Ronald Chase (director) Cathedral / 1971
Peter de Rome (director) Moulage / 1971
Stéphane Marti (director) Ladyman / 1976
It is surely not accidental that about the very same time that gay movie-makers began to create films featuring male nudity and sexuality, several other cinematic artists shaped experimental non-narrative works that critics over the next few years would describe as “the school of the body.” Taking their cues perhaps from Willard Maas’s 1943 short in which male and female bodies were explored so close-up that they appeared at moments to be newly discovered continents, directors such as the San Francisco-based filmmaker/dancer/opera designer Ronald Chase, the London / USA auteur Peter de Rome, and the French theoretical cineaste Stéphane Marti all focused on the portraying the male body as a kind of sacred being apart from the source of its fleshy sexual delights.
In a some respects one might almost argue that the differences between these film directors and the wave of future porn artists such as Wakefield Poole, Fred Halsted, Peter Berlin and over the next decade Jerry Tartaglia and Jean-Daniel Cadinot were something akin to the pitch battle played out through French LGBTQ cinema in a far more symbolic manner in the early 1950s between Jean Genet and François Reichenbach that continued to send waves over the next decade into US and British filmmaking. One might almost jokingly describe it as a struggle between a focus on the male cock and ass over the representation of the male pectorals and face—not that either of these two schools wished to demean the other body parts. There were obviously plenty of beautiful abs and faces in Poole, Berlin, and Cadinot’s films, and a great many lovely asses and cocks in Chase’s, de Rome’s, and Marti’s works. But what the camera did to them, how it embedded them (literally) in terms of setting, and what those bodies did or didn’t wear meant nearly everything. In short, it was a struggle that continues still today between so-called “dirty” and sacramental gay cinematic art, between a literalization of the body or a far more abstract representation of it.
I’ve chosen just three examples of the dozens or more that I discuss alone or in other contexts.
Let us begin with Chase’s 1971 work Cathedral. Today Chase is best known for his work with opera, employing techniques of film and photography to numerous operatic production designs, often working with director Frank Corsaro, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s—during the same period of his early short films—with his productions for the Washington Opera Society (three of which I saw as a young man living in that city), The Turn of the Screw, Koanga, Beatrix Cenci, and A Village Romeo and Juliet before branching out to the Houston Grand Opera, the New York City Opera, Opera Theater of St. Louis, Los Angeles Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, and elsewhere for productions of Die Tote Stadt, Docktor Faust, Anna Karenina, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Lulu.
Having studied as a dancer at Bard College, Chase also filmed dance works such as The Covenant (1966), directed two feature films, Bruges-la-Morte (1976) and Lulu (1977), created many photographic exhibitions, and filmed several shorts, including Fragments (1964), Clown (1969), Chameleon (1969), Scene One: Take One (1971), Parade (1972), Sally Simpson (1972), Beatrice Cenci (1972), A Village Romeo and Juliet (1975), Fantasia on the Childhood of Busoni (1976), and Very Angry People (2000). Only a couple of these short films are overtly gay; I discuss Parade and Chameleon elsewhere in these pages.
But gradually hands reach out to touch, to stroke, show affection, and to simply explore the other. This process continues for some time, but gradually moves up from the chest onto the face, and, as it does so, effects the interactions between the bodies as, one by one, they come together time and again in a series of overlaying images and montage in gentle kisses.
Slowly this moves into what one might even describe as a kind of dance, reflected patterns of a screen or a sheet interplaying upon their bodies just as their hands and lips continue to create new abstractly carved patterns out of their bodies themselves.
Eventually, we see the white, green, and lightly colored shapes
transform into bright colorful reflections that are clearly those of
stained-glass cathedral windows—in
Chase’s case the windows of the St. Chapel in Paris—which after a period of
intercutting with the bodily motions begin to shift more quickly, the dashes of
colors almost creating a of kind of neon street-sign bedazzlement that twists
and twirls around the slumbering bodies to finally embrace the trio,
As the director states about it his own work, the film was thought to have lost of over 50 years, and was discovered in 2019 and restored in high-definition. “...One of the earliest of the gay films after Stonewall,” it “refused to see touch, affection, and sensuality only in pornographic terms.
Except for his narrative wit and the cinematic complexity of his works, several of Peter de Rome’s films might truly be described as coming down firmly on the side of the “cock and ass,” pornography rather than representing “the school of the body.” One need only think of the almost hypnotic lure of the sex act performed in a subway in his Underground (1972), the fantasy sex scenes of Daydreams from a Crosstown Bus (1972), or the highly graphic S&M images of repeated bondage and rape in his Prometheus (1972) to recall that several of de Rome’s earliest works depicted images of erection and ejaculation some years before it had yet become commonplace on the screen. Indeed, he is often described as the father of gay sex cinema.
But, as I have also argued for his The Second Coming (1972) the director simultaneously attached a great deal of sacredness to the male body and is interested, particularly in a work such as Encounter, or Paul & Richard & Michael, & David & Alan & Buddy & Hugo & Tom & Terry & Peter & Richard & Carlos (1970) in the abstract beauty of the male nude even engaged in what is basically a group orgy. In both works, the sex is less perceived as a primitive urge than as a kind of abstract dance, with which the body is always inextricably connected.
In his 1971 work Moulage, in fact, the body is not only observed and admired but totally embraced and fondled entirely without sex taking place—except for a few sucks of the model’s penis to bring him to semi-erection. To the music of Christoph Willibald Glūck sculptor Richard Etts transforms his model Aren Rikas—sans nipple and cock rings—into a ghostly image of himself by applying the handsome boy’s mid-riff and penis up to his neck with oil, moulage, layers of cheese cloth, and further layers of moulage time and again while repeatedly hand-drying before peeling the hardened plaster away from his body.
Gradually we see the lean chest of the model, nipples erect; and slowly, after the artist pulls away more layers of cloth, we see the image of Rika’s semi-erect penis. Together Etts assesses the beauty of his “creation,” a ghostly portrait of the body of the now fully dressed young man at his side.
We have long been schooled through countless reproductions of stone and marble images to recognize the tattooed, cig-smoking somewhat attractive punk now as a kind of Greek or Roman god. If nothing else Rikas has become a low-grade artwork, a sort of down-home Dorian Gray, whose plaster image is forever frozen in youth while we recognize the boy’s mid-riff may very soon develop into a beer belly, his penis eventually remain limp for long periods at a time, his lovely muscles gradually disappearing along with his lean chest. If he was, for example, 20 at the time of the film, he would not 70 years of age.
Within a span of about 14 minutes, we have discovered the model now has a terrifying double in the world, an image of the man he already no longer is. Yet the sacred body will remain, like the oddly shaped plaster woman he have observed sitting on the shelf, as a tribute to Ett’s art on his studio wall, a body to be worshipped again and again.
Marti arguably perceives that body at its best is exotic, androgynous, constantly shifting, and unapproachable. For him, it appears, the other is best kept at arm’s-length while simultaneously attempting to lure the other closer to it. At least that is how we observe what might almost be said to be the evocative dance of the seven veils that his long-time subject, Aloual, performs before his cinematic surrogate to the music of Lou Reed in the 1976 film Ladyman.
As his often verbally impenetrable publicity characterizes his cinematic concerns: “Marti works around issues of the body, the sacred, of gender identity disorder and strategies of desire.” I wouldn’t exactly want to label being confused or interested in different and competing genders within oneself a “disorder,” but I think the fact that Aloual clearly is interested in alternately robing himself—a bit like he was performing a private fashion show for his friend (Philippe Chazal)—in various feminine and male attire is clearly fascinating.
Certainly we gather through Marti’s presentation of Aloual—eyes glamorously painted somewhat like an Indian devi, as he dances, poses in his red shorts and on occasion (apparently invoking images of the past) stands completely nude in between changing outfits— imploring the “cornered” other male to take him into his arms and secret confidences, all to no avail. The brooding dark French male keeps rejecting Aloual’s open hand and attempts to embrace him.
In each of these films, it appears, the other can be adored, touched, kissed, and even recreated as an artifact, but once it is truly sexually embraced or “mounted” it has lost the wonder of its “otherness.”
The body is a thing to be worshiped, idolized, or even simply watched in motion, but the minute it is controlled it loses its exceptionalness, it becomes too much like the other which it excites, entices, and allures. In a strange way it becomes like Bob Mizer’s “Indian” I previously discussed, a dead wooden thing that only stands for the beauty it once possessed.
Los Angeles, August 15, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (August 2021).