Naked on the set! Part 4: Archive fever

It all boiled down to that courting query that my generation and adjacent ones will go to our erotic graves asking: "Hot or not?"

Published March 20, 2003 8:18PM (EST)

The question of the archive is not, I repeat, a question of the past ... but rather a question of the future, the very question of the future, question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.

-- Jacques Derrida, "Archive Fever"

Thursday afternoon I arrived late to the Anthology Film Archives at the corner of Second Street and Second Avenue in the East Village, where we were to spend five hours watching each other's audition videos. While we waited for other latecomers, John Cameron Mitchell addressed the group, pacing casually in front of the oversize television and the pile of VHS tapes.

"When porn actually was good was when they had multiple cameras," the director was saying as I walked in. "Because they were like, 'They're having sex, and we don't have much money -- let's have three cameras, one of them slo-mo.' That's why you see stuff from the '70s that actually seems real, and emotional, and you think, Wow, these guys are actually having a relationship."

How much of a limb were we walking out on with this project? He went on:

"I was talking to Gus van Sant. He wants to make a film with real sex. There's been a number of French films lately with a lot of real sex, actually none of which I really like. But there's a new wave happening here now, and this is going to be one of the first, which is kind of exciting. So it would be nice to raise the bar for making it one of the best that might explore these types of things."

And what was wrong with the sex movies already on the market?

"A problem with a lot of these films is that people are always equating sex with death. Sex with depression, sex with anomie, sex with trouble. And sure, they can be connected, but sex is connected with every part of your life, or could be. And I think all these films that are pretending to be so groundbreaking in France -- it just shows how fucking scared they are of sex. French people say they invented love, but they are so scared of it.

"I think an American film about love with sex is definitely necessary. 'Y Tu Mama También' had that kind of comedy and fun, but imagine if you actually saw the hard-ons when they're on the diving board, or imagine if you saw the sex fully instead of hiding it in the normal way. You really could have been ... sucked up into that film even more. They could have taken it to the next level. And that's where people have stopped from going there fully, with trust, with love."

Next, the director told us the movie would be unrated rather than X-rated, and that independent houses in college towns and major cities would show it. The rest of the distribution would be through festivals and mail order. No, he didn't think Blockbuster would carry it.

After JCM answered a few more questions, the producer started handing out three-page questionnaires that listed the 34 cast candidates along with four ratings: NEVER, POSSIBLY, I THINK SO, DEFINITELY. With each video we were to rate the candidate based on his or her sexual attractiveness. Under each rating was room for written comments.

I understood why the filmmakers had us do this, and in fact it inspired less dread than the free-form cruising of the night before and the "dates" for which we were keeping our Friday through Sunday nights free. But as the videos started playing and people began scribbling on their ratings sheets, I began to feel almost as if I'd been duped. I'd made my 10-minute audition video with the instructions to tell a true story about a sexual experience I'd had, with the obvious purpose of interesting the filmmakers in me as an actor, as a storyteller, and as a sexual person. But now my peers were about to watch what I'd done and rate me based on something related but entirely more specific, which boiled down to that quintessential Internet-time courting query that my generation and adjacent ones will go to our erotic graves asking: "Hot or not?"

This was not the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, supposedly voting on my artistic vision and technical prowess, it was three dozen peers contemplating whether they wanted my penis and other appendages penetrating their various orifices while John Cameron Mitchell's crew immortalized the images for an international audience. Without knowing it, I had made and submitted a video personals ad. Had I known it, would I have devoted said video to the affair I'd had with a married couple who resembled my parents?

The videos rolled. Since "Festa" came after three B's, two C's and a D, I had some time to get nervous. Between videos I looked up at the other candidates and busied myself with some demographic guesstimates: Mostly male -- a handful of women, one of them transgendered. Mostly white -- a couple of black guys, one Chinese-American woman, one black woman, one Hawaiian man, a lone Latino (Ramon was out on tour with his dance company). There were about eight or ten guys I thought were hot, and about an equal number I thought were not, and the rest were in between. But the vast majority, including all the women and the tranny, I would "definitely" have sex with if John Cameron Mitchell asked me to. In fact I was hard pressed to think of things I wouldn't do under that particular circumstance, short of joining al-Qaida or the Israeli ultra-Orthodox, as my sister did a few years ago at the invitation of the charismatic mentors she found in the midst of her own late early-30s pre-midlife crisis. (My sister's conversion gave me some cover at home. "At least it's not Chabad," I was able to console my mother about the Sex Film Project.)

The videos were a mixed bag. Most were low tech, the Handycam bouncing around freely in dimly lit poster-adorned bedrooms. Most showed some sex, though hardcore scenes were the exception. Most were funny ("My friends suggested I try out for the movie because I'm a complete whore") and some were unbearably sad. Among the candidates was a 20-year-old hooker who'd been on the job for seven years, and a 30-ish transvestite singer who'd survived a wide range of drug habits and abusive relationships after being molested as a boy. One woman talked about how she felt she had raped a male partner; one guy described fucking his girlfriend while she bled from her face (this drew an isolated hiss from the audience).

One by one the videos played; candidates scribbled down their ratings. Every so often I glanced up at the crowd, brought back from absorption in their stories to a fresh realization of where we were and what we were doing. Who it would be? I wondered. Who would be called out of the waiting room, who would John Cameron Mitchell turn into a star?

By the time they inserted my video into the massive TV set, I had become wildly nervous. I had shot the movie, my first, in a couple of weeks, though I'd been working on the story in book form for more than two years. The video version had met with mixed reviews back home. I'd shown it to a group of guy friends -- three gay and one straight -- and listened in mounting horror as the laugh lines passed in complete silence. When it was through, I got up and turned off the VCR, saying I thought maybe we shouldn't watch the clips reel that followed. The straight friend was already walking out of the room at that point. "Yeah, I've had enough," he said on his way out.

When you are working with material such as mine, you quickly become accustomed to rejection. "The story of a man who has sex with his parents [sic] is just too kooky for me," said one literary agent last summer after my prior agent delisted me. "It's not something I can really buy -- or sell." My hopes were raised when one agent's assistant called it "immensely readable," but were dashed when her boss disagreed. Then a friend of mine at home broke the tie, calling it "unreadable." After a second friend gave up reading at about Page 80, complaining that the work (a comedy) had plunged her into a crippling depression, I decided I would not be a writer anymore -- not, at least, for a little while.

Then came the Sex Film Project audition call, and I'd held out some hope that what evidently hadn't quite worked on the page would miraculously mutate into screen magic. I liked the movie, even if my friends didn't -- I thought it was funny. The images and the characters were vivid. The juxtaposition of archival video, interview excerpts, photos and music was smart and clean, and the whole thing was bookended with MTV-style photo montages, including a hardcore porn shoot starring Boyle and Goyle, the blow-up dolls who played the couple in various scenes in the movie. It seemed to have all the right ingredients for JCM's project: laughs, hardcore sex, significant underlying themes, two guys and a girl.

Now the movie was playing before its biggest audience yet -- the 34 cast candidates (minus Ramon and one or two others), the filmmakers, and HBO. My heart pounded. I grew terribly and suddenly cold. The laughs came in the right spots, but they weren't exactly guffaws. Then the video settled down and became serious, and I watched myself explain even from the time she was a little girl, my mother always knew she would be a mother, that it was part of her identity as a woman. And as the eerie, tentative music began to play, the video cut to grainy, slow-motion footage of her as a young girl in Brooklyn, rocking her doll on a porch swing in time to the downtempo techno I'd overlaid, then walking the doll down some wide East Flatbush boulevard, again in time to the music, her eyes wide and affectless as the doll's. As the scene unfolded, my shivering became more and more violent until I began to cry.

Having made this movie, having made the rocking of the doll synch up with the beat of that goddamn techno, which in turn had to be lowered so it didn't overwhelm the voice-over when it entered, I'd estimate conservatively that I've watched the scene about 3 or 4 trillion times. But not once before that day at the Archives did I react to it so strongly. Maybe this was part of that therapy John had described in our talk the other night, that "safe place," that "church," that "sacred space" of the theater. "You just do it there and then it can integrate into your life," he'd said.

Perhaps only now, watching this movie with an audience of virtual strangers, could that space come into being, could I assimilate the alien, indigestible information fed to us every day of our adult lives by our therapists and our pop-psych paperbacks and our daytime television talk shows: that our parents were children once, that everything they gave us and everything they withheld was in some way determined by what happened when they were. Perhaps only in the weird womb of that theater, even as I could feel the others judging, cruising, rating, rejecting me, could I accept the reality of that little girl's existence and feel compassion for her.

Or maybe I was finally cracking under the strain of my Sex Film Project regimen, which involved sleeping at most four hours per night and eating half portions of randomly timed meals once or twice a day. This is not my normal response to stress. Even preparing for Juilliard juries, during which the notoriously sadistic violin faculty spot-checked us for 15 minutes to upwards of three hours of repertory, I ate and shat copiously and slept nine solid hours. But since leaving JCM's apartment on Tuesday night I had found myself lying awake for hours before falling asleep, and I went through my days without any semblance of a normal appetite. Even pot, which usually makes me ravenous, had the effect of seizing up my insides into a taut ball; chewing became onerous. And so, sitting there on the floor of the theater, my underslept and underfed body became a flaccid, jittery conduit for emotion, and I wept.

By the time we'd watched excepts from all the tapes, I was exhausted. How had they screened 400 of these? When it was over, the group had undergone a palpable change; we now knew one another. We knew who the hookers were, the sluts, the creative masturbators, the Left Coast hippies, the fallen Hassidics, the Freudian basket cases. We knew whose lover was in jail; we knew who ate his own cum. We knew who looked like a girl but knew he was a boy. We knew who had been raped as children. Some videos were better than others (few were as technically souped-up as mine), but each one revealed some charisma, some presence, some poignancy. "I learned from every one of these," John said when the screening was through. "That's why you're here."

When our Thursday afternoon screening at the Archives came to an end, we were under the powerful illusion that we were family, that we would all be working together on a vital mission, and that each of us had something to offer it. For the moment the crass and consequential aspect of rating one another's sex appeal fell to the background, as did the fact that we were not collaborating with but competing against one another, not just for a role but for John's approval, not just for John's approval but for John's love, not just for John's love, but each other's. As the reality of the competition fell away, less base emotions than lust and greed rose to take their place. For five hours sheltered in the Archives from a cold, rainy late spring afternoon, we had watched each other and ourselves bare our bodies and souls. I, for one, felt love in that theater.

Next: The tranny who insisted she was just going to blot her lipstick on it.

By Paul Festa

Paul Festa is the author of and a frequent Salon contributor.

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