Andy Milligan’s Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973) is a great example of how much fun trash cinema can be. Its plot hangs on the flimsiest and yet most reliable of threads—a girl, alone in the city and in need of money, resorts to turning tricks in order to make ends meet—and yet it’s got such a loose, grimy, homemade feel that it’s almost charming (it’s not a mean-spirited, ugly exploitation film like, say, Vidal Raski’s The Sinful Dwarf ). Milligan and his main actors have a warmth that you don’t always see in exploitation films; Deadly Weapons (dir. Doris Wishman, 1974) is another example of an exploitation film that feels downright cruel by contrast. In Fleshpot, there’s a solidarity not only between the freaks and the whores and the queens but also between the characters and the filmmakers. Like John Waters, Milligan never affects an air of superiority toward his subject matter or his characters. And so the drag queen Cherry Lane (Neil Flanagan) emerges as an affectionately drawn salt-of-the-earth type instead of a pathetic old hag.
A low-level hooker pushing forty, Cherry is tired and desperate, and like everybody else in the film she’s been scarred, but she’s still got a little bit of dignity and hasn’t lost her sense of humor. She’s another gay stereotype—the bitchy old queen who trades in bawdy one-liners. But even if one were to claim that she’s not a “realistic” character (and even this itself seems debatable), she’s got more personality and is treated with more dignity and intelligence than a good many sober, well-meaning, inoffensive representations of gay people in the movies. Much of this also has to do with the film’s setting—the cheap apartments and gay bars and back alleys of Manhattan in the early ’70s, which are shown to be happily bustling with loud-mouth queers of every stripe—and with its interest in talk, specifically the chatty, gossipy, rambling talk of its gay characters. Andy Milligan doesn’t look at gay bohemian culture at a remove; he’s right down there in the dirt with his characters, and he’s sharply attuned to the details of their behavior, how they talk, how they counsel one another, how they fight.
Fleshpot on 42nd Street may not exactly be an underground masterpiece, but it should remind us of psychotronic cinema’s ability to foreground the kind of cultural detritus that gets swept under the rug. It should also remind us of the strong ties between urban gay culture, pornography, cult/trash cinema, and the avant-garde arts movements of the 1960s and ’70s. The twenty-first century’s mainstreaming of both gay culture and indie cinema—to say nothing of the virtual disappearance of artistically compelling narrative pornography—has revealed this period to be something of a vanished golden age in the history of the medium. If we’re lucky, we will continue to be able to revisit it through its films.