Monday, December 30, 2019
Andy Warhol | Blow Job
sex as eucharistic redemption
by Douglas Messerli
Andy Warhol (conceiver and director) Blow Job / 1964
Andy Warhol’s seminal gay sex film (although we are never quite certain who is actually providing the fellatio pleasures of the central figure, the beautiful look-alike James Dean figure, DeVeren Bookwalter) which directly returns us, in 1964, to Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour of 1950. Like Genet, Warhol demonstrates sexual acts without actually depicting them, allowing the imagination of any sympathetic viewer to fill in the spaces.
We never see any of what Warhol described as “five beautiful boys” sucking Bookwalter’s cock; and indeed, we never see the penis itself. Rather the director focuses on the actor’s beautiful face, alternating with his almost ecstatic movements as he raises his face upward in joy, and his vertically downward looks, presumably peering down at the five young boys sucking him off.
Certainly, if nothing else, this is a film of an utter ecstasy that might also be compared with another gay director, Robert Bresson’s horrific spiritual tortures of his Jeanne d’Arc. Like her, he is quite literally being consumed by the fire licking his loins, which Warhol, through his constant alterations of light and dark—the camera at two instances releasing the film into a total bright white light that removes us even from the vision of the delighted sufferer.
When I was young, I was never much into “blow jobs”; I have a severe gag response as a provider, and I generally preferred other sexual releases of both kinds to a good suck. But in one instance in a sleazy gay hangout, I found a young man who wanted to provide me with his services. It was the very best blow-job I have ever had in my life, which strangely today I can even recall. I am certain it was received with the same vertical up-and-down facial movements of Warhol’s star.
For minutes, Bookwalter’s lovely face moves up in pleasure, alternating with downward glances, the camera turning his eyes into dark auras of acceptance, hinting at the heavenly and bodily incarnations of what we have always known sex is all about.
The only clue that we have that the sexual act has been completed is when the actor takes out a cigarette, and like Genet’s figure, enjoys its equally sexual pleasures instead of the energetic actions below. In an odd way, this gesture is more sexual that his ecstatic enjoyments. In this simple act Bookwalter becomes a kind of gay icon himself, a kind of movie star that transcends his roughly-filmed sexual pleasure, which, in a sense was what Warhol’s factory was all about.
Evidently, Warhol had originally invited Charles Rydell, the boyfriend of filmmaker Jerome Hill, to be the cinematic figure of Blowjob, but in disbelief of the request, Rydell never showed up for the shooting. The Factory hanger-on Bookwalter quickly replaced the missing actor. Warhol, despite the legend of his asexuality, most certainly could spot a beautiful man when he saw him, and the movie became a legendary statement of gay sexuality, centered on the beauty of its young discovery, who Warhol could apparently not even identify.
Legend has it that not all of the “five boys” (sounding a bit like the promised 72 virgins of Islamic matryhood) showed up for the shooting.
Does it matter? Somebody and several somebody’s sucked off the would-be actor into a nirvana of great pleasure, desire, and disdain that reechoed Genet in the US gay audiences’ consciousness and changed the notion of how to present gay love upon the screen.
Throughout Warhol’s career, movie after movie, built up an entire world of artistic gay-centered productions which helped to break through the barrier that, in the very same period, the cultural and legalistic authorities, attempted to resist.
In the same year that this movie was made, I was in Norway, soon to return with a great deal of gay-angst, which a couple of years of later would break out into just such the organistic enjoyment that Warhol had shoved into the screen. I later met some of his cinematic collaborators such as Ronald Tavel and Gerard Malanga, whom I quite admired.
If Blowjob is not exactly a profound statement, it nonetheless affected the world of its time, helping us to comprehend what sexual release might actually mean, a delightful release into space that was unacceptable to most of the world population. Sex, in Warhol’s films, was a joyful acceptance of the way things truly was a loving expression of a new kind of Eucharistic redemption.
For both Genet and Warhol, gay sex suddenly became a new kind of expression of love in a world of hate, even if Warhol’s violent death and AIDS eventually helped to destroy that myth.
Los Angeles, December 30, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (December 2019).