With the tired deluge of faux “found footage” films over the past decade and more recently of a fantasy-driven supernatural variety like Cloverfield (2008) and V/H/S (2012), it is quite the relief when one gets to see an example of the real thing, especially if it is of a seedy and criminal/historical nature like Tearoom (1962/2007); a work featuring authentic footage taken by the Mansfield, Ohio police department during the summer of 1962 when they were trying crush the rampant anonymous male buggery in public restrooms. Originally launching the peculiar probe in an attempt to find an 18-year-old murderer of two young girls named Jerrell Ray Howell (who – incidentally – is more handsome than any of the ‘unconscious performers’ in the film), the police had no idea that so many men of differences ages, races, and creeds were engaging in the ancient art of spontaneous semen-swapping. Tearoom is filmed on color 16mm film stock by a hidden police camera man who used a two-way mirror to document the desperate acts of men with an unquenchable vice when AIDS was not a reality and taking a dick in the mouth and/or ass was considered the most deplorable and emasculating of unholy acts. The unintentionally candid acts of the carnal featured in Tearoom would result in all participating parties being charged and subsequently found guilty of sodomy, which during that time would result in a minimum of 1 year in a state prison; ironically, a virtual sanctuary for sodomy itself. While doing research for a documentary project, gay documentarian filmmaker (Finished, Is It Really So Strange?) and author (Halsted Plays Himself, Tearoom) William E. James randomly came across the footage from Tearoom and would eventually screen the film in its rough form (no sound, unedited) for small audiences at prestigious museums and film festivals around the world ranging from the Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh, PA to the Pornfilmfestival in Berlin, Germany. James described his agenda for screening the footage from Tearoom as follows in an interview, “My goal was to appropriate their film as something other than a pure instrument of domination, to make the film be about the men who are its subjects. I hope people can see more than oppression in TEAROOM.” Personally, what I noticed most consistently in the eyes and acts of the men of Tearoom is compulsive and ritualistic behavior performed by men who value their privacy, even if they are giving blowjobs and being sodomized in a public area. Before the time of internet porn and power gay political movements, Tearoom features fagdom before it was considered fabulous of which director W.E. James lamented, “I say that this is what gay sex looked like before porn. Now men look at porn and figure out how to fuck… These model images that we take for granted were not available to many men in 1962! TEAROOM is a representation of pre-porn gay sex, and in Mansfield, pre-gay bar sex, and for me that’s completely fascinating.” In short, Tearoom is ‘gay’ at its most unglamorous yet uniquely ‘human’ and for that alone, it makes for a worthwhile viewing.
What makes Tearoom all the more interesting is that many, if not most, of the men featured in the document were married and some even had kids, so one can only wonder what happened to them after their exceedingly embarrassing and disgraceful prison sentence. Naturally, getting sodomized by a random Negro in a public bathroom during the early 1960s was a tad bit taboo, thus making Tearoom – for better or worse – one of the purest expressions of voyeurism and scopophilia ever released in the history of film. One can owe this distinct honor (if one can actually find a copy of the film) to a police camera man named Spognardi and his assistant, of whom Tearoom presenter W.E. Williams provided the following insight, “From the way the camera moves, one can surmise certain things, e. g., that some subjects interested the police more than others… During screenings, there are many laughs when an attractive man enters the restroom, and the camera begins to move frenetically. Were the police cameramen gay?...only a straight man could allow himself to be involved in the outrageously perverse scenario of waiting in a closet unseen in the hope of seeing other men masturbate and have sex.” Somewhat surprisingly, police cameraman Spognardi described the whole opinion-changing experience behind Tearoom in the following terms: “I changed my whole thought on it, as far as two consenting adults behind closed doors…What people do behind closed doors is their business." Of course, the men in Tearoom were anywhere but behind closed doors, at least private ones, and this becomes more than obvious towards the end of the document when a little boy appears in the sandbox of sodomy, henceforth illustrating the complete and utter vulgarity of the underground sex station. While homosexuality has gained a lot of social acceptance and even political power in the form of ‘victim’-based special interest groups, it is highly doubtful that the perverse phenomenon of ‘cottaging’ that is featured in Tearoom has swayed over the years as testified by the 1998 arrest of popular British pop singer George Michael for "engaging in a lewd act" in a Los Angeles public toilet and the 2007 arrest of U.S. Republican senator Larry Craig for soliciting sex at a public Minneapolis,airport bathroom. After all, one of the main appeals of public sex – whether one is a flaming pansy or a hyper-heterosexual rapist – is the possibility of getting caught. Unfortunately, for the men of Tearoom, their sadomasochistic fantasies were fully realized and forever visually chronicled for the viewing (dis)pleasure of fanatic cinephiles, homophiles, libertines, and softcore sadists.