The Club Jewel Box Collection
Inspired by one of Miami’s earliest queer spaces, CLUB JEWEL BOX presented the intersection of cinema, performance, and poetry by mimicking the way that queer people cruises through spaces, embracing looks and longing glances over touch and conversation.
Below is a collection of pieces written by Caden Mark Gardner for a program featured at the event, each covering one of the films shown. While these were exclusively in the program, we have now made them available alongside his piece on Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks entitled SEAMEN / SEE MEN / SEMEN.
“I wanted to glorify the American male the way Ziegfeld glorified the American girl,” Pink Narcissus director James Bidgood told an interviewer in 2016 about his photography of the male physique. His 1971 film achieves that as an outrageous, sensual, beautiful, gay fantasia that for years was a subject of mystery. Due to Bidgood’s years-long labor of love taken away by the project’s financiers unfinished, Pink Narcissus was credited as ‘Anonymous’. The film was an underground sensation, influential to many in fashion and photography, while Bidgood went for years without credit (Pink Narcissus to date is his only film that ever released).
Owing to MGM musicals, Kenneth Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon (Anger among the artists mistakenly credited for directing Pink Narcissus), and Powell & Pressburger’s blurring of reality and the fantastical with The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann, Pink Narcissus re-appropriates and reclaims decades and centuries of mythology and masculine imagery for its gay male hustler named Pan (played by model Bobby Kendall), whose inner world within his apartment becomes a boundless frontier of his sexual desires and dreams.
Every texture and detail in Pink Narcissus is presented with an attentive gaze. Bidgood, who did everything on the film from set designs to costumes to makeup, creates a varied set of soft-core tableaux occupied by beautiful male bodies that liberates the mind and invites desire. A caress of a grass straw over a nipple is just as painstakingly labored over and perfected as recreating the New York City streets for Pan and the other gigolos.
Pink Narcissus presents the bittersweet respite against the realities of gay men for the period. Pan is confined to express and dream in his cramped apartment. But in dreams, Pan walks among these worlds and stations as slave, as king, as prey, as object, and with an identity who could construct and shape-shift. Dreams gave him freedom, mobility, and a place to be.
Isaac Julien’s Looking For Langston is an anachronistic, sumptuous, alternative history exploration of the Harlem Renaissance era, African-American poet Langston Hughes’ sexuality. The codification that Hughes used his art to express his same-sex desires is presented by Julien, a visual artist whose subjects have included Frantz Fanon and Derek Jarman among others, in a meditative manner of the compromise between public and private selves, in Hughes’ case, for a doubly oppressed minority.
Made at the height of the AIDS crisis (which took the lives of many actors seen in this film), Looking for Langston is a celebration of gay heroes who have always been present, even when such facts as sexuality were secrets or unacknowledged by the public. Julien intersperses archival footage of the real Langston Hughes with monochrome black-and-white shot recreations and re-imaginations of a Harlem, akin to David Fincher’s Madonna videos but with a Robert Mapplethorpe-like queer gaze on the male body, that allowed for same-sex love and desire to be openly expressed for Hughes and other men.
Dedicated to fellow African-American icon and homosexual James Baldwin, the film is mainly about black identity and gay identity and those who stand in both of those worlds being in such precarious positions. This is shown and heard through the works of Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Hilton Als, all of which are spoken throughout the film. The spoken words do not undercut the desired, dream-like beauty of these black men that Julien presents, but these fantasies are never an illusion or substitute of reality. Julien’s selection of words are crucial and critical, such as reusing Hughes’ “When The Negro Was in Vogue”, acknowledging the rise of artists—black, gay, or both—due to white sophisticates, who had limited understanding and, at best, temporary attention to devote to these artists’ concerns and experiences.
Looking for Langston is revisionist in seeking an imagined, alternative life of its subject and also showing how shaped history involved erasing the identity of Hughes and many other artists. In some circles, Hughes’ sexuality, despite much of his work coded in homosexual desire, is presented with a question mark. Looking for Langston reclaims the private world of Hughes and amid giving tribute of love, does force communities that engaged and constructed such erasure to be confronted with Hughes’ truth.
Andy Warhol was a household name for his post-modern disruption and for the grip he would ultimately have on popular culture and art in the latter 20th century. Most will know him for his repurposing of Campbell’s soup cans as pop art prints or celebrity portraits or his ties to the rock group The Velvet Underground. But his most daring, audacious, and controversial works lied in filmmaking. Endurance films like Sleep and Empire became infamous for their lengths and lack of narrative but Blow Job was Warhol’s most eye-catching title (for good reason) of his underground films. Blow Job is a title that is not so much misleading for what the film is as much as misdirection for audience anticipation.
There is oral sex happening, but it is not seen. Only seen is the reaction from the young man receiving the oral sex, reportedly serviced by five different men during filming. Call it an experiment or a prank, Blow Job presents the ecstasy, voyeurism, limitations, and mundane experiences that this specific pleasure affords. The receiver, actor DeVeren Bookwalter, often shows awareness of being filmed but minutes later does his best to shift to being in the moment, loosening up and ignoring the camera. Some of the time his attention turns towards the unseen figures servicing him and other times, his general positions within the frame shifts out of seeking comfort or arousal from the act, looking into space above his eye-line or closing his eyes. Boredom even hits, with Bookwalter lighting up a cigarette to occupy himself, his pleasure not always in his control or elusive for short periods of time.
The unseen men performing the acts in Blow Job arguably forces the viewer to rely on Warhol’s own gay sexual orientation and knowledge of later purported discussions in the making of the film that explicitly called for male on male sexual acts by Warhol himself to gender the unseen. The censored explicitness by Warhol, even as the response of the act is shown, feels right in comparison and contrast to postwar American norms that coded and censored the explicitness of heterosexuality in the media and within the home, forcing it into the shadows. Presenting just one part of gay fellatio as Blow Job does even when the homosexuality is not explicitly presented was radical for its time. The expression of something as natural as a sex act—its highs and repetitions both presented—and Warhol’s invitation to audiences to be observers fully socializes any viewer to be invested into just watching somebody’s pleasure unfold. This is what makes Blow Job a viewing privilege decades later.
Same-sex relationships and pleasure on-screen can on occasion make the audience question who is behind the camera in relation to what they are seeing in front of the camera. This is especially true of same-sex relationships of women portrayed on-screen. The instances when men are behind the camera for such works get scrutinized and criticized, often accusations of male titillation being prioritized over female titillation despite the actions on-screen not involving those men as actors. The straight male gaze can intrude on such works.
Cleo Uebelmann’s Mano Destra (Italian for ‘right hand’)—called out by film scholar B. Ruby Rich in her 1992 New Queer Cinema essay which dubbed the film worthy of ‘instant cult status’—is a radical respite to such pitfalls. The film presents fully-realized BDSM, made both abstract and titillating with Uebelmann (then 22 years old when she made it) inserting herself as the dominatrix, in full control of what is on-screen and complete control of how her body, her submissive partner’s body, and the spaces on which they engage in their acts, are portrayed to the viewer.
Uebelmann, donning a short bob haircut, wears leather lingerie and a bold leather jacket, often breaking the fourth wall, staring into the camera, having the viewer’s full attention. Her posture while sitting on a chair is asserting dominance. She can look askance and away from the camera, but her power is unquestionable. The images of her submissive partner are fascinating; there is never quite a full look of the woman’s face and her being tied and knotted up are arguably desexualized. Often there are shots her adjusting being tied up in suspension, trying to find a more comfortable position.
The outside world is acknowledged in exterior shots of bourgeois cityscapes and audio of groups of people moving about that play over these visuals of bondage. There is no dialogue but instead, the sounds of the all-female rock group called Vinyl playing that underlines the sensuality of these acts of bondage, submission, and domination that Uebelmann inserts between silence and the audio of people.
What makes Mano Destra most fascinating is the meta-quality of her dominatrix on-screen persona and her authorship of the work as director that puts the audience in the position of having to submit to her choices and presentation in sound and image. Everyone has a role to play.
It is hard to not take note that some of the earliest queer visual artists and artists responsible for some of the earliest queer works (even if they themselves were not queer) was that many of them were quite young when they made the bold and brazen decision to rebel against societal norms. Among the youngest was Barbara Rubin, a girl from Queens who had spent time at a Connecticut sanitarium before being part of the New York underground film scene with Jonas Mekas’ The Film-Makers’ Cooperative in Manhattan. Rubin gets obscured by history and often is framed at most being connected to many more widely recognized figures and events. She is credited as being the trusted confidante to Andy Warhol who convinced him to check out The Velvet Underground in Café Bizarre and legend had it she introduced Bob Dylan and (her future lover) Allen Ginsberg to each other, to name a few ways in how she is known. But at the age of 18, with Mekas’ camera, Barbara Rubin would make Christmas on Earth, one of the most sexually explicit avant-garde films ever made.
Taking its title from Rimbaud’s A Season from Hell (the original working title was Cocks and Cunts), Christmas on Earth presents a ritualized orgy between men and women, with both heterosexual and homosexual free love in an apartment with women in dayglo and masked men made up like Greek gods, all of them naked and into each other. The explicitness was attention grabbing enough but Rubin’s instructions for Christmas on Earth specified superimposition of one smaller image reel over another reel (Rubin herself would bend these rules in her various presentations of the film) and a live radio soundtrack, often being the clean, polished, 1960s American pop giving the film an air of irony in the contrasts of sound of image. Interpersonal boundaries are broken in front of the camera and in presentation of these bodies that tip into the surreal with different color filters that take on lava lamp effect on the frame and extreme close-ups of these movements of parts in the sexual and non-sexual actions.
The explicitness in Christmas on Earth can alternate in feeling clinical and removed to highly intimate and sensual, if simply pornographic, for the viewer. Arguably, Christmas on Earth can work best for the viewer as a cultural conduit, a channel between the beat generation poets and artists of dirty New York that were fading around 1963 to what would be the psychedelic, Dionysian, counter-cultural free-love movement that closed the decade out west in California. But it would be reductive to place Rubin’s film as a mere in-between. Christmas on Earth is truly, radically unique to experience and witness. Mekas would describe his friend and her film as this, “As the film goes, image after image, the most private territories of the body are laid open for us. The first shock changes into silence then is transposed into amazement…. A syllogism: Barbara Rubin has no shame; angels have no shame; Barbara Rubin is an angel.”
Caden Mark Gardner is a freelance film writer based in Schenectady, NY. He is collaborating with fellow film critic Willow Maclay on the history of depiction and representation of transgender people in film for an upcoming book called Corpses, Fools, & Monsters: An Examination of Transgender Cinema.