Johnny Minotaur restored: Queer cinema, censorship and Denver Film Society's bravery
Filmmaker MM Serra is executive director of the New American Cinema Group.
Johnny Minotaur, surrealist poet and artist Charles Henri Ford's 1971 film, is a lyrical explosion of taboos: Incest, man-boy love and power dynamics, pansexuality and autoeroticism are just a few of the issues he grapples with. After the film was lost for two decades, the New American Cinema Group worked to restore Johnny Minotaur and resuscitated this classic piece of forgotten, queer cinema that belongs next to the films of Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman and Jean Genet. When the Denver Film Society boldly opted to premiere the restored print this month at the Sie FilmCenter, the organization took a curatorial risk that New York's art world had shied away from, says MM Serra, executive director of the New American Cinema Group. And in the process, DFS's programming team set an important precedent that helped encourage Anthology Film Archives to host the New York City premiere of the restored version of this historically significant, yet forgotten film. Westword recently spoke with Serra about the screening at the SIE FilmCenter, censorship and the future of Johnny Minotaur.
Westword: What are your thoughts on the U.S. premiere of Johnny Minotaur? MM Serra: It was a wonderful screening. I thought the preservation print looked gorgeous. The theater was beautiful. I'd never seen Johnny Minotaur projected so large. I saw it projected at the Museum of Modern Art in a small theater and projected in my office for selected curators to get shows, but this was the first time I'd screened it in public. I thought the projection was exquisite and the preservation was beautifully done. There were so many textures, the quality, the images, the sound, it was just lush and exquisite. The cinematography was beautiful and so emotional, and the sound actually carries the narrative.
The different voices on the soundtrack told the different stories: the Minotaur story, the diaries of Charles Henri Ford, the relationships, the difficulties of having intimacy whether it's polymorphous, heteronormative or homosexual. You can have sexuality, but to get to intimacy is the most difficult. One of the audience members said to me that he felt that the film was about loneliness, and I felt that, too. Charles Henri Ford was talking about himself and how the search for identity in culture is a struggle. For him that was a lonely struggle.
I thought the audience was very informed and intelligent; I was surprised by how it was all-ages, from college students to older retired people. It was a very diverse audience. I thought Denver Film Society's staff, the curators and the people working there were very knowledgeable, informed and articulate, and that helped with the screening as well.
Johnny Minotaur feels like a missing link in the history of queer cinema.
Its original premiere was a celebrity event. Andy Warhol was there; Viva was there; Taylor Meade was there. Barney Rosset wrote about it as a celebrity event in Evergreen Review. Barney Rosset helped change the laws of censorship when he brought I Am Curious Yellow to New York. He argued it was aesthetically educational, and that's what changed the law. If a film had nudity, if it also had some redeeming social value or aesthetic content that was educational, it wasn't porn. Barney Rosset wrote about Johnny Minotaur. It showed at Anthology Film Archives in 1972. In '71, Jonas Mekas interviewed Charles Henri Ford about the film in Village Voice. In the '80s, it showed at the Wooster Group. So it had screenings. It was written about, and it was talked about.
Eventually, it got damaged. It had sprocket damage. I had talked to Charles Henri Ford, and he left it at the Filmmakers Cooperative for us to preserve it. It took over a decade to get the funding and the cooperation with a major, absolutely major museum to do the work. We worked with one of the best preservationists.
I'm so glad I didn't get one negative response at the Denver screening. One of the young college students, a woman, came over to me. She said she was excited to see it. It was a wonderful, amazing film and influenced her. I didn't receive any negative comments. Not one from anyone. Not that there should be, because I think that the film itself is very poetic. It does have male nudity in it, but I think the audience is more informed by the Internet and nudity is on the Internet a lot. Charles Henri Ford himself said it was about autoeroticism, exhibitionism and polymorphous sexuality. It was erotic, and it wasn't just homosexual. I though it had those aspects, too, but it also had the exquisite aspect of his nude niece. He filmed her in this hammock and she swings back and forth in the sunlight. It's so radiant and beautiful and textured, and she's beautiful.
That was another fascinating dimension. There's this incestuous voyeurism. This movie is hitting on so many taboos that are very triggering to a contemporary audience.
I was just reading the Nancy Mitford book called Voltaire in Love. Voltaire was very close to his sister, and when he was older, in his fifties, he fell in love with his niece and had a relationship and spent the rest of his life living with her. That wasn't considered scandalous at that time; I think that now it is. I think that some taboos at that particular time, before the French Revolution, were more acceptable.
Have you read Hollywood Babylon? Think about Charlie Chaplin falling in love with a movie star; she was nine, maybe even seven. He married her when she was thirteen or fourteen. I think that this idea that there is a marriageable age is something that's more contemporary.
Talk about the historical differences between the time Charles Henri Ford was working on Johnny Minotaur and now?
Charles Henri Ford, as soon as he was a teenager, he left the South. I think that's why he was able to have such a rich education in poetics and art history and why he had such a deep relationship to modernity. He was very informed by surrealism, by Picasso and Salvador Dali, because he actually knew them. It wasn't that he was looking at pictures in a book. He was actually walking among them. Going to Paris was a really seminal part of his creation of his identity -- knowing Duchamp. He's published in the Penguin Edition of American Surrealist Poetry, so he identified strongly as a surrealist. Surrealism really breaks away from a lot of the bourgeois taboos and is really influenced by the unconscious mind. That was really present in the film.
Mekas, in his interview, talks with Charles Henri Ford: "Don't you think the film within the film could be a cliché? It's done so much. Charles Henri Ford said, "It's been done for a thousand years and will keep being done, because it's self-reflexive. It's the ability to tell multiple stories." That's what he does in this film. It's the story of the Minotaur and what the Minotaur means. It's like you keep peeling away, and there are more and more layers to the story. I think the soundtrack is very important in telling and referring to these stories, myths and diaries.
I think it was a breakthrough that it showed in Denver. Several people talked about getting arrested; I don't think that's an issue. They're so fearful. It's xenophobia in a way. I'm not sure that's the right word. There's this fear factor. It showed, and nobody came charging through the door to arrest anyone. I don't think there is anything in that film that isn't on the Internet. It's not like showing Salo; Salo is much worse. I mean, it's painful to watch. I think there is something exquisite about Johnny Minotaur. The day after this interview, MM Serra called with good news: a premiere of Jonny Minotaur is set for June 30 in New York City at Anthology Film Archives. "I'm thrilled," she says. "They weren't sure about doing it, and I told them about the Denver Film Society screening, and that helped convince them to show it."