On Samuel R. Delany’s The Orchid
Writer and philosopher Samuel R. Delany has long envisioned a utopia, stemming from the unique potential of cities as sites of radical egalitarian communion. A constellation of concrete, glass and humanity that’s like a counterpoint to what has, typically, been prophesied by the thoroughfare of science fiction. A ‘bright’ future defined by an unified, hyper-efficient social order, built on a foundation of gleaming, squeaky clean chrome. Delany’s utopia, a considerably more tangled, flesh-and-blood structure, exists in pockets of mutual dependence and pleasure. Fertile clashes take place at street level, in the blind spots of the authorities, and in spite of the devouring inequities of the capitalist hierarchy. For Delany, these utopias were, and to some extent still are, those public spaces where people across a wide spectrum of class, race and experience could encounter one another, with no implicit or explicit barriers between them. These close, often deep, often pleasurable, planned or unplanned encounters, which he calls “contact”, could be nurtured in a more open and liberatory society. They sit in opposition not only to the strictures of so-called normal life, but also to a world made increasingly siloed — and therefore increasingly repressive — by the neoliberal status quo which has grown at the expense of public infrastructure and works over the past 40 years.
This insight is only one aspect of Delany’s genius as a thinker and artist. Greater still is his ability to elaborate on this idea, its related quandaries and potentialities and many other subjects, in a myriad of forms. His most pointed and celebrated exploration of this notion of inter-class, public utopias, and the work in which he coins the term “contact”, is his 1999 book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. A work of two closely interlinked parts and genres — an intimate memoir and a close sociological analysis — it accounts then reframes Delany’s experiences as a habitual purveyor of sex with men in the porn theatres of Times Square in the late 1960s, 70s and 80s. For Delany, this significant part of life amounts to an especially powerful example of how certain city spaces can be turned, through collective necessity, into an invaluable public resource. For these spaces were collectively and semi-consciously codified to offer Delany a lifeline. Granting him a direct outlet as a gay man, as well as other intellectual pleasures and companionships, while relieving the enormous pressures of both his intensive and lonely writing regimen, and of his then marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker. Although their relationship was open to his sexuality and cruising, and was preceded and then outlasted by their close friendship, it became strained partly due to the difficulty of navigating the dissonance between what Delany feels are the contrived restrictions of heterosexual coupling, and the liberated, replenishing rewards of queer polyamory.1
Many of the same ideas and systems explored in this book also find their way in a more metaphorical form into his other work. To some degree since the beginning, in his science fiction novels of the 1960s, when he was one of the more prolific and prominent figures of the genre’s New Wave. It’s an explicit strain of his pornographic works, of the 1970s and beyond, his experimental, unclassifiable masterpiece Dhalgren (1975), his later reinventions of his approach to science fiction and fantasy, and in many more critical works.
One understudied arrow in his quiver is his work as a filmmaker, though this relative lack of interest is hardly surprising given how small, short-lived, transitory, and rarely screened his film corpus is. With the exception of two films, The Maids (1977) and Bye Bye Love (1979), co-written by Delany and directed by his then-lover Frank Romeo, Delany’s filmmaking is confined to the period at the end 1960s and early 1970s. This tumultuous part of his life was defined by his abandonment of what could be more easily termed science fiction, the slow but steady process of writing Dhalgren, and the simulatenous expansion of his work into new forms and pursuits, including two short pornographic novels (Equinox, written in 1968 and published in 1973, and Hogg, written in 1969, redrafted in 1974 and published in 1995), as well as his first term in his long career as a literary professor, major work as a critic and editor, and a staging of Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes. His only surviving screen directorial credit, the 35-minute 16mm work The Orchid (1971) — a shorter, 8mm work called Tiresias (1969) was lost in the post before it could be screened — is a scrappy but rich piece of creative jouissance. It represents a road not taken by Delany, but a fruitful layover where many of the preoccupations circulating both in his head and in society at large at the time are represented, in particular with regards to creativity and the binding energies of city life and sexuality.
In this period, Delany was a well-known figure across a number of New York’s art scenes. One with a few unique entry points into and fly-bys with the world of avant garde cinema. At a very young age, he managed to see films by people like Stan Brakhage, thanks to his mother Margaret and her employment as the film librarian at the New York Public Library. He was also acquainted with Ed Emshwiller. An extraordinary figure, with the rare dual handle of acclaimed SF cover illustrator and experimental filmmaker. His career is an exemplar of how close-knit the supposedly ‘low-brow’, commercial world of art and those on the vanguard and fringes could be, at this time. A cross-pollinations of ideas about politics and form which, in the case of science fiction, reached a zenith in popularity with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and its John and James Whitney-esque ‘Stargate’ sequence. Kubrick had offered Emshwiller to work on the film, but he declined.
Delany’s relationship to cinema became more than a burgeoning interest in 1971, during a dinner with Barbara Wise, an actor and arts patron, who in that same year co-founded the video art resource organisation Electronic Arts Intermix, with her husband, the gallerist Howard Wise. Interested in Delany’s work, she offered not only funding to make a film, but the cinematographic services of her son, David Wise. The younger Wise was only seventeen at the time of filmmaking, but compared to Delany, already a seasoned filmmaker. While Delany was a precocious individual — Nova in 1968 marked his ninth published novel by the age of twenty-nine — Wise was an even more extreme case. The maker of mainly abstract animations since the age of seven, he was tutored by a wide range of brilliant individuals, from the collagist filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek to subversive science fiction writers Theodore Sturgeon and Ursula Le Guin; by the time of his tenth birthday, his work had been championed by Jonas Mekas and the Filmmaker’s Cooperative, screened across the United States and abroad, and he had embarked on a lecture tour.2
With the cash, a seasoned cinematographer in tow, and Adolfas Mekas also lending some production assistance, Delany gathered his non-professional cast for just over a week of production, spent in February down in Manhattan’s Lower West Side.
The film announces itself with an inventive cast roll call. A series of seemingly disconnected shots; one lengthy pan which canvases a line of bohemian types, fixed close-ups of a beaming infant (Steven Savoy, Delany’s young cousin), a besuited man hemmed in by colourful detritus (Gerald Fabian) and a litany of more faces represented by piled-up postcards, ending with the eponymous orchid. The informal, handmade quality and the disconnected nature of these shots evinces in miniature the spirit of the film, which is at once playful, open, but also a quite clearly determined sequence of ritualised and deviant expression.
We then find the suited man on his own, in a state of slow-brewing distress. The cause seems to be the child, whose relation to the man is and remains ambiguous. At various points, he appears like a cacodemon in human skin, haunting the suit man. Other times, they seem to have a paternal rapport, veering from estrangement to strained affection. The man himself is also a mystery. A brief shot reveals a typewriter on a table, suggesting he’s a writer, though he is less preoccupied with writing than with a smattering of colourful objects and doodads that crowd the room: coloured smears and figures on clear celluloid, stencils and mathematical compasses. They seem like the components of a work of art but broken up in mishmashes which he tries, and fails, to arrange to his satisfaction. Perhaps he’s trying to figure out some formula, for the cels and stencils bear a passing resemblance to Feynman diagrams. Instead of making a byzantine and abstract phenomenon communicable, however, they’re indecipherable, like the hieroglyphs of a forgotten language for which no Rosetta stone exists. It’s a storm of possible metaphors, all vaguely pointing to the life of a mind that’s become isolated and overworked.
The man escapes by abandoning the child and the imbroglio. Leaving the apartment, he wanders through the polis, where instead of the fragments of an imaginary problem, he is confronted with the tangible dimensions and textures of street-level downtown New York and its people. This setting soon becomes its own source of apprehension, appearing like the insoluble confines and denizens of an open-air prison. The film turns into a thriller of sorts, with the man’s steps dogged and steered by a cohort of young hippy types — men and women, played by many of Delany’s friends and fellow artists, who covered a wide spectrum of disciplines, high to low, including the dancer Eddie Barton, the science fiction author George Alec Effinger, and the comic book writer Mary Skrenes.
They are, to this uptight wayfarer, an unfamiliar and therefore threatening force. He attempts to make a blind and frantic getaway, but they give chase, forming an orbit of stylised actions around him, while cycling through a series of choreographed moves that recall different forms of dance, a hypnotised cult, or heightened renditions of casual street spectatorship. The jazz score, composed and orchestrated by John Herbert McDowell, offers another layer of disparate palimpsest as it leaps unpredictably from clear melodic refrains, to atonal freeform passages, to intense bouts of Penderecki-style choral chanting.
Quickly, this relatively clear sense of a patch of downtown Manhattan breaks down, as it becomes intercut with images of various abstract spaces and bare loft interiors. The group’s actions also get more elaborate: they don striking, piscine-looking alien masks, triangular and jagged, and begin stripping off their clothes. The suited man’s reaction also becomes more complex, as he wavers between being baffled and aroused. These conflicting feelings find their apotheosis in the shot of a man-sized, pencilled cut-out of one of the alien heads atop a nude, male and beefy form, striking a bodybuilder pose, à la Tom of Finland.
It’s a ballet of many different social possibilities, bounded and unbounded, with the man a pale straitlaced figure, adrift but separated in this evolving, many-coloured sea of possible interactions, identities and communities. Though Fabian himself, an accomplished linguist and a prominent figure of the San Francisco gay scene, had his bohemian credentials, his character is like the repressed middle class personified: a severe black suit and stifled emotional range, limited to alarm and quiet desperation with the occasional, strangled snatch of pleasure. At one point in his pointless flight, he clings to the walls of a church, and then finds himself next to graffiti which states “Jesus Saves,” but he seems to find no purchase in that statement. He’s out of sorts with everyone, including himself, though this barrage of group action does at times appear to be causing some self-awareness and social consciousness to emerge, such as his momentary lust and glee in the orgiastic scenes and when he makes an overt gesture of care towards the child by swaddling him in his coat.
The inability to express oneself, and therefore express oneself as part of a wider communion, is as present, or rather not present, in how Delany treats language as a powerfully problematic zone. The film is largely dialogue free, for during those rare moments when spoken sound is meant to be present, it is cut-off, garbled, or gushes out like the ravings of a fevered brain. Early on, the most prominent member of the group (Rob Bowman, a singer and a former lover of Delany’s) appears with a microphone. In this sequence, speech is a frustrated, negative, and even hostile element, with Bowman’s character thrusting the mic forward, at the suited man, others around him and different objects, as if wielding a rapier. His antics are the exaggerated parody of journalists on the hunt for vox pops, the ‘collective voice’ boiling down to heavily manipulated or curated little sound bites, signifying nothing.
After a climatic group performance of uninhibited physicality and pleasure, including several of the film’s most playful moments — such as the camera sliding across the floor, aimed ‘upskirt’ to give us a chorus line of cocks and balls and one of cinema’s great teabagging scenes — the film slams to a stuttering halt. An uncharacteristically long and voluble take then begins, taking us back out on the street where the Bowman character accosts the suited man. Caught in a strange, uncomfortable embrace, with the suited man frozen in what seems like embarrassment, fear, or the start of the mental breakdown, the man with the microphone lets out a sudden stream of monologue that eventually burns out in an hysterical crescendo. It’s an obsessive description of his workplace, an office where, unlike everyone else, he always says hello to the elevator man, except when it’s not appropriate, or too awkward. He also expresses fixation on being orderly and timely and how this seems to matter more to the bosses than whether any work is actually being done.
This intense rendition of a painfully awkward social encounter, which starts with a hierarchy-breaking gesture and ends with a declaration of order for order’s sake, bears very close resemblance to a memory recalled in Delany’s autobiography The Motion of Light in Water (1988), involving and belonging to his then-wife Marilyn Hacker. When they were 19 and struggling newlyweds, she got a job as a junior editor at Ace Books, the publisher that would eventually put out Delany’s first few novels. Her iconoclastic appointment, as the company’s first woman editor, was marked by her insistence in politely greeting the elevator man, who everybody else treated as if he was part of the plumbing. Delany also recalls how the company’s unspoken social contract also included taboos that could not be pushed past with a simple good morning, such as the assumption that she, as a woman, would serve as secretary for another male editor in the same position. Regardless of her great abilities — Hacker was a child prodigy, enrolled at university at the age of 14 — brakes, overtly and discreetly, would be applied. It’s just one of many moments in the book that reveal Delany as an individual with an ingrained inclination for dissecting the often dubious factors behind how we relate to one another. It goes right back to his childhood. Despite his upbringing in a lower-middle class family, in Harlem in the 1940s and 50s, he was awarded a scholarship to an exclusive private school. Though as early as five, he had begun to realise that he and the other few black children enrolled weren’t some part of some meritocracy. The truth was that they represented the minimum percentage of black students required to avail of tax rebates assigned to those New York schools which had ‘desegregated’ — equality here being a thin patina that barely covers a hull of institutionalised greed and injustice. On the other hand, his childhood was also marked, bounteously, by five summers spent at Camp Woodland, a summer camp for kids located in Upstate New York whose radical principles were, for the young Delany, “an astonishing lesson in humanity, tolerance, and the workings of the social world as truly caring men and women tried to envision them.”
His film then is an interesting play on both kinds of experiences — an exercise, in music, dance and voice, on social interaction in process; the frightening and exhilarating event that is self-discovery through other people; as well as the pain and stagnancy of a life deprived of a social part to play, or being trapped in another person’s unfavourable designs and expectations.
The Orchid has a few identifiable traces, backwards and forwards. In a period of New York experimental cinema where so-called structural film was the most prominent tendency, it hearkens back to the 50s and early 60s and the sexual phantasmagorias of Kenneth Anger, Barbara Rubin and Jack Smith, the heightened casualised filmmaking that mark Warhol’s early film works, and even earlier, to the mythopoetic cinemas of Maya Deren and Jean Cocteau. Some influence could be detected outside of cinema in the raucous psychedelic performances of the queer art and performance collective The Cockettes.
It’s filmmaking with a close, if not direct, kinship to the work of John Waters — who has expressed greater affinity to Warhol and Anger than to much of his generational coevals in the avant garde — and in France to Jacques Rivette. It chimes as a shorter, American cousin to Out 1 in the two works’ shared spirit of Cocteau, their interest in bohemian life and aesthetics, and the mixing of fantasy elements with unfettered, frozen-in-amber views of their now gentrified, respective cities and neighbourhoods. In the case of The Orchid, this is not just the Lower West Side but ‘The High Line’, which was once a hub of the gay S&M scene and an oasis of delivery trucks, in and around which Delany would cruise.
The Orchid’s heyday in the public eye was short lived. After spending the spring and summer editing, Delany finished the film in time for a September premiere at the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, where an incensed crowd booed and then tried to tear down the screen. This reaction was possibly anticipated by the film’s original title, ‘The Last Science Fiction Film of the Latter Half of the 20th Century,’ which indicated that Delany thought he, and perhaps the New Wave Science Fiction phenomenon as a whole, were reaching the limit of what they could do with SF by pushing it further and further into taboo subject matter, uncharacteristic spaces and textures, and abstraction. Delany himself did not think the film went far enough, particularly in regards to its equalitarian intentions. In a recent interview, and a rare instance where the film is discussed at all, he expresses dissatisfaction over the predominantly white casting — a case of uneasy compromise even in the relatively free world of experimental filmmaking, for it was difficult to find black actors who were also comfortable with performing nude. Delany would reach his science fiction apotheosis, and not publish another work in the genre for nearly a decade, with Dhalgren, into which several ideas from this film flowed. The orchid itself, for instance, that symbol of beauty perfect to the point of uncanniness, appears as a powerful, flexible token, dealing equally in death and life, violence and creativity, as the name of a weapon and as the partial title of a book of poems written by the novel’s protagonist. An amnesiac troubadour wandering a post-civil city, where he serves as a magnet and a splinter for a myriad of social arrangements. In Dhalgren, the explorations of stylised, creative, social expression, trauma-memory and their effect on an artist’s life would find a more robust and expansive combination of direct and metaphorical language. And as far as fellow travellers in film and elsewhere, Flaming Creatures (1963), Christmas on Earth (1964), James Bigood’s Pink Narcissus (1971) and even Delany’s own porn novels are all more daring, as ecstatic expressions of transgressive sexual politics, with more vivid, visual senses. Regardless, on its own terms, the film remains a wonderful instance of a significant artist in a state of creative experimentation, manifested in a sex and city symphony.
- There’s a similarity here to the thinking of the great American architectural critic and urban theorist, Lewis Mumford, in the sense that Mumford often used highly sexual metaphors and intensifiers in his descriptions of truly democratised city life. The key difference being that Mumford was less literal and far more heterosexual. back
- A curious detail: David Wise’s career is almost like Delany’s in reverse. Instead of moving from popular genre fiction to more experimental fields and forms, he would give up the filmmaking ghost shortly after The Orchid and, from 1974 to 1996, was a prolific writer of Saturday morning cartoons, including the animated version of Star Trek, Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, among others. back