A Bigger Splash: Metrograph Celebrates Sun, Sea, and Lust With a Fire Island Series


Decades before Logo set up its cameras to record the reality-TV show Fire Island — which the critic David Velasco, in the current issue of Bookforum, cuttingly calls the channel’s “latest burlesque of the evacuated gay male experience” — the lavender Xanadu had provided the setting for all kinds of queer pairings (or throuplings) in cinema. Metrograph’s tonic “On Fire Island,” a weekend-long program of five features and a short, salutes the lust that abounds on this strip of land parallel to Long Island’s south shore. The car-free enclave was felicitously described by Andrew Holleran in his novel of homo revelry Dancer From the Dance (1978) “as [being as] slim as a parenthesis, enclosing the Atlantic, the very last fringe of soil on which a man might put up his house, and leave behind him all — absolutely all — of that huge continent to the west.” In this extreme locale, extreme pleasures prevail.

As that Holleran quote suggests, it is mostly men who enjoy sun, sea, and sex in the Metrograph mini-retrospective. Or at least try to: In Andy Warhol’s acerbic My Hustler, filmed on Fire Island over Labor Day weekend in 1965, carnal wishes are always being thwarted. Everyone wants Paul (Paul America), the peroxided stud oiling himself up and mindlessly playing with his switchblade on the beach. He’s been brought out to the oceanside paradise by a supercilious older queen played by Ed Hood, who “ordered” the Adonis through Dial-a-Hustler. But the balding john has competition: His neighbor, Genevieve (Genevieve Charbon), desires Paul, too. As the rivals scrutinize every move the blond butch makes from the vantage of Ed’s veranda, their banter becomes a duet of high-camp malice; the dialogue sounds as if Laclos had written Dangerous Liaisons while on his fifth martini at a piano bar.

In the second of My Hustler’s two reels, the action moves indoors — specifically, to the bathroom, where the Sugar Plum Fairy (Joe Campbell) performs endless ablutions with Paul, advising him on the finer economic points of his new profession and touching him whenever he can. The toned, tanned stud remains indifferent, even to this proposition, made by the film’s stealth star, Dorothy Dean, who appears in the final minutes, leaning against the WC’s doorframe: “Sweetie, I’ll get you educated… Why be carved up by these old faggots?”

Romantic triangulation is even more perverse in Frank Perry’s bizarre Last Summer (1969), which opens with the firm, snug-swimsuit-clad asses of Dan (Bruce Davison) and Peter (Richard Thomas) filling the screen. But, no, they’re not working for Dial-a-Hustler; they’re just two wholesome, straight teenage pals who both become transfixed by Sandy (Barbara Hershey), a summering adolescent beauty with a thing for bird torture and shame and humiliation rituals. Last Summer grows stranger with the arrival of Rhoda (Catherine Burns), a stubby peer burdened by braces and a bowl cut. In my favorite offhand detail in a film rich with them, Rhoda proudly announces that she has a weekly column in her school paper called “Feelings.” These repressed weirdos have nothing but — and little skill at expressing them quietly. Perry’s bewildering movie, which I endorse highly, left me with slight tinnitus, my ears lightly assaulted by all the shrieked declarations and hysterical laughter.

There’s no talking whatsoever in Wakefield Poole’s effulgent XXX milestone Boys in the Sand (1971) — just the sounds of sitars and other Aquarian Age psychedelica, music that accompanies all the fantastic alfresco deep kissing, rimming, sixty-nining, and barebacking. I can’t hope to top this summa of the film’s sensual splendor by the urbane arbiter Parker Tyler in his essential homo-celluloid compendium Screening the Sexes (1972): “Though Fire Island is the movie’s very recognizable locale, it is filmed in arcadianly remote aspects of sunlight, shade and water, and narrated simply on the solemn, picturesque, stark level of myth… The world as filmed in Kodachrome never seemed more innocent, more natural or more obliging.”

Boys in the Sand, which features, during the middle of its three segments, a comely, sexually versatile boyfriend magically materializing after a lonesome hunk tosses a tablet into a David Hockney-perfect pool, helped solidify Fire Island’s reputation as a queer utopia. The contemporaneous Sticks and Stones (1970), the only film by Stan Lopresto, waggishly reminds viewers of the beach town’s dystopian side. Set during a Fourth of July party hosted by eternally bickering couple Peter (Craig Dudley) and Buddy (J. Will Deane), Sticks and Stones is filled with sublimely cruel retorts that can be repurposed for any occasion: “You’ll never live to be as old as you look,” “Darling, your hair is plaid.”

The most recent full-length work in the series, Bill Sherwood’s witty, warm Parting Glances (1986), is also the sole project credited to its maker, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1990. An intimate portrait of creative-class gays in their twenties and thirties living in Manhattan at the height of the pandemic, the movie concludes on Fire Island, where ex-lovers Michael (Richard Ganoung), an editor and aspiring writer, and Nick (Steve Buscemi, unrecognizably smooth-faced), an HIV-positive new waver, reconcile their past and map out the future. Even deep in the plague years, this parenthesis in the Atlantic still afforded a restorative interlude.

‘On Fire Island’
August 11-13