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Desiring Machines

Two documentaries explore the pornographic archives of gay desire

In the years after the fall of communism, the economies of Eastern Europe floundered, whiplashed by swift conversions to capitalism. While reformists shredded safety nets and GDPs tanked, inflation and unemployment rose to perilous heights, leaving young men from Hungary to Belarus desperate for work. Many of them thus found themselves reluctant laborers in one of the few booming export businesses: gay porn.

The cut-rate films they made—Hungary for Men, Comrades in Arms, Perestroïka—are a strange blend of Communist kitsch with Western characteristics. In one, a soldier in the uniform of the post-Soviet Russian army seduces a comrade under a portrait of Gorbachev while a book by Brezhnev lies on the table. In others, blank-faced boys pleasure themselves in backward baseball caps and T-shirts from Nike and the 1992 U.S. Olympics “Dream Team.” Together they form an odd archive of appetite and exploitation at the end of history.

William E. Jones splices these post-Soviet pornos together in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (on view now through the David Kordansky Gallery) to produce a portrait of gay desire in that moment of epochal flux when Eastern Europe shifted from communism to capitalism, and sex and spectacle became intertwined like never before. As Jones explains at the outset, “Even in an unlikely place, it is possible to find traces of recent history,” and here the focus is on the establishing shots, screen tests, and uncanny lulls—the “boring parts”—of porn. While the camera lingers on the bodies of the actors, they’re never shown in sexual situations or naked. Reassembled by Jones, many of the sequences from these films come to be defined by their anachronisms—artifacts of the recent past that feel ghostly amidst this new free market fantasia of Eastern European porn being produced for export with Western money.

The earliest year covered in The Fall, 1993, was the year that consensual same-sex relationships between men were decriminalized in Russia. It’s no coincidence that one of the first things to come out of this toleration of gay sex was its commodification, a way of selling people back their identities and desires: to be “free” is to pay. Desire has never been something that existed in a vacuum but is instead informed by dominant cultures and packaged for sale—sleazy VHS pornos in this case.

It’s no coincidence that one of the first things to come out of this toleration of gay sex was its commodification.

Even as the places where these films were primarily shot—Budapest, Prague, and Moscow—slowly became more accepting of queer people, the ways in which they’re framed serve as a crude illustration of the idea that the victor gets the spoils. Produced by the “losers” of the Cold War and exported to the “winners,” they reduce the complexity of countries finding themselves anew to jerking off in front of the hammer and sickle for curious American sex tourists. As the AIDS crisis continued to ravage the United States, leading to the closure of porn theaters and the movement of consuming sex into domestic places, the VHS porno from Russia became a kind of escape for the American homosexual, a curio from a world away.

“They were the products of a crude imperialist enterprise: cheap and nasty looking, with an atmosphere of coercion and cultural misunderstanding pervading them,” Jones notes of his source material in an interview. The coercive nature of these films becomes clearest in the awkward screen tests that form the bulk of The Fall. Here, the producers—unseen older men—interrogate the young would-be-performers about their sex lives, the gender of their partners, what turns them on. Jones presents some of these in a montage, and the young men all look similar; it’s clear that these producers are looking for a certain type of young man for these films. The producers’ hands run across the muscles of the actors, inspecting their jawlines, prodding their lips and pecs. In one instance, a producer’s hands move down a young man’s body, stopping just above his groin. “We are almost having sex, Christian,” he declares. Often the young men express hesitance about acting in gay porn—especially once the specter of the watching producer enters the equation. Others are pragmatic: when one young man is asked about what impact it would have if he was being watched, he simply says, “Now I think of it as work.” Many of them are open about the fact they’re just doing it for the money—and very little money at that: Jones reports that, at the time, Eastern European sex workers earned one tenth the wage of their Western counterparts. They had few other options in the wake of economic devastation. “The only thing young people had to sell was access to their bodies,” Jones observes.

While “spectators see unspoiled beauty when they look into the eyes of these young men,” Jones says in the documentary, “producers and distributors see the opportunity of a lifetime.” The American consumer, meanwhile, saw an exotic spectacle of Eastern European men. This power imbalance between the performer, the producer, and the spectator models in miniature the problems faced by Eastern European countries as they integrated with the global capitalist economy. The opportunity seen by the producers, and the exploitation of young men that it leads to, is another echo of change being dictated by “victors,” as these young men use the only thing they have in order to stake a claim to the new capitalist economy. This idea isn’t just reflected in the ideological clash present in The Fall; capitalism and desire have been in bed together for almost fifty years’ worth of gay adult cinema.

Capitalism and desire have been in bed together for almost fifty years’ worth of gay adult cinema.

Desire, even in porn, is about more than just having a pretty face and a big dick. Material objects are important as representations of either upward mobility, or a life that’s being left behind. This becomes clear, too, in Ask Any Buddy, Evan Purchell’s mashup documentary that depicts the emergence of (largely white) gay subculture through 126 gay porn films shot between 1968 and 1986. As the times changed, and the modern gay rights movement developed, the vestments of eroticism changed as well: men went from embracing leather jackets and mustaches to idolizing the slim, toned gym rat. Through all of it, though, a hypermasculine ideal persisted. Femininity is scarce in the archive of gay porn that Purchell explores: very few feminine men are seen, and none have sex. They appear late in the film, on dance floors with glitter on their faces and feather boas wrapped around their shoulders, a respite from the production-line-masculinity that overwhelmingly defined the domestic gay porn of the seventies and eighties, as well as the Eastern European porn of the nineties.

This hypermasculinity appears from the very beginning of the genre as its defining feature. The men in Wakefield Poole’s breakthrough 1971 film Boys in the Sand—the first crossover success to emerge from adult cinema, a year before Deep Throat—are all made of marble; they’re all muscular, tan, and (predominantly) white, a moving mirror image of Tom Bianchi’s Fire Island polaroids. Often, the men in Boys in the Sand appear like fantasy objects, perpetually at leisure, emerging from the sea or materializing from the swimming pools of luxurious Fire Island beach houses. Just like the exploited and exported young men from the former communist countries depicted in The Fall gave a sense of power to American viewers, the hypermasculine, hyper-capitalist Boys in the Sand allowed gay men to feel powerful too—as though, by playing the game according to the rules handed down to them, they might be allowed a seat at the table.

Cindy Patton draws on this in her book L.A. Plays Itself/Boys in the Sand: A Queer Film Classic, where she writes that the two films in its title came out “when closeted gay men and the New Gay wanted to project a rugged masculinity.” The fantasies in these films are about things as much as they’re about sex; to be a good gay required one be a good consumer, to embrace the masculine ideal. This marked radical departure from the more diverse forms of queerness that defined the Stonewall Riots a few years earlier. In fact, the idea of “queering” anything is absent from a lot of the porn from this period, and there’s very little that’s queer about the films referenced in The Fall. Queerness implies a disregard for convention, and one of the most striking things about gay porn from that era is its rigid adherence to conventional masculinity—tanned, muscled, dominant—as well as its continued reliance on exploitative business models.

A through line can be drawn from the porn of that era to the narrow view of what constitutes attractiveness in our own age of tech-mediated cruising and gig economy porn. The “no fats, no femmes, no Asians” warnings that define so much of cruising and Grindr are a cruel but logical endpoint: if you happen to tick any of those three boxes, you’re not the right type of gay man. Even beyond the economic ideas of porn and attractive bodies—defined as they are by their acquired wardrobes and summer houses—there’s something distinctly American about the ideology of attractiveness: these men are seen as attractive not just because they look good, but also because they’re successful; they’ve taken action in order to get the right salary, or the right body. Desire, like everything else under capitalism, is something that needs to be worked for.

These ideas are powerful because, even in porn, they raise the question of exactly what it is that defines the homosexual, a subject existing somewhere between the gender of those that they love and have sex with, and the ways in which they’re defined, and reflected, in the marketplace. Gayness, justified claims to subversion notwithstanding, always finding its way in the world relative to the dominant culture.

Gayness always finding its way in the world relative to the dominant culture.

One of the things that’s striking about both The Fall and Ask Any Buddy is the way in which they speak to the past; they are archival fragments of subcultures and moments that have long since vanished. But the ghosts of these moments can still be felt; the “ideal” gay man—masculine, muscular, and rich enough for the annual trek to Fire Island—continues to haunt us. These documentaries serve as a reminder of where we’ve come from, and where we’re going; they capture the importance of representation in a way that feels unique to porn. More so than any other type of film, porn reveals the nature of desire nakedly. Mainstream queer culture doesn’t quite connect those dots—although it’s no surprise that all the happy gay couples in sitcoms have good jobs and nice houses—but a film like Boys in the Sand shows explicitly that you need more than just a body in order to be seen as truly desirable, just as The Fall shows how the relationship between power and desire can lead to exploitation.

Often, queer people learn about themselves and their desires through the screen. The films included in Ask any Buddy and The Fall of Communism as Seen Through Gay Pornography are some of the very first representations of gay life and desire committed to film in their respective cultures. They explore the root of fantasy, of what it means to desire and be desired, but in doing so they also reveal the darkness that lies beneath it—the commodification and exploitation of young men, the packaging of desire for consumption. Certainly, there’s something aspirational about the beauty of Boys in the Sand and skin flicks like it, but they raise the question of whether it’s really something that should be aspired to, or if this kind of idolatry causes something more vital to be lost along the way. It’s impossible to shake off a moment in The Fall when a producer asks a would-be-actor what he fantasizes about and is told in response: “I like to watch the pictures.”