Fragments: The Incomplete Films of Peter de Rome
Dir: Ethan Reid
18:20 NFT2 • UK: 42 min • Pathetique Films • 2012
Friday night was Peter de Rome night at the BFI’s London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and it was a night of firsts: the premiere of Ethan Reid’s documentary Fragments: The Incomplete Films of Peter De Rome, the first ever cinematic showing of three of de Rome’s short films, and my first experience of communal gay porn viewing.
The documentary’s producer, David McGillivray, was asked to write something for the booklet accompanying the BFI’s DVD release of The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome back in 2010, but decided he’d rather make a film about the 87 year old ‘Grandaddy of Porn.’ De Rome talks charmingly, engagingly, and wittily about his career making erotic films, which didn’t start out as a career at all. Having moved to New York in the 1960s he simply followed men around with his hand-held Super-8 camera and would invite them up to his apartment to make a film. Lots of them accepted and he would pay them a small fee. The films were circulated privately at first before the producer, Jack Deveau, saw them and gave them a wider cinematic release.
What Reid and McGillivray discovered, when in conversation with de Rome at his apartment in New York, was that he had a box stuffed with incomplete material, some of it nearly finished, some of it just small moments, such as when he lived opposite Battery Park and filmed guys going in and out of a notorious cottage. The men in de Rome’s films flirt with the camera, which relishes their tight-fitting clothing and flamboyant style. He appeared in many of his own movies, sometimes as film-maker, sometimes as participant and, as he notes himself, this small, white, Englishman was often attracted to his opposite – tall black men – even routinely cottaging in the basement toilet of the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
What is clear is that, with only limited resources and by using men he picked up from the streets, de Rome produced an astonishingly fresh body of erotic work – as delightfully funny and charming as the man himself. He’s supremely literate and intelligent – who else would dare to film a gay sex orgy to the music of the avant-garde French composer Olivier Messiaen? The fact that his films are wordless makes them abstract, and more interesting because they come to rely on visual invention and juxtaposition.
Mumbo Jumbo begins wittily with a voice over from a car advert. The rhapsodising about the car’s performance and looks are accompanied by the camera panning over a naked man’s body. The film continues with this game playing before culminating in a string of cum shots interspersed with fireworks. Encounter is like some weird porno episode of the 1970’s sci-fi series The Tomorrow People. A dozen or so men, each with one arm outstretched, gather silently in an industrial space as if hypnotised, take off their clothes, and get it on. There’s no real sex in this film, though it is sexy and this is also one of de Rome’s great achievements – sexiness doesn’t necessarily depend on sex itself but on the easy way the guys are with each other and with the camera. In one of his films a man is preparing for sex, bathing himself before joining his lover on the bed. It’s a moment of supreme intimacy that we’ve been invited to share and enjoy: the film ends before any actual sex takes place. We, the viewer, can choose to get off if we want to – these are definitely jerk-off movies de Rome asserts – but that’s not dependent on the subjects in the film doing the same.
The sexiest and most satisfying of these incomplete films is The Fire Island Kids. De Rome had been weekending at Fire Island for many years. Here, two gorgeous blonds, one of whom is saved from drowning in the sea by the other, get high, get naked, fool around, dance, kiss and swim. This is like David Hockney’s ‘The Bigger Splash’ made real, and like Hockney’s pool paintings there’s a focus on tan lines, slim beautiful naked men (was everyone skinny in the 70s?) and water – something which, de Rome admits, he finds a real turn on. Once again, there’s no money shot here, but it really doesn’t matter, because this is all about the enjoyment of looking and the sensuality of sexuality.
The evening continued in the BFI’s Blue Room where some of de Rome’s most famous works were projected onto three large screens to a soundtrack of ’60s and ’70s disco funk. Organised by the excellent Little Joe magazine, this was a wonderfully inventive way of showing de Rome’s work to a mixed audience. De Rome himself was there, sprightly and diminutive, chatting to people, answering questions, and thrilled, no doubt, that his work, made at a time when it was illegal, was being showcased at the UK’s most prestigious cinema venue and has been admitted into its national archive. Actually, we should all be thrilled about that. And proud too.
As for watching gay porn in a cinematic, communal environment, it felt excitingly liberating and much less sleazy than you might imagine. I’m not about to start frequenting the porno cinemas of Soho (if such things still exist) but it does make you realise that you can enjoy seeing explicit sex, presented in an interesting and exciting way, and not feel guilty about it. If it was up to me, every Friday night would be Peter de Rome night.