At its best, male pornography tries to answer the needs of the identity it serves. In the early 1970s, there were two primary issues addressed by gay porn. Wakefield Poole dealt with one of these in his debut movie Boys in the Sand: the need to be open, recognizable, happy and involved in ordinary experiences.
In Boys in the Sand, Poole chose Casey Donovan to be his Everyman. In the movie, Donovan swam in the ocean, wandered around Fire Island with his dog, picked up mail, had sex. To simply see all of these represented on screen was immensely liberating.
The message of the film was that being gay in the world can be a natural, everyday, wholesome and thoroughly happy experience. And at the time, this was a truly revolutionary message.
Following the death of Wakefield Poole at the age of 85, I revisited a film of his which established the man as a true pioneer of man-on-man sex on screen – Bijou.
In Bijou, produced a year after Boys in the Sand, Poole addressed a more ambitious need: the hunger to feel a connection with a spirituality that, while not religious, connects male sexuality to transcendent meaning.
Spirituality based in male sex was a focus not only of Wakefield Poole but of other serious gay pornographers such as Jack Deveau (The Museum), Michael Zen (Falconhead), Peter de Rome (Prometheus, Second Coming, Destroying Angel) and others.
Bijou can’t be watched as one might watch a porn film made today. For example, in the entire first half of the film, featured at the top of this page, there’s one failed attempt at masturbation and one male/male fuck. Much of the film is composed of little more than wandering.
The first five or ten minutes of Bijou display a shaky amateurishness that at first might be off-putting. But this was due to the film’s tiny budget, Poole’s nearly complete lack of experience as a filmmaker (his background was in dance and choreography), and his laudable interest in doing things no one else had done.
From the very beginning, the soundtrack is clearly carefully thought out. It begins with Mars, the Bringer of War by Gustav Holst. The piece was one movement of an orchestral suite Holst called The Planets.
The Planets was intended to illustrate the astrological meanings of the various planets. This movement is the most thoroughly masculine of the set. In Bijou, it’s used to underscore a montage of men working at a construction site. The images are jerky and clearly shot without permission: this was a period when gay porn and guerrilla film overlapped generously.
A story of sorts begins to unfold: a young man wearing a hard hat leaves the construction site. At the same time, an older man is driving his Mercedes convertible while a young woman loosely ambles down the street. The Mercedes driver adjusts his radio, and suddenly we’re pulled into the film by the simple redefining of the Holst as music from the car radio.
The three characters meet at an intersection: the Mercedes hits the young woman and her purse is thrown across the street, landing at the feet of the construction worker. In a moment of impulsiveness, he grabs the purse and hides it under his jean jacket.
This protagonist is clearly not exactly a hero, not above petty crime. But this kind of impulsive action is something all of us are capable of, particularly when we’re surprised by unforeseen events.
The construction worker/thief walks home. The walls of his tiny apartment have pin-ups of naked women everywhere. He turns on his little transistor radio, empties the purse onto his bed and rifles through the contents. There’s a rosary, a set of keys. Nothing interests him until he comes across an invitation to something called “Bijou”.
We’re nine minutes in and the protagonist begins to take his clothes off. As he strips, Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin plays on the radio. He finds the woman’s lipstick and sticks out his tongue to taste it, and the camera slowly pans down his torso. It’s the first shot of the movie that hints that this may be porn after all.
He strokes himself through his jeans, then pulls his cock out and continues to play with himself in a halfhearted way. The camera zooms slowly out and back in, unsure of what to do. Again, Poole was not a filmmaker. And in a way, the camera seems to be as halfhearted as the protagonist.
He takes a shower. There was no hot water in the apartment on the day of the shoot, and the water was freezing. We watch the protagonist wash his very 70s gay male body: thin, unmuscular, but nicely put together, a physique that in no way competes with his monumental cock.
He tries to jerk off, images of the pin-ups on his walls flash in his mind. He seems to be about to come but suddenly remembers the woman being hit by the car. He abruptly stops and the camera pulls back and Dazed and Confused snaps back from being inside his mind to coming from the tinny, cheap radio, echoing the soundtrack change earlier in the film with Mars, the Bringer of War.
As if to appease the film’s audience who are still expecting pornography, the camera generously worships the protagonists cock while he dries off.
He gets dressed and walks to the address on the Bijou invitation. As he enters the building and walks up a flight of stairs, we hear carnival music and crowd sounds very quietly. Although this makes no sense, it’s successful in evoking an atmosphere of cheap entertainment, of sideshows and freaks.
Suddenly a flickering red word fills the screen: BIJOU. A heavily made-up older woman is reading a magazine in the ticket booth. He knocks on the window to get her attention and we’re given a series of close-ups of various parts of her sagging face. He gives her the ticket. She points to a doorway and, in the first and only spoken line of the entire movie, she says: “Right through there.”
He walks into absolute darkness and silence. He holds up a lighter in order to see, and very quietly, music begins. And this is where Bijou actually begins, with everything dictated by Poole’s brilliant choice of an extremely arcane American classical music composition.
The piece is Fra Angelico by Alan Hohvaness. It was written in 1967 so it was very new when Poole somehow found a recording of it.
Hohvaness (1911-2000) was a tremendously spiritual composer. Some of his other titles are The Spirit of the Trees, Vishnu, City of Light, Mysterious Mountain, Prayer of St. Gregory, The Garden of Adonis, All Men are Brothers, and so on. His music is consistently pantheistic, ecstatic and accessible—all qualities that would lead Poole to choose his music for Bijou.
The artist for whom this piece was named, Fra Angelico (meaning “Angelic Brother”), was an Italian Dominican monk and an artist of the early Renaissance, dying around 1555. His paintings are deeply spiritual, depicting his spiritual world with exquisite design, detail, clarity.
Hovhaness’ composition is meant to embody the spirituality of Fra Angelico. The music is mysterious and evocative, heavily ornamented and using a scale that in the West is associated with Orientalism and mysticism. The central tune begins very simply, becoming more and more ecstatic as the piece progresses.
Rather than being composed using a traditional classical form, Fra Angelico is organized much as a film would be organized: in large sections that jump from one to the next, creating a sonic montage of surprise, strangeness, wonder and mystery.
It’s no coincidence that the music has a sound one might associate with the Middle East, with Asia and exoticism. Gay artists have often looked to places as far from where they lived as possible in order to attain a vantage point on the often impossible demands of being gay in the West.
What I find remarkable is that Poole chose this 17 minute composition, played it through without edits or a single interruption, and used it to perfectly support and enhance the impossible story he tells. It reveals a profound knowledge of music and an extraordinary sensitivity to the interworking of music, editing and imagery.
Rather than slog through an analysis of what Poole achieves with Fra Angelico, I suggest you first listen to the piece—it’s very beautiful on its own—and then watch the extended clip of Bijou at the top of this page and pay attention to the extraordinary beauty that results from the meticulous marrying of music and image.
If you follow the film carefully through the protagonist’s strange wanderings through the surreal landscape of Bijou, the sex, when it finally occurs nearly twenty minutes from the beginning, expresses possibly better than any other gay film — porn or non-porn — the profundity and transcendent power of male sex. It’s a singular achievement. In this, Poole’s Bijou really stands alone.
It should also be noted here that the entire film was produced on a shoestring budget. All of the remarkable shots inside the theater were actually tiny sets that Poole constructed in his two-room apartment. One of the great wonders of gay pornography is how much is often achieved with nearly no resources at all. In fact it’s often when a pornographer has a sizable budget that the work suffers.
See as evidence of this the film Poole shot after Bijou. Called Bible!, it had a decent budget and was a disastrous mess.
Why did Poole choose a man with an ordinary body, a pleasant but hardly extravagantly handsome face and a very large cock to be the protagonist?
It isn’t because the man sends those he fucks into ecstasy — in fact the man he fucks in the section of the film shown above doesn’t react at all. He doesn’t writhe or moan or use any of the now-clichéd gestures that are meant to show how helpless and worshipful he might be.
It’s certainly not meant to argue that having a large cock is in any sense a privileged or exalted condition. Rather, the man was chosen because he is rather average physically. His cock is a symbol for the fact that our sex, which we all carry on and in us, is the very heart of our identity. Our sexuality is a way of opening for us a way to a more blissful engagement with life.
Poole carefully chose the men to represent gayness in his films. As mentioned above, Casey Donovan was Everyman for Boys in the Sand because he was almost generically appealing: good looking, tan, in shape. This was a man we could all identify with. And we could certainly identify with the fact that his sex led his happy explorations of his environment.
In Bijou, however, the protagonist was at first completely solitary, “Dazed and Confused“, trying to maintain the sense of a half-hearted heterosexuality, so alienated within his own life that he impulsively steals a woman’s purse. In this sense, his enormous phallus is a symbol in the beginning of the film for the heretofore wasted and disconnected sexual promise.
To the viewer, it’s obvious that this massive sexual reality is — or should be — the heart of his life and purpose. But until he follows a fateful accident, the power of his sexuality — your sexuality — remains nascent and frustrated.
I’ve only provided the first three fourths of the film here. In my opinion, the last quarter of the film is weaker than this first part. But it’s important to point out that the very last shot of the film is one that Wakefield Poole insisted on: the protagonist walks out of the building, looks into the camera and breaks out in a huge happy grin.
This is a film hypothesis of a spirituality based in our bodies, our sex, our desires and our physical connections. In itself it gives us everything we need for happiness, for a sense of purpose, identity and joy in our lives. Regardless of our social “success” or relative wealth, regardless of how we earn our bread and pay the rent, we have at the heart of our being, in the crux of our bodies, everything we need to bring into the mundane world a particular bliss which is after all our birthright.
As Wakefield Poole teaches in Bijou, we are most fulfilled when we simply connect with others like us.
24 February 1936 – 27 October 2021