Fakir Musafar in 2010. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Eli S. Evans
Recently, I learned of the passing of Fakir Musafar, the renowned body artist whose professional and creative life (and, as far as I know, personal life, as well) consisted of the performance and documentation of various acts of masochism or “body play,” as he described it, by both himself and his associates – and therein lies a story.
Many years ago, now – time flies when you’re having fun and, as it turns out, when you’re not – I was living in Los Angeles with a friend, a woman, with whom I shared certain professional aspirations, if you could call them that: our talents, we believed, were mutually complementary in such a fashion that we would be able to succeed in the entertainment industry as “writing partners,” a common arrangement in the world of TV and film, where writing is not generally regarded as an almost definitionally solitary activity, as tends to be the case in literary circles. After finding our bearings by writing a few shorter pieces – for instance, a script for a kind of sketch comedy bit in which Osama Bin Laden appeared, accompanied by a translator, on the popular Late Show with David Letterman, and during the course of his appearance displayed a curled white hair, purportedly fallen from the beard of the Prophet Mohammed, and was ultimately presented with a canned ham by the affable host – we wrote Henry Plucker, Pregnant Man, a full length screenplay about a man who becomes pregnant in order to win the affections of his beguiling Gender Studies instructor at the local community college where he is enrolled as a part-time student. The screenplay was lewd, and probably racist in its use of a black character as a source of comic relief and unintended wisdom – a worn out Hollywood trope in its own right– but we were young enough to still believe that radically poor taste was in itself radical and I guess that was the idea of it all. My friend and writing partner, who was young and charismatic and possessed a great deal of sex appeal, took it upon herself to enlist those characteristics in the service of networking, which we believed was as essential to our future success in the entertainment industry as our talents, and it was by way of her networking efforts – though I don’t quite recall the details of who knew whom and so on – that she was one evening invited to a party at a house in Hollywood Hills held by, or in honor of, Fakir Musafar. Since I was considered a social liability by both of us – awkward enough, in my interactions with people I didn’t know, to be off-putting – I stayed home, but that night, from the other bed in the bedroom the two of us shared, she told me about swimming pools and the waiters and waitresses in their uniforms drifting between the guests holding silver trays atop which balanced glasses of champagne, pyramids of canapés, and so on, and of the framed, poster-sized photographs of men and women, including the aging Musafar himself, with spears through their faces, entering one cheek and exiting the other, or strung up by meat hooks attached to chains dangling from some warehouse ceiling, or with their penises tied into knots, that were displayed on the walls inside the house, both the focal point of the festivities and their raison d’être.
Most importantly, she’d met a producer of nature documentaries at the party, himself an aging fetishist, whose own relatively small production company was associated with, or perhaps even owned by, a much larger and more diversified production company, what one might call a “major” production company, and who after talking with her and finding her both crass and charming had agreed to read Henry Plucker, Pregnant Man. I don’t remember how we got the screenplay to him. It might seem obvious that we sent it by email, but this was the early spring of 2002, and sending large documents via email was a more complicated proposition than it is today. It’s certainly possible that we dropped a physical copy of the screenplay off for him, but I don’t think so, because the first time I remember visiting his office was when we went to meet with him there, at his invitation, a couple of weeks after he’d read it.
Los Angeles is total chaos, which gives everyplace that isn’t totally chaotic an oasis sort of feel, and so it was with the building in which his office was located, an architecturally ambitious structure set back from a quiet street in Santa Monica whose other occupants included a well regarded independent production company about whose CEO my writing partner and I eventually co-wrote an unpublished essay entitled “Stephen Nemeth is a Mensch” (in fact I had no idea whether he was or was not a mensch, but this was obviously beside the point). The nature documentary producer’s office, meanwhile, included various antechambers which ultimately brought one to his executive suite, decked out with various of the trappings of success and managerial power: a leather sofa, a desk so wide that two people sitting on opposite sides of it would not have been able to shake hands without standing up from their chairs, and a television screen set flush into the wall behind his desk, on which footage from his various nature documentaries seemed to be playing on loop, silently. We already knew, based on what he’d told my friend by phone, that the reason he was inviting us to his office was that he’d loved Henry Plucker, Pregnant Man, and I remember the way we felt driving to the meeting from our derelict Mid-City apartment: as though balanced on the precipice of the rest of our lives. Alas, despite his small production company’s association with the aforementioned “major” production company, this producer really was just a producer of nature documentaries, and since Henry Plucker, Pregnant Man hardly qualified, he did not (as we truly believed he might) offer us a production deal, but only encouragement and, for whatever it might be worth to us, his own vision for its future as an actual movie, if and when someone took it upon themselves to acquire and produce it. “Inappropriate for all audiences,” was what he suggested as a possible tagline, to be more specific. Defeated already, one or the other of us asked him about sending it to the owner, or president, or whatever he was, of the major production company with which his nature documentary production company was associated, someone with whom he claimed to be old friends, but he only shrugged and explained that the individual in question lived in Hawaii and was rarely if ever personally involved in lower level business transactions, such as the acquisition of screenplays for production.
Despite our disappointment, the meeting ended warmly, with a pledge to stay in touch, and for a little while we did. We met his wife, who had an air of drunkenness about her, was also a fetishist, and whose first name rhymed with his. That summer I emailed him from Madrid, not for any particular reason, and in his reply he told me he would look forward to catching up once I returned to Los Angeles, “the real center of the universe.” Back in Los Angeles that fall, I withdrew into my own writing projects, which I thought of as literary and, by extension, solitary, and resisted my writing partner’s efforts to engage me in the composition of a new screenplay that would showcase our radically irreverent sensibility while hewing more closely to the accepted Hollywood formulae from which Henry Plucker, Pregnant Man, which had not managed to generate any industry buzz, as the saying goes, had perhaps strayed too far. At first I did not realize that, our mutual endeavor thus suspended, she herself had begun to write a book, and then I did and before I could do anything to stop her, she finished the book and sold it to a major New York City publishing house for a sum of money that, from the present perspective seems rather paltry, but at the time exceeded by more than double the yearly salary I was earning working as an adjunct instructor at a two-year college in Orange County. One night, not long before she left Los Angeles for New York City, where she has lived continuously ever since, she presented me with a gift.
The circumstances are a bit hazy: we were at a bar, or I was at a bar, now that I think of it, with someone else, or alone, and she was meeting me at the bar, with someone else, or alone, or with more than one other person, or possibly with my sister. As it happened, there was a used bookstore next door to this bar, one that stayed open late for the drunken literati, and she and whoever she was with, possibly my sister, visited the bookstore before coming into the bar, and it was there that she acquired Spirit + Flesh, an elegantly bound hardback volume of photographs by Fakir Musafar. She stored the book in her car before entering the bar and later, when we all left together, whoever we all may have been, presented it to me as a gift, both of us a little tipsy out there on the sidewalk under the streetlights. The photographs collected in the book depicted people in the kind of situations in which she’d described them in the photographs hanging at the party where she’d met the producer of nature documentaries whose enthusiasm for Henry Plucker, Pregnant Man did not prove significant in the ways we hoped it would. In many of the images, the person depicted was Musafar himself, and since in some of the cases it would have taken much too long for him to have gotten himself into the situation depicted in the image for him to have, for instance, set his camera to a timer, I wondered, the first couple of times I flipped through the book, how he could have been the photographer; upon reflection, though, I determined that if Musafar had arranged the scene and set the zoom and chosen the angle and configured the lighting and whatever else it is that photographers do other than pushing the button on the camera, it would have been reasonable to attribute authorship of the resulting photograph to him even if someone else, someone not incapacitated by circumstances, had actually pushed said button.
Today, Spirit + Flesh resides in the stack of large format books related to the visual arts that I have piled atop the table that sits beside my sofa, a beautiful mid-century sofa that before it was mine was my grandmother’s, encased in plastic, for, my God, probably fifty years at least, and repeatedly, in the days and now weeks since Musafar’s death, especially early in the mornings when I am alone with my coffee and a book, I have caught myself gazing at his name, imprinted on its spine in shiny purple foil lettering, the way one might a photograph of an old friend with whom he’d been meaning to get back in touch and then suddenly the friend had died and it was too late. The book sits in the middle of the stack, underneath several others comparable to it in size and weight, because I do not want my son, who has just turned three years old, accessing it. For now, this arrangement works, but since my son will surely be strong enough to move heavy art books around, and curious enough to want to do so, long before he is emotionally prepared to see a picture of somebody’s penis tied up into a knot, I know that soon enough I’ll have to take it out of the pile and hide it in the sort of place where it will be long forgotten and then someday rediscovered, though probably not by me.
Essay first published at Obelus Journal. Republished with permission of the author.
About the Author:
Like most people his age, Eli S. Evans is a possibly former longtime somewhat regular contributor to N+1.