Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Andy Milligan | Vapors
flowers from the asylum’s clown
by Douglas Messerli
Hope Stansbury (screenplay), Andy Milligan director Vapors / 1965
Andy Milligan’s 1965 half-hour film, Vapors, is or at least ought to be an absolute disaster. Shot on a 16mm Auricon newsreel camera, the film roars through a series of what critic Michael Koresky describes as hisses, “camera whirs, and echoing room ambience” filmed in a seedy empty building near his apartment on Prince Street that pretends to be the Saint Mark’s bathhouse, wherein two men, one middle aged (Robert Dahdah, the director of the then-off off Broadway venue, The Cino West Village theater) and the another younger man with thinning hair (Mulligan’s roommate, Gerald Jacuzzo) sit on a bed and a chair in a cubical that, in such places stuffed with gays for a weekend series of transient trysts, is usually reserved for the joys of a good fuck.
These two, both evidently new to the place—although the Jacuzzo character at first lies, claiming that he comes there regularly—do little but share in a long rather melodramatic conversation, written with what almost appears with camp intentions by Hope Stansbury, whose claim to fame is that she, so legend goes, helped create the Candy Darling superstar persona for the transgender actor who played in Warhol films such as Trash and Women in Revolt and later on stage in a Tennessee Williams play Small Craft Warnings.
Indeed, many commentators on Milligan’s film describe the dialogue as sounding a bit like warmed-over Williams, although one might say that many critics of the day felt Williams’ own plays to be warmed-over or at least consisting of leftover ideas that didn’t live up to his great plays. As I’ve written elsewhere, I find his late plays as being often somewhat surreal and almost always very funny (see my review of his last play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, in My Year 2012.)
But, in fact, Stansbury’s script reminds me less of Williams than it does of Edward Albee, particularly his 1960 play The Zoo Story, although obviously without Albee’s humor, wit, and, most importantly, the bitterness of the character Jerry for all things mundanely heterosexual. But if one were to turn the tables, so to speak, allowing the Peter figure to be the central speaker while imagining the bed to be a kind of park bench upon which the Jerry character, the youthful homosexual, sits, you might observe numerous similarities between the two short works.
Like Jerry in the Albee play, Mr. Jaffee as he prefers to be called, interrupts Thomas (the Jacuzzo character) while he is waiting, door open, for a trick, before he unceremoniously enters and proceeds to endlessly talk, with the affable Thomas sitting out—or in this case reclining throughout—his new friend’s onslaught of heterosexual blather.
After explaining that his only reason for visiting the baths represents an attempt to get away from his wife, he also makes it apparent that he doesn’t at like the place in which they are now encamped. Just as the “park” in which Albee’s homosexual figure suggests the police are out in full force bringing down the fags out of the trees and bushes, so Mr. Jaffee declares that he finds his new surrounds to be like “an insane asylum for mad homosexuals.”
Nonetheless, after they clear the way with a few awkward introductions, together they proceed to transform the usual den of iniquity—which throughout their conversation four queens intrude to remind them of the proper necessity of opening and closing the door and the more common use of that space—into a kind of confessional box.
Indeed, after a quick drink of communal wine (coke and 7-up in this case), Mr. Jaffee gets down to business, like Albee’s Jerry telling two stories, the first about his terrible wife who each night puts her hair up in curlers and lathers her face in “lard.” After 19 years in this unhappy relationship he would simply like to be free of her ugly feet pocked with bunions since she insists upon squeezing into the smallest of shoes; he has even suffered a dream about her feet of which he shares with Thomas, a nightmare that has made him unable to even share the same bed with her for several nights.
Thomas’ feet, on the other hand, he finds beautiful, asking if he might touch them, absurdly reciting the Mother Goose song of “This little piggy” as he manipulates the toes, as if his new acquaintance were like a child—“This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed home…,” etc.
His misogynistic accounts of his wife are indeed very similar to Jerry’s story of his landlady and her dog, a kind of nightmare beast who, like Cerberus guarding the gates of hell, makes his voyages back and forth to his tiny apartment wherein he resides next door to “a colored queen” who does nothing but pluck her eyebrows, equally nightmarish.
Jerry’s flirtatious landlady is described as a “fat, ugly, mean, stupid, unwashed, misanthropic, cheap, drunken bag of garbage,” which, by comparison, makes Mr. Jaffee’s wife almost a beauty, yet both are clearly disenchanted with their relationships.
Soon after Jaffee comments about Thomas’ soft skin. My son had soft skin, he states, asking if he might touch his friends check. Thomas grants him permission to do so.
In the Albee the play, Jerry’s second story is about his day at the zoo, clearly not a very pleasant day, but the tale of which he is never permitted to finish. We suspect, however, since Jerry declares that Peter will soon be hearing about it on the nightly news, that it must involve something rather horrific concerning Jerry’s actions. He has previously described attempting to poison the dog owned by his landlady.
Mr. Jaffee’s story is more of a kind of urban legend such as the repeated fable of alligators living in the New York City sewers. After carefully describing the absolute beauty and athletic prowess of his son, Jaffee describes how his boy and a couple of friends went to a nearby water hole to cool off, his son diving in first. Almost immediately the others knew something terrible had happened as they waited for him to return to the surface. It was like a vacuum, Jaffe reports, that had sucked his body down.
When the water is siphoned away by authorities later that day, the find the boy surrounded by thousands of snakes who had literally eaten away his body.
The story I grew up hearing repeatedly in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was about three country boys who also sought out comfort in a local swimming spot, the first one diving in and drowning, In this case it was dozens of water moccasins who bit the swimmer to death.
Thomas, however, believes Jaffee’s story and is pained to hear it, as the father, who clearly adored his son, goes on to express the fact that he burned most the flowers which were sent for his child’s burial, unable to face being reminded of his son’s beauty. But one flower, in particular, he found truly appropriate, a sunflower sent by an unknown admirer. The sunflower, we recall, represents the adoration and unconditional love of the sender, and, obviously, here there is the pun of sun/son.
Unable to go on any longer, but touched by Thomas’ empathy for his loss, he tells his cubicle mate that he has a gift for him, and will be right back as soon as he retrieves it.
This is perhaps the most surreal of all events in this extraordinary series of confessions. But Thomas, always seemingly ready to play along, waits patiently until the gaggle of queens returns with a box in hand, ribbon wrapped around it, a gift they tell him which the man who suddenly left the premises asking them to deliver it.
Why would the stranger have brought along a gift, one can only ask, for a man he has never before met? In any event, Thomas opens it, discovering within a large Papier Mâché sunflower. Thomas is so touched that he weeps for moment or two.
But, as viewers of this strange series of happenings, we are not only puzzled but the question of why anybody might have brought a sunflower to a male bathhouse, but simultaneously almost laugh at the outsized flower reminding us of those large and smaller flowers which are regularly sported by circus clowns.
It also calls up for me a scene from another Albee play, where after a rather violent scene between George, Martha, and their guests, George suddenly pulls out a rifle, pointing it at Nick, who has just come down from Martha’s bedroom; he shoots while all watch in terror, as a smaller bouquet of just such flowers pops out from the end of the gun’s barrel.
It is almost impossible, accordingly, not to take Mr. Jaffee’s offering as anything other than a kind of comic jest, as if he had suddenly become the clown in this asylum offering his new boyfriend a silly simulacrum of what someone once sent to the man’s dead son, alerting us that in Jaffee’s mind Thomas symbolically speaking, has now become his son.
At almost the same moment a new man enters Thomas’ cubicle to wonder why he might be crying. At first it appears that the young man is going to send him away, but he quickly calls him back, asking him to close the door, the proper expression that those within are engaging in sex.
The new guest, (the role credited to Matt Baylor in the British Film Institute’s DVD credits) according to Koresky, was Gary Stone, whom Milligan described as “very attractive street guy…known for his big dick” and whom Milligan first met “hanging upside down in a doorway” at an S&M party on Prince Street. Stone quickly disrobes revealing in the original that reportedly large cock, which, during the premiere showing of Milligan’s film at the Bridge theater on St. Marks resulted in a police raid, resulting ever since a large black bar blocking our view.
It doesn’t really matter since we are more than assured that Thomas will finally get what he was seeking. Yet, oddly, we now perceive that his odd encounter with Mr. Jaffee was far more sexual that we first might have perceived. What Jaffee has performed in his simple touches of the younger man’s feet and cheek plays out a deeply Oedipal dream that permits Thomas to return to the physical world. The confessional box has reverted to its carnal purpose.
Milligan when on to make at least 29 other films, most of them concerning deviant behavior with titles that included words like “bloodthirsty,” “degenerate,” “torture,” “incest,” and other incidents of slasher-like gore, as if his genteel conversation between the spiritual father and son in this film let loose some inner depravity. In the future, I’ll see if I can obtain a copy of his drama of incestuous murder, Seeds.
Los Angeles, September 16, 2020Reprinted from World Cinema Review and Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).