Fascinating 'Encounters'

Vapors (1965)

Collected on DVD, the BFI presents four ground-breaking classics of gay cinema. Each film is a concise, thought-provoking and important piece of work.

Come Dancing

Distributor: BFI
Cast: Michael Billington, Gerald Jacuzzo, Clive Merrison
Directors: Lloyd Reckord, Andy Milligan, Bill Douglas, Peter de Rome
Studio: BFI, London Film School
UK Release date: 2012-03-26

Encounters is an impressive collection of four short films that played a key role in the development of contemporary gay cinema. A couple represent fascinating historical documents that offer a glimpse into the legal and social climate surrounding attitudes towards homosexuality in the UK and the US in '60s and '70s, and one lacks an overt political agenda altogether, save for offering a triumphant celebration of male physicality. Either way, each film is a concise, thought-provoking and important piece of work.

The first, Dream A40 (1965), was made two years before the Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexuality in the UK, so it’s arguably the most politically significant and bravest of the films included. Directed by the Jamaican actor Lloyd Reckord, the experimental film features a young, unnamed gay couple (Michael Billington and Nicholas Wright) who must refrain from public displays of affection during a day out on the road.

Anxiety regarding the legal issues surrounding homosexuality pervades the film’s narrative. During a stop at a roadside restaurant, Billington looks on with a mixture of frustration and anger at a happy young interracial couple bold enough to show open fondness for one another (interracial relationships were also the subject of public scrutiny in the UK at the time), and Billington later tetchily rebukes Wright’s attempts to hold hands.

The latter half the film takes a surreal turn, after a traffic policeman stops the pair for running a red light. Escorted by the cop to a dark abandoned warehouse that seems to represent a sort of purgatory, the lovers find the hinterland occupied by a large group of men, all unhappy, silent and shuffling under a noose that hangs from the ceiling. ‘Death’ (read punishment and persecution) becomes a constant and present threat to them all, and hangs over the group – quite literally -- on a daily basis. Although the film has an upbeat ending of sorts, this central metaphor is nevertheless a powerful one, and stays in the mind.

Despite the very serious subject matter, Reckord still finds time to toy with mainstream cliché. For example, early in the film, as the pair drive down a sunny road to the sounds of a breezy swingin’ '60s jazz score, an attractive young woman pulls alongside in a beautiful two-seater Austin Healey sports car; she looks coyly in Billington’s direction, then smiles suggestively. In a standard Hollywood hetero text, this moment would be developed further, with Billington reciprocating and increasing the sexual tension (off the top of my head, I can recall seeing this exact premise in National Lampoon’s Vacation, Convoy and Smokey and the Bandit to name a few). Instead, Reckord plays the moment for humour – Billington completely ignores his female admirer and continues driving.

Dream A40 (1965)

Next is Vapors (1965), a grainy and claustrophobic single-location short directed by the infamous Andy Milligan. Offering, as the BFI notes, “a fascinating glimpse into a pre-Stonewall gay scene”, Vapors is a talky affair, and features a group of men gossiping in a tiny, dingy New York bath house. Free to discuss matters in secret, the group advise a first-time visitor about the social politics of the place, and reveal personal tragedies and things that disgust them. Despite the matter-of-fact dialogue, Vapors is essentially about loneliness, about presenting a false image of oneself to the general public (the main gay character is unhappily married), and about unfulfilled desire.

Interestingly, after Vapors Milligan did an artistic about-turn and went on to become a one-man cottage industry of exploitation movies, a purveyor of all manner of bizarre Grade-Z schlock made between 1967 and 1989. However, whilst this later work (shot on 16mm short-ends at his Staten Island estate) would suggest Milligan was nothing more than an auteur of the awful, a jack-of-all-trades and definitely a master of none (he wrote, directed and photographed almost all his films, in addition to providing the costume design), even the trashiest of his stuff has some interesting moments; whilst technically inept and lurid in the extreme (sample titles: 1970’s Bloodthirsty Butchers and 1972’s truly demented The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!), Milligan’s films are nevertheless often imbued with a delicious and knowing campiness, and he was clearly fond of his weird, odd-ball characters, so watching the embryonic Vapors and its sympathetic treatment of the unfairly marginalised puts some aspects of his subsequent career into context. Had he not gone down the grindhouse route, Milligan possibly had some promise as an art-house filmmaker.

Next is Come Dancing (1970), a short film about homophobia directed by the celebrated Scottish filmmaker Bill Douglas (Comrades, 1987), and made whilst he was a student at the prestigious London Film School. The film utilises a fairly simple narrative device: two men exchange glances in a seaside café in Southend and a conversation ensues; the pair then leaves to visit the pier. Whilst strolling along the boardwalk, the romantic tension intensifies and they begin to frolic and wrestle. However, the harmony doesn’t last long, and matters soon take an unexpected and disturbing turn.

Douglas creates a brilliant and palpable sense of tension, hinting that something is wrong without initially giving us anything tangible to grasp at. Prior to the climactic twist, walls of thick sea fog roll in and reduce visibility to mere feet, penning the protagonists into an intimate space, and us with them; as the air of danger begins to increase, the incessant, creepy and disembodied growl of a distant coastal foghorn takes on a new and sinister significance - part-monster, part-early warning alarm for what will soon be occurring (and just as in Vapors, there is a sense of being symbolically imprisoned, illicit, claustrophobic).

Encounter (1971)

The final short and the only one in colour is Peter de Rome’s Encounter (1971), an avant-garde Jarmanesque celebration of the male physical form. Shot on Super 8, dialogue-free, and containing the only explicit nudity of the quartet, Encounter is an unashamedly visual piece, set against a slow, repetitive electro soundtrack (a newly-commissioned work by the excellent musician and writer Stephen Thrower).

In the film, a group of men meet on the streets of New York, before being drawn, trancelike, into a large and darkened loft apartment. Here they embrace, kiss and finally intertwine on the floor, like participants in a beautified Hieronymus Bosch. The camera snatches at random forms and moments, and so it continues for the film’s duration, aided by Thrower’s hypnotic and quasi-ritualistic score. This lasts until the final, clever wide shot: filmed from above, the now motionless group sit up on the floor in a neat, tight circle, facing inward and embracing, with heads bowed. Slowly they release their grip on one another and lean gently backwards, in unison, until each of them is lying back on the floor.

The effect, reminiscent of a low-budget Busby Berkeley spectacle, is like the graceful opening of a large flower -- the arms and upper torsos akin to petals fanning out, the legs and feet grouped in the circle’s centre like the flower’s stamen. Not only does this shot contrast well with the random and decadent physical and visual abandon of the preceding ten minutes, but it’s also striking, calming and powerfully symbolic: the men have bloomed, opened up to the world – organised, proud, celebratory and unified as one; it’s a great and appropriate moment to end this DVD collection on.

Extras include a short interview with Lloyd Reckord, conducted during the BFI London LGFF.

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