Recapping Pink Narcissus Event at the Center
Guest Post by Richard Allen
On May 8, as part of their Summer “Camp” Festival, the Center hosted a screening of the seminal queer film Pink Narcissus, followed by a Q & A with its director, James Bidgood, moderated and introduced by noted filmmaker Ira Sachs. Pink Narcissus is Bidgood’s only film. Mr. Sachs has directed many, but is best known for Forty Shades of Blue and the recent Keep the Lights On.
Pink Narcissus has long been a queer legend, a difficult to find, sometimes out-of-print secret masterpiece that had its mysterious aura further burnished by the fact that for many years, its director was completely anonymous, leading to speculation that it was the handiwork of Andy Warhol (far too earnest for him) or Kenneth Anger (far too New York for his Los Angeles sensibility), and for whatever reasons, they didn’t wish to be connected to this soaringly camp piece of gay soft-core. The ultimate, far more prosaic, answer is that its director, James Bidgood, removed his name from it after the producers who took over financing towards the end of its seven year shooting made several changes that he felt ruined the film.
Having never seen Pink Narcissus before, but only knowing it by reputation and a handful of still images, as well as the influence it has had on queer photographers like Pierre et Gilles and David LaChapelle, as well as the straight filmmaker Guy Maddin, my first thought as the film started was that it was what I expected, but so much more. I was immediately struck by how lushly feminine the sets and props were, all as a backdrop for a feverish appreciation of masculine beauty and male sexuality. Historically, in painting and later film, images of male beauty and female beauty have had different visual signifiers and analogs connected to them. Masculine beauty has tended to be connected to clean lines, athletics, the out-of-doors, while female beauty has tended to have a more visually lush, constructed, upholstered set of metaphors. Female sexuality was frequently viewed as self-contained, internal, and narcissistic, so mirrors were a frequent element of artistic depictions of nude women, as were flowers, heavy draperies, and Orientalist motifs. Bidgood appropriated all of this exact imagery to correspond to male beauty, and sexualizes the male body note for note with the same props and images as contemporaneous “cheesecake” of women.
The film’s nominal plot is of a young hustler’s erotic fantasies as he waits for his john or pimp to arrive. As he makes love to himself, he imagines himself “outside” in a lushly false garden of flowers and plants that are as likely to be made of beads and velvet and papier-mâché as they are to be living, and later spins a globe and as he lands on different countries, his fantasies take the heavily art-directed form of the broad stereotypes of that region. He sees himself as a matador teasing a trick that acts like a bull, he imagines himself as both Roman emperor and slave boy brought before him, highlighting the theme of narcissism, and as an Ottoman pasha watching a male member of his harem perform a an erotic dances through veils of chiffon and pearls. He also imagines a New York street ripe with the possibility for sex, as businessmen go to work naked, and beefy construction workers fix potholes naked and the corner food carts instead dispense dildos, and also a urinal tryst where he imagines drowning his trick in wave after wave of semen.
After the screening, Bidgood said that the when he was young, the only stroke material available for “fairies,” as he called them, were the “Physique” mags that supposedly catered to aspiring bodybuilders, but were actually targeted at gay men. He said that it seemed like every picture was just some beefcake standing in front of the same banal mantel with the same blank wall behind it, and he felt that erotica for men should be photographed in the same lushly lit, lushly set-decorated way all the nudie mag pictures of women were. And clearly, he felt that none of that set decoration needed to be re-interpreted to correspond to masculinity.
As inspired by female cheesecake as he was, he also was clearly inspired by the Powell and Pressburger films The Red Shoes (which he said is his favorite and he saw “a million times”), The Tales of Hoffman, and Black Narcissus, Bidgood managed to appropriate all this ostensibly heterosexual imagery in service of the most transcendentally gay film I have ever seen. He created, in only his small loft, an entire world that is unabashedly campy and kitschy, but for all that summons true beauty and even psychological depth in its evocation of the minutiae of arousal. His world may not have looked real, but the understanding of how fantasy works rings completely true.