Sunday, May 31, 2015

Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story (Michael Stabile, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The feature film in the 10 p.m. time slot was Seed Money: The Chuck Holmes Story, a documentary about the pioneering Gay pornographer and founder of Falcon Studios, Chuck Holmes, framed with footage showing protesters (most of them Lesbians) picketing the opening of the “Charles E. Holmes Campus of the San Francisco LGBT Community Center” and protesting that the board of the Center had named their newest building after a pornographer — albeit a pornographer who had given them a hell of a lot of money. The film was directed by Michael Stabile, who turned up at the end for a question-and-answer session that focused mainly on the difficulty of obtaining material for the film — by the time they started work on it Chuck Holmes was dead (he tested “HIV positive” in the late 1980’s and held up until 2000, and his exit was probably hastened by his high consumption of recreational drugs in the 1980’s and experimental and highly dubious AIDS “treatments” in the 1990’s), his associate and director Matt Sterling was also dead, and at least two of the people from whom Stabile and his crew got major interviews — including Vaughn Kincey, a major figure in the early days of Falcon and one of Holmes’ closest associates — died while the film was still in post-production. The film was a fascinating slice of Gay history even though the story of Chuck Holmes and Falcon Studios is somewhat less than the metaphor for Gay life in general and Gay sexuality in particular Stabile was presenting it as: the standard history of the Queer movement is that it all began with the Stonewall Inn riots of June 1969 in New York City (I’ve made it a particular cause of mine to debunk that, to the point of putting Harry Hay on the cover of Zenger’s #1 just to make the point that there was an active Gay movement in the U.S. 19 years before Stonewall), that the 1970’s were an explosion of Gay sexuality (particularly Gay male sexuality) and a rejection of conventional values of monogamy and fidelity among many Gay men — maybe not all, or even most, Gay men, but a significant portion of them and the ones that tended to be most “out,” most open in the community and in particular most open about their sexuality. The master narrative of today’s Queer movement is that we’re just like straight people except that we’re attracted to members of our own sex instead of the other, but in the 1970’s that couldn’t have been further from the truth; the Gay lifestyle was presented as a conscious rejection of straight models of relationship, commitment and fidelity (though the hippie movement had offered young heterosexuals a similar rejection of conventional morality in general and monogamy in particular).

Stabile and his crew basically present the early Gay porn as a sort of unwitting documentary of those heady early days of Gay liberation — though, then as now, the scenarios enacted in porn films (straight or Gay) look very little like the ways people, even the least monogamous among them, actually come together and have sex. What’s most interesting about the Gay porn of the 1970’s (at least to me) is that it was filmed before the conventions of the form had hardened (pardon the pun) into clichés and there was still room for genuinely inventive and creative directors like Wakefield Poole and Peter Berlin to shoot movies whose sex scenes reflected what turned them on rather than what a marketing department thought the paying customers would want to see. If anything, Chuck Holmes and Falcon Studios were key players in the move away from a creative auteur vision of Gay porn to a more industrial model; they marketed their early films the way everyone else did — as 8 mm reels of film, about 10 minutes, which were also cut up and shown as “loops” on coin-operated players (and if you didn’t have an 8 mm projector Falcon, like its competitors in both the straight and Gay markets, would offer to sell you one) — until the advent of the VCR enabled them not only to copy films more cheaply and thereby sell them to a mass market (though seeing the early “Falcon Video Pak” ads and noting how expensive the tapes were — $89.95 and up in 1980’s dollars — I wondered how many of them they actually sold, and to whom) but also to make longer films. Chuck Holmes’ breakthrough into feature-length production came about with a film called The Other Side of Aspen, which according to Stabile’s account happened pretty much by accident: Holmes was an amateur skier, he wanted to take a vacation to Aspen, and he thought of bringing along a couple of performers and a skeleton crew to shoot a couple of scenes so he could write the trip off as a business expense. When he brought back the footage, his staff encouraged him to add more scenes — including an introductory one showing the participants in the Aspen footage preparing to go on their own vacation to “the other side of Aspen” — and increase the film to feature length. What Chuck Holmes did with Falcon was not only run the company in a businesslike manner (though that started to fall apart in the 1980’s as he got heavily involved in sex parties and recreational drugs, and only the shock of learning he was “HIV positive” brought him back to his senses, led him to clean up his act and rebuild Falcon as a going concern) but put out a standardized product.

His models (the term used in the industry for porn participants — it’s revealing that they don’t call them “actors,” and as porn star Michael Brandon told me when I interviewed him for Zenger’s, “I’m not paid to act — I’m paid to fuck!”) were all carefully cultivated: slender, boyish, blond (if their hair wasn’t naturally blond, they were told to bleach it), and above all smooth-chested (one former Falcon model remembered that he was ordered to keep his chest shaven at all times even though he was only called for three shoots per year, and in the late 1970’s, with the hairy-chested “Castro clone” look the “in” one in San Francisco, Holmes’ clean-shaven edict got in the way of his ability to find people willing to have sex with him off-screen) and with squeaky-clean feet. (Holmes himself said that the reason he got into making his own Gay porn in the first place was that when he first came out, the models in the crude reels then available had dirty feet, a big turn-off for him.) Though it isn’t mentioned in the movie, Stabile said during the Q&A that the Falcon models were also surprisingly short — Holmes and his casting people apparently reasoning that the shorter the man, the bigger his dick would look by comparison. Holmes was also big into sex scenes that took place outdoors, in spectacularly beautiful locations, and he was a good enough businessman that he realized the key to success was turning out a standardized product so anyone who ordered a Falcon video would know what they were getting. One of Stabile’s most interesting filmmaking decisions was how he handled the effect of AIDS on Gay porn, documenting how Falcon was the last holdout against allowing their models to use condoms (instead they promoted non-oxynol 9 lubricant until the AIDS mainstream decided it actually made HIV “transmission” easier, not harder — ironically Falcon’s models were actually shown inserting non-oxynol 9 into their own or each other’s asses) until the models themselves started dying en masse and the few that were left insisted on wearing condoms during shoots. (One thing the Gay porn industry never did was eroticize safer sex; while AIDS prevention educators were trying to convince people to make putting on the condom an integral part of their foreplay, porn producers who did show condom use on-screen simply had the condoms magically appear. Even Michael Brandon, who as a matter of principle refused to do a bareback fuck scene, told me he thought the director’s call to “cut for condom” and its magical appearance on his cock, without any depiction of how it got there, was ridiculous.)

Another point the film made was that the AIDS epidemic greatly increased the market for Gay porn; with many Gay men so scared of AIDS they stopped having sex altogether, porn became an outlet for sublimation not only among people in rural areas who’d have a hard time finding a partner for actual sex but people in San Francisco and other “Gay Meccas” scared shitless of doing the real down-’n’-dirty and jacking off to porn as the next best thing. Alas, when the film reaches the 1990’s it pretty much abandons any depiction of the creative history of Gay porn and its cultural importance, and instead shifts its focus to Chuck Holmes’ attempt to buy himself respectability by donating large sums to Gay-rights causes — it dates his transition from entrepreneur to philanthropist from his participation in the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights (note that Transgender people weren’t yet included in the laundry list — that came later even though Trans people have been part of our struggle from the get-go), and in one of the few scenes in the movie actually depicting Chuck Holmes himself, he says he’d always been apolitical and this was the first time he had actually marched for a cause. Chuck Holmes gave a lot of money to the Human Rights Campaign and to individual politicians like Carole Midgen and Mark Leno in San Francisco (both of whom are depicted here), and he generally didn’t have a problem getting organizations to take his money but did get some turn-downs from individual candidates — the filmmakers depict this as a mystery both to Holmes and to themselves but it’s really not hard to figure it out: an organization that doesn’t have to go before voters could take money from a pornographer but a candidate would have to worry that a donation from someone like Chuck Holmes would end up prominently featured on a last-minute hit-piece mailing or TV ad after the other candidate’s opposition-research team dug his name out of campaign-donor disclosure lists and put two and two together about where that money had come from. It’s not clear from this movie What Made Chuck Run — his friends and associates (none of whom seem to have been romantically or sexually involved with him — he seems to have totally compartmentalized his life so the people he slept with had no connection with the people he did business with or socialized with non-sexually) describe him as hurt when politicians turned down his money, and they show pictures of his house and yacht that indicate he indulged the sybaritic lifestyle available to the rich in the U.S. pretty much to the max permitted by his resources, but in a film nominally about him he remains a pretty maddening cipher. He doesn’t seem ever to have given a filmed interview about himself and his career, nor was there a Widower Holmes available to explain him. 

Seed Money — I like the clever pun of the title — is an interesting film, though some of the clips from Holmes’ productions included here reminded me all too vividly of what I didn’t like about Gay porn back then, including the carefully maintained tan lines on the performers (another Holmes trademark that became standard, his way of saying these were healthy, athletic people who lived a good deal of their lives outdoors) and the overall bleached-blond look — and there’s at least one implied criticism of Holmes in what’s otherwise a pretty hagiographic look at him in which his policy towards using African-American models is detailed: he said he wouldn’t put a Black person in his movies unless there was a reason in the plot for the person to be Black, and he would never cast a Black man as a bottom in a scene — it always had to be the Black man topping the white one, fulfilling the racialist (and arguably racist) stereotype of the super-hung Black guy ripping apart the white boy’s ass and leaving him terminally unsatisfied with anything less from then on. Holmes also was impatient with long expository scenes and extended depictions of foreplay, though compared to what passes for porn today — in which the models are shown in medias res without even any attempt to establish these folks as human beings and explain why they would be having sex with each other — his films seem almost respectful in making at least a passing gesture towards letting us know who these people are and what attracts them to each other before we see them have at it. Michael Stabile explained during the Q&A that Falcon Studios has been sold several times since Holmes’ death, and a lot of the archives from the Holmes years were either thrown away or salvaged from dumpsters at the last minute — though the current owners of the company cooperated with the project and allowed Stabile to go through what’s left as well as to include enough clips from the Falcon movies so we get the idea of what they were like and what sort of fantasy they were selling. It might have been a more fascinating movie if it had had a postlude about what’s happened to the Gay porn industry since — the advent of the Internet, which has made distribution of porn even easier than it was on VHS tapes or DVD’s but has also made it considerably easier to pirate porn and no doubt has been a big hit to the bottom lines of the producers; and also the advent of digital video, which has made it easy for almost anyone to shoot their own porn and upload it to the Internet, and has largely returned porn to the aesthetic level Holmes was trying to raise it above: crudely filmed depictions of uncharismatic amateurs in single scenes about the length of the old loops.