Saturday, September 19, 2020

Bill Douglas | Come Dancing

etude for a clueless queer
by Douglas Messerli

Bill Douglas (writer and director) Come Dancing / 1970

There’s something incredibly sad about British filmmaker Bill Douglas’ 1970 work Come Dancing. First of all, the director of this seemingly gay film was not himself a homosexual—or at least was not able to admit it. Although he lived for years with fellow film enthusiast Richard Jewell, who he had met while serving in the Royal Air Force in Egypt, Douglas as Jewell speaks of their relationship in his 2006 documentary Intent Upon Getting the Image was not gay:

           We weren’t a gay couple. A lot of people assumed
           that were because [we lived] together….but Bill
           wasn’t homosexual…we were all sorts of other
           things to each other. Practically everything but

     Douglas’ well received trilogy of movies, My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), and My Way Home (1978). although, as British Film Institute curator Alex Davidson observes, “returns repeatedly to the subject of relationships between male characters,” some of them— particularly Douglas’ last film, Comrades (1987)—verging on the homoerotic, yet “Come Dancing is his only work in which homosexuality is explicitly mentioned.”
     As Jewell continues to comment on the 1970 short, “His two characters [in this early film] bear no resemblance to Jaime and/or Robert [the two characters of Comrades]. But, with the benefit of 40 years’ hindsight,  [his last film] is perhaps autobiographical, in that Bill may have been pondering what on earth he was doing shacked up with another guy for the past decade—as, indeed, I had waxed poetical over the same conundrum a few years earlier.”
      Just as importantly, however, is how Douglas represents the short-lived meeting between the two figures of Come Dancing. “The visiting man” (Clive Merrison), with whom the picture begins, is seen sitting on a chair with a dart in hand which he hurls at a map of Britain. It hits Southend, which, we realize is to be his destination. Behind him, meanwhile, sits a woman, intentionally exposing her breast as if attempting to woo the man to remain with her, obviously in order to share her now rejected love.
     In Southend, meanwhile, the “Local man” seems quite joyful, dancing alone upon a pier before delightedly pissing into the ocean below.
     The visitor already sits in a nearby coffee shop, disgusted by the taste of the liquid he’s already half swallowed and amused by the older waitress (Nicole Anderson), utterly consumed by her telly, broadcasting what appears to be a national competition of ballroom dancing of the kind that Baz Luhrmann satirized in his movie Strictly Ballroom.
       So inattentive is the woman and so empty is the café that the stranger is clearly bored and begins to construct paper airplanes which he sails as close as he can to the woman transfixed by her TV set.
       The local man enters, an almost immediate bond of recognition passing between the two, if for no other reason that they seem to be the only men in Southend at the moment. Indeed, after the Southender orders up the same vile liquid that the stranger is drinking, they eye one another, the newcomer yelling out, “Were is the action around here.” “It depends what you’re looking for,” his would-be friend responds.
       Just few seconds later, the local man has joined the outsider at his table where they share lighters, the dancer offering his new acquaintance a cigarette. The newcomer refuses, obviously preferring his own brand, but offers the other a light. Before long the two are whispering to each other, apparently about the café waitresses inability to focus on anything but the ballroom competition to which she has tuned. They briefly giggle and in mockery of her fascination gradually dance out the door together.
        As they reach the pier where, one supposes, the local man has hinted there may be a space for “action,” they briefly tussle with one another, mock-wrestling almost as teenage boys might, seemingly just for the delight of touching one another.
       Yet suddenly, as the two seem about to share an erotic moment, the stranger, pretending to urinate, turns on his partner, knife in hand, calling him a fag and letting loose what Davidson describes as a “tirade of homophobic abuse.”
        It is difficult to make sense of this sudden shift. Did the local approach him too quickly? Has the  outsider randomly chosen Southend so that he might accidentally encounter a hated homosexual? And for a second or two we fear that the suddenly pent up hostility which the visitor has displayed might in fact turn into physical abuse.
      Yet the Southender seems unfazed, almost fearless, as he stands his ground with a broad smile pasted upon his face, almost as if he expected the other to finally come round and admit his transparent desires.
      Defeated by his own inexplicable game, the stranger moves away toward to end of the long pier, while the happy local begins to spin off in his own version of a ballroom dance, just as we have seen him performing, we now realize, in the earlier scene.
      Where the homophobe might be going we never discover, although we fear it will not end well, maybe even with his own death. Whatever might occur to him we recognize as representing a great sadness, a great emptiness, certainly a refusal to join openly in the dance the other offered to share with him.
      If the waitress watches her dance passively, her charming fellow citizen has offered up his own sexuality in his dance, which the repressed visitor has sadly been unable to participate.
     In the end, we might describe this lovely short work as an étude to a clueless queer.
     This lovely film was one of Douglas’ first films made while he was enrolled at the London Film School. He died of cancer only 4 years after completing what might be described his “bookend” creation, Comrades. It appears that he was never able to live out the joyful sexual possibilities he had so lovingly captured on film.

Los Angeles, September 19, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (September 2020).   

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