A quick note before we start: I am aware that usually film reviews come out when the film comes out! That doesn’t mean that the conversation ends there. In fact, it’s enriched by access to previous readings of the film! So before you say, “Dude, Stephen, you are way behind the curve, Speakeasy came out in 2009,” accept that I am indeed as a person profoundly behind all curves, but that’s irrelevant for the moment.
Now, I wasn’t a porn-watcher until T. I was a porn fan, mind you, but I looked at mostly drawn stuff–plenty from 4chan’s /y/ and /d/–to store up in my mind, so to speak, and replay later, while jerking off. And there is much to say for porn about superheroes posted on LiveJournal. But since going on T about a year back, I’ve taken a sharp turn–I am all about people fucking on video these days, and to my surprise it’s not what I’d consider “good porn.” It’s all the middle-school-gay-boy-in-Richmond-VA classics: YouPorn Gay, Pornhub Gay. When I get bored of gay porn’s cookie cutter body types and scenes, I move on to self-shot grainy DIY vids. What I’m trying to say is that to my regret, until Courtney Trouble offered me a review copy of the full-length porn film Speakeasy, which she co-directed with Morty Diamond, I had never utilized one of her films for its intended purpose. However, I am a man undaunted by the new, and since then I have utilized Speakeasy liberally. But–and I’m telling you this to set the scene–I figured that as a Film Critic, I better View The Film, so I called over some of the chosen family for a wholesome night of bad Chinese takeout, bourbon, and queer indie porn.
I’ve never watched porn with anyone before. My ex and I would sometimes send stuff we liked to each other, but that was a brainstorming process, not a communal event. As my friends and I watched together–all clothes stayed on, no one touched their own genitals or anyone else’s, because this was me trying to be Porn Roger Ebert–I started thinking about porn’s “purpose.” Since I got into porn vids, I’ve thought of them as strictly masturbation aids, to be watched while in the act. As it turns out, though, watching porn without jerking off and while chatting about it with your friends is just as valid a “use” of porn as rubbing one out. The sexuality in the room became free-floating, without a goal. There was no pressure to perform well, because we weren’t engaging in a sexual act. We all knew we were turned on, and we all were pleased that our loved one was turned on, but none of us are romantically or sexually into the others. Our horniness just floated among us, a pleasant and tingly energy. And from what I can see, lots of folks experience queer porn this way–look at the #pornparty hashtag on twitter, for example! It’s one example of how queer porn troubles boundaries–where and how we watch porn, with whom, and why. The team, for those of you interested, was me, a gay trans man; M., a relatively het cis lady; and P., a queer cis woman. I tell you because I suppose if you have one of those identities it’s relevant, because I can tell you that from the first scene of Speakeasy, there’s something for each of us–but, as I’m about to discuss, I’m not so sure if our identities and your identity are relevant to whether you’re likely to get off to this porn.
We open on a shot of Billy Castro, who plays a Chandler-esque private eye in Speakeasy‘s fantasy 1920s setting. He’s writing in a notebook with a–Uniball gel pen? Rest assured, I’m not making a dig at Speakeasy‘s production value; rather, I think the placement of this pen is intentional and important. Keep it in mind, and I promise I’ll talk about it later. Me and my brave fam are barely into our chow mein and Solo cups of bourbon and ginger ale when Tomcat starts fucking Lorelei Lee, and she is red-faced and begging and squeaking beautifully and Tomcat keeps telling her to shut up and we all start shifting in our seats a little. This brings in a question for me: what’s the relationship between porn and sexual identity? Why am I, though totally uninterested in sex with women, so hot and bothered watching Lorelei Lee get ravaged? Tomcat, a trans guy, is hot too, but right now I’m staring at Lorelei. Tomcat ravages her, pushes her into all manner of objects and spanks her over them–God, how nice to watch porn in which you know consent has been carefully negotiated! And I’m riveted. I know immediately that I’ll return to this scene when my fam is gone.
What does this mean for my homosexuality? Should I be reevaluating my gay identity? And both of the subject positions in this scene look good to me–that is, I’d just as soon be Tomcat and ravage Lorelei as be Lorelei with Tomcat ravaging me. Does this mean my gender is implicated? What does this porn mean for my identity? That’s the question conventional wisdom would have me ask, but instead, I’d like to ask a different question: What does my identity mean for this porn?
Plenty of identities are represented in Speakeasy, but we’re never given a rubric for which performer identifies as what. Certain of them I recognize–for example, I know that Jiz Lee is genderqueer, and I can garner a little from performers’ presentation–but otherwise, queer porn liberates the viewer from mainstream porn’s tyranny of categories. No kind of movie is more tyrannical about categories than porn, and in no other kind of movie are the stakes so high for the audience when they choose what genre to watch. When my friend Jessica goes to see The Avengers three times (true story) it just means she’s a geek, but getting off to gay porn makes you gay and getting off to straight porn makes you straight. Never mind how many straight women like dyke porn, or how many gay men appreciate it when James Deen fucks Ash Hollywood’s throat. And obviously the queer women who dig gay male porn don’t undergo a magical transformation of their sexual and gender identities. Where did we get this idea that who we like to watch fucking is the same as who we like to fuck? Predictably, the only people who get a pass on this rule are straight men: no one ever questions a straight guy who likes to watch two girls fuck. But even their pass isn’t total–if he’s walked in on spanking it to some glorious man on man sodomy, you can bet he’ll get some questions.
The movies of folks like Trouble, Diamond, and other queer pornographers like Tobi Hill-Meyer and Shine Louise Houston, fall under no category but “queer.” So if you like this stuff, you may be queer, but beyond that good luck policing your own identity as you watch. Speakeasy has many scenes, and though individual ones sometimes appear on her website NoFauxxx, films like this one are best enjoyed (in my opinion) all in one sitting. Or lying down, or however you prefer to have your evenings of total boundary-destroying self-love. Performers of different identities move through the piece without warning, and if you get turned on by someone who belongs to a category you thought you weren’t attracted to, well, there you go. There’s no way to shut your eyes for fear of the gay–or of the straight, or of the pansexual, or anything else. After Tomcat and Lorelei Lee, there’s a scene that features Dallas Fivestar suspending Jiz Lee and then giving them the hat Dallas was previously wearing, something I find both cute and hot to such a degree that something weird and hat-related must be going on with me. And with a brief pause, we cut to two trans guys getting distracted from their bartending duties, and maybe I have a weird bartending thing, I don’t know.
This is queer doing the work that queer was conceived to do as a concept: to challenge all static or discrete categories of identity. Queer porn is here to do that work, and Trouble’s porn does it.
Funnily enough, up to this point I’ve barely mentioned Billy Castro, star of the show. He’s hot in an almost retro way–the way I got this gig, in fact, was by comparing his sex appeal to Marlon Brando’s. As a queer femme, that titillates me. I’ve always been into that base “straight boy hot blow job in locker room” kind of thing. The other week, I watched this straight blond guy play frisbee on the college lawn for like thirty minutes, you get it? Not in that boring masc4same way, but in the way where I know I’m looking at something I can’t have and thus don’t actually have to you know, deal with. I made out with the het guy who played Rocky in my Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast. You get what I mean. With Billy Castro, there’s another level for me: the guy is straight and queer at once. Heaven. Despite my crushes on straight boys, I’m most attracted to subversion, and a classically butch straight man who’s also trans is pretty much my perfect fantasy.
Not everyone is on my wavelength, though, and as a matter of fact Castro’s specific performance of masculinity has brought Speakeasy under fire from some folks on charges of misogyny. After all, Castro’s scenes with his leading lady–in fact, pretty much all of Lorelei Lee’s scenes–feature treating women badly. I’ll level with you: I simply do not know about all that. As a man, I can’t and shouldn’t dictate the terms here, but I think I can ask some good questions: what if reading this film as misogynistic denies its auteur, Courtney Trouble, her agency, and sells short the complexity of her deceptively simple fuck flick? What if this reading uses dominant ideas that are at bottom patriarchal to deny a woman permission to satisfy her kinks?
As I mentioned before, in one of Speakeasy‘s first shots Castro is writing in his notebook with a plainly anachronistic pen. It’s un-20s, and not by accident. The shot is a close one, the pen right in the frame–there’s no pretense here that the viewer will really think the film takes place in the past. The audience of Speakeasy must willingly suspend their disbelief, just like I did when I went to see The Avengers, except then my only motive was geeky fun. For Speakeasy‘s viewer, the motive is much stronger: getting off. Suspension of disbelief–and/or Jiz Lee–is integral to sexuality. The costumes and props in this film aren’t high end. They recall what a lover and I might pull together for a spot of retro hanky-panky. (If you read me regularly, you may have guessed that I kink hard for history.) Rest assured, the hotness of each actor is shown off to distraction, but this ain’t Masterpiece Theatre–and it’s better that way.
We know that in the 20s shitty misogynistic treatment, like the kind Castro and Tomcat give Lee in the film, went unquestioned in heterosexual romances, and queerness happened in silence more often than out loud. (I’m not saying the 20s were The Dark Ages, so for the moment can we accept that I’m using certain values of “in silence” and “out loud” and “unquestioned”? Cool.) Trouble and Diamond choose to set their film in this period because the darkness of it is sexy. Why is it sexy? Patriarchy embeds things deeply in us, and even when we have unlearned such things a little, their vestiges remain. The good news is that those vestiges can be plenty hot to play with. I’m rereading Gender Trouble at the moment, for a project with Original Plumbing, and Butler speaks often of this. If we accept that systems of power, like patriarchy and heterosexism, are productive in nature–that is, that they mold us as subjects–then we’re led to a more fun notion: we get to do what we want with what they’ve instilled in us. In Speakeasy, the patriarchal atmosphere of the pornographers’ vision of the 20s serves to fetishize queer sexuality, and when there are clearly negotiated boundaries of consent and ethics, fetishization can be fun.
When I say that the film has clearly negotiated boundaries of consent, I mean that the directors constantly tip off their audience that this isn’t really the 20s, and that behavior like this is not ok. Castro’s pen is just one example. (So is the adorable fact that he clearly does not smoke, and handles his period appropriate cigarettes like a non-smoker.) While the bartenders fuck behind the bar, numerous anachronistic bumper stickers are visible. The performativity of the characters’ fucked up behavior is made explicit, and as you watch that happen, you also realize how upsetting it is that in most porn the performativity isn’t made explicit. Watching Speakeasy with an eye to its intentionally obvious performativity, we realize that the performers are queers dressing up and playing in ways that turn them on. That turns me on way more than a meticulously accurate 1920s, which in fact, given Castro’s character’s misogyny, would upset me.
Trouble enacts her kink for the ravaged femme, and she never lets the audience forget a femme holds the camera and shouts “Action!” and “Cut!” to whoever’s doing the ravaging. You can practically hear her giggling with aroused and empowered glee when Lee looks up at Castro in a post-fuck haze. Again, I’m not here to dictate what is misogyny and what isn’t, but what I can say is that the idea that this woman’s kinks have implications for her politics makes me feel weird in a not-fun way. Again, we run into the dangerous and reductive idea that porn acts upon us–that we are changed by what turns us on. Instead, why not work towards a model of porn and sexuality in which our agency is centered, and we realize that in fact porn is changed by us?
In some ways, Speakeasy recalls John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, because they’re both about titular clubs in which queers give free reign to their freaky sexual desires. And as with Shortbus, there’s plenty to say in Speakeasy about what the space of the club means–how the characters enter it and either change or are changed, as when Jiz Lee and Dallas Fivestar switch gender presentations upon their entrance to the club. Castro’s PI enters the club as a regulating heteropatriarchal literally policing force–until he’s seduced into human fuckage, at which point his own queerness is exposed. He’s trans. The equipment he’s fucking with isn’t what he’d be fucking with if he weren’t secretly a part of this clandestine queer world.
The narrative subversion of Castro’s hegemonic role echoes the film’s anachronism-based subversion of his character’s patriarchal behavior: in the end, it’s all in the service of Diamond, Trouble, and their audience, her kinks, his kinks, kinks and the kinks of the man-hatin’ heterophobic sexy queers such as myself who fap and schlick and otherwise rub out orgasms to her work.
This has been an awfully cerebral porn review, hasn’t it? Here’s some more practical information: A++, would fap again.
You’ll especially like it if you kink for history, rough sex, squirting (incredible enough squirting that my friends and I literally paused the movie to discuss how impressed we were), rope, and both the good old butch/femme dynamic and various twists thereof. It also features my current favorite trans boy on trans boy scene, one between Syd and Moustache Malone, who sucks cock with the enthusiasm of a boy giving his first blow job and the skill of a seasoned sinner. Both boys keep their shirts on, incidentally, something I appreciate–partial clothing is often a necessity for trans folks to feel comfortable during sex, and sex with shirts can still be quite the party.
I hope that I’ve been helpful, in my snot-nosed cultural studies way. Go buy this porn, either on DVD or by download! Support hot queers fucking how they want to fuck! And a huge, huge thank you to Courtney, first for offering me a review copy and second for somehow accepting that I am the most neurotic about my writing who has ever lived–she sent me the movie months ago, and I have only now rendered my review into something I considered fit for human eyes.
And you have no idea how long I’ve considered adding “Billy Castro…call me, maybe?” to the end of this review.
Billy Castro…call me, maybe?