When we first saw the NSFW music video for Brendan Maclean’s “House of Air” we considered it a stylish yet delightfully naughty one-off. After all, what else were we to make of a pop-song with diagrams labelling different aspects of cruising, blowjobs, fisting, watersports and poop play?
But when we spoke at SXSW with the video’s co-creators — the bearded musclebear duo of Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston — we realized they’re dead serious about creating challenging, provocative, celebratory queer film that goes against the condescending eye-candy and self-pity porn we’ve come to expect from gay film.
Forming a duo
The directing duo first met in Sydney, Australia, around 2010. Fairbairn had a background in theater and Eccleston had literary ambitions, but they decided to begin working on music videos and independent shorts together.
Early into their collaboration they created a 2011 short called “Skwerl” (below) listed on YouTube as “How English sounds to non-English speakers.” The four-minute film portrays a dramatic moment between two characters who speak nonsensical English. The video blew up, eventually garnering over 40 million views on YouTube.
“Honestly,” Fairbairn tells Hornet, “it’s a gimmicky little thing, but definitely kind of got the ball rolling for us. It made us think maybe we can do films.”
Pop and Polari
Two years later, the duo directed two music videos for Brendan Maclean, an outspoken, openly gay and (at the time) unsigned Australian pop musician.
The first video, for his song “Stupid,” depicted a girl in a party hat trashing party decorations while Maclean enthusiastically dances. The second video, “Winner,” was shot in reverse and featured Maclean running backwards, gradually pulling on shiny clothes before triumphantly dancing in a lit up stadium amid a shower of silvery confetti.
“Brian and Karl can work on a five dollar budget and make it look like something the whole world will find eventually,” Maclean says of their work.
But it wasn’t until April 2015 when gay viewers at large would become aware of Brian and Karl as they’ve come to be known. At the time, the duo had moved to London and created “Putting on the Dish” (below), a short film widely covered by gay websites for being written entirely in Polari, a slang language mishmash used by British gay men to avoid being detected before the 1967 legalization of homosexuality.
Eccleston explains that at the time of their film’s release, there was “kind of a renaissance of Polari” because an academic named Paul Baker released a Polari dictionary and also because the 50-year anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain was just one year away.
“So people were making documentaries about Polari,” Eccleston says. “There were talks, workshops about Polari. Our film kind of just happened in that moment and has kind of become part of that moment.”
Their film was deliberately inaccessible: With no subtitles, the actors’ thick British accents layered on top of Polari’s mishmash of Italian, Romani, Yiddish and Cockney rhyming slang made the story a bit hard to follow. In the film, two men meet in a park and discover each other is gay. When one admits he once had his gay lover arrested so he himself could evade arrest, the other is disgusted, spits on him and leaves.
Despite its inaccessibility, the film still struck an emotional chord with audiences. Some fascinated viewers spent time releasing an annotated version of the script online, and the film won the duo recognition once more at it was covered in at least 17 online publications.
The House of Air
It wasn’t until the guys released their pornographic music video for Maclean’s “House of Air” that they realized just how resistant gay audiences would be to a truly transgressive queer film.
The duo got the aesthetic for “House of Air” from several sources: 1970s era gay porn magazines, the satiric science edutainment series Look Around You and Hal Fischer’s 1977 work Gay Semiotics: a photographic study of visual coding among homosexual men.
Fischer’s study featured harmless photos of gay men dressed in street fashion and leather gear with diagram labels upon their clothes and coded hankies dangling out of their pockets. The raw homosexual subtext of these fashions only becomes clear when you read Fischer’s accompanying text.
Maclean initially wanted to keep the gay sex as innuendo, as a sort of winking joke. But Eccleston and Fairbairn encouraged him to show complete nudity and full-on sex.
“We were getting frustrated being knocked back from [pitching] more queer, more risqué stuff to labels, and it was always getting knocked back. And Brendan was also having frustrations, as a very openly gay, opinionated kind of gay person in the music industry in Australia,” Fairbarin says. “So we were all kind of feeling like actually we had nothing to lose. And so we just decided to go all out and make the most risqué thing that appealed to our own kind of dirty, gay sense of humor, the way we talk about sex with our friends, how candid I think a lot of gay people can be. We somehow wanted to pool that into something we’d find really funny.”
“And joyous and unapologetic,” Eccleston adds.
“Shameless,” Fairbairn says.
So on a budget of less than £10,000 (roughly $14,000), they wrangled Ashley Ryder, a famous gay porn star, and a few other actors who were comfortable performing sex on camera, art direction, post-production processing and some ’70s-era costuming like tube socks for Ryder to wear while being pounded on-camera.
“It’s just funnier seeing a guy being fucked with a pair of gym socks,” Eccleston says, “and hotter.”
The very NSFW video and its 3.8 million views speak for itself. The camera focuses in at the most transgressive part of each sex act: male buttocks thrusting against a man’s head, urine as it enters a guy’s mouth, a greasy fist plunging in and out of a man. One scene involves a man in a jockstrap and a concoction of chocolate and oats.
During each act, the performers gaze directly into the camera — shamelessly, confrontationally — as if daring the viewer to look away first.
The video can be read numerous ways: It’s both hot and awkward, exhibitionist and voyeuristic, revelatory and clinical.
“I think we were kind of playing with the idea of filthy, homophobic gaze,” Fairbairn says.
“It can be read both ways,” Eccleston adds. “I think that’s what’s interesting. Because some people will look at it and go, ‘I feel a bit uncomfortable. Are we looking at lab rats? And is this homophobic?'”
The duo once said the negative response to their video from the LGBTQ community showed “just how conditional acceptance of gay identity can be.”
Surprisingly, the duo say that pretty much every LGBTQ film festival they submitted it to rejected it. Having the video showcased at SXSW felt validating, like “a real seal of approval” and gratifying for the huge reach the festival gave them.
“We very much made this video as kind of a response to the gay and queer stuff that we were seeing in the music video world,” Fairbairn says. “There’s a lot of pity porn. A lot of people being beaten up. A lot of really condescending stuff. And there’s also in Australia a real rise of respectability politics. Around the gay marriage debate, whatever you want to call it, that was happening at the time.”
When asked whether a video like “House of Air” will ever be seen as anything other than provocative, and whether its pop pornography could ever change anyone’s mind or whether it just preaches to a choir that already considers transgressive queer videos cool, Fairbairn says that a majority of the video’s views actually came from Russia, a country infamous for its anti-LGBTQ politics.
“It has changed things,” Eccleston says, “because the video was huge in Russia actually. There was a band that kind of loved the video, and they would play the song at the end of their concerts. They shared the video. So it actually reached a huge Russian fan base. And what’s interesting about that is that we’ve seen it has kind of tapped into … there’s obviously a very repressive climate there. But, there’s this sort of anarchic thing where people are looking for something to latch onto, to express that thing they can’t express openly. You know, or they’re not finding those reference points in their own culture.”
“A guy did a Ukrainian cover of the song,” he goes on to say. “There are all these memes that have popped up, sort of Russian recreations of the video — lots of fan art. So I think it has changed things actually. I don’t think it is just pure shock value. The shock value might be the hook. But I think what people have really responded to is, like, ‘Hey, this is sex and it’s explicit, but it’s fun and it’s kind of liberating.'”
Fairbairn feels people may watch the video and dismiss it as porn, but he believes others will want to learn more about the hanky code and Hal Fischer and explore those aspects of queer culture as a result.
While the duo aspires to direct a feature-length film eventually, they have their next short film project in mind and expect it to be just as challenging to queer viewers.
“I mean, we don’t always hand things on a plate to people. There’s enough of that in culture as it is,” Fairbairn says. “I mean, as it is our next film is gonna be about a slice of queer history. About a gay sort of news scandal in regency era London. Again, we’re not gonna hand everything on a plate to everyone. But it’ll at least be in English.”