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MOVIE REVIEW

A steamy but sobering look at gay life in the '70s

Thirty years ago, Manhattan's West Village was a funhouse for anonymous trysts between men in short shorts and big bushy mustaches. ''Gay Sex in the '70s," a ''steamy romp by Joseph Lovett," recaps who did what with whom on which drug how many times a day.

Sex, then, was an intramural sport, and the film manages to look back on all the play-by-plays with fondness and pride.

Yet despite the retrospective sensationalism, Lovett's 70-minute documentary is a sobering anti-erotic cautionary tale. The film's time frame goes from the 1969 Stonewall riots to the arrival of the first AIDS cases in 1981. Knowing that death and disease are in the offing tinges the folly with gravity.

Lovett gets a handful of the era's survivors to regale us with memories of anonymous public sex on the West Side piers and in bathhouses, abandoned buildings, the backs of bars, and the unlit carriages of trucks. (Beds, presumably, were too bourgeois.) Scores of archival surveillance-like photographs are provided of men spied through windows and doors having sex with each other.

One gentleman estimates that on any given night thousands of men would show up in the West Village. They had sex on the brain -- and the elbows, and the shins. And even if you didn't catch an STD, some encounters could be hazardous to your health. Bodies were found floating in the Hudson, and one guy says if he left after a hookup with his wallet and an orgasm, he considered himself lucky.

Public sex was also steeped in a sense of politics. More than one interviewee explains it as a reaction against repression. In other parts of the country, gay men were criminalized, ostracized, and institutionalized. New York City was an oasis, a place for gay men to find themselves and others like them. Their libertinism was as countercultural and distrustful of authority as the antiwar movement and the black-power struggle were.

It was also kitschy. Lovett unearths a television commercial for a Manhattan bathhouse and gym called Man's Country. While the camera cruised the establishment's various nooks and crannies, a narrator bellowed, ''Come to Man's Country to develop your body -- or a friendship with someone else's."

Meanwhile, the film's obligatory trip to Fire Island happens to be the most beautiful passage, if only because nostalgia for that kind of carnal paradise is touching. Larry Kramer, the playwright and activist, provides a reminiscence or two about his years there, but someone else reads aloud the rhapsodic Fire Island passage from his 1978 novel ''Faggots."

If ''Gay Sex in the '70s" is a rosy peek back in time for one generation of gay men, it's an urgent history lesson for the younger batch Kramer chastised last year in his strident but truthful lecture ''The Tragedy of Today's Gays." The message is unmistakable: Use a condom.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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