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‘Pink Narcissus,’ An Erotic Evocation of a Rent Boy’s Fantasies, June 8 at Eye

by Julien Beyle in Films & Books , 01 juni 2017

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Nowadays, films in which gays play a lead or supporting role are no exception. Even the dream factory Hollywood has embraced gay love. And it did so successfully, as evidenced by the enthusiastic reviews “Brokeback Mountain” got over ten years ago and the commercial profits from the movie.

Although “Brokeback Mountain” didn’t win the Oscar for Best Film in 2006, for which it was nominated, the film was honored with Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Soundtrack. Not everyone was equally happy with “Brokeback Mountain.” Conservative critics were of the opinion that Hollywood was making propaganda for the gay agenda, while in the gay world, the movie was criticized for not creating a clear gay context for the film.

They felt that the “universal” character of the love between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) - by some critcs even compared to the tragic Romeo and Juliet romance - had turned “Brokeback Mountain” into a “gay film for straight people.” A critical point of criticism of course was that the character who most clearly could be seen as “gay” is killed at the end of the film, and therefore is in line with a long (movie) tradition in which gays are violently denied to “lead a long and happy life.”

Whatever one’s opinion of “Brokeback Mountain,” Steven Paul Davies undoubtedly was correct when arguing in his study “Out at the Movies: A History of Gay Cinema” (2008) that because of the success of the movie, “most major film studios have been clamouring to get behind new, gay-themed projects... thanks to ‘Brokeback,’ film financiers will continue to back scripts that don’t simply rely on gay stereotypes... and that will certainly be progress.”

Hidden History

Sometimes that what can be seen as progress also means a step back. Due to the relatively large number of recent popular films featuring gay characters, older productions are forgotten, and independent films for much smaller audiences get less attention. In March, the twentieth edition of Amsterdam’s film festival “Pink Movie Days” was organized, in which “smaller” productions are indeed highlighted, but the emphasis there is also on the more recent movies.

The organizers however, are aware that the current abundance of gay movies was preceded by a long, and partly hidden history. For this reason, they have compiled “The Gaze” program in cooperation with EYE Film Museum, which shows how films for or about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender audiences have shaped film history. Every other month, EYE will show a classic or contemporary (once) scandalous movie from what was once called the sexual “counter culture”: from the earliest Swedish gay porn in black and white from the 1920s, to the work of film makers such as Kenneth Anger, Jean Genet, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.

On April 24, this program started with a Swedish film, directed by Lukas Moodysson, “Fucking Åmål” (released in some English speaking countries as “Show Me Love”) from 1998.

The cult classic “Pink Narcissus” will be screened on June 8.

Not only does the gay film have a history that goes back much further than “Brokeback Mountain,” the Amsterdam Pink Movie Days also did not appear out of thin air. As early as 1986 and 1991 there had been two large Gay & Lesbian Film Festivals organized in Amsterdam. At one of these festivals I saw “Pink Narcissus” for the first time, and the movie made a great impression on me, not in the least because of its hidden and at the same time very open erotic powers of imagination. Even after I had not seen the movie for years, the scene in which heartthrob Bobby Kendall (an artist’s name) visits a urinal, and is wiggling his butt in tight white jeans storing away his cock is indelibly printed in my memory. (And it was “just” a shot of his backside, but what a view to enjoy!)

Having watched “Pink Narcissus” yet again, it hasn’t lost any of its attraction. After the 1971 release, the maker of “Pink Narcissus” was unknown for a long time, as the subtitling only mentioned “Anonymous.” Some saw the hand of legendary film maker Kenneth Anger in it, most likely because “Pink Narcissus” has a sequence with a biker, the gay icon Anger in 1964 paid cinematographic tribute to in “Scorpio Rising.” Others have suggested that the film was made in Andy Warhol’s Factory. However, the true director of the film, James Bidgood (born 1933), found this extremely strange, as is evidenced by an interview with Sean Fredric Edgecomb in 2006: “‘Pink Narcissus’ doesn’t look anything like Warhol. First of all he would never put that much effort into anything, and that always annoyed me, the first reason that I don’t like things.”

In either case, the question remains why the film was then released anonymously, as both these gentlemen were not exactly known for being closeted about their preference for men. In the book accompanying the 1991 film festival Richard Dyer mentioned that it was “generally accepted that James Bidgood was its creator.” “Pink Narcissus” is indeed Bidgood’s brainchild, working on the project for a staggering seven years from 1964 to 1970.

Chaste Eroticism

“Pink Narcissus” is the story of an innocent boy who ends up in a hotel room in the notorious Times Square neighborhood in New York City, selling his body. In between his customers’ visits, he fantasizes about being a bullfighter, a Roman slave and emperor, and as the master of a male harem - this alter ego can be seen as a narcissistic projection of himself. After his catharsis, however, he manages to retrieve his innocence. In most other hands this could have become a moral story about the repulsion of (paid) sex. Of course, this is not the case with Bidgood as he presents Kendall’s erotic fantasies very well and therefore extremely appealingly.

The “Pink Narcissus” version that was released was not the one Bidgood had in mind. After spending six years with producing it in his New York apartment, he became convinced that he needed external funding to ever complete it. However, after the financial injection, Bidgood did not seem to even want to finish his film. This to the displeasure of his financial backers, who were not happy with Bidgood’s indecisiveness in the editing process. At one point, they relieved him of any possible further control over the final editing and had others complete it.

Porno Chic

“Pink Narcissus” was released in 1971 much to Bidgood’s dismay, who refused to have anything to do with it. Its long production also meant that times had changed. That very same year, Wakefield Poole’s hard-core “Boys in the Sand” was released in cinemas. This explicitly erotic film created a landslide. The film was advertised in “The New York Times,” not known at all for its gay-friendliness at the time, and was reviewed in “Variety,” which in the first week also included the film in the Top 50 of the most profitable movies in the United States. Not only gay men went to see “Boys in de Sand,” but straight couples and women as well. Tradition has it that ballet dancer Rudolf Nurejev drove hundreds of miles to see the movie, while at one point, stars like Angela Lansbury and Liza Minnelli could be found in the audience, as well as fashion designer Halston.

A year before the legendary film “Deep Throat” hit the cinemas, “Boys in the Sand” meant the start of the “Porno chic” period, in which explicitly erotic films were openly discussed by celebrities and taken seriously by critics. The chaste eroticism of “Pink Narcissus” was therefore dismissed as obsolete, campy eroticism from bygone days, and the movie was soon forgotten, only to emerge again on gay film festivals and on video in the 1980s and later on on DVD. But even then the reviews were not all positive. After the movie was shown in Australia in the early 1980s, Gavin Harris in “Gay Community News” for example wondered: “Was ‘Pink Narcissus’ as bizarre in 1971; or has mere age brought fascination to the tawdry, tatty gilt and glitter that sixties poofters loved so much?”

A lot has changed since then. In films, nobody has to go through great lengths to find a large variety of gay characters, both positive and negative. That is why it’s now possible to enjoy “Pink Narcissus” for its own unique qualities and as a magnificent piece of art from a different era. The screening - on the original celluloid format - at the EYE Film Museum will be introduced by Klaas Feij.

“Pink Narcissus,” EYE Film Museum, IJpromenade 1,
1031 KT Amsterdam,
June 8, 2017, starts at 19.00.

See for more information.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 328, December 2018

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