Ten bucks is the price that J.C. (David Calder), the sullen male hustler in The Meat Rack (dir. Richard Stockton, 1969), charges for himself. Ironically, it’s the same price for which I picked up the DVD, released by Something Weird, and it’s the best ten bucks I’ve spent in recent memory.
The DVD contains not only this fascinating gay exploitation film but also a Boys in the Band-style gay-friends comedy called Sticks and Stones (dir. Stan LoPresto, 1970); six gay loops (one features 70s porn star John Holmes), most of which are more laughably strange than arousing (a bunch of naked men sitting on rocks playing ukuleles?); and two short films containing documentary footage from the heyday of gay liberation, including shots of the 1970 Hollywood Pride Parade. It’s like a miniature time capsule from a moment when gay visibility was beginning to explode.
The Meat Rack appears to be a grittier, more explicit version of Midnight Cowboy (dir. John Schlesinger), which had just been released to huge controversy the same year. Like Joe Buck in that film, J.C. (David Calder) is a small-town boy who ends up working street corners and movie theater balconies in the big city. He takes male and female customers, though it’s not exactly clear whether J.C. is gay, gay-for-pay, or bisexual. Regardless, the film pathologizes his sexuality through the steady use of flashbacks (done the cheap way, with Vaseline around the camera lens) depicting his embittered, clinging, promiscuous mother and philandering, absent, possibly queer father—we’re meant to believe that homosexuality was a matter of nurture, not nature, as many psychiatric professionals did until 1972 when it was stricken from the DSM.
While not necessarily well made, The Meat Rack is a priceless historical artifact because it represents a transition in the ways that gay and lesbian people were represented and treated on film. Made right at the moment of Stonewall, The Meat Rack is an awkward but daring attempt to think sympathetically and somewhat realistically about the circumstances surrounding gay life and experience. “Realistically!?”, detractors might be heard to squawk—“but all of the men in this movie are either prostitutes, grotesque villains, or losers!” (like the aging, rather pathetic transvestite, seen above, who has resigned himself to paid sex). No, the film does not conform to our modern-day standards of “positive representations” of gay and lesbian people. But, made in 1970, it is extraordinary insofar as it begins to present us with characters whose queerness is treated non-judgmentally, even poignantly (afraid of committing to a relationship with another man who he’s been seeing for several weeks, J.C. breaks it off). For all its dated touches, The Meat Rack pays sustained attention to a subculture that had previously only been glimpsed in American films in bits and pieces. Like The Black Klansman, this is less a laughable piece of cinematic trash than a respectable (if rough-hewn) attempt to represent issues and experiences that fell outside of Hollywood’s purview.