Image credit: Ask Any Buddy © Elizabeth Purchell
Elizabeth Purchell is an Austin-based queer film historian, programmer, filmmaker, and the creator of the multi-media project Ask Any Buddy. In her program for Anthology Film Archives, “‘Ask Any Buddy’ and The Golden Age of All-Male Adult Cinema,” Purchell explores why gay pornography should be examined through a lens of sexual desire, music, fashion—and why she doesn’t just want to be known as a trans woman documenting gay porn. Purchell joined Gillani Peets for a conversation about the processes behind her filmmaking and research.
Gillani Peets [GP]: How did you get into cinema, and then into gay adult cinema?
Elizabeth Purchell [EP]: I think I have well-rounded tastes. I was always taken with genre cinema and exploitation films from filmmakers like Ed Woods and Hershel Horton. Seeing those kinds of films led me into sexploitation filmmakers like Doris Wishman or Michael and Roberta Findlay. All of them were, in the years leading up to hardcore, making these very interesting, strange, different types of films. I became fascinated with this alternative history of Hollywood that nobody ever talked about or looked at.
The whole Ask Any Buddy project started as I was discovering all this old print material for these films and was just taken by and inspired by this hidden history of queer cinema. I wanted to get that imagery out into the world, instead of it being hidden in old, dirty magazines.
GP: Have you found archival research challenging?
EP: It’s been very difficult. On the one hand, it’s hard for me to find VHS tapes and magazines for research. And then on the other hand, I have so much stuff that I don’t really need right now and can’t sell.
GP: How long did it take to make Ask Any Buddy?
EP: The film was commissioned for a local film festival, and I put it together over the span of probably four to six months. It required a lot of editing. I digitized roughly a quarter to half of the films that are featured in the film myself from my VHS tapes.
I think something that people don’t necessarily understand is that these films were a fairly large presence in gay life in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. If you go back and look at early issues of The Advocate, the gay paper of record, you would see promotional photos from gay porn films on the front cover, or you would see full page ads. They had a staff porn reviewer. Maybe to the outside world these films were very, very underground because I mean, having gay sex was illegal in most places. But at the same time, they had a presence in the gay world which helped spread different ideas about sexuality and desirability and social culture.
GP: Another thing which fascinated me was the open space that these filmmakers used. Was that common?
EP: It was a very regional thing. In New York, and this isn’t just like an adult cinema thing, nobody really cared if you were making a movie. So, filmmakers would do daring things like shooting a movie at The Piers, or, you know, shooting in Central Park, without getting any permits. In Los Angeles, the LAPD was very notoriously homophobic at the time, and also very anti-pornography. So, raids and busts were very common there, and that’s why a lot of LA–based films are either shot in nature, like out in the mountains, or indoors.
I think it’s also a way of getting production value cheaply: you know, these films were very, very low budget. Gay films were so low budget, especially compared to heterosexual adult films, which were essentially Hollywood-style productions with big budgets, and 35-millimeter film. The gay ones were always 16-millimeter, with no money behind them. They have a scrappiness that’s appealing.
GP: In regard to your series at Anthology Film Archives: Have you found that there was institutional support for these selections of films after their initial release? Or were they destroyed?
EP: You know, a lot of filmmakers and production companies, people who owned the rights and materials passed away in the 1980s, or the 1990s. As a result, a lot of film materials were just thrown in the dumpster or lost. There were a couple of major straight-owned businesses that owned gay labels: VCA had HIS Video, which had so many rights to so many amazing gay films.
But when Larry Flynt and Hustler Video bought VCA out in the late nineties, all their film materials went in a dumpster—ilms like Falconhead Two, which is one of the best gay horror films. I think that for many decades these films have been thought of as being disposable: you know, they’re just porn. The’re just something to get you off. I don’t think it’s been until fairly recently, within the past decade or two, that people looked back at these films and said, oh, yeah, there’s something here.
GP: Have you gotten institutional support from colleges, institutions, or archives?
EP: Not at all. I’ve never really gotten any support from art institutions, or colleges, or archives. I’ve never gotten grants or much help, or even social media promotion. It’s frustrating to put a lot of work into something and know that it’s important, but not get as many eyes on it as you think it should have.
There’s been this explosion of interest in queer cinema history in the past couple years. But to me, at least, I think it’s generally very boring. It’s people just talking about the same films over and over and over again—films like Parting Glances, The Watermelon Woman, Desert Hearts, Tongues Untied—which are all incredible, groundbreaking, important films. But you know, the whole purpose of my work is to show people that all this other stuff exists too.
GP: Can you give some examples?
EP: There’s City of Lost Souls, a film I’ve been trying to get people to watch for many, many years. It’s from a gay German filmmaker Rosa von Pranuheim. It’s a campy, anarchic musical about these American trans women and queer people living in Berlin, who escaped from America and are trying to make a life for themselves doing art. Also, there is Dressed In Blue, an essential trans documentary from Spain in the early 1980s that is being released next month.
GP: Finally, can you tell us about your next project?
EP: I’ve been working on a new found footage project that I’m calling “X-Rated Color, All-Male Cast.” It’s the description you always saw on newspaper ads: they’re always X-rated, color, all-male cast. This one is kind of like a mutated trailer compilation. I’m fascinated with the way that films are advertised, and trailers. I’ve been collecting gay trailers for several years now. And they’re all very, very hard to see.
Because I don’t necessarily just want to be known as the trans woman who does gay porn, I want to be seen as the trans women who does queer cinema.
Gillani Peets is a multi-media journalism student at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School.
Elizabeth Purchell is the creator of Ask Any Buddy, a multimedia project that explores the history of the gay adult film industry, and host of the monthly Queer Cinema: Lost and Found screening series at Austin Film Society.