Wednesday, July 30, 2014

FANTASIA 2014—DIRTY MOVIES: A History of the "Stag" Film

Suffering the dog days of Summer in Boise, Idaho, I regret all the more not being able to attend this year's Fantasia International Film Festival (Fantasia), where I usually escape in late July-early August. Admittedly, Montreal has its own potential to steam me out, but at least at Fantasia I can spend most of my time in air-conditioned movie theaters watching my first and favorite passion: genre films.

Still, not being able to attend in person this year has afforded an opportunity to explore an experience of Fantasia contingent upon the generosity of publicists willing to share streaming links, and access to (at least) archival films incorporated into the program on such online platforms as Vudu and Netflix. In other words, I still have access to content, if not community. There's an argument to be made—and film festival scholar Dina Iordanova has recently made it at EatDrinkFilms—that "nowadays (and especially in view of the growing practice to stream content across borders), the films that show at a festival can be seen in multiple contexts. It is no longer necessary to go to a specialist film festival to see the films. More and more one goes to a festival for the socializing and the togetherness. The cohesive power of an event is in its 'liveness', and no longer in its expertly programmed content." [Citations omitted.]

It is, in fact, Fantasia's "live" events and workshops that are especially rewarding, which I sincerely regret missing, along with sharing the spectatorial experience with an enthusiastic fan-based audience. Case in point would be their program "Dirty Movies: A History of the 'Stag' Film", scheduled for Sunday, August 3, 9:15PM in the J.A. De Seve Theatre. Sponsored by Le Cinéclub de Montréal: The Film Society (C/FS), this combination lecture and screening event will be hosted by Philippe Spurrell (C/FS) and Thomas Waugh (Concordia University Research Chair in Sexual Representation and Documentary, Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema).

Le Cinéclub de Montréal's Philippe Spurrell contextualizes the screening in his program capsule: "Beginning many decades ago, in an age when explicit erotic imagery was taboo, 16mm projectors were set up in secret darkened rooms, where risky stag films showed generations of people everything they wanted to know about sex. Even more risky than viewing them was actually filming them, but that didn't stop some directors from being creative, funny and outrageously daring. We will explore the origins and development of the genre from its early days through the 1970s.

"The centerpiece of this exploration is the little-seen Inserts (1974). This black comedy, written and directed by John Byrum, tells the story of a washed-up silent-movie director who reboots his career by making films in his crumbling mansion for the growing XXX market. Playing the lead in this major studio release is Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, CE3K), who took on this small project as a quiet break following months of insanity on a big-budget film he predicted would flop because it featured a giant mechanical rubber shark. Other key players who give intense (and quite revealing) performances are Veronica Cartwright (Alien) and Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria). The late great Bob Hoskins (Brazil, Roger Rabbit) plays a money man named Big Mac. Very theatrical and oddly compelling, Inserts still has the ability to shock modern audiences, who get drawn into its cast of damaged characters and its intelligently acidic screenplay by a director who successfully pitched the idea to a producer riding in the New York taxi he was driving.

"PLUS: Preceding the feature will be unedited footage of iconic pin-up Betty Page struck directly from 16mm camera negatives, and original vintage 16mm prints of shorts actually played at stag parties many decades ago, including a short film shot at the notorious Manson Family lair Spahn Ranch—and a clip from If You See Kay. If you do see her, tell her not to miss all these rare moving images pulled from the Cinéclub/Film Society vaults, all to the benefit of your sexual education! (Strictly 18+)"

Though he had admitted reservations about Inserts and didn't consider it successful, Roger Ebert nonetheless conceded it was "an odd and ambitious little movie" with "a certain quirky charm." In other words, "it's interesting and it has its moments." At the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum opined: "Chances are you'll either be bored stiff by the conceits or exhilarated; personally, I found it gripping throughout."

Vincent Canby of The New York Times categorized Inserts as "essentially a stunt, a slapstick melodrama in the form of a one-act, one-set, five-character play. It is, however, a very clever, smart-mouthed stunt that, in its self-described 'degenerate' way, recalls more accurately aspects of old Hollywood than any number of other period films, including Gable and Lombard. It's not anything that Inserts says, but something to do with the dizzy pace, the wisecracks, the lack of sentimentality and, mostly, the characters, who could be shadowy parodies of once-living legends."

With his customary poetic prowess, Fernando Croce offers: "Between silents and talkies (art and exploitation? body and soul?), 'the valley of indecency.' The key is Richard Dreyfuss' resemblance to Josef von Sternberg as a ruined auteur scrambling for genital close-ups circa 1930, the rest of this Hollywood-Babylon apparition falls in place as brackish facsimiles of Jeanne Eagels, Louis B. Meyer, et al. ...Cinema is alternately equated to bootlegging, grave-digging and meat-wrapping and unwrapping, yet Fassbinder's holy whore in John Byrum's sardonic exposition of the artist's dilemma is also a vivacious gal in a cyclone of splayed crotches and wisecracks. ...[R]eviewers got stuck on the X-rating and, like the trenchcoaters in the opening scene, fumbled in the dark wondering 'where the fuck's the cum shot?' "

I'm glad Croce mentions that opening sequence because it sets up the cultural context of the stag parties where porno films—like the one being made in the movie—were exhibited. Here, I will lean heavily on the scholastic work of Thomas Waugh, who I have long admired, met in San Francisco in June 2001 (before I began writing on film), and wish I could have interviewed in Montreal (now that I do write on film). I will especially rely on his commentary on stag films from his volume Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall (in which he inscribed: "Dear Michael, Happy Reading!"), and his essay "Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-Screen" published in Porn Studies, edited by Linda Williams (Duke University Press, 2004).

According to Waugh, stag parties (or "smokers", as they were sometimes called in the U.S.) were a form of non-theatrical distribution for stag films where "itinerant projectionists would provide an evening of reels on command. Younger audiences belonged to college fraternities, while members of benevolent societies such as the Shriners made up the already-initiated part of the constituency." Apparently, the law tolerated this semiclandestine circulation and in Bloomington, Indiana, the American Legion even went so far as to announce their smokers in the local paper.

"In both European and American contexts," Waugh writes, "the screenings had both an instructional and a communal function, operating as instruments of socialization and initiation. How did audiences respond? Not with the deadly silence that would later reign in the porn houses of the 1970s, but with a boisterous, interactive free-for-all. The films were silent of course, but both the intertitles and the audience repartee articulated an oral culture of masculine sexuality, drawing on both the folk tradition of vulgar humor and the personal bravado of individual spectators competing with each other."

Inserts—whose title is fraught with salacious double-entendres of penetration and intravenous drug use—likewise inserts its audience among the rowdy crew of the film's opening sequence who immediately begin heckling the first few fluttering frames of the projected reel. Straightaway are complaints that the film is in black-and-white, not color (throughout the film director Byrum shifts between color and black-and-white to distinguish between art as complicated and ongoing process and art as the finished—and surprisingly innocent—artifact). Harlene (a startlingly disrobed Veronica Cartwright) and Rex, the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies) simulate an over-the-top ascot-strangulation and rape scene.

My first thought when seeing Stephen Davies enter the frame naked with only an ascot around his neck was that he wasn't bad-looking and had a good build, which was uncharacteristic of most of the men in these early stag films whose out-of-shape bodies were rarely shown (the focus being—allegedly—on women's bodies), and were often masked to assert their anonymity and render the women even more abject. Davies enters the frame and someone in the audience shouts out, "Looks like a homo to me" and is met with, "It takes one to know one." The film will reveal that Rex, the Wonder Dog is, indeed, homosexual and that the reel's director "Boy Wonder" (Dreyfuss) suffers from impotence both sexual and creative, unable to get his "rope to rise." When the final complaint shouted out at this stag reel is, "Where the fuck's the cum shot?", Inserts' opening credits roll and we're taken to the scene of the cinematic crime to discover why, in fact, there is no fucking cum shot.

This brief, boisterous opening scene can be unpacked in several ways. First, as already mentioned, as a culturally-specific mode of specularization that—as Waugh has argued—serves both an initiatory and socializing function. The "narrative" of Boy Wonder's reel is simple and straightforward. Harlene (Cartwright) mocks Rex's dick and is punished for it by being strangled with his ascot and then savagely raped. As one of the few female members at this smoker complains in disgust, "You guys are sick!"

Waugh identifies that sickness as the "great American pop culture tradition of genital aphasia of the postwar era, shaped by censorship, yes, but also by shame and disavowal", implying that the inability to talk about sex, and genitalia in particular, was a mental disorder peculiar to the culture at the time. Aphasia, a medical complication that robs a victim of the ability to understand written and spoken language, though medically a physical malady, is here metaphorically applied as a cultural and psychological affect; i.e., a "consistent pattern of denial."

Waugh pulls no punches in asserting that stag films are a "paradoxical, primitive, and innocent art form that seeks cunt and ... discovers prick." Clearly, they were films "presumably directed by men, and ultimately sutured within the framework of male subjectivity." He asks what these films and the stag parties thrown to show them teach us directly, even indirectly, about men? He suggests: "The whole mosaic of underground erotic film and its spin-off genres does more than expose men's gazes and gestures, and even the occasional full-shot male body. It also expresses the spectrum of male sociality, the experience of having a penis (and being white) in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. For in front of and behind the camera, on the screen and in the screening room, this spectrum radiates in all its ambiguities and over-determinedness, however hermetic, abstract, individualized, and displaced the narratives are." If stag films did indeed seek cunt and discover prick, they also discovered that pricks live in packs, which is precisely their initiatory and socializing function.

Let's pursue that "spectrum of male sociality" by exploring what Waugh argues is "the homosocial core of masculinity as constructed within American society" tenaciously engaged by stag films, both on-screen and off-screen. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick earlier identified this "homosocial continuum" and defined "homosocial desire" as "the affective or social force, the glue, even when its manifestation is hostility or hatred or something less emotively charged, that shapes an important relationship [between men]."

Waugh likewise cites John. H. Gagnon and William Simon as the only social scientists studying the stags' subcultural milieu. Even earlier than Sedgwick, they wrote in 1967 that the primary referent of stag films lay "in the area of homosocial reinforcement of masculinity and hence only indirectly a reinforcement of heterosexual committments."

Now we are getting, as they say, to the meat of the matter.

"Above all," Waugh continues, "the specularization of homosocial desire is in place, in the screening room and on the screen: men getting hard pretending not to watch men getting hard watching images of men getting hard watching or fucking women." (I absolutely love that quote.) Waugh wonders why Dr. Kinsey—who was intensely aware of stag movies as an element in the erotic socialization of American (white) men and asked his respondents about the use of the stag film as an object of arousal—curiously failed to ask them "about the context of erotic stimulation, about the same-sex collective public sharing of these cine-homoerotic stimuli."

Waugh asks: "What about homosociality on-screen? The screen, like a mirror, reflected many of the same dynamics unfolding in the screening room." He cites several examples of films where "men share women, men get off watching men with women, men help men with women, men supplant men with women, men procure women for men, and so on."

Let's turn now to Veronica Cartwright's performance as Harlene—whose name is an inch away from harlot. This is, without question, one of Cartwright's finest performances, steering away from the stereotyped weeping and sniffling seen in her childhood performances (The Children's Hour, The Birds) up through their adult inflections (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). From the moment she opens her mouth, it becomes apparent why she is a fallen silent screen star reduced to making blue movies. Like Jean Hagen's character in Singin' in the Rain (1952), talkies destroyed her career as a silent screen star because her squeaky voice couldn't meet up to the demands of the medium; but, whereas Hagen's Lina Lamont was a comic villain—the diva audiences loved to hate—Cartwright's Harlene is a truly likeable, if horribly damaged, soul whose former career has spiraled downward into drug use and debauchery. If she is a harlot, she is the proverbial harlot with a heart of gold.

Just as Inserts' heckling audience in the first scene tagged the actor in the stag film as a homo, the presumption would have been that the actress was a whore. "The hooker presides over the entire corpus of stags in a generalized way," Waugh writes, "inflected by the familiar hypocritical class-centric contempt for the working girl since the audience undoubtedly assumed the female performers to be sex workers—and most clearly they often were as much, just as their inept male partners were assumed to be, and visibly were, amateurs. (In fact, pursuing this documentary reading, the stag corpus may well be the best visual ethnography of sex workers in America during this period.) Many of the performers were decades older and less trim than the prevailing ideal of the sixteen-year-old Candy Barr, adding the complication of age to the misogynist economy at play around the sex worker.

"On a literal level, the hooker is incarnated specifically in character types who exchange sex for money, not desire. ...Few literally drawn prostitute characters appear in the stag stories as such, but the recurring exchange of money and services implies that most female characters are candidates. This element of populist male blame which channels the stresses of masculinity awakened by the stag-film setting, this social scapegoating attached to the attractive / repulsive lumpen femme fatale, of course makes for a familiar element in popular and high art of the period." Contempt, Waugh argues, centers on the seller and not the buyer.

By contradistinction, Jessica Harper's Cathy Cake arrives on-set with her mobster pal Big Mac (Hoskins) only "to watch" the proceedings; but, her prurient interest is a thin guise over her ambitious self-interest and rampant desire. She represents the "other" taboo: the woman who initiates; the woman who wants it. And yet by her very agency she sets into motion the reason why Boy Wonder's stag film doesn't have a cum shot and—at the same time in a parting glance between them—confirms that for the two of them making a stag film together offered a momentary sense of creating meaningful art.

At the very least, she gets Boy Wonder's rope to rise (though at first she feigns naïvete: "What does that mean 'rope to rise'? Do you have a magic act?"). And oddly enough—and reason enough for an "X" rating, I guess—his erection redeems an impotent creativity and, more broadly, an abandoned community of artists who still struggle to create something, even if it is nowhere near the peak of their previous careers, lapsing from the licit into the illicit. Just as the initiatory and socializing aspects of misogyny utilize pornography to serve a masculinist culture, impotence is likewise an important informing factor. In his seminal lecture on pornography ("Pink Madness: Why Does Aphrodite Drive Us Crazy With Pornography?"), Jungian theorist James Hillman suggested impotence as the ground for the erotic imagination and its compensatory fantasies. You see Boy Wonder come "alive" while shooting the strangulation-rape scene in a kind of frenzied joy that is offset by his gentler, more genuine joy when he comes "alive" making love to Miss—"please call me Cathy"—Cake. Their final exchanged glance is bittersweet with their shared hunger for a genuine life and the momentary satisfaction that perhaps only artifice can provide.

Finally, let's get back to that homo actor and his role in all of this. By, once again, inserting homosexuality into an allegedly heterosexual enterprise, suggestion is made of the homosocial continuum vital to American culture at the time, and the important role homosexuals played in helping heterosexual men hold onto their vulnerable self-definition. I can't help but quote Fran Lebowitz, who quipped: "If you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is generally regarded as American culture, you would pretty much be left with Let's Make a Deal."

Waugh goes on in his research to explore the shift from stag films to gay physique films—which, naturally, exceeds the scope of this review—but suffice it to say that he argues that "like the stags, the physique films were made by men for men about men, and thus they, too, center around the specularization of masculinity, and fall along the spectrum of homosociality." They overlap "mostly in the homosocial codes and formulas: rivalry and sharing, display and specularization, trickery and triangles, crescendo and release. And the logic of surrogacy, fetish, and tongue-in-cheek coding—from frenzied wrestling as a knowing simulacrum of fucking to fun with spears and guns and boots." I could readily cite the arousing scene between Rupert (Alan Bates) and Gerald (Oliver Reed) in Ken Russell's Women In Love (1969) as an example of the first surrogacy, and all the Men's adventure magazines of the fifties and sixties (and their illustrated pulp covers) as an example of the second, or even the now well-documented gun rivalry between Montgomery Clift and John Ireland in Howard Hawks' Red River (1948).

Waugh concludes: "Comparing, then, the stag corpus and its physique underbelly, one is overwhelmed by how much social status and audience infrastructure differently determine the iconographies of desire. But, in fact, the two genres were moving in similar directions at the beginning of the sexual revolution in the fifties, both of them poised nervously on the same homosocial continuum of desire. Both were also eagerly embracing new technologies, 16mm, 8mm, soon super-8, and eventually that electronic panacea that was still a gleam in the producers' eyes in 1968, home video. Thanks to these technologies, both traditions penetrated the domestic sphere, the physique films through aboveground mail order, the stag films through under-the-counter sales (the days of the itinerant projectionists had passed). Both stags and physiques in mutated form would also erupt into the hard-core features of tenderloin theatrical circuits in the late sixties and early seventies—the entrenchment of homosocial male eroticism in the marketplace of the commodified sexual revolution. These two interrelated corpuses, these mosaics of homosociality, ... thus reentered the public patriarchal sphere together, arm in arm, pricks in hand."


Gagnon, John H., and William Simon. Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality. Chicago: Aldine, 1973: 266.

Hillman, James. "Pink Madness: Why Does Aphrodite Drive Us Crazy With Pornography?" Spring audio, 1995.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985:2.

Waugh, Thomas. Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996: 309-311.

Waugh, Thomas. "Homosociality in the Classical American Stag Film: Off-Screen, On-Screen." In Porn Studies, ed. Linda Williams. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004: 127-141.


Sister Wendy Beckett said...

Wow, exhaustive in detail and especially in inspection. I was literally expecting to read just a simple, straight forward review of INSERTS.... but, ooooh, Lassie..... What an interesting and intensive reading of not only Byrum's film, but also of the history and parallel sociography, iconography and heterogenous same-sex-uality closeness and (unspoken) homosexual interest of not only early stag films and the circumstances in which they were initially screened, but also of the next generation's beefcake/muscle appreciation zines.... Needless to say, from word one to the very conclusion, I am left awe-struck at the magnitude and spectrum of the subjects at hand and especially with the writers craftsmanship, follow-through and for an incredible, unexpectedly thorough reading experience! My hats (and pants!) off to you for an insanely good job well done!

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you, Sister, for your kind words. It is always especially heartening in a culture that moves so swiftly to have an older piece such as this taken off the shelf and dusted to be appreciated all over again. Thank you for reminding me that it is worth it to look into films with deep respect. My very best to you.