Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A. J. Rose, Jr. | Penis / 1965 || The Iceberg Video Guy | The 55+ Year Old Lost Film NOW FOUND / 2020

one more for the road

by Douglas Messerli

 A.J. Rose, Jr. (writer and director) Penis / 1965

The Iceberg Video Guy (writer and host) The 55+ Year Old Lost Film NOW FOUND / 2020

The Internet Movie Data Base of Films and Movie Professionals describes—still as of the date I am writing this piece—A. J. Rose Jr.’s 1965 19.24-minute short as a “movie about a man’s manhood is endangered [sic]. He must rob enough banks as to where he has enough money to get a genital reconstruction surgery.” The IMDb entry describes it as being 45 minutes in length.

    No one apparently ever bothered to check whether this rather incoherent description was actually correct since for over 55 years the film has apparently been lost. It was first mentioned in the AFI American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films 1961-1970 under the title Penis. Obviously that title roused the interest of several individuals who sought it out—without success.      

     In 2020 the young Asian-American host of the YouTube site “Iceberg Video”—on which he attempts to uncover information about unusual and unknown videos (including games), films, and documents—called the AFI to ask about it, only to be told that they no longer catalogue “sex films,” and accordingly no longer have a copy. The general consensus, evidently, was that the film was a work of pornography of some kind.

    Someone else, trying to track down the film by the IMDb entry found that the description actually matched another movie titled Percy from 1971, directed by Ralph Thomas. That entry reads: “Edwin Antony (Hywel Bennett) is emasculated in an accident which kills a young philanderer. Doctors successfully replace his member with that of the dead man, but refuse to tell him the full story of the organ's origin. So Edwin begins a search which takes him to the philanderer's wife—and also to his many, many girlfriends...”

    Having mentioned the disappearance of the film on his “Iceberg Video” blog, the site’s host heard from an individual named Maurice Jones who reported that he had sought out the distributor of the film, Film-Maker’s Cooperative, to see if they still held the distribution rights for the lost work. They responded that it was still in their files and might be rented for $100, but since no one had ever asked for the film, they weren’t sure whether the copy still existed.

    Jones evidently took a chance and sent off the payment. The movie titled Penis by Rose that arrived in the mail  was not at all a porno flick nor an adult “sex film” but was a silent, black-and-white experimental work of cinema that is quite fascinating.

    The “Iceberg Video” host—known simply as the “Iceberg Guy” (although his letter box code is Zelcher20 and the videos he posts are under the rubric of Zelcher Productions—went on to show several scenes from the rediscovered Penis and to interpret the work’s meaning.

     Interestingly, this savvy kid did perceive some of the film’s art house influences, including Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929).  Through the evidence provided in the opening scene of a long heterosexual kiss and the following scenes of a tortured young man visiting a decaying cathedral in which he recalls a mass in which he evidently attended the priest as an altar boy; a later scene in a museum; another in a laundromat in which each of the washing machines is named after a woman; a skit in which a naked man makes love and “fucks” an army poster (“I Want You.” U.S. Army”); and the final scene in which the woman the man was first kissing delivers him up a gift—the young commentator was able to determine that the film concerned the man’s struggle with his homosexuality.

     The “Iceberg Guy,” however, interpreted the film as having a rather tragic ending. Since what the woman delivers the man at the end of the film is a penis, which he accepts and stuffs back into his pants, this critic interpreted it as a final acceptance, despite his desires, of normalcy. Since gay males were often seen not fully being men, he argues, by accepting the gift of the penis, he has restored himself to manhood defined by the standard heterosexual definition of what it means to be a male in our society.

     Our young analyst also provides a second possible meaning. Since in the laundromat the machines have been given female names, perhaps the man is wondering why they can be named but not he. Accordingly, he may be seeking to become transsexual which means the gift and its acceptance suggests an equally sad ending since he has apparently given up his attempt to redefine himself as a woman.

     I applaud these interpretive efforts, as wrong-headed as I think they are. In my reading this lovely small cinema masterwork is actually a quite comic vision of the standard “coming out” tale, bearing, I argue, the kind of relationship with that genre as George Coe and Anthony Lover’s satiric film De Düva: The Dove (1968) does to the films of Ingmar Bergman.

     To prove my point, let me just recount the scenes of the entire film (now available on-line on The Internet Archive

     The film begins with the long heterosexual kiss between the film’s hero and what later becomes evident is his girlfriend. The word Penis placed upon an image of erotic Indian art, a male with an erect penis and a woman with bared breasts appears, announces the title. But the very next moment the screen displays the closed door of a safe, with, soon after, a hand reaching from outside the frame to deposit a dime, as if it were the kind of locker in which one keeps possessions in a bus station or gym. The hand is waved back and forth almost as if signifying that some magic trick were involved.

     The door opens to reveal the heads of marching C.O.R.E. protestors demanding “Freedom Now.” Although C.O.R.E. (the Congress of Racial Equality) is perhaps best remembered for their protests against racial segregation, they also fought, according to their stated principles, for gender equality, freedom of religious belief, social equality, and for open expression of sexual orientation.

     The very next scene shows a priest, other adult officiates, and altar boys all deeply genuflecting at the altar. In fact, the gesture is repeated in several following scenes and young altar boys, after the service, genuflect to the cross, lain on of the floor, several times repeated as in a loop tape. Even this first time at the main altar the gesture is repeated in quick succession seven times.

      There is a quick frame of a young boy, obviously in pain, with a bandage winding from his head to his jaw. Apparently, he has suffered an accident, a childhood case of mumps, or perhaps a tooth extraction. Perhaps his wisdom teeth have been removed, allowing him to move ahead without the “wise” clerical beliefs of the church.

       If nothing else this connects the individual with the general scene of the several altar boys in the previous frames.

      In the next scene the cathedral is completely in decay, plaster falling from the walls, pews overturned, dust settling upon the entire shell of the former place of worship. Obviously the role that religion once played in this community has been abandoned. And the man, who looks like the figure from the first scene of the kiss, who enters from out of the frame to walk up an outside aisle, is visiting the church in memory of it, likely representing his role as one of the altar boys since in the very next instant we return to the priest holding up an embellished cross before several kneeling altar boys, who rise and continue in procession. With the alteration of the image of lone man in the destroyed church and further scenes of the priest and altar boys we are quite obviously made to make the connection between the two.

      Intentionally, almost comically given the looping of some fragments, the director makes no attempt to be subtle about the relationship of this man’s past to his present. The church which was a large part of his childhood has now fallen into disarray, not only physically we perceive, but psychologically. Its significance is not only diminished but possibly, since we now know how many hundreds of such altar boys were sexually abused, part of the reason the now lone congregant has lost his faith.

     The next scene is a direct quote of two film sequences based on dreams. The man is now seen  pulling a small wooden broken-down handcart, chains around his neck holding what look to be heavy round lodestones, the cart hooked up to a dead dog which trails behind, leading him in a direction he cannot resist.

     This an obvious reference to Buñuel and Dalí’s young man in Un Chien Andalou who we witness chained to engraved tablets of the Ten Commandments, while he pulls behind him two grand pianos each with a dead donkey upon them followed up with two religious seminarians—the burdens of his religious and cultural past. The animals are different from Rose’s film only in their braying stubbornness as opposed to his beast’s growls warning of potential bites. In Penis the man is obviously in a used motor parts lot, the sign in full reading “All types of trucks, cabs and bodies,” with the camera focusing particularly on the worlds “types” and “bodies,” referencing both gender and sex. 

     This scene, particularly when the cart becomes stuck in a rut out of which he struggles to pull it before proceeding on his perilous path also references Ingmar Bergman’s hearse in the dream sequence early in The Wild Strawberries, and there is a feeling in this scene of the deserted city of Bergman’s work.

     Our silent hero is now in a museum staring up at a sculpture whose tormented face the camera lingers on. The “Iceberg Video Guy” admitted he could not recognize the work of art and sought help in identifying it. I believe our gentleman friend is enjoying a day off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art studying Auguste Rodin’s Adam cast in 1910. Our young man is clearly an admirer of the male body.

     In the very next seen the man, sitting crunched up on a small bench, seems almost as tormented as Adam. But in this case it’s a comical torment, as we waits in a laundromat for his clothes to finish their cycle. As the video critic observed the washing machines each have a handwritten name upon them, in order of appearance, Mary, Arleen, Debbie, Cindy, Jill, Lindy, Rose, Nancy—the camera resting on that name for some time as the man blows cigarette smoke toward the name that also means in certain heterosexual circles a queer or faggot, a Nancy-boy—and finally, Betty. Rather than hinting at his gender preference, I suggest that the director is here moving our hero into the gay camp world of the time, when gay men identified their friends with female names, a fact made even more apparent when we glimpse that all of these feminine sobriquets are also designated Speed Queens, the manufacturer of the washers—most certainly hyped-up fairies.

     If we need any evidence that this young man is actually afraid of the female sex, we simply have to watch him walk through Times Square where the gigantic movie marquees bombard us with horrifying images of the female sex, one woman, evidently behind bars, her mouth open in an apparent scream, and a second brandishing an axe with murderous intent, both images for Joan Crawford’s 1964 film Straight-Jacket.

     Next stop for our roaming romeo is a butcher warehouse were our confused hero walks in and out of the huge carcasses of hanging meat, loosening his tie as he slowly begins to stroke and caress the fatty surfaces of the slabs. He grows so excited in the act that he finally strips off his shirt to embrace them more fully in seemingly steamy lust. 

     These actions were completely beyond the comprehension of our self-identified cis-male straight commentator, laughing as he joked “Each to their own.”

     But any gay boy would have known that it was not the beef they serve up in restaurants he was seeking but what the metaphor signifies: gay bars are often described as meat racks, long bars lined with young men just waiting for someone to take them home and enjoy their beefy pleasures. We can now presume that our handsome hero has taken off his glasses and wandered into the joys of gay bar sex.

      Apparently he can’t get enough the male glance as the next few seconds of the movie reveal him back at the Met studying the numerous fleshy indentations of bronze that Rodin molded to represent Adam’s rippling muscles. By this time if you’re not giggling, at least just a little, I suggest you click your player off.

      His thoughtful contemplations are interrupted by an effeminate blond-haired gay boy apparently singing; another long-haired guy smiles, smoking a drag. A third chunkier crew-cut kid is shot head-on sitting on a couch blinking at the camera. A woman, who may a transvestite, smiles and flirts, while the camera quickly winks again at Adam’s buttocks. Obviously by this time our man has found some fun outside the museum halls.

      We watch our man walk along a wall with a large clock implanted into the cement of the edifice, apparently permanently stopped at 12:00, since the building seems to be a derelict remnant of another time. This too might remind a Bergman aficionado of Professor Isak Borg’s dream in Wild Strawberries where an ocular clock has lost its hands.

     Now please give a hand, if you’ve got yours, for a little gay political vaudeville theater. A clown pops up on the screen, and out struts a cute, thin, completely naked boy carrying the iconic sign of Uncle Sam’s longing: “I want you [for the] U.S. Army”—this at a time during the Vietnam War when much of the US male population didn’t want anything to do with their eager uncle. Unlike today, when gays, lesbians, and transsexuals are delighted to finally be able to join the Armed Services, in 1965, when the US force had reached the size of 184,314 men joined in brutal combat by 514,000 South Vietnamese soldiers there were very few males left excited to be drafted. And gay men felt themselves lucky, if they could convince their draft boards that they indeed were homosexual, to be determined to be unfit for military duty. 1965, the year in Vietnam of Operation Rolling Thunder, saw the first major protest against the war. 

     In this charming number our nude dude slowly lowers the Uncle Sam sign down to give it a quick fuck before literary coming out with penis in full view on one side of the poster. He turns to Sam to give him a blow job while giving a nice view of his thin ass, before dancing like a go-go boy around the invitation to join up.

     With a magic hat the hot boy makes himself and the poster disappear, only to re-enter, still nude, with a clock, this one with its hands still intact. The time is 2.35, and he slowly moves the right hand up to read a quarter to 3, hinting, one suspects, of the famous Frank Sinatra ballad, the perfect song to sing male friend off to war with:

 It's quarter to three,

There's no one in the place except you and me

So set 'em' up Joe

I got a little story I think you should know


We're drinking my friend, to the end

Of a brief episode

Make it one for my baby

And one more for the road


I know the routine

so drop another nickel in the machine

I'm feeling so bad

Won't you make the music easy and sad


I could tell you a lot,

but you've got to be true to your code

So make it one for my baby

And one more for the road


But then he might also be lauding at the great rock-and-roll hit of 1961, Gary U.S, Bonds’ number “Quarter to Three,” where instead of sadly drinking the night away, they dance “As happy as they can be.”

     Evidently, his time has run out, as he sets the clock down and hunkers beside it in a most despondent position.

     No wonder, for the next scene he’s back attempting his luck with his straight girlfriend this time attacking her tits, not unlike the figure in the Buñuel film tackles his girl’s breasts, exploring her erect nipples with forehead, nose, tongue. and finally lips. It’s hard to know whether she’s his lover or mother. But you have give it to the lad for trying.

      Apparently the sex is not successful. No penis in sight. And the very next scene our patient gal is herself in a museum, fondly checking out a female nude sculpture, while he stands on a bridge smoking a cigarette as he looks out over what appears to be a wasteland, his tie blowing in the wind a bit like a male figure out of a Robert Longo painting.

      Suddenly she appears at the other end of the bridge, bearing something as she walks in his direction. She hands the object to him, turns away, and begins walking back in the direction from which she has come.

      We realize a moment later that the bridge on which they stand is a drawbridge and that the figures are soon after located on either side of where the bridge is rising up into the air. Obviously, they are now in separate spaces, in opposing worlds. We now see the gift she has given him: a rather well-shaped and long penis which he briefly strokes before putting it into this pants, zipping it up.

      She has returned his manhood and he is now free to use it as he wants.

      We have no idea who A. J. Rose was, but I’d guess it was a pseudonym. This film is far too clever and witty to be the work of a neophyte to filmmaking. But finally, as our friendly “Iceberg Video Guy” declares, we’ve found the Penis and can now do something about it. My words above represent a raw attempt. Sorry I don’t have any pictures from the film to accompany my efforts. To my readers I can only suggest that you take a look for yourselves.

Los Angeles, February 17, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).

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