Sunday, November 14, 2010

JOE GAGE: REVOLUTIONARY FILMMAKER

(l. ro r.) Ray Dragon, Joe Gage and Matthew Ford on location shooting JOCK PARK 
Joe Gage explaining the scene on location shooting JOCK PARK

JOE GAGE: REVOLUTIONARY FILMMAKER

[Great cinema is not created by making conventional films—and revolutionary cinema goes straight to the edge, exploring uncharted territory as it shakes us up visually, politically, culturally, and sexually, with no holds barred.]


The early films of Joe Gage are ├╝ber-potent dissections of mid-20th Century American life and culture–unique and defiant works of virile, unabashed pornography raised to the level of art. Begun when he was 32, his iconic “Working Man’s Trilogy” belongs to the genre of road trip/buddy films even as it appropriates and subverts them.


Although it concludes the “Working Man’s Trilogy,” begun in 1976 with Kansas City Trucking Co. and followed in 1978 by El Paso Wrecking Corp., 1979’s L.A. Tool And Die stands on its own as the most fully realized of the three.  It was followed by the even more daring if also more linear 1982 Heatstroke, with which Gage thought he had said farewell to that phase of his career.


Emerging from the milieux of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and hustler-cum-novelist John Rechy, the experimental/underground films of Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, the ferment of the late 60’s and the subsequent “Sexual Revolution,” Joe Gage is the most sophisticated of such pioneering gay “porn” filmmakers  of the 70’s as Wakefield Poole and Fred Halsted, whose films, unlike Gage’s, have the distinction of being archived in the Museum of Modern Arts film collection. Working technologically and cinematically by the seat of his pants- intuitively and without affectation–the young Gage drew upon his eclectic knowledge of film from Hollywood classics to the French New Wave.


He also tapped deeply into the potent anger of men living in the heartland of mid-century America yet forced to the margins as “sexual outlaws.” Like the filmmaker himself, Gage’s players are “real men” in every sense of the word, crossing boundaries of race, class and ethnicity; side-stepping rigid sex roles and the  oppressive stereotypes of a moralistic, heterosexual society that defined homosexuals as effeminate, perverse or dangerously deviant. Women (never caricatures) appear too, fleetingly but in sexualized roles that broaden the films’ thematic territory. These scenes remind us that homosexuals and heterosexuals may have had more in common beneath the surface than society allowed us to think.


Politically subversive, Gage’s films are never overtly didactic, preachy or self-conscious. Possessing the anthropological authenticity of an auteur who “lived” the era, the films work mostly on the subliminal level. Shot in 16mm, they are economic in content, defined by a cinema verite style in which complex soundtracks, emerging mostly from car radios–local advertisements, news reports, right-wing Christian talk radio, jazz and, especially, lively country western music–are juxtaposed unobtrusively with deft, evocative imagery and the unfolding narrative, enhanced by loosely interwoven, telling vignettes.


The final ingredient is Gage’s trademark building of tension, as men (young and old, forced to convey their desire in unspoken looks and coded language, experience the risk and thrill of approaching the forbidden—and then crossing over.


Gage’s films do not cover the entire landscape of how homosexuals, bisexuals—and men without any labels at all—lived their lives from the 1950s to the 1980s.  His focus is mostly on rugged and assertive working-class men. “Flaming faggots,” transvestites and drag queens living on the margins–sometimes indulged as entertaining freaks, more often facing unwavering contempt and potential violence–do not make an appearance. We do not meet those struggling to find love and maintain monogamous relationship within a world that sought to keep them apart, far more likely to offer them shock treatments than wedding rings.  There’s no handful of Mattachine Society gay activists courageously picketing the White House, or early post-Stonewall gay pride parades.


And of course the manifold lives of gay intellectuals and artists from Aaron Copeland and James Baldwin to Alan Turing are missing.  But who can say to what extent any of these men intersected with the “Gage Men” or took part in the kind of living reflected in these films?  After all, however differently they struggled to carve out spaces for themselves, ultimately they all did so within the stultifying confines of the same repressive society.


Working as both an artist, pornographer and subtextual activist, Joe Gage raises in relief the smug hypocrisy of that society, allowing his very real actor/participants to toss aside (or in its face) its most cherished taken-for-granteds.  It is almost as if post-Holocaust Jews, having been accused of crucifying Christ and persecuted for it for centuries, were saying, “Yeah, right – we did kill Jesus!  Mary’s next.”  The places homosexuals of the day were forced into were not ghettos, but an underground of abandoned shacks, seamy backrooms, public bathhouses and johns, dangerous by-ways in parks, and mafia-controlled bars regularly raided by police.  The “Gage Men” take full advantage of these places. They insist too, on inhabiting (and will not be driven from) mechanic shops, the gymnasium, ranches, small towns, cities, the cabs of Mack trucks and the great American highway itself, running the whole length of Route 66 and from sea to shining sea.


Sometimes disturbing in their obsessive sexuality, often brazenly exuberant, Joe Gage’s films are ultimately liberating works that proclaim the humanity of “regular” men told they were not–determined to live their lives, in any way they could, despite the hostility of a society that would not even let them breathe.


Gage promoted his work with newspaper ads and cheerfully defiant, tongue-in-cheek trailers that acknowledged their playful intersection at the border of mainstream films and hardest-core porn.  Assertions of his works’ legitimacy as well as insider jokes between his colleagues and his gay audiences, these trailers may have signaled that Gage not taking himself too seriously.  Such were the times, however, that Gage, however transcendent an artist, may also have felt himself not allowed to take his work too seriously.  They were, after all, “gay porn”–films intended for men to “get themselves off.”


A gap of nearly two decades followed Gage’s 1982 Heatstroke, which was, with two minor exceptions, his intended valedictory to his unique, auteur-style version of pornographic filmmaking. Meanwhile the gay porn industry to which he had helped give birth had become a full-fledged industry. Gage was summoned back in 2001 and was soon working for the high-end Titan Media making a new round of videos. He strives in these to maintain the “Gage edge” while satisfying the commercial demands of those eager to exploit the now potent “Gage Brand.”  But his return to more constrictive if intelligent porn filmmaking may yet open doors to explorations we can only now imagine.

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