Return to Paradise


The chilly vaults of Anthology Film Archives just got a bit hotter, thanks to a recent acquisition: the oeuvre of porn pioneer Wakefield Poole, best known for the first gay hardcore feature, 1971’s Boys in the Sand. But boy-boy fuck films sharing space with Stan Brakhage isn’t as odd as it may seem. Barely comparable to today’s streamlined videos, Poole’s lovingly crafted movies are ecstatic experiments in the pleasures of both body and mind. A comprehensive retro runs this week with director in tow, allowing a glimpse at a half-remembered utopian moment when visionary cinema joined the reshaping of sex and society.

For most of the 1960s, when Poole lived in New York doing musical theater and shooting industrials, underground films frequently portrayed homosexual themes, though never any real gay sex. By decade’s end, true hardcore loops began screening at rundown art houses. Produced cheaply and anonymously, the sleazy stags propelled an aesthetically offended Poole into action. “I went to the Park Miller and I saw this horrible movie,” remembers Poole, “and I said to my friend, ‘This is the worst, ugliest movie I’ve ever seen! Somebody oughta be able to do something better than this.’ ” Poole’s notion was to combine the lyrical moods of Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger with all-male hardcore action—a taboo that Andy Warhol, Pat Rocco, and Jean Genet had approached, asymptotically, but never quite breached.

Poole’s vision coalesced during a Fire Island summer, when he shot some randy duneside romps featuring his lover, fellow weekenders, and a wholesome-looking blond actor who went by the stage name of Casey Donovan. The result was a trio of magical tales involving cock rings, mustache rides, and godlike Adonises rising, Venus-like, from the frothing Atlantic, set within a travelogue document of everyday life on the secluded gay paradise.

Seminal in more ways than one, Boys in the Sand was the first triple-X film of any orientation to bill its director and actors (thereby launching the career of Donovan, gay porn’s original superstar); it remains the only adult flick ever reviewed in The New York Times. It even began the phenomenon of porn titles spoofing mainstream fare, mocking William Friedkin’s 1970 sissyfest, The Boys in the Band. After opening at the 55th Street Playhouse in December 1971, its notoriety began to attract hetero couples, eager to see what the fuss was about. “A couple of times when women had to go to the bathroom, we had to make sure there were no guys in there,” Poole recalls. By the time Gerard Damiano’s Deep Throat opened the following year, “the egg had cracked,” Poole says, and ’70s porno chic began.

Buoyed by the financial success of Boys in the Sand, Poole followed with Bijou (1972), upping his penchant for visual experimentation to psychedelic proportions. In Bijou, a straight construction worker finds an invite to a private club on Prince Street. Inside, he experiences a bathhouse-style orgy, portrayed as an abstract, consciousness-expanding acid trip. “Poole has aimed his latest above the neck rather than below the belt,” quipped Variety‘s review, “and the result seems clearly directed at the boys on the grass.” Drawing on his experiences staging multimedia happenings, Poole created all the effects in-camera, including a spectacular four-screen jerk-off sequence, shot in a single take.

The Bible (1974), Poole’s only non-gay, softcore feature, was also his one box-office flop. An erotic retelling of Old Testament tales, it stars Georgina Spelvin, fresh from The Devil in Miss Jones. “I had done a Fantasia for adults,” he said. “You know, have a drink or get stoned, go see the movie, and just watch the images.” One of Poole’s friends told him it was “the best and most expensive home movie ever made.”

His remaining films, however, flourished in the blossoming market for gay porn, which began producing other auteurs like Joe Gage and Toby Ross, whom Poole distributed through his 8mm mail-order company. After a West Coast move, Poole directed his most ambitious feature, Take One (1977), an intricately self-referential “docufantasy” set in San Francisco’s male porn palace, the Nob Hill Theater. The film marries interviews with real men to staged scenarios of their confessed sexual desires. In one sequence, a young buck screws his own vintage car; in another, twins do it for the first time (afterward, one says to the other, “So how’s it feel to have a brotherload?”).

Although Poole stopped making films more than a decade ago, men still tell him that his films changed their lives. And his heroic vision of guilt-free sex ultimately spawned an industry, though the artistry of porn’s glory days got lost in the transfer to video. “When I started, I wanted to make a nice, beautiful movie, well lit, where people could be proud of what they’re doing. That’s basically what people are doing now,” Poole says. “But it’s been finessed down to a formula. I got people who really wanted to be together, and make love, as opposed to just making a paycheck.”