In 1977, Arthur J. Bressan Jr. was promoting his landmark documentary Gay USA (1977) on the gay-centered New York City television program Emerald City TV at the height of gay liberation. He dressed unpretentiously in blue jeans and a t-shirt with long-hair and a mustache that made him look more 1960s San Francisco Haight Ashbury hippie than “Castro Clone”. The host of the program asked him with the success of this documentary, what he planned on doing next, Bressan answered, “I want to make a feature-length gay narrative story about two men who are in love for commercial distribution. I would say a gay breakthrough film that straight people can go see and gay people can see.” It was a remarkable but specific aspiration and not without some precedence to build from. There had been titles like William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band and Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing earlier in the decade and gay liberation and activism brought massive optimism that visibility and equality were taking major steps both in public life and in dramatized visual media. However, that ambition never materialized for Bressan. While he made some incredibly important and bold films with Abuse (1983) and his testament film Buddies (1985), the first AIDS narrative film, those were far from commercial in their unflinching approaches. Bressan captured gay rights in the 70s and dramatized how AIDS was ignored by the mainstream public in the 1980s before he succumbed to the virus in 1987 at the age of 44, but there was another side of his oeuvre that he was open about: making gay pornography.
Bressan’s filmography is notable in that he never used a pseudonym for these porn films and even as mainstream cinema never approached him, he continued to be playful in his porn films that were often meta and reflexive about the audience expectations of pornography while also hyper-aware that American gay life still existed on the margins of society, hardly the fantasies one would presume in a porn film. While it remains a tragedy that Hollywood never rewarded Bressan’s wish of making a commercial gay romance, his early adult film efforts are as beautiful and tender as any great mainstream gay film romance has offered. Those films, Passing Strangers (1974) and Forbidden Letters (1979) have been finally restored and are now available on PinkLabel.TV, the first time these films have ever been on a streaming platform.
Bressan grew up a fan of Old Hollywood, particularly of Frank Capra, and these films contain nods to and the sensibilities of classic Hollywood romances. What is striking about both Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters is that the central couples of these films are not together for a considerable duration of the film. Bonds are forged in Passing Strangers by letter writing through the personal ads of the Bay Area Reporter between eighteen year-old Robert (Robert Adams) and twenty-eight year-old Tom (Robert Camagey). Their lives are shown independently of each other, one inexperienced and just recently coming to terms with his sexuality, the other a dissatisfied and forlorn gay man who cruises around San Francisco. Their connection forged through the written word plays out like something out of Love Letters or The Shop Around The Corner. In the film, communication exists solely in the narration of these letters, while being profane and honest about the gay experience for both characters in their imagery and aesthetics. Robert has no other point in being gay other than to sexually fantasize, giving the film its most experimental flourishes of him day dreaming of a dozen naked gay men in his room being joyful and open while Tom’s cruising out on the street is shot in guerrilla vérité. But with these contrasts in styles, the meet-up of these lovers hits a happy medium which reflects the most memorable stylistic flourish of the film: going from black-and-white to color. Their physical connection brings the ultimate clarity.
Robert and Tom have sex outdoors in nature overlooking the city but it is what happens after that that is so striking. This is not just a fling but they are in love and walk together holding hands across the San Francisco streets basking in the glow of the real-life San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, an early version of gay pride. What is being clearly remarked upon is how the sexual, personal, and political are all intersecting and the infectious optimism of this time in San Francisco’s gay community is not so much utopian fantasy, but something possible.
Forbidden Letters, strikes a different, darker mood from Passing Strangers. Passing Strangers goes to color—the better times—in a moment of progression in the narrative. Forbidden Letters is in color—also the better times—in flashbacks to the past with the present in black and white. It is also an epistolary story but the distance of these lovers is due to the barrier of incarceration. The film enters the headspace of the imprisoned Richard (played by gay porn legend Richard Locke) who is writing a letter to his lover Larry (played by Robert Adams of Passing Strangers). Once again narration conveys the letter’s content over the dizzying, chaotic handheld camera work of showing Richard behind bars. The letter is a mix of reflection, apology, struggle, and identity crisis. “I’m just turned off by the scene here. It’s like being asleep, but I don’t see anything. I walk, I move, answer questions, but it is not really me. How I am… or used to be.” The horror-like musical score begins to howl and quickly the film cuts to Richard jerking off in his cell, fantasizing about Larry having sex with him. Sex is a respite, but also something that he cannot have nor share with the man he loves due to his predicament. Larry, meanwhile, is trying to move on and to find pleasure with one-night stands, going to gay porn movie theaters, and watching other men have sex. He feels alone and isolated from the world, as presented in a remarkable scene where Larry is shot walking the streets of San Francisco, rendered a ghost town. Larry ends up having sex with a stranger, but his love of Richard still persists in his mind, memories flooding back into his head at any given moment.
Larry also has a letter to Richard (but due to his concerns of Richard’s safety in prison, he is apprehensive in sending it), reflecting on when they first met, the moment when he wanted him, how Richard played into his fantasies. The progression of their relationship is revealed as Larry goes on; they were not just boyfriends but lived together and were making a home for each other. This is not just some younger man and his gay ‘daddy’ figure, but two emotionally intelligent men who wanted to spend a life together. It is quite something to hear in a pornographic film, “Sometimes, even more than your body, I miss how you looked at things,” in thinking back to how Richard’s outlook and gregariousness introduced Larry into new worlds, people, and places. Larry worries that prison life will remove Richard of his tenderness and smile. Despite the details of what put Richard in prison being vague (mugging and attempted robbery are mentioned), there is a sadness and solemnity that creates audience empathy. The question posed by the film if these men can make it looms for the audience who have seen these two men make love and are presented a relationship heavily romanticized where problems are hinted at but not fully probed. The film eschews the crude fetishization that many porn films have of the prison and prisoner, Richard is fighting against the mundane with his memories of Larry being the only thing that carries him through the days. Again, their in-person interactions are wordless (Bressan got creative in his low-budget works, never recording sound and so the pretense of letter-writing and narration function to fill-in the blanks) but tenderness and personalities bridge the lack of standard movie dialogue. Their romance is unconventional in that it is presented as a memory play that gets disrupted and the next chapter remains open, whether or not they can withstand being apart for so long. It is notable that even in this gloomier, social realist film that Bressan’s light touch reemerges by the end, including a cheeky end credits sequence that is an explicit homage to Orson Welles’ compromised masterpiece, The Magnificent Ambersons.
It cannot be overstated how incredible the restorations are for both of these films, writing as somebody who first watched them on VHS rips thanks to filmmaker and archivist Evan Purchell (Ask Any Buddy). The image and sound are so clean, although still with the grainy integrity of these films shot on 16mm not to mention in the case of Forbidden Letters around twenty minutes of more footage that adds character and context. These films are necessary viewing for anybody who wants to fill in the blind-spots of queer film and queer filmmakers who emerged during gay liberation, Bressan being among the very best.
Passing Strangers ★★★★★
Newly restored from the original negative, Passing Strangers is available to purchase or rent now at PinkLabel.tv. Or watch for free as part of your PinkLabel.tv subscription.
Forbidden Letters ★★★★1/2
The newly restored Forbidden Letters will be available from Saturday August 22nd 2020 at PinkLabel.tv.
By Caden Mark Gardner
Caden Mark Gardner is a freelance film critic from Upstate New York who focuses on queer and trans representation across cinema.