It’s hard to categorise a piece like The Erotic Films of Peter De Rome (1973), released by the BFI for the first time on DVD to coincide with the 26th BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. Underground gay filmmaker Peter De Rome was making sensual Super 8 films in his adopted home city of New York for much of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Made mostly for his, and his friends, own titillation, it was at the behest of pioneering producer Jack Deveau who saw one of the said films, that De Rome was persuaded to gather together eight of the movie shorts, blow them up to 16mm, and release them to instant critical and public acclaim.
Watching the films, you can’t help but feel caught between two stools. On the one hand, you have what appears as little more than home movies of various nubile young men pleasuring themselves – and each other – for the camera in a collection of often bizarre situations. These could however, also be viewed as beautiful snapshots of a surreal imagination, as much there to depict the exploration of the male body and identity as for any means of erotic arousal.
Shot in such diverse locations as Fire Island, New York and Kew Gardens, London, some of the films featured in this collection, such as the dreamlike Double Exposure (1969), where a young man is enticed into an empty beach house to watch a mirror image of himself taking pleasure in a series of erotic acts, could – at a stretch – be considered as diverting examples of arthouse cinema. However, such undeniably beautiful voyeuristic trips are sullied by the equally pornographic base level of others like Prometheus (1972), with its brutal gang rape finale.
What saves this BFI DVD release is the accompanying documentary Fragments: The Incomplete Films of Peter De Rome (2011). This interview with De Rome (now in his 80s), during which he discusses how he became involved in filmmaking and specifically gay erotica, is fascinating, kept lively by a man who in the end appears more interesting than much of his work.