Sunday, October 18, 2020

Peter de Rome | Encounter, or Paul & Richard & Michael & David & Alan & Buddy & Hugo & Tom & Terry & Peter & Richard & Carlos

 

twelve gentle men

by Douglas Messerli

Peter de Rome (director) Encounter, or Paul & Richard & Michael & David & Alan & Buddy & Hugo & Tom & Terry & Peter & Richard & Carlos / 1970

Born in Juan-les-Pins, Côte d'Azur, France, Tony de Rome grew up in England where he worked for a while as press agent for Arthur Rank and Alexander Korda. In 1956 he emigrated to the US, where he worked for awhile at Tiffany’s, a civil rights campaigner, and publicist for David O. Selznick.

     During the 1960s, during which he spent a great deal of time on Fire Island he began to shoot personal films, shot with a 8mm camera, of himself naked, having sex with someone in picked up on the streets, etc, intending the films only for the viewing of friends, but many of which were later collected in his 1973 anthology, The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome.

      Not part of that collection, Encounter was made in 1970, just a year after the earliest of his Erotic Films, Double Exposure (1969). The much larger cast of Encounter, including 12 men credited in the subtitle by only their first names, represents a movement away from the “personal” work, paving the way for his only two feature films, Adam and Yves (1974) and The Destroying Angel (1976). Although he continued to make a few more shorts in the late 1970s, he stopped creating new works beginning in the 1980s out of a kind of disgust for what film critic Alex Davidson describes as “the increasingly explicit but poorly filmed pornography” of that period. In an introduction to The Erotic Films, issued in 1984, de Rome wrote: “Until and unless I can make the sort of films I want to make, I am not interested in making any.”

      Although Encounter presents us with a gay sex orgy, it is less about the actual sex between the 12 men—some of whom were hired from a list of models, but others of whom de Rome simply encountered upon the streets of New York—it is not really about sex but suggests rather a kind of ceremonial group activity. The music of the original was by composer Olivier Messiaen (much of whose work might be described as religious), but for the British Film institute DVD he commissioned a new work by Stephen Thrower.

     One might even suggest there is something a bit like a comical sense of the gathering being a secret society or cabal, as various men walking the Brooklyn Bridge and the lower Manhattan streets suddenly jut out their arms in a salute not that much different from the Nazis—except that a few of them, I observed, were noticeably limp-wristed. Following the inexplicable salute, they begin moving somewhat like the pod-people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers all in the same direction, much to the perturbation of the “normal” passers-by.

      Obviously, what de Rome is satirizing here is the common heterosexual myth that gays recognize one another through a secret code, just as their late-night hangouts are secretive dens of disrepute where they meet to socialize in private codes outside of the sexual mores of the society at large.

       These twelve, representing almost every racial type, style of clothing, various colors of hair, appear out of the blue from traveling by bus, taxi, bicycle, and foot, to follow one another a bit like automatons, entering, one by one, a seemingly derelict loft space where they march up a long set of stairs, by the second-landing already having tossed off their shirts to reveal their handsome lean chests.

     As they enter the loft space, where they gradually congregate, as they eyes adjust to the darkness they slowly reach out to one another, first caressing one another’s faces before slowly moving their hands down across pectorals, backs, and eventually buttocks. Soon, as if by magic they are all nude (BFI writer Davidson notes that the one thing all these men have in common are “their luminous buttocks left from tan lines).

      On cue, they begin bending, sitting, and rolling to simulate orgiastic sexual behavior, but except for the appearance of an occasion semi-erect penis, de Rome does not portray any of these sexual acolytes actually engaging in sex. They actions represent more of a ritualistic dance instead of the made pawing and groveling of sex-starved men.

      In the darkened room the camera lovingly pans over their swaying and shifting bodies before presenting them in a perfect circular formation, their backs facing the camera, which suddenly opens up—almost as if they were part of a synchronized grouping of dancers in a film choreographed by  Busby Berkeley—to reveal floral-like petals of interlocked legs. Immediately the credits announce “The End” to what we might imagine is actually only the beginning.

      In the darkened room the camera lovingly pans over their swaying and shifting bodies before presenting them in a perfect circular formation, their backs facing the camera, which suddenly opens up—almost as if they were part of a synchronized grouping of dancers in a film choreographed by  Busby Berkeley—to reveal floral-like petals of interlocked legs. Immediately the credits announce “The End” to what we might imagine is actually only the beginning.

Los Angeles, October 18, 2020

Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (October 2020).

      

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