MM Serra on whether Johnny Minotaur is art or obscene teen-exploitation

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MM Serra is struggling to find a New York City venue bold enough to exhibit Charles Henri Ford's 1971 surrealist memoir film, Johnny Minotaur. Nobody wants to bite. This experimental classic examines teen sexuality with explicit homoerotic imagery. Several institutions refuse to show it because curators believe the performers look like minors and that the film violates basic standards of decency, she says.

Serra, executive director of The Film-Makers Cooperative, will be at the Sie FilmCenter this Saturday night to present a new print of this controversial film as part of the Denver Film Society's four-day Sex Shop Cinema series. She speaks with Westword about her programming work, 21st century censorship and why Denver has been friendlier to Johnny Minotaur than New York's art establishment.

See also: Sex Shop Cinema: Puppet porn, butter-for-lube and more (NSFW)

Westword: Talk about who you are and what you do?

MM Serra: First, let's start with my name. It's MM. I initial my first name. MM stands for Mary Magdalene. I initial my name, because it's a given name. It's Italian and working class. When I was a child, I was ashamed of the name, because the woman was trashed as "other." I think it's a very empowering name now. It puts me outside the heteronormative, Catholic system. It allows me to ask questions and to believe in personal vision. It shapes my life and directs my creative process and the jobs I do.

One of my jobs is running the New American Cinema group at The Film-Makers Cooperative, in New York. That organization started as part of the global counter-culture movement. The organization was against the product film. It was very political. It believed that anyone and everyone can make a film. It was incorporated July 14, 1961, in New York City, and it had 22 artists like Shirley Clarke, Emile de Antonio, Jonas Mekas and Adolfas Mekas.

Jonas Mekas had written a manifesto that said the organization should distribute and promote films with alternative visions. These films were outside the product film; they were not traditional narrative cinema. They can tell stories, but the stories can be personal, and their narrative structure doesn't have to be linear. It can be vertical; it can be poetic, a poetic, personal expression, experimental in form, aesthetics and content.

Talk about Johnny Minotaur and why are you bringing it back?

Johnny Minotaur, the film I'm showing at the Denver Film Society, we preserved it because it's an experimental documentary. It's poetic. It's based on filmmaker Charles Henri Ford's diary. It blurs boundaries between fiction, truth and personal vision. Henri Ford was there before there was a gay rights movement. This film is still important in terms of pre-and-early gay cinema. That's why we preserved it. We have had the only print in existence.

Why have people found the content to be controversial?

It does have sensitive content in that it tells Henri Ford's story. He was from the South. When he was 15, he knew he was gay. In that time, to be gay you were considered an invert; it wasn't legal. He published the first bisexual magazine called Blues in 1929, but then he left the United States and went to Paris. He was part of Gertrude Stein's salon, and he became a poet. He came back to the United States in 1940 with an older lover, and he published a surrealist journal called View from 1940-1950. He continually traveled. He didn't always stay in the United States, because homosexuality was illegal and was considered a perversion.

This film was made on the island of Crete, and he traveled to Italy; he traveled to France; he traveled to the United States. He went back and forth. He became friends with Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Salvador Dali and Warren Sonbert; so, their voices are narrating on the soundtrack. It's autobiographical. It's about Henri Ford's teenage years. It's also about the fluidity of sexual practice, because it's about the myth of the minotaur. It's informative, it's historical, it's personal, it's poetic, and it's nonlinear.

Denver Film Society's programming manager, Ernie Quiroz, said the Museum of Modern Art had restored Johnny Minotaur. Then they refused to distribute it, because some of the museum's higher-ups were uncomfortable with the legal implications of the film's homoerotic images of men who looked younger than 18. Is that true?

I'd rather not use the name of the organization, because they asked me not to. I'll just say that the film was preserved, and we got a new inter-negative. The people who preserved it chose not to be near it, because it's a powerful organization. There were 3 cancellations after that. I told Jonas Mekas, "Jonas, they're censoring Johnny Minotaur and calling it pornographic, and I don't see it that way." He said, "Tell them in 1963, I went to jail for Flaming Creatures, and now that film is a classic." Mekas was arrested because men wearing drag was illegal. He said, "Johnny Minotaur is poetry." He showed it in 1972. It showed at Anthology Film Archives. It showed with the Wooster Group at the Garage. It had an evergreen review in the Village Voice.

With that kind of past, why is the film so controversial now?

The issues are current; it's the censorship of the 21st century. Jonas said to me, "Porn is in the eyes of the viewer. That's what makes it pornographic. In other words, they are not able to understand the poetry of it."

I think there is a very conservative movement culturally in the country right now. There is fear of showing imagery in the art world that shows the body or deals with sexuality that's not heteronormative. I think it's because we have a conservative government in the United States, and there is a fear of victimization.

Some of the anxiety people have about Johnny Minotaur seems to have less to do with pornography than with the age of the performers. What are your thoughts on that?

The film was truthful. On the soundtrack, he says, "I was 15 years old." That is how old Charles Henri Ford was when he had a lover. I mean ... that's the truth. What do you want him to say: "I was 21 when I had an older lover?" That's on the soundtrack, and you could infer that all those boys were 15.

To say that men don't have a sexual practice till they're 21 or 18 is not telling the truth. I think that's sexual repression. Teenage boys are normal when they have desire. I think it's Allen Ginsberg who's reading from Charles Henri Ford's own diaries. To me, to change the date, the age, just to make it politically correct, to take out that issue, to say, "Oh well, I'm 21," to me that's fabricating or changing history, and you can't. Or if you change it, it's censorship. You're not protecting anyone.

I think a lot of pedophilia and all that happens in the family, and that's not spoken of. I don't know if you want to put that in the article, but that's my belief. Because our culture supports the family unit, there's no discussion of it.

Film-Maker's Cooperative distributes Lawrence Brose's De Profundis. Can you talk about Brose's case and how that has impacted current attitudes toward Johnny Minotaur.

The Lawrence Brose case has really changed everything. Johnny Minotaur was selected for preservation before the Brose case came up. Lawrence Brose made De Profundis about Oscar Wilde's case. Wilde went to prison for being gay, and he wrote this letter, "De Profundis." Brose made an incredible film about it. It has hand-processing. It's poetic. It's tragic.

Lawrence Brose worked at a job in Buffalo, and he was a photographer. He made incredible films. On the web, supposedly, the government trapped him with images of teenagers or younger people having sex. No one has seen these images. It's a court case. There's a movement within the art world to support Lawrence Brose and to give him funds. He lost his job. Once this happened to Lawrence Brose, everyone's been running for cover. That's still censorship. I tell my students, "If you go on the web, you're not free. The web is monitored."

Now, Lawrence Brose, I don't know enough about the case. I do know it has devastated his life. I feel that personal freedom is important for a culture and so is freedom of expression. I do strongly feel that children should be protected in the home, from their fathers, the second and third and forth husband, things like that, you know. And that's not discussed in our culture. It might be in terms of Woody Allen, but you know, it's very superficially discussed.

I also feel that if you believe, like I believe, that Johnny Minotaur is a very important film, I feel that, to me, it's freedom of expression. What Charles Henri Ford did was a major contribution to our culture that's not being recognized because of repression and fear. Not everyone will agree with me. You know, if you're looking for pornography, you might find it everywhere. The film's not arousing to me. It's not physically arousing to me, so it's not porn to me. I don't see it as something that's sexually exciting. I see it as poetry. I see it as form. I see the beauty of the imagery.

What's the future of Johnny Minotaur?

Well, I'm still looking for a place to show it in New York. I have asked a couple of places, and they didn't want to do it. I have not approached Anthology Film Archives. I think Anthology would show it, but I need to arrange for a time. And I might show it in The Garden. I'm asking around. I don't want to say what other organizations said no.

I'm excited about showing in Denver. Denver just passed a very liberal law legalizing marijuana. It's not that I smoke dope, but I think there is a certain freedom to allow the citizens of a state to say, "If you want to relax, you can have a glass of wine or smoke a joint." I think it's important not to be a patriarchal, papa state, but to be a state that allows freedom and a state that respects its citizens to make choices that are wise for them. It will be an interesting discussion. I know it's important for gay history. I 'm hoping there will be a lot of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer movement coming out to see the film.

It's fascinating that this is showing in Denver and hasn't found a home in New York.

New York hasn't legalized marijuana, now, have they? I just came back from running in New York, and what do I see? I see police when I run. Their cars are everywhere. There's a line of police cars. Here I am coming back from running, and I hear the sirens. There are 4 police cars turning down the road. I look down the road, and there are 4 teenagers standing on the sidewalk. Well, what are they doing? Do you need heavily armed policemen to come charging out of the cars to shoot them or something?

Bloomberg changed the texture of the city, and now it's much more about money and the top one-percent that have the money. It's more about their safety than creativity. It's still an interesting place, because it's racially diverse, but I think it's going to be harder to find a place to show the film here. I'll let you know. I'm hoping that soon we will have it, and I'm hoping that we can digitize it, so people can pre-screen it and not be terrified.

Johnny Minotaur screens at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 East Colfax Avenue, on Saturday, February 15 at 7 p.m. Go to Denver Film or call 303-595-3456 for more information and to buy tickets.

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