Lust and loss

Cruising the landscape of gay world-making
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lit@sfbg.com

Many dedicated faggots have made the comparison between cocksucking and prayer, especially when knees are planted in the ground, eyes closed because of something too powerful to look at. But Christopher Russell's Landscape, a book of black-and-white photos of men cruising San Francisco's Buena Vista Park, at first appears to take this assertion one step further — with the trees towering above and light cascading onto shirts, hands, exposed asses, it's almost as if these men have stumbled into heaven. If so, they appear unaware — in one early photo, someone crouches forlorn in the shadows between trees; above him beckon three perfectly crafted beams of light. There's an eeriness to many of these photos, as the sumptuousness of the foliage and the brashness of the sunlight render the sex acts comparably mundane: white T-shirts pulled up and white briefs pulled down like on a porn set; the spooky silhouette of a face pressed against a waiting crotch; baseball caps and dark sunglasses holding distance.

It's when the images become fractured that they reveal depth of feeling — faces merging with leaves and light, heads blending into trees awaiting sky, the motion of hands and arms and legs conjuring a certain type of flight. When the camera pulls back, it's the sky that's shimmering, a brightness between branches and leaves with just a tiny figure below. We see a face turned, or the back of a head — yet the action is not where the figure is gazing but above and around, leaves swaying in the breeze and branches shaking underneath the glow of the setting sun. It's here that we can truly appreciate the complex landscape of lust and loss, adventure and longing.

In one photo, the silhouette of someone's coat blends so neatly with that of a tree that it resembles a sagging branch, and it brings to mind an image reproduced in the French writer Tony Duvert's Good Sex Illustrated, a scathing 1974 critique of a five-volume "liberal" sex manual published the previous year in France. The photo, taken from the handbook in question, shows a park somewhat more groomed and far less picturesque than Buena Vista, but we see light reflecting off trees and a man in an overcoat standing to the side of a path, his back to us. Unlike in Russell's photos, however, it's the man who seems monumental and the trees a backdrop as a child gazes up from several feet away, apparently immobilized by what he sees. The image, from the volume aimed at 10- to 13-year-olds, is meant to illustrate the dangers of pedophiles who apparently lurk in parks. But Duvert indicts the motives of parents who warn their children about such violence, declaring, "What they are really trying to do isn't to protect the child but their own exclusive right to do whatever they want with him."

In Good Sex Illustrated, published in English for the first time this month, by Semiotext(e), Duvert skewers the emerging field of sex education as nothing but "science taking charge of the old moral order." With a savage glee, he dissects the volumes of the manual allegedly geared toward helping young adults discover their sexual selves but instead intent on "libidinal dismembering" and centered on a "pro-birth obsession." Duvert is most hilarious when he compares what the handbook calls a "feeling of total fulfillment" from pregnancy to that of a teenager getting fucked in the ass: "Jean scrubbed his ass pensively: is this what they call a feeling of total fulfillment?" In a related footnote he brilliantly comments, "It goes without saying that as soon as the pleasure of having a cock inside your body stops being depreciated, the honor of having a fetus there won't be over-emphasized." But if this is one of Duvert's most skillful reversals, it also illuminates a gap in his analysis.

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