Film preservation is a vital act that comes in many forms. The most obvious and important approach is restoring and preserving an actual film itself, but right behind it is something equally special and often overlooked. It is the act of planting the seeds of curiosity and proving how important certain types of art and expression are. This is precisely what Evan Purchell has done with his work of film montage art entitled Ask Any Buddy. The center theme and material used for this film is explicitly one of the most unjustly neglected film genres: gay erotica of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Fighting for proper critical evaluation, respect, and preservation of erotica of any stripe is an uphill struggle riddled with outdated mores and censorship battles, but it feels like that has always been doubly so for the LGBTQ community. Thank the gods for the work of outfits like Bijou Video and Vinegar Syndrome for their work on getting some of Wakefield Poole’s groundbreaking films out there. We can now add Evan’s name too, because he has created something so needed, beautiful, and one-of-a-kind with his film. He’s crafted something singularly his own that also serves as a paean and a document of a period of time for gay culture that has been forever altered by the spectre of AIDS, the religious-right, and an assortment of government-based neglect and oppression. But the art remains…vibrant and outliving many of its creators but also many of its oppressors too. Ask Any Buddy is stunning proof of this, with its seamless editing and intuitively thoughtful narrative, making one wanting to seek out all of its source materials while hoping to see more work from Purchell too.
The great thing is that I am far from the only one with this opinion, since the AGFA (American Genre Film Archive) have booked screenings of it, but it was also added to the BFI (British Film Institute)’s subscription streaming service.
Evan was kind enough to take the time and answer some of my questions regarding his journey into making and releasing Ask Any Buddy.
HD: Was there a specific catalyst for your journey into becoming a film historian?
Evan: It was mostly my desire to want to learn more about these movies and the people who made them, and my surprise that there was so little correct information out there about them. The Instagram just sort of grew out of that — a means of getting some of this really pioneering and inspiring imagery and history back out there after being hidden away for decades.
HD: The montage art throughout Ask Any Buddy is absolutely incredible. What was the process like for assembling so many titles into one new creation?
Evan: It was very modular — I kind of had an idea of what the individual sections of my film would be, so it was just a matter of combing through what I had to find, the sorts of locations and elements I was looking for, and then assembling them in a way that worked on a logical level. So many of these films used the same types of settings — bars, movie theaters, tearooms, pride parades, the New York piers — that I generally had plenty to pull from.
HD: What was your first proper introduction into the world of the golden era of gay erotica?
Evan: My partner and I caught a screening of Wakefield Poole’s Bijou about four or five years ago. Even though I’d seen a handful of hetero films from the same era — the usual titles by Gerard Damiano, Radley Metzger, and Stephen Sayadian — it really defied all of my expectations and made me want to see more. Within weeks, I’d watched Fred Halsted’s L.A. Plays Itself, Jack Deveau’s Drive, and Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack!, and on and on.
HD: Which titles were the hardest for you to get a copy of?
Evan: Probably the ones that I still don’t have copies of! I actually had to pull footage from a couple of theatrical trailers for films that I haven’t been able to find tapes or rips of.
HD: Out of this era, what films would you classify as essential viewing, especially for viewers new to the genre?
Evan: There’s plenty of titles I could recommend, but I’d love for more people to check out Joe Gage’s work from the era — the trilogy of Kansas City Trucking Co., El Paso Wrecking Corp., and L.A. Tool & Die; plus the one-offs Closed Set, HANDsome, and Heatstroke. All six of these features blend narrative, genre, formal experimentation, sex, and politics in a way that’s both very forward-thinking and completely cinematic.
HD: Granted, I think by their very nature, the entire genre is underrated, but which titles and directors would you classify as extremely underrated?
Evan: Arthur Bressan is the big key filmmaker who is finally starting to be rediscovered thanks to Jenni Olson and the Bressan Project. His filmography very openly straddled and blurred the lines between the ‘mainstream’ and the less reputable, and I think it’s really impossible to look at more well-known titles like Buddies — the first dramatic film about AIDS — and his documentary Gay U.S.A. apart from his hardcore films like Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters.
Christopher Rage is another largely forgotten figure who I’m very fascinated by — he worked in just about every aspect of the sex and entertainment industries during his life, and his video works are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I’m currently conducting research on him for a biography that I’m hoping to write.
HD: Censorship for adult films, both hetero and homosexual, has been a problem dating back even to the early days of VHS and Beta. I know the golden and silver era “straight” films have still run into censorship even in the DVD/Blu era, with uncut copies of titles like Raw Talent and Smoker still MIA. Which golden and silver age titles would you say have been the most vulnerable to being censored?
Evan: There’s a lot — many of these films were cut for content or rescored because they used unlicensed music, which was standard for gay films since the filmmakers knew that nobody would ever admit to going to see them. Sex acts that are considered more kinky now — like fisting and watersports — were also pretty common in even otherwise vanilla features, so determining if films have been edited and which releases are complete is difficult. Joe Gage’s El Paso Wrecking Corp. is an especially egregious one — most VHS and DVD releases of the film are missing nearly 30 minutes of narrative and sex footage, including a scene where Fred Halsted throws a homophobe through a window.
HD: A filmmaker I have been wanting to seek out big time is Fred Halsted. Sadly, I know his big films (L.A. Plays Itself, Sex Garage, Sextool) are, to my knowledge, not available in any legal and proper format. Do you think the odds of Halsted’s work, as well as other key erotica auteurs (ie. Peter de Rome, Joe Gage, Tom DiSimone), getting remastered and legally released, are any good?
Evan: The Museum of Modern Art actually just premiered new 4k restorations of the three key Halsted films — L.A. Plays Itself, The Sex Garage, and Sextool — so hopefully those will get some sort of wider release in the future. The two biggest barriers for more films getting restored is the lack of existing film elements and there just not being enough of an audience willing to pay for releases. Vinegar Syndrome’s essential restorations of the Wakefield Poole catalog are the lowest-selling titles in their entire library, for example.
HD: Ask Any Buddy has had a number of screenings recently, which is amazing. How would you describe some of the public’s reaction to it?
Evan: The film can’t legally be screened in theatrical venues here in Texas, so I haven’t been able to see how it plays in that context yet — I’ve heard good things, though! We’ve just had eight screenings get canceled or postponed because of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, though, so check back with me after things calm down…
HD: Were there any films you watched while putting your film together that you found particularly harrowing as a viewer? (I know for me the straight-equivalent would be a tie between Femmes DeSade and the composite-cut of Waterpower.)
Evan: Roger Earl’s Born to Raise Hell was so rough that it was banned from screening in Los Angeles for decades, and it still packs a punch. Most gay ‘roughies’ really aren’t that bad, though — and they’re lacking the misogyny that makes the two you mentioned so nasty.
HD: The use of music in Ask Any Buddy is beautiful and tight-like-a-leather-glove. If you put together a Various Artists compilation inspired by your film, what would be some of the songs and artists?
Evan: These filmmakers generally had no problems with using stolen music — the budgets they were working from were microscopic, and they knew nobody would ever admit in court to actually going to see these movies. Because of that, you see a really wild range of music on the soundtracks to these films — lots of disco and classical, which is to be expected, but also a surprising amount of Pink Floyd and more out-there artists like Tonto’s Exploding Head Band. I actually made a Spotify playlist of songs taken from some of the films I used to make Ask Any Buddy, which is here: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7HiMp5qst0vboGGPZj6YKG?si=57X9AeFKTdKmDFx9jMTx5w.
HD: What is your biggest hope in the long run for Ask Any Buddy?
Evan: I’m hoping the film will both open peoples’ eyes to a significant part of queer film history that they might not’ve known ever existed as well as challenge their perceptions of the genre. The people who made and appeared in these movies risked a lot to put these aspects of their lives on film, which I find very inspiring. I hope others will, too.
HD: What new projects are possibly upon your horizon?
Evan: I’m currently working on putting together a trailer compilation that’ll be a sort of companion to Ask Any Buddy. I’ve got nearly 200 gay adult trailers digitized, so right now I’m in the thick of trying to narrow it down to about 70 minutes and figure out a way to make everything flow nicely.
Huge thanks to Evan for his patience and time. You can see the trailer for Ask Any Buddy here.