GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Water Bearer Films, 1978
Director: Ron Peck
Screenplay: Paul Hallam, Ron Peck
Starring: Ken Robertson, Tony Westrope, Maureen Dolan, Stuart Craig Turton, Clive Peters, Derek Jarman
Unrated, 113 minutes
Water Bearer Films, 1991
Director: Ron Peck
Screenplay: Paul Hallam, Ron Peck
Starring: Nick Bolton, John Brown, John Diamon
Unrated, 91 minutes
From The Vaults
Films that were once considered controversial often spark vastly different reactions from later audiences. The ones that set out to deliberately shock - like, for example, Valley of the Dolls - often live on to become camp classics. Others become quaint curios, others make you wonder what all the initial fuss was about. Some still resonate because social disapproval is still stuck in the mindset that caused the film to be in the first place.
One such film is 1978's Nighthawks, a British film that was one of the first to depict, without apology, the story of a gay man's sexual odyssey. Jim (Ken Roberston) lives a double life as a model school teacher by day while cruising the clubs at night. While ostensibly looking for Mr. Right, he will also settle for anyone who catches his eye across the crowded dance floor.
Taking an almost documentary approach, Nighthawks chronicles Jim's life in almost ritualistic fashion. A pattern emerges: Jim cruises a bar, tricks with one of the men, drives him to work the next morning, teaches his class, interacts with fellow teachers, goes to a bar and repeats the cycle. That is pretty much the plot in a nutshell, except for a climactic scene where one of Jim's pupils asks him if he is "bent" and Jim decides to be honest with his giggling students.
Nighthawks was five years in the making. While raising the money, director/writer Ron Peck and co-writer/producer Paul Hallam gathered gay men to discuss their life stories. Like the genesis of A Chorus Line, these tales became the film's script. Unlike 1970's The Boys in the Band, no one whines about how hard it is to be gay. What emerged was a story that rang true while the main character was an ordinary "everyman" who propels the audience through an exploration of gay nightlife. Jim's unapologetic pursuit of getting laid makes Nighthawks in some ways the progenitor of both the British and American versions of Queer as Folk. The endless scenes of men dancing - a screen phenomenon unknown at the time - furthers this connection.
Most surprising was the unflinching love scenes. While not explicit by today's standards, they are nevertheless still steamy - one even includes full frontal nudity. Straight viewers were undoubtedly shocked while gays were probably equally stunned by its frankness. Most notable was the kissing; these kisses display a natural and sensual quality that would not be seen on American screens for at least another decade. Unlike 1982's Making Love, where Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin do not look comfortable during their one big kiss, Nighthawks cast gay actors in the roles and the resulting trysts are convincing.
A contemporary audience might find the film to be old hat but this was edgy stuff back in 1978. Nighthawks is hardly a polished film (in fact it is at times downright amateurish) but it is an honest one and it should be viewed in the context of its times. With the exception of 1961's Victim, the previously cited Boys in the Band, and the one or two that tried like 1973's A Very Natural Thing, most gay men onscreen were limp-wristed pansies or psycho killers. Nighthawks closely resembles Looking For Mr. Goodbar with the hetero element removed. A cameo by out filmmaker Derek Jarman adds to its pedigree.
But, for all its good intentions, Nighthawks will be remembered more as a political act than as classic cinema. It is not the artistic success of, say, Brokeback Mountain, but that still does not minimize its importance. I would be dishonest if I didn't admit that it sometimes looks like a home movie. Many scenes unfold in one camera take and I suspect that this directorial choice was more for budgetary reasons than aesthetic ones. Nevertheless this approach is often effective, as in the long one-take scene where Jim stands in a club cruising the various men while others walk by, some of them cruising him in return and others going their merry way. The scene, lasting five minutes, ends with a slow camera track into his face until only his eyes fill the frame. Because the director often cuts to close-ups of eyes, we are invited to be spectators, perhaps even voyeurs.
According to director Ron Peck's 1990 companion film, Strip Jack Naked: Nighthawks II, the film would have run 3-1/2 hours had they included all the footage that they shot. Strip Jack Naked is a very unusual documentary that intercuts a large chunk of the unused footage from Nighthawks with director Peck's ruminations, thirteen years later, on the struggle to make his 1978 opus.
His approach is a tad on the "artsy" side, perhaps even bordering on the pretentious, but the director has a lot to say that is quite compelling. He describes his own coming out in 1960s England and remarks, rather ominously, how Margaret Thatcher came to power at the same time his film came out. Controversy would follow Nighthawks for some time. Years later, it would be shown on Britain's Channel 4 (the birthplace of My Beautiful Laundrette and the original Queer as Folk) along with Derek Jarman's Sebastiane, sparking a public outcry.
My knowledge and appreciation of Nighthawks was greatly enhanced by Strip Jack Naked but I would not recommend watching the two films back-to-back in one sitting. Half of its length is outtakes from Nighthawks and it is easy to see why these scenes were cut as they simply repeat what we've already seen and some of them go on for way too long. On the other hand, there was one scene with the potential for violence when Jim refuses to bottom for an aggressive top that would have added more conflict and variety to the film even though the director ultimately thought that moments like this would "send the wrong message."
For those who are interested in our history, Nighthawks is a must see. Both films can be rented at netflix.com.