Someday, someone will write the great epic tale of gay influence on the popular arts, and will spend at least a chapter on American avant-garde cinema. The first wave of gay independent filmmakers explored subjects like sex, camp, and transgressive behavior, which naturally allied them with the underground. Filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Gregory Markopoulos, and Andy Warhol made films with individual sensibilities, but their work also allowed the New York gay community to come together and see themselves on movie screens, however oddly packaged.
Perhaps the oddest of the scene's oddballs were twin brothers Mike and George Kuchar, who began working up heightened mini-melodramas in their Bronx neighborhood beginning in the late '50s, and by the '60s were screening their home movies at avant-garde fests alongside films by Warhol, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas. Inspired by B-picture science-fiction and drive-in nudies, the Kuchars' off-the-wall stories combined sexual decadence and a craving for the comforts of home, in an attempt to recreate the warm feeling of a teenager reading a spicy paperback under the covers. Mike Kuchar's 1965 mini-feature Sins Of The Fleshapoids—newly available on DVD, with a pair of contemporaneous short films and a Kuchar commentary track—tells the story of a futuristic love between a robot slave and a libertine human, but style more than subject matter distinguishes the film. Shot in high-contrast color on a cobbled-together set, Sins Of The Fleshapoids is meta-phony, a handmade piece of art designed to look like a tawdry, underfinanced fantasy epic. Kuchar lets an overexcited narrator explain the action, while he scratches dialogue into the frame in the form of comic-book word balloons. The movie is less about plot than about watching a supine shirtless guy eat a Clark Bar, but that image alone carries meaning for any gay teen who ever watched Fire Maidens From Outer Space and wished the astronauts would find a colony of men for a change.
On the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum, Paul Morrissey's 1971 feature Women In Revolt—also on DVD, in a new edition that includes deleted scenes and abbreviated comments from Morrissey—forwards the hyper-naturalism of the director's underground classics Flesh and Trash. Warhol's Factory-associated transvestites Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Holly Woodlawn play stressed-out New York housewives who form a women's liberation support group called PIG (short for "politically involved girls") that quickly cooks up poetic vengeance against mankind. Like most Morrissey films, Women In Revolt derives from long improvisatory scenes that are frequently interminable, but often build to unforgettable moments, like Darling softly crying while singing "Give Me A Man Who Does Things To Me," and Curtis spraying deodorant up a naked hippie's ass. The movie's blatant mockery of feminism is tellingly hateful, and marks the persistent, often unspoken hostility between the gay-rights and women's-rights movements. (Morrissey even comments on the DVD that "the basic premise of women's rights—women wanting to be men—I didn't think was a good one.") But the political dodginess only makes Women In Revolt all the more historically important, as does an aesthetic that later inspired the likes of John Waters and Todd Haynes to use pop trash to express deeper emotions.