Flesh & Fantasy
By Maitland McDonagh
For Peter de Rome, the godfather of gay porn, filmmaking was strictly for kicks
The Second Coming
Dreams from a Crosstown Bus
Forget for a moment life in pornutopia, where virtually everything is ready for prime time, whether or not you’re ready for it—Showtime’s hunks-for-hire “reality” show Gigolos, anyone? Let’s go back some 50 years, when slipping a bit of unfettered sex into a movie was not only very, very naughty, but could be configured as an épater la bourgeoisie revolutionary act. And if that bit of sex were gay, well, you were way ahead of the curve.
Which is where we find filmmaker Peter de Rome, the “grandfather of gay porn,” whose pioneering shorts and two features unfold at the intersection of art house and smut, products of the moment when softcore sex movies briefly rubbed shoulders with the avant-garde and produced movies like Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (63), Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (63), Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (64), and the Kuchar Brothers’ Hold Me While I’m Naked (66).
As celluloid fight-or-flight responses to a culture that labeled homosexuals as predatory, self-destructive, mentally ill moral degenerates doomed to furtive lives of lies and loneliness, these films were rebellious provocations on the one hand and fantastic reconfigurations of pop-culture fantasies on the other. The underground/festival circuit was the forum for these demon-driven acts of cultural defiance.
De Rome’s playful, cheerfully erotic caprices stand in breathtaking contrast with most underground films: he made his for fun, including the fun of persuading handsome strangers to strip for the camera. They’re fantasies, but fantasies rooted in everyday delights like the sight of a handsome UPS man in a form-fitting uniform, and in the imperative to “only connect.” A brief moment of eye contact thwarted by Midtown traffic becomes an entire relationship in the 14-minute Daydreams from a Crosstown Bus (72); so too with the dreamlike game of cat and mouse between the hero and his elusive doppelgänger in the Maya Deren–esque Double Exposure (69), and the briskly professional intimacy between trendy Seventies sculptor Richard Etts and the nude model (future porn star Robert Rikas) whose sinewy torso he’s coating with layers of plaster in Moulage (71). In that film, Etts is all business and Rikas seems sleepily game for anything or nothing, but the atmosphere vibrates with promise amid the mundane—the nosy meanderings of Etts’s cats, Rikas picking plaster out of his pubic hair, the meticulous process of removing the finished mold.
By some quirk of temperament, de Rome never internalized the soul-scarring homophobia that drove so many of his contemporaries. Being gay wasn’t a torment, just a fact: “Some people are and some people aren’t.” The thoroughly English son of a high-school math teacher (born in France courtesy of some dysfunctional family drama), de Rome was raised in Ramsgate, Kent, equally in thrall to movie magazines and schoolboy horseplay. He graduated to hijinks in the Royal Air Force and the discovery that he was particularly attracted to black men, who figure prominently in his films. After the war he dabbled in acting and worked in the PR departments of the Rank Organization, Alexander Korda’s London Films, and the U.K. office of David O. Selznick’s Selznick Studio.
De Rome relocated to New York in 1956, largely, he claimed, because postwar London had become very dull, though it may have had something to do with the coming-out conversation with his mother, or the brief liaison with an acquaintance who turned out to be a serial rapist-murderer, or the near-inevitable run-in with the police. He talked his way out of being arrested for “loitering,” but it put a scare into him.
Finding the Selznick Studio’s New York office becalmed by scheduling delays on A Farewell to Arms, de Rome took an interim job selling stationery at Tiffany’s and bought his first 8mm camera in 1964, in part because he had become deeply involved in the civil-rights movement and wanted to document his experiences in the South as a CORE volunteer, but mostly because of “the power of advertising.” And, of course, he shared the same abiding interest in documenting sex that had helped drive Polaroid-camera sales.
By his own account, de Rome approached life and sex as a series of adventures best undertaken with good humor and an open mind, qualities epitomized by Hot Pants (71), a six-minute solo for the bobbing privates of a man grooving to James Brown’s ode to short shorts. De Rome made Hot Pants on a whim. Invited to submit work to the Amsterdam-based Wet Dream Film Festival, he decided it would be nice to add something new to the mix. Hot Pants is simultaneously sexy and funny, perfectly capturing the transition between goofing around and playing to a lover’s indulgent gaze. Its artfulness lies in appearing artless, like a scrap of half-recalled memory. It won first prize in the shorts category and was championed by William S. Burroughs.
But it took Jack Deveau (Left-Handed, 72) to get de Rome’s movies out of film festivals and friends’ living rooms and into theatrical release. Deveau produced a compilation film, 1973’s The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome, collecting six existing shorts—Double Exposure, Hot Pants, and Daydreams from a Crosstown Bus, plus Mumbo Jumbo (72), The Second Coming (72), and Green Thoughts (71)—in addition to the two new titles: Prometheus (72), a modern-day spin on the Greek myth starring Moulage’s Rikas as the tortured god; and Underground (71), in which a pair of commuters share a highly charged encounter in an empty subway car. The last scene, de Rome recalled with characteristic dry wit, “was [shot] on the F train, of course.” Opening at the height of the porno-chic era, when it briefly appeared possible that the adults-only and mainstream movie industries might merge, The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome played venues like Manhattan’s long-gone Lincoln Art Theatre and should have been the beginning of a new phase in de Rome’s filmmaking. But it was actually the beginning of the end.
De Rome subsequently completed two features—Adam & Yves (74), about the brief affair between a Frenchman and an American tourist, and the psychedelic, S&M-heavy The Destroying Angel (76)—and started several other projects. But by the late Seventies he was losing interest in pornography, finding its purely functional orientation—less about the teasing thrill of anticipation than the brutal payoff of money shots—“infinitely tedious and depressing.”
The cinema of forbidden delights thrives on the fringes, defined in opposition to prevailing cultural and aesthetic norms and shaped by unconventional sensibilities. But norms shift and four decades later de Rome’s films look new again. Graphic but not reductive, at once bewitchingly dreamlike and down to earth, they play like captured moments that celebrate acts of both the imagination and the flesh.