Sleeping with Curt McDowell

In bed: McDowell speaking to the camera in Confessions (1972).

…and from the sacred (The Ten Commandments) back to the profane: last weekend I revisited the short films of the late Curt McDowell, the San Francisco-based underground filmmaker perhaps best known for collaborating with his teacher, mentor, and sometime lover George Kuchar on the cult epic Thundercrack! (1975).  Thundercrack! has recently been released on Blu-ray by Synapse Films, which has also thrown in a bonus disc containing five of McDowell’s shorts.  McDowell’s all-too-brief career—he was most active from 1970 to 1975, contracted HIV in the mid 1980s, and died of AIDS in 1987—roughly divides between Kuchar-flavored camp comedies and pornographic diary films in which he attempted to give expression to his deepest sexual fantasies. 

At the park: one of the subjects of Loads (1985).

I first read about McDowell’s sex films in an essay by Thomas Waugh in which he describes McDowell’s Loads (1985) as “so hot that it makes Kansas City Trucking Co. feel like a three-hour Marguerite Duras film projected at half speed.”  Waugh praises McDowell as an experimental filmmaker whose exploration of sex is an example of “an alternative practice, a grass-roots pornography to counter the industrial pornography; an eroticism that enhances our pleasure in our sexuality by starting from the raw place we’re in right now and by responding to that place, without defensiveness or complacency, but with honesty, questioning, and humor.”  Confessions (1972), for example, intercuts footage of sex and masturbation with interviews in which McDowell’s friends tell him how they feel about him, and opens with a monologue in which McDowell, addressing the camera, comes out to his parents (and subsequently breaks down in tears).     

As pornography goes, Confessions may as well be set in another universe from Deep Throat, made the same year.  It finds McDowell using images of “hard core” sex to articulate something intensely private about himself.  The film is a portrait of the artist in which sex is seen as central rather than peripheral to his identity.  (Nearly everyone who knew McDowell has testified to his voracious sexual appetite.)  Where much mainstream pornography of the 1970s aimed to please its audience(s) by catering to their presumed fantasies and desires, McDowell’s films are defiantly personal works in which sex becomes a way for him to explore his own truth.

In the studio: McDowell with male stranger in Loads.

Loads is perhaps the most powerfully erotic of McDowell’s sex films, and a remarkable example of how the gaps between pornography, documentary, and experimental cinema may be bridged.  In this film McDowell uses voice-over narration to speak candidly and unapologetically about his attraction to straight men.  The six male strangers seen in the film are picked up by McDowell in the park or on the street and invited back to his studio, where McDowell films them stripping and posing, and proceeds to service them sexually.  What makes this film so striking is not the elaborate nature of the sex scenes (which, being enacted by amateurs, is mostly perfunctory) but rather the intensity of McDowell’s erotic desire, which the film expresses so nakedly.  As McDowell recounts his various sexual exploits, we hear the arousal creep into his voice, eventually overtaking him altogether.  The film becomes suffused with a sexual tension that feels all the more concentrated because we know it’s coming from someplace real.  All of McDowell’s sex films are governed by a confessional impulse—a need to show us who he is as well as to discover it for himself.   

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