Saturday, March 2, 2024


Released limitedly in exploitation theaters within the mid-1970s, and largely forgotten since, Pat Rocco's film Drifter (titled Two Way Drift in the opening credits) with a script by Edward Middleton (a pseudonym of lead actor Joed Adair), is an unconventional picture (both for its roughly-hewn filmmaking and its portrayals of queer life), and has been newly restored and re-released by Kino Lorber as part of their eclectic and vital Kino Cult Blu-Ray series. The film is a rambling portrait of a rugged, bisexual hustler, "Drift" (Adair) in Southern California that navigates stray encounters and also a fragile romance in his past. 

The film opens in emotional crisis with frenzied, melodramatic music (the uncredited score is mostly sourced from library music, including a piece by Johnny Pearson, that sometimes smothers over the ambivalence of its characters, perhaps trying to musically exorcise their inner torments) as Drift and his former flame, Steve (David Russell), are bathed in moonlight, displaying a twisting moment of tenderness, and suddenly a physical altercation. The film has an intriguing  structure: two running plot lines in different spaces of time--that, perhaps purposefully, never come together. 

Although released in the mid-70s, the film finished its shoot in 1969. Indeed, it unfurls the feel of West Coast late 1960s into the early 70s with its splashy Technicolor: colors on clothing, flowered bedspreads and the big pastel automobiles of the early and mid-60s visibly starting to fray and go to seed; a “Sock it to Me” throw pillow appears on Steve's couch (one can imagine Jonathan Adler reproducing it now as pricey kitsch). A 1967 tune by Phil Coulter and Bill Martin, "I Gotta Get the World Off My Back" (an appropriate lyric for Drift's life) that plays upon nasally Dylan folk rock, figures tinnily in a remote desert bar. The California fashions and settings recall the L.A. of Tarantino’s recreated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Quirky, marginalized characters emerge as lonesome, bohemian, on-the-fly folk, searching for connections. One of the more arresting sequences finds Drift in a cramped, Murphy bed-studio flat hooking up with its swarthy tenant, Wagner, (Dean Shah-Kee) who ends up bailing in the wee hours of the morning. When Drift awakes, he fearfully suspects he'll see Wagner's gay roommate or partner, but he unexpectedly meets a striking late shift cocktail waitress, Klamath (played by Bambi Allen). We glimpse her washing up and removing false eyelashes in a tight bathroom; when she first sees Drift, she tilts a shaded light in his direction, having the flair of a noir actress. One of the more distinctive characterizations is from Gerald Strickland who plays the aging Dana, a designer ready to change genders, giving away old male-identifying clothes to Drift. Drift is becomes stricken by European beauty and dreamer Karen (Inga-Maria Pinson), with her films of Garbo book in tow (allusions of old Hollywood glamor appear, almost as a sort of unattainable ghost in this scrappy independent film; in one moment, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street appear upon a theater marquee). They flirt and skip around town in montages, with cheery freeze-frames: from the idyllic Echo Park bridge to a really cool-looking amusement park, The Pike in Long Beach, (supposedly frequented by the gays back its heyday; personally, I'd love to go back in time and check out its haunted mansion). Drift's entanglements with individuals are fleeting, intimate, sometimes tender. When the film shifts from these close connections to a group of people in its climax, it becomes more uneasy and insidious in its sharp shadows: an uncomfortable stag party where Drift and Karen are asked to perform for gawking businessmen.

Drifter is less sexy than its premise on paper (not to mention its pulpy poster) and more arty, introspective. Indeed, Rocco originally intended for it to be a commercial release with hopes of being picked up by a mainstream distributor. 

Despite the film's merits, it occasionally feels a bit sluggish, in need of some tighter reaction shots. There’s also an overriding lack of magnetism from Adair.  However, critiques are difficult to square against such a risky, bold picture. Similar to kinfolk films such as work by Gus Van Sant (its hard not to think of him when seeing the sweaty, lanky male outcasts on open roads and deserts on display here) and, of course, Midnight Cowboy, the quintessential film of its kind in 1969, Drifter is about the “getting and taking” within lives of hustlers. There is also an element of sexual confusion (when Drift peers at spreads of breasts in a magazine shop, the score is suddenly violent and threatening; when he looks at idyllic spreads of men, the score is suddenly more tender--cutting to Drift's remembrance, or perhaps imagination, of a desert tryst with Steve). Adding to the muddle, is how unfulfilled, both sexually and narratively, the relationship between Drift and Steve appears to be. ***

The Kino Blu-Ray also features short films by Rocco; Autumn Nocturne is perhaps the most sensuous and affecting (loved how it repurposed the romantic sweep of Franz Waxman's Peyton Place score). 

The performers, creators, history, and vivid LA locations of Drifter are carefully considered and described on the sparkly and informative commentary track by film historian Finley Freibert

-Jeffery Berg 

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