When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
BRÜNO (2009) vs. Andy Warhol’s BIKE BOY (1967)

I saw BRÜNO last month.

The film’s duality of performance and cultural observation, documentary and manipulation, agent provocateur and farcical comedy led me to think about its relationship to certain aspects of the Warhol / Morrissey output in the late 1960s such as BIKE BOY.

The camera of 1967’s BIKE BOY recorded the codes of fashion, the ego gratitude sought in exhibitionism, fissures in constructed personae and the push/pull of human interaction — the same things captured in BRÜNO.

<em>BIKE BOY'</em>s Joe Spencer and Viva

BIKE BOY's Joe Spencer and Viva

Both films have a claustrophobic reality of dealing with whatever is transpiring onscreen.  By strictly dealing with agendas within the film frame, you can watch how external cultural influences can dictate people’s behaviors and reactions.  Yet both lack a certain core screen-to-viewer grounding because both the Warhol Superstars and Sacha Baron Cohen hold the Get Out of Jail Free luxury of the ability to break the illusion of the situation when things get unworkable by reminding the audience or acknowledging onscreen that it’s only a movie and they are “just play-acting.”  Those on the screen never invoke that luxury, but that safety net permeates these films.

The gap between how people view themselves and who they really are is rawly exposed in these films.  Starting with the opening sequence of bike boy Joe Spencer in the shower, one can read that he is both loving the attention and fearful of the focus placed upon him:  a well-placed fear since in the final scene with Viva, his smoke-and-mirrors tough guy facade begins to evaporate.  In a similar vein, Sacha Baron Cohen works within a conscious duality (as a Jew playing a Muslim in BORAT and a straight guy playing it queer in BRÜNO) while also using the camera and audience to satisfy an exhibitionist’s need.  Then also Warhol’s Factory was populated with people pretending to be someone else:  as BIKE BOY actress Brigid Berlin commented in the documentary A WALK INTO THE SEA: DANNY WILLIAMS AND THE WARHOL FACTORY, she and many others at Warhol’s Factory were Trust Fund kids.  Berlin said her father was head of Hearst Publishing — every week she’d take a cab from the Factory to her father’s office to get her allowance check.  So the urban low-rent desperation projected by most of the Superstars was just as much a performance construction as Cohen’s Austrian fashionista, Brüno.

Joe Spencer, the bike boy of the film’s title, was the youngest of 13 sons all of whom were lumberjacks.  According to a 1968 radio interview with two of the cast he was a biker-wannabe:  a dichotomy of external masculinity living with inner inadequacy, which they stated Warhol wanted to expose via the making of the film.  Through Cohen’s methods, Brüno exploits similar personal disconnects in those caught within his performance praxis.

A Queer Eye on Fashion forms a significant segment of BIKE BOY.

A Queer Eye on Fashion forms a significant segment of BIKE BOY.

A lengthy, comedic and sexy segment of BIKE BOY was shot not in New York but at Town Squire, a men’s clothing store on San Francisco’s Polk Street.  Art students Bruce Haines and George McKittrich play hyper-Gay store clerks who have clientele strip naked in the store and then dress them up in outrageously scanty mod-a-go-go outfits that — like men’s fashion itself — tread the line between meta-masculinity and urban queer semiotics.

Here’s a 1968 San Francisco radio interview (from which I gleaned the facts on Joe Spencer used in this post) with the two guys who play the clerks in the men’s clothing store, Bruce Haines and George McKittrich.  The two actors discuss their experiences in making BIKE BOY. [55 min., from Pacifica Radio Archives.]

Frankly, I think both these films are great works:  most films are made using either the model of the 19th Century novel or (more recently) video games.  These movies avoid both traps:  they use the medium.

In BIKE BOY, look for Valerie Solanis, the girl who shot Andy Warhol, in a small non-speaking role.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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