THERE ARE MANY REASONS why Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq’s cerebral head jerker Duffer had only been screened publicly in the UK twice since its release in 1971 until Little Joe, a magazine about queers and cinema, mostly (the project’s own words), selected it for the independent Portobello Pop-Up Cinema’s London Lo-Fi Cinema Season. By all standards, it is extreme. There is sex! Sodomy! Mental instability! Misogyny! Simulated male pregnancy! Possibly infanticide! Presenting the film in London’s only semi-outdoor movie theater built under a motorway bridge and entirely out of scrap material (including two shipping crates that act as storage space and projection room respectively)indeed, in the very neighborhood in which the film was madeLittle Joe deputy editor Michael Pierce warned the audience: “This film is odd. I mean . . . it’s a bit much.”
But all sensationalism aside, this is a tender rumination on pleasure—seeking it, feeling it, and giving it—a story that charts the intense stirrings for something one doesn’t quite know or understand. When we meet the eponymous narrator, a teenage, orphaned expat living in down-and-out West London, he’s sitting under Hammersmith Bridge at the river’s edge gazing into the water. Duffer is caught between a kindly hooker—Her Gracie, with a body like strawberry jelly—who resides in a fluffy, marshmallow world, and Louis Jack, a dark, misogynistic sadist whose visceral hatred for “womanimal” is equaled only by a passion for torture. The story moves between these two archetypes—man and woman—mediated through Duffer’s perspective. A certain dissociative action is underscored by dubbed voices that do not correspond to moving lips, as if dialogue were in fact a production of the storyteller’s mind and nothing more.
Duffer believes Her Gracie can restore his masculinity, while knowing at base he belongs to Louis Jack for reasons that escape him. He’s certain (so he thinks) of only one thing: that it would be wrong to deny people like Louis Jack pleasure in this unhappy world, even if this results in his own physical discomfort. The winning score, composed by Galt MacDermot (of Hair fame), tracks Duffer’s mood throughout, and at the Portobello screening the music was punctuated by the rumblings of traffic passing the theater overhead at intervals that felt perfectly timed—a strange audio synergy between West London now and then. With these present-day sounds seeping into the narrative, there was something rather timeless about watching Duffer wrestle (sometimes literally) with this inherent, often illogical, drive for something as painful and joyful as it is selfish and selfless. It is a feeling never named, but expressed in ways that are both incorrigible and sublime; recognizable in that it rumbles deep within us all one way or another, whether we acknowledge it or not.