Joe Gage Put the Art into ‘Art Film’

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WHEN I FIRST STUMBLED across Joe Gage’s film L.A. Tool & Die (1979), which was billed as a gay porn movie, I was astonished. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “this is a real film!” As the mix of cinematography, image, soundtrack, vignettes, and intermittent but increasingly compelling narrative unfolded, the sexual content became powerful to the point of being unsettling. That’s when I realized that L.A. Tool & Die—and Gage’s other early works, Kansas City Trucking Co., and El Paso Wrecking Corp.—were more than “real films.” They were art, of a kind I’d never encountered before.

Joe Gage was born as Tim Kincaid in 1944, and is still very much alive, although the videos he makes now do not have the unvarnished power and truth of his original work. Those early films go straight to the edge, exploring uncharted territory as they shake us up visually, politically, culturally, and sexually, with no holds barred. Gage’s best films are these deeply probing dissections of mid-20th-century American life and culture—unique and defiant works of virile, unabashed pornography that transcend the genre. Begun when he was 32, his iconic “Working Man’s Trilogy” movies belong to the genre of the road-trip buddy film, even as they appropriate and subvert its wholesome, all-American essence.

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