In this biweekly column, Michael Koresky looks back through a century of cinema for traces of queerness, whether in plain sight or under the surface. Read the introductory essay.

Vapors (Andy Milligan, 1965)

Throughout most of the 20th century, the history of queer cinema was one of disreputability. While today’s most widely studied, discussed filmmakers from once verboten gay undergrounds—Anger, Genet, Jack Smith—have been steadily recouped, others have remained uncelebrated—one, Andy Milligan, was literally buried in an unmarked grave. Starting in 1965, the New York-based filmmaker, playwright, and virulent non-icon would go on to make almost 30 movies before dying of complications from AIDS in 1992, but odds are great that most people who consider themselves cinephiles haven’t seen many of them—this writer included, who has only skimmed the surface, truth be told. Yet it seems as good a time as any to remember that moviemaking has never only been about the winners, and that an impoverished cinema doesn’t also inherently indicate a paucity of imagination.

The gulf between “respectable” cinema and what movie-lovers deem not worthy enough to spend their time watching never feels wider than when discussing what are referred to as exploitation films. The reason for one to only gingerly dabble in the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis while considering oneself a Fellini completist, for example, might be a simple matter of taste, or at least a judgment on what is acceptable tastelessness. Yet it of course goes deeper, into an implicit realm of value judgment—based on production scale, performance style, and perceptions of professionalism in terms of “proper” camerawork and especially audio recording. Low-low-budget cinema of the Andy Milligan variety—which has been occasionally compared over the years to Lewis’s gorehound shock cinema as well as to the oeuvre d’Edward D. Wood Jr.—is rarely treated as anything more than a weird laugh. Since his films proudly boasted titles such as The Degenerates, Depraved!, Torture Dungeon, and Bloodthirsty Butchers (a vivid title for a downstream version of the Sweeney Todd fable), it’s easy to assume that even he would have been cool with the dismissal of his nudity and violence-riddled work. But while his films—some of which are in the public domain and a handful of which are available to watch online, including 1968’s Seeds, which gives Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket a run for its money in gleeful domestic perversity, and 1970’s vividly colored, nominally higher-budgeted medieval chamber drama Guru the Mad Monk, his first 35mm-shot film—radiate that shoot-and-shrug quality, there’s passion, spontaneity, and genuine drive that are unfakeable, always a tonic in an industry riddled with fakers. 

The case has been made at length for Andy Milligan by others more adequately versed in his full canon of grotesquerie than I, especially Jimmy McDonough in his highly engaging 2001 book The Ghastly One. But I believe one need look no further than his debut film, the 1965 half-hour short Vapors, for evidence of his formidable instincts and ingenuity. It’s a film that, in its humane earnestness, flies in the face of much of what was to come later, but which is also, in terms of the milieu it represents, a stealth groundbreaker. Destined to be screened in porn theaters and grindhouses, Vapors is a low-key drama set in the St. Marks bathhouses, a 200-buck-budgeted two-hander about a brief emotional encounter between two men that, while tinged with tragic self-awareness, is remarkably unapologetic and nonjudgmental in its depiction of the loneliness and horniness of gay men.

A simple premise imbued with depths of feeling that fully balance out its sense of cinematic illicitness, Vapors was written by downtown actress and all-around “character” Hope Stansbury, an acquaintance of Milligan’s, remembered in drag circles part for allegedly inspiring Candy Darling’s look and demeanor. Based on anecdotes and observations of her gay male friends, Stansbury’s script follows the affable Thomas (the willowy Gerry Jacuzzo, Andy’s then roommate in his apartment on Prince Street) on a Friday night visit to the baths. After some awkward, straightforward exchanges with the clerk, he gets his towel and retreats to one of the small rooms, which, with its plain, dank walls, scrawled with vulgar sexual graffiti, looks more like one of the prison cells from Un chant d’amour. (Contributing to the nearly surreal, there/not-there quality of the film, Milligan filmed Vapors on sets constructed in an empty apartment across from his place.) The baths are depicted as lonely yet teeming with activity, mostly from a gaggle of catty queens who keep busting in and out of Thomas’s room to remind him of cruising etiquette (always leave the door open so guys know it’s an invitation) or tell ribald stories and call one another “Miss Thing.”

The tone in the room alters considerably with the arrival of a straight-arrow but nervous-looking guy, who calls himself Mr. Jaffe (Bob Dahdah, director and performer at the Caffe Cino West Village theater company where Milligan occasionally directed plays). Telling Thomas this is his first ever visit to the baths no less than four times, Mr. Jaffe has a suburban dad demeanor markedly different from the caterwauling regulars making merry outside the door. Jaffe calls the place an “insane asylum for mad homosexuals,” enhanced by the unbearably tight close-ups and effectively haphazard framing, which lend the environment a sense of contained madness. Thomas and Mr. Jaffe’s conversation turns away from the directly sexual, with the married older man gritting his teeth while talking about his wife of 19 years, complaining of her hair, always in curlers, and her feet, covered in bunions, as evidence of her insufficiency as a partner: there’s more than a hint of misogyny in his seemingly blaming her behavior rather than his nature for his lack of attraction to her. 

Yet Jaffe’s dissatisfactions are revealed to be deeper, as he begins to tell the younger stranger about a terrible recent loss. In what sounds more like the relation of a nightmare than the recounting of a true event, Jaffe tells Thomas that a year ago today was the death of his teenage son. After extolling his son’s beauty and the softness of his skin, Jaffe tells a horror scenario—of how the boy went swimming in a lake, was bitten by a swarm of flesh-eating snakes and drowned. In already tight quarters, the camera creeps unbearably closer to Dahdah, his face in off-kilter profile, before scooting around his neck and to the back of his head, as he relates this ghastliness, which sounds like some kind of warmed-over, imitation Tennessee Williams monologue, yet told with a straight face. (Stansbury knew Williams, who reportedly claimed to have liked the film when she showed it to him.) It becomes clear that Jaffe sees Thomas as a kind of sexualized replacement son figure: he compliments his soft skin and fetishizes his toes with an infantilizing game of “This Little Piggy…” Jaffe leaves Thomas with a simple kiss on the forehead and a gift of a paper sunflower, an evocation and tribute to his dead son. What at first seems like a vérité cruising exposé has become an Oedipal drama in miniature with intimations of incest, thematically pointing ahead to some of the more salacious films Milligan would go on to make.

Its emotional delicacies intermingled with its perversities, Vapors seems a rather low-key affair today in comparison with the transgressive American underground films to which it owes certain debts. Yet like such films by Anger and Smith, as well as Curtis Harrington and Willard Maas, Vapors existed in an in-between state—unimaginable for the straights but also not socially progressive enough for whatever nascent gay culture was forming. As scholar Juan Suarez wrote, gay experimental cinema of the fifties and sixties was never taken into much consideration by “the organized homophile movement, which at the time was trying hard to gain social acceptance for homosexuals by projecting an image of respectability and neatness. Given this assimilationist goal, the scandalous sexuality of many underground films embodied a facet of gay culture that the homophile press may have been eager to disavow.” 

Despite its ultimately gentle character arc, Vapors did court its own controversies, saving its most scandalous moment for last. After Jaffe has made his final exit, another man enters Thomas’s room. In this case, there’s no question about his intent: he unhesitatingly strips off his robe and walks, fully nude, right into the camera before the film cuts to black. Stansbury hated the decision, which wasn’t in her script and which she felt inapt for the tone of the rest of the movie; it was a total Milligan move. The nameless man is played by Gary Stone, whom Milligan described as “very attractive street guy…known for his big dick” and whom Milligan first met “hanging upside down in a doorway” at an S&M party on Prince Street. It was this flash of cock that allegedly led to the film being raided by the police upon its December 1965 premiere at the Bridge, a theater on St. Marks. Since then, copies of the film feature a censored final scene, with Stone’s apocryphally enormous claim to fame properly covered up.

The grimy sense of cacophony and claustrophobia Milligan fostered was a result of the film being shot on a 16mm Auricon newsreel camera, with sync sound on a direct-to-film magnetic track. Full of hiss, camera whirs, and echoing room ambience, Vapors portends the kind of limitations-turned-to-strengths that would define films by Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, and John Waters, who made some of their cheap, distinct films with the same camera, as would be much of Milligan’s work, a great deal of which was shot in an old flophouse on Staten Island that would become his own kind of mini movie factory. The first ingredient in an increasingly bubbling cauldron of neuroses, self-loathing, and paranoia, Vapors is not, it seems, most indicating of Milligan as “Gutter Auteur,” the title of critical biographer Rob Craig’s book about him. Yet its focus on loneliness and grief, however inadvertent in its earnestness, speaks to truths its makers experienced in the moment it was made. May cultures of increasing desperation and ragged innovation produce more Andy Milligans.

Michael Koresky is a writer, editor, and filmmaker in Brooklyn. He is cofounder and editor of the online film magazine Reverse Shot, a publication of Museum of the Moving Image; a regular contributor to the Criterion Collection and Film Comment, where he writes the biweekly column Queer & Now & Then; and the author of Terence Davies, published by University of Illinois Press, 2014.