‘Hi, I’m Peter de Rome, and I spent the last 50 years making gay porn movies.’
With The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome, the BFI continues its thankless task of rewriting the universe of alternative British filmmakers, otherwise lost, forgotten, or never discovered in the first place. De Rome, now almost 90, was born in 1924 in Juan-les-Pins, and spent his formative years in a Lancashire mill, followed by a stint in Birmingham Rep, though in the documentary that accompanies the DVD extras he more fondly recalls his times living in a beach hut in Ramsgate, jerking off to matinee idol pin-ups.
A veteran of D-Day, De Rome had been a publicist for Rank, Korda and David O. Selznick, who took him to Hollywood with the promise of work on an adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, though De Rome soon quit the movie business mainstream in favour of a sales job at Tiffany’s (he reminisces about encounters in the basement store room). A cinephile in the 60s, with an admiration for Antonioni and Bertolucci, he took to porn very gradually. To get around the processing restrictions, he would begin each roll with an innocuous piece, duping the labs at Kodak into thinking this was a generic home movie. Made just for fun, as a way of picking up boys, his films act as Proustian visual diaries of ex-lovers and one-night stands, his long zoom lens stalking its prey, mirroring his own scopophilic desires.
After one of his films, Hot Pants, won the top award at Amsterdam’s Wet Dream Film Festival in 1971, attracting a review in the Financial Times and a letter of endorsement from William Burroughs, he was approached by producer Jack Deveau, who blew up a selection of his shorts from standard 8 to 16mm for wider distribution. The six-minute film shows a young black crotch in tight jeans and string vest dancing to James Brown, the pants mysteriously falling down, revealing full frontal and bare ass, as the cock gyrates up and down, twirling around, getting harder, then spurting.
Despite the obvious limitations of the boy-fucks-boy genre, De Rome shows endless possibilities in the variation of these simple narratives. In Second Coming, a group of cruisers from London and Paris make a pilgrimage to the white village of Casares in Malaga, where they witness a crucified Adonis, twitching his member to attention, and coming all over himself in his moment before death. In Green Thoughts, a man wanders through a park land, with various stems of trees and plants offering phallic prompts as we cut to him in bed fondling the budge in his Y-fronts. John Gielgud was a fan - while doing Pinter on Broadway, De Rome took him to the Anvil club and Gielgud suggested a plotline for another film idea, though it never materialised.
Though certainly not camera-shy of full-on oral and anal, explicit 69-ing and montage of golden showers, De Rome was clearly interested more in titillation and the aesthetics of arousal, in filmic terms more exciting than the money shot of the act itself. Intentionally or otherwise, the vibrant cine colours, vérité compositions and lack of dialogue lend his work an artistry perhaps not evident in the execution. The ambient muzak scores preserve each scenario as some sort of forbidden Pathé newsreel that we were never meant to see, and the collection now serves as a wistful, nostalgic and almost innocent travelogue of gay life in the 60s and 70s.
The quintessential Englishman in New York, though with a strong resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe, this grandfather of gay porn quit filmmaking in the 80s, after the clean-up of adult theatres and the onslaught of AIDS. Never before commercially available in the UK, his work suggests a parallel reality to the sophomore Sapphics of Hammer or the castrated innuendo of the Carry On films. One waits in eager anticipation for the Blu-ray restorations of the works of George Harrison Marks, John Lindsay and Ben Dover.