Bright Lights Film Journal

Sex in Shangri-La: Wakefield Poole on DVD

“No top, no bottom. Just two men discovering each other.”

Queers were a vital part of the “porno chic” movement of the early 1970s, and the undisputed leader of that band was Wakefield Poole. His first two features, Boys in the Sand (1971) and Bijou (1972), broke the ground on which many a later filmmaker would tread in an effort to bring art and hardcore sex together on screen.

With today’s mostly clinical, assembly-line porn, populated by unnaturally buff gym bods (presumably a backlash to the image of queer bodies ravaged by AIDS), it’s hard to imagine it was only three decades ago that Poole’s films presented a quite different vision of a queer erotic utopia starring cute horny “regular guys” fucking their way through gorgeous dreamscapes. Or as the director himself put it in his autobiography Dirty Poole, “high-profile homosexuality with no guilt.”

Poole was born in 1936 and came to queerdom in a way that many a queen might find enviable. A prodigy singer and dancer, he was warbling “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” semi-professionally at age 9, followed by precocious visits to the local toilets by age 10, where he startled and entranced adult tricks with his sheer directness. His later, more conventional career as a Broadway choreographer and dancer brought him in contact with many luminaries, including Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Rock Hudson (whose bed he shared). He even met both of the witches from Oz, Margaret Hamilton and Billie Burke.

Being a mostly guilt-free homo (and occasional bisexual, even married once), Poole dabbled in all the rituals of the with-it modern queer of the era, including patronizing New York’s porn houses. It was after a 1970 screening of Highway Hustler — featuring a sodomy scene complete with knife to the throat — that Poole realized he could do better.

A new six-hour, two-DVD package, The Wakefield Poole Collection offers a welcome chance to reassess how well Poole did. Included are three features: Boys in the Sand (1971), Bijou (1972), and Boys in the Sand II (1986), all with running commentary by the director, along with five bonus shorts, two image galleries, and an interview with Poole by fellow gay porn pioneer Jerry Douglas (The Back Row).

Boys in the Sand is a happy, if occasionally dated, marriage of lyrical imagery and sweaty sex starring porn legend Casey Donovan (aka Cal Culver). Donovan was ideal for Poole’s purpose of liberating queer sex films from the grainy guilty loop mentality. His face, said the director, was “perfect — the type you see in magazine ads, not porno movies.” The film has an ambitious three-part structure. The opening scene riffs on Venus Rising, with Donovan running through the woods in bell bottoms (period couture freaks, take note), coming to rest on a beach, where he strips down. Peter Fisk (the director’s boyfriend at the time) rises out of the water to join Donovan for some sexual gymnastics. Poole doesn’t stint on the hardcore action, but infuses it with artful shots of ocean waves and abstract leaf patterns that give it a sense of poetry. These give the film a hitherto unglimpsed mystical quality, but must have sent some viewers, anxious for that quick, shame-charged orgasm, screaming toward the exit.

Parts two and three are variations on the theme of hedonism and sexual freedom, with some witty touches added. To indicate time passing, Poole shows calendar pages burning away. And again Donovan’s lover arises from water — after he throws a magic mail-order pill into a swimming pool. Part three shows Poole’s spunk in coupling Donovan with a black man, Tommy Moore, not a common occurrence at the time. The film stresses another kind of liberation throughout in keeping the characters’ sexuality fluid, far from the typical trope of the day. Poole’s simple direction to the actors says it all: “No top, no bottom, just two men discovering each other.”

Boys in the Sand (nee Boys in the Band), shot in the mythic brambles and beaches of Fire Island, broke taboos in other ways. It was purportedly the first “all-male” movie reviewed in Variety and the first to garner a recurring ad in the stuffy New York Times. All this on a budget of under $5,000 — though as Poole told me, “This was at the height of my drug use, so don’t hold me to it!”

His next film, Bijou, would cost almost six times that much, despite the fact that it’s shot almost entirely in an empty apartment. Though empty is hardly the word for this entrancing netherworld replete with strobe lights, multiple screens, black velvet drapings, neon signs (“Remove Clothes”), and pervasive shadows. Poole conjures a sensual demimonde of narcissistic lust, complete with fun-house atmosphere and endless mirrors that reflect and obscure the action. Star Bill Harrison, whose dick is long enough to bounce off his kneecaps (when it’s not hitting some cocksucker‘s lower intestine from either end), finds a ticket to the “Bijou,” a mysterious theater set up in a New York brownstone. Its apparent purpose? To let him explore all manner of sexual fantasies. Nominally straight, the character butt-fucks his way to bliss with a variety of hunks seen in half-light or almost no light. Poole drenches the action in psychedelic effects, all created — in the best indie style — within the camera to save money. This “Bijou” is an artful reimagining of the pleasures of the baths, where time stops and anonymity inspires endless sensual scenarios, however brief. It’s also Poole’s most searching vision of the pleasurable future that was supposed to follow sexual liberation.

Boys in the Sand II (1986) also stars Casey Donovan and follows him as he screws his way across beaches and meadows and snazzy ’80s-chic apartments. Fifteen years later the conceit seems tired, as does Donovan (who would die of AIDS complications a year after the film’s release), and Boys in the Sand II is an undistinguished work. Better are the shorts, including rare footage from a 1974 gay pride parade in San Francisco; Andy, a tribute to Poole’s friend Andy Warhol; and Roger, a stylized loop of one of gay porn’s gorgeous early superstars, oiled to the tits and masturbating against a black background. Self-worship never looked so good.