Un chant d'amour
The other day I was looking at some old issues of the Village Voice from the later part of the 1960s and the early 1970s that I have in boxes in my garage. They’re really interesting and you can read some “coded” things in between the lines of a lot of the advertisements, such as coyly-worded ads for head shops and various diversions for people looking for something kinky to do. I think the preservation of the Village Voice as an archive of life in NYC will provide quite a lot for future anthropologists who’ll want to better understand how we lived in the second half of the 20th century and how quickly sexual mores changed over the decades. Launched in 1955, the Voice was really the first underground paper. New York City would obviously be one of the best microcosms of society to view at any time for the sheer diversity and number of its residents, but when you zero in on the time between 1965 until the end of the 1980s, and you look at the subculture, a hell of a lot changed in the margins before going wider in the culture. Some of the seeds planted then are still blooming today.
One thing that I noticed is that as the Sixties went on, the advertisements for gay-related films such as Jack Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures, and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks or Scorpio Rising start to creep into the listings for films like Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and other more, uh, mainstream “underground film” fare of the era. And it’s always these same films, like they were playing constantly at the same two or three theaters, for like… years. Usually on a double or triple bill. Later Vapors directed by no-budget gay “outsider” auteur Andy Milligan gets rotated into the prurient programing circulating at these Times Square sin pits that had names like “The New David Cinema,” “The Adonis Lounge” and “The Tomkat.”
To the average Joe on the street, to the average Village Voice reader in 1967, or even to the NYPD’s vice squad, there was nothing much alarming in and of itself that a film titled Vapors was playing in Times Square. To someone who knew what Milligan’s short film was about (an awkward encounter in a gay bathhouse) these ads took on an entirely different connotation. In other words, these films were coded “dog whistles” indicating most likely that cruising (at the very least) would be tolerated in the balconies and toilets of these run down cinemas, often in buildings owned by the mob.
The fleabag movie theaters catering to an all male clientele ultimately lined 8th Ave. near 42nd Street until they cleaned up Times Square in the early 1990s. By the 1970s, the demure ads in the Village Voice ads were dispensed with completely and explicit gay porn ads begin to appear for movies with titles like Inches and Ramrodder. (Interesting to note that the Voice had quite an anti-gay tone in the 1960s until petitioned by the GLF to stop using terms like “faggots” when reporting on the Stonewall riots).
Another movie that showed up a couple of times in the pages of the Voice back then is French author Jean Genet’s short film, Un chant d’amour (“A Song of Love”). Directed by Genet in 1950, based loosely on his novel The Miracle of the Rose and with the rumored assistance of Jean Cocteau, the film was impounded in France when it was first screened and it became circulated as gay porn for French intellectual homosexuals in the years following. The silent b&w film shows the encounters two men in a French prison have, their dreams and fantasies, and the voyeurism of a sadomasochistic guard who is titillated by their relationship, spies on them and abuses one of them because of jealousy. It seems to be very influenced by Anger’s Fireworks, a film Genet most certainly would have seen via Cocteau, who considered the young Ken Anger a protege.
Fifteen years or so later, bootleg prints of Un chant d’amour must have made it to Times Square and this obscure work of poetic homosexual quasi-porn with a literary pedigree, more about the longing for human contact than the actual contact itself (flowers, a gun and cigarettes stand in for the male genitalia) sent the Bat-signal to those for whom it was meant and they assembled by its flickering light to do who knows what?
By the mid-80s, when I saw Un chant d’amour on a triple bill with documentaries on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at an uptown arthouse I can no longer recall the name of, not a single vice cop in New York City would have given a shit about something as ultimately kinda tame as Genet’s film. Still, bearing in mind that it was once something confiscated by police, became something that was passed around hand to hand amongst gay French intellectuals like a stag film, then screened in cinemas straight out of John Rechy’s novels, how odd/weird/amusing (or alarming, depending on your viewpoint) is it to think that Un chant d’amour (and Vapors and Anger’s films and Jack Smith’s as well) can now be watched on YouTube?
And here is a big chunk of Andy Milligan’s Vapors, from 1965, one of the very first films of its kind: a narrative softcore homosexual exploitation film.