By Andrew Repasky McElhinney.
Poole’s life covers an enviable (at least in retrospect, at least to me) span of the post-WWII 20th century America…. [with] one of the first positive representations of Gay life and Gay sex in the U.S., and a talisman for the then emerging Pride movement.”
I never met Wakefield Poole, who died October 27, 2021 at age 85, and I came late to his movies. My friend and collaborator, James Hollenbaugh, pulled my coat to Jim Tushinski’s splendid documentary, I Always Said Yes: The Many Lives of Wakefield Poole, as it hit the festivals back in 2013.
Poole’s life covers an enviable (at least in retrospect, at least to me) span of the post-WWII 20th century in America. He intersects with icons like Andy Warhol, John Dexter, Stephen Sondheim, Marvin Shulman, Georgina Spelvin, and their fascinating cultural splinters of three of my favorite things: the Underground, Broadway, and dirty movies. Poole is peripherally involved with legendary flop mainstream musicals like Do I Hear a Waltz? Dear World, and Bring Back Birdie (all chronicled in Ken Mandelbaum’s must-read, Not Since ‘Carrie’: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops); but in addition to all these freak footnotes, it is the proceeds from Poole’s early hard-core movies that financed, via moneyman Marvin Shulman, Michael Bennett’s seminal, genre-changing musical sensation, A Chorus Line in the mid-1970s. In a way, Broadway might have died harder in the 1970s had it not been for the cinema of Wakefield Poole.
While Poole found some commercial success in the 70s pushing the political censorship boundaries by creating and directing the first All Male hard-core features, he bottomed out in San Francisco in the drug addled 80s. Where so many life stories might sadly (if grandly, gothicly) end, Poole reinvented himself for an apparently fulfilling third act by selling some Warhols (…that he’d had the sense, and taste, to collect in the 60s), and finding job security as a personal chef for Calvin Klein in Florida.
Around the time of Tushinski’s documentary, Vinegar Syndrome released posh editions of several of Poole’s features including his curious, lyrical, and soft-core 1973 addition to the genre of religious movies, Wakefield Poole’s Bible! (1973), and the haunting 8MM work, Moving! (1974). From this moment, I was fully ‘switched on’ Wakefield Poole.
In a way, Broadway might have died harder in the 1970s had it not been for the cinema of Wakefield Poole.”
Poole’s best feature is 1972’s Bijou, a magical time capsule of early 1970s Manhattan. It’s the type of movie where there is graffiti to be glimpsed fleetingly on an apartment door entrance reading “El Topo” (then unspooling 1 AM Friday and Saturdays at the Waverly). Oh, what a heady world! …the type of world where the events that unfold in Bijou seem as if they could almost be true—or fairytale-like—come true.
Like Wakefield Poole’s Bible!, Bijou is somewhat well-funded and artistically ambitious independent movie that Poole made after the greater-than-expected success of his first feature, 1971’s Boys in the Sand. The Bijou story starts with a rigorous sequence of parallel action. A hunky construction laborer, working around fantastically brutalist Lincoln Center, witness a woman hit by her car, and then steals her purse. Inside the purloined handbag is an invitation ticket to “Bijou” downtown at 63 Prince Street.
Our protagonist eventually descends downtown, and enters the second floor Bijou “club.” A surreal maze of erotic encounters ensue, realized with glittery and inventive art direction and motion picture projections. The benevolent, but insane, vapors of George and Mike Kuchar and Jack Smith embolden Poole’s vision where self-gratification leads to body exploration and the exteriors of bodies collide with an increasingly interior space, not unlike the physical male journey to orgasm (or many of the movies of Kenneth Anger).
But unlike Anger, Poole’s movies are always an invitation to a positive party. As serious as his hardcore movies get, the fun, joy and silly is never quite eclipsed (and usually takes over entirely for a little while before the climax). When AIDS became an unacknowledged public health crisis in the early 80s, Poole’s attitude found itself at odds with the newly polarized, safe sex era. But in the case of Bijou in the early 1970s, the final freeze frame is the construction laborer’s giddy grin after emerging onto Prince Street and briefly reflecting, for the first time, on his escapades inside.
Poole’s 1971 first feature, Boys in the Sand is a landmark because it represents Gay male sex without social context or any explanation of the expression of the desires photographed. It takes its title as a parody of Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking 1968 play, The Boys in the Band, a lacerating, if funny, look at 1960s American Gay life awash with self-hatred and bitchy contempt. Poole’s Boys in the Sand is the emotional inverse of Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. It may seem simplistic, and perhaps vanilla today, but Boys in the Sand was one of the first positive representations of Gay life and Gay sex in the U.S., and a talisman for the then emerging Pride movement. Poole also created a definitive document of the early Pride movement in his 1974 short shot on the streets of San Francisco, Freedom Day Parade.
The tactile, physical-emotional reality that filmmaker Poole adds to Warhol in Andy is indicative of what Pool brought to his cinematic output….”
Poole’s short documentary works are all powerfully indelible. Poole’s 11-minute Andy is one of the best works on Warhol made during Warhol’s lifetime. It is effective because it brings the viewer fully up to speed on 60s Warhol in minutes; and in addition to Poole’s charismatic, personal, luring, handmade visual aesthetic, Andy contains tremendous historical value as it captures the 1968 Whitney Museum Warhol retrospective—as it was installed. Seeing Poole’s Andy, the Cow Wallpaper finally fully “makes sense.” Without doubt, connecting Poole’s work with Warhol’s, and understanding Poole as a practitioner of Warholism, only strengthens Poole’s individual contributions to the scene.
The tactile, physical-emotional reality that filmmaker Poole adds to Warhol in Andy is indicative of what Pool brought to his cinematic output and placed out in front — whereas most filmmakers and directors reserve this human sensuality under layers. All Poole movies may be considered documentaries and the original screenings of Poole films should be conceptualized as social happenings as much as cinema-going. While much of Poole’s temporary installation and party work has been lost to time, it can be glimpsed in the documentaries, and within the use of projections in the hard-core movies. From watching his films, it is obvious that Poole was a dancer and choreographer foremost, and this gives Poole, as a director-filmmaker, a sensitivity to the playful and profound connections expressed in physical exchanges. As a director, Poole understands that watching actual human sexual contact contains as much narrative, dialogue, and intellection as any conversation, fight, or expression of music, etcetera. It is the music of bodies that unites all of Poole’s work and that he is unusually willing to capture without preface or apology. In motion pictures, Poole trusts the work of bodies and the experience of the body as narrative, as it would be in the world of dance.
The movie works of Wakefield Poole contain vast networks still to be catalogued and critically evaluated. While some attention has now been paid to the early shot-on-film Poole movies, the later shot-on-video titles remain somewhat disparaged, even by Poole himself (…at least a little, it seems). The ugly factors of the production history and release of 1985’s One, Two, Three… cannot be denied, but this last completed hard-core work of Poole’s contains much of the nuance, and the elements of direct cinema that has contributed to Poole’s early films recent critical unearthing. The appreciation of VHS as a medium is only growing as it increasingly mates with the politics of nostalgia. Excitingly, the thinking about the cinema of Wakefield Poole has just commenced!
Andrew Repasky McElhinney is director, writer, and MoMA artist. His epic new motion picture project, Casual Encounters: Philadelphia True Crime Confessions, premiers 2023. Visit ARMcinema25.com.