I have lost count the amount of AIDS related programming I have watched in my lifetime and last year’s It’s A Sin, shared with a younger generation those days when sex was hedonistic until it wasn’t. Sadly much of the HIV/AIDS storylines missed a generation or two who grew up in a time where AIDS was not a death sentence and equality under the law became a reality. In that respects the show did much to restart the conversation that had gone quiet.
But let’s put aside It’s A Sin and go back to 2009 when House of Boys was released. An English language German-Luxembourgian production starring Layke Anderson, Ben Northover, Udo Kier & Stephen Fry. It also has a fantastic soundtrack that captures the early 80’s beautifully. Set in the early 80’s, the film is about Frank (Anderson) who runs away from his privileged Luxembourg upbringing to Amsterdam where he goes to work as a waiter then dancer in a club called House of Boys run by Madame (Udo Kier). Here he falls for the seemingly straight Jake (Northover) . Frank’s best friend at the House of Boys is Angelo, who is dancing to save up for his transition surgery. They are looked over by a house mother who treats them as her own and is devoted to Madame for saving her life. After a tragedy (I won’t spoil it here) Jake and Frank get close and seem to be on the road to a relationship outside the House of Boys when Jake gets sick.
It’s the early 80’s and it’s no surprise to the viewer what dark cloud is hanging over Amsterdam. Stephen Fry plays Dr. Marsh an English doctor working in the Netherlands who becomes aware that the disease killing off boys in the US and UK has arrived in Amsterdam.
What starts out as a crazy little party film of runaways and hustling now morphs into a film of community, love and compassion. Jake and Frank’s friends rally to support Jake as he slips away. It is these scenes where we see the effect of the disease on his mental state including involuntary masturbation which was handled in a way that wasn’t vulgar. Flashbacks to his unhappy childhood are juxtaposed with current scenes of Frank holding him and his friends touching him. People often forget how powerful the image of an AIDS patient being touched or held was. House of Boys doesn’t go down the road of familial rejection after diagnosis and disappearing from the lives of friends that other programmes or films does. In this film, the friends are at the centre and they care for one another.
The final scenes in the film and the fulfilment of a dying wish don’t just fill you with emotion, they fill you with compassion. You almost forgot how wasted Frank becomes and see only his light, and that of those around him.
There are many stories in the HIV/ AIDS epidemic and this is one to definitely watch. House of Boys may not have received wide acclaim but it left its mark on subsequent depictions of those early days in the productions that would follow.
Web series offer a diverse range of LGBTQ+ . Technically, Netflix, Prime and original programming on streaming services alike are classified as web series but I am referring to productions that are usually crowd funded or have a limited number of backers. The production teams are smaller and episodes can range from 5 minutes to 20 minutes depending on budget and story line. These tend to be hosted on YouTube or Vimeo. Don't let that put you off though, often the writing is superb, the characters are fully developed and the storylines are great.
LGBTQ+ apps like Dekkoo, HereTV, Out TV and Froot tend to carry many web series in both English and other languages. It is on these platforms that my real love for this format has really grown. I'll be touching on a few more of these in the future but for this post, I want to introduce you to one of my favourite finds of the last year.
“Where the Bears Are” is a comedy series that describes itself as The Golden Girls meets Murder She Wrote. This description could not be more apt and if those comparisons peak your interest, go and find the series ASAP, you will not be disappointed.
The series was created, directed by and stars Joe Dietl (Wood, a former porn actor), Ben Zook (Nelson, a current struggling actor)and Rick Copp (Reggie, an opportunist writer/ TV show host) as three friends who share a house together in Silverlake, Los Angeles. The first series is set around a murder that happens at Nelson's birthday in which we also meet the soon to be 4th addition to their household, Ian Parks (Todd, who becomes Nelsons' boyfriend). Their "mismatch" in attractiveness becomes a running gag throughout the series.
The series ran from 2012-2018 in episodes 7-10 minutes long. In 2012, Where the Bears Are was named best comedy web series by both Qweerty and AfterElton.com. Each season begins with a murder of some sort that always involves The Bears and sees them racing against series regulars, Detectives Winters (Chad Saunders) and Detective Martinez (George Unda), a dysfunctional husband/ husband team who always seem to be a half step behind due to some personal marital problem usually involving sex. In addition to an eclectic cast which include a closeted homophobic police captain, a psychopathic killer and Nelson's parents, the series has also included guest appearances by Chaz Bono, Margaret Cho, and other notable LGBTQ+ performers. You can watch the uninterrupted series though in one running film online on Amazon and other streaming services and believe me they are worth it.
Right now, the world feels incredibly dark and it is far too easy to fall down the social media/ news rabbit hole. Our brains need a rest. Treat yourself to some time off with "Where The Bears Are," your mental health will thank you for it.
I have been toying with this idea of writing more about LGBTQ+ films and TV for years now. In the 30 years of being an out proud queer man, I have been to countless film festivals, watched Blockbuster’s entire LGBT film offerings in the 90’s, probably twice. I feel like I have been riding alongside the journey of LGBTQ+ evolution when it comes to celluloid representation. This has been a road of diversions, detours and wanderings that has still to reach its final destination. I think it is why although I appreciate the normalisation of our community on the screen, I also hold queer content made for queer audiences very close to my heart.
So where do I begin? Do I begin from the first gay film I ever watched? What I have been watching recently? An old favourite? We’ll get to those in time, I promise.
I thought the recent death of filmmaker/ artist James Bidgood of COVID complications might be a good starting point. A few days ago, hubby suggested watching Bidgood’s art house masterpiece, Pink Narcissus; which I had never seen. Now, given how many LGBTQ+ films I have watched in my lifetime, I should be ashamed of myself for not seeing it. Better late than never, right? The other reason why I hadn’t watched it before was probably because the film was released anonymously in 1971 after a fall out with the distributors and it would not be attached to Bidgood until the mid-90’s when writer Bruce Benderson, was researching what happened to the actors in the film. His book Bidgood was published in 1999 by Taschen and a restored version of Pink Narcissus was also released that same year.
Pink Narcissus was shot entirely indoors on 8mm film during the years 1963-1970; mainly in Bidgood’s small apartment. Bidgood used a clever technique of bright colours over one another to obscure the nudity in the films negatives. This was also a way to protect himself from being prosecuted for breaking obscenity laws which were more severe for homosexuals at the time. The result is the kitsch almost Technicolor dream world which provides the setting for the films premise. We are taken on an erotic journey of a male prostitute’s sexual fantasies as he kills time between clients. For a modern audience, there is nothing risqué about what is being shown. Netflix probably has more hardcore content these days. In the context of its time though, Pink Narcissus was explosive.
It is one of the first times that male nudity and expression is put into an art context and not pornography but still retains the eroticism that celebrates the beauty of the men and their attraction to one another in multiple scenarios. You’ll be hypnotised by Bobby Kendall’s striking features and movement as the centre character. Although we live in a world right now where hardcore images are freely available, there is a playfulness in the suggestiveness of scenes that the older I get, I find more appealing. So, even if you don’t “get” the film, you can still enjoy its voyeurism.
It is not a film for everyone but it is one that stays with you and directly challenges our own current standards of male beauty and art. If you’re a fan of the work of Pierre et Gilles’ or David LaChapelle, you may want to see where their inspiration came from.
James Bidgood started out taking photographs for male physique magazines in the 1950’s but found the work dull. In a New York Times interview he spoke about this.
“There was no art,” Bidgood laments. “They were badly lit and uninteresting. Playboy had girls in furs, feathers and lights. They had faces like beautiful angels. I didn’t understand why boy pictures weren’t like that.”
He would take that dissatisfaction and go on to change the way male nudity was photographed. Pictures would come alive as dreams in colour. Pink Narcissus, is a testament to his new vision and the playful hint of camp in his work is an addition to art that we should all be grateful for.
You can watch Pink Narcissus on BFI player with a subscription in the UK and other streaming services.
I’m 45 today. This means that I am officially 15 years older than my dad and my sister were when they died and 5 years away from the age my mother died. Fucked up way of looking at things huh? Stay with me though.
I have had some amazing birthdays in my life. I am grateful and lucky to have a husband who has gone out of his way to make my birthday special over the years. I have some of the best friends and family who have been there to cheer me on or just get me wasted.
I am also lucky and grateful to the Universe that in spite of my tremendous partying and wilful neglect of my health for many years in my youth, I don’t look my age or whatever that is supposed to mean. I often joke that the only reliable advice I can give in life is to always use a quality moisturiser. I stand by this joke. I also don’t necessarily act my age or whatever that is supposed to mean. I am aware of the societal definitions that produce these images of how and what we are supposed to look like at a certain age and I firmly reject them. Nor will I waste my time listing them, deep down we all know what these are and sometimes they feel more like nooses than goals.
I have come to the conclusion that my life resembles more a first attempt at Spiral Art. Do you remember that toy? Does it even still exist? I used to love it as a kid. Circles over circles, over circles, over circles which look like a fucking mess up close. But as you stand back, well they start to look pretty, chaotic and a bit “I think I know what you were getting at.” The thing is though, with Spiral Art much like life, you can continue to build on the picture because it is all down to you how much you want to build.
That, my friends brings me to my thoughts on where I am today on this 45th Birthday. I can hear my dearly departed friend Andy in his Louisiana accent say as he often would to me, “Oh no, she’s on her soapbox again.”
Miss you Andy and yes, she is because it’s my birthday and I will soapbox if I damn want....
I’ll leave you with two songs that sum up how I feel about life right now. They are both in Spanish but you can Google the lyrics in English or just enjoy the musical sentiment.
Fangoria “Dramas y Comedias” and Dorian “Los Amigos Que Perdi”
Representation matters in life and one of the reasons behind Black History Month and months dedicated to specific groups is to ensure that contributions to history, art, culture, politics, etc are added to our greater understanding of human history. It is a fantastic opportunity to broaden your horizons and discover wonderful new facts, books, and films or in the case of this post: music.
Soul music is a genre where most people think of Aretha, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan or Patti Labelle. Oh and you should because they are absolutely fierce along with so many others.
I am one of those people that love a musical exploration. Say what you will about streaming sites but they have led me to some of my favourite singers and bands of all time. I though go the step further and seek out the vinyl albums of those artists. Soul in particular has a depth on vinyl you won’t find digitally.
This Black History Month post is dedicated to two singers that I found along the way. They may not be as well known to you (or they might).
Marlena Shaw has been singing since the 1960’s and is one of those singers whose songs have been sampled by many hip hop artists, used in commercials and famously sampled in Blue Boy’s 1997 “Remember Me.” One of her biggest hits to date was “California Soul” written by Ashford & Simpson. It appeared on her 1969 The Spice of Life album. If you want an introduction to Marlena, look no further than this album. Shaw co-wrote the first track “Woman of the Ghetto” which is the first track and the sound of her voice mixed the power of the lyrics makes this song one that could be released today and its message is still relevant. Possibly even more so given the Black Lives Matter Movement. This album also contains songs written by Carole King, Barry Mann, Bobby Miller, Cynthia Weil and others which Shaw performs with power more than vulnerability. “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free)” will have you spinning and singing along to her call.
I can’t recommend her enough. To start you off listen to “Woman of the Ghetto.”
Ann Sexton (not to be confused with the writer) has also been performing since the 1960’s. Whereas Marlena came from New York, Ann’s roots are in Southern gospel. Her 1977 album The Beginning is how I fell in love with her voice. It’s not just that her voice can fill a room and that she can convey her emotions so that you feel them. It’s that her style very much feels like that friend of yours at 1am who is helping you get through a rough time, or needs you to listen to her going through a rough time. She don’t want answers, no, she wants an ear. Too often we forget that most of us just need someone to listen to us rather than solve our problems for us. The opening track “I Had A Fight With Love” will have you moving and feeling her groove. Where her vocal mastery shines is on the tracks “I’m His Wife (You’re Just A Friend)” and the sultry longing in “I Want to Be Loved.” That last track was made for 3am, when the world is quiet and you can feel all the power of the Witching Hour.
Have a listen to “I Want to Be Loved” and tell me what you think.
Till next post...
This month is LGBTQ+ History Month in the UK and as last year saw one of the worst years for LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, it felt right to dedicate a post a day on my social media account to highlight an LGBTQ+ person from 28 European countries. Representation matters and the visibility of the LGBTQ+ community can help dispel negative connotations towards us. It helps people come out. It contributes to our positive mental health. You can follow my Instagram or Facebook account for these posts and other writer/cat related posts.
John Lugo-Trebble considers this more of a space to engage personal reflections and memories with connections to music and film.