Second only to the trauma of hearing someone describe their dreams is listening to someone recount the particulars of their sex lives. Wake me when the age of reality TV and the tell-all memoir is over. If I have to listen to any more verbal exhibitionists discuss their cavity-surfing, I may have to form a neo-prude support group with the motto "I didn't ask, so please don't tell."
Sure, the new documentary Gay Sex in the 70s sounds like fun. And the Tom Selleck mustaches, shirtless men in suspenders, crotch-hugging shorts and other fashion no-no's are their own reward. By riding shotgun to what one been-there-done-them gay man calls "the most libertine period that the world has ever seen since Rome," Gay Sex in the 70s should be, in theory, a wild ride.
The film centers on a slim chapter in gay history, after the Stonewall riots of 1969, in which gay men asserted their rights and visibility, but before the onslaught of AIDS. Manhattan in that interim, say an assortment of artists, activists, writers such as Larry Kramer, and unapologetic hedonists interviewed for the film, was an island bacchanal. Men got it on in an enormous array of locations, an enormous number of times and with an enormous number of partners. "You could have sex several times a day!" exclaims one Barton Benes, who was there.
Joseph F. Lovett's unimaginatively filmed talkathon fails to find meaning in the sexual cornucopia that was Manhattan. The seemingly endless sexual anecdotes lack the essential elements of insight, reflection, engaging personalities or artfulness that move the sex-crazed work of novelist Mary Gaitskill, films like Kinsey or Cronenberg's Crash, and the oeuvres of Paul Morrissey and Gregg Araki away from superficial sex and into the realm of art.
By the time the talk turns to one man's discussion of VD clinic pickups and a surprise brush with throat gonorrhea, some viewers may wonder at what cost comes this eye-opening peek into a subculture. More information does not yield deeper meaning, and with each interview the mechanics of sex become clearer, but the sense of defiance and liberation which that sex conveyed becomes harder to appreciate. Lovett's inability to offer more than lurid anecdotes may reflect our current sex-fueled culture, in which porn and promiscuity no longer carry quite the connotation of deviance they once did.
The preferred venues for anonymous quickies were legion: public parks, bars, bathhouses, gyms and abandoned riverside piers. Decaying warehouses allowed photographers and voyeurs to observe the trysts within, a phenomenon documented in surveillance shots of the action. Even stranger were the hookups in truck containers parked in Manhattan's meat-packing district. The trucks were often so dark that adventurous men would light a Bic to see what exactly they were fucking. The bizarre rituals and unlikely make-out locales are as weirdly esoteric as the McDonald's parking lots and lover's lanes that high school kids transform into their preferred beats. And like high school kids, most of the men show a remarkable inability to temper their giddiness with reflection. Their joy at transgression ultimately feels self-serving when so many of their brethren died for the libidinal cause.
Gay Sex in the 70s' superficiality is one thing. Even harder to take is Lovett's disregard for even middling visual interest. Talking-head interviews suggest Lovett has no awareness of advancements in non-static documentary technique since the 1960s. The harsh, unflattering lighting cuts through any possibility of artfulness and gives the same sense of surgical invasiveness that already accompanies the verbal anecdotes.
In the end, Lovett's cause remains fairly ambiguous. If the filmmaker's goal was to reduce gay culture of a certain time and place to the most outward dimensions of its sex life, he has succeeded marvelously. If it was to convey the embrace of freedom and self-determination that informed the gay liberation movement, then his failure is glaring.