Arthur J Bressan Jr’s newly restored 1974 film provides a celebratory snapshot of 70s San Francisco in all its queer beauty.
Bressan’s film is vintage gay porn for cinephiles, thankfully now restored and available on PinkLabel.TV. Shot half in black and white, and half in color, this love story about two lonely souls acts as a meditation on queer cinema and a celebration of the art of pornography.
The film even opens in a cinema—showing a hetero skin flick from the view of an unidentified projectionist. Unimpressed by the film on view, he reclines to read the paper, and discovers his friend Tom’s gay personals ad, a cry out for romance expressed through poetry (stolen from Walt Whitman). The writer, Tom, is a 28-year-old active member of the San Francisco gay scene; he’s sexually active but ultimately lonely, and the ad is his call for connection. Tom eventually receives a reply from Robert, a nervous 18-year-old who wants to find his way into the scene but isn’t sure how.
It’s a familiar set up, frequently told in porn and beyond (e.g. Call Me By Your Name). The story is not the main draw of this film however, instead it acts as a backdrop for a far more interesting series of cinematic vignettes—each displaying gay sexuality and love in wildly different ways.
The only dialogue is the narrated letters between Tom and Robert—introducing each new mini-film, which plays out as a distinct piece of art. We see Robert attend a peepshow—his wide eyes juxtaposed with an extreme close up of the cocks displayed in the orgy on the screen in front of him (scored to experimental synth jazz). We see Tom go cruising on San Francisco’s famous Polk Street, having sunny afternoon sex to the sound of progressive rock, like the languid bedroom scenes in The Rolling Stone’s 1970 film Performance. We see Robert fantasize about masturbating for a crowd of naked men blowing bubbles and clapping, recalling Kenneth Anger’s playful 1947 homoerotic group party film Fireworks. In one particularly affecting scene we see a lonely Robert masturbating alone to the sound of mournful violins—reminding us of the confusion and isolation many of us feel as baby queers.
While these initial vignettes are shot in black and white, the second half of the film blossoms into color as Tom and Robert meet – flying a kite on their first date in a scene so romantic it should be ridiculous, but remains surprisingly sincere. As they become more intimate in the Californian woods to serene folk music, we’re treated to one of the most loving gay scenes ever captured in porn or beyond it. Bressan creates a perfect tender moment – the kind of interaction we all dream of and remember fondly when it happens.
The film closes with a celebratory portrait on a San Francisco Pride parade—in all its diversity—with all genders and races smiling in the sunshine, living their lives. Bressan’s movie effectively captures a special moment, a feeling of hope and freedom in a truly unique city (coincidentally the home of PinkLabel.TV itself). As hot as the sex in the film is, these scenes celebrating the diversity of San Francisco’s queer community are the ones that stay with you.
Passing Strangers is available on PinkLabel.TV.
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