Bradford Nordeen and Clara Lopez Menendez outside Machine Project for a previous Sesión ContinuaEXPAND
Bradford Nordeen and Clara Lopez Menendez outside Machine Project for a previous Sesión Continua
Courtesy Dirty Looks

This 24-Hour Gay Porn Pop-Up Theater Harkens Back to Pre-VHS Los Angeles

Before the advent of home video, porn movie houses were as much a part of L.A.'s landscape as indie movie theaters are today, and arguably more essential to a way of life. Gay porn theaters in particular — such as the Park in Westlake or the Coronet in Beverly Grove — became safe spaces and meeting places; men could cruise or leisurely take in an erotic film, and do so without fear of judgment or persecution. In a July L.A. Times piece about L.A.'s last two pornographic theaters (which I recommend reading in its entirety), Carolina Miranda spoke to industry advocate and documentary filmmaker Mike Stabile, who explained, “They weren’t just theater spaces. ... You could go in and have these experiences and they were anonymous. ... Being a young gay man, it’s tremendously nerve-racking, but there was something about the theater that is closed off from the rest of the world.”

Today, Studs in WeHo is the only surviving dedicated gay porn theater (the Tiki in East Hollywood shows a wider variety of adult genres), but for 24 hours this weekend, the scene will be twice as robust. Beginning at midnight on Friday, Aug. 4, NYC-based queer film collective Dirty Looks will host Sesión Continua, a "mixtape" of gay erotica and hardcore produced mostly in the pre–home video era, at Son of Semele in Westlake. In the 36-seat theater, they'll replicate the experience of watching porn in a group setting in the ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s; a few of the films are even set in porn theaters, loci of eroticism as they were.

Bradford Nordeen, who organized and programmed Sesión Continua with creative partner Clara Lopez Menendez, answered some questions about the pop-up's third incarnation, its biggest yet.

The audience at a previous Sesión ContinuaEXPAND
The audience at a previous Sesión Continua
Courtesy Dirty Looks

How did Sesión Continua get its start in L.A.?

Sesión Continua came out of Dirty Looks coming to L.A., actually. DL is a queer film series I founded in NYC in 2011, and would host monthly screenings before we started programming here. When we arrived, my collaborator Clara Lopez Menendez and I wanted to do something distinct, and I’d dreamed of using Machine Project’s 17-seat mystery theater for something. She had a thought to string together titles in a similar way to this porn theater in Madrid, where she’s from. So the first incarnation went up in 2015. We’ve done it twice at Machine but moved over to Son of Semele this year to double our capacity — 36!

What have you learned about L.A.'s gay porn theaters, past and present?

There’s the Studs on Santa Monica (formerly Tomkat Theatre and the Pussycat before that), which is kind of a West Hollywood institution, and for straight porn there’s the teeny, red-tiled Tiki near Western. But we did a bit of digging at ONE Archives and were really inspired by a slew of theaters in the late 1960s/early 1970s — the Park, Avalon, Coronet theaters. They were run by cinephiles but showed male hardcore films because it paid the bills, so they’d sprinkle their calendars with Kenneth Anger movies, Flaming Creatures or Portrait of Jason, alongside Pat Rocco nudies. And it’s funny, because the ads for a lot of the experimental works oversell the sizzle — there’s an illustration of Jason, the protagonist from Shirley Clarke’s namesake film, that seems more suited for an adult film than representative of its actual subject.

Is a group setting essential to the experience of watching gay porn in the way you're attempting to channel it here?

Well, there’s two answers to that. I’d say the films are more important, largely because those titles made before 1980 (which is the bulk of our program) offered their original audiences the chance to see gay lives on screen. This is before Making Love, before thoughtful gay characters in mainstream cinema. But gays could see themselves on porn screens, so in that way it’s hugely important.

That’s not a very sexy answer! I think the other side to that is to diminish the shame or private, consumer-based way in which pornography is taken in today. When you watch a movie like Jerry Douglas’ Back Row or Jack Deveau’s Night at the Adonis, the settings are about lust and cruising, for sure, but also about gay sociality. It’s cool, when we do the porn theater, people gather outside to chat, dip in and out. Inside there’s a charge to watching what’s on screen and I think — or hope — it grants a kind of license to watch what’s unfolding there not as some kind of furtive thing but instead to be part of a turned-on audience. It isn’t so much about getting the “deed done” as much as it is tapping into a shared erotism or liminality. It’s also granting another generation access to a kind of space that they might not go into otherwise.

Can you tell us more about some of the specific films you'll be showing?

Gay porn was dramatically changed by the advent of home video, so for this event we almost exclusively screen works made before VHS or Beta became a household commodity. The work was all shot on film and we’ll actually be showing a few 16mm features for the first time during a screening block at noon on Aug. 5.

Like the programs at the Park, we’ll be mixing experimental titles in with a trove of pre-VHS pornography. This year[’s program] has been very exciting to pull together, because, after two years, we’ve worked our way through a lot of the “heavy hitters.” I’ve been doing a lot of research and working with Joe Rubin of the distribution company Vinegar Syndrome, to screen works that are never screened, a lot of really odd, really gorgeous, really brutal films that are barely on the internet, let alone DVD. Like a porn Edgar Allan Poe adaptation and a leatherman’s loose remake of Anger’s Scorpio Rising.

What have you learned about the history of gay porn in curating these events?

I was kind of dropped into that history from the vantage of an experimental-film curator. I’ve worked extensively with two collaborators, Clara and Karl McCool, who saw the experimental nature and representational value in early gay porn and opened my eyes to it. It’s been fun to do these — I’m up for the entire duration, and I’m watching everything. Like I said, for the first year it was kind of like, watching all the titles I’ve heard of and should have seen, but all at once. But now it’s gotten to a place where it’s more about unearthing lost works and carefully orchestrating the flow of the program, and that’s always very exciting to me. We don’t publish the schedule, so that people are surprised by what unfolds and dissuaded from just showing up to what they already know. The idea is that it promotes a viewing of the material that shakes up the way we take ownership over or “consume” what we watch.

This 24-Hour Gay Porn Pop-Up Theater Harkens Back to Pre-VHS Los Angeles (2)
Courtesy Dirty Looks

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >