinematic castoffs were usually recognizable mainstream movies (often good ones), but there were always one or two deeply strange outliers in there if I was committed enough to search for them. I don’t remember many specific examples, but I do remember this: No film was ever as strange to find in my sister’s discarded DVDs than the X-rated softcore drama The Story of O. It was, of course, one of the DVDs I kept for my own collection before dragging the rest of the bin to our old porch steps. I don’t want to dwell for too long on why my sister purchased this vintage S&M smut or why she chose to get rid of it, which is partly why it took me over a half-decade to finally watch the film myself – allowing it to collect dust along with the rest of my dreaded Shame Pile in the meantime. I do know why I’ll finally be selling this disc off after just one single viewing, though, which is all I can dare to report on this blog.

The Story of O arrived in an era where pornography had delusions of going mainstream, initially under the guise of being distributed as European “art films.” This particular example of French erotica wasn’t nearly as seedy as its NYC contemporaries from the 42nd street epicenter of smut, but it was still considered filthy enough to earn an “X” rating in America and an across-the-board ban in Britain all the way until the year 2000 (a familiar treatment for the appropriately-named director Just Jaeckin, who had just experienced the same censorship for his debut feature Emmanuelle). The Story of O‘s eponymous source novel had experienced prudish censorship in its own time as well, penned under a pseudonym by journalist Anne Desclos in the 1950s only to face obscenity charges (in France of all places). It’s a modern continuation of the Marquis de Sade brand of S&M, where secret societies of immense wealth torture (in this case, consenting) women in cult-like rituals for communal sexual gratification. This movie adaptation wastes no time diving headfirst into that shamelessly contrived premise. The titular O (whose full name is never disclosed) is introduced en route to her masochistic training facility, on a car ride where her lover (a baby-faced Udo Kier) instructs her on what to wear and how to act as she suffers the ritualistic torture to come. We don’t learn until many whippings later that O is a fashion photographer with an inner life & artistic sense of control all of her own, since her submission to this secret sex cult is entirely predicated on her transformation into a pleasure object (and, later, a recruitment tool to draw in future pleasure objects from her industry). It’s an absurdly artificial scenario that immediately becomes grotesquely immoral if you prod at it in terms of real-world gender & sex politics, but it’s also a familiar one to anyone who’s ever spent a minimum of ten minutes reading erotica.

I was immediately struck by the soft-focus psychedelia of this film’s imagery, with its archaic occult S&M costuming and its obsessive reflections of mirrors against mirrors to achieve a kaleidoscope effect. It has all the gorgeous visual trappings of the artsy-fartsy Euro horrors of its era, just with the straight razor giallo murders being supplanted by sadistic sex acts. And, honestly, my only chance of ever truly loving the movie was if it had applied its soft-psychedelic imagery to the horror genre instead, since its repetitive tableaus of women “willingly” being whipped while saying “No” wasn’t really My Thing (in every implied meaning of that phrase). Its total lack of pre-play negotiation, agreed-upon safe words, and tender aftercare didn’t jive at all with how I engage with S&M in my own (admittedly modern) understanding of these sexual power dynamics. At risk exposing too much of my own internal erotic imagination here, I’ll admit that I did perk up once O started exhibiting control as a top in the dungeonous playpens where the movie gets its kicks (and in her fashion photography shoots, where she commands her models in a position of excited authority), but that’s more of a last-minute afterthought than a genuine engagement with any particular theme. The most interesting narrative thread in the film is about how the cathartic power play staged in the secret society’s closed-off rooms affects O’s public persona in “real” society (and how she gradually learns the pleasures of being the objectifier, not just the object). The only problem is that The Story of O is much less interested in themes & narrative than it is in the imagery of women being sadistically bound & whipped by men, which is either going to be Your Thing or it isn’t. No amount of visual aesthetic nor historical interest can save a niche porno you just don’t find pruriently enticing, just like how no stylistic flares can save a comedy you don’t find funny.

Speaking as an outsider to this particular corner of kink, it’s probably best to avoid passing any kind of moral judgement on the erotic imagination illustrated here. There are troubling ways in which this material is reflected in real-life misogynist violence, but that’s probably a large part of what makes the taboo so enticing in the first place. Also, not for nothing, the film is ultimately about female pleasure & self-discovery, whether or not it takes a rocky, roundabout way of getting there. All I can say is that it wasn’t really My Thing, which is something I already knew as soon as I picked it out of the Yard Sale pile. In retrospect, I probably would have gotten more pleasure out of seeing which of the curbside weirdos picked it out of the Yard Sale bin instead of hoarding it for myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973)

The invaluable podcast & film blog The Rialto Report frequently argues that the hardcore pornography & dime-a-dozen smut that was made in the cheap-living days of NYC (before the city was cleaned-up & Disnified by Mayor Giuliani) has an archival value in the way it documents a specific era of history that’s largely ignored by mainstream documentaries. Usually, the archival nature of NYC’s 70s & 80s smut is an unintended symptom of underground filmmakers having free rein over the city (as long as they could avoid arrest for indecency) and assuming that their own XXX-rated material wouldn’t be of much interest to anyone after its brief, localized theatrical runs. Fleshpot on 42nd Street feels like an outlier in that way. The 1973 pornographic melodrama opens with an intentionally documentarian eye. Andy Milligan (the film’s writer, director, and cinematographer) juts his handheld camera outside the passenger window of a moving car, intentionally capturing the faces & places that lurked around its titular district of streetwalkers & porno arcades. From frame one, Milligan is clearly more interested in documenting the lowlife personalities that populate 42nd Street than he is in exploiting their bedroom activities for titillation, exemplifying the archival value of the medium that The Rialto Report so often promotes.

That documentarian impulse was likely a result of Milligan’s increasing boredom with making pornography in general. Fleshpot on 42nd Street was the shameless schlockteur’s final sexploitation film before transitioning into cheapo horror productions full-time. You can tell his heart really isn’t in the genital-grinding end of the business here. The main focus of the film is building a dirt-cheap Sirkian melodrama around the life & crimes of a low-level sex worker (Laura Cannon), not inspiring erections among the sleazy patrons of NYC grindhouses. Much of the film recalls the deranged melodramas of Russ Meyer’s collaborations with screenwriter Jack Moran – titles like Good Morning … and Goodbye! & Common Law Cabin. Characters bicker over the scraps life has left them in sweaty dive bars & public hangout spots around the city, displaying more bitter anger than horned-up libido. When they do have sex, their emotional & physical engagement with the act ranges from total boredom to inhuman cruelty. Characters violate our protagonist’s boundaries of consent in high-risk group sex and S&M scenarios. When tending to lower-maintenance johns, she yawns & rolls her eyes while receiving head, scheming on how to rip the bloke off once they tire themselves out. The few moments of passionate lovemaking she finds are with an outsider Prince Charming businessman from Long Island, who promises to set her free from a life of sex work by transforming her into a suburban housewife. During these romantic trysts, the film takes an out-of-nowhere swerve into hardcore depictions of full penetration, further underlying how different her rare moments of sex-for-pleasure are from her more frequent, tedious, and dangerous professional encounters.

I wonder how much of Milligan’s blatant disinterest in the erotic aspects of this story stem from the fact that he was openly homosexual. Fleshpot on 42nd Street details the heterosexual exploits & romances of one female sex worker as she navigates the scummiest corners of Times Square, so the amount of queer content Milligan allows to creep into the frame is continually surprising. Because the director mostly populates his cast with off (off, off) Broadway thespians he was fiends with on the theatre scene, the performers brings a lot of over-the-top gay energy to even the film’s explicitly hetero roles. Many of the protagonist’s johns are clearly disinterested in her sexually, which helps further defang the eroticism of the picture while also heightening its melodrama. Her comic relief sidekick character is a flippantly cruel trans streetwalker who quips at length in a lived-in, queer-as-fuck dialect that guides most of the film’s tone. Even the tragic hetero romance with the Long Island business prince plays with a breathy melodrama that would appeal to gay kids who’d fake sick to skip school and watch soap operas with their mothers. Fleshpot on 42nd Street may be costumed as straight porn, but it’s mostly over-the-top gay theatre in its execution, if not only through Milligan subconsciously expressing his own interests from behind the camera.

You should know by now whether this sleazy slice of NYC grime would appeal to you. And because we live in a golden age of physical media for cinephiles of all stripes, the film is now available in an ungodly pristine digital restoration of the original 16mm print on Blu-Ray via Vinegar Syndrome. There isn’t much to Fleshpot on 42nd Street content-wise that you wouldn’t be used to seeing in other sexploitation relics of its era. The only distinguishing touches to the film are where Milligan’s auteurist sensibilities happen to slither through: the queer bent, the disinterest in hetero erotica, the shameless indulgence in romantic melodrama, the documentarian eye for a horned-up era in the city’s history that was sure to shrivel up quickly. Even if Milligan was growing tired of making hetero porn, this still comes across as a hands-on, personal project. The camera tilts wildly as he literally climbs into bed with his actors or steals candid shots of NYC street life. You never forget his presence behind the camera as he lights the transactional sex, flippant cruelty, and casual racism of his home turf with a single flashlight, as if he were documenting a crime scene. I don’t know that Fleshpot on 42nd Street has made me any hungrier to track down any other Rialto Report-ready sexploitation pictures of its ilk, but it certainly has me interested in Milligan’s work. At the very least, I bet he’d make one hell of a sleazy horror picture under the right circumstances.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #87 of The Swampflix Podcast: Knife+Heart (2019) & Fictional Porno

Welcome to Episode #87 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our eighty-seventh episode, we discuss provocative cinema set in the seedy underworld of the porno industry. Brandon makes James watch the queer giallo throwback Knife+Heart (2019) for the first time, then they discuss two more fictional films about the production of pornography: Hardcore (1979) & The Misandrists (2018). Enjoy, ya buncha pervs!

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-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn