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Snapshots of Gay Culture and History in Pornography

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From Ask Any Buddy (2020), dir. Evan Purchell (all images courtesy the filmmaker)

Pride month may come and go, but the search for queer representation never ends, despite companies believing they’ve done their duty by slapping rainbows on advertisements. Pop culture’s offerings — from Disney releasing a gay-themed animated short and a Love, Simon spinoff, to some awards recognition for Call Me By Your Name to even the outright homophobic Bohemian Rhapsody — might satiate a number of queer viewers who want affirmation from the mainstream, but it’s hard not to wonder if that’s enough. There’s an overwhelming amount of queer cinematic history available for those who seek it, with more streaming platforms and distributors highlighting older films that many may never have heard of.

But queer media history often leaves out an important facet of gay representation: adult cinema. Pornography may be about fantasy, but that fantasy is shaped around the context of everyday life. With his documentary Ask Any Buddy, Evan Purchell has created the ultimate photo album, full of snapshots of what gay culture looked like in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lW6HcIlulzQ

Queer cinema was built on implicit eroticism, but Ask Any Buddy, pieced together from over a hundred gay porn films, thrives on its relationship to the explicit. Just as queer men had to navigate various realms, the film shifts between casual domestic activities where they had to “fit in” and the fantasies, kinks, and sensual exploration beneath the pressed shirts and perfectly knotted ties. Rather than make any particular narrative out of its pieces, Purchell allows his film to flow naturally between locations, editing together disparate scenes with overlapping premises (and by extension, themes), creating the sensation of being in the same moment as the characters. The film also dives into the tenderness beyond the explicit by singling out the subtle glances, smoking, and passing touches that populate many a queer classic, as well as couples holding each other, looking at photographs, or making casual conversation outside a bar where they just met.

But looking at the film strictly in terms of porn would do it a disservice as a time capsule. We see not only the fantasies of gay men during this period, but also the history they were living through. It shines through in the posters in the backgrounds, or the films’ pop culture references (like the title Five Hard Pieces, clearly a play on the 1970 New Hollywood classic Five Easy Pieces). The homophobia of the time continually pops up; in one scene, a man fights a stranger who hurls a slur at him in a bathroom, to the glee of his romantic partner. Playful, celebratory drag manifests in films like Tom DeSimone’s Confessions of a Male Groupie. A real Pride parade is featured as well, with Harvey Milk even making an appearance.

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From Ask Any Buddy

If Ask Any Buddy occasionally falls into moments that feel repetitive, something else often comes up soon enough to introduce a switch-up, tonally speaking. One breathtaking sequence features two men sniffing poppers that cuts straight into a strobe wonderland, while another turns the use of anal beads into a terrific bit of physical comedy. In an era when so much of gay male culture is about assimilation, it’s refreshing to see a film that highlights a world where anything seemed possible. It serves as a testament to the artistry that was once put into adult cinema. The production value, camerawork, and music that went into classic porn feels more exciting than almost anything produced today, which is often fashioned as “amateur” (though that is itself a fascinating aesthetic that could be written about). 

Save the occasional diverse party and one notably all-black orgy scene (from Peter de Rome’s Adam & Yves, a groundbreaking moment and an homage to blaxploitation films, despite being fetishistic in nature), the film is very white, reflecting how much gay pornography of the time was built around white, usually masculine, fantasy. Video taking off in the ’80s would change this (and it would be fascinating to see this treatment applied to the VHS porn canon). Still, these issues persist today in the community, with porn sites featuring “big black cock” categories and men with “no blacks, no fats, no fems, no Asians” on their Grindr profiles. 

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From Ask Any Buddy 

At the end of the documentary, Wakefield Poole, one of the finest gay porn directors of his time, appears via a scene from his film Take One, coming from behind a camera and saying, “I’m out of film.” Beyond being a cheeky punctuation mark on this journey through gay cinematic history, Ask Any Buddy reminds us that this was the way gay men were able to express themselves and fantasize about each other, without having to conform to the expectations or palates of straight people. And isn’t that what representation is all about? 

Ask Any Buddy will be available to stream via the QFest St. Louis Film Festival, running June 19 through 28.


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