Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

From the Godfather of gay porn


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If anyone doubts that pornography is an important part of gay culture, the new DVD Seed Money: The Legend of Falcon Studio , just released by Breaking Glass Pictures, will purge any misgivings. While Seed purports to be a documentary on the life of Chuck Holmes, the founder of Falcon and godfather of gay porn, it is really the story of porn's evolution in gay male identity from the 1970s to the present. A big hit at last year's Frameline, the film highlights the role San Francisco played in allowing gay men to be more comfortable, less apologetic and inhibited about their sexuality. The archival footage of gay San Francisco in the 1970s-80s is one of the gems of Seed. Porn meant freedom, and in graphic detail it showed how it was okay to be gay at a time when society said that was not true.

Holmes, born on an Indiana farm, was one of the legions of gay men who arrived in San Francisco in 1970 to escape oppression and find sex following the Stonewall revolution. Holmes wanted to make movies, and created Falcon Studio in his home in 1971. In 1972, writer John Karr arrived in San Francisco and began reviewing porn for the Bay Area Reporter. Karr offers insightful commentary throughout Seed . At that time, porn was mostly 8mm loops of short scenes shown in peep shows. Holmes felt he could do better, and began to improve the craft of the medium by looking for attractive "models" and shooting in beautiful locations, especially outdoors. As Karr points out, Holmes/Falcon were filming their sexual fantasies (very anal-oriented, as was Holmes) "filtered through what a little old man in Peoria wanted to see." They were also translating gay life in the cities into a historical record, as well as creating porn stars (Casey Donovan, Al Parker, Don Fisk) who became heroes in the gay community because they were out when many could not be, while facing the risk of being arrested by vice squads.

In 1978 Holmes, who loved to ski, took some performers and a skeleton crew to film a few shots in Aspen so he could write off the trip as a business expense. He later added some additional scenes, producing the landmark The Other Side of Aspen, inventing the gay porno full-length feature. Friends with designer Calvin Klein, in 1979 Holmes adopted his clean-cut, muscled, smooth, mostly bleach-blond tighty-whitey look that quickly became the norm for all porn. African-Americans were not allowed in Falcon porn unless there was a reason in the plot for the person to be black, and then they could only be tops, reinforcing old racial stereotypes. Holmes was rich, spending it on sex parties and recreational drugs, starting to drag Falcon down with him. Diagnosed with KS in the early 1980s he cleaned up his act, but the VHS revolution resurrected Falcon as they transferred their 8mm films to video for home use, making a fortune.

By the mid-80s AIDS was casting its shadow over porn, and Seed poignantly features a brief montage of the Fade Out obituaries of all the Falcon stars who died of AIDS. To its discredit, Falcon was among the last of the studios to let their actors use condoms, at first advocating non-oxynol 9 use, which actually made transmission of the AIDS virus easier. The few still-alive stars insisting on condom use amd a possible action by ACT-UP finally convinced Holmes to change policy. But because many men were afraid to have sex, even safer sex, because of AIDS, porn became their only sexual outlet. Years later, customers would approach Holmes thanking him for saving their lives.

Worried about his legacy, beginning in 1993 through his participation in the March on Washington for LGBT rights, Holmes became involved in politics to protect his business, gain respectability, and advance gay politicians (SF's Carol Migden and Mark Leno, who comment favorably) through his philanthropic donations. His generosity made him a strategic player on the board of HRC, though some politicians, such as Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, rejected his money. He died of AIDS-related liver failure in 2000. Even in death he remained controversial, as he had given $1 million to fund the SF LGBT Community Center. When it was named after him, people (mostly women) protested at its opening.

Holmes remains a cipher. Because he didn't like pictures taken of him, he appears in only three small clips, a total of three minutes. Yet perhaps the best record of his life are the many clips (all soft-core) of the movies he produced. A genius at marketing, he was a Type A tyrant at the office, where a paper clip on the floor could send him into a flying rage. Suave and debonair (with a conservative look), he had complicated personal relationships. He didn't allow the men in his life to express themselves. He was a lonely person, not satisfied with his vast wealth, and never felt accepted by his society friends. He was not proud to be a pornographer. When asked how he made his money, he replied he was in videotape replication or the mail order business. Yet despite his flaws and complexities, as Elizabeth Birch, former chair of HRC, said at his memorial service, "He never forgot the need to make a better life in this country for young gay and lesbian people." Through interviews with Holmes' colleagues, porn stars (Jeff Stryker, Jim Bentley), observers of the period (Chi Chi LaRue, John Waters), this winning documentary reveals the crucial role Holmes played by not only setting standards for porn and teaching gay men how to have sex, but in shaping ideas about masculinity and what it means to be gay.

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