Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Bike Boy

Published in Andy Warhol Filmmaker. Edited by Astrid Johanna Ofner. (Vienna: Austrian Film Museum, 2005) pp. 72-75.


In the late 1960’s, director Tom De Simone expressed his frustration that the puritanical American film industry consigned any movie showing a naked man to porno theaters, and that the only person who could escape that treatment was Andy Warhol. Unlike other filmmakers with an interest in male nudes, who sold their work to distributors of exploitation films, stopped making films altogether rather than produce hardcore material, or (like De Simone) became assimilated into the world of corporate pornography, Warhol maintained his stature in the art world and retained ownership of his movies, even while he showed them in fairly disreputable theaters.

During Warhol’s career as a director, he generally spent more money on his films than he was able to make in profits from their exhibition. Encouraged by the relative financial success of The Chelsea Girls, he embarked on a series of “sexploitation” films. These last films Warhol directed had a more commercial approach. Without the formal rigor of the early silent films or the Brechtian performances of the talkies scripted by Ronald Tavel, the sexploitation films were not taken very seriously at the time of their first release, except by the forces of reaction. (Confidential ran a cover story with the headline, “Coming: Homosexual Action Movies” accompanied by a still from Bike Boy.) Warhol’s sexploitation films had runs at the Hudson Theater, a Times Square grindhouse, and they featured, or at least promised, images of naked men. The habitual patrons of sex cinemas didn’t know quite what to make of these movies, and it’s no wonder. They are complex and ambitious inversions of the sexploitation formula.

Sexploitation films show nudity or sexual images, but not actual coitus, under the pretext of social commentary. Narration endorses an official message, (e. g., nudism is healthy, venereal disease can be prevented, perversion is a threat to society, big cities are sites of clandestine sexual subcultures,) while images offer titillation and provide glimpses of a world that mainstream cinema rarely acknowledges. Some of the directors specializing in this form of entertainment became rather famous – David Friedman, Doris Wishman, and Andy Milligan, among others – while most labored in obscurity. A few went to prison for their trouble, including the Athletic Model Guild’s Bob Mizer, whose films and photos of young men wrestling and playing around were available by mail order from 1951 until his death in 1992. A favorite place for Mizer’s shoots was the shower. In early works, a strategically placed washcloth covered genitals; in later ones, this precaution was not necessary.

Bike Boy begins with a sequence of “bikie” Joe Spencer taking a shower. He is naked, and his flesh glows against the black tile in the background of the shot. He does nothing that a U. S. court would consider sexual. In the eleven minute duration of a 400-foot roll of 16mm film, he washes himself, dries himself, dresses, and combs his hair. He stares at the camera in the last minute before the roll of film ends. With his black t-shirt and unfashionably slicked hair, Joe Spencer bears a resemblance to Warhol’s former companion Philip Fagan, the subject of over 100 screen tests between November 1964 and February 1965.

Warhol constructed his films from industrial units, entire rolls of 16mm film in lengths of 100 feet, 400 feet or 1200 feet, almost always used intact in the final product. Within these uninterrupted strips of negative, there can be many shots. For instance, in Bike Boy, Warhol stopped the camera frequently during scenes to reframe the shot, to direct the actors, or to cut out dead time. When the camera stops, it makes a flash frame on the image track and (if dialogue is being spoken) a bleep on the sound track, creating what has been called a strobe cut. This editing in the camera can have a kaleidoscopic effect, and in Bike Boy, there are many short passages encompassing a multitude of views and serving as punctuation or transition.

The second scene of Bike Boy takes place in a Greenwich Village men’s wear boutique called The Town Squire. After a flurry of brief establishing shots, the camera comes to rest on dressing cubicles with their curtains open. Two sales clerks, who are not seen speaking until later, discuss their customers in unflattering terms. Their dialogue functions as voice-over, but it is unclear whether they are referring to the men trying on clothes. Their cries of “Can you imagine?” suggest a combination of mock horror and prurient interest, not unlike the reactions of sexploitation films’ spectators. While they mouth their disapproval at the excesses of the flower children, they gleefully discuss installing a hidden camera in the store’s dressing room, discovering a service called “Dial a Deviant” from men’s room graffiti, and proposing a film entitled “Transparent Transvestite.” The triptych of disrobing customers includes René Ricard, whose smooth, thin ass provides a contrast to the hairy, meaty one of Joe Spencer. The sheepish Ricard rejects a number of swimsuits and pairs of trousers as too shameless. He shows that he knows more than he lets on when a clerk says, “You’d be surprised what you can get away with in San Francisco,” and Ricard responds, “You don’t have to tell me.” The clerk is taken aback: “Oh.” He repeats this exclamation a few octaves higher when he measures the inseam of Joe Spencer’s jeans. Joe has a few moments of impatience as members of The Town Squire’s staff pour themselves all over him, but he generally receives their attentions with good humor, even when they douse him with a dozen sample sprays of cologne. At a particularly intimate moment involving a pair of underwear, a clerk advises Joe to “stretch into it” and suggests that he “digs the whole scene,” but Joe does not rise to the provocation. Though subsequent scenes in the film may suggest otherwise, he says, “I ain’t prejudiced.” A clerk wearing a blousy, flowered shirt says, “That’s about all we have in torture,” and this is Joe Spencer’s cue to move to another location.

He next finds himself in a flower shop with Ed Hood, a star of My Hustler. Hood plays a biker impersonating a florist. The ruse fools no one. Joe holds a newspaper, its headline recalling paintings Warhol made earlier in his career. Instead of a plane crash or a celebrity wedding, this headline announces the assassination of George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party. This news item sparks no conversation, but later it is revealed that Joe has a swastika tattoo on his arm. Hood’s attempts to engage Joe on the subject of biker rituals only annoy him. Hood remains passive and slightly dazed when Joe threatens him with an improbable decapitation by shotgun fire. Two women come into the shop. A small masculine woman with a large sore on her lip sits on Joe’s lap. Brigid Berlin buys flowers, and when she is out of earshot, Hood asks if Joe would be interested in having sex with her. Joe snorts, “That horse?!” The reference to farm animals inspires Joe’s most animated discourse, an explanation of the best way to fuck a sheep.

From the flower shop, Joe proceeds to a cramped kitchen shown in a slightly canted frame. Here Ingrid Superstar does her best to seduce Joe, but he never even looks at her. Frenetic hair brushing, garish eye makeup, a paisley dress arranged to bare her slip and breasts, and a truly extraordinary monologue do not serve to interest Joe, who looks away, smokes, poses, and scratches himself. A big-boned girl with an asymmetrical mouth, Ingrid has a certain charm and acquits herself courageously as one of the rejected. She fills her screen time by reciting vast lists of food items. Her odd pronunciation of the word “vegetable,” with every syllable enunciated, is unforgettable. Ingrid was a second-string superstar – as her name suggests, she was always trying too hard – but her sing-song rant assumes an incantatory power.

Anne Wehrer, like Joe making her only appearance in a Warhol film, chats him up in a scene even more barren and claustrophobic than the one in Ingrid’s kitchen. There is a single prop: a Coke bottle, another Warhol icon derived from the paintings. Aside from the old-fashioned prop, the scene has a curiously timeless aspect. The florid attire of characters in the previous scenes looks dated, but Anne (a platinum blonde in a black turtleneck) and Joe (a greaser in black t-shirt and jeans) wear what would become uniforms for generations of urban hipsters. Like the potential benefactors pursuing Paul America in My Hustler, Wehrer comes off as a pushy cheapskate. She wants to spend an evening with Joe, but she balks at spending ten dollars (in New York City, of all places.) Back in her home town of Detroit, Anne Wehrer was Iggy Pop’s patroness, and she co-authored his story of The Stooges, a book called I Need More. The title certainly applies to her scene with Joe Spencer. Joe twists the Coke bottle in his hands as plans for a date turn into elaborate negotiations. In his exasperation, he looks up as though seeking divine intervention to put an end to the tiresome business.

Joe’s deliverance from the scene lands him in another fresh hell, the speed-freak apartment of Brigid Berlin. The conversation begins with Joe asking, “What makes you think I’m a faggot?” Brigid’s reply, “because you come on so straight,” sums up the paradoxical position she holds throughout the scene: the absence of stereotypical signs of homosexuality proves that Joe is gay, a “butch queen” or “leather lady.” Brigid reclines on a bed in the lap of her husband, who says nothing and eventually leaves to beat off with an unseen Ondine in the bathroom. The contradiction of appearances and behavior – married men having sex with other men and masculine bikers “getting up the ass for hours” – sends Joe into a rage. For the first time in the movie, Joe’s threats of physical violence seem substantial.

At an especially tense moment, Joe tells Brigid that she has the face of a dyke. She responds by asking Warhol to turn the camera off. She counts on her complicity with the director to save her from this unpleasantness, but the camera continues to roll. The two exchange insults in a state of mutual incomprehension. Brigid Berlin, a. k. a. Brigid Polk, amphetamine queen, heiress, and fag hag, inhabits a world completely different from Joe Spencer’s. They know no one in common, and possible points of contact through sex and drugs simply don’t exist. Joe tells bad jokes and slaps Brigid when she doesn’t understand them; for her part, Brigid can do little but make fun of Joe’s working class Boston accent. Rebellion against her parents made Brigid a temporary bohemian, but Joe passes through the New York scene even more briefly. As soon as his broken down motorcycle gets repaired, he will return to his own subculture and to the obscurity from whence he came.

During the entire last reel of the film, Joe converses with Viva on a couch, (another Warhol icon, this one from his films rather than from his paintings.) Joe tells the story of his travels and his dissatisfaction with New York. By way of introduction, Viva announces, “I’m trying to be a hippie.” Joe criticizes Viva’s appearance, which is not so much hippie as goth avant la lettre. Viva also criticizes Joe’s appearance, especially the swastika tattoo he claims not to remember getting. The swastika is bordered by the words “Born to Lose,” and this prompts Viva’s succinct analysis of capitalism: “There’s more losers than winners. That’s what makes them winners.” Joe answers that without losers the economy wouldn’t function, more or less proving Viva’s point.

Bike Boy features Viva in her first acting role to reach an audience. (The Loves of Ondine was shot earlier, but premiered later.) With her bony, patrician profile, sly wit, and languid sophistication, Viva plays a character that one could almost call new: a politically engaged masochist. There are precedents for this figure – Frances Dee exclaims with an almost bug-eyed enthusiasm, “People you know are guilty of everything!” to her bail bondsman boyfriend in Rowland Brown’s Blood Money; Claire Trevor, a nice girl with a secret, finds herself attracted to pretty, sociopathic Lawrence Tierney in Robert Wise’s Born to Kill – but in a sense Viva takes her role much further without even leaving the couch. Viva is forthright in her intentions: “Every once in a while I like to go out and pick up a man. It alleviates the boredom.” She asks about Hell’s Angels’ gang bangs, and when Joe pleads ignorance, she asks incredulously, “They never confessed to you the intimate details of their sexual lives?”

Somehow Viva’s charm and physical beauty blind Joe to the fact that he is being mocked far more thoroughly than he was at the hands of Brigid Berlin. Viva challenges him to fuck her on a motorcycle going 60 miles per hour; the prospect of sex with Viva pleases him so much that he goes along with the joke. Viva gives Joe kissing lessons, and later they undress. When at last they are both naked, Viva lies on the couch like a foreshortened Rokeby Venus, and Joe stands over her exposing his muscular backside to the camera. There is no reverse shot. The audience does not get to see what Viva sees – Joe’s penis – but members of the film crew can’t resist taking a peak. A few times, a door in the background of the shot opens briefly and shuts again. Aside from the briefest of flashes during the shower sequence, there is no cock in this film, nor is there any sexual intercourse. The consummation achieved in Warhol’s final work as a director, Blue Movie, does not occur. The film runs out before Joe and Viva get a chance to do more than kiss.

Bike Boy enacts a scenario of an attractive, “unspoiled” working class naïf interacting with members of the “in crowd.” Through repetition this scenario assumes the status of an archetype. The earnest bumpkin who can’t talk properly and doesn’t know the rules of the game makes his way through the ethereal bohemian reaches of New York’s class society. He is an object of desire, but he is constantly reminded of his place in the world by the people who desire him. He is the subject of the film, a bike boy, but he remains opaque and uncommunicative. His foils are the ones who truly reveal themselves for Warhol’s camera. None of these people by themselves have much power, yet they must exert what little they have over an outsider. Promoted as a sexploitation film, Bike Boy may have promised to provide sex under the guise of social commentary, but it really succeeds in conducting a sort of social experiment under the pretext of a sex comedy. In the last lines of the film, Joe reveals that he may know the seriousness of this endeavor after all. Viva laughs, and Joe asks her why. She answers, “I’m just laughing because you’re so funny.” Joe replies, “Funny? I ain’t funny.”