Two men engage in games that may/may not lead to commitment
In this time of significant political success for the gay movement, there is much in the genre of gay erotic cinema that deserves the attention of those with open minds about what constitutes artistic achievement. Such a film is 1973's "The Back Row", whose credits associate it with one Doug Richards, whom we know is a pseudonym for director Jerry Douglas, whose body of work in the genre is unexcelled.
The work stands apart from Douglas' other efforts in subject matter, although certain ideas in "The Back Row" clearly influence his later work.
The "hero" of the film, Casey Donovan (itself a pseudonym for actor and erotic gay film superstar Cal Culver), is a streetwise gay New Yorker, into the world of BDSM.
"Back Row" begins with a succession of glaring images of signs heralding sex-oriented bars, movie theaters and bookstores (a technique later used by Jean-Daniel Cadinot in several of his classic French erotic gay films of the early 1980s).
As the camera zooms into the very pleasant sight of Casey Donovan's backside, we hear the first of three extraordinary songs. Composed for the musical score are substantive in themselves with provocative lyrics that integrate with the film's storyline. The lyrics to the first: "You're heading towards tomorrow/Down the street that's leading nowhere/Thinking this is what it means to really be alive//You walk in no direction/Which is really where you're going/And tomorrow may be gone when you arrive//You walk along the sidewalk/Maybe looking in the windows/And you see you own reflection and that's all/It stares in you in silence/While it comes and goes in flashes/Brightened by the full black shadows on the wall/Your life is like a movie that you're watching from the back row/If you thought that you could change it, would you try?//Will it have a happy ending/Would you know it if it happened/Are you really going to sit and watch your life go by?//When the story is finally ended/Will you see that is over?/And all you did was sit and watch your life go by."
The first song is associated with the gay adult film theater, where Casey from the back row observes the (effectively filmed) erotic interplay of the sailor (in dress whites) and the hippy.
The story of the film (and Douglas' films are famous for their story lines) is that Donovan, having observed the goings on from the back row of a gay-oriented adult theater, leaves the theater to explore the city's "gay scene".
In a subway terminal his eyes connect with The Kid from Montana, played by George Payne.
Although there are no direct references, "Back Row" was filmed only a few years after the sensation created by Jon Voigt as Joe Buck, the Kid from Texas in the "legitimate" though initially x-rated film "Midnight Cowboy".)
Despite the apparent double-meaning of the music score's second song, its context clearly relates to the mental sexual games that Casey Donovan's character is playing with the George Payne's Kid from Montana: "Little boy, little boy, won't you come and play with me/I will give you candy and dreams/ Little boy, little boy/All alone in the city, all alone, what a pity that seems/I can show you treasures and pleasures unheard of/You never even gotten word of before, and lots more/Little boy, little boy/ I know many games to play/Won't you stop a minute with me/Little boy, little boy There are joys that you fly for/Things that people die and don't see/I can see you reeling with feelings unheard of; You never ever gotten word of before, and lots more/ . . ."
Payne (itself the pseudonym for a New Yorker of Yugoslav descent, who took part in a couple of gay-oriented films, but whose main reputation and best work was in heterosexual adult erotic cinema). But he proved to be an endearing Kid. Spellbound by Casey's character, the Kid puts his luggage in a subway station locker, and sits across from Casey in a subway car as both wordlessly signal to the other their interest in a sexual encounter.
After they romp through Greenwich Village, Casey leads the Kid to a sex shop in which the Kid's fantasies about Casey are reflected in brief visions of Casey in the nude, utilizing the various sex toys or BDSM gear that the shop offers for sale.
The third song suggests the ambivalence of Casey's character towards his new infatuation, the Kid from Montana: "If I could, I would walk along with you/I would sing a song with you and talk to you of love/If I could I would laugh and cry with you/I would live and try with you/To really fall in love/I would take you hand and lead you to a quiet place/Where the trees would shield us from the cold/If I could, I would send away the world/We would spend a day the world had never known before/If I could, I would call down the velvet sky and together you and I would hide among the stars/Then I'd look into your eyes and promise to love you forever/I really would love you, if I could."
Casey somehow imparts to the Kid that they should meet at the adult theater. Casey by taxi and the cash-strapped Kid by hitchhiking both enter the theater where they watch a film with obvious meaning to their "relationship". Casey cannot resist being coaxed into a BDSM orgy in the theater's men's room, which turns off the Kid.
Both are ultimately reunited and embrace and kiss in a telephone booth, although Casey's sexual charisma attracts an onlooker who clearly means to displace the Kid as Casey's sex interest of the moment.
"The Back Row" is a significant film, which never lags in interest - a technically classy film, with an unsurpassed musical score.
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