Saturday, June 5, 2010

Life in Film: Oscar Micheaux

Published in frieze, Issue 129, March 2010, pp. 21-22.

I first saw Ten Minutes to Live (1932), directed by Oscar Micheaux, about fifty years after it was made. At the time, the film gave me an overwhelming impression of strangeness that had nothing to do with camp or kitsch, or any of the other aesthetic categories that might diminish or limit such a unique experience. Every second was (and is) riveting. Micheaux’s films are set in New York or Chicago or in the backward American hinterlands, but they also unfold in a dramatic space constructed by a man who, in terms of aesthetics, inhabited his own world. No written description can prepare a spectator for seeing Micheaux’s films; they are too complex and too remote from the mainstream that issued from the innovations of D.W. Griffith to be summarized in that way. With the passing years, Griffith’s infantile politics have become apparent even to the most benighted spectators, while Micheaux’s blunt impertinence seems fresh and contemporary.

Ten Minutes to Live is a film in two halves announced by old-fashioned intertitles: “The Faker” and “The Killer.” Much of “The Faker” consists of scenes of nightclub performances, shot with a static camera in synchronous sound and in single takes. A jazz band plays and people dance brilliantly, with joy and abandon. One of these musical numbers lasts a mere thirty seconds.

Pursued by a murderer, Letha Watkins, the protagonist of the second half of Ten Minutes to Live, takes a taxi ride from New York’s Grand Central Station to Westchester County. This long sequence has only one soundtrack: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony accompanies the action, but each time a car horn honks, the music cuts out completely. Letha arrives at her home in Westchester and pauses to smoke a cigarette. Micheaux represents this simple action in six separate shots. While Letha is on screen, it is as though time expands to allow greater attention to her gestures and to the play of light through the smoke and on the fabric of her dressing gown.

In order to conserve film stock, Micheaux went to great lengths to avoid shooting expensive dialogue sequences with synchronous sound. Near the end of the film, the murderer, Morvis, observes his potential victim Letha in her home talking to her boyfriend. While the lovers speak, Morvis is on screen; during pauses in the dialogue, the lovers are seen caressing and mugging silently for the camera. Morvis stands in front of a painted backdrop that appears in no establishing shot, so it is unclear if he sees the lovers from his position. The lovers’ voices accompanying Morvis’s close-ups suggest that he hears them, yet this is impossible. Morvis is a deaf mute.

Later, Morvis carouses with a treacherous woman at her house, but they are interrupted by a telegram announcing that policemen have surrounded them. The telegram comes from Morvis’s mother, who calls him a fool and informs him that he has been betrayed. Morvis abruptly turns on his female companion and a chase ensues. The chase goes in a circle, up and down the same staircase, as in a cartoon gag.

The scenes mentioned above bring to mind moments of rupture in a Jean-Luc Godard film, or Andy Warhol’s sound films, or vast sections of Doris Wishman’s exploitation oeuvre, yet Micheaux directed films decades before any of them. The only contemporary whose work Micheaux’s resembles is Dziga Vertov, and indeed, the scene of Letha smoking looks like a delightfully fetishistic out-take from Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Did Micheaux see Vertov’s films? Nothing is impossible, but this is highly unlikely.

What I have described may not give a clear indication of Micheaux’s body of work as a whole, because Ten Minutes to Live has little of the caustic drama that distinguishes his other films. Black characters strive to improve their lives, but antagonists thwart them at every turn. The white characters, when not naïve and well-meaning, operate with vicious impunity. Within Our Gates (1920), Micheaux’s politicized response to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), contains a lynching scene that prevented the film’s exhibition in the American South. Almost entirely suppressed in the US, the film was believed lost until it was rediscovered in a Spanish film archive in 1991. Body and Soul (1925) presents the story of a preacher – played with relish by Paul Robeson in his first starring role – corrupt enough to be familiar to modern audiences accustomed to ecclesiastical venality and hypocrisy. God’s Stepchildren (1938) transforms John Stahl’s Imitation of Life (1934) into a tragedy of extraordinary power; it ends with a woman who has abandoned her child taking one last look at him before she drowns herself. In Birthright (1939), a black man with a Harvard degree tries to found a school in his sleepy hometown, but he gets swindled; only a bequest from the town’s richest man (who may have been in love with him) can deliver him from his predicament.

Inflammatory on principle, Micheaux attracted the attention of censors, and as an independent filmmaker with no studio to defend him, he was completely vulnerable to their whims. Historians have theorized that most of the odd devices in Micheaux’s films are attempts to wrest coherent narratives from material that had been utterly mutilated by racist bureaucrats. This might have been the case with Ten Minutes to Live, which runs a scant 58 minutes, although I am not quite sure.

Apologists call Oscar Micheaux a pioneering African American filmmaker who did his best with limited resources, but whose works – it is sometimes implied – are rather inept. His achievements are undeniable: he was the first African American to direct a feature film; having directed over 40 films, he was by far the most prolific black filmmaker during the era of segregation; and furthermore, he was the only one to thrive during the transition from silent to sound cinema. But his films cannot be reduced to these facts, nor can they be comfortably assimilated into an historical narrative. To this day, no one has given a completely convincing account of why Micheaux’s films look the way they do. They remain mysterious cinematic objects. By now, I have seen most of Micheaux’s surviving feature films, some of them many times, and these viewings have only confirmed my original intuition: that all of his films’ formal eccentricities are the result not only of a perverse sense of humor and a bracing contempt for authority, but of sustained reflection and practice. America’s mainstream film culture, worshipping money and status above all else, has thus far been blind to the true virtues of Micheaux’s work. His controversial subject matter and radical film form have stranded him outside the official version of film history. I believe Oscar Micheaux is the greatest American filmmaker, and I hope that one day my claim will not seem outrageous at all.

Angels of Light

Jack Coe hitchhiked across the country to San Francisco, where he found Hibiscus being crucified on the beach. Hibiscus had just broken away from the Cockettes to form the Angels of Light, and Jack became his disciple. The Angels of Light were committed to performing for free and feeding their audience. One performance included a meal of bananas and red wine, a kind of sacrament of phallic worship. Hibiscus, born George Edgerly Harris III, began his adult life as a peace activist. It is he who was shown putting a flower in the gun of a National Guardsman at a peace rally in a famous photograph from 1967. After his time as a Cockette and an Angel, Hibiscus allegedly appeared on a television soap opera (under another name, obviously) and finally became what one friend described as a “label obsessed Manhattan queen.” But during a few incandescent years, Hibiscus transformed himself and his fellows into something truly extraordinary.

This piece was written and read aloud for X-Tra magazine’s “One Image One Minute” benefit in January 2010.

A Capitalist Hallucination

Published in Bidoun, no. 19 (Fall 2009) pp. 34-37.

The promotional literature for Enterprise Square USA, part of Oklahoma Christian University in Edmond, announced “an Epcot style attraction that uses imaginative settings and dazzling special effects,” a place where “thousands of individuals experience a small taste of the vision for free enterprise.” This description, promising a taste of a vision, implied synesthesia and conjured an image of hallucinogen-fuelled tributes to Milton Friedman. While Enterprise Square failed to deliver that sort of cockeyed sublimity, it nonetheless deserves its own special place in the pantheon of Bible-Belt kitsch oddities.

A propaganda tool in the waning years of the Cold War, Enterprise Square had as its pedagogical goal the countering of “socialistic” ideas about economics circulating among America’s youth and their teachers. The attraction was the brainchild of Robert Rowland, director of the American Citizenship Center, a group of Christians who conveniently forgot Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and raised selfish ambition to the level of a theological principle—in other words, people who came to power with a vengeance with Reagan’s election to the presidency.

Despite the triumphalist euphoria at the time of its opening in 1982, Enterprise Square became dated almost instantly, as though its designers had never realized that the capitalist spectacle out in the world was already so powerful, adaptable, and polymorphous that it could not be easily tarted up for kids or adequately simulated in a building on a college campus. Entirely contrary to the agendas of its directors, the strength of Enterprise Square lay in its contradictions and failures, in the manner of the vernacular surrealism already plentiful in the Oklahoma City area. As a unique tourist attraction, it succeeded brilliantly, but how it ever functioned as pedagogy remains a mystery.

Visitors to Enterprise Square passed through various themed galleries, starting with America’s Heartbeat Rotunda, a multimedia bombardment reminding spectators that all parts of our lives have an economic aspect. A montage of disembodied voices, accompanied by dozens of flashing backlit transparencies, produced a portrait of that idealized economic unit, a “typical” nuclear family. At one point, a picture of a bride and groom appeared while a female voice cooed, “a perfect couple, and he just landed a great job.” In case the theme of marriage as a financial transaction akin to genteel prostitution escaped anyone, another female voice later shouted, “Spend! Spend! Spend!”

The Hall of Statistics was intended to impress upon visitors the sheer magnitude of the capitalist system. Several signs featured running totals of objects produced and consumed, for example, estimates of 200,016,000 eggs and 33,984,000 bricks laid in the previous twenty-four hours. Above a stock photograph of a boy in a baseball cap about to bite into a weenie, a provocative sign read, “Since 6 p.m. yesterday, there have been 60,264,000 hot dogs eaten.” This tally must have included the entire United States, but still, such consumption staggers the imagination.

The following gallery, with the cumbersome title Free To Be What You Want Under Our System, presented comedic films about professions into which a visitor could insert himself via closed-circuit television cameras. A doctor whose patient wakes up from anesthesia on the operating table and a policeman giving a granny a speeding ticket were but two characters representing possible careers available for rehearsal.

The Hall of Giants, presenting worshipful versions of monopoly capitalists’ lives, was (appropriately enough) the largest gallery at Enterprise Square and a focal point of the exhibitions. A group of enormous busts with interior spaces large enough to walk through paid tribute to figures such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. Presumably aware that such an exclusive group might appear sexist or racist, the planners of Enterprise Square also included Booker T. Washington and Helena Rubinstein as Giants. In the corridor leading up to this capitalist Valhalla, an effort at inclusiveness led to some especially bizarre choices. That space featured the also rans of a capitalist selection process, including John D. Rockefeller, who truly belonged with the Giants, but whose story and visage must have been judged to evince little redeeming human value. Other lesser giants included AFL president Samuel Gompers (an okay guy even if he didn’t play for the right team) and, most inexplicably, Emily Dickinson. Perhaps Enterprise Square meant to suggest that the reclusive American poet would have been a great capitalist, had she only left her house more often.

Beyond the Hall of Giants lay the Remarkable Supply Shop for Demanding Donut Dunkers, an interactive display staffed by a student worker. In a set like that of a game show, visitors voted for how much they would be willing to pay for doughnuts, which appeared to be circular hunks of plaster painted pastel colors such as periwinkle blue. A remarkably crude robot figure (more of a puppet, actually) presided over this speculation in doughnuts.

After passing through a pop art–themed gallery with large Campbell’s Soup cans and pseudo-George Segal sculptures, visitors reached the Great American Marketplace, one of Enterprise Square’s most celebrated exhibits. Large one, two, ten, and one hundred dollar bills with animatronic portraits in the middle formed a barbershop quartet singing the praises of the capitalist system, occasionally to the tune of “America the Beautiful.” In this musical interlude, “freedom,” a word much in evidence in the previous galleries, was drilled into spectators’ minds with merciless repetition, leaving no doubt as to the importance of the term in the vocabulary of free-market dogma.

To clarify what kind of freedom was at stake, the next gallery featured a multichannel video montage synched up to a tirade against government regulation. The video monitors were arranged in the shape of a face curiously inhuman in its features. With what looked like a bowler hat and an animal’s ears, the display brought to mind a cartoon bear as imagined by René Magritte.

The Magritte bear’s presentation was surreal in more ways than one for anyone with a grasp of economic history. His discourse of nostalgia for a time before the government interfered with big business did not acknowledge that the last moment of unregulated American capitalism was in fact an utter disaster: the run-up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the worst depths of the Great Depression that followed. By the time of Enterprise Square’s debut, the notion of a free enterprise system as synonymous with laissez-faire capitalism was no less an imaginative work—a leap of faith, even—than seeing the face of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich.

Collective neoconservative hallucinations, while they animated American politics, were conspicuously lacking in drama at Enterprise Square USA, not least because its multimedia displays often malfunctioned, and, as in the department stores of the socialist East, its gift shop contained virtually nothing to buy. At a doorway to one of several galleries in a state of desuetude, a sign read, “Pardon our mess. Enterprise Square is moving into the 21st Century.” Alas, it didn’t move very far. The entire facility was closed for renovation in 2000, and two years later the administration of Oklahoma Christian University made the decision to close the attraction indefinitely.

Constructed at a cost of $15 million, the Enterprise Square building is the largest and most expensive on the Oklahoma Christian University campus, and the school is currently in the process of raising another $10 million to turn the premises into something else. Apart from a few offices and art studios, it’s still used as storage for the old exhibits of Enterprise Square USA. The projected reuse of the building as the Academy of Leadership & Liberty may not possess anything like the same attraction for connoisseurs of outdated technology that Enterprise Square USA had, but it will almost certainly have the virtue of being easier to maintain.

The new Academy will house permanent exhibitions such as the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame and the America’s Call to Freedom Collection. The latter consists of 214 pieces of art by Sam Ingram, a naval career officer who turned to art in his retirement. His work depicts stories from the Bible, scenes from the American Revolution, and the romance of the American West—in short, the whole reach of human history as envisioned by a Christian capitalist whose world view is consummately Middle American. Most of the collection is predictable patriotic figurative painting of an inspirational variety, but occasionally Ingram vents his resentment of America’s cultural elite. There are a few bizarre ventures into Pollock-style abstraction (including one entitled “Mexican Diarrhea”) and a cartoonish fantasy of a hirsute, effeminate Abstract Expressionist painting with his foot. The best of Ingram’s works recall the style of Paul Cadmus’ tempera paintings, though in more garish colors and without the sense of homoerotic frisson. While not as redolent of pathos as the broken-down spectacle of Enterprise Square USA, these monstrously tasteless paintings may eventually attract their own devoted fans.

We Are Not Amused

Published in an edition of 100 to accompany the Curt McDowell exhibition, an uneven dozen broken hearts at 2nd Floor Projects, San Francisco, February 15, 2009 – March 29, 2009.

I hate The Beatles. As Futurama’s mock-cuddly monopoly capitalist Mom would put it, they make me want to puke my face off. I suspect this has some connection with “Love Me Do,” the first single by the Liverpudlian mop-tops, released in the land of my Mom’s people (England) on the day I was born. Astrologers may impute cosmic significance to this coincidence, but as I know less than nothing about such matters, I attribute my perpetual resentment to years of brainwashing.

My earliest memories of commercial radio broadcasts are of The Beatles. They were truly unavoidable during their existence as a recording entity, and instead of fading away after their dissolution, they only seemed to loom larger in the public mind. There were the solo careers, the publicity surrounding various lawsuits, and with a crushing inevitability, the continued broadcast of their music out of a sense of mourning. Around this time, popular music began to look back on itself — always a bad sign — with various nostalgia crazes, revivals, and worst of all, the enshrining of the “greatest” in monstrous social Darwinist play lists and anthologies. For a moment in the mid-to-late 1970s, Punk would dissipate some of this fatuous piety, but the disturbance of business as usual was only temporary. I mention piety, and that is precisely what it was. The Beatles, their music, their images, their achievements, their chart positions, ad infinitum, became a new catechism for people who really could have been doing better things with their time, like making Molotov cocktails or teaching their children how to read.

In strictly practical terms, brainwashing was an impossibility, as the CIA (and the various North American psychology departments it funded) eventually discovered. The Communists were never capable of foisting Manchurian candidates upon us. Pure coercion did not lead to pure obedience. Pleasure was a far more effective tool of domination, as the great figures of public relations had known since the 1920s. The Eastern Europeans came around to this position some decades late. The Slovenian rock band Laibach released their version of The Beatles’ Let It Be in 1988, just before the definitive collapse of state socialism in the East. Laibach’s previous efforts embodied an un-ironic worship of authority taken to such an extreme that it became — so their fans claimed — something else. But there were no clues that it was all a send up, no moment of respite from the numbing seriousness, nothing to make timid westerners feel smart and superior. When Laibach chose The Beatles as the heroic figures at the center of their English language debut, it came as a surprise to those expecting Stalin or Hitler, but it shouldn’t have. Compared to the greatest (i. e., biggest selling) popular music group in history, authoritarian leaders were mere amateurs in matters of transforming human consciousness.

Twenty years before Laibach exuberantly “murdered” The Beatles’ songs, Curt McDowell presented the Fab Four dead on the slab. In his painting, all four Beatles have their chests cut open for an autopsy. Their remains are expressive and do not have the look of morgue meat. Paul clutches his abdomen, as though he felt the coroner’s incision. (Or perhaps Linda’s vegetarian cuisine did him in.) John has his arm around Paul, who inclines his head toward John’s. Ringo seems to be sniffing Paul’s armpit, or perhaps he is getting closer so as to be included in John’s embrace. Only George strains to get away, as though the prospect of a group hug was too much for him. McDowell painted this post mortem tribute to The Beatles during his first semester at San Francisco Art Institute, around the time he realized that his true métier was filmmaking.

We know the approximate date of the work because of a pendant painting of a calendar page reading November 1968. During this month, McDowell saw a copy of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s album Two Virgins, which had recently been released in the U. S. The cover featured a photograph of John and Yoko in the nude. Within the mass of John’s untrimmed pubic hair, one can clearly discern his untrimmed penis. McDowell noticed this and revised his painting accordingly. He added a foreskin to John’s penis, but not having seen the other Beatle members, he left them alone. In the painting they appear circumcised.

Born in the region of the United States where circumcision is most common, McDowell may have been unaware that English baby boys are not routinely circumcised unless religious parents insist upon it. He used his own penis as a model for The Beatles’ penises, as can been seen in the photographic studies that McDowell and a friend made in preparation for the painting. This localized gesture of self-portraiture accounts for the curious uniformity of length and width — something extremely unlikely for any four unrelated men — in the painting’s four penises. It hardly seems possible that McDowell, who first came to San Francisco from Indiana in 1965, had not seen or touched a whole variety of foreskins before making this painting. Perhaps he had simply never had sex with Englishmen.

By performing a painterly mutilation of The Beatles’ genitalia, McDowell has unwittingly transformed three of them into Jews. He thus calls attention to the circumcised man closest to the boys, Brian Epstein. Manager, owner of a chain of record shops, master manipulator and mother hen, Epstein is widely regarded as one of the two chief architects of The Beatles’ success, along with George Martin, who produced their records. A depressive, frustrated homosexual with a weakness for rough trade and a mother with the exquisitely improbable name of Queenie, Epstein was a product of his age. Until the last month of his life, he lived the criminalized homosexuality that had been bequeathed to England by that vicious old Queenie herself, Victoria. Reputedly madly in love with John — a love that some say was once consummated unhappily — Epstein experienced a closeness with The Beatles that was necessarily platonic. He could never lounge around naked with “the boys,” feeling John’s arm around him, casually enjoying physical intimacy. In a sense, McDowell’s painting corrects this slight and dispels the homosexual panic by presenting three circumcised men, three Epsteins, who lie with John, each waiting his turn for a hug from him. With open chests, they have exposed their hearts completely to each other in a utopian if lifeless fourgy.

In 1967, Brian Epstein asked an English homosexual of another stripe, Joe Orton, whose plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot had recently scandalized London theatergoers, to write a film vehicle for The Beatles. Orton seemed like a properly subversive choice to sustain the film career of a pop group that had quickly become an institution. A working class kid from Leicester, Orton escaped from provincial council flat hell with a scholarship to RADA, then escaped from school with an older man named Kenneth Halliwell. Not content with the domestic joys to be had in an Islington bed-sit, Orton constantly prowled for sexual hookups around London. Never in the closet, always on the make, Orton was the model for a generation of gay men who would leave homosexuals like Epstein in the dust. That is the myth, anyway. In fact, Orton lied about his age, and was a year older than Epstein. The two of them might even have frequented the same cottages, or public rest rooms, in search of sex. Unfortunately, neither lived to see what followed the decriminalization of homosexuality. The two died within a week of each other in 1967, Epstein by accidental barbiturate overdose, and Orton famously at Halliwell’s hands.

Like the penises in McDowell’s painting, The Beatles in Orton’s screenplay, Up Against It, are almost indistinguishable. Orton didn’t even bother to give them separate names. They act as a team, and at one point, they end up in bed together. Brian Epstein was not amused. To give Orton “notes,” Epstein called him on holiday, while in bed with Halliwell and a couple of Tangiers’ handsomest boys.

Epstein: As I understand it… [The Beatles] are all in bed with each other. No no no no no no.

Orton: Why?

Epstein: Why? Because these are normal, healthy boys.

Orton: I take it they all sleep together.

Epstein: They do not.

Orton: Ooh, but they’re all very pretty. I imagined they just had a good time. Sang, smoked, fucked everything in sight, including each other. I thought that was what success meant.

Epstein: Mr. Orton, success means… well, it means respect for the public. Besides, one of the boys is happily married.

No one could possibly know what, if anything, actually transpired between Orton and Epstein. The dialogue above is from the film Prick Up Your Ears, based upon Alan Bennett’s script, an adaptation of John Lahr’s Orton biography, which was based in turn upon literary agent Margaret Ramsay’s Orton diary typescript, which derived ultimately from the original diary of Joe Orton. The scene as it was imagined for cinema might contain not even one iota of truth. The version that can be substantiated by historical research is blandly prosaic: the Up Against It script was returned without comment. Orton’s response to The Beatles and their manager: “Fuck them.”

The fictionalized scene may be untrue in detail but not in spirit. Paul McCartney once talked about the aborted Orton film project in an interview with Roy Carr:

The reason why we didn’t do Up Against It wasn’t because it was too far out or anything. We didn’t do it because it was gay. We weren’t gay and really that was all there was to it. It was quite simple, really. Brian was gay... and so he and the gay crowd could appreciate it. Now, it wasn’t that we were anti-gay — just that we, The Beatles, weren’t gay.

Paul, who may well hold the record for number of instances of the word “gay” in a single utterance, could simply not stop making himself perfectly clear. Brian Epstein, it seems, was not the villain of the piece after all.

In one of his few large-scale paintings, Curt McDowell managed to accomplish what a modern English dramatist, buckets of Hollywood money, and sadly, the man who loved them most could not accomplish: he got The Beatles to lie down naked together for all the world to see. And he had to kill them to do it.


Published in an edition of 100 to accompany the Curt McDowell exhibition, an uneven dozen broken hearts, at 2nd Floor Projects, San Francisco, February 15, 2009 – March 29, 2009.

I once brought up the topic of Curt McDowell’s films in conversation with an administrator at Art Center College of Design, where I have worked in an adjunct capacity for the last few years. A student had told this administrator that I taught an avant-garde film course, and he asked me if I had shown any of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films. I said no, and he ventured the opinion that Barney had “really raised the bar in experimental filmmaking.” I asked, “In what respect, production values?” He responded, “Yes, but in other ways, too.” Caught a bit off guard by someone skeptical of his latest diktat, he asked what interested me. I mentioned Curt McDowell and offered a brief but explicit précis of his film Loads. My conversational foray left this man temporarily speechless, so I continued to talk about my course. Whatever thoughts crossed the administrator’s mind as his eyes glazed over, it was clear that he was a man who had learned the main lesson of the great “cultural producers” of the era. What mattered in art was not what a marginal character like McDowell had to offer: frisson mixed with a faint hint of nausea, exchanges of bodily fluids, cheap thrills; what truly mattered, even to a guy who had named his masterwork after a testicular muscle, was access to money. If one could see where the money went, in art as in Hollywood movies, then high seriousness and legitimacy would follow. This conversation took place during a boom in the art market, when people at art schools could talk like film industry executives without being laughed at. Perhaps now that the great gaseous bubble of cultural production is getting deflated, another conversation can begin.

A while later, around the time of a precipitous decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, I showed Curt’s films to my avant-garde film class. The students’ reactions, as expressed in their discussions and weekly writing assignments, ranged from the indignant to the unabashedly enthusiastic. A student in the former camp had this to say:

I would be shocked if McDowell wasn’t a sexaholic. I still can’t believe that Curt filmed his sister getting screwed, the thought of it really creeps me out. Also, I think I would be very happy if I never saw another man get raped, or a man receiving a blow job from another man. That kinda rubbed me the wrong way. Oh well, the films we saw this week were pretty cool and I enjoyed them a lot.

I wonder if Curt would have recognized the writer’s attitude, and how many people reacted this way in the 1970s and 80s, when he was around to present his films in person. Curt probably would have been surprised to learn that the writer of the comment was a young person, all of 19 years old. Perhaps Curt would also have been shocked at the new “generation gap” that has arisen between young prudes and their libertine elders.

One of the films on view in my class was Nudes: A Sketchbook (1974). When Curt made it, everyone he knew considered sex a cheap way to have fun rather than a potentially addictive activity. (Is there such a thing as “sex withdrawal”? Do people who suffer from it get delirium tremens or the like?) Regarding the charges of rape and consensual sodomy leveled against Curt, he does seem to take advantage of a few men in the film: while one man shoots a load on his sister, Curt can just about be discerned in the shadows playing with the man’s ass; Curt reenacts groping a hunky young letter carrier who passed out at a wild party he stumbled into; a man, in another charmingly crude reenactment, gets knocked unconscious in a dark passage, then gets his own dark passage explored; a male friend receives Curt’s oral services while perusing a girlie magazine. When I called the bait-and-switch tactic in the last scenario “the oldest trick in the book, a porn film staple,” one student loudly declared that nothing like that had ever happened to him. (A shame.)

Despite the bluster and protest, Nudes: A Sketchbook, as well as the other films I showed, clearly spoke to some need in the students. In keeping with Art Center’s sexual harassment policy, I told the class that anyone offended by the content of Curt’s movies could take flight, but no one did. The student who wrote the comment above, in unconscious imitation of Sarah Palin, mentioned that films of certain activities “kinda rubbed me the wrong way,” but then in a surprising and contradictory concluding sentence admitted, “I enjoyed them a lot.” Either the woman threw this in as a sop to an old, perverted instructor, or it took her pages of prose to get to the five words she really meant.

Curt McDowell had no use for such evasion and disavowal. He arrived in San Francisco from Indiana in the 60s, went looking for what he wanted, and offered no apology whatsoever for getting it. The great George Kuchar was one of many to be ensnared by Curt’s considerable sexual charisma. In the book Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool, George describes his welcome as a new arrival from the East Coast:

The first student I ever laid eyes on was the underground filmmaker Curt McDowell. He was sitting on my desk, wearing cut-off jeans and swinging his bare legs in the stuffy setting. He had on a tee-shirt and woven sandals of straw, looking very much like a big boy with a huge appetite for cinematic knowledge (and for his teacher).

That meeting led to other meetings outside the classroom, and before too long, Curt (the “satyr” as he is called in the book) and George (the “secret pervert” as he calls himself) were a couple. It is hardly surprising, considering the satyr’s appetites, that tears and anguish quickly followed. As George explains, “Curt and I were going together, and perhaps we fondled too many sticks of dynamite for our own good.” This brief summary of their affair leads me to another student comment that is worth noting:

Dear Mr. Kuchar,

I am in love with you. When I say that, I am not implying that sort of intellectual love that goes along with deep admiration for a predecessor’s work. I mean love…. I realize that you are older than I and homosexual. I am not a man, but it is said by enlightened people that true love is unattachment, that because you love someone so much, you want what is best for them, including loving someone other than yourself. I think you, George, would agree with this. I accept my fate. I am miserable, unhappy with unrequited love. I am letting you love whomever you must for your own happiness, thus creating my own misery. The only choice left is to delve into my own work — thus devoting myself to you even more.

This student, echoing and expanding on sentiments expressed in Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool, has summed up George’s dilemma. The traits that draw this woman to her beloved are precisely those that will break her heart, but by taking refuge in art, she can indulge (and redeem) all the wretched, maudlin excesses of misdirected lust.

Curt, the satyr himself, was no mere Lothario counting his conquests. He had his own dramas of unrequited affection, and he returned to them over and over in his films. Perhaps Curt’s films do not approach the grand thwarted passions that pervade his teacher’s works, but they have a raw power in their directness. There is an aching pathos in Curt’s halting delivery of unadorned autobiographical monologues. He is unashamed in his sexual behavior but reluctant to make his account of it. He knows that by telling his tales, he is revealing dark undercurrents in the daily erotic life of a gay man who wants what he can never truly have.

From the evidence of his films, it seems that Curt’s greatest pleasure was in giving straight men pleasure. As George Kuchar memorably put it, Curt enjoyed “lapping up cream filled Ding Dongs.” Never one to shrink from a challenge, Curt loved nothing more than blowing (and rimming) guys who couldn’t care less whether he got off. Curt applied himself to this service with an almost evangelical sense of mission. Today — when young Republicans go to jail on charges of “criminally deviate conduct” for sucking off their sleeping bunkmates — Curt would be called a compulsive fellator, and would gravitate to any number of websites, 12-step groups, or places where recently released convicts congregate. During the 1970s, Curt was a sexual pioneer, making movies about practices that most men preferred to keep quiet, then as now. Curt found his own fun, and most importantly for him as an artist, he also found a number of men who were vain, indifferent, or desperate enough to be filmed while they reached their climax.

Curt McDowell, like Pasolini before him, did not conform to society’s expectations of the abject, straight-chasing homosexual. Curt and Pier Paolo both knew what many men engaging in these sexual games eventually learn: within the surrender of giving pleasure without taking any in return, there is a species of control. The man with the rock hard cock in need of relief thinks he calls the shots, but every moment is staged and directed by the man doing the draining. As the title character of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge confides to her journal:

The sailor who stands against a wall, looking down at the bobbing head of the gobbling queen, regards himself as master of the situation; yet it is the queen (does not that derisive epithet suggest primacy and domination?) who has won the day, extracting from the flesh of the sailor his posterity, the one element in every man which is eternal and (a scientific fact) cellularly resembles not at all the rest of the body. So to the queen goes the ultimate elixir of victory, that which was not meant for him but for the sailor’s wife or girl or simply Woman.

Cineastes from the days of silent cinema to the latest pay-per-view scenes on the internet have treasured the knowledge of this elixir and transformed it into art. PPP, whose oral escapades with the young men of the Friuli lost him his job and his membership in the Communist Party, fled to the slums of Rome, where for years he profited from his obscurity, avidly consuming cruel tales of working class life and rivers of working class spunk. (It’s hard to miss the admiring descriptions of men’s crotches occurring throughout Ragazzi di Vita once the details of Pasolini’s life are known.) Alas, Pier Paolo never got around to directing a cum shot, but there is little doubt that he was capable of imagining one as hilarious and profane as the shot of the devil’s asshole expelling priests at the end of Canterbury Tales.

The cum shot, that staple of porn straight, gay and bi, cannot satisfy the truly devoted cum pig. All that juice spilling onto bellies, butts and faces goes to waste. A memorable, if atypical, scene from the early 90s gay porn video Doin’ Hard Time features a fat, hairy, balding (fully clothed) photographer seducing his model. He devours the model’s cock so avidly that when the magnificent youth finally ejaculates, only a thin white foam limning the greedy queen’s mouth is visible. Such a mistake was not allowed to occur again in the work of Latino Fan Club director Brian Brennan. The scene reminds us of a central contraction in filming sex: what feels (and tastes) good does not necessarily “read” on camera. In a recurring shot in Loads, Curt plays with this contradiction as he fellates one of his tricks. Curt nibbles on the head of a man’s cock, waiting for it to erupt, and even though his eyes are closed, his hesitation seems to indicate a thought. He asks himself, do I coax this cock to shoot a wad on my face, or do I just get things over with and take it all down my throat? The answer, after some teasing, is the one that makes the most sense for the film. The suspense is broken at last by a thick line of semen spurting over Curt’s nose and forehead.

Coitus that plays well and the moment that is camera-ready have won out in the present era of immediately accessible porn. Boys who have been watching money shots in movies for several years before their first real, physical sex act wouldn’t think of ejaculating during intromission. This is what Larry Clark discovered in the course of interviewing young men in Impaled, his contribution to the art/porn film Destricted. A band of guys from the Inland Empire, some aspiring porn actors and others just up for a good time, tell Clark that they imitate what they have seen since childhood: shaved pubic hair, lots of tattoos, and a preference for shooting cum on (rather than in) their partners. If a few of them have tasted semen, they aren’t admitting it to Clark, the director who has taken an interest and might make them stars. Only an old pro, actress Nancy Vee, cops to her pleasure in lapping up seed. She makes Daniel, the MILF-loving male talent of the movie, groan in ecstasy, but when the climactic moment arrives, we get to see very little spunk. Nancy, with a fiendish grin, admits, “I swallowed most of it.” She chuckles because she has done a naughty thing, but she knows that she can get away with it. Impaled is a documentary, and the cum shot is not the dramatic and economic necessity that it would be in a real porn movie.

During the late 1970s, another MILF had her say about swallowing. Citrus spokesperson and free-lance moral entrepreneur Anita Bryant recognized a threat in semen consumption, which she understood to be a kind of cannibalism. “The male sperm” as she put it, is the essence of life with the greatest concentration of blood in the body. In her 1978 Playboy interview she decried the vampiric sin of drinking cum. Pasolini did not live long enough to read this condemnation of his favorite pastime, so we are deprived of the pithy response he no doubt would have made in the pages of Corriere della Sera; but gay men in San Francisco pounced with relish upon new pronouncements from this Baptist virago. Curt McDowell’s rejoinder to Bryant’s pseudo-medical rationale for gay-bashing came in the form of the film Loads. Made in 1980, Loads followed the success of the “Save Our Children” campaign but preceded the first wave of AIDS panic. In that transitional moment, around the time the jovial fascism of Ronald Reagan got him elected president by a landslide, it was still possible to make a case for cum guzzling. Curt never wrote a manifesto extolling the beneficial effects of drinking cum on filmmaking. He put his convictions into practice, and the results inspire fascination, discomfort, and admiration (in almost equal measure) in contemporary audiences. This polarizing effect is strongest among those spectators whose childhood president was Reagan, the man who told us that big city perverts were really some sort of vermin to be ignored, demonized, even killed. Like all skillful grifters, he did it with a smile on his face.

In the days when The Rocky Horror Picture Show played every weekend in major American cities, eager spectators/participants would shout the question, “What’s your favorite high protein drink?” and from the film, Frank N. Furter would answer, “Come!” Now that swallowing during oral sex hovers between the categories of “possibly unsafe” and “unsafe” sexual activity, and many men must perform the calculation of how many hours ago they brushed their teeth before performing fellatio, jokes about the nutritional value of jism tend to fall flat. The juice extracted from so many anonymous cocks can no longer serve as a rejuvenating force for cinema, at least outside the sequestered world of porn. Perhaps the lack of semen swallowing among high-profile directors is the real reason movies are so anemic these days. No matter how much liver these boys eat (or how much money they have access to) their silly macho pablum fails to exude any real energy. To take only one example among many, it is impossible to imagine Michael Bay swallowing another man’s cum. In his office decorated with pictures of his most famous ejaculations — movie explosions — Bay can probably muster little more than masturbating and licking a watery load from his fist after an afternoon of screaming into a megaphone, jettisoning it to the ground, then starting all over again with a new megaphone. The throat that barks can never get the soothing balm that all those grips and gaffers have percolating inside their bulging pants. The man who blew up Alcatraz doesn’t have the goods to direct The Gospel According to Matthew, and if he ever saw Loads in the course of his education, what he took from the experience has been buried too deep to benefit his filmmaking. Michael Bay attended Art Center, but he graduated before I arrived to teach there. If he had swung his bare legs in my direction, I doubt I would have given him so much as a second look.

Odires Mlászho

Published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, December 24, 2008.

At São Paulo’s Galeria Vermelho this fall, I saw for the first time the sexy and cerebral, disciplined and dissipated work of Odires Mlászho. He juxtaposes ordinary mortal faces and Roman portrait sculptures with geometric rigor in his collage series A Fossil Dig Full of Hooks. He cunningly cements pages of reference books together in his sculpture Enciclopédia Britânica. His most powerful works (a series called Butchers and Master Apprentices) involve elaborate collage rearrangements of male nudes that manage to look at once disemboweled and bloodless. Diaphanous yet strong, a body becomes a deconstruction of a flesh-colored Herman Miller lamp.

Though this piece is miniscule and hardly does justice to Mlászho’s work, I have included it to draw attention to an artist who has not yet been exhibited in North America.