Arthur Bressan Jr: The Auteur of Gay Liberation

The career of landmark director of queer cinema was cut short by an early death from AIDS, but its impact can still be felt today.
Caden Mark Gardner

Arthur Bressan, Jr.

Queer cinema in America is not without a sense of loss. In trying to bridge a period of censorship and queer coding (whether in compliance to censors or deliberately transmitting some kind of film language that reads queer without explicitly stating so) to New Queer Cinema and post-New Queer Cinema of today, there is an acceptance and resignation that what pervades a considerable period of queer cinema history is absence, something missing.  It is the what could have been: art that was not made because it could not be made, as those who would have were dead. The lost lives and lost potential of HIV/AIDS among artists in the 1980s eidolically looms over queer cinema. But there was still art being made and artists to celebrate. Predating the AIDS epidemic, there was the post-Stonewall art, art of queer liberation that was highly political, a lot of it best realized in non-fiction works that captured the activism of the time. Queer liberation also extended unabashed gayness at its brashest and lurid. As an the straight world’s era saw a rise in pornographic films with theaters and then VHS tapes there was also gay community take part with its own icons, studios, and moguls as Hollywood remained less open to portraying positive images of gay sexuality.  Then there were those artists, actors, and witnesses tied to both worlds, and such was the case for film director Arthur J. Bressan Jr.  Before dying of AIDS in 1987, Bressan would make what now is regarded today as the first feature film to tackle AIDS as a subject with 1985’s Buddies. Such a pioneering movie should make Bressan a more widely discussed figure in the context of queer cinema and AIDS narratives. But Bressan and Buddies are still on the margins.  That needs to change. Bressan’s whole body of work offers an eclectic and uncompromising career arc even in a life cut short. If you want to submit one director as the auteur for the post-Stonewall, pre-New Queer Cinema era of Gay Liberation, Arthur J. Bressan Jr. is that director.  

Arthur J. Bressan Jr. would describe his life story as “born where West Side Story takes place,” growing up in New York City and loving classic films, self-taught and never going to film school, but educated at Iona College and New York University. While he worked as a high school teacher and for the Department of Education, he would continue to make Super 8 films and later build a journalism career that included being an interviewer of one of his heroes, Frank Capra, in Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. Bressan’s first credited film work is that of a documentary short called Coming Out, on the first official San Francisco Pride march in 1972. Shot in 16mm and in color, it offers a snapshot of many people who made the pilgrimage and refuge to San Francisco, California. Even in a major metropolitan area like San Francisco, the parade was small in scale, 2,000 marchers and 15,000 spectators. The short presents optimism among the marchers and spectators at this intimate gathering of community and allies. It is direct cinema, capturing the scene and movements of the parade while interviewing subjects. This would expand into the film that, were it not for Buddies, would be the film that would have unmistakably been Bresan Jr.’s trump card, the 1978 feature-length documentary, Gay USA.


Gay USA is an extension and expansion of Coming Out, framing the political act of marching as the central focus. It was made during the National Gay Freedom marches across the country in 1977, the same year as when Harvey Milk (whom Bressan would later say helped get word out about Gay USA, including giving out tickets for screenings at his store) became America’s first openly gay elected official when elected as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that November. But Bressan made many aspects of Gay USA a dialectic. Audio plays over of participants and onlookers both sympathetic and hostile, sound-bites of people discussed are sandwiched in-between sound-bites of people stating why they are coming out, many of whom are doing so as pushback for what they see happening in society against gay people. There is more anger in this work than in the short, more of a sense of struggle in gay liberation and against homophobic pushback in targeted attacks on the gay community in national campaigns that were popularized by orange juice spokeswoman turned anti-gay activist Anita Bryant and the Save Our Children coalition. There is a shot in the film that has a blown up Anita Bryant photo as a poster next to posters of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, a KKK rally with a burning cross, and Idi Amin held by five parade marchers that then became a widely circulated photograph (including being in the first edition of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet). Bressan also gets into the fray in presenting queer anger and fear in aesthetics. Allusions to the Holocaust are made, cross-cutting the march of the colorful pride parade and the black-and-white Third Reich marches in Nazi Germany. Gradually that inter-cutting then becomes the marches inter-cut with masses of people being rounded up by the Nazis, and presenting the pink triangle marker used on homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps (that has since become reappropriated in queer liberation and activism), a historical fact that then in the seventies was not widely known or discussed. Bressan openly describes this as a “heavy-handed sequence,” but did so to underline the community-wide fear of rights being stripped away and this possibly escalating to being rounded up and exterminated because it happened before. Many of the interviewers and testimonies in Gay USA are not just talking about the pleasantness of seeing themselves and being out at this Pride parade, but are speaking with righteous indignation about homophobic violence and systemic homophobia. "When the Anita Bryant debacle happened I was hurled into making this political documentary,” Bressan recalled later. He continued, “My naive dream was that if we all saw ourselves in our numbers we would never buy into the guilt trip again.”   

The numbers for Pride at that point in San Francisco had exploded from its more humble beginnings: the crowd for the 1977 San Francisco Pride parade was an estimated 250,000 people. The political controversies of the day clearly galvanized a lot of people to be visible than ever before. The title of the film itself is not just about being gay in San Francisco, but about being gay Americans from all over, as so many parade attendees and marchers talk about San Francisco and other major cities as the places they came to, not so much where they are from. Bressan’s documentary also engages in a roll-call of sorts in visibility by his interviewers going through a line of Pride attendees and ask if they are gay or not. After initial bristling of a few on-camera, a montage happens with person after person, man and woman, black and white, old and young answering their question and most of them saying they are gay. That is provocative as well as extremely courageous in the face of a mainstream society that had so little understanding of who gay people are. 

Bressan considered Gay USA as an “education shock” to straight audiences, many of whom had never before seen that many gay people before. Gay USA also became used for the purposes of promoting positive gay images. While it was distributed by New Line Cinema, Bressan had his film premiere on local television in Wichita, Kansas for the purposes of assisting area gay rights activists who wanted to protect their civil rights legislation from Anita Bryant-like forces. Bressan had made a deliberate effort to show as much variety of the gay individual as he could, seeking to have a more gender balance after hearing many complaints from his lesbian friends about so often seeing one type of gay story on-screen (the man). There are so many races and gay subcultures captured in Gay USA.  Bressan was inspired by gay film pioneer Lili Vincenz, whose vérité footage he uses in his film to present a “sense of the beginning of things” in gay activist consciousness, as much as he was reacting to the political current. Bressan Jr. knew he was documenting history as well as continuing the way people were seeing gay images on-screen and he wanted to take that a step further in his art by making narratives features. Bressan Jr. at that time in the 1970s was not exclusive to making documentary films and vignettes, as he also directed gay adult films, credited in these films as Arthur J. Bressan Jr. and not under a pseudonym.  These films are worthy of some discussion, clearly having more on their minds than sex but never feeling above the material.

Passing Strangers

Passing Strangers (1974), was made in the time between Coming Out and Gay USA. It is pretty clear from the first shot that this is porn, as the opening shot is penetration. But what happens next after that reveals a filmmaker being more playful within the genre he is filming. The film cuts back to show that the viewer of this film is not only voyeur, but also revealing that the opening shot is a film within the film, a porn theater with patrons sitting around, and soon cuts to another part of the porn theater, the projection booth showing a projectionist, played by Bressan himself. The film is less directly about jumping into the sexual situations and more about presenting a romance of two young men in San Francisco who correspond after one of them puts out a Whit Whitman-quoting personal ad.  The film manages in its 75 minute runtime to depict gay life in San Francisco, from one of the lovers negotiating the closet and sexual freedom as a legal adult while still under his parents’ watchful eye, to cruising, watching gay porn at a theater, having sex, and marching in a Pride parade. Bressan Jr. packs a lot in his feature-length debut, with voiceover narration of the letter correspondence that fills in who these characters are for most of the first half and tight editing that shows a sense of wonder and thrill walking around Polk Street in San Francisco’s gayborhood of Polk Gulch.  The film’s artiness evokes the underground cinema of the 1960s and other queer experimental cinema, dream-like and radical in their celebration of the queer male body. And the film has a notable bifurcated structure: the first half is in black-and-white as the lovers are just a correspondence, living out their experiences and trying to present themselves to this stranger. The second half, upon their first physical interaction that immediately leads to sex, is all shot in color. Essentially, the lovers are not in Kansas anymore. Bressan had that sophistication with incredibly acerbic visual style and tricks that made his pornography look great while also still having a heart and earnestness straight out of an old Hollywood film.  Passing Strangers is at its heart a completely true to life romance—I would argue one of the best of its kind in queer cinema—and coming-of-age romance while also being a pornographic film, refusing rigid categorization and embracing all of what it is. Towards the end of the film, the film’s couple become onlookers at San Francisco Pride, and with that Passing Strangers aligns itself as a work of gay liberation. Predating Gay USA, it is obvious Bressan is looking outward in hope and excitement at the gay community, turning his camera away from the two lovers to spend several minutes on the parade and shooting a montage of the varied people there. 

Bressan’s next film, Forbidden Letters (1976), functions more of as a memory play, a break from the utopian vision of gay liberation of Passing Strangers and more grounded in reality, but not playing into respectability politics and still aiming for visual pleasure.  It is also erotic softcore porn, which deals with another pair of letter writing gay lovers (Passing Strangers co-lead Robert Adams also portrays one-half of the couple in Forbidden Letters), except one of them starts the film in prison and the other keeps his letters hidden away in a notebook. It is a deeply nostalgic, pensive film about yearning and the pleasures in the past-tense. An inverse of Passing Strangers, Forbidden Letters has flashbacks in color while the rest is in black-and-white. The film has deliberate disorientation, particularly of the prison sequences, with allusions to the queer filmmaking forefathers Genet and Anger on incarceration and hardened masculinity as an aphrodisiac for the viewer.  But the film has Richard (Richard Locke) be keenly less of a pin-up beefcake—as his character was teased as in film advertisements—and more of a man who cannot escape his world and bad decisions, but desperately dreaming and reflecting on the past. That subjectivity produces some of the most erotic and fantastical sequences in the movie while Larry (Adams) still more grounded in realism in the outside world, although he dreams and reflects of his past lover too. This builds towards a reconciliation but does not have that be the sexual centerpiece of the film, as their sexual history is all laid all out there before.  

Forbidden Letters

Bressan’s other gay pornographic films would be more of the standard, but also had clever narrative devices: Juice (1984) is about a gay porn photographer fighting his growing cynicism of his job—treated like any other—and searching for inspiration over the course of a day. Many of the gay characters in Pleasure Beach (1983) are presented as men looking out at the straight world and keeping their desires and sexual exploits private rather than some beachside gay fantasy. Daddy Dearest (1984) is as much a behind-the-scenes parody of working in gay pornography as it is a gay porn film. In the 1970s, Bressan stated he wanted to build off of Gay USA’s success and make a commercially viable film about gay romance that would be received by a gay audience and straight audience. That never came about, but that says more about a film industry’s internalized homophobia than his work that clearly had artistry and thoughtful ways of exploring narrative, even in the package of an adult film. While doing adult films, Bressan continued to get more mainstream work, such as making a compendium documentary short on some pretty candid White House conferences by President John F. Kennedy in Thank You, Mr. President (1983). But Bressan had also made a narrative film that was provocative and controversial, an admitted autofiction that had less than flattering implications: Abuse (1983).  

Abuse is the story of a jaded but intelligent documentary filmmaker in an MFA program, Larry Porter (Richard Ryder), who meets Thomas (Raphael Sbarge), a teenager who is in a violent household of physical abuse. Thomas becomes the subject of Larry’s documentary on child abuse and Larry is shown voyeuristically filming strangers who are abusive to their children out in public. To get into further questionable moral quandary around documentary ethics, the two characters get into an emotionally close but highly inappropriate relationship that include moments of physical affection. That last part created a lot of complications in distribution of a project that Bressan held steadfast on not revising for better commercial prospects. The film itself ends incredibly knotted rather than cleanly resolving these issues. Larry as a character is portrayed as someone who has knowingly crossed multiple lines that likely sinks himself and his film. His actions, breaking from his own "rules", in order to save Thomas’s life are downplayed and not presented as heroic—Bressan being too smart of a filmmaker to do that. Although this film made no commercial impact on release, the work had a lot of critical respect, much of it from gay publications like The Advocate to even the most visible gay critics in mainstream film criticism such as Rex Reed, then at The New York Post. But the film’s most vocal champion was Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet. Russo now is seen largely seen as an activist and historian of queer cinema and that the times he did speak of more contemporary films with gay content he was often negative (such as his stance on William Friedkin’s Cruising). But Russo used a lot of his platform and notoriety from The Celluloid Closet to highlight other gay artists he thought did something worthwhile. He called Abuse “not just the best gay film I’ve seen this year, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year,” and featured Bressan on his public television program Our Time. The discussion for such a controversial film is pretty relaxed between the two men, Bressan referring to himself as a “stubborn Gemini” for how he ignored pushback from distributors and how the film can be misconstrued in its message. Russo and Bressan are both attuned to the idea of positive gay images, in the community context and mainstream context, but also on having truthful gay images on-screen as both of their careers were tied to that search and creation of that truth. Russo and Bressan would both face being diagnosed with AIDS as well as seeing several friends also diagnosed and die around them from AIDS. Russo would become a major AIDS activist with ACT UP in the struggle to bring attention to the virus. Bressan would once more, in his final act, turn to film by making Buddies.  


In addition to being the first AIDS narrative, much is usually made about Buddies as far as budget ($27,000) and how quickly it was shot and completed in production (scripted in five days in San Francisco; shot in nine days in New York).  Urgency is all through Buddies, a film where the first shot is a list of several men and their names being printed off all listed as “DECEASED” with “AIDS” under cause of death. But the film is also delicate and extremely meditative.  Like many of Bressan’s fictional films before, this is a two-hander, but in this case, introduced as polar opposites. The film is about buttoned-up yuppie David (David Schachter), who volunteers through the local New York City gay center to be a “buddy” for sarcastic, political Robert (Geoff Endholm), who is hospitalized and dying of AIDS. It takes time for the two to meet in the middle, but David is revealed to be more self-aware and reflective (like other Bressan co-leads, he writes most of his real feelings in a journal) and gradually gets becomes more casual from his yuppie exterior on each visit.  Robert lets down his guard and becomes more emotionally open, remaining angry at the world but grows to respect David as a confidante. What Bressan shows in their initial divisions, gay liberation and activism, also comes with inserting his own works into Buddies.  Snippets of Gay USA are incorporated as Robert and David watch it on VHS in the hospital room. Then later in the film, the pair’s closeness gets deeper, from friends to something near romantic. They watch David’s copy of Passing Strangers, initially as a joke but then it leads to a tender scene of David shoulder-rubbing Robert as Robert arouses himself while they watch the film. It predates a similar scene in Robin Campillo’s AIDS narrative BPM (2017), where one character out of love assists the ill character in reaching their pleasure, a feeling absent since their diagnosis. In Bressan’s last film he has all sides of himself in narrative, documentary, and erotic all being shown. It cannot help but feel like a final testament.  

Buddies did not have to be good in order to be important and significant, but it is great and powerful. The film premiered earlier than the television movie An Early Frost on NBC and it is significantly better in presenting a more truthful, politically charged film. An Early Frost had more notable talent involved (Aidan Quinn, Gena Rowlands, Sylvia Sidney, and Ben Gazzara) and also faced significant heat for even being broadcasted (NBC lost $500,000 in advertising from sponsors too scared of being associated with the TV film), but the film only covers the diagnosis and fallout in the family unit, largely from the straight world’s perspective. Attached to no gay community or group, the gay male feels alien in An Early Frost. Death from AIDS is portrayed more as an inevitability but in a very white-washed, apolitical package. By contrast, Buddies shows Robert closing in on death, he is shown as deteriorating, pale, and covered in spots, and making it known that he was immediately abandoned and shunned by friends and family once diagnosed. Such abandonment is acknowledged as an unconscionable act, but it was something that happened to many people with AIDS. Bressan deliberately only shows Robert and David’s faces on-screen, in focus (other crucial ancillary characters are voices on a phone or heard off-screen in other rooms) so as to show how small of a world they are in as everybody else keeps moving around them, indifferent to their pain and struggle. “I can’t change anything, David. I can barely make it to the toilet,” Robert tells David as an intended joke, but an unmistakable expression of pain is all over his face as he says it. This is a film where the ending cannot be changed nor sugarcoated, but the final image is of David alone with a picket demanding more attention paid to AIDS and stating it is not just a gay illness in front of the White House. Only days after Buddies premiering at the Castro Theatre for the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival would President Ronald Reagan say the word AIDS publicly. Words finally came but little action was done. Vito Russo would describe in his 1988 “Why We Fight” speech that AIDS “is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you've lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn't happening to them. They're walking the streets as though we weren't living through some sort of nightmare. And only you can hear the screams of the people who are dying and their cries for help. No one else seems to be noticing.” Buddies strikes that chord, its last image still potent and angry as ever even years later. Bressan would die two years later of AIDS at the age of 44. His lead actor Geoff Edholm would also die of the virus in 1989 at the age of 33. The other co-lead David Schachter would quit acting and concentrate the rest of his life on AIDS activism.  


When Buddies had its 2K restoration and re-release, it was often promoted as “buried treasure.” Filmmaker and archivist Jenni Olson, who played a part in the film’s restoration and re-release, noted that while another AIDS narrative like Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances remained pretty visible even as an independent film through the years, Buddies disappeared for a number of reasons, one painful point being that it hit a little too close to home, that an AIDS film where the death bed is present from the start did not appeal to audiences. But Buddies was the truth, made by a gay filmmaker who in his career made both a definitive AIDS narrative in fiction and a definitive snapshot in documentary non-fiction of the gay liberation 1970s. Bressan is a filmmaker who needs to be brought into the fore, but such a thing requires availability. Gay USA and Buddies are the only films available on streaming platforms, Buddies only recently got released on Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome, and Bressan’s short Coming Out was recently restored and will be appearing in LGBTQ-related film programs for Pride month. The rest of his work is still out-of-print. There does exist The Bressan Project, devoted to the promotion and preservation of his films, along with other dutiful cinephiles who I have come across like Evan Purchell (writing this piece would not be possible without his great knowledge and interest in Bressan’s filmography) who also are trying to hunt down Bressan’s body of work. But there needs to be more done in rectifying a great filmmaker who managed to simultaneously be do so many different kinds of films in such a singular and bold way. Let this not be the last time you read the name Arthur J. Bressan Jr.

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