a gay old time

This landmark erotic art film from 1971 indulges in your candy-colored fantasies

A still from 'Pink Narcissus' featuring a call-boy in blue and peacock feathers
Image Credit: ‘Pink Narcissus,’ Strand Releasing

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” In this week’s column, we revisit Pink Narcissus, a landmark gay erotic art film that invites its viewers to indulge in fantasy.

We all bring a little bit of ourselves into the entertainment we enjoy. Whether it’s listening to the lyrics of a song that remind us of a particular heartbreak, reading a novel that brings us back to our own coming-of-age, or watching a movie where we can relate a bit too closely with the protagonist, it is hard to detach our own experiences from whatever it is we’re consuming. Most of us are able to empathize, understand, or relate in some way or another.

Although this is true for most pieces of mainstream entertainment, it’s even truer for those that fall outside the boundaries of traditional form and narrative. Those that are more experimental, and allow for far more personal projection and interpretation. With these, the film (because here we’re talking movies) often has whatever meaning the viewer is bringing to it, with whatever their baggage and analysis and feelings.

This is all to say that 1971’s experimental art house queer film Pink Narcissus makes for an incredibly interesting and unique viewing experience. Because even though there is a central character and a story that is unfolding, it’s a visual poem; a stream of consciousness made up of abstract imagery that leaves the viewer to fill in the many blanks that it purposefully leaves.

Pink Narcissus is, in many ways, about whatever the person watching it believes it to be about.

The Set-Up

Pink Narcissus is not a long film; it is barely over an hour long. It was directed by queer visual artist and photographer James Bidgood, although he is cited as “Anonymous” in the credits.

The identity of the director was unknown for many years since it was released without Bidgood’s consent (Andy Warhol was even rumored to be behind it because of its distinctive style). And it has since become one of the most striking and memorable examples of queer experimental film.

In a very general sense, the film follows an unnamed young male prostitute who, in between visits of several clients and his keeper, imagines himself in various erotic scenarios: as a matador battling a leather daddy in a motorcycle, as a belly dancer performing for a gazing sultan, and as a Roman slave boy being condemned by the Emperor.

An Eye-gasm

A still from 'Pink Narcissus' featuring a call-boy in pink standing in front of ornate gold mirrors
Image Credit: ‘Pink Narcissus,’ Strand Releasing

That is as far as the plot of the movie goes, but its main appeal (or detraction, as this style of filmmaking is surely just as polarizing as it is alluring) is the hypnotizing combination of images, colors, and sounds. It is a visually collage as sexually explicit as it is tender. As over the top as it is nuanced. As repetitive and indulgent as it is forward-thinking.

In sequences marked by saturated colors (bright blues, bleeding reds, neon pinks), Pink Narcissus creates a mosaic of surreal and erotic imagery as we see this young man explore and indulge in his sexuality: he cruises through dark public bathrooms and urinals. He slowly touches his body up and down with a gleaming disco ball. His member becomes a butterfly. The beads of his ejaculation float in the ether. A blowjob is drowned in a literal rising tide.

And all those images may be a reflection of his own sexual journey. Or a compelling portrait of the contradictions of gay life in the pre-AIDS early ’70s: hyper sexual and mystical at the same time. Hidden and debaucherously open. Free and yet taboo. Blooming, like petals, or a cocoon, or a butterfly (images that repeat over and over and over).

What’s Your Fantasy?

A still from 'Pink Narcissus' featuring a call-boy in underwear sitting on a bed with a pink wall behind him.
Image Credit: ‘Pink Narcissus,’ Strand Releasing

But it is also all a reflection of our own journey watching it: “What could that butterfly perfectly merging with the pupil of the young boy symbolize?” “Why is he pleasuring himself with that? And like that?” “Why is he a matador? Why is he a belly dancer…?”

Because of the lack of straightforward plot, the movie allows you to imagine and make your assumptions and have your theories. It gives space and time for interpretation as you watch along, and with that, more space and time for you to project yourself into it, as well:

“Yes, when I came out as a young boy and started experimenting it also felt like a butterfly leaving its cocoon…” “Ah, that is an accurate depiction of the paranoia and excitement that happens while cruising…” “I’ve also felt like that when someone across the dance floor cannot take his eyes off me…” “Those are the exact colors one sees when doing a hit of poppers…”

Erotic Escapism

A still from 'Pink Narcissus' featuring a call-boy sitting in a chair next to a lamp with a pink wall behind him
Image Credit: ‘Pink Narcissus,’ Strand Releasing

One shouldn’t expect to see (or even necessarily enjoy) Pink Narcissus the way most movies are watched. It’s not mindless entertainment you can pop in while doing laundry, or enjoy during a casual date night (unless you want it to go a certain way).

Watching it is a different experience. One that lets your mind wander, and connect the images unfolding. It lets you relate (or not) to the scenarios the protagonist envisions himself in, even if it’s just in a faint feeling. It lets you admire his body, the same way he is admiring it himself. The way Narcissus did in the myth.

It is certainly not a movie for everyone. It may be too weird or pretentious or nonsensical. And it can’t be argued that it isn’t. At some points, it’s all of the above. But it also allows for some nice self-exploration. Mostly in the internal, soul-searching sense of the word—though not exclusively.

While Pink Narcissus is not officially streaming online, it is hosted on sites like The Internet Archive and RareFilmm.com.