Monday, July 26, 2021

Barbara Peeters and Jack Deerson | The Dark Side of Tomorrow, a.k.a. Just the Two of Us

two women holding hands in public

by Douglas Messerli

Jack Deerson, David Novik, and Barbara Peeters (screenplay), Barbara Peeters and Jack Deerson (directors) The Dark Side of Tomorrow a.k.a Just the Two of Us / 1970, 1975

Whenever I approach a film of the 1970s that I have not previously seen, particularly LGBTQ works, I cannot escape a slight shift of my shoulders and an inner cringe. I know, clearly, that there were a number of great films in that decade, some of them like the works of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luchino Visconti, Derek Jarman, and Salvatore Samperi being LGBTQ cinematic works of great visual beauty and narrative complexity.

     But I must admit the vast majority of the films of the decade, even some that I hold dearly, seem to consist  of washed-out color works, often with tones of blue, yellow, brown, and orange upon which a story lumbers through its fames with the grace and excitement of a rhinoceros trapped in a dimestore stocked with Halloween masks. The plaid male bellbottoms, clumsily coifed piles of female hair, and the drugged-out stares of so many leading characters supposedly engaged in wild and loose parties that seem absolutely spiritless and boring, leave me reeling. What happened to the beautifully toned black-and-white and stunning color forays into a complex and sophisticated presentation of figures in a landscape that we encountered in the works of the earlier Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni (although mostly heterosexual in his case), Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Gregory J. Markopoulos, Roman Polanski, Jacques Demy, Joseph Losey, Jacques Rivette, and so very many others? Whatever happened to the international sophistication of the previous decade, particularly with regard to gay and lesbian cinema?

      And then there are the sexploitation films of that decade, most often lesbian in nature, which seemed to have discovered their dialogue in the pages of a potboiler romance by a writer who pens at least three books a day, and reuses of the plots of soap operas that the major studios has long tossed into the trash. I already reviewed just such a work from the cusp of the visually dreary decade, Russel Vincent’s That Tender Touch (1969). Although generally listed as a 1975 film, Barbara Peeters’ and Jacques “Jack” Deerson’s Just the Two of Us was first released in 1970 as The Dark Side of Tomorrow (which remains the film’s theme song) before being re-released under its current title in 1975, and the two have a great deal in common besides now being distributed by Wolfe Video.

      Both films concern two suburban Los Angeles women who for a period of time are joyfully engaged in a lesbian relationship until a man comes along, attracting one of them who breaks up with the other—in That Tender Touch permanently, while the secondary character in Just of the Two of Us intends that but can’t go through with it. And both are conceived and structured as popular male fantasies underlain by a soap-opera plot that was surely perceived as an attraction to any possible female/lesbian audience, which given the dearth of lesbian cinema available in those days, was apparently embraced by a fairly large number of interested women. As David Alexander Nahmod summarizes the situation in his review of the two films in the Bay Area Reporter:

                       These films were generally marketed to a straight male crowd,

                       who could ogle the T&A content without entering a "forbidden"

                       adult theatre. But the lesbian-themed films in this genre had

                       a second, closeted audience.

                          Some 35 years ago, there was no L Word for women to tune

                       into. In 1970, if a lesbian wanted to see lesbian love portrayed

                       onscreen, these films were all that was offered. So these

                       "dykesploitation" films, as they're sometimes called, quietly

                       built a cult following among women. They can hardly be called

                       classics, but they're part of our cinematic history. If you look

                       past the sometimes corny dialogue and clumsy acting, you find

                       serious themes that lesbians could relate to: their longing to

                       connect and be loved by each other.

      But surely, even then—that same year Howard and I had just publicly announced our gay relationship and were involved in the post Stonewall gay liberation effects on our college campus—most lesbians (and I must remind the reviewer above, lesbians were very much at the heart of the post-Stonewall revolutions, and there was a very active lesbian community long before that time; see my review from 1950 of the Mona’s San Francisco lesbian bar Candle Light)  must have found much of these work’s phallos-centric perspectives fairly offensive. Jan Oxenberg’s witty lesbian satires were filmed during this same period.

      And even at the height of the Sapphic cinematic romances between the two sets of women, their lives seem to consist of a rather dreary sequence of events that include mostly hiking, horseback riding, walking along the beach, playing miniature golf, and taking each to lunch. In both the films the female couples seem to find great pleasure in riding the carousel on the Santa Monica Pier. And, finally, both films also contain parties that I would left, even back in 1970, before I passed the vestibule. In Peeters’ and Deerson’s film the party, attended by wealthy gay men and lesbians, consists mostly of the attendees staring at one another—most of whom are described by the host Mona Klein (Elizabeth Knowles) as wealthy celebrities in fashion and film—when they’re not engaged with two male-in-tights’ crotches or scantily-clad female performer who together make up the trio of the Queen Mary Dancers. Maybe you need several glasses of the hooch and dope the party-goers are consuming to experience all the fun. Hollywood directors and even independent filmmakers have never been very successful in representing swinging parties. Shortly before this Blake Edwards had devoted an entire film, The Party (1968), just to satirize the subject; but even with Peter Sellers’ Indian character’s repetitions of “Hi Tex” and “Birdee nam nam,” he couldn’t arouse much humor.

      Yet Barbara Peeters, a feminist who went on the direct several important lesbian movies and Jack Deerson, who just a year after this film was the cinematographer for Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop do, ultimately, turn this film in a more interesting direction. Of the two films, the commentators agree, Just the Two of Us is the better aged. If the film begins as the story of two bored suburban housewives whose military husbands pretty much ignore them, running off for several weeks at a time to engage in war games in Arizona, the tale quickly turns to something else when the lunching friends—having found what they consider a bohemian-like café in a canyon—encounter a couple of good looking women holding hands and obvious demonstrating their love for one another. 

     Both Denise Bentley (Elizabeth Plumb) and Adria Madsen (Alisa Courtney) are shocked by their openness and even ask the waiter (Vince Romano) if he’s going to throw them out or even call the police. His acceptance of the event, however, changes their perception, and Denise, in particular, even recalls young women friends in college who, although more circumspect about it, were so inclined. But it still effects the friends, and as they go their car to leave, they encounter the women again sitting in their car, intensely kissing. 

     Other films of the day would have perhaps taken the situation no further, and, when the two women later decide to “try out” same gender sex, presented it merely as an act of curiosity, asserting to the film’s male audience that such things simply happen to women when their “natural” sexual needs get ignored. Indeed at a card party with two other neighbor women, when the girls recount their experience, the two quickly turn into true homophobes, suggesting not only that it is against nature but faulting both the waiter and their friends for not calling the police, fearful of the influence of such behavior on their own daughters.

     And, it does appear, at least in Adria’s case that the sexual experiences they soon begin to explore with one another is all a kind of game, although one in which both seem very much pleasantly engaged.

     But the film quickly reveals that for Denise, at least, it is not simply a whim, but in fact a sexual urge that she has been hiding from herself for a long while which helps to explain her own unhappiness in her marriage. And it is her gradual coming to terms with that identity that is at the heart of the film. 

     Contrarily, Adria treats it, at least at first, as a momentary predilection, something simply to replace what she’s missing with her husband away for such long periods of time. She clearly loves Denise as a friend, but quickly moves to what might be described as the next stage of sexual infidelity by flirting with two men the women meet on an adventure at a Los Angeles pier. The males, Jim Jeffers (John Aprea) and Casey (Marland Proctor), have just caught a fish, and in standard chauvinistic manner, invite the women to cook it for them. If Denise wants nothing to do with the situation, Adria is only too happy to take them up on invitation, she and Jim getting on quite nicely while Denise gives Casey the cold shoulder.

      Finally forced by Denise after dinner to take her home, Adria leaves her phone number for Jim on the bathroom mirror penned by her lipstick.

      Within no time Jim and Adria have developed a relationship, leaving Denise on her own to contemplate her unexplained feelings and her obvious hurt for having been so quickly displaced in what she thought was a loving relationship.

       If the film is still not sophisticated enough to imagine how to fully express her suffering except heavy bouts of drinking, reading pulp fictions, and long strolls on the beach—on one such walk encountering a beachside combo playing to hippies, the London Dri—we do finally realize just how invested in a new sexual identification she is when she meets up with the early lesbian couple who invite her out to the party I spoke of above.

       If nothing much is happening at the party, in the back pool room to which Mona finally takes the curious Denise, something rather exciting does finally occur as the predatory lesbian, after drugging the neophyte, attempts to have sex with her upon her pool table. When Denise suddenly jumps up, dresses, and runs off, we know it is not the sex itself that appalls her, but whom she is having it with and where. What Denise discovers in that moments is that she is not only a lesbian but is still very much in love with Adria and worried about her situation.

      And indeed, Adria is very much in danger. The man with whom she believes she fallen in love, Jim, is using her and another woman simultaneously for advancement in his acting career. His previous lover has just gotten him an audition for a role, so he must reward her with sex once again. And he is depending on Adria for a new suit and other financial support.

      She, however, is even planning a future with Jim, and given Denise’s response, suggesting that she still seems him as a hustler, determines to cut off their friendship entirely. What Adria also doesn’t know is that her husband David returned home without her knowledge, and quickly discovers that she is having an affair given that she has paid a parking ticket with her “husband,” obviously Jim pretending to be David.

      Her husband quietly sits in the house as Adria and Jim return, she talking about the sex they’re about to enjoy. David suddenly looms up before them, slugging Jim and also, in the process, striking his wife in the face several times before leaving the couple alone to face the consequences, Jim also perceiving that with a broken nose and swollen jaw he will have no career if he remains with Adria. He tells her what she has previously told Denise, that there is no longer any room in his life for their relationship.

      Now, having been abused by both the men with whom she once loved, Adria meets up forlornly but obviously chastised, with Denise, the plot suggesting that from now on it will be “just the two of them.” 

      Yet, a deeper reading of this work, which Plumb’s fairly convincing acting seems to require, is that while Denise has come to truly know herself and knows that she is still deeply love Adria, it is not all certain whether Adria has recognized herself as or if she even truly is a lesbian. So whether or not the relationship between the two women will last is never answered. But the film has revealed Denise’s coming out, and we now recognize her as the stronger and more mature of the two women for that fact. It appears that Adria will always be a woman seeking refuge and identification in another being.

       This film, accordingly, is by far one of the more complex explorations of lesbian sexuality outside of Pandora’s Box (1929), The Killing of Sister George (1968), and The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant (1972) that we have thus far encountered in LGBTQ works of cinema.

Los Angeles, July 26, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2001).

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