This audiovisual essay provides an aesthetic analysis of the works of the iconic gay porn star Joey Stefano focusing solely on the actor’s reaction shots throughout his back catalogue of porn titles and placing these in split-screen juxtaposition with Andy Warhol’s infamous 1963 experimental short Blow Job, from which it takes formal, aesthetic, and thematic influence.
Stefano (real name Nick Iacona, Jnr.) was not only notorious within the industry for being one of the first superstar ‘power-bottoms’ (a gay porn performer who is known for his aggressive and frenetic enjoyment in receiving anal penetration), but his experience in the porn world was also a tragic story that led to his death in 1993 from a heroin overdose in a run-down motel in Los Angeles.
The various studies of Stefano portray him as a empathetic, passive victim of industry abuse. This video essay uses the figure of Stefano as a means to challenge traditional binaries around active/passive sexuality. I want to argue firstly that the power behind Stefano’s success and his continuing legacy lies not only in the bodily display of his empowered penetrability (that is, his ass and the phallic signifier of his enjoyment in being penetrated – his erect penis) as fetishised object of spectacle; but also in those moments of ecstasy (whether performed or not) that are conveyed in the facial portraiture of his films. This video essay focuses attention on the importance of the reaction shot in the viewer’s identification with the bottom during the sex act that is only further amplified in empowered, passive figures like Stefano. By omitting shots that privilege the body in the throes of the sexual act that are seemingly used to legitimise the sex act being filmed as ‘real’ (e.g. penetration shots, group/wide shots, the money shot/ejaculation), this video essay focuses instead on Stefano’s face in his blissfully ‘receptive’ state as a commodity in itself.
Flow/Job’s concentrating on the un/convincing facial performance of the implied off-screen sexual act calls to mind Warhol’s experimental short film Blow Job, featuring the uncredited ‘star’ DeVeren Bookwalter, who seemingly receives fellatio from an off-frame partner. Warhol’s film is deliberately coy in its presentation of the sexual act, in that the camera remains in tight close-up on the changing expressions on the young man’s face as the suggestive act occurs off-screen. Flow/Job borrows the 16mm aesthetic from Warhol’s film: recreating 16mm reel holes, utilising black and white filters, adding flare-ins and flare-outs, and by digitally applying light leaks and filters that draw attention to visual format (either simulated 16mm grain or VHS-style ‘tearing’). By subjecting Stefano’s reaction shots to the framing concept of Warhol’s film, I want to question how much of Stefano’s success as a porn star and burgeoning media celebrity is due to the presence of visual evidence of his penetrability with its heteronormative associations of passivity. Instead, Stefano’s status as the consummate ‘power bottom’ problematizes and challenges traditional submissive concepts of receptive penetration and suggests an empowered sexuality clearly seen in the performer’s reaction shots. By favouring Stefano’s blissfully empowered facial performances, this essay argues that much of the pleasure of Stefano’s performances lie their ability to blur the lines between traditionally passive/active pleasure binaries.
Academic studies of Blow Job such as those by Roy Grundmann or Peter Gidal have also commented that Warhol’s film teases with fourth-wall realism, specifically in the viewers’ recognition that they are being denied ‘off-screen space of sound and image, however invisible both may be’ (Gidal: 33). Further still, for Gidal, Blow Job’s pleasures lie in ‘the antagonism between your being looked at by the subject and being avoided by the subject, and through time, a transfer taking place, so that you the viewer are the subject and he in Blow Job is no longer such but becomes the object. This extends to the point where the language in the perceiver’s (your) head cannot decipher the line where subject and object are delimited.’ (33). Taking inspiration from Warhol’s explicit/implicit art-film, moments in Blow Job in which Bookwalter’s eyes seem to stare out of the frame directly at the watching spectator are then directly juxtaposed in split-screen with those fourth wall-breaking gazes in scenes from Stefano’s films.
Juxtaposing carefully chosen moments from Stefano’s work alongside a shortened version of Warhol’s film in split-screen, moments of jouissance experienced by the men are paralleled. Inspired by Blow Job’s use of ‘drugtime’ or ‘dragtime’, which Gidal (2008) explains is created by shooting the film on 24 or 25 fps (frames per second) and then being projected at 18 or 16 fps, resulting in ‘The film’s movements and the subject’s movements are therefore slowed down by one third from the recorded speed to the projected speed [giving] that slightly distended feel when the actor moves his face, when his eyes avert their look from diagonally downwards to straight at you and past you, is as if the image is catching up with itself, or lagging’ (24-25).
Taking the Warholian concept of ‘slowed-down’ and applying it to the gathered materials from Stefano’s work, the erotic tension between (denial of) shot and reaction shot is amplified. Due to the typical paucity in length and frequency of reaction shots in gay porn films, those collected have been subjected to a much slower temporal rendering than Warhol’s original 16mm film. Many of the films obtained from Stefano’s filmography are low in resolution, often being captured directly from streaming websites or obtained from downloads. Due to this fact the typical method of applying slow motion effects to digital video files, frame blending was not sufficient, often resulting in a fragmented, jerky effect that clearly stood out when juxtaposed with Warhol’s more fluid celluloid. Utilising Final Cut Pro X’s newer Optical Flow method allowed for a smoother, almost fluid effect that offered a unique-looking, super-slow viewing experience. Optical Flow effectively creates new frames by interpolating the surrounding frames in a clip, thus allowing clips to be slowed down further than they normally would be. The visual blending achieved by this formal visual effect further supports my attempts to reconfigure Stefano as a gay porn icon who complicates the traditional binary by fluidly conflating the concepts of active and passive sex.
By refusing to cut to the pleasurable act, lingering instead on its ‘effects’ via the reaction shot, I hope to encourage the appreciation of a more pleasurable ‘haptic’ viewing experience connection that revolves around ‘intimate, detailed images that invite a small, caressing gaze (Laura Marks: 6). Slow motion also permits a closer scrutinising of the performer’s facial expressions (lip biting, licking, eyelid-fluttering), facial tics, shudders, flushed cheeks, and therefore encourages the viewer to interpret and look for evidence in the believability of the reactions captured. In doing this, I want viewers to question how one can read certain facial expressions when placed out of context, winces of pain can be construed also as trembles of delight? By denying the viewer the cut-away or action shot from which to support their reading, the spectator is arguably left on the surface of the image. Framing the star in this way (and in split-screen with Bookwalter) also draws attention to the fragility of ‘performance’ and the inherent duality in Joey/Nick’s persona as seen from a perspective that understands Stefano as a tragic figure.
It is clear that in contemporary gay porn culture, Stefano’s persona encourages a strong empathetic and erotic identification with gay male fans. The haptic elements of this video essay attempt to articulate that experience as one that allows both active identification with and an over-closeness to the image, or to the subject on screen. The dissolution between desire-for/identification-with the erotic object/subject is also negotiated in this audiovisual essay. Indeed, studies of the haptic in the moving image seem split on the subject as active participant with the image via identification and as a masochistically overwhelmed viewer who gives him/her self over to the ‘shimmering surface’ of the image. In relation to the erotic potential of haptic viewing, Laura Marks continues that,
in a haptic relationship our self rushes up to the surface to interact with another surface […] the erotic capacities of haptic visuality are twofold […] It puts into question cinema’s illusion of representing reality, by pushing the viewer’s look back to the surface of the image. And it enables an embodied perception, the viewer responding to the video as to another body and the screen as another skin. (Marks: 4)
Marks suggests that haptic pornography operates via a different method of engagement with the image: ‘The viewer is called on to fill in the gaps in the image, engage with the traces the image leaves […] one that indicates figures then backs away from representing them fully – or often moves so close to them that for that reason they are no longer visible’ (Marks: 13-16). In Flow/Job the viewer is asked to assume/imagine the events occurring off-frame/screen and make comparisons between the two sets of images that sit along side each other in split-screen. The distance Marks refers to is not only in reference to subjectivity, identity, desire and physical closeness but is also temporal in nature. Time is truncated in this video essay’s shortened version of Blow Job, Stefano’s porn career is edited down to select films and select scenes, and all images are subject to a slowing-down of frame-rates, and finally the passing of time and embrace of mortality is present in the spectral images of both Stefano and Bookwalter.
Gidal suggests that because Warhol’s film is put together of several short ‘reels’ of 16mm film, the viewers of Blow Job experience loss: ‘each time each reel ends [...] It is no longer the endless temporality of time, passage, death, these are lost when the flare-out at the “end” of each reel, that loss remains after many reels when the film – ends. We are always left with nothing but loss’ (Gidal: 35). If this is part of the (un)pleasurable viewing experience of Warhol’s iconic film, I want to extend this, via juxtaposition, to the practice of retrospectively viewing Stefano’s films. The same sense of post-coital loss is echoed here, not only with each cut, but also with reminder of the loss of Stefano himself.
Gidal, Peter. Andy Warhol: Blow Job (One Work, Afterall Books, London: 2008).
Grundmann, Roy. Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (Temple University Press, Philadelphia: 2003).
Isherwood, Charles. Wonderbread and Ecstasy: The Life and Death of Joey Stefano (Alyson Publications, 1996).
Marks, Laura, U. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/London, 2002).
Merck, Mandy. ‘The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol’ in Times Higher Education, 30th August 2012 online: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/the-black-hole-of-the-camera-the-films-of-andy-warhol/420987.article?sectioncode=26&storycode=420987&c=1[last accessed 17/07/2016].
There has already been a biography written on his life by Charles Isherwood entitled Wonderbread and Ecstasy: The Life and Death of Joey Stefano (1996), a one-man theatre show Homme Fatale (The Pleasance Theatre, London in 2005), and a low-budget bio-pic is has long been rumoured to be the works (see http://www.chaddarnell.com).
Mandy Merck (2012) points out that J J Murphy’s intense study of Warhol’s films focus on ‘the flares, flashes and white circles […] Murphy offers a 1,000-word footnote on its film stock, aperture width and lab processing, and then [for example] marvels at how these contingencies turn the floodlit tower of the Empire State Building into a space station in a star-studded galaxy'.
Stefano featured in Madonna’s Sex (1992) book shortly before his death, and was rumoured to have been romantically connected to music mogul David Geffen (see the candid interview with Stefano on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv4FV_9zjpg).
This is also supported in the video essay’s soundtrack, which is taken from Stefano’s film More of a Man (1991) starring Stefano’s ex-partner Chi Chi La Rue as drag-queen Belle Zahringen who sings the central performance piece ‘More of a Man’. The song has been digitally slowed to fit the running time of the video essay and its lyrics refer to the gender fluidity and non-binary nature of La Rue’s character.
Darren Elliott-Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at the University of Hertfordshire. His research to date is focused on representations of queerness, gender and the body in the Gothic and horror film and television and extends to the study of intersections with pornography, experimental film, and cult and trash in the moving image. He is the author of Queer Horror Film and Television: Masculinity and Sexuality at the Margins (IB Tauris 2016). He has published articles for SCOPE: Online Journal of Film and Television, and has contributed to book collections for Palgrave Macmillan and IB Tauris.