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Jun 25 2020
Beyond Porn: A Review Of The Gay Classic PASSING STRANGERS Comments (0)

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A review of Passing Strangers — the 1974 Arthur J. Bressan erotic film that's streaming now on PinkLabel.tv — written by Gary Needham ...

Review of Passing Strangers by Gary Needham:

Just released on the streaming platform PinkLabel.tv is a gorgeous restoration of a landmark film from the gay liberation era, Passing Strangers (1974) by the filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan Jr.

Bressan is perhaps better known for his 1978 documentary Gay USA and another essential, recent restoration of the 1985 AIDS drama Buddies.

Passing Strangers is sexually explicit, but to call it “porn” would be a disservice to a film that takes the sexual freedom part of Gay Lib very seriously.

The film is a love story between shy boy Robert coming to terms with his sexuality and Tom, a more seasoned San Francisco gay. Tom places an ad in The Berkley Barb using a Walt Whitman poem, and Robert responds. What unfolds in the first half of the film, in pristine black-and-white cinematography, is the lives of the two men, their fantasies and desires, the letters they send back and forth, and their eventual meeting at the popular gay spot Land’s End.

Suddenly, the film changes to color, reminding us of the popular tagline for Brokeback Mountain that “love is a force of nature.” The love for nature, the splendor of outdoor sex, sunshine, folk music, and an array of fine young men with full heads of hair, anchors Passing Strangers within a Long '60s Haight-Ashbury vibe. From our vantage point, these were the halcyon days of queer life, a time when gay life was radical and countercultural.

Watching Bressan’s early films is all the more bittersweet knowing that his last film, and his own short life, would be colored by AIDS.

Watching Passing Strangers feels like an archive coming to life again. Much of the film is shot on location in San Francisco, around Polk Street and Land’s End, and offers us a snapshot of gay life in 1974. In fact, the film spends as much time documenting these spaces and cultures as it does on sexual encounters. Even then, Bressan eschews any conventions of pornography, gay or straight, that we might bring to a viewing of his film. Instead, we feel that liberation sensibility being experimented through images and sounds rather than playing by the genre’s rulebook.

Bressan’s awareness of both American film history and his critique of the industrial side of commercial pornography is part of the fun of Passing Strangers' knowingness. On several occasions, Bressan foregrounds the act of looking as cinema's very essence, yet Passing Strangers never feels voyeuristic. The film's non-synchronized sound necessitated voice-over dubbing, a budget-related characteristic usually found in exploitation cinema. However, Passing Strangers has more in common with Jack Kerouac’s quirky voice-over in the famous Beat film Pull My Daisy (1959).

Like so many great directors before him, Bressan appears in his own movie. In the first minutes of the film, he is there, looking cute in a Miracle Motion Pictures T-shirt, playing the role of a projectionist in a straight porno house. We see images of these straight pornos as a series of meat shots of mechanical pumping as if Bressan is saying to us “Look, this is not what my film is about.” Indeed, when Robert and Tom first meet, they decide to fly a kite for most of the afternoon.

The symbol of the kite as freedom would not have been lost on audiences; most of the film's reviewers were quick to point out that Bressan’s film transcended the porno category with its “gay consciousness.”

Passing Strangers ends with footage from Bressan’s first film, the 10-minute Coming Out (1972) and new footage from the 1973 and 1974 parades down Polk Street. Tom and Robert appear among the denizens, blurring the lines of fiction and documentary, which also happens in Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing from the same year.

Passing Strangers is a landmark gay film and document of its time. It is guaranteed to leave you feeling glad to be gay.

Passing Strangers is streaming now HERE.

Credits:

USA 76 mins. 16mm scanned to 2K DCP

Writer-Director-Producer: Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.

Cast: Robert Adams, Robert Carnagey

2K digital restoration by Vinegar Syndrome in partnership with The Bressan Project and the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project for Moving Image Preservation.

About The Bressan Project: 

https://bressanproject.wixsite.com/website

About PinkLabel.tv:

https://www.pinklabel.tv/on-demand/about/

The newly restored gay adult classic Passing Strangers (1974) is available as of June 20 streaming on-demand or included in the PinkLabel.TV PLUS membership, where viewers can watch gay adult classics from pioneers like Wakefield Poole, Jack Deveau, Tom DeSimone, Arch Brown, Steve Scott and more — plus more than a thousand other unique adult films. Also look for the digital premiere of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr’s Forbidden Letters (1979) coming exclusively to PinkLabel.tv in August 2020.

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