Back in the mid 80s as the AIDS epidemic was sweeping through the gay community, legendary leatherman/former Drummer magazine editor Jack Fristcher and partner Mark Hemry started Palm Drive Video, a safe-sex production company that offered viewers a wide variety of fetish porn and catered to some very specific kinks. Ryan A. White and Alex Clausen‘s new documentary Raw! Uncut! Video! chronicles the rise and fall of this homegrown studio while exploring its lasting impact. We sat down with the filmmakers for a chat about this five-years-in-the-making project.
Compared to big brands like Falcon or Catalina, Palm Drive Video was a bit obscure and boutique. How did you become familiar with their films and what motivated you to make this documentary?
Ryan: A few years ago, Alex and I worked on a short film about cruising on the Russian River, and for that we interviewed Jack Fritscher. I didn’t know about Palm Drive before then. We kind of got to know Jack and his partner Mark Hemry through that project and they kind of said “We did this thing in the 80s/90s called Palm Drive,” and they gave us some of the videos. Alex and I went “Oh shit, there’s some really good stuff here.” So we started asking questions about it and they opened up the whole archive to us and said “Hey, if you guys are interested, have at it.” I’ve always been interested in the history of the AIDS epidemic, specifically how the leather/kink community stepped to the forefront in terms of activism and raising awareness. Also, using sex positivity as a form of AIDS activism or as a way to explore sexuality safely – the ways that kink, leather, fetish are ways that folks can explore, but it can be safe – how it doesn’t require that exchange of bodily fluids. That was at the heart of what got me interested in it.
Alex: Yeah, at that time both Ryan and I lived along the Russian River, and there’s quite a history of queer presence there, but there’s not a good collective history of it. Seeing Jack and Mark’s archive was like looking into a window of the river and Sonoma County area we hadn’t seen before. Historical societies haven’t really collected that history, so it was great to get into that time.
We heard through the grapevine that some of your early fundraisers were quite scandalous. Tell us a little about that.
Ryan: Yeah, this project was really hard to fund. You say “Gay fetish porn” and people with money go running the other way. We did do a lot of crowdfunding events in the Bay Area to get the community together and raise critical funds to help us make the movie. Our first fundraiser was at Mr. S in San Francisco and that was a lot of fun. It was a little scandalous. We had a lot of fetish demos going on. There was a suspension situation and there was a dom who was whipping folks. Also, we had our friend Rory Davis dressed as a janitor and he was walking around with a bucket and having people piss in it, and then we auctioned off who got to pour the bucket all over Rory. That definitely got us some attention and more people interested in the film.
What was it like collaborating directly with Jack and Mark? They seem really cool and laid back.
Alex: Because of their depth of knowledge about the the history of the queer fetish and leather community, and Jack’s work with Drummer magazine, we were always sitting in awe of the information of they were passing along and having to try to keep up and take notes. They were really open and easy to work with, and so eager to pass that knowledge onto younger folks who want to work with queer history and help share the information.
Ryan: The other thing that was amazing for both of us was their generosity. We showed interest in Palm Drive and they were like “Here’s the archive. Go in and explore and use what you want.” I’ve done other documentaries, but this is first one based so heavily on archive material. Having that ease and generosity and trust…it allowed us to really dig through it, find the good stuff, and tell their story. That was something that really impressed me about Jack and Mark – the amount of generosity and trust they gave us.
Palm Drive started off as Jack and Mark making porn for themselves and their friends. How did that expand into a business?
Ryan: One thing that’s really interesting about this time period and something Alex and I really tried to dig into was this world of mail order. This was pre-internet and they would put ads in the back of magazines with just the title, like Daddy’s Beer Belly in Bondage or Rough Night at the Jockstrap Gym. The titles were descriptive and there wasn’t content available to folks in these specialized niche fetish worlds. If you wanted Daddy’s beer belly in bondage, you had to send away for it. You had to find that ad and say “Ah, that’s a movie that sounds like something I’m interested in” and fill out the physical order form, mail it to Jack and Mark, and you’d get a tape in the mail a few weeks later. In terms of their scope, I would say it’s a fairly small studio. It was just this kind of “Pop n Pop” studio with them doing everything. The way they were able to reach out to folks and distribute these films to people in all sorts of places, people who had a hunger for these very specific fetish scenarios – I think that’s what the most impressive.
The AIDS crisis looms in the background of these films — in a way they were presenting the reality of the times instead of creating a fantasy that ignored it. And they definitely give a feeling that the viewer is interacting directly with the performer. Do you think these solo jerk off videos were a creative and innovative way to avoid making films with condoms?
Ryan: I think that was exactly the point. That solo video, the way Jack and Mark have described it – it was like your date for the evening. That’s how they would imagine their videos. You got Sunset Bull starring Chris Duffy with the performer speaking directly to the camera. Jack was kind of in-your-face and hands on. He wanted to make it seem like on the other side of the camera that this was your sex partner. The idea of the solo video, it had this kind of double-edged thing. On one side, it was all about giving the consumer this hot date for the evening, and at same time, there were these men (the Palm Drive performers) who wanted to explore their own sexualities. Like, “Hey I’m really into sounding” and show off in this porn sense. That was also a way for the performer to explore safely without worrying about condoms or the exchange of bodily fluids and being able to do it on camera while sharing with other folks.
Alex: Jack also talks about being way more interested in the head trip, taking people on a trip through the film, instead of penetration. He was more interested in the mental aspect than the physical.
The Palm Drive performers seem incredibly turned on and excited to be modeling. Can audiences usually sniff it out when an actor isn’t incredibly excited to be there? A lot of guys look pretty bored in the more mainstream porn from that era, especially the 90s Falcon films.
Ryan: You can see that in the progression of the Palm Drive films. They started in 1986 – I’d say from ’86 to 1992 or so, they had these really enthusiastic non-actors who were really like “Yessssss, I wanna show off my sounding skills on screen” and stuff like that. Getting towards the end of the Palm Drive era, they started hiring bigger actors and higher profile people. We kind of get into that in the film – you see this lack of enthusiasm and guys who just doing it for the money. At the beginning, they didn’t care about that, they just wanted to perform on screen.
Let’s talk about Thrasher [their heterosexual handman who appears in some of the films]. Was he the only hetero-identifying performer?
Alex: I think there were a couple but not too many. They really tried to focus on gay men.
Alex: Is he straight?
Thrasher really has a certain “je ne sais quoi” that defies categorization. Do you know how the mainstream porn companies felt about Palm Drive? Did they have any vocal critics or rivals?
Ryan: I would think that they were so small scale that they weren’t really competing with Falcon or some of those bigger companies because it was like, this mail order thing. There were other smaller companies like them – I think there was probably some healthy competition between those other mail order fetish companies because it was such a small market. Old Reliable was doing something very similar, and also Bob Jones and PR Simon. They all had their own little niche worlds they were working in and there was some overlap.
Speaking of niche, Raw! Uncut! Video! opens with a mudfucking scene. Tell me about some of the more surprising/interesting/unusual Palm Drive films you came across while researching. Did you watch them all?
Alex: Sodbuster has to be up there, the one with the mudfucking. I think even more so in that film where he’s grinding up on the rock wall. There were so many things in that one I had probably never expected to see..
There’s one clip in your film with a guy who’s like, making out with a tree. What’s the story behind that one?
Ryan: That was Burly. One thing to keep in mind here, Jack and Mark not only gave us all their finished films, they also gave us all the camera originals. We had access to probably 200-250 hours of archival material to look through, so it was a big process sorting through and finding our stories and characters. Some of the footage that’s in the film is unreleased material. The one you’re talking about, Burly, the guy at the tree in the end…that was kind of an early furry video that they didn’t actually release. He was kind a huskier guy in this furry bear outfit and he’s rolling around in the dirt and then he’s in the tree growling and rubbing up against it like a bear would. That wasn’t something that saw the light of day until now. In terms of shocking material, the one that still gets me is Hot Lunch, which is one of their more notorious films. It’s puke porn – there’s a whole gagging scenario and the dude vomits, and then it’s like, vomit play…shoving his face in the vomit. I think after awhile I got sort of desensitized to the material after going over hours and hours of puke porn and sounding and mudfucking. The puke porn still gets folks, though.
Alex: Early on, there was one of the videos with Jack Husky. Ryan, do you remember the title?
Ryan: The titles are hard cuz sometimes they’re very long and wordy. There’s Toilet Cigar Butt.
Alex: Right, right. I just think that’s the video that caught me first. Just like, because Jack Husky felt like, very of the place [the Russian River] and very approachable. This is somebody I could know. I just felt really drawn in by him.
On a personal note, I’m really dying to see more of the Russian Bear one…
Ryan: Yeah, he’s really sexy. That was Jack and Mark though, especially in the early videos. They had this knack for finding the “everyman” – the guy you could actually run into at the bar. You could actually suck his dick at the construction site. There’s something very compelling and sexy about some of those guys. Thrasher is a great example, or Jack Husky. Some of those guys seem, for lack of a better word, real. You could actually meet this person.
Old porn, even some pretty rare titles, are often easy to find on free streaming sites, but there’s very little Palm Drive material online. How’s the digitization process of the Palm Drive archive going and when can we look forward to some of the titles being more accessible in the future?
Alex: Mark has spent a lot of time digitizing their VHS and the newer DV cassettes that are kind of falling apart. I think the archive is nearly all finished, but we aren’t certain if they have any plans on releasing anything. To their credit, they’ve done a really good job making sure all their stuff is backed up and saved.
Ryan: We have plans to chat with them about maybe rereleasing some of their videos. They’re working with some archives now to figure where everything will go. They do have some things in the works with some queer archives and handing it over to them. I think there’s going to be continued interest in these videos, so we might talk more with them about maybe releasing a few videos to the public.
The way the advent of the camcorder/VHS ushered in a new era of DIY porn, the internet has made it easier for everyone become stars, directors, and distributors. Is there any porn being made today that feels just as raw and uncut as Palm Drive?
Ryan: Sure, I think a lot of it. In some ways, Palm Drive and Old Reliable and Bob Jones, they kind of set us up for that sort of raw “I’m shooting myself and using my camera phone and giving you angles only I could give you.” They were ahead of their time – that’s a lot of what we see now.
I’d say you might have to dig deep on Xtube to really find a Palm Drive vibe. The exhibitionism, the level of comfort being on camera, all the verbal head trip stuff. It’s not something you see everyday. I was struck by some of the energy in your film. It’s pretty hard to come by.
Alex: I think Jack talks about being really excited about what’s going on now and seeing everyone producing their own stuff. Going on their sexual adventures and journeys by themselves.
Ryan: I think a lot of it had to do with Jack and Mark. Jack just had this knack – he’s a leather legend. He’s super creative and writes a ton, and his ability to work with these men and draw fantasy scenarios out of them – I think that’s where a lot of that energy comes from. Also, part of the archive is also the letters that fans wrote, and also performers wrote to Jack and Mark after they’d worked with them. We have a couple of them in the film, but going through those letters, you see the appreciation. We didn’t get into this in the film, but the guy from Hot Lunch actually sent Jack a script for a sequel. He was sooo into this sort of vomit scene – not just the vomit, but the whole scene he’d created with Jack. He wrote this long, handwritten letter to Jack with this whole new scenario. I think Jack touched reached out to the performers in these very specific ways that was also meaningful for them.