Welcome back to The Deuce Notebook, a collaboration between MUBI's Notebook and The Deuce Film Series, our monthly event at Nitehawk Williamsburg that excavates the facts and fantasies of cinema's most infamous block in the world: 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. For each screening, my co-hosts and I pick a flick that we think embodies the era of all-night moviegoing down the “Forty-Deuce” and present the theater at which it premiered.
Over the years, we’ve occasionally gone "off" the Deuce to a nearby theatre; likewise, we’ve invited guest curators to present a film of their choosing. Back in July of 2013, our first guest—the queer film, video, and performance collective Dirty Looks (whose "On Location" program was a HUGE inspiration for our series)—took over and presented Jerry Douglas’ pioneering, all-male adult title The Back Row, which premiered at the 55th Street Playhouse in 1973. Our special guest that evening was novelist and essayist Samuel Delany!
Dirty Looks Founder and Director Bradford Nordeen has graciously guest-written this month’s column, a rumination on the film and his own career as a modern-day porn-exhibitor extraordinaire.
And… once again, our "famous" raffle—the grand prize of which is "Maestro" Jeff Cashvan’s original poster seen above. Enter for your chance to win Jeff’s one-sheet by shooting us an email and saying "Howdy!": firstname.lastname@example.org
And now, an extra naughty treat from our friend Bradford…
—The Deuce Jockeys
The first shot of Jerry Douglas’ The Back Row distractedly wavers from the marquee of a porn theatre to the denim-cradled ass of adult film star Casey Donovan. Casey strides a quick tour under signage, like, “X MOVIES Open 24 hours” and “Dust to Dust plus Male Shorts,” before settling on “Gay Films.” Paying premium at the ticket booth, Casey heads inside. The white walls are scuffed and the theatre dark. Lighting a cigarette and taking a seat, he watches from the back row as our first duo commences with the dance of glances, shrugs, and caresses that will compose this title’s topography. In their theater seats, a sailor and a hipster suck each other to completion, then Casey heads back out into the daylight.
This is the Deuce of the early 1970s, mind you, and flyers for “What Makes a Marine” and banners for USO memorials saddle comfortably alongside the all-night porn houses. Casey weaves through traffic, playfully reading clocks and signage as he dips into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Searching the sea of new arrivals, his lips curl into a grin when his eyes land almost instantly on actor George Payne, who sports a cowboy hat. Casey coolly rushes down the escalator to make their eyes meet. Thus begins the cat and mouse sexcapade that is The Back Row.
We screened The Back Row in 2013 as part of On Location, a festival organized through the queer film non-profit that I founded, Dirty Looks Inc. Parts of the site-specific festival were held in buildings formerly occupied by Times Square staples like Show World, The Adonis, and The Savoy. Curator Karl McCool transported our special guest for the screening from Philadelphia to New York that day and back: Samuel Delany. Delany read from his famed treatise on the scene, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. The small screening room was packed and viewers in their mostly early-to-mid-twenties hung on his every word.
Delany’s personable text elaborates in vivid detail upon the streets (and seats) that Donovan will pound for the remainder of The Back Row’s 85-minute run time. The Deuce was a thin strip of Manhattan—just a couple blocks, really—that housed X-rated cinemas and the men who filled them. Not all were gay-identified. Some merely went to let off steam, with other men. And this element is important for Delany’s text and for the space that the Deuce created, more broadly. It was a liminal zone, where street hustlers and trade could convene with Hasidic Jews and businessmen. His account details the streetlife, the ticket vendors, those lobbies and auditoriums. For all of the homosocial encounters that Delany’s brilliant book traces, the content flickering on-screen seldom gets more than a passing mention.
Casey keeps a careful proximity between his denim-clad ass and the crotch of his Cowboy, clearly no novice to the necessary distance of cruising. He slips through Port Authority into the MTA station, to a downtown train track. On board, the men stretch out, facing one another, tracing the baskets of their pants with rough fingerwork. Alighting, our Cowboy chases his trade through Washington Square Park, and into the original Pleasure Chest sex shop, in the West Village, where Donovan dons a harness, a leatherman’s cap and various pieces of accoutrement in an elaborate fantasy sequence dreamed up by the Cowboy, sprawled out on the shop’s waterbed.
Back on the streets, Casey ups the ante for this thrill of the chase by hailing a cab. The poor Cowboy peers into his wallet and sulks before successfully thumbing a ride. The pursuit doesn’t cover much ground, just enough to get our duo back to The Deuce. Casey slips into the doorway of the gloriously-painted façade of the 42st Cinema. “Adults only / $2.00 All Seats / Full Sound / Color / New Show Every Monday / Feature & Featuretts. Continuous from 9am to Midnight.”
In 2015, I became a pornographic film exhibitor. It was never really my intention; though I’d been screening porn from the very beginning of Dirty Looks, it was mostly my collaborators who brought the heat. I created the series solo, bouncing ideas and images off of my then-boyfriend, who was an exceptional graphic designer, but Karl McCool (who eventually organized The Back Row event), caused me to expand our little curatorial nook into a collective when he emailed me, by way of an introduction, an essay contrasting Fred Halsted’s cinema with the films of Wakefield Poole. Sold! We began working with Clara López Menéndez, who had been touring the contempo-art porn Community Action Center in alternative (and unlikely) spaces throughout Europe. As part of Dirty Looks, she pined to create a free-flowing porn program, similar to the one presented at her hometown Paradiso Cinema (itself the subject of a 2013 documentary). The last porn house in Madrid, Paradiso exhibited films in 12-hour blocks. This changed the way that movie-going works, as most people weren’t there for any specific thing on-screen, but for the space the cinema provided.
We got a chance to work with Machine Project, a Los Angeles non-profit with a kooky reputation and a 14-seat auditorium in their basement that looked like an old Vaudeville theatre. We pitched Clara's 12-hour porn screening model, to which they countered, “why not make it 24?” The theatre would run from midnight to midnight, for one epic, unspooling day, showcasing gay pornographic material that had been made for movie theatres—or, we came to say, “pre-VHS.” When we held the first pop-up, we went in as novices, to some degree: I had viewed very few landmarks titles of gay pornography, so personally that first marathon was devised as a crash course.
Legally clearing porn films, or purchasing their screening rights, posed a challenge, as the majority of their makers and performers are long-dead. In his production diary/tell-all, published years after the release of The Back Row, Jerry Douglas spends considerable time describing the shady financiers, including one “Big Max,” whose money had made the film. While these were the copyright holders at one point, their legal contacts weren’t exactly listed on any of today’s “usual channels.” I had also recently landed in hot water for working with a shady company, who erroneously claimed ownership to titles that they simply didn’t possess. So we played the films like Paradiso did—in succession, with no program listing. Advertising a “Drop-in” model, or “come-n-go,” we called it Sesión Continua.
And it was a hit! Popular inside the theatre as much as it was out. An installation by Robert Acklen filled in the windows on the front of the building, transforming them into the red-tile façade of one of Los Angeles’ few remaining porn houses, East Hollywood’s The Tiki Theater. Passengers traveling down the busy Alvarado and Sunset Boulevard intersection found illuminated signage, “Open 24 Hours,” with posters for Boys In The Sand, El Paso Wrecking Corp, and Sextool hanging somewhat indiscreetly. 14 seats weren’t too hard to fill, though many preferred to linger outside and socialize. The entrance was in the rear of the building. To get there, you weaved through a razor-wire-lined alleyway that shared a cinderblock wall with a gas station and smelled like piss. When time came to stage another pop-up one year later, it occasioned a full-page feature in the LA Weekly.
Once inside the cinema, the Cowboy discovers that the ticket price is actually $5, not the $2.00 advertised outside. To make their way in, Casey and our Cowboy must take turns maneuvering past the lewd advances of the ticket booth clerk. They select seats on opposing sides of the room, one eye on the porn, one eye on the prey—whoever makes the first move shows the weakness of desire. On the screen, a porno is playing called Roommate Wanted!
First-time filmmaker Jerry Douglas goes into great detail, describing this film-within-a-film montage in his production diary, published in the September 1989 issue of Manshots. “Faced with the problem of directing my first sex scene… [I] ease into the scenes of sexual foreplay and hope that nature will take its course. It doesn’t.” Roommate Wanted! was shot in a friend’s apartment (“It’ll be a hoot!”) but porno sets always come with their share of drama. Douglas came from a theatre background, and was hired to write and direct a feature based on the success of his erotic, off-Broadway production, Score (later adapted into a feature by Radley Metzger, and also starring Casey Donavon). Douglas writes of his artistic ambitions for Roommates Wanted!: “find new and interesting camera angles, which are at once inobtrusive to the actors, yet will provide a better vantage point for what people are paying to see.”
In contrast to the sociological focal point of Delany’s 1970s porn-palace play, and the presentation tactics of Madrid’s last porn house circa 2013, Douglas reflects on his interest in elevating the aesthetic qualities of gay male hardcore film, putting the product first. This period is marked by many, similar efforts—Fred Halsted, Joe Gage, and Tom DeSimone all embraced pornographic film production as a truly cinematic or art house ambition, beyond theater owners’ constantly-churning need for new smut (mind you, home video technologies would not become a household standard until 1983).
In its heyday, this was a homosexual Hollywood. Mainstream cinema would take another decade to allow for queer characters to take center stage, so for homosexual workers interested in self-representational cinema, the only lucrative option was porn. Gay liberation also meant that interest around the material was extending beyond its intended audience, and liberal heteros were popping out from their cinemas (which were running cross-over hits at the time, like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat) and into ours, to take in the homosexual lifestyle.
But they were still commercial objects, which meant that these films became quickly disposable, a consumer product with a finite shelf date. When I went into research mode for our porn theatre, I was shocked to find next-to-nothing on the internet about some of the most significant contributions to the genre (the historical gruntwork was largely relegated to blogs and WordPress sites: bj’s gay porno-crazed ramblings, and Tim in Vermont were the most comprehensive). To this day, The Back Row is only available as a VHS tape transfer, muddy, hazed out and faded. But however niche your kink, there’s always a community.
And one day, as I ramped up promotion for our third iteration of Sesión Continua, a Facebook post garnered a comment from one “Lee Jones,” a brusque contributor who claimed to be in the possession of hundreds of 16mm hardcore gay male film prints. I was still relatively new to the genre and excited to make this acquaintance. We set a time to meet, where he would hand off some files that he deemed essential and discuss our respective projects. “Shall we meet at The Eagle LA?” I suggested, the Silverlake gay leather bar that was formerly Gauntlet II, the setting of more than a few pornographic titles. “Where’s that?” he inquired. “Life doesn’t imitate art??!” I shot back. I had no idea…
In the middle of Roommate Wanted! our roommates share a joint across a glass coffee table. Swathed in red light, our Cowboy’s vision blurs and the performers on screen suddenly become replaced by him and Casey. The hue of their filmstock is richer, more golden. Life imitating art, Casey leans forward in his cinema seat, and offers a joint across the aisle. The Cowboy accepts, but takes the spliff back to his own chair, where he inhales before reaching back to return it. When both have returned to their chosen stations, the screen fantasy becomes even more buoyant, with Casey repeatedly flopping down onto a waterbed, all smiles. Audience-surrogate Casey smiles back at the scene, but the Cowboy remains uneasy, eager to consummate their cruise, but too macho to make the “first” move. Casey’s arm encircles the back of the empty seat next to him in smug invitation, but the Cowboy sits, implacable. He resigns himself to the screen fantasy, and opens his shirt to tease at his nipples. When self-awareness returns, he closes it back up and peers over at Casey, who has garnered the attention of a lithe construction worker in a hardhat, which disappears into his lap as the workman gets to work.
Lee Jones is actually a social media pseudonym for film archivist Joe Rubin (the name, adopted from the protagonist of David L. Allen’s 1973 porn epic Light from the Second Story Window). With two partners, Rubin runs Vinegar Syndrome, the tremendously successful American home video distribution company that specializes in protecting and preserving genre films produced primarily between the 1960s and 1980s. Meeting me at The Eagle, Joe demanded we find the darkest corner of the bar, given his aversion to sunlight. In that recess, he reminisced about his introduction to the genre, at age ten, when he forced his mother to rent an adult VHS tape at the video store, inspired by its fantasy-oriented cover. What he viewed at that formative age inspired him to dedicate a life to the learning and preservation of such a cinema. When I offered to fetch him a drink, he asked for a whiskey sour. Rubin is a cinephile on steroids, a specialist whose body of knowledge is astounding, but whose bedside manner is… pragmatic, at best. For the remaining two Los Angeles iterations of Sesión Continua and the subsequent New York versions, Rubin became a co-conspirator, imposing that expertise (and his curt opinions) all over the project.
With Rubin, this world opened up to me; I viewed so many remarkable “lost” films like Threads of Man, about an elderly tailor, whose selfless workmanship literally kills him, at which point his sewing form suddenly becomes flesh so that, in the afterlife, love can finally be attained. These films clearly hoped to create a new kind of visual storytelling for the gay population and they used the supply and demand of pornography’s marketplace to get funding, with sexual scenarios (the alleged name of the game) often tossed in, irksomely at random. Screening these lost gems was a revelation.
Our third Sesión also expanded from the 14-seat Machine Project into a 36-seat black box theatre, Son of Semele, in Historic Filipinotown. This was closer to MacArthur Park and the long-shuttered Park Theatre (née, the Alvarado), another source of inspiration for Sesión: at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, Clara and I learned about the Park’s polyamorous programming, which would play films by Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, or the Kuchar Brothers alongside softcore titles by filmmakers like Pat Rocco, in its brief run as an adult cinema (1968 – 1971). The print calendars for these years were beautifully designed: busy pages brimming with intricate, handwritten titles and illustrated figures. We collaborated with artists Aimee Goguen and Scott Ewalt in year three, to emulate those aesthetics, in the hopes of using graphic design to evoke a moment, but also to render that space as inclusive, where the audience could expand to a queer Dirty Looks demographic.
After Casey cums for the construction worker and slides his cock back into those tight-fitted jeans, he searches across the theatre to find the Cowboy accompanied by the ticket seller, whose lewd advances both had shirked off, prior. So Casey slips down the stairwell, into the men’s room. Roommate Wanted! continues unspooling upstairs, but the last 30-minutes of this film takes place in the toilets. Casey washes his meat and is met by the Cowboy, who enters the john and, almost unfathomably, their coquettish courtship continues, as they tug, rub and preen within inches of one another, neither breaking this extended cruise to embrace the other. The hardhat pushes through the toilet door, causing the Cowboy to flee and Casey engages in an extended threesome with the ticket seller and the construction worker, while his ill-fated lover hovers, just outside the door, understandably enervated.
Every year there was a little bit of action at Sesión, which was desirable. Maybe one or two handies at first. Later, performance artist Ron Athey told me a trick from his days organizing events with Vaginal Crème Davis: they always brought in a plant to get the juices flowing. By year-four, my investment in the material had swelled and we collaborated with Rubin to bring 8-hours of 16mm film to the screen, in lieu of our usual digital projection. I don’t know of anyone else who has held such a screening since… But that year especially, the action was raging. I had, essentially, staged a sex party! A hot man in overalls grazed me pointedly during the 16mm block and I searched back into the darkness. I found his cock, erect in his lap, and began to jerk him off. Just then, one of the board members of Dirty Looks slid into the seat next to me. I froze. We engaged in hushed pleasantries and I used my knowledge of the space to quietly usher the young man into the back, where we could continue our exchange, out of sight from my employer.
Eventually the Cowboy gets flustered and flees. Casey chases after him, with actual urgency and stops the Cowboy on the street. The film doesn’t utilize sync-sound, though not a fragment of dialogue has even been intoned till now, when the mood shifts markedly, and, after a hushed huddle, the music lifts. The men smile at one another as they make their way through The Deuce, under signs that read “Jesus Saves,” and “Avis.” They’re laughing now, cajoling. Hell, a bus even pulls up next to them with an ad that reads, “Applause.” They head to the piers where they gaze out over the water and (finally!) hold hands and kiss. Gay lib has not given way to the sex that we’ve witnessed in the scenes prior but to this sudden, almost unlikely romance. “If I could, I would walk a while with you,” the singer sunnily croons on the soundtrack, “I would live and try with you, to really fall in love.” Casey pulls his new paramour into a phone booth and, closing the glass doors, they fall into one another and kiss passionately. When Casey’s eyes finally open, they fix on another man who strolls past. The final shot of the film positions this cruising guy’s reflection, frozen in the phone booth glass between the lovers.
We took the pop-up porn theatre elsewhere, staging it in New York twice and once in an outdoor tent in a queer performance festival in Austin. In addition to the friend I found in Rubin, I began deepening the archival context of this project by collaborating with Evan Purchell (who provided much of the invaluable research materials for this essay). A porn historian, Purchell’s research abilities far eclipsed my own, and the visual materials on hand for our fourth Sesión were truly astounding. For me, however, a rift had developed between the utilitarian function of the porn theater space and the significance of those screen images. I guess I had eventually succeeded in making Sesión a contemporary porn theatre. But maybe there’s a reason there aren’t porn theatres in 2021. As a historian, as a film programmer, and as a politico queer, I wanted to honor both worlds—I wanted people to look up from a lap and take in the images on screen.
After four years, I gave up on the Sesión Continua model. I had tried, and perhaps succeeded in a mission to create a space, but I was won over by the material. And in some strange ways, I think I found that the two didn’t entirely support one another, anymore. Or, perhaps, the films have ultimately outgrown their function. In the years since, Purchell has made amazing strides in communicating their historical importance with Ask Any Buddy, a feature-length porn mixtape and its ongoing podcast. Rubin has collaborated with Jenni Olson to restore the films of Arthur J. Bressan Jr. for a forthcoming home video release by Altered Innocence. That’s actually a favorite memory of my time as a porn peddler: the closing film of Sesión Continua 2017 was Bressan’s Passing Strangers. Much like the overtly amorous tone at the end of The Back Row, an urban couple, who have been corresponding over a personal ad in black & white film footage, meet up and the film switches to color. They join in a gay pride parade and make love on a blanket in the park. Their union is so romantic and so hopeful. The soundtrack is Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedie'' on repeat, and it poured out of Son of Semele that night, while I sat outside, exhausted on a bench from this long-haul, as friend after friend emerged, all smiles, to give me a big hug. That doesn’t sound like appropriate behavior for a porn theatre. But maybe I had accidentally built something better.
—text by Bradford Nordeen