A Benefit Screening Asks: When Does Porn Become Art?

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday July 7, 2010

In the early years after Stonewall, much about gay life had changed, but porn was as bad as ever. Amateurishly directed and acted by unattractive street hustlers, the action seldom left suburban basements or greasy back rooms.

That all changed the night Wakefield Poole went with some friends to a New York porn theater. (In those days, the theater was the only place to catch porn.) "Somebody ought to to be able to do something better than this," he told a friend.

And he did. Boys in the Sand premiered in 1971 and became an immediate sensation. It was the first porn film of any kind to receive serious critical attention from outlets like Variety. It made a fortune for the time and ushered in the brief period of "porn chic."

Movies like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones reached far beyond the raincoat-in-the-lap crowd. Park Avenue matrons and media tastemakers were watching these films and taking them seriously. Behind the Green Door, released the year after "Boys," grossed an astonishing $25 million and made Marilyn Chambers a media star. But none came close to the tastefulness of Boys in the Sand.

Now, nearly four decades later, Poole is returning to the location of his dreamy, powerful film. On Saturday, July 10, Poole will present and discuss the film at Whyte Hall, the community center for Fire Island Pines, in two screenings. All proceeds will benefit local charities, the health center and the community's charitable trust.

And therein lies the controversy.

Some members of this community have been vocal in their protests at the fact that the screening will take place in the town hall. As with other events on Fire Island, posters have been thumbtacked to telephone poles. The objections to the PG-13 posters are reminiscent of a local controversy in the '90s. In that instance, a grandmother objected to a poster of a naked man being hoisted the cast members as being unfit, leading to cries of homophobia.

In the case of "Boys," it may well be more a matter of a general objection to the mainstreaming and in-your-face attitude of a public screening of what is, in the end, a hardcore porn film.

The two presenters who made the showing possible see it in a different light. Crayton Robey and Philip Monaghan come to their appreciation of the film from different aesthetic prospectives.

Aesthetics of 'Boys' As Film & Set Design

Robey is a documentary filmmaker who made a well-received history of the Pines, When Ocean Meets Sky. Most recently, Robey has been working on a "making of" documentary about the landmark play and movie The Boys in the Band -- which, coincidentally, the title of Boys in the Sand gently mocks. (Its success also led to the still-with-us marketing of porn films with takeoff names like Star Whores.)

Robey met Wakefield in 2003, while making his own Pines film. "He told me the genesis of Boys in the Sand and what it meant to homosexuals," Robey says. "It was right after Stonewall. The way this film was released was groundbreaking enough. As a gay man, it turns me on to know that ou sexuality was being open, free, youthful."

Monaghan came to the film through the back door (his term, not mine!). He bought the fabulous house designed by Andrew Michael Geller that provides what has to rank as the most glamorous scene in any porn film: an infinity staircase that goes to nowhere.

The entire house, which sits on the western edge of the Pines, is pretty much a dreamscape. It is known as the Frank House. The Franks, a straight couple, were the original owners. Their renters loaned it to Poole. When they found out that their home had become the location for the most famous gay porn film ever made, they were not happy -- until, that is, the film's cachet made their house an architectural landmark.

"I didn't set out to buy a house that was a landmark in a film like this," he said. "For me, it was a selling point once I saw this film."

The film uses other Pines locations, such as the harbor and the National Seashore, to create a dreamy summer feeling that makes the sex seem glamorous, if not downright innocent. Casey Donovan, whom the film made a porn superstar, was a sleek, muscular blond, Robert Redford-level handsome.

But Is It Art?

The screening is the latest round in a renewed interest in Poole and the aesthetics of porn. A documentary, Dirty Poole, is in the works about the filmmaker. Directed by Jim Tushinski, the new film biography details Poole's multifaceted career as a dancer, choreographer, director and even escort. In 2000, Poole published his autobiography. Three years ago, the Donnell Public LIbrary in Manhattan screened another film, The Two Faces of Wakefield Poole.

The Poole revival reflects our continued problematic fascination with porn.

"Glamorous" was certainly not a word associated with porn, gay or straight, in 1971. But "Boys" showed hot, well-groomed, well-adjusted men having fun in one of the world's most beautiful beach communities.

Still, is it art? The question lingers in the public mind. The classic definition of porn is ... no definition, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous line that he couldn't explain what it was, "but I know it when I see it."

Many follow that other judicial philospher, Neely O'Hara, who, when she sees a poster for her friend Jennifer's latest French film, says that they're not art, "they're nudies."

Well, yes. But the films of Andy Warhol, which include epics like Flesh and My Hustler (filmed in neighboring Cherry Grove), have long been staples of film collections like the Museum of Modern Art. Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising is considered by many one of the most intensely beautiful films ever made.

In 1970, the commercial viability of films with sexual content was decided when the 1969 Best Picture Oscar went to Midnight Cowboy, an X-rated film about a Times Square male hustler.

Still, questions persist. Feminists like Andrea Dworkin consider porn to be degrading to women and dehumanizing. Linda Lovelace, the star of Deep Throat, the most successful porn film in history, claimed she had been forced into her role. Other social critics and cineastes, such as Camille Paglia, seriously consider pornography as art.

Robey and Monaghan say they were startled by objections to the screening. They believed that a community like Fire Island Pines would embrace the beauty of "Boys." But they also add a disclaimer to their ads that "this film has been prepared and is intended solely for viewing by a special and limited audience, namely adults over 18 who request and desire sexually explicit material for their information, education, and entertainment."

The jury may be out for the appreciation of porn as art. But the two men have certainly bumped up the conversation.

The film will received two screenings, at 8 and 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 10, at Whyte Hall in Fire Island Pines. Tickets are $50; a VIP $75 ticket includes cocktails with the director at the Frank House. Go the the the show's Facebook page for more information.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).