Bite Size: The Meat Rack (1970)

The Meatrack is one of those films that exists as a snapshot of another time, where a print survives but there is precious little other information to accompany it. Filling in the gaps becomes more a matter of historical context rather than any specific production details. The tagline and the 1970 release year suggest an attempt to cash in on the popularity and acclaim of Midnight Cowboy. The movie marquees and posters — secret agent thriller Where Eagles Dare and Joe Sarno’s All The Sins Of Sodom—visible in the street scenes indicate the film was shot a bit earlier, making Paul Morissey’s Flesh another likely source of inspiration.

J.C. (David Calder) is a hustler from the ever so cliche broken home, drifting as far as his steady stream of $10 tricks will carry him. Lonely married women, or the men who furtively grope at his crotch while he hitches rides, anything goes as long as the money’s green.

Beautiful and blank, his search for clients take him on a whistle stop tour of the underground slices of gay culture that managed to thrive despite the still hostile climate of the era. Homosexuality was largely illegal in the US of 1969, and still characterized by the DSM as a mental disorder, leaving gay people demeaned as depraved by default.

J.C.’s purposeful inscrutability makes him a popular canvas for johns to project their fantasies on. There’s some nonconsent roleplay for a lonely drag queen that prefers to dress him up in a sailor suit, quick scores in sticky seat porn theaters and negotiations amongst racks of porn slicks at the adult bookstore. Stoic, mostly silent and almost automated in his industriousness, he turns a stop for a drink into a profitable private go go dance, and steams with a side of sales in the men’s baths. Just when it looks like J.C. might develop an actual relationship, finding a sexual partner for his off duty pleasures, he sends the man away for involving feelings in their hook ups.

Nudity is abundant (including a brief semi-erect full frontal during an extended shower scene) even though all of the actual sex scenes are softcore. While the audience sees a great deal of his body, what little bit of characterization J.C. receives is via fractured flashbacks as the story unfolds. His parents had long grown to loathe each other, his mother cheating with everyone she could find to relieve the monotony of housewifery, his father largely absent, focused on work, women, and possibly drink. Little J.C. is only ever at peace at the movies, free to silently cry or gather his own thoughts alone in the dark.

Director/cinematographer/editor Richard Stockton keeps the visuals on the knife’s edge of arthouse experimentation and overt inexperience, with the flashbacks both far too bright and fogged around the edges, and the present day interiors a dingy dark that made finding even a few clear frames for the purpose of this review rather difficult. The camera slides in and out of focus, the sex scenes often just indistinct suggestions of frottage and flesh. In its own accidental seeming way, it almost reaches a moody metaphor for the monotony of the constant grind of survival sex work.

Random snatches of pop music and electro warbles play several rooms away from the film’s action, as well as a few deployments of library cues made famous in Night Of The Living Dead. As Stockton was a former employee of a second run booking service, it seems possible The Meat Rack was a shot on short ends super low budget solution to a hole in an exhibition schedule, that backs into some moments of distinct dreary mood.

Joel Ensana’s script makes the entire scope of San Francisco’s gay scene a slightly more colorful extension to a consistently discontented world. As J.C. isn’t very loquacious, his clients and run ins monolog at the camera about the loneliness of gay life as you age and the pretty pieces of meat on the make scattered all over the San Francisco streets. Sex scenes are superimposed with J.C.’s mother (Jan Stratton, Hellhole) bitterly lamenting following love over money, chastising him for feeling and consigning him to poverty unless he wisens up.

By the time J.C. meets Jean (Donna Troy), its obvious none of it will end well. He rescues her from being assaulted by a sleazy photographer, a rare show of emotion that ends in a murder. Despite all of their lovemaking and shared love of cinemas, its obvious he’s running away from himself (and his own conflicted feelings about his sexuality) in offering to run away with her. This subtext is reinforced by her open homophobia.

A pair of knife wielding, camera carrying drag performers burst into J.C.’s room and halt the plot for a solid 5 minutes of a 64 minute runtime. The queens force the couple to become actors in a shot on the fly stag film. Guerrilla drag queens making ambush porn would have been a fantastic subject for a full length roughie, and this brief sequence is a much needed burst of manic energy. The film then lurches back to the inevitable looming tragedy via S&M tricks, a group grope, street preachers and a speeding car.

The Meatrack feels like Andy Milligan lite, a gender and coastal city swapped riff on Fleshpot On 42nd St. The problem is that the setting has more energy that the characters, leaving this otherwise appealingly scuzzy bit of sexploitation too inert to stay engaging over the length of its runtime. There are flashes of trashy brilliance, but they never quite emerge from underneath the shadow of the guilt ridden murk. Using the allegory of a Charlie Chaplin film, J.C. characterizes his entire journey through the gay underground as “funny and sad”. In entirely neglecting the fun (or the funny) in favor of the Puritanical mores of melodrama, The Meatrack might have been aiming for parody or pathos, but ends up hewing closer to period predominant pathology instead.