B&W, 1974, 76 mins. 37 secs.
Directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr.
Starring Robert Adams, Robert Carnagey
1979, 76 mins. 42 secs.
Directed by Arthur J. Bressan Jr.
Starring Richard Holt Locke, Robert Adams
Altered Innocence (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
Back in 2018, Vinegar Syndrome delivered one of its best and most significant releases, the powerful Buddies, which shone a spotlight on late independent filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan Jr. Given the state of how difficult it was to find expression as a gay artist at the time before and during the onslaught of AIDS, he blurred the lines between art film, documentary, and pornography over the course of his career including two 1970s adult films making their Blu-ray from Altered Innocence in 2022. Passing Strangers and Forbidden Letters were released theatrically on the X-rated circuit but don't operate like your traditional smut films at all, clearly making bold statements about gay perspectives and emotional connections along with a very French New Wave-style use of alternating color and black-and-white footage. Drastically hacked down for their fleeting VHS releases, both ended up being restored from the original pre-print materials around the same time as Buddies and ended up going the streaming route at the time. Thankfully they've earned a very worthwhile physical media release here, completely uncensored with some welcome extras giving more context for the curious.
San Francisco telephone company employee Tom decides to use a passage from a Walt Whitman poem about finding a passing stranger as a want ad in the newspaper, something to find more of a connection than the usual evenings he spends out cruising or going to the baths. He ends up exchanging letters with 18-year-old Robert (Adams, also in the deranged Do Me Evil), who's dealing with the process of coming out in San Francisco. Both men have elaborate sexual fantasies that ultimately lead up to their meeting in person, which in turn climaxes in the earliest gay liberation parades in the area. Along the way you get an amazing look at the adults-only "art house" culture and some very funny little cinephile jokes, especially the one about Lina Lamont. At least for the first 37 minutes, Bressan's film unfolds with gritty black-and-white photography of the city interjected with occasional flashes of sex, though the tactic changes after that to full color once Robert strolls out to the shore and the story takes on a more languid and romantic tone. It's actually quite moving and sweet, especially with the juxtaposition of real documentary footage that brings it to a powerful close.
The correspondence theme continues with 1979's Forbidden Letters, which was visibly shot over a period of years with even more coverage of San Francisco in its heyday as well as the abandoned property of Alcatraz. Here we get a framework (inspired by Bressan's own short-lived pen pal experience) involving letters written between prison inmate Richard (future Joe Gage star Locke) and his young lover on the outside, Larry (Adams), who doesn't want to expose his sexual orientation behind bars. Their own history is mingled with fantasies and extensive coverage of the gay community including a colorful drag celebration and a wild sequence with Larry slipping into the film he goes to watch at an adult theater. Again it's more romantic and concerned with a broader look at life than just sex, though there is a lot of that at times balanced with their social life including friend Iris (Victoria Young, whose role was almost entirely dropped from the VHS version).
Both films have underdone beautiful 2K restorations here that prove how much effort went into the visual presentation before they were largely relegated to tattered circulating prints. Colors and detail levels are excellent throughout with no significant damage anywhere apart from the occasional bumpy splice, while the audio is fine given they're very basic mono mixes (with a few amusing grabbed bits of preexisting music). Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are provided for the dialogue, which is basically voiceover throughout in both cases. Ask Any Buddy's Elizabeth Purchell appears on audio commentaries for both films joined by K.J. Shepherd and Tyler Thomas on Passing Strangers and trans film critic Caden Mark Gardner on Forbidden Letters. Both are excellent and loaded with information about the films and its creator including the state of gay cinema at the time, the distribution of adult theatrical features (and frequent bootlegging that went on), the influence of Frank Capra on Bressan, the cuts made to the VHS releases, the backgrounds of the actors, and lots more. A very funny and sharp Q&A with Adams and film historian Jenni Olson (18m35s) at the San Francisco PornFilmFestival is great stuff with the star showing great recall for his experiences on the films and sharing some warm and often surprising stories, including a great one involving Escape from Alcatraz. Also included are five early silent, untitled Super 8 shorts by Bressan (26m21s), restored theatrical trailers for both films, a reissue combo trailer, a gallery of extensive print material and photos (6m48s), and bonus trailers for Arrebato, Equation to an Unknown, Pals, and L.A. Plays Itself: The Fred Halsted Collection. The Blu-ray (which comes in a limited slipcover edition) also has a 20-page booklet a Gardner essay about contextualizing Bressan's explicit work as an essential component of his filmography and a short piece by the director himself about the poignant genesis of Forbidden Letters.
Reviewed on July 11, 2022