Peter Berlin’s That Boy (1974) emerged within the golden age of gay male pornographic films and in the aftermath of the development of the gay liberation movement; however, the film strikingly imagines an ecstatic experience of sexual activity or becoming that disavows gay identity, and perhaps identity itself. In That Boy, Berlin (who wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and renamed himself for the film) presents himself as a chimerical character named Helmut who is created by the excesses of others’ desires. As he walks the streets of San Francisco, the mere sight of Helmut enthralls various characters, and the film’s embedded narrative ruptures the unstable boundaries between fantasy and reality as a series of characters project their fantasies onto Helmut.
In That Boy, Berlin presents Helmut as the consummate and unattainable object of everyone’s desire, and this reflects a persistent theme that appears throughout Berlin’s still photography and films. In the 1970s and 1980s, Berlin created hundreds of self-portraits that fashioned and honed his iconic figure. Self-portrait is a curious term to use to describe Berlin’s photographic works because in these images he does not seek to present some truth or revelation about himself but rather attempts to craft an image of an other’s desire. In these images in which he portrays himself as a perfectly tanned object with prominently defined muscles wearing skin-tight pants, shorts, or underwear with a bulging crotch or erect penis, Berlin endeavors to craft an image that others will desire and seek to attain. He attempts to found an exalted object of sensual and sexual beauty, and, in effect, he sculpts his body into this object. His portraits do not concern themselves with the illusory nature of an authentic self; instead, they affirm a precisely constructed and delectable experience of fantasy. Berlin’s short films Waldeslust (1972), Search, and Object of Desire repeatedly situate Berlin as the object of another man’s desire that is only capable of being apprehended through vision. In these films, as in his series of portraits that feature double and triple iterations of Berlin interacting with himself, an impossible distance separates men from their objects of desire, yet these images, which feature surprisingly little and frequently no physical contact between men, depict and attempt to incite a sensational, ecstatic visuo-haptic experience in which seeing becomes an affective touch. Although his contemporaries produced pornographic works that can read as affirmations of a newly politicized gay male identity in their sensually delightful hardcore representations of anal and oral sex, Berlin’s work curiously and frequently eschews penetrative sex acts in order to foreground masturbation and frottage.
That Boy begins with the dissociative theme of specularization. In the film’s opening frame a tight close-up of a black and white photograph of Berlin’s face appears onscreen as Pachelbel’s Canon plays. The camera slowly zooms in on the photograph until only Berlin’s eyes and nose appear within the boundaries of the image’s frame. The camera halts its movement, holds this shot for a few seconds, and then cuts to a live color shot of Berlin standing in a sunny wooded park-like area. Pachelbel continues throughout the opening scene with only the sound of birdsong emerging as a harmonious accompaniment, and the film combines this music and the mise-en-scène to a generically jarring effect. The film frames the attractive image of Berlin’s contrapposto figure clothed in skin-tight blue jeans that mold his legs and highlight the bulge of his genitals. Standing immobile in his unbuttoned shirt and jeans, Berlin appears as an image of sculptural beauty with his pectoral and abdominal muscles strikingly defined under his glistening, tan flesh. Indeed, for several movements, Berlin does nothing more than stand as the camera lovingly observes him in visual delectation from a variety of angles. Eventually, however, he looks to the ground and bends down to discover a shard of a mirror. The film cuts to a close-up of the mirror as Berlin picks it up, and the tightly framed image holds a shot of Berlin’s eyes and nose reflected in the shard, which pointedly repeats the first image of the film. Berlin contemplates himself, and in a protracted over the shoulder shot, Berlin’s closely cropped face, his fragmented self, considers his own (in)corporeal form and the viewer, both of whom he fixes in his gaze.
Berlin strolls through the bucolic landscape like a mythic denizen carrying a pink dogwood bouquet, and, with film’s motif of mirrors, he evokes a modern Narcissus. Berlin’s trek eventually ends, and he lies down on the ground, encircled by rippling tall grass. Stretched out in the sun with a vibrant blossoming tree before him in the foreground, Berlin begins to rub his crotch, and a new male character appears on-screen. The man wears blue jeans and boots that resemble Berlin’s, and he appears only from the waist down, obscured by the tree. Berlin continues to massage his crotch and looks up at the new character who stands above and presumably looks down at him. In this eight-minute opening sequence, the man remains anonymous and faceless as he gazes at and hovers over and before Berlin while he masturbates. Rooted in spectacular ecstasy, he simply watches. The film hypnotically weaves together shots of Berlin splayed on the ground with landscape shots of the woodland area, and this juxtaposition of images invites viewers to imagine the men as exotic flora. The anonymous man appears as a figurative tree like the one that obscures his identity, and Berlin evokes a tantalizing flower blooming from the earth. His body sways and writhes in a manner that emphatically mimics the swaying of tree limbs and tall grasses in the wind to which the film frequently cuts. Indeed, when the film cuts to a shot of Berlin gripping his penis, the curving line of the organ sprouting from Berlin’s prone body resembles the curving lines of the heaving grasses, and, in the scene’s climax, as Berlin strokes his ejaculating penis, the vibrant pink color of the glistening glans resembles the bouquet of pink flowers that Berlin carries on his trek and sets aside only when he begins to masturbate. This array of visual details serves to imbue the bodies engaged in sexual activities with a sense of naturalness. Of course invoking the idea of something being natural can be problematic, if not misguided, but I mean to suggest that Berlin complicates the sensational experiences of beauty and desire when he frames this vista of undulating bodies: the ejaculating penis, the dewy dogwood blossom, the jerking motions of windswept tree limbs, and the thrusting gestures of a perfectly toned male body are all potential objects of intense pleasure. Perhaps there is no real difference between one and the others. This impulse in Berlin’s works resonates with the work of his contemporary peers who sought to represent and affirm gay men engaged in gay sexual activities, but Berlin seems to maintain the impossibility of the affirmation of identity.
That Boy troubles the unstable notion of identity in its fantastic and disorienting narrative as characters become other characters in the fabulous articulations of each other. Throughout my previous description of the film’s opening sequence, I deliberately refer to the man who appears on-screen as Peter Berlin, but, in fact, it is unclear who this character is. Considering the recurrent themes and tropes of Berlin’s work, a number of possibilities exist: Berlin may be performing as himself, as the character Helmut whom the film properly introduces in the next scene, as someone’s imagined idea of Helmut, or some curious doppelganger of Berlin or Helmut. The film makes no attempt to clarify who this man is, and, as the series of embedded narrative fantasies unfold, the film does not strive to maintain discrete categories or identities of reality and fantasy.
In an abrupt shift from a pastoral to an urban setting, the film displays Helmut walking down Polk Street in San Francisco. Although Helmut wears similar body-conscious clothing as the man that appears in the film’s first scene, the film presents Helmut as an even more provocative figure. He attractively bares his chest while dressed in bulging skin-tight (and nearly transparent) white pants, a black leather jacket, a black leather motorcycle hat, and a folded red bandana tied around his throat, and he resembles nothing so much as an unusually svelte Tom of Finland figure. Helmut successfully attracts the attention and inspires the desire of others. In a voice-over, a man whom the film credits as “the blind boy” explains the spectacle: “Everyone would stare at him: weird people, boys, girls, young men, freaks. Everyone staring at his cock, doing anything to get his attention.” People of every sex, gender, and sexual proclivity regard Helmut as a highly prized object of desire, and, within this world, sexual identity is inconsequential. In a striking gesture, the film affirms a boundless sexual desire and does not attempt to compartmentalize and construct sexualities. In doing this, the film evokes an intoxicating sense of freedom that challenges the ideology of liberationist sexual identity. The film does not reveal whom, if anyone, Helmut desires, and he himself narrates that he simply wants to be wanted.
When the blind boy meets Helmut, he finds himself overcome by the compulsion to reveal his fantasies about Helmut to him: “I had to tell him what I was thinking, the fantasies I was dreaming that I knew now could never be realized. I asked him if he wanted to listen; he insisted that I go on. At last I had found the courage to tell these fantasies, ones that I had kept to myself for so long.” The fantasy that the boy narrates involves the boy’s transformation into a photographer who curiously looks nothing like him. Even within the free space of fantasy, the boy seeks a mediated encounter with the object of his desire. He initially sates his hunger by capturing Helmut’s image, and he accomplishes this while embodied as another character. The boy explains, “I wanted him to answer my camera. I wanted him to bend his fine young body to it. I wanted him to move his legs, to flex his chest, to show me those rippling muscles up and down that chest, opening his jacket for my camera, getting his cock stiff for my camera.” The film cultivates a sense of disorientation as the boy attempts to describe an experience in which he is not himself but a craving embodied within a strange form and Helmut appears not as himself but as the boy’s fantastic image of him. At one point in this more than slightly confusing encounter, the boy-photographer directs Helmut to look at himself in a full length mirror around which the boy affixes dozens of photographs of Helmut. The boy performs fellatio on Helmut, who wears a curious leather sleeve designed to both display and hide his penis, while Helmut looks at the dizzying array of mirror and photographic images of himself created by the boy. After the scene ends on a frozen frame of a photograph of Helmut amid a cacophonous crescendo of discordant synthesizers and the boy’s ragged breathing and moaning, Helmut reflects on what he has just heard and his fascination with the boy’s “strange dark fantasy”:
he will really never know me except in his imagination. He seems so different. He seems so different from all the other street people; he seems to live in a world all his own, and yet he is the same too. His dreams seem to be at once more real, more compelling, less dependent on the concessions of the real world. I like him for this. I suppose there’s a certain ray of honesty about it all. I like the way he talks. I like his openness. It’s so refreshing. I feel I’ve found a friend.
The fact that the boy can only know Helmut in his imagination does not concern Helmut, and, in fact, this detail inspires Helmut to recognize the possibility that he has discovered a true friend in the boy. Helmut recognizes that he exists as a fantasy for the boy, and he seems to celebrate the fact that the boy cannot know him outside of his imagination. Rather than seeking to found a relationship on the ultimately evanescent reality of their selves, the pair can cultivate a friendship that thrives in the openness and potentiality of fantasy.
The subsequent two scenes in That Boy follow a similar narrative trajectory in which two new characters fabulate their desire for Helmut. One notable scene takes place in a deserted gym, and it delightfully draws on and parodies the history of physique photography and films, such as those created by Bob Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild, which purportedly aimed to detail and exhibit exercise and bodybuilding techniques while creating highly charged homoerotic images. As in the film’s opening scene, Berlin employs a technique of juxtaposition in order to rupture categorical distinctions between sexual and non-sexual physical activities. Stretching becomes posing becomes seduction, or, rather, the ecstatic movements and eruptions of the body variously read as stretching and posing and seduction, but these gestures and motions never conform to any single activity and never assume a stable identity of being.
Forty years after the initial release of That Boy, the landscape of gay male pornography has monumentally changed, and Berlin’s work reads as a quite queer film, but, when one contextualizes the film within its contemporary milieu, it does not become any less unusual. Created within the golden age of gay pornographic film, during which time directors created emphatic representations of explicit hardcore sexual activity, and set against the backdrop of the identity politics of the gay liberation movement, the film employs a surprising mode of eroticism and unexpectedly disavows identity. That Boy is simply a strange film, but this strangeness precisely makes the film fascinating. With its formal and narrative structures that evoke the aesthetics of postmodern art, its conceptual concerns, and its commitment to modes of erotic display and activity that eschew hardcore conventions, the film offers viewers a refreshing experience of what gay male pornography can do.