Powell book explores porn’s role in early cinematic representation of gay men
While working on his film studies master’s thesis, then-graduate-student, now-assistant professor Ryan Powell found an old videotape at a used bookstore that inspired both his doctorate and his new book, “Coming Together: The Cinematic Elaboration of Gay Male Life, 1945-1979.”
The videotape in question? A gay porno from 1978.
What Powell expected to be scant on exposition and predominantly for arousal was actually rich with narrative content of a non-sexual nature. In one scene, a gay man called his mom and came out over the phone.
“That basically ignited this question that started the whole project, which was, ‘How might gay porn have worked as a site for narrative development of gay content at a time when there wasn’t funding for gay movies to get made otherwise, or it was very difficult?’” he said. “How might the porn industry accommodate material that isn’t necessarily even porn-driven?”
Powell started to think more deeply about that question. He went to film festivals and archives trying to track down more films from the same period.
Very quickly, he started to find that this phenomenon wasn’t limited to just one film, and that the distinction between early gay cinema and porn was a blurry one. He also soon realized that many films and archives had never been written about.
In other films he found clever incorporations of camp, camp humor and even camp references. One film featured drag performance. One series, the “Working Man” trilogy, explored the lives of gay truckers and satirized masculinity.
Other films toyed with genre. Powell recalls finding a porn Western about the relationship between a white man and a Native American during white settlement of the West that devoted very little time to explicit imagery in comparison to its development of a complicated love story.
“There was some playing with narrative, but a lot more playing with genre conventions,” he said. “Finding porn Westerns or porn melodramas or things like that turned out to be a pretty common aspect of it.”
“There was no material on a lot of what I was seeing,” he said.
One of his primary interests was how cinemas, both the physical spaces where films were shown and the actual films that inhabited them, contributed to the social and political coming together of gay men. And within that, he was especially fascinated by the relationship between the emergence of gay liberation politics and cinema — the way narrative content in homemade films and pornography could foster a sense of community among queer men and encourage them to be openly gay in the world.
“One part of it is looking at how did people come together in the space, and another facet of it is how did these films inspire coming together, how did the films inspire community organizing and provide models for how to meet people?” he said.
In the absence of mainstream gay cinema, and in the presence of underground cinemas, lots of queer film found a place for exhibition in homes, community centers and other non-theatrical venues.
Powell also studied how queer filmmaking explored and represented spaces. He found a number of films set in Fire Island, New York. Others filmed sequences in gay bars. Powell wanted to explore the way films and their representation of spaces made certain locales legible to their audiences as gay spaces.
“There’s kind of a rich area of queer studies scholarship that thinks about space and spatiality, so I was also interested in bringing cinema into that,” he said.
Because of the underground nature of some of the films and cinemas Powell was dealing with, his research required lots of digging. He read old issues of The Advocate, a gay newspaper, in search of advertisements or reviews of films. He went to film festivals and searched archives: The British Film Institute, the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives held by the University of Southern California and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Plenty of what he found came from tips from other film scholars. Some harder-to-find films came from chasing leads; Powell managed to track down several out-of-circulation Pat Rocco films by finding the filmmaker’s phone number online and convincing him to share copies of old works.
For his research on cinemas and other venues, Powell relied on materials such as fliers, advertisements and posters. A University of Connecticut archive proved to be a treasure trove of material from the ‘60s and ‘70s. He also interviewed filmmakers and patrons.
The research took a total of six nonconsecutive years, he estimates, between the time he spent researching the material for his dissertation and the work he did later in revisiting the same material for his book.
The finished book, a 264-page volume published by the University of Chicago Press, distills 34 years of queer cinema history into four chapters that trace the growth of the first films made by, for and about men who love men. Powell said he wanted to let the films and film history guide the structure of the book, and thus a neat four distinct periods emerged.
He began with the late ‘40s to the mid ‘60s, when much of the cinema he focused on was still distinctly underground: short avant-garde and experimental pieces, a healthy selection of mail-order porn films, some camp comedies homemade by groups of friends. Then he looked at the period when hardcore porn emerged and how many of those films explored gay liberation. Among these were the first gay films to show in movie theaters. The mid-70s, the third chapter, saw a wave of feature-length dramas as gay independent cinema made its way toward the mainstream. The fourth chapter focuses on the cult porn films that came out of the gay liberation movement of the 70s, investigating the relationship between liberation politics and sexually explicit filmmaking of the time.
Now that he’s completed “Coming Together,” Powell’s next book will explore the impact of aversion therapy on gay and trans life. The book, “The Picturing of Aversion Therapy,” will offer the first in-depth historical investigation of aversion therapy between its commercial development in the 1950s and discontinuation in the 1970s.