Miguel Pinero’s 1977 Short Eyes shows at New York’s Metrograph Cinema on the 40th anniversary of its trailblazing expression of sexual and ethnic subculture. Like Falconer, the 1976 novel by bisexual author John Cheever, in which the strongest passages are the confessions men in prison make about their pasts and frustrated or thwarted love, the film version of Pinero’s Short Eyes highlights the frustrations of incarcerated men.
Pinero adapted the screenplay from his 1974 drama (he also plays Go-Go, the most treacherous prisoner in the cellblock where the film takes place—personally exhibiting his gay Puerto Rican identity but pushing it to such extremes that he shows bold sympathy with the worst of his people (all people) who have been pushed to the wall. Pinero revels in the acuity and rhythm of street language which dominates the movie in a breathtaking way. I’ve never seen a film of a play that bristles like this whenever the actors speak. The language is so alive that each phrase, each profanity smokes. The emotion is that hot.
Robert M. Young, the director, provides an unusual fluency; as his camera picks up life in the actual jail set (shot at New York City’s The Tombs), the film seems casually paced but there’s power accumulating.
Into Pinero's pressure-cooker comes the “short eyes”—a man arrested for child molestation, the lowliest crime as judged by the other convicts who despise him for it. He may be torturously aware of his weakness—just as they are—a man wrought by compulsion and self-hatred, but with his “cheap summer suit” and blond hair, he’s also a White Man (played very well by Bruce Davison). And coming for the outside, he’s an emblem of the White Respectability that the men in prison know is a fraud. Everything about him reminds the prisoners of their grim circumstances and squashed lives. They see the worst of themselves in him.
The secret of drag is here. Short Eyes is about oppressive social systems and how it creates forms of self-protective language and bravado. Pinero understands drag as a defensive, hyper-masculine guise. These macho performances convey) the anger and passion that black and Hispanic artist rarely got the chance to express anywhere but in drama. (This was before hip-hop but it's rare when a stage play or film understands or unleashes these personal feelings).
Pinero wrote Short Eyes during a robbery conviction and the play was first performed after his parole by a New York theater group made up of ex-cons. But this isn't documentary theater. It using theater conventions as a form of outting. When it comes to men's sexual, sometimes criminal compulsions, Pinero's sexual and ethnic politics were also daringly universal.
The “short eyes” name—Clark Davis—is perfectly Anglo and his lines, especially the “lust in his heart” confession, are in a different idiom from the heated, flamboyant slang and machine-gun rattling of the other “ethnic” characters. Pinero conveys the differences between black jive and Puerto Rican jive as perfectly as he delineates each race’s different, impolite social perceptions. Pinero has real command of the subcultural humor that blacks and Puerto Ricans developed and that hipsters try to emulate. It’s amazingly racial, sexual, vulgar, shocking and witty at once. (“Either blood or shit is gonna be on the end of my dick,” Pinero's Go-Go warns an inmate).
Short Eyes isn't politically correct; it views human weakness in all the characters, demonstrating that the aggravating, congested conditions of society brings out the worst in these variously damaged men who have rejected social responsibility. That's the truth that a non-middle-class artist-thug like Pinero would dare, unlike John Cheever's gay bourgeois artistry.
The cast here (Jose Perez plays Juan. the conscientious convict to whom Clark Davis confesses; Tito Goya as Cupcakes, the young temptation to the men in the cellbock; and especially Joe Carberry as Longshoe Murphy, Shawn Elliott as Paco, Kenny Steward as Omar) seems to understand this material inherently. They know this is the way street brothers talk. Their outbursts are so raw and full, they sound like a natural chorus of the bitter and oppressed. Short Eyes anticipates Tom Fontana's angry, sexy prison series Oz.