Phallus in Wonderland
The guy with the foot-long penis is introducing himself to the fellow who's gone on record as calling the human phallus a heinous device. "I'm the 13-and-a-half-inch guy," says actor Jonah Falcon.
"I wouldn't have recognized you if you didn't tell me," says pro-wrestling sportscaster Chad Damiani. "You know, if I had what you have, I'd be out here doing jumping jacks." Most of us would.
"Yeah, well, they actually measured me on camera," allows 28-year-old Falcon, whose skintight jeans seem designed to reveal the fact that he's smuggling an anaconda around New York. "But, no pun intended, it got cut."
And speaking of cut, no pun intended, here comes Phil Galasso, who three years ago had cosmetic surgery for the restoration of his long-ago decapitated foreskin. "I'd wanted it done for 20 years," says a wistful Galasso, a New Jerseybased radio engineer. "By my late thirties, I'd lost so much sensitivity that it took me forever to come. I tried a stretching technique and that wasn't successful, so finally I found a urologist and had the surgery. It may not be as natural as the original now, but I feel like a teenager again."
Now how's that for a testimonial? It's a midweek evening at the edge of Times Square and we are in a corporate office suite where waiters are passing cheese miniquiches and skewered bacon bits to a good-sized gathering of people in party clothes. Far from being a pervert conclave, the occasion is a screening for participants in a documentary about that most culturally sensitive organ, the penis. The film in question is called Private Dicks: Men Exposed and is a sequel, of sorts, to a 1996 movie by Meema Spadola and Thom Powers called Breasts. The earlier film, which looked at the two most culturally... uh, freighted parts of the human anatomy, was made on the basis of a 26-minute demo reel that cost the filmmakers $7000 and went on to become, as Spadola notes, Cinemax's highest-rated documentary ever.
That the success of Breasts would lead to a film called Private Dicks may seem an automatic assumption to anyone but the directors. After the first film, explains Powers, HBO executive Sheila Nevins said she already knew what they should do next. "We both said, 'No way,' " says Spadola. "No way will we do a documentary about dicks."
Why not? Spadola had a project on the children of gay and lesbian parents that she was eager to get back to. And both worried about becoming typecast. The surface topography narrows once you've finished with breasts and dicks, and it's the rare filmmaker who's willing to tackle the funky interior spaces. Then there's the issue of finding men who are not only willing to talk frankly about their penises on camera but to do it unclothed.
"We weren't sure about people being naked," says Powers. "We weren't sure we could show penises. But then we figured we'd be pilloried if we didn't show naked men."
There are 25 of them, most fully exposed, in a film running a little over 55 minutes. And they cover the gamut, even if it's a gamut that fundamentally extends no further than from A to B. There is Falcon, claimant to the title of largest documented penis in the United States, and there is a man whose organ is, as he demonstrates on camera, half the size of a Tiparillo when erect. There are black men and white men and Latino men and Asian men and gay men and straight men and virile men and impotent men and men with sexually transmitted diseases. There is one affable bearded female-to-male transsexual whose "penis" is essentially a hormone-enhanced clitoris. There is one male-to-female transsexual who obligingly points out that, in gender-reassignment surgery, the penis isn't lopped off, but "turned inside out to create the vaginal walls."
There is Boris Esterkis, a paraplegic who lost all feeling below the nipples at 18, when the bike he was riding was hit by a car. Esterkis is here tonight with his wife, Lynn Jacobs. "I was called by a friend to fill the disability slot in this dickology," explains Esterkis, a Russian-born Web site entrepreneur. "He knew I'd probably be comfortable with it. He was not. My accident happened so young that there's very little of the sexual before and after. Plus, I'm lucky that I can perform. Not everybody has the wherewithal, either psychologically or physically. But I do. Someone once asked my wife, 'How do you two do it?' And she said, 'Very, very well, and as often as possible.'"
Esterkis is one of the few men in the documentary to keep his pants on; he appears in a pair of gray Jockey shorts. "Maybe it's a European shyness, but I decided not to be totally naked. I'd rather make a point without having to show everything. At the last moment, when they were filming, I said, 'Wait a minute,' and I took off my socks and my watch because I didn't want it to look like cheap porn."
It looks like anything but. "We were afraid, making the film, that men wouldn't speak," says Powers. "Men talk about their bodies in different ways. They talk about their feelings in different ways, too. And it isn't just penises, it's showing men's bodies, small builds or heavy builds or whatever. And that just makes people very nervous."
One of three NYU fraternity brothers who appear on camera together, Jerry Dial originally "thought I was an insane person to have agreed." Once the cameras were rolling, however, Dial found himself talking about inadequacy, myths of black virility, and his own unexplained loss of libido with the kind of candor it takes some people years of 50-minute hours to attain. "This stuff needs to be discussed," says Kelvin Shivers, who makes some fairly wacky onscreen pronouncements. "A lot of people should know there's nothing wrong with talking about who you are and what you like to do."
As performance artist Calvin Lom says, "I never thought it was appropriate to be proud of my penis. I never thought about a lot of these questions that men only joke about. The big surprise to me was that friends of my girlfriend had more problems with me doing it than I did. I was, like, shocked that they're so possessive of their boyfriends' penises. It's like it's theirs. They made my girlfriend feel guilty about letting me participate, like she should have been more protective of her dick."
Private Dicks airs March 15 at 11 on HBO.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.