Cathedral in the sand

Brian J Smith on his love for the Pines and A House Is Not A Disco

by Jennie Kermode

A House Is Not A Disco
A House Is Not A Disco

The Pines on Fire Island is a legendary place, a place which has meant the world to generations of gay men in the US – a refuge, a place of discovery and transformation, and the site of fabulous parties. Screened as part of SXSW 2024, Brian J Smith’s documentary A House Is Not A Disco explores it in film. It’s a deeply personal project for the first time director, as he explained when we met just before the festival. It was also a challenging thing to take on, but something he was ready for.

“I've been an actor for 20 years. A lot of my stuff has been on television, and I feel like I've been on set most of my adult life. You pick up things and you learn how the sausage gets made. And to be honest, I think I've always been a little bit more interested in this side of the process than I was in the acting side. I love the acting side. It's very rewarding, and it's great to be visible in that way, I guess. But I really appreciated being invisible and, oddly enough, having a lot more that I can say.

“I turned 40 around the time that we started work on the film. That was a big thing for me, and just going ‘You know what? If I'm not going to do this now, what am I waiting for? Whose permission do I need? I never went to film school. I never directed anything before. Who am I to do this?’ I think we all have those dragons and we have to slay them every once in a while, and I'm glad I did.”

It’s an opportunity for him to give something back to the community.

“This place means a lot to me,” he says, remembering his first ever visit there. “I was reading Andrew Holleran's Dancer From The Dance, and he was describing this beautiful, mythical place, almost like a queer paradise, called the Pines. Fire Island. So it had already been primed in my head to be this very emotionally loaded spot. And when I went there for the first time, I don't know, I got infused with the magic of it. And I keep saying this: it really did, in a lot of ways, teach me how to be gay, because as a teenager, I was not out. I couldn't be. I was in Texas. Having a place where I could fully be myself was really important for me. It allowed me to make a lot of mistakes. It allowed me to be a little bit embarrassing sometimes, but thank God I had it, because we need those adolescent experiences, and I think the Pines is the place that allows for that for us.

“There's a real kind of unspoken mentorship that's going on out there, especially because it's so small and you can't really avoid anybody. There's one grocery store, there's one place to get iced coffee, and everyone says hello to each other. So you're living in this gay Grover's Corners in a way. And because of that, you end up meeting older folks who will say ‘Hey, come over to dinner. I'm having a dinner party.’ And before you know it, you've met the love of your life or a future boss or a future collaborator. And just the fact that that's there and that it's that intense, I don't want to live in a world where that doesn't exist.”

It's interesting that the film starts out of season, so we see the place in a very different way. Had he ever seen it like that before?

“Yeah, and those were really my best times out there. I remember I went out once in late November, around Thanksgiving. It was very dark and stormy and moody and really felt the ghosts out there. I always felt that the place was inhabited by very happy ghosts. There were so many people that we lost, and the Pines like the place that they went to that was like Heaven. People went there to die, they loved it so much. And you can feel that – you understand why, and you can feel these people there with you, kind of urging you along.

“I feel like you feel that the most in the winter and in those off season moments, the wind rushing through the houses and the trees and the barrenness of it. To me, those are the most profound experiences I've had there.”

There's a mention in the film of how a lot of younger people going there now don't really know about that experience with HIV and what it was like for everyone. Is he hoping that the film could give some people who are going there now more insight and more awareness of that depth of community?

“Yeah, I hope so. We're all so lucky right now that we have the antiviral medications and the medications like Truvada® Prep, that pretty much every gay man or queer person is on now and has made the rates of HIV and AIDS really go down. We wouldn't have those medications if it weren't for the advocacy and the protesting and frankly, just trying to survive of a lot of older generations, many of whom are out there right now and own houses out there and are trying to tell kids that this is not the way it always was. You know what I mean? The fact that you can come out here and have a lot of great sex, that's happening on the backs of a lot of people who made that happen for you and you feel that even more out in that place, I think.”

That connects to one of the strongest threads in the film: climate change and how the island is very much in the front lines as the see rises, but also the sense that LGBTQ communities have come through a lot of very difficult things already and that perhaps makes them more resilient and better able to both prepare for that and cope with it.

“Absolutely, yeah. It was a real surprise. I honestly was not expecting that to be a part of the story at all until we were filming the Pines party and literally we woke up and went out there to go film the next morning and the entire previous day's work had been completely washed out. They lost 30ft of their beach, and it wasn't even a major storm that went through. I think there was a hurricane maybe, way out in the Atlantic, and they had a slightly higher tide because the seas are rising so quickly. These sort of high tide events are starting to have more and more an impact, and we did not know that was going to be a part of the narrative.

“To watch this place be in the first throes of what's going to be a pretty intense discussion out there for the next least ten to 15 years was totally unexpected and I'm glad were able to feature it in the film, because these kind of stories are going to become a lot more common going forward. I mean, we're really going to have to start taking stock of what we're losing, and it's happening faster than we thought it would.”

It also creates the sense that it's an ephemeral place, that this is only going to last for so long. Does he feel that that adds to the intensity and more value of the Pines experience as it is now?

“Yeah, I think it gives the place a feeling of stakes, in a way, and it's an interesting thing. We don't have a solution for it. No-one has any idea, really. I think what we're trying to show is that the young generation, the Millennial homeowners that are out there right now, sort of embodied by the naughty Pines boys, the throuple, that the island is in really good hands, that this new generation of people that are going out there deeply care about this place, and they understand the history, and they understand the cultural importance of this place, and they're willing to do the kind of work that doesn't always get seen, doesn't get acknowledged, isn't very profitable. They're willing to do that kind of work to make sure that this place is fought for and noticed.”

Given his obvious attachment to the place, it's interesting that he makes the effort to capture some of the experiences of people who are less satisfied with it, and people who felt like outsiders there. How did he go about finding those people?

“They were a total surprise to us,” he says. “I mean, we took our cue from Frederick Wiseman. We went out there and we did our research on camera, basically, so people would say things and start talking about their experience, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, I'm so shocked that they're being so open about this!’ And we're so grateful, too. A lot of people go out there and really don't have good experiences. That place cannot be everything to everyone all the time. No place can do that. But I think, at least in theory, the Pines is a place that tries really hard and is very aware and conscious of its reputation for being exclusive and being elitist.

“When you see people having a hard time out there and being rejected and not finding love and maybe not finding chosen family out there – I don't know. I hope we did it in a gentle enough way that makes us like, ‘Hey, maybe I'll see that person at the party and I'll go up to them and just be like, “Hey, let's talk. Yeah, I'll be honest with you. Yeah, I'll take my clothes off and be naked, too.”’ We need to protect each other. We need to show up for each other. In general, our community is really good at doing that. And when we're not, I think we're willing to make up the difference when we can. And so I hope that's in some way a part of the film.”

There’s also discussion of how people are valued based on how they look and that kind of thing, which is a criticism that comes up in other parts of the LGBTQ+ scene.

“Yeah. And a lot of us didn't get to have adolescences and a lot of us are going out to the Pines to have an adolescence, to be a teenager, to be horny and experimental and to fall in love and get our hearts broken. And it's brutal. I mean, it's a real grind. And it's like that whether you're at a straight bar in the financial district or you're out in the Pines. The important thing is that the Pines exists and it's sort of a stage for generations of queer people to go out and have those formative adolescent experiences. I'm so glad it's there and it was there for me and I owe so much to it for giving me those experiences.”

I tell him that I also loved the way the film spoke to the importance of simply having fun and partying, which is something rarely championed in that way in a society heavily focused on work and productivity. Fun matters!

He laughs. “Yeah. The head of the Pines party, at one point in an interview with us in the film, he says ‘The reason why this is all important and the reason why we're fighting for it is this is where we come together.’ Yes, it's the dancing. It's spiritual. It is like church. They built a cathedral in the sand and then tore it down the next day and gave it back to Mother Nature. Having these places where we can go and be wild and try on other identities is good for society because that energy has got to go somewhere and it's better for it to go into a party, to make it beautiful in that way.”

Did he have many expectations when he was making the film?

“On one level, this was a technical thing for me,” he says. “I thought, ‘I want to learn more about lenses. I want to learn more about cameras and how you tell a story visually and with sound.’ And so in the back of my head, it was always like, ‘Oh, if the film does well, that's great.’ But this was like kind of film school for me. I got to see how this works by doing it and making my own mistakes and found that I love it and I cherish this experience. And I really hope I get to do this again because it really was one of the most meaningful, artistic things I've ever been a part of.”

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