Saturday, August 15, 2020

James Bidgood | Pink Narcissus

arthouse eye candy
by Douglas Messerli

James Bidgood (creator and director) Pink Narcissus (created from 1963 to 1970) / 1971 (release)

For all of its audacious gay scenes—filmed from 1963-1970 by James Bidgood, mostly in his tiny New York City apartment on 8 mm film—the director’s totally kitsch settings serve as a stage to actually preach for a life that—unlike the fantasies of Bobby Kendall, the boy prostitute locked up in a world of cheap gewgaws—that returns to nature. In fact, the film begins in the natural world, following the development of a cocoon and butterfly which flitters around the beautiful boy throughout.
     Locked away in his own cocoon this beauty mostly fantasizes a wild world far different from the one the director finds preferable. Bobby first enters a grungy public bathroom ready to be sucked off by others who gather there. Immediately after, the director shows us a frying pan of sizzling steaks and other animal cuts, not so subtly suggesting that such sexual behavior is no better than being treated like a piece of meat to be gobbled down and shit out.
     One by one, the devastatingly cute Bobby tries on other imaginary personae, most attached to generic roles that gay men were once attracted to (today, the figures of a cop, a cowboy, a leather dude, a hard-hat worker, and a native American—in short, the iconic figures featured in the musical group The Village People—might be more appropriate). But Bobby instead sees himself as a handsome matador, who later, seated on a motorcycle runs down his intended sexual victim who ultimately rapes him; a Turkish slave boy who lives at the will of the heavy-stomached sultan; an intensely beaded male belly dancer who, when his dance comes to an end, is sentenced to death; and, finally, as a kind of circus freak whose specialty is taking huge dildos up his ass.

      In between this technicolor fantasia of sexual possibilities, Bobby sips on wine and his listens to the songs (of both humans and birds), allows the returning butterfly to twitter gaily around his public hair and cock, and mostly stares at himself endlessly in the room’s many mirrors, often touching and kissing his own image.

     For all the film’s kitsch-like beauty, it is the darkened tendrils of natural plants in the penultimate scene, filmed in a downtown Manhattan loft of a friend, that is the director’s most dramatic. If at first these intertwining vines and roots seem highly sensual as they interweave across Bobby’s body, they eventually create such a densely woven texture that they almost swallow him up whole, eating his flesh almost as a gigantic Venus Trap plant might. In that scene, it appears, that the boy is born again, free now—at least for the day—to end his sexual imaginations.

     His jailer soon after returns, appearing a bit like the stock figure of evil out of 19th century and early 20th century melodramas. But when Bobby looks his way again, we see that his keeper has been transformed into his own face. The boy’s imprisonment apparently is one of his own making, which clearly suggests that he may never escape this frightening world of sexual power and domination.
      The movie’s Bobby was a runaway whom Bidgood took home, fed, and lived with for many years. Even near the end of the director’s life  the two, apparently, remained friends, with Bobby admitting that he had never imagined himself as good-looking until viewing his lover’s film.
       Bidgood was a window designer, musician (he also selected the music for his film), and occasional drag performer who, quite obviously worked on his masterpiece in his spare hours. When the film was finally released he insisted the directorial and other credits read “Anonymous,” resulting in a great deal of speculation among the gay world about who actually made this film, many suggesting Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger.
       In 1998 writer Bruce Benderson decided to track down the real director, finding Bidgood living in his 14th Street apartment, who  admitted to the film’s creation as well as erotic pictures he had published in the 1960. Arranging for a publication of Bidgood’s work through an agent friend, the images became highly influential to several gay photographers, most notably the French duo Pierre et Gilles, who produced a vast trove of similar work using far more sophisticated techniques.
       Despite any statements about Bidgood’s cinema, however, one can only appreciate it by visually encountering the work. There is no actual plot and, other than the few observations I have made above, no completely coherent commentary can hobbled together. Pink Narcissus along with its photogenic lead (other roles were performed by Don Brooks and playwright and actor Charles Ludlum) is based entirely on what the eye registers.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2020).

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