For sure my favourite new TV show is going to be Saturday Night at the Bijou, HardTV’s vintage gay porn venture, which starts Saturday, March 5. Host Richard Ryder will take a page from Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne in that he will have a guest each week, and the two of them will discuss the stars, directors and hairstyles of such ’70s and ’80s classics as Centurions of Rome, A Night at the Adonis or The Bigger the Better. Imagine — Richard Ryder riffing on Lee Ryder. Saturdays will never be the same.
Vintage gay porn seems to be everywhere all of a sudden. The Black Eagle regularly shows the classics, and Bruno Gmünder just published a gorgeous picture book called Porn: From Andy Warhol to X-Tube, by Kevin Clarke. The book is a comprehensive history, jam-packed with colour plates of many famous gay pornstars. The title refers to Warhol’s 1969 film Blue Movie, the first theatrically released feature to show hardcore sex, but certainly not the last. The porn industry may be in trouble due to the internet, but porn itself is never going away.
Saturday Night at the Bijou takes its title from Bijou Films. The company has been around for 40 years and is still run by its original boss, Steve Toushin. “These films can never be duplicated in style, actor-type and sexual interpretation,” he says. If anyone is aware of porn’s history, it’s Toushin. The man’s been arrested on obscenity charges 21 times, the first for showing Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures in 1969. Nowadays, he is practically on a one-man mission to rescue the classics from oblivion. “I feel Bijou does a very good restoration. I have an excellent professional capture card, powerful computers and dedicated technicians who demand quality.”
In the ’70s, porn was shot on film, either 8mm or 16mm, very often on short ends or expired film stock, which was cheaper. In most cases, the negatives no longer exist, and the best possible prints are often scratched or have sprocket or optical-track damage, not to mention fading. “They didn’t know about lighting, film speed or aperture settings, so rendering and restoring many of these films is a challenge,” says Toushin.
In the ’80s, porn was shot on video, which also varies in format, from half-inch to Beta to VHS. The old video equipment was, well, shit, so many of these videos look horrible. But the impact was enormous. “Video created a 400-percent increase of gay films being made,” says Toushin. The whole nature of how porn was made and viewed changed almost overnight.
The appeal of vintage gay porn seems to be that these films were made in a time before condom use became the industry standard. Toushin says viewers appreciate “the era of sexual freedom without harm, sex without fear.” But pre-condom is not the same as bareback, for which Toushin has little use. “The objective of barebacking films is to emphasize the non-usage of condoms and to show cum dripping out of an asshole and from a mouth,” he explains. “There is nothing wrong with cum, but I would rather see these young men not exposed to HIV.” Despite his strong stance against barebacking (his website includes a lengthy diatribe cautioning bareback filmmakers about the inevitable lawsuits and government intervention that loom in their future), Toushin would never entertain the idea of withdrawing pre-condom porn from distribution. “It was a different era,” he says. “You don’t destroy history.”
And what a history it is. “From 1970 to about 1990, the industry was completely unregulated,” Toushin says, the most glaring example being the flagrant use of unlicensed pop tunes on many of the soundtracks. “In 1988 the feds tried to eliminate porn when Bill 2257 went into law. Now, three pieces of ID are required of absolutely everyone in an adult film, even the very old, and the fine is not a civil fine but a criminal one.”
But no government initiative has ever been able to put the genie back in the bottle. Indeed, the changing modes of delivery — from movie theatre screen to TV screen to computer screen — made porn ubiquitous, more popular have than ever, practically mainstream. Even gay kids who live north of nowhere can get it instantly, which makes it even more important to remember the time when gay erotica was a rare and powerful thing.
Vintage porn is an important part of our history. It’s what we looked like and how we got off back in the ’70s and ’80s, decades now long forgotten. The big appeal for me is the men themselves, men like Jack Wrangler, Al Parker, Chad Douglas. I like them because they looked like real men and not like the pumped-up waxed fruits working in porn today. Some of them even look drunk or high, just like in real life. There was no manscaping, no condoms and sometimes no erections, either. It was a simpler time.
Toushin sent me a dozen films from his 250-title catalogue, and some of these movies are great. There’s Raw Country (1972), which features guys who look like they might be in some hippie band, like America or the Allman Brothers. There’s lots of applying of suntan lotion, a glass mobile hung in tree branches, sex on a swing and a rather brutal-looking rape. Raw Country is artsy and horny at the same time, a rare feat. Wanted (1982) features Jack Wrangler as a nasty prison warden who sodomizes guys on the chain gang until two of them escape. Screenplay (1984) stars Lee Ryder as a drifter who happens across a film set and has sex with just about everyone before finally settling down with the leading man. One scene shows Ryder being masturbated under a table in a restaurant. No sucking, no fucking, and yet it remains an incredibly real and erotic scene. And A Night at the Adonis (1982) actually feels more like a real movie than a porno. Director Jack Deveau cared enough to rent a Steadicam for the opening shot. The characters are distinct, the acting is natural, and the script even references German arthouse director Fassbinder. That’s highbrow smut.
There are some turkeys in the bunch, like the bizarre Michael, Angelo & David (1979). David, a hick from Italy, comes to New York to visit his Uncle Michael. In one gag, David asks a stranger to show him the Empire State Building; he shows David a miniature version and then seduces him. David sends home a postcard that reads, “The Empire State Building wasn’t as big as I thought it was.” At his going-away party, his own uncle has sex with him in front of everybody. Those Italians. But the hot session is interrupted by a phone call from Joan Crawford. I am not making this up. Then there’s the absolutely zany White Trash (1980), which starts with discordant piano music over a shot of a zonked hippie smelling roses, and it ends with two boys at a Led Zeppelin concert blowing each other as Robert Plant sings onstage.
Good, bad or indifferent, do yourself a favour and watch Saturday Night at the Bijou. You might very well love it. At the least you’ll get a good laugh from all those ridiculous ’70s haircuts.
Info: hardtv.ca, bijouworld.com, brunogmuender.com
Paul Bellini writes fab’s Bellini at Large column and is an accomplished writer, comedian and porn connoisseur.
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