Monday, September 01, 2014

Zebedy Colt: genius of transgressive sleaze (note: Spalding Gray tie-in)

I have decided, after my conversation with Cinema Sewer's Robin Bougie, below, to see all the the Zebedy Colt films I can. He's kind of my entry drug into the world of sleaze: where Annie Sprinkle seems fundamentally brave and open minded (but basically a nice person), Colt appears to be a porn auteur at war with social sexual norms, returning again and again to themes of degradation, incest, urine, the Occult, and other weirdnesses in his films, both as actor and director. That he identified as gay and had previously, before his porn career got underway, released an album that is today hailed as a landmark of queer culture, makes it very tempting to read him as a someone with an agenda to subvert both porn and society, someone with a hard-on to sabotage, or at least trouble, "normal" sexual relations between men and women in the stories of his films (and thus sabotage sexual norms in the minds of their viewers). He's a weird guy, in short; I think I sympathize with him politically, much as I sympathize with Ms. Sprinkle - and the two of them worked together in several films - but he seems altogether a little less wholesome than Annie, a little less trustworthy, a little more hostile. Maybe it's just because he's a man...
I should mention the context - why I'm all excited to write this piece. I came online this morning to see that, overnight, I had finished downloading what appeared to be a torrent of his second-to-last work as a director, Babylon Nights, which is some sort of meta-porn comedy, spoofing the values and attitudes of porn producers; it was distributed under the alternate title of Spreading Joy, since the main character's name is joy (and perhaps because the industry doesn't necessarily want to be thought of as being associated with "Babylon"). Alas, what the torrent, which I found under the alternate title, actually proved to be was a Santa-themed porno, beginning with a fat man with red pants (played by an actor identified only as "Uncle Milty") having his crotch rubbed by Mrs. Claus, while John Coltrane and Red Garland play "Traneing In," I believe it was (a jazz number that riffs on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town.") Or, well, they'd lifted something jazzy and Christmassy from somewhere; I can't check if I've pegged it because I've already deleted the file. Win some, lose some: ah well. There's still plenty of Zebedy Colt out there to be had.
Colt was a legit actor, appearing in small parts on and off Broadway, and doing regional theatre on the side. He apparently has a small role as a child actor in The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn, and supposedly can be seen as a slave in The Ten Commandments. He was born Edward Earle Marsh, which name  he used for his "straight" career. Zebedy Colt was the stage name he first took to record an album of gay torch songs, called I'll Sing For You, recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1969, when Marsh/ Colt was 40. Lots more details of his musical career, which pre-dates his work in straight porn, can be found here, on the Queer Music Heritage website. Two of the songs off the album can be heard here and here; as you might notice, the guy could sing - though in a style I have pretty much no interest in, like a gay Perry Como or Frank Sinatra or such. (The Queer Music Heritage website has streamable versions of the rest of the album, for the record, including a couple of songs Colt wrote himself; my interest is actually sufficient - and my taste for the obscure sufficiently deep - that, straight or no, I may live with these songs for awhile, to see if they grow on me). Colt writes (also linked on that site):
I am a man, not a head or a square or a queen or a drag or a sissy, just a MAN, and the object of my affection, my lustful desires, my frustrations, joys, hates, sorrows and ecstasies, is another man, not by social pressures, or diseases, or a possessive mother, or physical or psychic instability, but by PREFERENCE. And to prove my point and strip away any and all excesses of theatrical nonconviction which has turned into social conformity, I chose to sing 'straight' songs usually associated with... heterosexuality. A simple statement made simply without bombastic or psychedelic contrivance.  
The article continues with a long letter from Zebedy (to GAY magazine, title apparently also rendered all in caps, though the rest of the letter, thankfully, is not), where he expresses to the editor his disappointment at his difficulties recouping his investment on the original album ("I am not bitter, John, I am just broke") and his many frustrations with the queer scene.
For me, that's when Zebedy Colt's work really starts to get interesting, since his pioneering attitude continued to apply when he made the career move of acting in straight porn, to finance his other work. I'm not entirely sure about how he made his transition to porn, though it took place around 1975; there's a story quoted in one of the interviews on QMH that it began when a "gay porn producer" asked him if he could use a couple of his songs in a film, then asked if he'd appear in the film in question. The article makes it sound like that film was The Story of Joanna - a Gerard Damiano S&M film, loosely lifted from The Story of O, in which Colt plays a bisexual butler (and gives head to Jamie Gillis!). The trouble is, if films are in fact listed in sequence, IMDB cites Colt as having acted in two pornos (The American Adventures of Surelick Holmes and The Amazing Dr. Jekyll) and even having directed one, Terri's Revenge, a rape revenge porno thriller - by the time of The Story of Joanna; it seems more likely that the film Colt is referring to is actually a piece of gay porn, not yet identified, and that The Story of Joanna came a bit later that year, after he'd been established a bit. Suffice it to say that 1975 was a busy year for Mr. Marsh; in addition to his Broadway work, he appeared in five films identified on IMDB, nine as identified on IAFD, and no doubt got started on making his second effort as writer/ director The Farmer's Daughters, released in 1976 - the earliest film of his I've yet to see. 
But what a film it is. It's technically a mess; whatever odd ideas it has, it is still very difficult to watch on the level of craftsmanship, since there is very little in evidence. The first reel is presented, by design, without synch sound, with horribly dubbed (and horribly corny) dialogue and fake moaning playing over images of a farmer (Colt himself) fucking his wife (played by Gloria Leonard, of High Society magazine). The second reel, and the rest of the film, does have synch sound, but the version I've been able to find has the dialogue go totally out of synch in places, though whether this is due to damage to the film or problems when making it I cannot say; there also "appears" to be censorship of the golden shower scenes, for instance when said daughters humiliate and abuse a farmhand who spies them watching their parents have sex, and later, when the farmhand gets his revenge on the daughters, forcing them at gunpoint to have sex with each other, their parents, and a trio of sadistic convicts who stumble on the farm, led by a young Spalding Gray (!). The young, pissed-on (and pissed off) farmhand instructs the convicts - only two are left at that point, since he shoots one - to pee all over the girls, and Gray shrugs and delivers a line about how he needs to take a leak anyway, which will be the high point of the film for Spalding Gray fans; but the actual piss seems to be missing from the copy of the film found online (maybe a better print exists?). For the record, though the film is kind of brutal at times, there is no indication anywhere that anyone is doing anything non-consensual; people are acting, or at least trying to...
The film has two endings: Colt, as the father, grabs the shotgun and kills the convicts and the farmhand, restoring patriarchy to the farm; then we "flash back" somewhat incompetently through highlights of the film, until we arrive back at the scene of the farmhand's initial golden shower, where it is revealed that the farmhand imagined the entire subsequent scenarios with the convicts as a sort of ineffectual psychic revenge on the girls (reminding me, oddly enough, of Corruption, that rather entertaining Peter Cushing re-discovery, which I highly recommend, even though I've just spoiled the ending). They splash him with water to wash the pee away, and then the film ends. It would feel all the more disturbing if only it had a modicum of craftsmanship; with incest, Femdom humiliation (even a bit of CFNM action, since the girls remain clothed for a bit while tormenting the lad), and plenty of urination, it is certainly not your average porno film (plus one of the convicts is African-American, which no doubt lent the film an even more transgressive edge back in 1975, when, say, he's raping the white Mom).
The Devil Inside Her, the next of Colt's films I've been able to see, is a vast leap forward in terms of craft. As with The Farmer's Daughters, it's all too sick and too conceptually overburdened to actually be arousing, unless you get off on the "idea" of transgression (Georges Bataille would have loved it, I suspect). But it has moments that bring to mind both Fellini and Ken Russell, albeit in a low budget, low craft fashion. The story goes like this: there are two daughters, Faith and Hope, being raised by a strict Protestant father (Colt again, in the role of male authority; there's quite an irony to his occasional casting of himself in the role of patriarchal authority figures in his films, in fact, since as director he spends much of his time subverting or complicating the Law of the Father). Both covet a buff farmhand (Dean Tait, pictured in "possessed" mode to the left, who has one of those physiques, like Francois Papillon, that immediately tip you to the likelihood that he did his share of gay porn as well - at least when he wasn't weightlifting). When the father finds out that Faith is in love with his employee, he has her strip and beats her cruelly. Hope - gamely played by Jody Maxwell - is less innocent about her desires. Having watched her sister punished, she prays to God or Satan, whoever will listen, to deliver her man to her.
Satan is first on call. Played by Rod Dumont, he wears heavy makeup throughout, looking rather like a fifth member of KISS, and appearing with an odd strap around his scrotum - a body part which he had, I gather, worked hard to stretch over the years; to speak plainly, so long do his balls dangle that it's at times hard to keep track, when he's tugging on both, whether it's his penis in his hand or his balls and sac; both stretch about ten inches from his body and at one point, so frenzied do his ball-tuggings get, that I expected sperm to shoot out from the crack between the middle of his testicles, like he could ejaculate from both ends. I'm not sure exactly who would find this performance sexually arousing; it's kinky as, um, hell, but it's also somewhat vile, and more than the sheer grossness of his greasy-seeming body and makeup, there's the ideas he represents, which are both repugnant and hot at the same time, in a way clearly designed to get under the skin of of the viewer. He proceeds, at Hope's command - with a little help from a witch who makes Hope a love potion - to transform himself into the farmhand, who rapes Faith; then - well, it's a bit hard to keep track, but over the course of the narrative, Satan also transforms into Faith and sluttishly seduces the actual farmhand, who is very much an innocent; transforms himself into Hope and Faith's father, to fuck Hope; and at some point he transforms himself into their mother, too, who, if memory serves, seduces her own daughter, or starts to. Hope also has a big vegetable-sex scene, for no reason I recall, though I don't believe Satan is manifest in cucumber form or anything; it's a rather filthy scene, quite literally, with garden fresh dirt smearing Jody Maxwell's thighs as she works her veggies. Somewhere in there, she also has sex with a wood sprite, who appears to be able to shape-shift into a parrot, but thankfully that's as close to bestiality as we get (nice to know Colt had limits!). At the film's climax, Hope attends a witches' sabbath orgy, where Annie Sprinkle, as the most game attendee, gets peed on by a group of men who roughly manhandle her, and various odd sexual scenarios take place, including one that I believe is bisexual; Colt denies us a closeup, but there's a scene where three men are shown grouped around one girl in frenzied coitus, and unless I have a failed grasp on the laws of physics, the guy at the back must surely be penetrating the guy ahead of him, based on their body positions. It's kind of hidden-in-there, "slipped in," as it were, in the midst of a beast-with-four-backs scenario.
If The Farmer's Daughters is borderline incompetent on the level of craft, The Devil Inside Her shows that Colt was a fast study; made only a short while later, it's vastly more artful, and at times quite impressive (when you consider that it's a low budget porno that is; it isn't ever going to be mistaken for a mainstream film). The climax is shot with red filters, Satanic sets, and scored with creepy-sounding soundtrack music (including a bit lifted from Kubrick's 2001!); it's all quite unsettling, compelling, deeply sinful, and... well, I got to admit it, it's totally fascinating, as entertaining as hell, even if only for its sheer weird you-won't-believe-this-shit audacity. At the end of the film, Faith is saved, but Hope is dead, and her soul accompanies Satan to the underworld. Having learned his lesson, the father repents of his past sternness, assenting finally to Faith marrying the farmhand she so loves...
The other must-see Zebedy Colt film I've encountered is controversial insofar as it is not clear that he actually directed it; most people - including horror movie expert and musician Stephen Thrower, in his book Nightmare USA - seem to treat him as the film's author, and apparently Colt himself regarded himself as such, though that's not what it says in the credits. This is Sex Wish - ostensibly a Death Wish rip off, but so much weirder, so much more complicated. Colt plays "the Night Walker," a pervert armed with a briefcase of sex toys, who bursts in on couples and single women and forces them into bizarre sexual situations, toggling as he binds them and torments them between speaking in the voice of a strident, twisted child who wants to have fun and a cruel British governness (the "mother"). Then he murders them, in scenes that mercifully lack any of the convincing quality of what has gone before. One would be unsurprised if it turned out that David Lynch, for instance, was a fan of the film, before creating the character of Frank Booth ("Mommy! Baby wants to fuuuuck!"), since the Night Walker definitely brings Booth to mind. These scenes are played out at great length, and get more and more uncomfortable, with a truly grotesque analogue synth score enhancing the sickening effect. The Night Walker's first target is the wife of straight businessman Harry Reems; his second is a woman Reems knew, so it starts to seem like Reems might be the Night Walker's true target. Reems, hungry for revenge, ends up going on a vigilante hunt for the Night Walker in the gay bars the man is said to frequent; when he finds him, dressed in drag and playing piano, he chases him down and pulls out a gun. Just before Colt is shot, he cries out to Reems, "but I did it because I love you!" or words to that effect. Bang, he's dead. Writes Stephen Thrower (Nightmare USA, page 498, where the film is given substantial discussion): "that this formula should produce anything other than a hateful homophobic exercise is testimony to the... commitment and energy of its bisexual star player, Mr. Zebedy Colt." Thrower also describes the film as Colt's "twisted revenge on heterosexual porn" and says "gay viewers of political sensitivity may find the film homophobic, despite its bisexual provenance... For a gay viewer not to be offended by the film, they must be able to enjoy the... extraordinary performance Colt contributes."
I'd go one further: I think, in fact, that despite his character arc, the main point of identification for the viewer is supposed to be Colt; that he's a cipher for whatever ambivalences and resentments the lone broken weirdos of the world out there might feel for happy loving couples out there, and his crimes and the "pleasures" they afford (?) are vastly more important to the film than his ultimate fate. Reems, while giving a fine performance, is a bore, a more or less one-dimensional character who is simply no fun for the viewer to inhabit. The real star of the show is Zebedy Colt, and the film, I suspect, is vastly more hetero-hostile than homophobic, no matter what might be necessary for closure. Sex Wish may be impossible to enjoy as sexual stimuli - let's hope! - but it's impossible not to find fascinating as a film; there's a really devious mind at work here - and a very talented actor; as others have observed, if it wasn't for the film belonging to a disreputable genre, this would be seen as a star performance, every bit as compelling and outlandish as Dennis Hopper's in Blue Velvet - and perhaps even moreso.
I've only briefly skimmed through the other Zebedy Colt films I've managed to track down, such as Unwilling Lovers, which, I gather, adds necrophilia to the buffet of perversions in his cinema (again, it is faked; no one gets harmed in the making of these films - though Jody Maxwell nearly had a fatal fall in making this one, we gather: Robin Bougie talked to her about it in 2005). Colt plays a mentally challenged man being led into weird sexual scenarios by Rod Dumont again (Colt appears to have had a little repertory company in the porn scene that appear in his films again and again). It's going to have to wait for an opportunity for me to see it; since 75% of my film consumption these days is either with my Mom or my girlfriend. I think it's better all round if I don't try to share Zebedy Colt with them, don't you?

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