Review: Bigger Than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to HardcoreBigger Than Life
By Jeffrey Escoffier
Published by Running Press
Reviewed by Kevin Killian
Jeff Escoffier writes with ease and efficiency on a subject upon which hardly anybody has a handle: gay porn and the films that emerged from photographic studio practice in the 1960s. As history, Bigger than Life is as sprawling as its subject, for commercial porn as we know it today comes from multiple sources and practically defines the Marxist concept of uneven development.
Escoffier’s earlier chapters are perhaps his liveliest. We learn that some of the physique photographers had made private sex films for private clients, with perhaps only a single copy run off, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that anyone thought of going public with this material. The moving image captures an urgency and a phenomenonolgy that quickly made the still photo seem antique (thus, many old school lensmen bitterly protested the new medium). Sex seems more “real” on film, and as if to prove that it was really happening, subsequent generations of porn fetishized the come-shot to the point where it now provides most of the narrative interest of whatever actual feature it appears in. But this was not always the case. Sometimes—often—the early hardcore gay cinema did without the laundry list of kissing-oral-anal and did whatever the storyline dictated. In other ways the directors of the day shared the improvisatory, often goofy strategies of the New American Cinema, a sort of experimental frame of mind based on Emersonian pragmatism that might yield a shockingly “artistic” result, as well as being hot.
Thus the Joe Gages, the Cadinots, the Toby Rosses and the Wakefield Pooles. The supersaturated Technicolor washes of James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus—like Vincente Minnelli on Ecstasy—will never be repeated today. —Well, maybe someone like Todd Haynes might do it in pastiche, but the industry itself has moved on. Escoffier excels when analyzing the plots of early hardcore films, (e.g. Desires of the Devil, 1971), to show how a director’s cinema quickly became a performer’s medium or at best, a collaborative performance between actor and cameraman.
Escoffier’s critical skill never falters but as his narrative goes on, we see with a sinking feeling that practically no two careers in porn can be distinguished, and any individual career is so brief that it’s over before it has begun, like butterflies in reverse. Bigger than Life is filled with hundreds of names—most of them dopey and pseudonymic—and only a handful of good stories hide in the haystack of bodily perfection. It’s a cinema of “stars” who, like the starlets of the classical Hollywood cinema, make a film every month, then after two years they’re invited to jump off the giant Pornotopia sign—because they’re history. Do porn aficionados develop lifelong attachments to the stars they once jerked off to? Probably not, because otherwise wouldn’t the stars have longer careers? Seems like their audiences tire of them quickly, or else the peak of physical perfection is brief as that of a banana or apple. Escoffier is quiet on this subject; the affectional and the obsessive are outside his purlieu.
Three cataclysmic disasters overtook porn, one after the other. Video supplanted film at a certain point, leading to an increased democratization of body and fetish types on the one hand, but to a slapdash and muddy visual look on the other. (This was the argument animating Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights.) The genre reacted by exploding, so it was only a disaster to the dandy. In the second disaster, well, it is useless to complain of AIDS in this context, that it ruined porn, but it decimated the ranks of its actors and its effects continue to manifest themselves today. The rise of barebacking video shows that the market still wants to see that dick slide up that ass, naked and unwrapped. Finally, the internet happened so there is no longer a “gay porn film industry” today, not when you and I could start our own channel, aim the webcam at our own crotches, and take the money of a paying public. Well, I wouldn’t make much money but I’ve seen guys uglier and older than I going at it and often. Indeed, commercial studios are now resorting to faked “amateur,” “candid” footage to please the tastes of a public interested only in the “real.” Again, everyone’s a “porn star” now - I was just reading a statistic that said that everyone - everyone of you reading this review - has photographed his own genitals in arousal. In a world of infinite images, whither arousal?
In a way, as Escoffier indicates, what has happened to porn parallels what happened to the larger gay movement during the same period. Jostled back and forth between radical and conservative factions, both porn and the political arena in which it was crucibled have tended to follow the formulas of neoliberal globalism - a complete lack of care, a totalizing system dedicated solely to the market. This book tells you how we got there.
Kevin Killian is a San Francisco writer His books include Bedrooms Have Windows, Shy, Little Men, Arctic Summer, Argento Series, I Cry Like a Baby, and Action Kylie. His new book of stories is called Impossible Princess (from City Lights Books).