I vividly remember the first time I saw James Bidgood’s underground film Pink Narcissus (1971): I was 15 and still in the closet.
Although I never met Bidgood, the news of his recent passing at 88, on January 31, left me with the feeling that an acquaintance had departed. It also brought back memories from my teenage years, when I was living with my family in a provincial town in North Italy.
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Back then I didn’t know any other gay person, grown-up or teenaged. Homosexuality wasn’t particularly discussed at home or at school, and was scarcely represented on media.
Cinema, I discovered, answered my need to both scrutinize and fantasize about the lives of other gay men. The internet (quite different from today’s — Wikipedia was in its early days, Youtube hadn’t been launched yet) gave me access to the information I needed.
I discovered Pink Narcissus that way, almost by chance and knowing very little about it. Its story has the taste of an origin myth. The film follows the sexual dreams of a young male hustler, played by the ridiculously handsome Bobby Kendall. As in a cinematic version of a revue, Kendall sublimates the memory of a sexual encounter into a bullfight, turning himself into a toreador, a sultan, a Roman emperor and a Roman slave.
Bidgood worked on the project from 1963 to 1970 with very limited means, building set after set in his cramped Hell’s Kitchen flat, repurposing found objects and materials. He employed different lenses and extreme angles to create the illusion of depth, together with double exposures, color gels, and other basic cinematographic tricks. Scenes were heavily constructed, and featured glowing effects, artificial and hyper-saturated colors.
Pink Narcissus struck me as the erotic dream of a queer Fellini. It gave me goosebumps. It reflected some of my own sexual fantasies, but it also drew on the decadent atmospheres of cultural expressions I was exploring at the time: Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel À rebours (1884), Oscar Wilde’s plays, and Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations, which I would diligently copy for my drawing assignments at school.
I found the film so relatable because, after all, it is about the daydreaming of a gay teenager — with all the limits of a product of its time. Today, the wild Orientalism of certain scenes and the cast of exclusively Caucasian men would place it in a dangerously problematic zone of culture.
The way Pink Narcissus legitimizes eroticism by situating nudes in mythological and artificial settings is a strategy that was all the rage in the Golden Age of Hollywood, one of Bidgood’s major reference points. Even then I could see that those cultural dynamics and the way I thought I had to cover the truth as a closeted boy weren’t much different.
By the end of the 1960s the homoerotic magazines and films once marketed as bodybuilding material to evade charges of obscenity had become much more explicit, consigning Pink Narcissus to history.
It wasn’t completely forgotten, though. Here and there, the film’s aesthetics resurfaced. It fed the work of many, influencing photographers and directors from Ranier Werner Fassbinder to Steven Arnold, Pierre et Gilles, and David La Chapelle …
And, from midtown Manhattan, it arrived in my sleepy hometown in Italy, some 40 years later.