Let’s Hear It for the Boy

Derek Jarman, Will You Dance with Me?, 1984, video, color, sound, 78 minutes. Philip Williamson.

THOUGH ONLY SIX YEARS separate Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978) and Derek Jarman’s Will You Dance with Me? (1984), two essential documents of gay London, they are chronicles of entirely different eras. Peck’s feature film debuted a year before Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministry began and three before the first known case of AIDS in the UK was reported; Jarman’s footage, which remained unseen until last year, was shot well into those dual catastrophes. While Peck’s film is more or less fiction, it mixes in vérité elements, recording, sometimes ambivalently, the codes and customs of gay nightlife that would be ebulliently celebrated in Jarman’s dance-floor reportage.

According to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, Peck and Paul Hallam, his cowriter and coproducer on Nighthawks, spent five years planning and raising funds for their film, which centers on the diurnal and nocturnal activities of Jim (Ken Robertson), an out—quietly yet sometimes defiantly so—geography teacher. This compact, exceedingly polite and patient Notting Hill resident spends his days instructing adolescents on the causes of overpopulation in India and showing around the new substitute teacher, Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), who seems to turn to her colleague for the emotional succor that her own husband cannot provide. After sunset, Jim hits the bars, where he cruises, dances, and keeps up his end of desultory conversations that often conclude in a strange—or his own—bed.

We are fully immersed in Jim’s nighttime rituals; the camera often assumes his point of view, his desirous looks either reciprocated or ignored. The thrill and the tedium of his evenings out are equally highlighted; the ecstasy of sleeping with someone new is followed by the dispiriting morning-after small talk, with Jim asking the bulk of the questions while kindly driving his tricks—most of whom are nonprofessional actors, as are the bars’ denizen—to the nearest Tube station. “Don’t you get anxious about whether or not you’re going to see these people again?” Judy asks Jim over drinks at a pub. In boldly addressing that question, Nighthawks gives us one of cinema’s first complex, fully realized gay protagonists.

Jarman, who appears as an extra in Nighthawks, was excitedly experimenting with his new Olympus VHS camcorder during the September 1984 evening that he shot the action at Benjy’s, a gay club in East London’s Mile End district that, this night at least, drew a coed, racially diverse crowd; this on-location assignment was part of the research the queer-cinema firebrand was doing for his friend Peck, who was then planning a neo-noir that would be released in 1987 as Empire State. Every single detail captured in Will You Dance with Me? abounds with ethnographic riches: the New Romantic cutie journaling while nestled in a corner booth, the woman with the T-shirt emblazoned with stenciled letters that read ÉCOLE DE DANSE, the DJ’s cheerful exhortations (“Let’s get it right, let’s get it right!”), the songs he spins (“Let the Music Play,” “Planet Rock,” “Relax,” which is heard at least twice).

As aleatory as this seventy-eight-minute-long record may at first appear, with Jarman flitting from bar to banquette to dance floor and back again, it soon becomes clear that he’s deeply in tune with, well, the rhythm of the night. While Benjy’s patrons get sweaty gyrating to another Frankie Goes to Hollywood set, Jarman—and his camera—grows ever more besotted with a slightly sullen, sporty stud, gracefully orbiting around this Doc Martens–shod twunk. That fit, buzz-cut clubgoer, Philip Williamson, would perform in front of Jarman’s camera once again—not to Hi-NRG hits but to Judi Dench’s voice-over recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnets in The Angelic Conversation (1985).

Nighthawks and Will You Dance with Me? screen April 25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the series “Art of the Real,” which concludes April 26.