Reviews

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 A couple represent fascinating historical documents that offer a glimpse into the legal and social climate surrounding attitudes towards homosexuality in the UK and the US in '60s and '70s, and one lacks an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.

7

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image