Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Mamas and the Poppers

Fire Island fantasy: Gay Sex in the 70s

A favorite on this year's gay film festival circuit, John Lovett's crabs-and-all documentary Gay Sex in the '70s looks at the sweaty, sex-packed era between June 1969--the Stonewall riots--and June 1981, when the first cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S. Focusing exclusively on New York, the film is a celebration of free love and gay liberation; of empowerment through casual (and often anonymous) sex.

As both documentarian and subject, Lovett posits Manhattan of the Me Decade as a sort of sexual Disneyland on the Hudson. Archival photos and film clips go a long way towards setting the scene, but it's the detailed stories his handful of interviewees tell—of lunchtime trysts, dockyard blowjobs and hedonistic weekends on Fire Island—that really recreate the long-lost era when bell bottoms and poppers were de rigueur. The frank details these artists and activists (including lensman Tom Bianchi and author Larry Kramer) reveal are astounding.

While overindulgence, drug abuse and the specter of AIDS are definitely addressed (Lovett himself ruminates that missing the chance to attend his first orgy probably saved his live), not much effort is made to question the near-pathological importance these newly-liberated men placed on sex. Sure, liberation is great, but you get the distinct feeling the Continental Baths could have been on fire and the guys inside would be busy trying to get in one last trick. One veteran of the libertine era recalls how, when cruising the old Chelsea piers, falling through the decrepit planks and drowning was a real peril. "The testosterone was flowing," another says, by way of explanation, "and you had to get cooking." Still, as a time capsule of the pre-AIDS generation, the film is a success.


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