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Andy Warhol, Gus Van Sant and Jean Genet: Controversial Gay movies at LACMA

My Hustler Andy Warhold Paul AmericaAndy Warhol, Gus Van Sant, Jean Genet: Risqué and/or controversial Gay movies at LACMA (Image: Paul America in Andy Warhol's My Hustler)

Whether or not you find the label “queer” idiotic, misleading, simple-minded, and/or downright offensive, if you're in L.A. it would be worth your time (whatever your sexual orientation and however you choose to label it) to check out the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's mini-film series “Outlawed! Queer Cinema Before the Culture Wars.”

On Saturday, March 23, in conjunction with the closing weekend of its exhibition “Robert Mapplethorpe: XYZ,” LACMA will be presenting two film programs “that not only share Mapplethorpe's provocative embrace of homosexual themes, but were also subjected to the same suppression and censure that confronted Mapplethorpe's art”: at 5 p.m., “America's Most Wanted: The Queer Underground,” featuring Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour, Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, and Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising; and at 7:30 p.m., “Temptations: My Hustler and Mala Noche,” featuring Andy Warhol's My Hustler and Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche. Admission is free.

Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour, Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, and Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising

The 26-minute Un Chant d'Amour (1950) is Jean Genet's only film, which, unsurprisingly, faced censorship issues when first screened in the United States in the mid-'60s. The LACMA release (see below) describes Un Chant d'Amour (“A Song of Love”) as “an iconic landmark of queer cinema for its lyrical, often surrealistic portrayal of the depravation and auto-erotic despair of male prisoners in solitary confinement.” Now, that's not quite the movie I saw. Though undeniably lyrical and dreamlike, in Un Chant d'Amour Jean Genet doesn't pass judgment on the sexual actions and/or imagination of the film's handsome male prisoners. In fact, Genet blatantly eroticizes their hunger for (physical) human contact. No wonder U.S. cops and judges were so pissed off at the film. (And if you think that's a thing of the past in the so-called “Western Democracies,” you might want to think again – or just get yourself better informed.)

I've never watched Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (1963), but considering the fact that it has angered reactionary politicians, police officers, and Supreme Court judges eager to make a mockery of democracy whenever they get a chance, Smith's film must definitely be worth a look. Described in the LACMA release as a “paean to biker culture,” Scorpio Rising (1963) is an underground classic of sorts. The film's director, Kenneth Anger, is best known for his putrid Hollywood Babylon books.

Andy Warhol's My Hustler and Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche

In My Hustler (1965), Paul America is the hustler of choice “for both the men and the women who are shacked up in a Fire Island beach house.” America died at age 38, after being hit by a car in Ormond Beach, Florida.

Based on Oregon poet Walt Curtis' autobiographical novel, Gus Van Sant's Mala Noche (1985) is a loosely constructed drama about a handsome Portland store clerk (an excellent performance by Tim Streeter) who falls madly in lust with a young, poor, undocumented Mexican. The weirdest thing about Mala Noche, the movie that launched Van Sant's career, is that this mostly raw, uncompromising effort was made by the same guy who would direct stuff like Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester. Note: To the best of my knowledge, at least in the few American urban centers where it was shown, Mala Noche was never outlawed or banned or confiscated.

LACMA warns that the films in the “Outlawed! Queer Cinema Before the Culture Wars” screenings “may not be suitable for all audiences, viewer discretion is advised.” If only they'd had that sort of warning prior to a screening of the nausea-inducing It's a Wonderful Life. See below more information about the “Outlawed!” films and their legal problems, via the LACMA website.

Un Chant d'Amour - … The film was banned in the US in 1966 after a Berkeley screening led to a trial by the Alameda County Superior Court and subsequent hearings by the California District Court of Appeals and, eventually, the Supreme Court. Long admired by everyone from Jean Cocteau to Todd Haynes (who pays homage to it in his New Queer Cinema classic Poison), Genet's film will screen in a recently struck 35mm print. 1950/b&w/26 min. | Scr/dir: Jean Genet.

Flaming Creatures - Jack Smith described Flaming Creatures as “a comedy set in a haunted movie studio.” … Dogged by law-enforcement authorities ever since its midnight premiere in the spring of 1963, Jack Smith's film has perhaps the most storied journey of any underground movie, and serves as a testament to the censorship faced by queer filmmakers: in Belgium, Jonas Mekas, the film's distributor and biggest champion, screened it his hotel room to guests including Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda and Roman Polanski and later dropped it between reels of Andy Warhol's Sleep during a public screening, causing a small riot and intervention of the Minister of Justice; in March of 1964, two NYPD detectives raided a screening of the film, impounded the print and arrested everyone working at the theater, among them the film's projectionist (experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs), the case went to trial in New York and led to a conviction for both Jacobs and Mekas; a confiscated print ended up in Washington, D.C. where the Supreme Court uphold the ruling; later one of the dissenting judges had his opinion used against him as he sought confirmation to be Chief Justice, which improbably led to a screening of the film in the capital under the auspices of Senator Strom Thurmond. … 1963/b&w/43 min./16mm | Scr/dir: Jack Smith.

Scorpio Rising - Rock 'n roll sides, ample leather, and Marlon Brando all figure into Kenneth Anger's seminal paean to biker culture. The same day Jonas Mekas was arrested in New York for screening Genet's Un Chant d'Amour as a benefit for the defense fund in the Flaming Creatures lawsuit, across the country Michael Getz is taken into custody by a Vice Squad in Los Angeles for playing Anger's film in his Hollywood theater. 1963/color/30 min. | Scr/dir: Kenneth Anger.

My Hustler - Inspired by Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures … Andy Warhol turned to filmmaking in 1963. Two years later, he had a considerable filmography under his belt, and, thanks to My Hustler, a bonafide underground film hit. … 1965/b&w/67 min./16mm | Scr/dir: Andy Warhol; w/ Paul America, Ed Hood, Joseph Campbell.

Mala Noche - 1985/b&w/78 min. | Scr/dir: Gus Van Sant; w/ Tim Streeter, Doug Cooeyate, Ray Monge.

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2 Comments to Andy Warhol, Gus Van Sant and Jean Genet: Controversial Gay movies at LACMA

  1. Wonderful that these films are being shown in such a series at MOMA, especially “Mala Noche” and “My Hustler.”

  2. Lon

    I watched Un Chant d'Amour five or six years ago. It's an incredible film. I need to read Genet's books as well! Thanks for the great post, as always, Andre.