4.19.2013

The pornographic canon: "Boys in the Sand" (1971)



Casey Donovan emerging from the water at the beginning of Boys in the Sand.


                           “He will then be reborn
                           From 1970s porn
                           Wearing tube socks with style
                           And such an innocent smile […]
                           He will fall from the star
                           Studio 54
                           And appear on the sand
                           Of Fire Island’s shore…”
                                                             --Rufus Wainwright, “Gay Messiah”

Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand (1971) was not the first work of hardcore moving-image pornography, gay or otherwise, but it can be seen as marking a shift in the way that gay sex, and later straight sex, was represented on-screen.  Its significance to the history of pornography is largely tonal, which is to say that Boys in the Sand is noteworthy not for the explicitness of its images but rather for imbuing them with an unprecedented naturalism.  Gay sex in Boys in the Sand, often staged al fresco, is just another thing under the (Fire Island) sun.  Its scenes unfold with commensurate ease, and its actors exude health and confidence rather than shame.  When Casey Donovan comes running out of the water onto the beach, he’s an object of fantasy, but he looks like the boy next door.  He’s the opposite of every image of the homosexual as dirty old man: warm-eyed, clean-limbed, blonde, fresh, sweet-tempered—the gay Marilyn Monroe.  We might compare his screen persona to those of Linda Lovelace and Bambi Woods, who effectively made names for themselves as the all-American girls of the blue-movie business. 

Casey Donovan: the boy next door as sex god.

Such innocent smiles, indeed.  Donovan and Lovelace gave hard-core sex a facelift: with them, sex would be like ice cream, as Norman Mailer famously said of Monroe.  Angela Carter put it more acidly: she wrote of Lovelace that “her queasily kitsch prose style, her leer, her simper, her naïvety, her schoolgirl humor effectively antiseptizes all the danger from that most subversive and ambivalent aspect of our selves.”  It’s true, too, that Donovan robs gay sex of some of its transgressive appeal: he’s so damned nice-looking that he lacks any kind of tension or mystery.  (Sometimes one does not want sex to taste like ice cream.)  At the same time, as Linda Williams points out in her reading of the film in Screening Sex, Boys in the Sand must be understood as a watershed moment in gay history; its naturalization of gay sex was of immense benefit to gay audiences (and, insofar as it indirectly helped legitimize straight pornography, to straight audiences as well).  Later films, such as Poole’s own Bijou, would restore some of the darkness and the edge to hard-core sex, and in any case no single film should have to shoulder the burden of representing everything that the medium can do.  We should appreciate Boys in the Sand on its own terms, as a beautifully languid hour in the sun.  

Peter Fisk runs into the water at the end of the first segment of Boys in the Sand.

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