Wednesday, June 12, 2002

When Men Were Men and Videos Were Films: Joe Gage’s Kansas City Trilogy

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #186, July 12, 2002)

In the modern age in which we live, if you want to enjoy an all-male erotic entertainment you simply pick one up at the video store, bring it home, pop it in your DVD player or VCR, and proceed to get your rocks off. It’s easy, convenient, and cheap. It’s the video equivalent of a frozen entree—all it lacks is flavor, texture and interest.

Compared with much of the gay male porn that’s being made today, the films that make up Joe Gage’s Kansas City trilogy are gourmet feasts. The films (Kansas City Trucking Company, 1976; El Paso Wrecking Company, 1977; L.A. Tool & Die, 1979) were all greeted with enthusiastic acclaim from critics and viewers alike when they were first released, and they continue to be revered today, selling well on both videocassette and DVD. They are widely considered to be among the finest products of the golden age of gay male erotic filmmaking and supreme examples of a lost art. They really, truly don’t make them like this anymore. (What was it that Norma Desmond said in Sunset Boulevard about the pictures getting smaller?)

Male erotic films made prior to the mid-1980s were very different from modern-day gay male videos. The process of making them was different, their content was different, the way in which they were viewed was different, and the society and the milieu in which they existed were very different from today’s world.

In 1976, when Kansas City Trucking Company was released, Stonewall had happened only seven years before. Vietnam was still a raw nerve in the American psyche (and is part of the storyline of L.A. Tool & Die). AIDS had not yet exploded. Gay life was pre-condom, pre-video, pre-digital, pre-virtual and pre-Internet. Gay men could be found hanging out in tearooms instead of chatrooms.

In those pre-VCR days very few people had their own film-projection equipment, which meant that watching what was then known as an “all-male” film was a communal experience. One went to a slightly-seedy theatre with a name like “Adonis” or “Gaiety” or “Bijou” and watched the movie on a theater-sized screen in the company of other men. The action in the theater usually mirrored what was happening on the screen. The floors of the theater were sticky, and it wasn’t just spilled soft drinks. (Oh, and the patrons of those theaters probably stopped at the newsstand to pick up the latest copy of Drummer on the way home. Just as video killed film, the Internet has killed many magazines.)

Gage and many of the other makers of gay male erotic films of the era took their task seriously. Their films were certainly drenched in sex, but they also strove to make both an artistic and a political statement. (In those days having sex, and lots of it, was a political statement.) Comparing these films to most modern-day porn videos is like comparing the lushness, sweep and spectacle of Gone With the Wind with the crass coarseness of the latest “reality televison” dreck, or like comparing a fine erotic photograph from Colt Studios to the type of amateur male nude snapshots with which the Web is awash.

The films in the Gage trilogy include such now-quaint notions as a plot, including a story arc that spans all three films of the trilogy; character development; more dialogue than just the occasional grunt or “Suck my big dick” line; artistic camerawork and lighting effects; scenic landscape and location shots; and a soundtrack that is for the most part a very complex aural montage of relevant sounds that forms a breathtaking backdrop for the sexual action on the screen. Watching the films it’s obvious that Gage was a guy who paid attention to details and wanted to take the effort to get them right. (L.A. Tool & Die took 20 days to film, which was and still is an unheard-of amount of time to spend making a gay porn flick.)

The men in these films are very different from the twinks in so many of today’s porn films. You’ll see no gym bunnies or steroid queens here, and no shaved chests or trimmed pubes—just good-looking, unpretentious, often hairy, real men having real sex with real gusto.

The trilogy was dedicated to Tom of Finland, and it’s a Tom-of-Finland world that the films portray. There are stunning scenes filled with leather and motorcycles. Alcohol is much in evidence, especially while driving. Guns are toys. There are fistfights with homophobes, and the homophobes always lose and slink away. There is lust aplenty, but also love, camaraderie and, at the end of the trilogy, romance and a fairy-tale (pun intended) happy ending. For the most part it’s a laid-back, mellow world with a happy bunch of guys-next-door (don’t we all wish?) who enjoy each other’s company. They work hard, and when the day is done they play hard (accentuate the “hard”). There is also the occasional female, usually a girlfriend, because Gage evidently liked to include something for the heterosexuals and bisexuals in the audience.

Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to these films. Many of the hairstyles are almost laughably dated, as is much of the music. Those, unfortunately, are things that can’t easily be fixed. Other problems cry out to be rectified, however: the VHS versions that I viewed started with prints of the films that were scratched, dusty and missing significant chunks of footage. Those problems were compounded with some of the worst film-to-video transfer I’ve ever seen. I would hope the film-to-DVD transfers were handled with more respect. If you want to add these films to your collection, caveat emptor. It might be worth renting before you buy. Know what you’re getting and be prepared to settle for some technical shortcomings.

Or overlook the technical shortcomings, the cheesy music, the bad (at times) acting, and just revel in the cinematography, the storytelling, the men and the sex. Those days may be gone with the wind, but we still have these movies by which we can remember them.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Atons Leather/Levi Dinner
Saturday, July 13; It’s Greek to Me (626 W. Lake St. at Lyndale, Minneapolis)
Presented by the Atons, open to all. Drinks at 7 PM, dinner at 7:30 PM. Patio dining, space is limited. To make reservations or for more information call the Atons HotLine.

Atons 30th-Anniversary XXXtreme Leather Weekend
Friday-Sunday, July 19-21
Come help the Atons of Minneapolis celebrate their 30th anniversary at a weekend party of extreme proportions. Weekend fee includes lodging, meals, refreshments, and all activities. There will be a hot tub, nature trails, dungeons, games, cocktail parties, and a banquet with celebrity entertainment. For more information:, or call the Atons HotLine.

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