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Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Pink Narcissus"

In the Best Shot series we challenge participants to watch a pre-selected movie and choose what they think is the best shot... according to their own fluctuating rules about what "best" means. Next week we return to widely seen classics with The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) -- will you join us? --  but this week I wanted to challenge everyone with an influential avant-garde gay indie known as Pink Narcissus (1971). 

original newspaper ad... cinema village still shows hard to see movies. "MARGARET" played there recently

You can see modern echos or just plain stealing from Pink Narcissus in everything from Michel Gondry music videos to Pierre et Gilles celebrity portraiture. I like to imagine that it's a movie the young Todd Haynes watched non-stop before making Superstar, his Karen Carpenter biopic with Barbie dolls. Truly creative artists, don't need a big budget. They just need the will to make art. Even if it takes them years with their friends (see also: David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE)

Due to the adult nature of the material this NSFW edition has to go after the jump.

There is no dialogue in Pink Narcissus... just voices from the radio (?) record player (?) window (?) to compliment the saturated, blurry and often double exposed imagery. In the void of dialogue there is only a conversation with the self. Which is a polite way of saying that it's masturbatory. The plot, and I use the word loosely, involves a hustler's escapist fantasies. He never once leaves his room though the room transforms into a harem, a men's bathroom, a hall of mirrors, and a forest where the film begins and ends.

At both beginning and end the man is nowhere in sight but the forest is obviously a part of him. In one memorable sequence near the end after a sensual rainstorm, he's swallowed up in it (pictured above). He goes willingly and if anything he hastens the process, grasping the branches and rubbing his face on the leaves. This boy doesn't fight nature but ecstatically embraces it, his own.

The strangest thing about the film is how its hypnotically repetitive content and especially its intimate saturated photography take images straight from the erotic to the abstract. Consider these two stills.

A blade of grass trailing down a stomach. A penis under billowing gauzy fabric.

The first sequence is so macro-lensed that I stopped thinking of the grass or the body parts it was tracing and the image lost its physical reality and narrative fact (tactile self-pleasure) becoming only color and line. The penis, at full attention for a lengthy energetic dancing harem sequence, is covered by gauzy fabric and long violently swinging ropes of jewels; family jewels under jewels! At first the penis is impossible to ignore despite being hidden but as soon as its right there in closeup, the eyes glaze over and instead you're watching the fabric blowing about around it reflecting the familiar blue and pink filtered lights.

Pink Narcissus has a weirdly arrhythmic coyness sometimes hiding the nudity after its already displayed the goods. I've seen the film twice and both times I've wondered afterwards about the sequence of filming versus the sequence of presentation and whether the concepts, ideas and boldness shifted the more time passed (supposedly the filming took place over a seven year span though the "actor" (model? prop?) Bobby Kendall only looks visibly older once).

James Bidgood's hallucinatory underground art film, initially released anonymously, had a complicated and lengthy production history but in the end the curiosity sparking and surely interesting details of the filming and the motivations behind it aren't as important as the piece itself.  Whatever it might have been, it wasn't and whatever it became it is.

As kitschy as the recurring image of a fake butterfly might be, I love that Pink Narcissus embraces it so emphatically. Butterflies have always been a symbol of transformation which is more than appropriate for a film that struggled to exist and emerged beautifully from years in the cocoon of Bidgood's small Manhattan apartment. My choice for best shot embraces the butterfly... uh literally. It's beautiful, perverse, hypnotic and memorable. As foretold in the title, the hustler's nature is auto-erotic and he's fully lost in it.


Hit Them! (baby one more time)

  • Cinesnatch "crass and to-the-point... poeticism in its straightforwardness"
  • Sorta That Boy "A dark, naughty painting, you wouldn't want your grandma to ever know you own" 
  • Antagony & Ecstasy "one of the important motifs of the film is presenting parts of the body in isolation, suggesting I gather, that sexual pleasure is felt at points not as a whole-body experience"
  • Paraphrased Kulchar "both exposes and obscures, the character seeing himself almost comatose..."
  • Movies Kick Ass "You're almost half expecting Bobby to put on a tutu and pose for Degas."
  • Encore's World "What does he see when he looks in the mirror?"

NEXT: The Royal Tenenbaums (7/25) and How To Marry a Millionaire (08/01)


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Reader Comments (7)

Oh, the butterflies! I was torn between "this is a hugely significant motif that deserves exploration", and "this is awfully darn silly". My congratulations to you on taking the intellectual high road.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim

"This boy doesn't fight nature but ecstatically embraces it, his own."

So true. Almost went with your third shot.

i also had misgivings about what exactly was meant by the "seven year shoot." Kendall doesn't seem to age a day.

Oh my, you cheated by using a gif, no? LOL. Whatever. It works.

Thanks for an interesting week, Nat.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCinesnatch

Tim -- well, it's both, right?

Cinesnatch -- at first i defined "best shot" as one screen capture but then i realized it's still the same shot until someone cuts it which is why I keep choosing longer shots that are beauteous.

to all who participated -- thanks for playing. I love reading the contributions -- I knew there'd be fewer this time given the content but I need the series to be varied and I feel good about the wide variety we've hit in the 3 seasons.. It always feels like a reward to me to read your pieces when I finish writing me own. It's the dessert and boy is it hard to not read them as procrastination before I write mine if I'm running late.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Whenever the butterflies came up I was reminded of two things: that "butterfly" video from the early 00s, remember? The one with some white haired dude with a six pack and tattoos. The other thing I thought of was Mariah Carey, which made me giggle. But also, how awesome was the whole metaphor thing with the spider web and the butterfly? Is it implying that our hero would get tangled in a web due to his nature or was it saying that in finding sexual release he was well liberating in a myriad of ways?

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJose

Jose -- hmmmm. good question. there is an element of danger and the time frame is definitely before true liberation as it were. but on the other hand butterflies mean "soul" in some cultures and symbolize transformation in others so there are multiple ways to read it. It's crazy that spider webs are so beautiful since they're death traps!

July 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

cinesnatch -- i also used a gif for BEAUTY & THE BEAST. :) I like them .

July 19, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Kudos again, Nat, for hosting this.

The blade of grass shot, that entire scene, really is really on-point. It didn't have my favourite shot, but that entire scene works so effectively - whatever it means.

July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.
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