Encounters brings together four short films from four different filmmakers. They are connected by a shared theme and time of production: all are examples of gay cinema and all date from the sixties or the very early seventies. Yet here the similarities end. Each film comes with its individual approach and content and as such each deserves their own discussion. As such the following review considers the quartet of titles separately - and their presentation and special features - though, as should become clear, they do add up to a recognisable. In sum Encounters is a document of homosexual culture at a key point in its development. We find it gradually overcoming adversity and making its way out of the underground so that it may flourish for those few brief years before the Aids epidemic changed it forever.
Dream A40 (1965, d. Lloyd Reckord)
Of the four filmmakers to feature on the Encounters set, Lloyd Reckord is the only one not to have his own dedicated edition from the BFI. Andy Milligan, director of Vapors, has the forthcoming Nightbirds/The Body Beneath double-bill coming up as part of the Flipside range. Come Dancing’s Bill Douglas has Blu-rays of his Trilogy and Comrades available. And The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome - from the man behind Encounter - hit the shelves at the exact same time as this compilation. The reason for Reckord not receiving the same treatment isn’t down to quality, however, but rather quantity. He was an actor more so than a filmmaker - primarily on the stage but also on television - with only a handful of directorial credits to his name. Dream A40 was his second short following Ten Bob in Winter, a 12-minute piece for the BFI’s Experimental Film Fund that will hopefully emerge on one of their discs sometime soon.
Ten Bob in Winter was a look at West Indian immigrants in London. It was also the first British dramatic production to have been directed by a black man. (Reckord is Jamaican and came to UK in order to pursue his acting career.) No doubt expectations were for his follow-up to pursue similar lines, yet issues of race are entirely inconsequential. Over the opening credits of Dream A40 we witness a late-night party and its mixed race collection of partygoers, but this would appear to be solely as a means of establishing the film’s hipness. The uncredited jazz score furthers such credentials, as do the two young leads, Nicholas Wright (who would never act onscreen again) and Michael Billington (later to have key roles in TV’s The Onedin Line and UFO). In combination they create a very credible mid-sixties environment in which the unfolding drama can take place.
That drama centres on the relationship between these two men. They’re taking a car journey together the morning after the credit sequence’s party scene. We follow them from a service station at Blackfriars and onto the titular motorway. We also watch as their playful banter develops into something a little more touching. Nothing more than holding hands, but this is enough to demonstrate the dynamic of the relationship. The key development comes when a little girl watches the pair from another car. Billington’s character immediately removes his hand, suggesting his discomfort with showing such affection in public; Wright’s character, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to mind in the slightest. It’s a situation that prompts expected tensions and also an entirely unexpected move into fantasy which as Dream A40 approaches its final act.
The audacity of such a move is really quite impressive. More importantly, it works. Despite this being only Reckord’s second film, he handles the switch with absolute assurance. Dream A40 is as much of an outsider’s tale as Ten Bob in Winter was, and with that comes a certain delicacy when approaching this tale. Of course I won’t spoil the developments of the final scenes, but I will say how remarkable it is that Reckord manages all of this in mere minutes. The total running time is approximately 16 minutes, with almost three of those occupied by the credit sequence, yet Dream A40 achieves so much in that limited space. It’s a stunning opener to this set, and perhaps even its highpoint.
Dream A40 was sourced from materials held in the BFI National Archive. The sound came from the original mono optical track, with the image derived from a new 16mm duplicating element. Given the age of the film, and its obscurity, we shouldn’t be surprised that it isn’t the perfect shape. Furthermore, we must consider the original production values too, which were pretty much non-existent. Nonetheless the soundtrack fares particularly well and the transfer itself is excellent, ably coping with the inherent inferiorities in the image and presenting the film as well it can. The detail is as good as the film stock allows, likewise the contrast levels. The bottom line is that we’re unlikely to see better, and many (such as myself) will simply be happy to see the film at all owing to its scarcity this past half-century.
Extras for Dream A40 consist of Simon McCallum’s booklet essay and a seven-minute ‘in conversation’ piece with Reckord filmed at last year’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the BFI Southbank. Here the filmmaker talks about his background in acting and the motivations behind the making of both Ten Bob in Winter and Dream A40. It’s a brief, but welcome inclusion.
Vapors (1965, d. Andy Milligan)
The popular image of Andy Milligan is that of trash auteur. Since the publication of Jimmy McDonough’s biography, The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, in 2001 and the gradual release of his back catalogue onto DVD, the director has become a target for cultists eager to sample his particular brand of sleazy, zero-budget cinema. In the most recent issue of Little Joe magazine Stephen Thrower notes how it was a Fangoria article which initially spurred his interest for these films deemed “too cheap, too rotten - too wrong” for the average cinemagoer. Milligan’s speciality was genre pics, mostly of the horror variety but also sexploitation. The titles tell their own story, alternately demented (The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!, Surgikill) or downright uninspired (Legacy of Horror, Torture Dungeon). Fittingly, this also sums up the films themselves with the general consensus being a mostly negative one. Stephen King, in his Danse Macabre book on the horror genre, described one as “the work of morons with cameras”, though this neglects the fact that there was only one camera and Milligan was effectively a one-man crew. The Psychotronic Film Guide, meanwhile, turned its scorn away from the director and onto the audience: “If you’re a fan, there’s no hope for you.”
Vapors, released in 1965, comes before all of this. Milligan’s experience up until this point had been theatrical, staging the likes of Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet off-off-Broadway in New York’s West Village. In many ways this short film feels like an extension of that scene: its screenplay is an adaptation of a play by Hope Stansbury, a regular at the Caffe Cino where Milligan would put on his work; its stylistic approach retains the theatrical edges and errs towards the experimental; its stance is entirely outside of the mainstream, especially in its depiction of homosexuality; and it was destined, much like the plays, to be seen only by a tiniest of audiences. For all of these reasons, Vapors deserves a look.
The action unfolds in real time during one Friday night at a New York bathhouse. Thanks to the theatrical origins we essentially have a single set which allows for the comings and goings of its various cast members. At the time of Vapors’ production the bathhouse ‘scene’ wasn’t quite so pronounced at it would once become. Three years later Steve Ostrow would open the Continental Baths in the basement of New York’s Ansonia Hotel complete with dance floor and cabaret stage. The Continental would later have an influence on the big screen, prompting Terence McNally’s Broadway production The Ritz in 1975 - Richard Lester directed the cinema version the following year - and serving as both the setting and location for David Buckley’s Saturday Night at the Baths (also 1975). It would also be the place where Bette Midler kick-started her career, earning herself the moniker ‘Bathhouse Bette’.
There was no such glamour in Vapors. No dance floor, no cabaret, no Midler. In their stead we find a dingy environment with graffiti strewn across the walls, captured on a cheap camera with cheap black and white film stock. We’re closer to the prison of Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’amour than we are the camp, comic high gloss of Richard Lester’s The Ritz, though hardly within touching distance. Whereas Genet was all about the silence, Vapors is all about the dialogue. The assembled characters - the queens, the curious, the married man - talk some and then talk some more. The performers all hailed from Milligan’s theatre productions and with that comes rather brash, overt turns. But the two central actors - Robert Dahdah and Gerald Jacuzzo - acquit themselves rather well. Their conversation, in which the older (married) man relates the death of his teenaged son to the young bathhouse newcomer, is the film’s focus point, yet they handle that responsibility with due care. There’s a sensitivity at work, and a serious intent, which makes for surprisingly touching results.
For all the dialogue, Milligan and his leads also understand the importance of keeping quiet. Vapors gets a lot out of its pauses and they demonstrate a certain amount of command and control from the director - words with which he generally isn’t associated. Elsewhere it’s less easy to attribute acclaim, though a lot of the choices - whether they be the result of budgetary concerns or conscious stylistic ones - do tend to work in the film’s favour. The handheld camerawork and its ultra-shaky vérité, the scuzzy opening titles, the cheapness of the film stock, the echo-y sound recording (the film was shot in the building Milligan lived in at the time, albeit with props stolen from an actual bathhouse); all contribute to the mood and atmosphere. There’s a grit to Vapors befitting of its status as an underground movie about a subject matter itself still very much part of the underground too. As with Warhol’s contemporaneous productions (My Hustler is an unavoidable reference point), it’s impossible to imagine things being any other way.
There’s a strong likelihood that many will come to the Encounters set without any previous experience of Milligan. This disc isn’t being aimed at the cultists and the horror fans, ie Milligan’s usual audience, which places the newcomers in an interesting position. Unsullied by the later genre works they’ll be able to see a filmmaker at the start of his career and in possession of a certain amount of promise. Vapors has plenty of rough edges, but it also has much to admire and appreciate. Indeed, it’s a shame that Milligan ended up working so heavily in the exploitation market as that promise went almost entirely unfulfilled. The subsequent works contain occasional glimmers - as the upcoming BFI Flipside release of Nightbirds will show - but these were rarities.
Vapors has been sourced from a 35mm print and looks perfectly fine considering the circumstances of its making and its lack of budget. As you would expect there’s dirt and various signs of age to contend with, not to mention a soundtrack that picks up both the whirr of the camera and the echoes of the film’s small set. In part, this all adds to the appeal - a scuzzy veneer to up the realism - and it must be stated that the transfer does the very best it can with what’s to hand. There are no technical issues to speak of - no signs of compression and so forth - whilst the contrast levels are handled especially well considering the basic photography. Once you’re aware of the background it’s hard not to be impressed by how good the BFI have been able to make Vapors look. Unfortunately the soundtrack can only be cleaned up so far, but the dialogue is mostly clear and viewers shouldn’t struggle in keeping up with the conversations. Extras for this inclusion come in the form of John David Rhodes’ lengthy and informative booklet essay. (Note that the censorship in the final shot - which conceals some male full-frontal nudity - was self-imposed by Milligan and exists in all known versions of the film. In other words, it’s meant to be there.)
Come Dancing (1970, d. Bill Douglas)
Come Dancing came before Bill Douglas’ celebrated Trilogy. It was one of a handful of short films he made whilst at the London Film School. Previously the film has been available alongside the Trilogy on the BFI’s dual-format edition where, if we’re being honest, it sat rather awkwardly. My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home - the films which make up the Trilogy - are one of the peaks of British cinema making any on-disc companion would fare poorly against them. It fits in considerably better on the Encounters selection, though not because its fellow inclusions are in any way weak. Rather here we can place Come Dancing alongside its thematic companions - much like Vapors this is the tale of gay pick-up that doesn’t go quite as expected, albeit for very different reasons - and note Douglas’ approach in contrast to Reckord, Milligan and de Rome.
The pick-up takes place between a ‘visiting man’ and a ‘local man’, according to the credits. Local is Southend, which the ‘visiting man’ has chosen by throwing a dart at a map. We get a brief glimpse of his girlfriend and his existence before he makes the trip: her exposed breast in one shot doesn’t interest him in the slightest, whilst a stuck record appears to sum up the repetition of his day-to-day life. So Southend is an escape, a chance for something a little out of the ordinary and that’s where ‘local man’ comes in. Much like the girlfriend, ‘local man’ too gets a bit of opening scene nudity, in this case quite clearly taking a piss into the sea for the camera. It’s a moment quite shocking for the sheer candidness - and a warning sign, perhaps, that Come Dancing will pull no punches. Indeed, the title derives from the popular BBC show which is showing on the telly of a seaside café and scene of the pick-up. That Come Dancing is a safe haven of convention and family values completely at odds with the Come Dancing unfolding on our own screens.
When Come Dancing appeared on the dual-format edition of The Bill Douglas Trilogy it was presented in standard definition only. As such we’re not getting a downgrade here, but rather a presentation of equal quality. The source in this instance was a digibeta supplied by the London Film School. Whilst it has its fair share of damage it nonetheless offers up a superb clarity and level of detail. Beneath the tramlining and the tiny scratches which occasionally litter the screen - sometimes quite heavily - we find another excellent transfer that does the best it can with the materials to hand. Production values make themselves known, especially on the soundtrack, but this is to be expected. Extras in this instance are Alex Davidson’s three-page booklet essay, new to this release. (The Come Dancing essay in the Trilogy set were provided by Douglas’ friend and collaborator Peter Jewell.)
Encounter (1970, d. Peter de Rome)
Twelve men from varying walks of life amble through New York with one armed outstretched. They resemble zombies, but this isn’t a horror movie. As with much of Peter de Rome’s output, what we’re seeing here is another of his fantasies writ large on the big screen. The twelve men are slowly moving towards an anonymous building where they come together for an orgy which plays out over Encounter’s remaining minutes. There is no dialogue, just plenty of flesh and Stephen Thrower’s newly composed score - an blend of electronic washes and pulses to up the dreamlike qualities.
De Rome is a fascinating figure, a British-born filmmaker who turned to cinema in his mid-forties. Previously he’d been in the RAF, participated in the Normandy landings and become involved in the civil rights movement in the US whilst employed as a salesman by Tiffany’s. His films where captured on 8mm for personal use - a means, essentially, of picking up men - but with the support of appreciative friends and acquaintances he soon made the transition from screenings in his New York apartment to actual cinemas. Among his many fans were Sir John Gielgud, William S. Burroughs and British film critic David Robinson, who - bizarrely enough - reviewed some of de Rome’s work for the Financial Times when it screened at an Amsterdam sex festival.
The key title is the eight-film compilation The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome (also available from the BFI), though Encounter is more than worthy of attention. De Rome’s films are a mixture of art and porn and work best when they shun the pornographic clichés and instead opt for a more impressionistic approach. He rarely did better than here: a film that operates - and succeeds - on its own logic. No reason is given for why these twelve men have come together, nor is there any need to. De Rome creates the right atmosphere (contrasting the outstretched arms with vérité filming on the New York streets) and lets things happen, proceeding to capture the action with a mixture of experimentation and pure titillation. The result is really quite stunning and the perfect finale to this set. The mixture repression, violence, anger and self-loathing variously encountered in the earlier films has given way to something celebratory and undeterred by outside concerns. It has no desire to confront issues or to question the status quo - it simply is. And there’s something wonderfully innocent about that.
For more information on Peter de Rome, you can read my article for the Quietus here.
De Rome supplied the materials for Encounter from his private collection. Thanks to its 8mm origins, there was never going to a pristine image of optimal clarity. And so it is that we find a certain softness and moderate instances of damage and age, though never to any distraction. As with Vapors, it’s all part of the appeal, in fact, and contributes a great deal to the overall atmosphere. There are occasional instances of interlacing, but this was entirely unavoidable given the original frame rate of 18fps being transferred to 25fps for his PAL DVD release. The soundtrack, newly composed, is given the LPCM stereo treatment and sounds superb. The booklet essay this time around is provided by Alex Davidson. (Those wishing to know more about de Rome should check out the extras to The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome. The booklet on that set contains plenty of background info, plus there is the on-disc documentary Fragments with the man himself.)