BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 10 DEC 15
Featured in
Issue 176

‘Pink Narcissus’ Looms Large in Queer Cinema

An exhibition at Galleria Lorcan O'Neill, Rome, traces James Bidgood’s influence 

BY Ara H. Merjian in Reviews | 10 DEC 15

Filmed over a seven-year period before its release in 1971, Pink Narcissus remains extraordinary. John Bidgood developed the extravagant imagery of this film shot on Super-8 almost entirely within the walls of his cramped New York apartment. That restricted space is the work’s basic premise: a male prostitute idly sits at home in between the visits of clients. Yet the largely silent, 65-minute film bursts visual and temporal confines in a centrifuge of erotic fantasy.

In a sequence of scenes awash in pink and blue, actor Bobby Kendall daydreams himself into another dimension, imagining himself as a succession of make-believe characters: a Spanish matador, an ancient Roman slave, and, of course, the mythical Narcissus. What the film lacks in coherent narrative it makes up for in a mesmerizing montage of costumes and landscapes, steeped in lavish colour and often wrought from papier mâché. Originally released without the consent of Bidgood (whose anonymity contributed to the film’s cult status), Pink Narcissus looms large in the pantheon of queer cinema.

John Maybury, Segesta 1 (Arthur Gillet), 2015, photograph

Less well known, however, are the photographs the director took while preparing the film. Presented here are 13 examples: small, square-format images that appear less like screen tests than fully-fledged works in their own right. In one image, a bare chested blonde-haired man unzips his pants, while a simulacrum of the Eiffel Tower tilts off-kilter behind him. Another reveals, from worm’s eye view, the oiled thighs and prodigious codpiece of a man grasping a gladiator’s helmet. (Or is it Hermes? Or Mars?). Still another shows the same model, presumably suspended from the ceiling, as he rides some sort of jewelled animal, grinning like Peter Pan soaring above the stage. Pink Narcissus itself plays on a loop in an adjacent gallery, affording some comparison of its imagery with these shots.

While the latter seem largely autonomous works, Bidgood evidently advertised many of these works as available for sale in ‘physique’ magazines during the 1960s – magazines whose imagery he clearly drew upon, even as he plainly subverted their virility. Some of the images eschew plain, full-body depictions for different effects. Untitled – Sandcastles Series #6 (1963), for example, reveals the heads of two supine men in close, intimate quarters. Untitled – Sandcastles Series #14 (1963), by contrast, plays with distortions of scale; its foregrounded figure looms so much larger than a man in the background as to seem part of a collage.

In its mix of mannered form and outré content, Pink Narcissus has few equals in postwar cinema (Carmelo Bene’s Salome of 1964 comes to mind, in its combination of erotic theme and hallucinatory effects). Its influence may be felt in a range of practices, from Pierre et Gilles’s hyper-stylized photographs to David LaChapelle’s glittery tableaux to Zach Snyder’s film 300 (2006). The exhibition passed over such comparisons, however, in hanging a number of recent photographs by John Maybury in an adjoining gallery. Known chiefly as a filmmaker, Maybury authored one of the best artist biopics in recent memory – Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998). That film’s creative, painterly evocations of Bacon’s masochistic tendencies would seem to have pre-disposed Maybury to venturing erotic images in the vein of Bidgood’s work.

James Bidgood, Untitled – Sandcastles Series #4, 1963, vintage print, 9 × 9 cm

Instead, this selection of ten black and white prints by Maybury feature the Temple of Segesta in Sicily, occasionally framed with a lone, nude male model. Appropriate to the temple’s Doric order, however, the photographs are stately and unadorned. Two of the works – Tempio di Segesta 1, Tempio di Segesta 2 and Tempio di Segesta 3 (Temple of Segesta, all 2015) – reveal symmetrical, cropped views of the ruined structure. Segesta 4 (Arthur Gillet), Segesta 5 (Arthur Gillet) and Segesta 6 (Arthur Gillet) depict their eponymous model against different spaces and textures, whether a steep set of ruined stairs or a larger panorama. Segesta 1 (Arthur Gillet), Segesta 2 (Arthur Gillet) and Segesta 3 (Arthur Gillet) (all 2015) home in on the lone figure, surrounded only by an inky black. In these blurrier, more impish shots, the model’s long, satyr-like beard gives the lie to Doric propriety, evoking instead a Dionysian sensuality. The dynamic hanging highlighted Maybury’s keen framing as well as the series’ conceptual interplay between classical structure and human sentience. The ‘Segesta’ works, in short, held their own, while forming a fitting complement to Bidgood’s very different work.

Main image: James Bidgood, Pan (from Pink Narcissus), late-1960s, digital C-print. Courtesy: © Estate of James Bidgood and ClampArt, New York

Ara H. Merjian is Professor of Italian Studies at New York University, USA, where he is an affiliate of the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History.