“A Generation of Artists Were Lost”: Roe Bressan and Jenni Olson on the Newly Restored Gay USA
Filmed over one continuous 1977 day at Pride parades across San Francisco, Chicago, New York, San Diego and other metropolises, Arthur Bressan Jr.’s Gay USA is a tapestry of anecdotes, embraces, misconceptions and confused onlookers. It not only captures the optimism and palpable ecstasy of the LGBT attendees of Pride ‘77, but uses the homophobic agenda of Anita Bryant in Dade County, Floridato provide political context as to why these happy men, women and non-binary folks galavanting along Castro Street and Greenwich Village still had very much at stake.
Many of Bressan’s films outlined the political reality of being gay in the US—even the adult films which he dedicated much of his filmmaking career to. These films weren’t just about getting off; there was love, a story arc, and maybe even heartbreak. This was a deeply political statement in a time where gay sex was criminalized, and positive portrayals of blatantly gay relationships were scant in mainstream media.
Arthur Bressan’s last film, Buddies (1985), was the first American feature film to portray the AIDS crisis, and in an unbelievably heartfelt way for a time during which AIDS patients were often left to die by their own nurses, food trays being left outside of patients’ doors for fear of contracting the disease by proximity. Arthur Bressan would die of AIDS-related complications the year after the release of Buddies, in the loving care of his younger sister, Roe.
In order to preserve the filmmaking legacy of Arthur Bressan, Jr—an odyssey that began in 1987—Roe Bressan partnered in 2018 with the esteemed LGBT film historian and director Jenni Olson in order to preserve the works of her brother, calling it The Bressan Project. Through partnership with Frameline, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Outfest, Arthur’s films are being given a 2K restoration through Vinegar Syndrome.
Gay USA will be screening Wednesday, June 26 at Quad Cinema as part of the ongoing series “Coming Out Again,” co-presented with NewFest.
Filmmaker: Gay USA was really eye-opening for me in a lot of ways. It felt like a testament to the fact that time is a flat circle. Women were fighting for the same guarantee to reproductive rights that we are right now, there was a lot of debating about terminology like we do today, and a lot of the coming out stories shared were so reminiscent of my friends’ experiences. While it was really beautiful to see, at the same time it felt like a symbol of stagnation; of course there has been progress with job security, marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws, but do you ever feel as if the LGBT community is stuck in limbo?
Olson: In addition to the scourge of racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, etc. we still live in a deeply homophobic/transphobic society. We are not in limbo, we are in an ongoing struggle for justice, love and understanding.
Bressan: Artie was a very forward-moving artist. He had a very profound understanding of history, and I think he believed as the plague really hit that it was a battle. I think that this would have informed him that this was a tough part of the battle, but the battle was going to continue either way. You cannot deny that there has been advancement 42 years later. We are fighting a different battle. They were breaking ground.
Filmmaker: The fact that the film is called Gay USA conveys to me a small sense of nationalistic pride. How did your brother feel about being American?
Bressan: There was bigotry, fear, small-mindedness, but no one was going anywhere. I mean, people were going from Kansas to San Francisco. I think we are all still here for a reason, and Artie would have always been looking for the next thing to improve here.
Filmmaker: What was your relationship with your brother like, Roe?
Bressan: Well, he named me. He loved Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy movies—these are movies from the ‘30s—and one of the names of their movies was Rose Marie. So we had an incredibly unique, radically honest relationship for someone that is [16 years] older than me. I think my brother loved me more than he loved anybody in his whole life. And he trusted me. When he got sick [with AIDS], he asked me to take care of him.
Filmmaker: Did your brother’s politics and art impact your life during your youth?
Bressan: He introduced me to the world of film. He was an avid follower of Frank Capra— he met him, he did his thesis on Capra—and all [of my brother’s] movies have an “everyman” quality to them, like Capra’s. And I went to the High School of Performing Arts—I wanted to be an actress—so he certainly informed my love of the arts and really my love for film.
Filmmaker: Did you see your brother’s movies when they were released?
Bressan: My brother did a variety of films. He did a whole slew of adult films, which we all knew about. My father actually used to take the film cans from the Adonis on 42nd and bring them to the next theater! So you know, Daddy Dearest, The Passing Strangers. I was just a nice Italian girl. So I was like [to my brother], can I just have a niece? And we would laugh about it. So I knew about those films, and I was very aware of Gay USA. Gay USA, I believe at the time, was being shown in schools as a way to introduce young people to what the “gay life” was, because it was such a balanced document as to what the gay community really was.
Filmmaker: When did Arthur get sick?
Bressan: He wasn’t sick when he did Buddies. He got sick in ‘86. I was the first person to whom he said, “I need you.” He got diagnosed in November of ‘86 and he died in July of ‘87. I was 29 when he died. And mind you, this was in the middle of hell. This was in the middle of a plague.
Filmmaker: I recently read this poem by Fran Lebowitz called “The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community.” It’s a set of vignettes that document the loss that the artistic community in the U.S. suffered during the AIDS crisis, specifically in New York. Did you feel this in a bigger way than the loss of your brother, Roe?
Bressan: A generation of artists were lost. At the height of their careers—my brother was 44 —their lives were taken away. What ended up happening was sort of a curtain that fell on the arts community. But there was a period of waiting for the next generation to come, because there was no way to replace the people that had been lost.
Filmmaker: Being that Buddies was the first American feature film to document the AIDS pandemic, was the film on your radar when it came out, Jenni?
Olson: Yes, I was very aware of it—it played at LGBT film festivals across the country. As an LGBT film historian and archivist I have also been engaged in helping film festivals and distributors find prints and elements of lost LGBT films for many years. Many times in the ensuing years—all across the 1990s and 2000s—I had been in touch with various festivals interested in finding and showing Arthur’s films.
Bressan: Buddies was very close to him. He was living in New York, and he lost 32 people. I have a red telephone book [of his] somewhere, that just has 32 names crossed out of it. There was testing, but there was no treatment, there were no clinics. He really felt that something had to be said and something had to be done. So, he went to California and interviewed his friends that were dying of AIDS, wrote the script in five days, and shot it back in New York in nine. He edited it on a Moviola in his living room. Do you know what that is? I mean, it looks like something that escaped from a dentist’s office.
Filmmaker: Do you think that your brother ever wanted commercial success, Roe?
Bressan: One of the last scripts I know that he was working on was called Inside Norma Garland. It was the story of a porno actress who wanted to go straight. We never talked about it a lot, and it was never completed, but I always thought that was going to be his crossover into the general market. He was really interested in continuing his work, and I certainly think that he would have continued doing gay films, but I think he would have wanted to do general market films as well. I really believe that.
Filmmaker: Jenni, have you worked on preserving film in the past? What are often some of the challenges?
Olson: Yes, I have been on the advisory board of the Outfest UCLA Legacy Project for LGBT Moving Image Preservation for many years and have been involved in the preservation of numerous films. The folks who do the technical aspects of preservation would have much to say about those aspects but I can say in my experience that the fundraising is one of the most challenging aspects.
Filmmaker: What were some of the general hurdles when it came to restoring the films of Arthur Bressan?
Olson: Without having a contact with the rights holder or estate, it had been impossible to substantially do anything with any of the materials. This is a common experience in the world of independent film and there are literally thousands of essentially orphaned films in this state of limbo. At one point some of the footage from Gay USA was licensed to the Gus Van Sant film, Milk. There was also an instance where the film print of Arthur’s first feature, Passing Strangers, was shown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of a series on gay adult cinema in San Francisco. Some footage from Passing Strangers was also licensed to the documentary The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin. In the time since the founding of the Bressan Project we have worked with Oddball Films to have footage from Arthur’s films licensed for use in numerous other documentary film projects.
Filmmaker: How did The Bressan Project come about?
Bressan: After my brother died, I shipped all of his film materials in ‘87. My father was on the verge of throwing them out, but I said, “Daddy, these need to be preserved.” I sent them out to California, but for some reason, the first record of them reaching an archive was ‘99. But the technicalities are more Jenni’s expertise.
Olson: [Roe] donated them to Frameline in San Francisco. Frameline is the non-profit that runs the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival and also operates Frameline Distribution. Arthur had a close connection to the organization since his days living in San Francisco in the 1970s. Frameline had shown most of Arthur’s films back in the day — either programming them in the festival or presenting special screenings (including the world premiere of Buddies at the Castro, which was presented as a benefit for Frameline and the Shanti Project).
Filmmaker: Why the huge time gap from Roe shipping the materials and having them begin the archiving process?
Olson: Frameline took care of all the papers and film elements for many years, paying for storage but not really doing anything with the materials other than keeping them safe. For most of this time everything was held at Frameline’s storage space at Iron Mountain.
Filmmaker: How did you come to partner with Roe?
Olson: Joe Rubin at the Blu-ray distributor Vinegar Syndrome had come into possession of the original 16mm negative of Arthur’s film Buddies. Most likely the negative had been in the possession of Fine Line Features (the New York City for-profit independent distributor who had originally released Buddies in 1987; Fine Line is not to be confused with Frameline, the San Francisco non-profit). In March 2016, I reached out to Joe and we had various back and forth emails for more than a year lamenting the fact that no one had been able to find the rights holder or estate. Around this time Frameline and Outfest (at my urging) had begun to explore the possibility of restoring Gay USA together with the UCLA Film Archive. Frameline had recently deposited the Gay USA film elements (deposited, not donated) at UCLA for safekeeping. Around this same time I had also mentioned the possible Gay USA preservation to Frameline donor Michael Hulton, who subsequently contributed a substantial amount of seed funding towards the project. Finally, in December 2017, I had the brilliant idea to Google the old phone number I had for Rose Marie Soto, and lo-and-behold I discovered the new phone number of Roe Bressan, which marked the beginning of the Bressan Project and the coordinated effort to restore and re-release all of the films of Arthur J. Bressan, Jr.
Filmmaker: Will Vinegar Syndrome be restoring other films by Arthur Bressan?
Olson: Vinegar Syndrome have generously continued to do 2K restorations of Arthur’s other films. Upcoming releases include Passing Strangers (1974), Forbidden Letters (1979), Abuse (1983), Daddy Dearest (1984) and Juice (1984).
Filmmaker: What do you hope that a contemporary audience takes away from the films of Arthur Bressan Jr.?
Bressan: He would want people to simultaneously remember where the fight started, but take the fight and continue moving it forward. He believed in young people. I think that he would want younger people to invest in knowing what happened before in order to prevent it from happening again, despite how far we’ve come.
Olson: Of course it is wonderful for younger audiences to get a sense of our LGBT history from Arthur’s films. Even more importantly I hope they experience his work in the same way people did when it was first released — his storytelling always offers a unique combination of entertainment, affirmation and the challenging of conventional perspectives.