It’s an age old debate – where is the edge between pornography and art? It’s an almost impossible question to answer. In 1964 US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart came up with the famous description, ‘I know it when I see it’, due to his and many other’s inability to say exactly where the line between art and porn is. Since then few people have come up with a better definition. The Erotic Films Of Pete De Rome is a particularly interesting challenge to this blurred line as it’s undeniably both, but the more interesting question is whether it was ‘art’ when it was made, or if it’s become that in the time since?
It’s particularly intriguing as the collection of short films has been given an 18 certificate by the BBFC, despite the fact it’s undoubtedly one of the most hardcore releases ever to get that certificate. It’s also true that the shorts were originally made to titillate and excite rather than just to expound the sort of po-faced deep or artistic ideas that the BBFC normally looks for if it’s going to give real sex an 18 cert (although De Rome’s film’s certainly aren’t just about sex). There’s no doubt that at the time they were made they would have been seen as straightforward porn, even if they were of a somewhat interesting, homemade and sometimes intelligent bent. However since then a lot of history has happened, so that these underground films, made between 1969 and 1972, are now both slightly arty porn and sociological documents on gay sexuality, made at a time when looks at gay life were almost unheard of, and when candid views on gay sex were still potentially illegal.
While the films of Kenneth Anger and Paul Morrissey are more obviously arty early looks at gay sexuality, in many respects the works of Peter De Rome are just as fascinating and insightful, plus they’re a bit of a turn-on too!
The main programme contains eight shorts, which were first collected together in 1973, not long after Deep Throat ushered in the brief period of porn chic in the US. The first is ‘Double Exposure’, which is essentially just a rather fun little exercise in telling a circular story, with a little nudity thrown in. Next up is ‘Hot Pants’, which sees a man dancing, gradually getting naked, getting hard and then cumming (while never touching himself), with the camera sticking to his crotch and never showing his face. It has verve and you can see why it helped De Rome get noticed, even if there’s not really a lot to it – we could argue it’s about the sexual aspect of dance, but who are we kidding?
Things move on to ‘The Second Coming’, which is certainly the most international and potentially controversial of the movies, featuring guys travelling around the world, almost travelogue fashion, before things get overtly arty when we suddenly come across a young men nailed to a cross, who gets an erection and cums. Just don’t tell any ridiculously Christian people about this short, or they’ll get very, very upset.
The next film is ‘Daydreams From A Crosstown Bus’, which as the title suggests is about a man who sees a hot young guy from a bus and fantasises about what they could do together – which as you may have guessed by now, includes plenty of hardcore sex (along with walking hand-in-hand and engaging in the kind of romance porn rarely indulges in – indeed it’s one of the most interesting things about De Rome’s films, that while they are about sex, they also have a strong sense of connection, love and romance).
‘Mumbo Jumbo’ is a playful short, featuring art-pieces made by one of De Rome’s friends, along with adverts, visual jokes, naked guys posing and various other bit and pieces. It comes across as a rather kaleidoscopic look at gay life in the early 70s, which ends with an explosion of cum shots!
‘Green Shorts’ is slower and more contemplative, with a guy enjoying running around in some verdant foliage, before getting overexcited by a tree and dry-humping it (we’re not kidding). This leads him to find pretty much everything about Kew Gardens sexy, with his fondling of plants intercut with him fondling himself. Is nature really that sexy? I don’t know, but De Rome’s not the first to say so.
The short ‘Underground’, like many of De Rome’s films, starts out with something many will be able to relate to before taking it to fantasised extremes. In this case it’s two men eye-flirting on the Underground, which leads to them having full-on sex in a deserted carriage. The final film is ‘Prometheus’ (and no, Ridley Scott’s upcoming film isn’t a remake, just in case you were wondering) which sees a man ending up in a room where a slightly Jesus-looking figure magically ties him to the floor, before a series of guy engage in S&M with the tied up guy and basically have an orgy around and on him. It’s difficult to know what to make of this last short, as while there is an element of fantasy there’s also a disquieting suggestion of lack of consent.
The disc includes a few other De Rome shorts that weren’t in the original collection, including ‘Scopo’, which sees a peeping tom spying on someone having a wank; ‘Moulage’, which shows how someone can create a plaster cast of an erection; ‘Brown Study’, which is largely about the director’s fascination with and attraction to black men (it’s an interesting film if not necessarily politically correct); and ‘The Fire Island Kids’, which is a rather sweet tale of romance, connection and sex between two hot young guys on Fire Island in the days before it became a Gay mecca. There’s also ‘Abracadaver’, a rather cheesy horror short made relatively recently that features De Rome in an acting role rather being directed by him.
Also definitely worth watching is ‘Fragments: The Incomplete Films Of Peter De Rome’. While the title suggests it’ll just be about some of his other shorts, it’s actually a more rounded documentary looking at the now elderly director and allowing him to discuss how he got his start, why he made the films – which were essentially just fun little pieces of erotica he made for himself and his friends – and why he stopped (perhaps unsurprisingly the AIDS epidemic had a profound effect). It’s a fascinating film in which De Rome seems to both love and somewhat reject the title others have given him of the ‘Grandfather Of Gay Porn’, while enjoying a rather unexpected role as an elder statesman of the gay scene.
While you can debate the artistic merit of De Rome’s films, they certainly make you think a lot more than most things would that even their creator describes as porn. Nowadays they’re probably most interesting as rare, candid documents on gay life back in the late 60s and 70s. It’s unusual to see something that’s so upfront about gay love and sex, especially made at a time when the idea of two men together was still anathema to most people, and the thought that homosexulaity was about more than just sex was almost impossible for many to comprehend.
The films are also still pretty sexy, and while we’re used to putting our thinking hats on for the types of films the BFI releases, here you can think and also get turned on at the same time. I certainly think The Erotic Films Of Peter De Rome may have set a record for the greatest amount of cumshots on one disc that’s been rated 18 (rather than the sex-shop-only R18) by the BBFC!
Most of the shorts have been given a new score, as the original music choice was either not available or too expensive, with Augustin Bousfield providing fresh music that fits with the original ideas, while giving its own feel to the pieces. And as these were cheaply done 16mm, homemade efforts, there’s no dialogue at all, with ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ the only short with any spoken words, in this case a voiceover.
Overall Verdict: If you’re interested in the broad, grey area where art and porn meet – and whether something can be both – these shorts are fascinating, and also provide a rare glimpse into gay romance, intimacy and sex at a time when these things were hardly ever depicted on screen, especially with such casual eroticism.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac