Pink Narcissus is a 1971 feature film directed by James Bidgood. The 65 minute film depicts a prostitute(Bobby Kendall) as he lounges in his apartment, drifting in and out of homo-erotic fantasies. There is no dialogue as the protagonist drifts through a number of dreams, such as that of becoming a matador in an encounter with a leather-clad biker, a Roman slave boy, masturbation in a forest and seduction by a belly dancer.
While the majority of Pink Narcissus is live-action, the film features several stop-motion animated sequences, puppeted and handcrafted sets, stunning creativity, inventiveness and a strong handcrafted quality throughout. I thought this film would be of interest to many people as it is unique and distinctly personal cinema.
During an animated sequence at the film’s onset, the camera tracks through a forest with a luminescent moon shining through foliage. We see handcrafted spider webs, and live mice scurry beneath a painted backdrop of stars. The camera then tracks in to a chryssalis hatching and a stop-motion butterfly emerging and taking it’s first flight. We then see our protagonist walk into a pink room to light a candle as stop-motion rose petals fall over a gilded picture frame suspended in a pink ether. This is just a sample of the vivid imagery which permeates the film.
Pink Narcissus was shot entirely in Bidgood’s cramped New York apartment over seven years. He lived among the various sets while creating the film. This lack of space and limited resources required a certain kind of ingenuity from the creator. When asked how he went creating the forest scene in his apartment, Bidgood replied “Every breath of space was used” … “I was in a very small apartment. So that moon was a tabletop that was in one room, and the sky in the background was a huge frame that was as big as it could be and still pass through the archway that led into the living room where it started…” “You see if you have that kind of conviction and want to do that and if you really think you know how to do it, you should do it! And you shouldn’t let anyone tell you that you should ‘start a little simpler’.”
One scene I find particularly amazing comes towards the final third of the film. Seemingly taking inspiration from Robert Wiene’s German expressionist films of the 1920’s such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Genuine, the scene depicts a hand-made New York cityscape. Asymmetrical buildings clad in glowing signage tower over colourful, strange and menacing characters. Pantless sailors, disheveled bagladies, men clad in BDSM chains and harnesses, a nurse in a storefront struggling(or dancing) with intestines, a cowboy with his cock out and a postman with his penis in his hand. Alongside these live-action characters sit atrophied stop-motion animated figures vomiting near a bin and cavorting outside a bloodbank.
“There were times when I needed four people to do a shot and there was no-body but me. There’s one scene where there’s a New York skyline. And I had to have little motors to make things work, the camera was connected to a string to make the it tilt up or tilt down because I didn’t have anyone to operate the cameras. There was another motor to make the fan blow intermittently so the curtain billowed. And then I had to run back behind the set to makethe signs in the skyline light up. It would have been nice if I had a couple of extra hands. A lot of things were like that. I had to make machines. I don’t think anyone realises how hard it was.” – James Bidgood
The film’s rejection of many cinema and staging conventions as well as it’s handmade aesthetic contribute to it’s otherworldly and ethereal tone. While nothing is done ‘sleekly’, the handmade aesthetic effectively weaves together the seperate elements to create this fantastical world . Another distinguishing feature of the film’s aesthetic and dream-like tone is it’s intense colour. Bidgood dipped the 8mm film in coloured dyes to give it bright pink to irredescent blue overtones throughout the film.
“The sad part was that when you’re making a film for seven years, people don’t have a lot of patience, and they want you to finish your work of art on their timetable. So getting anyone to help me was very difficult. It was always difficult, even when I got help but it got to be toward the end that even the people that were… y’know… even Bobby left. He just couldn’t stand the whole situation anymore. Bobby is not the only Bobby in the movie, there are stand-ins for Bobby. *laughs* When you lose your leading man… first of all when your leading man goes bald making the movie, it takes a lot. It was very funny.” – James Bidgood
For years the film was rumoured to have been created by Andy Warhol or Kenneth anger, due to Bidgood being credited as ‘Anonymous’ after being denied the final cut on the film which was then edited by the producers. “It was very sad what happened to it.” ruminates Bidgood in an interview with Brian Robinson, Programmer of the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. “So much of Pink Narcissus is not there. It’s really sad because so many of the optical effects and the materials were all there to work with when it was taken from me and put together by people who had no idea what I was intending. First of all, the film is so personal, how could anyone else put it together? It’s like you’re trying to come into my dream world and see what I see only at night by myself.” During the mid 90’s the film’s origin was tracked to Bidgood and it was eventually re-released in 2003 on DVD by Strand Home Videos.
This film is essential viewing for anyone into personal underground cinema, which embodies stunning creativity and strong D.I.Y resourcefullness.