Having a Ball: Anthology Invites You to Play With Two Cult Queer Legends


Gay underground moving-image eminences Curt McDowell and Tom Rubnitz were born in and chronicled different decades, lived on opposite coasts, worked in different formats, and were drawn to dissimilar subjects. Despite their vastly disparate oeuvres, however, their work — which screens at Anthology for a week, presented in conjunction with “THINGS: A Queer Legacy of Art and Play,” an exhibition at Participant Inc. that runs through August 21 — abounds with anarchic impulses, whether the lawlessness of desire in McDowell’s films or the giddy mayhem of doll play and drag dress-up in Rubnitz’s videos. (The artists also share a brutal biographical detail: They both died of AIDS-related causes, McDowell in 1987 at age 42, Rubnitz in 1992 at 36.)

“God gave him a calling in life and that was to make pornography,” George Kuchar, the creator of such canonical lo-fi camp fantasias as Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966), once said of McDowell, who was Kuchar’s student at the San Francisco Art Institute (they’d soon become lovers and artistic collaborators). Shot on black-and-white 16mm and made in SF primarily during the 1970s, that storied decade of gay lib and libertinism, several of McDowell’s films are organized around hot man-on-man action: Asses are plowed, cocks devoured, sluices of cum spurted. But the XXX activities are often part of a larger, more cerebral project, of McDowell trying to make sense of who he is by figuring out who and what turns him on.

One of his earliest films, Confessions (1971), showcases his gifts for the carnal memoir. The eleven-minute short opens with McDowell, then in his mid-twenties, lying in bed and speaking directly to the camera. The mustached, louchely alluring filmmaker recounts, ostensibly for his parents, his sexual exploits (“I cornholed anything that would bend over”). The monologue is less an abject apology than it is a moment of self-reckoning. That inclination toward auto-interrogation continues in Confessions as McDowell, heard off-screen, asks members of his circle, “Tell me what’s right and what’s wrong about me.” The query and the variety of responses it prompts are good-natured, never solemn or maudlin — and are intercut with extreme close-ups of an array of coital practices (or what the theorist Linda Williams memorably termed “meat shots”).

Other works, like Loads (1980), more audaciously delineate and depict McDowell’s desires, including his predilection for straight men. Undeniably, sex is seriously scrutinized in McDowell’s films. But they are also defined by a ludic sensibility, as the title of Wieners and Buns Musical (1972) suggests. This outré song-fest, featuring a sailor-suited McDowell in a pansexual love triangle with a married couple played by Ainslie Pryor (a frequent player in the director’s films) and Kuchar, anticipates the sexed-up screwball of Thundercrack! (1975), a 160-minute opus as awash in bodily fluids as it is B-movie clichés.

Written by and co-starring Kuchar, Thundercrack!, which can be loosely described as a dark-and-stormy-night tale involving an octet of horny men and women (including the director’s sister, Melinda) and an even more oversexed gorilla, is exceptional in its polymorphous perversity and side-splitting dialogue. One-liners range from the deliberately corny, lubricious food metaphor (“Just a little longer and we’ll have mustard and ketchup and mayonnaise,” one fellow says to the woman who’s avidly deep-throating him) to the floridly theatrical pronouncement. The latter is the specialty of the incomparable Marion Eaton, who became a cult star largely thanks to her work with McDowell. Here she plays Gert Hammond, a widow who hosts the motley crew of fornicators — and who pleasures herself with a variety of peeled cylindrical vegetables. “A harmless excursion into the steaming tropics in the name of art,” Mrs. Hammond says, with excessive rhetorical relish, of an exploit of one of her guests — a summa that could serve as a tagline for this torrid, comic debauch.

Food is treated much more wholesomely, though no less ingeniously, in several of Rubnitz’s gleeful, Day-Glo-hued videos, works that distill his singular sunny absurdity. The ninety-second Strawberry Shortcut (1989) features Rubnitz regular Lady Bunny, the drag demi-goddess, in a panic, having forgotten to provide dessert for her ladies’ luncheon. A sickening, saccharine concoction of jam, doughnuts, cherry 7Up, Reddi-wip, and the fruit of the title saves the social, the sweet excess wonderfully amplified by the winks and goofy grins of the party hostess and her drag sistren.

Some of those extravagantly bewigged and maquillaged performers would reappear in Rubnitz’s best-known work, the YouTube favorite Pickle Surprise, also from ’89. They also show up in Wigstock: The Movie (1987), a twenty-minute documentary of the legendary end-of-summer drag be-in held for many years in Tompkins Square Park. Rubnitz was an exuberant ethnographer of the East Village queer scene, capturing Pyramid Club luminaries like the peroxided, snake-hipped John Sex in the buoyant music video Hustle With My Muscle (1986) and the spy-spoof trailer Undercover…Me! (1989) — and the three-fourths human, one-quarter toy Frieda the Disco Doll in Plastic Rap from 1986 (sample lyric: “Holly Hobby is in the house”). But grim reality was never far from Rubnitz’s ebullient visions. The last line in the credit scroll of Strawberry Shortcut reads: “Dedicated to the Hope for a Cure for AIDS.”

‘Loads of Curt McDowell: A Restoration Retrospective’ + ‘Pickle Surprise! The Eyes of Tom Rubnitz’
Anthology Film Archives
August 11–17