In his song “Sleaze (Take It, Shake It),” singer and new wave heartthrob Marc Almond croons, “Sleaze, can be very tragic. Sleaze, but I only see the magic.” Just like Almond’s enviously filthy verse, we, at Filthy Dreams, have always been able to see the magic in sleaze. However our love of sleaze and understanding of its transgressive power certainly comes from our adoration of one filth-elder, the pinnacle of our (and John Waters’s) role model/hero worship: Tennessee Williams (or TW as we call him around here).
In his collection of sleazy and very, very queer short stories Tales of Desire, which features stories ranging from the shockingly Dennis Cooper-esque “Desire and the Black Masseur” and the sublimely-titled “The Killer Chicken and the Closet Queen,” TW bravely dives into the power of sleaze as redemption and transcendence in his stories “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” and my personal favorite “Hard Candy.” Both short stories are set at the Joy Rio, a decadent, formerly opulent opera house, which has now fallen into decay, disarray and dissolution as a third-rate movie theater in New Orleans. Defining this has-been theater as a site for public sex and death, as well as possibly redemption, Williams celebrates the sublime in the sleazy, the trashy and the unseemly in the Joy Rio.
Williams is certainly not the only one to notice the transformative power of sleazy cinemas and the raunchiness contained within them. Recently, there has been a revival of artistic celebratory looks at the golden age of seediness of the long-gone Times Square porn cinemas. From artist Scott Ewalt’s transgressive paintings full of devils, pulp fiction novels, titty bar ads and the marquees of former Times Square porn palaces to Samuel R. Delany’s nostalgic ode to anonymous move theater sex Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, the importance placed on these garish and destroyed theaters cannot be ignored by queer critics (as much as most would probably like to).
Even queer film program Dirty Looks: On Location in July screened films about the bygone years of Times Square theaters. Curated by artist Scott Ewalt, Dirty Looks screened director Bette Gordon’s Variety, written by Kathy Acker and starring such familiar faces as John Waters superstar and East Village Eye columnist, Cookie Mueller. Shown at Tobacco Road, one of the worst bars (a compliment from me, of course) I’ve been to in New York, Variety features a young woman who takes a job as a ticket seller at a Times Square porn theater, which thoroughly transforms and awakens her own sexuality and proclivity for stalking.
While all these representations of the golden age of Times Square sleaze are downright fantastic and filthy, TW was mining the transgressive, transformative and transcendent power of these decadent houses of sin before all of these works. Looking at both “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” and “Hard Candy,” TW’s use of the power of sleaze can be added to the legacy of works on Times Square porn theaters.
It must be noted that some critics point to these stories as an example of TW’s latent and self-hating homophobia. Although the characters of Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Krupper are certainly grotesque, fat and fairly loathsome, I certainly do not think TW meant for either character to be a universal representation for all gay men.
It also must be noted that these works were written under the Lavender Scare of the 1950s and therefore, the sexuality, decadence and cruising contained within these stories become completely and wonderfully subversive. Yes, TW has to shield some of references to sex in the stories through twists of language and coded behaviors, but to the queer readers who were supposed to “get it,” they undoubtedly would have, as we continue to today.
While both of the characters of Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Krupper meet a gruesome end in the Joy Rio, I would argue that TW does not mean to declare them as damned. I mean, who wouldn’t want to expire at the pinnacle of sleazy ecstasy? Combining the faded glory of both the main characters and the Joy Rio, Williams’s takes us on a decadent, redemptive trip into the power of sleaze.
The Architecture of Sleaze
Starting with TW’s detailed decadent descriptions of the recent incarnation of the Joy Rio, based off of a real theater on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans, TW reveals the past height and the current transcendently sleazy depths of the theater. Like the Times Square greasy, smoke and bodily fluid-filled porn theaters, the Joy Rio just exudes a garish, gaudy and downright disturbingly glamorous sleaze, contained in its decadent shell of its former glory.
In “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” TW explains the architecture of this former opera house, which is “now converted into a third-rate cinema, which specialized in the showing of cowboy pictures and other films of the sort that have a special appeal to children and male adolescents” (7). This third-rate cinema’s almost Lynchian, faded gilt and red surroundings represent a descent into ruin, which reflects the lives of the main characters. As TW observes, “The old opera house was a miniature of all the great opera houses of the old world, which is to say its interior was faded gilt and incredibly old and abused red damask, which extended upwards through at least three tiers and possibly five” (7).
In both stories, the darkness of the movie theater is essential to both the plot and the frequency of public anonymous sex. Both of the inevitable tragic yet magical conclusions end in the top tier of the theater “where practically every device and fashion of carnality had run riot in a gloom so thick that a chance partner could only be discovered by touch” (9).
In comparison to this sordid yet pleasurable darkness, TW describes a horrifying moment when the lights went on at the Joy Rio, revealing the lurid activities inside. As he states in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” “Once he [Mr. Gonzales] had been there when the lights came on in the Joy Rio, but the coming on of the lights had so embarrassed him that looking up was the last thing in the world he felt like doing. He had buried his nose in the collar of his coat and had scuttled out as quickly as a cockroach makes for the nearest shadow when a kitchen light comes on” (7).
In both stories, TW introduces the run-down theater as something strange and slightly off-putting. As he explicates in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” “The name of this movie house was the Joy Rio, a name peculiar enough but nowhere nearly so peculiar as the place itself” (7). Similarly in “Hard Candy, TW illustrates, “…as soon as we have made that entrance, a premonition of something out of the ordinary is forced upon us. For the Joy Rio is not, by any means, an ordinary theater” (64).
And boy, is he right! For TW, the Joy Rio seems to represent a haunted environment filled with the barely visible bodies of old men and young boys, cruising for a singular random encounter. Reflecting these fleeting moments, the Joy Rio’s slide into ruin reflects the glory days of many of the men visiting the Joy Rio.
As TW reveals, “It [The Joy Rio] is the ghost of a once elegant house where plays and operas were performed long ago. But the building does not exist within the geographic limits of that part of the city which is regarded as having historical value. Its decline into squalor, its conversion into a third-rate cinema, has not been particularly annotated by a sentimental press or public” (64). Forgotten like many of the souls inside the theater, the Joy Rio languishes with an invisible history, becoming sleazier and sleazier by the year.
Looking first to the faded glamor of the Joy Roy, Tennessee Williams describes, “Places like the Joy Rio and the legends about them make one more than usually aware of the short bloom and the long fading out of things” (11). This sense of time, its short bloom and long fading out, is inscribed into both the architecture of the Joy Rio, as well as the people and sexualities contained inside.
Joy Rio Red, Joy Rio Blue
With those destroyed and rotting surroundings, one would not easily compare the Joy Rio to some heaven on earth. However in both “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio” and “Hard Candy,” the characters of Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Krupper treat the Joy Rio as, like TW notes in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” “earthly heaven” (17). If sleaze is to be redemption, shouldn’t it happen in a place that is a “earthly heaven”?
Well, the question naturally raised is: why is the Joy Rio an earthly heaven to these men? Unsurprisingly it most likely has to do with the opportunity to cruise beautiful young boys, fulfilling their Thomas Mann-esque fantasies.
Starting with “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” the fat, gone-to-seed watch repairman Mr. Gonzales, who has been slowly turning into his now-deceased benefactor Mr. Kroeger through his looks, his occupation and his new-found proclivity for cruising. As TW explains, “For Mr. Gonzales had inherited more than the material possessions of his dead benefactor: he had also come into custody of his old protector’s fleeting and furtive practices in dark places…” (7-8). Naturally these “fleeting and furtive practices” are carried out within the darkened, confines of the sleaze paradise: The Joy Rio.
While in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” the upper balconies were roped off, “the reformation of the Joy Rio was somewhat less than absolute” (11). For Mr. Gonzales’s sexual wanderings could be satiated in the back rows of the first galleries. As TW notes, “the few that elected to sit in the nearly deserted rows of the first gallery did so either because smoking was permitted in that section–or because…” (12).
Taught by his former partner that “Sometimes you will find it and other times you won’t find it and the times you don’t find it are the times when you have got to be careful,” Mr. Gonzales frequents the Joy Rio as his heaven of anonymous queer sex (12).
Similar to Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Krupper in “Hard Candy” participates frequently or as TW describes “timelessly” in the sexual culture of the Joy Rio, although he lures in the boys in a different manner. Following Mr. Krupper from his daily purchase of hard candy from his cousins (who dislike and are generally disgusted by him), TW takes us with Mr. Krupper as he excitedly enters the realm of the Joy Rio.
With an air of mystery, TW makes some disclosures about Mr. Krupper “of a nature too course to be dealt with very directly in a work of such brevity” (58). Describing the increasing excitement as Mr. Krupper gets closer and closer to the Joy Rio, TW reveals that, like Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Krupper too sees the Joy Rio as his “earthly heaven.” As TW writes, “No sooner has he got upon this streetcar than Mr. Krupper undergoes a certain alteration, not too subtle to betray some outward signals: for he sits in the streetcar with an air of alertness that he did not have on the bench in the public square, he sits more erect and his various little gestures, fishing in his pocket for something, shifting of the window shade, are all executed with greater liveliness and precision, as if they were the motions of a much younger man. Anticipation does that…” (62).
While TW details the more general activities of Mr. Gonazles in the Joy Rio, he highlights an individual encounter between one of the most beautiful boys in the Joy Rio and Mr. Krupper. Sleeping in the tippy top tier of the Joy Rio, a “shadowy youth” uses the Joy Rio as a place of respite since he does not have the money for a place to stay. Sitting near the boy, Mr Krupper observes the sleeping figure beside him and realizes “for never in this secret life of his, never in the years’ attendance of matinees at the Joy Rio, has old Mr. Krupper discovered beside him, even now within contact, inspiring the dark with its warm animal fragrance, any dark youth of remotely equivalent beauty” (68).
So naturally, Mr. Krupper does what any creepy old man would do, offers the beautiful boy some hard candy and some jingle, jangling coins, as “The contract is sealed between them” (72).
Death and Vanilla
In Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’s song “Do You Love Me? (Part II),” Cave details a sexual encounter in a (yet again) run-down movie theater between a young boy and a man with “sly girlish eyes” whose “And a voice that stinks of death and vanilla.” Like Cave’s encounter between a presumably attractive boy and a sickly old man, the inevitable denouement of these two stories ending in the deaths of these two ill and old men in the dark of the Joy Rio are not pretty but maybe they are redemptive in the Joy Rio’s sleazy paradise.
Beginning with “Hard Candy” since Mr. Krupper’s demise is certainly the most striking, hilarious and possibly redemptive. Rather than detailing Mr. Krupper’s final moments, TW reveals the scene found by the Joy Rio employees at the end of the night when the lights went up around midnight.
As TW describes, “…the body of Mr. Krupper was discovered in his remote box of the theater with his knees on the floor and his ponerous torso wedged between two wobbly gilt chairs as if he had expired in an attitude of prayer. The notice of his death was given unusual promincence for the obituary for someone who had no public charcter and whose private character was so peculiarly low. But evidently the private character of Mr. Krupper was to remain anonymous in the memories of those anonymous persons who had enjoyed or profited from his company in the tiny box at the Joy Rio, for the notice contained no mention of anything of such a special nature” (72).
Found kneeling on the ground as if in prayer, we, as the readers, clearly know he was raptured up to sleaze heaven on his knees for an entirely different reason (just think about it). Thoroughly entrenched in sleaze from the beautiful hustler to the faded surroundings of the Joy Rio, Mr. Krupper had no choice but to expire reaching the pinnacle of pleasure. Maybe he was in prayer, praying to the god of sleaze.
While certainly not as dramatically hilarious as Mr. Krupper’s demise, Mr. Gonzales’s death too reveals the nature of sleaze as redemption. For Mr. Gonzales in “The Mysteries of the Joy Rio,” he is dying of the same disease as his benefactor and partner Mr. Kroeger, ironically a disease of the bowels. Terrified by the Joy Rio employee/juvenile delinquent George who yells that Mr. Gonzales is a “morphodite,” Mr. Gonzales runs to the top in the darkness of the Joy Rio and is intercepted by a dark figure: the ghost of Mr. Kroeger who calms and soothes Mr. Gonzales in, as TW, would say a “peculiar” manner.
As TW details, “Mr. Kroeger leaned over him and unbuttoned his collar for him, unfastened the clasp of his belt, all the while murmuring, There now, there now, Pablo…if his ancient proctector and instructor, Emiel Kroeger, had not kept all the while soothing him with the moist, hot touch of his tremulous fingers, the gradual, the very gradual dimming out of things, his fading out of existence, would have terrified Pablo. But the ancient voice and fingers, as if the had never left him, kept on unbuttoning, touching, soothing, repeating the ancient lesson, saying it over and over like a penitent counting prayer beads. Sometimes you will have it and sometimes you won’t have it so don’t be anxious about it” (20).
Again TW evokes the idea of “prayer,” as Mr. Gonzales fades from existence in the decadent surroundings of the Joy Rio. Even though that prayer is rules of cruising, Mr. Gonzales, as he is stroked (again…think about it) by Mr. Kroeger’s ghostly fingers feels soothed, and maybe even feels the touch of redemption in the sleazy Joy Rio.
So taking the idea of sleaze as redemption in TW’s Joy Rio stories in Tales of Desire, what larger ideas are at stake if we can understand the, albeit anti-social and even life-ending, power of sleaze as type of redemption?
While the Joy Rio is certainly a queer space that is transgressive, transformative and transcendent, it is certainly no queer utopia as defined by Jose Estaban Munoz. The Joy Rio provides a redemptive sleazy end that is closer to The Sex Pistol’s infamous poster, which reads “Fuck Forever.” Playing with the duel meanings of “fuck,” The Sex Pistol’s poster, like TW’s Joy Rio stories, contains the notion of both sex and an uncaring, barreling towards oblivion.
Looking at Munoz’s study of the queer punk clubs and spaces of public sex in Cruising Utopia, Munoz uses these spaces as examples of queer communities, which reach towards a queer utopia. While the Joy Rio is a similar space of both queerness and public sex, this palace of sleaze is neither a community or utopia though it does provide an opportunity to reach the ultimate queerness through sleaze even though it’ll probably kill you.
In Cruising Utopia, Munoz describes, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality” (1).
I would argue that both Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Krupper touch queerness through sleaze in the Joy Rio and even though it kills them, just maybe it was worth it.