Before the 1980s, depictions of gay life onscreen were rare things, so that anything from the 70s or before is unusual, intriguing and worth seeking out. With Encounters, the BFI has drawn together four short films on gay subjects made between 1965 and 1971, giving us a rare look at homosexuality during that time (and not as it was remembered afterwards, which is our usual view of gay history). Making any sort of film on a gay subject back then was a bit of an achievement and a fairly subversive act, so while there’s not a vast amount of pre-80s gay films, we’re privileged to have what we’ve got.
The first film on the Encounters disc is Lloyd Reckord’s ‘Dream A40’, which is a good example of how lucky we are to have the BFI in the UK. They funded the film back in 1965, giving Reckord a grant to get it made at a time when homosexuality was still illegal and when society still largely disapproved of gay people. However the BFI has always been good at believing all of British life is worth documenting and not just what’s popular at any one time, as well as the idea that directors with something to say ought to be given a chance.
The 16-minute film features two young men going on a car trip together. However their easy fun is soon replaced by fear when a policeman leads them to a strange Orwellian abandoned building. While one half of the couple doesn’t want to show any public displays of affection during the trip and is worried about anyone thinking they might be gay (which they are), this is put to the test when they’re trapped in the potentially dangerous building.
As with most of the shorts here, the thing that struck me most is that despite the vast changes for gay people between the 1960s and the present, the more things change the more they stay the same. The couple’s easy rapport and flirtatiousness isn’t something you normally think of for gay relationships back then, as we’ve come to think of everything gay back then taking place behind closed doors between self-loathing people riddled with guilt. This is something very different to that, a short about two gay people negotiating the level of intimacy and openness they’re willing to show, something that’s still a preoccupation with many gay people now, even if the threat of prison no longer hangs over them.
There’s also a sense of things being surprisingly unchanged in Andy Millgan’s ‘Vapors’, which was also made in 1965 and is set in a gay bathhouse in New York. The short sees a young man heading to the baths and getting into conversation with a slightly older man. While people ostensibly go to the baths to have sex, the two men end up finding a connection with one another. There are plenty of things in the short that will resonate with a modern viewer, from someone looking for sex when what they actually want is connection, to brash, self-obsessed gay people butting in due to an inability to recognise that some things aren’t about them.
The third film is Bill Douglas’ Come Dancing, which was the celebrated filmmaker’s only movie to deal explicitly with gay themes (Douglas himself wasn’t gay, but he lived with a man for many years and it was assumed by many they were a couple even though they weren’t). In the film a man leaves his girlfriend and heads down to the seaside, where a series of stolen glances lead to him sharing a cigarette with another man. However what seems like a flirtation where both men want the same thing turns out to be something very different. Again, the spectre of homophobic violence and the possible reasons behind it (being in-denial about their own feelings etc.) are issues that are as alive now as they were back then, as are gay men’s ability to pick up guys all over the place! It’s an extremely well made short, with a nice twist on a twist.
The final film is Peter de Rome’s Encounter, which is a rather weird movie where young men wander through New York in a trance (you can tell they’re in a trance as they hold one arm out in front of themselves, zombie-style), before converging on a room where they have an orgy (or as the BFI puts it in the press release, a ‘secret tactile ceremony’, which is a new name for it!). It’s a strange film and certainly not De Rome’s best. He’s actually a very good filmmaker and it’s well worth getting hold of The Erotic Films Of Peter De Rome, which the BFI is releasing as the same time as Encounter, but this isn’t a great example.
As always with BFI releases, you get an excellent booklet that gives background on each films and put them into context.
Overall Verdict: Other than the final film, it’s a fascinating selection that’s a bit of a must-see for any student of gay film, or indeed anyone interested in gay life in the past. Dream A40 and Vapors in particular are extremely good short films.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac