(Be sure to watch all the way to the ‘climax’.)
What’s your favourite scene in Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Bill Murray and Martin Landau’s best movie? (I’ve written an appreciation of Ed Wood for the new online arts mag Culture Kicks.)
Rather than watch the Olympics, and all that noble, serious sporting uplift, I’ve been reading a book about a carny, corny, shameless 1940s-50s American wrestler: Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, by John Capouya.
My American chum Chris Supermarky recommended it to me, thinking it would be of interest. He wasn’t wrong. It was nothing less than a revelation. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone of metrosexuality. Or at least, post-war male glamorousness.
George Wagner was a baby-faced brunette, pint-sized, somewhat unremarkable 1940s US wrestler who decided he needed a gimmick to get noticed. And boy, did he find one. By turning himself into Gorgeous George, a vain, primping, preening peacock who peroxided his hair, had it meticulously tonsured, fussily held in place by gold-painted ‘Georgie’ pins, and wearing flamboyant robes that were outrageous creations of lace and silk and chiffon in mauves and pale pinks, he succeeded in inventing perhaps the most persistent and successful gimmick of the post-war world: The glamorous, decadent, ‘effeminate’ male star.
Before Beckham. Before Boy George. Before Bowie. Before Jagger. Before Elvis. Before Liberace. Before Little Richard. Before James Brown there was Gorgeous George.
Under the shrewd guidance of his Svengali wife Betty (there’s no evidence, aside from his gorgeousness, that George was anything other than heterosexual), who made many of his most daring robes herself, The ‘Human Orchid’ as he liked to be known, had deduced that the best way to get ‘heat’ from a wrestling audience – and thus bookings – was to transgress 1940s gender norms. Wildly. And cheat. Equally wildly. Not for nothing was his favourite slogan: ‘Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat.’
The Sensation of the Nation’s pantomime performance of sissyness was a kind of cheating in itself: in 1940s and early 50s America men, particularly the blue-collar kind that Wagner wrestled for, were not allowed to enjoy chiffon and affectation. George was bending the rules and gender.
To help milk his act, and multiply his crimes, Wagner would hold his pre-match press conferences in local beauty parlours while having his hair marcelled and employed a tail-coated valet (a device later appropriated by GG fan James Brown) who would snobbishly spray the ring with cologne before George would deign to grace it with his aristocratic presence. When the referee tried to search George before the match as required by wrestling rules he would recoil offended, shouting ‘GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME!!’
Such were the passions aroused by George’s gorgeousness that his incendiary appearance often led to fights and sometimes mini-riots when incensed members of the public would storm the ring in an indignant fury and try to take him on themselves. The director John Waters recalls watching GG on TV as a kid, spellbound by this apparition of queeniness — while his offended parents yelled insults at the lacey freak. GG was someone that America loved to hate but ended up just loving.
Although largely forgotten today, GG was about as famous as you could get back then: a by-word for fame itself — even making an appearance in a Bugs Bunny Warner Bros cartoon (as ‘Ravishing Ronald’), and one of the first proper stars of the new medium of television. Wrestling had been taken up by the early networks as a cheaply-staged way of interesting the masses in this new-fangled gadget. The small screen turned out to have been made for GG’s big glam head.
Many claimed to have been influenced by GG (including Bob Dylan of all people) but perhaps his most famous disciple was a young, relatively downbeat Mohammed Ali, who decided to adopt GG’s vainglorious, provocative persona – to devastating effect:
‘I made up my mind after [meeting] Gorgeous George to make people angry at me.… I saw fifteen thousand people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said this is a gooood idea!’
And so Ali became the mouthy black boxer who bragged about being the ‘prettiest thing you’ve ever seen’ – ‘The Greatest’. Ali really was gorgeous. Facially and bodily. Wagner on the other hand… slightly less so. I’m not suggesting of course for one moment that GG was ugly – but at 5′ 9″, with a Roman nose and a bit of a pot belly his gorgeousness was perhaps more aspirational than Ali’s. Particularly in the latter part of his career George’s appearance puts me in mind of Freud’s famous phrase: ‘His majesty the baby.’
There was a dark side to all this glamorousness. Wagner reportedly began to believe his own publicity and insisted his own children refer to him as ‘Gorgeous George’, or ‘GG’. He was also, even by the standards of the time and his profession, a hardened drinker. After both his marriages failed he took to drinking even more. And as TV fell out of love with wrestling, and the years – and the boozing – took their toll, he of course drank even more.
By the late 50s early 60s Gorgeous George was reduced to novelty fights in which he was billed as forfeiting his lovely locks if he lost. And of course, he did — submitting to the indignity of being clippered seated on a stool in the centre of the ring, like a latter day Samson. A great box-office success the first time, this ritual humiliation became less and less so the more he repeated it. Even seeing Gorgeous George finally getting what had been coming to him all these years wasn’t enough of a draw second or third time around.
When the final bell rang in 1963 and George Wagner died of liver disease and heart failure, aged 48, all the large wedges of cash that had passed through his hands during his stunningly successful career had vanished without trace: he was penniless. But family and friends made sure he was given a glamorous send off.
The Human Orchid was dressed in his favourite purple satin robe (the ‘George Washington’), his hair was tonsured and pinned one last time and he was exhibited in a highly polished purple casket — before being ‘planted’ in the ground.
While he may have been largely forgotten, George’s glamorous ‘gimmick’ of course took root in the culture, and lives on.
I’m trying my best to distract myself from the desperate disappointment of THAT single – you know, the one that definitively proved that there really is such a thing as ‘too gay’. Even for G*g*.
So here’s a blast from the past – when pop music was still vital and vigorous instead of galvanic and twitching. Homoerotic instead of gayist. Climactic without the ‘anti’. And what a distraction! This is basically a bunch of young bucks in breeches f***king fully-dressed on national TV. In 1966. Note the guitarist brazenly, two-handedly tossing off his ‘axe’ above his snugly outlined package and flared thighs at 1.50
‘Girl, you better get straight.’
Fat chance with you providing kicks like that, lads.
This performance of ‘Kicks’ by Paul Revere and the Raiders a rather good example of how boy bands (and that would include of course those boy bands who call themselves ‘rock bands’) have always tended to have that slashy, manlove for ladies thing going on.
I suppose the relative ‘innocence’ of the 60s meant you could get away with so much more. I’m not entirely sure even the chaps in the skin-tight white breeches are fully aware of what they’re doing, even if their stylist was. Mind, this is only a decade after Elvis the Pelvis was famously filmed strictly from the waist up on the Ed Sullivan show. And he was wearing flannels.
When, I wonder, are tight white breeches going to make a comeback, other than on foxhunting toffs? And preferably without the frock coat covering the buttocks. Have they already? Did I blink and miss it? I suppose they did momentarily with Adam Ant’s wonderful dandy highwayman persona back in the early 80s – though he usually wore his punk leather trousers (and watching this clip I’m reminded that despite what he tells the press, Johnny Depp’s foppish pirate Jack Sparrow probably owes more to dandy highwayman Adam than it does Keith Richards).
Either way, I decree that the male thigh should definitely get much more attention. Along with the male buttock. While the male packet should probably be on display in a few more public places than photo-shopped designer underwear ads.
Until the 19th Century it almost always was. The shape of a man’s leg was considered one of his most desirable features. But even the tartiest male tarts today, seem to shy away from that kind of display. Instead like Mikey Sorrentino, they want to distract your attention upwards – towards heaven – and have you admire their divine abs and cleavage instead, while protecting their virtue with those baggy jeans/track-pants/board-shorts/male burkhas that American males (and their Anglo admirers) have worn religiously since the 80s, with the advent of the Age of Speedophobia.
Tip: Frances Eby
I’m not much of a Robbie Williams fan. ‘Bromance’ leaves me cold. And I hated Brokeback Mountain. But perhaps I’m a big softy really because I rather like this video for Williams’ single ‘Shame’ which brings all these themes together, adds a hairy Gary Barlow, Robbie’s once-reviled Take That collaborator, and takes its top off. What was it Dusty said? ‘The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up’
Yes, the ‘Toys R Us’ line is a real clanger, a reminder of Robbie’s gurning, annoyingness, and the song is a little bland. But the video succeeds, just about, in bringing it alive. Despite the complaints of some gays that the promo ‘mocks’ Brokeback Mountain there’s a real sense of longing and intimacy in the way they look at one another that is almost more convincing than much of what appeared in the movie it’s ‘spoofing’. Or, to be honest, in many gay male relationships.
Actually this promo’s not really ‘bromance’ at all, which is almost defined by its sniggering, paralysing fear of anything physical – it’s a knowingly slashy pop promo video: manlove for the ladies (and the gays). It plays on both the ‘gayness’ of Take That, who, despite the leather harnesses, disco and baby oil — and the fantasies of many of their fans — were probably all straight (more or less), and the famously passionate love-hate and now love-again affair between Barlow and Williams. Though of course, for all the looks and stripping off they don’t ‘take the plunge’. Which is a bit of a relief, frankly. And in its way rather less cowardly than ‘gay cowboy romance’ Brokeback Mountain’s five seconds of darkly-lit tent sex.
But that ending to ‘Shame’, in which Robbie and Gary run to the top of a cliff to jump into the water below (but chicken out) seems to reference a much older and better cowboy romance – the famous scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman laughingly jump into the river together to escape a pursuing posse. Butch Cassidy was a favourite of early slashers – ‘strange’ ladies who liked to bring out the homoerotic subtext of mainstream movies, TV shows and bands, and perhaps of male heterosexuality itself, and make them the text, sometimes with eye-popping illustrations.
Forty years on, the auto-slashiness of the video for ‘Shame’ seems to illustrate how mainstream and accepted slash itself has become in pop culture.
Tip: William Godwin
by Mark Simpson, The Guardian
As a boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s I was raised to fight The Second World War all over again. Airfix models. Commando comics. Air tattoos in June. Watching The Battle of Britain and The Longest Day on telly with my dad, just so I’d know what to do if I ever found myself pinned down on a Normandy beach or with an Me 109E on my tail.
All of which made me easy prey to an RAF recruiting film about a buccaneer squadron training sortie from Gibraltar, set to a Vangelis soundtrack. I promptly signed up to the air cadets and spent Tuesday afternoons and a week or two in the summer hols wearing itchy shirts and a Frank Spencer-style beret, learning how to march without falling over. I loved it, and would probably have signed up for the real thing if it hadn’t been for a sixth-form flirtation with Quakerism.
Alas, that old recruiting film isn’t included in They Stand Ready, a new collection of Central Office of Information (COI) armed forces recruitment and propaganda shorts made between 1946 and 1985, released by the BFI. But several similar ones are, including Tornado (1985), about a simulated attack on a Warsaw Pact surface-to-air missile site, and HMS Sheffield (1975), about life onboard a Royal Navy frigate (that was later hit by an Exocet during the Falklands war with the loss of 30 lives).
With their promise of escape from humdrum life, opportunities for new mates, good times, foreign travel and playing with really expensive toys – though strangely silent on the possible physical cost – these films offer a glimpse into the listless, regimented world that was mid-to-late 20th-century civilian Britain, waiting impatiently for Xboxes, EasyJet, the internet and proper drugs to turn up.
Perhaps it’s because prime minister David Cameron is around the same age as me – or possibly because the armed forces, or at least the army, are still largely run by lah-de-dah Ruperts like him – that he seems so nostalgic for this vanished old world. Cameron recently vowed to make the forces “front and centre of national life” and “revered” again, in a speech to UK personnel in Afghanistan.
Not that increased prominence is a guarantee of increased reverence, however. A short celebrating national service, They Stand Ready (1955), which dates from a year before the Suez débâcle punctured the UK’s global pretensions, recalls the last time that the armed forces really were front and centre of national life. Yet conscription proved to be highly unpopular – both with most of those who had to do it and those who had to find something to do with them.
Once the last national servicemen left the ranks in 1963, army life could then be sold as something glamorous and exciting instead of an onerous black-and-white duty. This is exactly what Ten Feet Tall (1963), a rock’n’roll-soundtracked recruiting film does in glorious Technicolor. It showcases a matinée-idol young Scottish squaddie’s ruddy complexion, perfect white teeth, and the (now ominously) nicotine-stained fingers of the army careers officer.
• The COI Collection Volume Three: They Stand Ready, a BFI DVD release, available from July 2010
…acccording to a headline in today’s Sun newspaper. Glad to see they’re finally reporting the news that people really want to hear.
Far be it for me to contradict Britain’s best-selling tabloid, but I wonder whether Danny Young isn’t more ‘vers’.
You can watch his topless Rocky on the tragically awful and apparently endless ITV reality show Dancing on Ice here. Danny is favourite to win because he and his perky nipples (I’m sure it’s the ice) are the only reason anyone watches it.
I’d like to see him skating with Johnny Weir. Then we’ll really find out who’s top.
After all those ads in which Becks thrusted his giant Armani wrapped package in our faces if not down our throats, an Italian satirical TV show decided to do a little consumer product testing. You know that in Italy they like to handle the sausage and tomatoes — and haggle over the price — before they part with their Euros.
Both parties are clearly unimpressed.
For those who don’t speak the most beautiful, most musical language in the world: the rubber-gloved lady shouts at a hooded, glowering Beckham driving off in his (ridiculously large) car full of minders: ‘HOW COULD YOU TAKE US FOR A RIDE!!??’
The incident has caused some anger in the UK, and some see it as outright sexual assault. But if you are paid very large wedges of cash to put your lunchbox on the side of buses to sell overpriced underwear to the masses then perhaps the only shocking thing is that more punters don’t cop a feel of the goods.
Mark Simpson on John Hughes’ legacy
(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2009)
So here’s the pitch: A Hollywood teen movie in which nothing happens. All day. In a school library. Introduced by a pretentious quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’.
Or how about this: A boy bunks off High School to take his friends to mooch around an art gallery, to the strains of something especially delicate by The Smiths.
What do you mean you’ll call me? Don’t you want to invest your millions in these sure-fire hits??
When the director John Hughes died this August, aged 59. much was made of how ‘influential’ he has been for today’s generation of movie-makers. But it’s difficult to conceive of almost any of his classic mid-80s teen films, which included Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being made in Hollywood today. Unless you re-wrote them to include slo-mo amputations.
John Hughes movies had great scripts, they had great characters, winsome, quirky actors: all these years later young Molly Ringwald with her red hair and angsty complexion still looks to me like the prettiest, loveliest girlfriend I never had (while Emilio Estevez looks a lot like a lot of the boys I have had — at least in my mind’s eye). Hughes movies had feelings, they had intelligence, they had heart – all of which tend to get in the way of films being made today. They also had a view of the world that, while often-times wise-crackingly cynical — ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?’ — wasn’t afraid to be lyrical: ‘Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop to look around, you could miss it.’
Just like, in other words, the best British pop music, with which Hughes peppered his films liberally. In fact his work, although celebrated now, often by a forty-something crowd crying over their spilt youth, looks like fragments of a lost America. A much better one than the one we ended up with – with much superior taste in pop music.
Precisely because of their humanity and wit, Many of Hughes’ movies are as startling twenty years on as the Union Jack on the back of Ferris Bueller’s bedroom door, the posters on his walls for Blancmange and Cabaret Voltaire – and a glam Bryan Ferry puckering up over his bed. Matthew Broderick’s intoxicating mixture of all-American, unblinking, huckstering confidence and very Anglo, coquettish flamboyance is inconceivable in a lead Hollywood actor in a teen movie today. It would be loudly dismissed as ‘TOO GAY!’.
The famous parade scene where he jumps on a parade float and mimes to a 1961 recording of fey Wayne Newton crooning ‘Danke Schoen’ like a Vegas Marlene Dietrich, and then to the Beatles’ deliriously, adenoidally sexy ‘Twist and Shout’ (from the previous Britpop invasion of John Hughes’ own youth) and everyone in Hughes’ hometown of Chicago, black and white, male and female, young and old, falls in love with him, is nothing less than a dreamy pop cultural epiphany.
It was a false one, however. The future, as we now know, belonged not to sentimental, art-loving, anglophile, androgynous Ferris in a stolen red 1961 250GT Ferrari Spyder (which apparently, and quite appropriately, was actually a glass fibre fake with a British MG sports car underneath), but to ruthless career-planner and Reaganite Republican Maverick in an all-American F-14 Grumman Tomcat. Top Gun and Tom Cruise were launched into the stratosphere by steam catapult the previous year, in 1985 – the same year as The Breakfast Club were chewing their fingernails and wondering, oh-so-deliciously, what they were going to do with their fucked-up lives.
Despite success with the warm adult comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which once again spoke of a better, kinder America than the one that actually happened — one full of belly-laughs rather than today’s comedy cringe, snobbery and sadism — Hughes Hollywood career didn’t quite make it into the 90s, never recovering from the frightening success of annoying kiddie comedy Home Alone in 1990, for which he wrote the script. He later left Hollywood and became a farmer. Growing things for people to eat was the perfect riposte to today’s terminally toxic movie business.
As Ferris in his dressing gown put it, raising a quizzical eyebrow at us: ‘You’re still here?? It’s over! Go home!’
© Mark Simpson 2009
‘It’s you that needs to watch it. You go out reeking like that and people will start saying things about you!”
You were right, Pat, so right.
Thanks to Caleb Everett
There’s a naked man standing laughing in your dreams.
You know who it is, but you don’t like what it means.
A number of people have forwarded Morrissey’s pubes to me. (For which, many thanks.)
I thought I could get away with not discussing the Moz minge, but this Red Hot Chili Peppers pastiche, nostalgic vinyl taking the place of stuffed socks, which appears on the inside sleeve of Morrissey’s new single ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’ has generated a lot of commentary, some amused, some not, and some, such as Paul Flynn in the Guardian, citing it as ‘the latest sign of artistic decline’.
But all of it suggesting Morrissey’s curlies cannot be ignored.
It’s funny how Morrissey manages to repeatedly surprise people with his consistent, insistent coquettishness. Only last year, legions were scandalized when that picture taken in the early 90s of His Mozness’ naked hairy arse with ‘YOUR ARSE AN’ ALL’ scrawled across it in Magic Marker (with the apostrophe in ‘AN’ ALL’ aimed at Moz’s fundament) appeared in a booklet for his Greatest Hits collection: ‘So gross! This must mean he’s, like, totally gay!’
But Morrissey, odd, reclusive creature that he is, has never exactly been a shrinking violet. His work has always had a naughty, ‘cheeky’, exhibitionist side. As he sang back in the day on the Meat is Murder track ‘Nowhere Fast’: ‘I’d like to drop my trousers to the Queen — every sensible child will know what this means’. His first single featured a close-up of naked male gay porn star’s bubble-butt. His first album had a shot of the torso of a naked male hustler on it. (Like all the artwork during his Smiths period, it was all selected and directed and probably even pasted up by him.)
After The Smiths split, he became his own cover star and was to be found hugging his topless solo self on his 1997 ‘Best Of’ collection.
And while he may have once scorned her shamelessness, Moz’s outrageous ‘November Spawned a Monster’ promo in 1990 out-Madonna-ed Madonna, featuring him writhing in the desert in a skimpy see-through mesh blouse that somehow keeps slipping off — perhaps because he appears to be being bummed by an odd-shaped boulder.
On-stage he pole-dances around his songs often ending on his back with his legs in the air, obligingly lifted towards the auditorium, while yodelling. Even today, it’s still an absolute and legal requirement of all tickets sales that Moz strips off his sweat-soaked shirt at least once every show and throw it into the crowd, who instantly rend it to tiny fragrant shreds, which they then appear to eat.
If Morrissey doesn’t get his tits out for the lads and lasses you’re entitled to a full refund, I believe. It’s always been a flagrantly, probably pathologically sexual thing between Moz and his fans. Though as he’s got older and thicker around the midriff the pole-dancing, does get a bit more, er, awkward.
Oh, and the naked Moz showing us his shaved armpit shot by Eamonn McCabe (which seems to be an update of the famous Narcissus statue by Cellini) used on the jacket of Saint Morrissey — partly to undermine the title - originally appeared on the cover of the NME in 1988 and on a big, fold-out, blue-tac-to-your-sweaty-teen-boy-bedroom-wall poster inside.
Today’s naked Moz looks very different. Which is only natural since he’s now nearly 50 — though of course ageing naturally is the height of unnaturalness these days. But the boyish exhibitionism is largely unchanged. Yes, he has the body of a middle-aged male celebrity who scandalously refuses to hire a personal fitness trainer (even if one or two of the chaps in his employ look as if they’d rather be on a ten mile run).
But he’s also showing us that inside the body of a pub landlord from County Mayo is still a skinny lonely boy from Stretford, nakedly demanding our love. With a seven inch pop single where his manhood should be. That’s how people don’t grow up.
If you look closely — and clearly I have — this jokey pic isn’t really very funny. Like ‘Throwing My Arms Around Paris’, it’s sadly, proudly defiant. It’s Morrissey’s family portrait. This is what his love-life looks like. It’s all here: Pop music. His band-mates. His fans (we’re looking at him again — he’s that naked man laughing and crying in our dreams).
And, centre of shot, perhaps his most enduring relationship of all: the one he has with his hair.
Mark Simpson ponders the trouble the two Georges, Boy and Michael, have been getting in lately in this month’s Out:
What is it about middle-aged queer British pop stars from the ‘80s? Why can’t they settle down, keep their noses clean, their peckers zippered, and their faces out of the papers? More precisely, what is it about middle-aged queer British pop stars from the ‘80s named George?
George Alan O’Dowd, slightly better known as Boy George, former Culture Club front/frock man, starts 2009 being “banged up” — as we call prison sentences in the U.K. — for attacking and imprisoning a Norwegian male escort he’d invited to his home.
Read the article in full here.
by Mark Simpson (A shorter version originally appeared on Guardian CIF November 2, 2008)
“It’s better to marry than burn with passion,” declared St Paul. But now marriage itself seems to have become a burning issue — or at least, gay marriage.
The re-banning of gay marriage in California earlier this month with the passage of Proposition 8 has been presented by gay marriage advocates as a vicious body-blow for gay rights. Angry gay people and their allies have protested across the US, some reportedly even rioting. The timely release of the Gus Van Sant movie Milk, about the murder in 1977 of Harvey Milk, the US’s first out elected official, has fuelled the sense of gay outrage and defiance. Surely only a hateful bigot like the one that gunned down Harvey would be opposed to gay marriage?
Gay marriage is the touchstone of gay equality, apparently. Settling for anything less is a form of Jim Crow style gay segregation and second-class citizenship.
But not all gays agree. This one for instance sees gay marriage not so much as a touchstone as a fetish. A largely symbolic and emotional issue that in the US threatens to undermine real, non-symbolic same-sex couple protection: civil unions bestow in effect the same legal status as marriage in several US states — including California. As a result of the religious right’s mobilisation against gay marriage, civil unions have been rolled back in several US states.
Perhaps the lesson of Proposition 8 is not that most straight people think gay people should sit at the back of the bus, but that if you take on religion and tradition on its hallowed turf — and that is what marriage effectively is — you’re highly likely to lose. Even in liberal California.
Maybe I shouldn’t carp, living as I do in the UK, where civil partnerships with equal legal status to marriage have been nationally recognised since 2004. But part of the reason that civil partnerships were successfully introduced here was because they are civil partnerships not “marriages” (the UK is a much more secular country than the US, and somewhat more gay-friendly too — but even here gay marriage would almost certainly not have passed).
At this point I’d like to hide behind the, erm, formidable figure of Sir Elton John, who also expressed doubts recently about the fixation of US gay campaigners on the word ‘marriage’, and declared he was happy to be in a civil partnership with the Canadian David Furnish and did not want to get married. Needless to say, Mr John wasn’t exactly thanked for speaking his mind by gay marriage advocates.
But amidst all the gay gnashing of teeth about the inequality of Proposition 8 it’s worth asking: when did marriage have anything to do with equality? Respectability, certainly. Normality, possibly. Stability, hopefully. Very hopefully. But equality?
First of all, there’s something gay people and their friends need to admit to the world: gay and straight long-term relationships are generally not the same. How many heterosexual marriages are open, for example? In my experience, many if not most long term male-male relationships are very open indeed. Similarly, sex is not quite so likely to be turned into reproduction when your genitals are the same shape. Yes, some gay couples may want to have children, by adoption or other means, and that’s fine and dandy of course, but children are not a consequence of gay conjugation. Which has always been part of the appeal for some.
More fundamentally who is the “man” and who is the “wife” in a gay marriage? Unlike cross-sex couples, same-sex partnerships are partnerships between nominal equals without any biologically, divinely or even culturally determined reproductive/domestic roles. Who is to be “given away”? Or as Elton John, put it: “I don’t wanna be anyone’s wife”.
It’s increasingly unclear even to heterosexuals who is the “man” and who is the “wife”, who should cleave to the other’s will and who should bring home the bacon. That’s why so many today introduce their husband or wife as “my partner”. The famous exception to this of course was Guy Ritchie and his missus, Madonna — and look what happened to them. Pre-nuptial agreements, very popular with celebs (though not, apparently, with Guy and Madonna), represent the very realistic step of divorcing before you get married — like plastic surgery, this is a hard-faced celeb habit that’s going mainstream.
If Christians and traditionalists want to preserve the “sanctity” of marriage as something between a man and a woman, with all the mumbo jumbo that entails, let them. They only hasten the collapse of marriage. Instead of demanding gay marriage, in effect trying to modernise an increasingly moribund institution, maybe lesbian and gay people should push for civil partnerships to be opened to everyone, as they are in France — where they have proved very popular.
I suspect civil partnerships, new, secular, literally down-to-earth contracts between two equals, relatively free of the baggage of tradition, ritual and unrealistic expectations, would also prove very popular with cross-sex couples in the Anglo world at a time when the institution of marriage is the most unpopular it’s ever been among people who aren’t actually gay. Yes, cross-sex couples can have civil marriage ceremonies, but they’re still marriages, not partnerships. If made open to everyone, civil partnerships might eventually not just be an alternative to marriage. Marriage might end up being something left to Mormons.
Perhaps my scepticism about gay marriage and marriage in general is down to the fact that I’m terminally single. Perhaps it’s all just sour grapes. Or maybe I prefer to burn with passion than marry. After all, St Paul’s violently ascetic world-view which regarded marriage as a poor runner-up to chastity, also ensured that the Christian Church would burn sodomites like kindling for centuries.
Either way, I think it needs to be mentioned amidst all this shouting about gay domesticity that, important as it is to see lesbian and gay couples recognised and given legal protection, probably most gay men (though probably not most lesbians) are single and probably will be single for most of their lives. With or without civil partnerships/unions.
Or even the magical, symbolic power of gay marriage.
Postscript: The Voice of Gay America responds — loudly.
Timing is everything for an actor, and Newman’s curtain-call, coming as it does amidst meltdown on Wall Street and panic on Capitol Hill, and at the end of a decade defined by the twin disasters of 9–11 and Iraq, is nothing if not dramatic. The myriad obituaries and tributes to Paul Newman in the last few days have been richly deserved, but his passing seems to symbolize more than just the death of a great and well-loved actor, or even the curtain falling on one of the last products of the Hollywood studio system. It seems almost to mark the demise of the American Dream itself. A dream that is looking more and more like a distinctly mid-to-late 20th Century reverie.
But what a reverie! Newman was stunning in his youth, like a neo-Classical Florentine statue brought very magically to life: those proud cheekbones, that straight nose connecting with his thoughtful brow, the square dimpled chin and his tight little (non-steroidal) boxer body, that claspable neck, those white teeth, those pouting lips and those preternaturally pale blue eyes, more inviting than penetrating, that seemed to contain in their coolness, the un-spoilt, exciting, abundant promise of America’s plains, lakes and shining seas. The fact that in his personal life he turned out to be an extraordinarily generous and socially-concerned chap makes that promise even more poignant.
Newman, who himself was part of the ‘Greatest Generation’ (he served in the Pacific during the Second World War), was the post-war American Dream made beautiful, friendly flesh. Somehow, projected on silver screens around the world in the 1950s and 1960s, this demigod managed to be entirely desirable but also entirely approachable. In other words: American. Everyone, male and female, wanted to buy him a drink and be his buddy or lover or both — and, crucially, thought they could be. Newman was one of the actors (all from the 1950s and 1960s) I watched as a kid on TV that made me announce to anyone that would listen that ‘when I grow up I’m going to move to America to become mates with those blokes in the movies!’.
In terms of projecting the American way of life around the world, Hollywood’s Paul Newman was worth more than a fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers - and probably rather more fun in bed.
It’s no accident that Newman’s two most popular movies were both buddy-love vehicles with the (almost) equally all-American Robert Redford: ‘Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid’ (1969) and ‘The Sting’ (1973). Newman seems to have been slightly exasperated that most people had missed the point of ‘Butch Cassidy’: that it was a film about male love — a male romance. It was in many ways the original and much superior Brokeback Mountain, thirty years before the tedious, mawkish Ang Lee ‘remake’. For my popcorn money, Butch/Newman’s and Sundance/Redford’s love for each other is much more convincing and affecting than that of their Noughties men’s-fashion-shoot-with-a-Western-theme counterparts, despite never being consummated.
Newman’s tough vulnerability and deliciously flawed masculinity seem to have made his relationship to homosexuality symbolically central to his cinematic persona; the fact he seems to have been a very happily married heterosexual in ‘real’ life only adds to his mythos. Below is a YouTube clip of Newman (with a Placebo soundtrack you can mute), pouting peerlessly as Brick in the 1958 movie version of Tennessee Williams classic ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ as an all-American jock struggling with his secret love for Skipper his buddy who has committed suicide, Big Daddy’s expectations of a grandson and the ‘mendacity’ of family-values American life.
Because of the mendacity of 1950s Hollywood, the movie-version of William’s script bowdlerised Brick’s latent homosexuality. However, such was the troubled erotic power of Newman’s appearance on the screen that the original meaning still somehow shines through, despite the baby-making happy ending.
Perhaps it’s just me, but all these years later Elizabeth Taylor, wonderfully youthfully glamorous as she is here, now sometimes looks less like Brick’s wife and more like his incestuous young mother. There was already something not quite right about the American Dream back in the 1950s, and Tennessee Williams couldn’t leave it alone.
As for the rest of us, we couldn’t leave Paul Newman alone.
Achilles, Alexander, Jason, Odysseus — the fabulous scrapping, rutting warriors of the Ancient World fulfil every boy’s own fantasy. Now, says Mark Simpson, Oliver Stone’s spayed movie ‘Alexander’ and the recent crop of ‘epics’ confirms that Hollywood has abolished heroes — past and present.
(Originally appeared Independent on Sunday, 19 December 2004)
For some, the entry “Double Classics” in their school timetable might have been an ominous omen. For me and my classmates however it meant 80 minutes of bliss listening to a wonderful old gent called Mr Field recount, and frequently re-enact with his walking-stick, fantastic stories of male derring-do from the Ancient World. Spellbound and wide-eyed we listened to the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts, Achilles and Odysseus. So great was the pull of the past in the mouth of Mr Field that hardly anyone fidgeted or played with their chunky 1970s LED digital watches.
Of all the epic tales recounted it was that of Alexander the Great that most gripped my pubescent imagination. The story of a scrappy, muscular little blond boy from the provincial Greek state of Macedonia who took on the world and won, carving out an unprecedented empire that stretched from the Adriatic to India. The story of a boy who never quite grew up; who quite probably assassinated his father; who certainly surpassed his extraordinary achievements, establishing himself as the greatest cavalry captain who ever lived, whose tactics are still studied today. A boy who never really cared for any woman except his terrifying mother Olympias (so terrifying that once he left home, Alexander never returned); whose great and constant loves were Bucephalus, his legendary war-horse, and Hephaestion, his legendary comrade in beefy arms. What boy wouldn’t love Alexander? What boy wouldn’t want to be Alexander?
The story of Alexander the Great (356BC –323BC) is the best boy’s own story ever told –the Trojan Wars may never have happened: hence the posters for Oliver Stone’s new movie Alexander announce: “The Greatest Legend Of All Was Real”. Alexander’s is a tale of passion, adventure, really big fisticuffs, masculine camaraderie, and running away from girls. And also, drunkenness, debauchery, mass murder and madness. His 12-year tour of the known (and unknown) world, and his long list of battle honours — Thebes, Heliocarnassus, Issus, Gaugamela, Tyre, Hydaspes, to name but a few — represent dates on the greatest rock ‘n’ roll tour in history.
Alexander is the timeless, ageless hero of boyish psychosis — a romantic disease which affects all men, though admittedly some more than others (well, I was at boarding school). Boys brim with enough energy to change the world, or destroy it — it makes no difference to them. This dangerous, sexy, passionate indifference is the basis of the mixture of fear and envy that causes adults generally to treat them so badly.
Alexander’s ambition was literally global, shaping the Ancient World; his Eastern crusades ended the ancient dynasties of Persia and Egypt. Alexander effectively invented the Western idea of Empire, globalisation and stamped his face on our idea of fame and success. He wanted nothing less than the whole world to be Alexander. For a while he came shockingly close to achieving just that, boldly going where no man had gone before (another boyhood hero of mine, William Shatner, played Alexander in a TV series before landing the role of Captain James Tiberius Kirk — which he played of course, in his wonderfully limited way as Alexander again). In part, his success was due to the way he succeeded in portraying his own ambition and self-interest as being for the benefit of Macedonia, pan-Hellenism or humanity itself.
In this Alexander could be seen as the ancient template for a neo-con America; he even invaded and conquered what is today Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as Iran. But like the neo-cons he could conquer but he couldn’t or wouldn’t administrate: rebellions broke out frequently and his Empire dissolved immediately after his death; Alexander, like contemporary audiences, had a short attention span. Certainly Stone’s epic new biopic could be subtitled: “Operation Persian Freedom”: his Alexander mouths platitudes about liberating Asia; the turbaned, bearded King Darius looks oddly like Bin Laden and, after his decisive defeat at Gaugamela, he is hunted down by Alexander in the mountains.
Obviously this, in addition to the rediscovered fashionability of sword-and-sandal epics (Gladiator, Troy, King Arthur, The Last Samurai), is why Hollywood has rediscovered this chippy little man and remembered his story as the ultimate road move, the classic story of boundless boyish all-American ambition, lighting out for the territory. In addition to Oliver Stone’s effort, Baz Luhrmann is rumoured to be developing his own version, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the title role. Even The World’s Only True Catholic, Mel Gibson, is planning to make a 10 episode HBO TV series about this pagan arse-bandit who whipped the world’s butt. Suddenly, Alexander really does appear to be conquering the world again.
There is another reason why the epics are back though: they offer reassuring, if utterly fraudulent, nostrums about masculinity in an uncertain, metrosexual world. The Ancient World was a time when men were men (and boys were nervous). In fact, warrior chic has been the fashion statement of 2004. This is the same year, after all, that a US presidential election was fought largely on the basis of who would make the best warrior president — and won largely on the grounds of who saluted best on camera and looked most fetching in 1960s uniform.
And likewise, what Hollywood is really offering us in these modern epics is not hairy retrosexuality but just more metrosexual pleasures, this time in a rather gorgeous, ancient setting; models playing at being rough boys — metrowarriors. In The Last Samurai, the Tom finally grows facial hair, and renounces the unmanly military machinery of modernity for the harsh-but-tender camaraderie of Samurai life — but only to make him more glamorous; Mr Cruise’s Western otherness actually makes him the female lead of the movie. In Troy pretty boys Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom are the real beauty pageant entrants and Diane Kruger (Helen) — and the audience — sit in judgement. The fields of Ilium become not a backdrop for the glorious feats of ancient warriors, but an expensive pretext for ogling Brad Pitt’s body, and also a half-hearted attempt to make it look practical, purposeful: when in fact his flawless, untested physique is the very definition of look-don’t-touch. In Alexander Irish boy-band actor Colin Farrell, with bottle-blond hair and eyeliner, stands in for charisma and passion.
The main reason for the return to the epics is this: Hollywood is emasculating the past. It isn’t raiding it, but paving it over. Telling us there never were any heroes. What other explanation could there be for foisting Pitt as Achilles and Farrell as Alexander on us in the space of a year? These stars who have risen without a trace are stars because of their bland insubstantiality not despite it. We live in a crowded world which is offended by talent, terrified by genius. The Irish pipsqueak Colin Farrell was destined to become King of the Knowing World, aka Hollywood, because he is so inoffensive. He’s the anti-Alexander. Like Robbie Williams doing an album of Frank Sinatra songs, Farrell as Alexander, or Pitt as Achilles, serves to reassure a generation that might have some dim, uneasy ancestral memory of a time before the mediatisation of everything — relax! — there were no great men and there was no era of greatness. There are just different styles, man. Masculinity is a game of dressy-uppy. Like the CGI armies of modern epics, and the digital wars of Pentagon planners, contemporary masculinity is simulation and number-crunching technology. Shock and Awe without the draft.
Hence Farrell’s Alexander isn’t haunted, or driven, paranoid, or threatening, terrifying or charismatic: his eyes are just too close together. When wearing his giant war helmet in the battle scenes his beady little eyes look blinking out like Marvin the Martian. He is utterly lost in Stone’s movie. Farrell’s face is as blank and thoughtless as the world that has made him a “star”. It’s difficult to believe that anyone would follow him to the corner shop let alone the edge of the world.
Just as I and countless other generations of boys before me worshipped Alexander, Alexander hero-worshipped Achilles. It is said he kept two items under his pillow at all times: a dagger and a copy of the Iliad. He yearned to emulate flame-capped Achilles’ achievements; in fact he far surpassed them (Farrell, by contrast, turns in a performance below even that of Pitt’s Achilles). He was terrified that his father would leave nothing left for him to achieve, and is one of the reasons why he is suspected of a hand in his assassination. Alexander wanted fame — but he wanted it for his worldly achievements not his profile. There was another reason why Alexander was fascinated by Achilles: he was interested in the story of his warrior-lover Patroclus (Homer doesn’t actually say they were lovers, but by the time of Alexander they were widely regarded as such). Patroclus was a year older than Achilles, just as Hephaestion was a year older than Alexander; Alexander must have worried that the world might think him Hephaestion’s boy.
At Ilium, Alexander and Hephaestion laid wreaths on Achilles’ tomb, stripped naked, anointed themselves with oil and ran races around the grave. Strangely, this scene didn’t make Oliver Stone’s movie. We do however hear Aristotle lecture the young Alexander on how Achilles and Patroclus were lovers and how such a friendship between men “produces virtue” and is “the basis of the city state”. But this dry history lesson on Greek patriarchy isn’t quite what the teasing tagline “Alexander was conquered only once: by Hephaestion’s thighs” might lead you to expect. In fact, we never really see Hephaestion’s thighs let alone Alexander between them. Stone hints heavily they were lovers, and uses Alexander’s life-long devotion to Hephaestion — Alexander was besides himself with grief when Hephaestion died and lay on his corpse for a day and a night — to make him more sympathetic, but can’t quite bring himself to show sex, kissing or even very much affection. By contrast, the on-screen romance between Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Ringpiece is positively pornographic.
There is only one sex scene in the film — but it is a wedding-night tryst with Roxanna, a wife that Alexander took after invading Persia (but didn’t get around to impregnating until years later, and only after Hephaestion’s demise). Alexander, by the way, was not “bisexual” in the way that publicity for the movie has carefully suggested. Stone’s Alexander is bisexual in the way that Elton John was “bisexual” in the Seventies: Stone is worried about losing his mainstream, American audience and wants to give them at least half of Alexander to identify with/desire. Of course, terms such as “heterosexual”, “homosexual” and especially “bisexual”, with its sixties ‘free love’ associations, are anachronistic and misleading in an Ancient context where the gender of a male’s partner was of much less importance than the public observance of certain rules of engagement based on age and rank (adult male citizens, for instance, were officially forbidden sexual relations with one another but encouraged to have them with unbearded teenaged youths).
Nevertheless, according to many accounts Alexander’s preference was for the same sex; and there is evidence that in regard to Hephaestion at least he disregarded the ban on sexual relations between adult males.
His mother and father were so frantically worried about the teenage Alexander’s lack of interest in ladies and what this augured for the royal line that they hired a beautiful and famously talented courtesan. The fact that his mother is recorded as pleading with him repeatedly to sleep with the courtesan suggests that this approach wasn’t very successful (and a mother’s pleading, let alone Olympias’, was likely to have been slightly counterproductive). He was to marry, more than once, but mostly for political reasons, or to satisfy demands for an heir. For most of Alexander’s life, boys were for pleasure; Hephaestion was for love; women were for heirs and alliances – and effeminates like Paris. Though, perhaps to confound our modern interpretations, or at least mine, there is evidence he took a mistress towards the end of his life.
Alexander disdained a chance to inspect Paris’ famous lyre, dismissing it as having been used for “adulterous ditties such as captivate and bewitch the hearts of women.” But, he added, “I would gladly see that of Achilles, which he used to sing the glorious deeds of brave men.” This early example of the public school mentality seems to us now like a kind of queeny misogyny, and perhaps it was, but the fearsome queeniness of hyper-masculinity, a queeniness that literally subjected the world (arguably not once, but three times: under Alexander, under the Romans and under the Brits). Alexander’s father Philip may have invented the modern state with his innovation of a standing army, but it was his Empire homo son who proved to be his most potent martial innovation of all.
According to some, possibly mischievous accounts, Macedonia — even by Greek standards — sounds like a giant, jumping, open all hours Ancient leather bar. In fact, the Greeks were scandalised by the “barbaric” and “beastly” behaviour of the Macedonians. Sniffy Greek sources complain that the members of Philip’s court were selected for their prowess at drinking, gambling, or sexual debauchery. “Some of them used to shave their bodies and make them smooth although they were men, and others actually practised lewdness with each other although bearded… Nearly every man in the Greek or barbarian world of a lecherous, loathsome, or ruffianly character flocked to Macedonia.” Actually, Macedonia was the kind of place that most leather queens would be terrified by.
Needless to say, it scares the bejesus out of Hollywood. In Stone’s film (financed mostly by German money), we get occasional, almost subliminal flashes of the real, raucous nature of Macedonian masculinity, with warriors and their boys glimpsed in the background almost necking each other. But despite these hints, the pre-Christian, barracks erotics of Macedonia ultimately defeats Stone precisely because it is too masculine, too pagan. Stone is a liberal Judeo-Christian pussy. Stone the macho director of films about macho men in which women are very thin on the ground wimps out in Alexander. Macedonian masculinity is just too… masculine. But then, this is the contradiction of all these metrowarrior epics: the Ancient World is just too rough and real and beastly and male — and, well, Ancient — for contemporary America.
So the warrior sodomy of Alexander is turned into something modern and harmless, something simulated: Queer Eye for the Macedonian Guy, as one critic dubbed it. In addition to the creepily spayed relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion, which is presented as a kind of contemporary gay marriage (sexless, boring, respectable), there’s a strong smell of Sixties unisex androgyny, like rancid jossticks: Stone has Hephaestion portrayed by the spoilt-girlish Jared Leto, complete with hippy-chick wig, plastered in eyeliner applied by Dusty Springfield. The masculine side of male love is as taboo today as the effeminate side is popular.
There is a strange kind of poetic irony here: after all, in JFK Stone told us that his virile Irish Catholic hero Kennedy was punked by the hissing conspiracies of New Orleans fags. Here Alexander and its director are punked by Stone’s own fear of masculine homosexuality.
But there is, admittedly, a lot to be afraid of. An entire season of Jerry Springer couldn’t come close to one evening’s male jealousies, passions and intrigues in Macedonia. Although Stone makes much of Philip’s assassination he draws a veil over the details. The assassin, one of his bodyguards, was a spurned lover called Pausanias. Noted for his youthful beauty, he had been usurped in the royal bedchamber by another attractive young soldier. Pausanias denounced Philip’s new lover as a male tart and “whore”. The boy then proved his virility and virtue by saving Philip’s life in battle, at the cost of his own. His brother and friends then, as you do, drugged Pausanias and gang raped him before handing him on to their grooms and muleteers who also raped him and then gave him a good beating as thanks. For political reasons Philip refused to punish the wrongdoers and restore Pausanias’s honour. Olympias and Alexander probably then used Pausanias’ fury as an instrument for removing daddy and gaining power. Alexander became king and Emperor of the World because his father was murdered by a neglected male lover. Warrior sodomy is a terrifying, fearsome-fearless thing — don’t mess!
It’s tempting to see this current obsession with the Ancient World as a function of our search for new pagan lights in a chaotic, darkened, post-Christian, post-ideological world in which Posh and Becks have replaced the Holy Family. Tempting, but probably mistaken. None of these films have any gods – except the pathetically democratic, earthbound ones: the celebs that star in them. Real worship, whether of heroes or gods is definitely not on offer. It’s just too messy and dangerous for our safe, sterile, simulated modern lives. Boys today don’t worship or want to be Alexander or Achilles, who both regarded themselves as sons of gods. They want to be Colin or Brad. Or their stylist. Although it is difficult for someone like me to accept, maybe this isn’t all bad. After all, as we’ve seen in present-day Mesopotamia, there really isn’t much room in the world for Empire building these days.
Besides, we’re all too busy playing with our digital watches to care about warrior virtues.
Copyright Mark Simpson 2008
This month’s Out magazine includes a feature by yours truly on my visit to Montréal in April to see the biggest, baddest, ballsiest Ultimate Fighting Championship event ever. UFC, for those who aren’t in the know, or unaccountably uninterested in seeing fit, near-naked men grappling and grunting, is the cage-fighting craze that is rapidly becoming the most popular sport with young men in North America.
Out tell me my take has provoked some threats against my pretty face from outraged MMA fans. It seems my crime was enjoying it too much. Other less shall we say clenched followers of this man-mounting sport have however welcomed my interest — even if I breathe too heavily.
Here’s how the piece begins:
Imagine the space shuttle taking off with a really fat customized exhaust pipe or the Visigoths sacking Ancient Rome with kicking bass tubes fitted to their 4-by-4s. Or 20,000 supercharged male orgasms. Simultaneously. And you have some idea what it sounds and feels like in Montréal’s famous Bell Centre tonight for Ultimate Fighting Championship 83, as a spunky young carrot redhead in shorts pins an auburn lad on his back with his heels somewhere around his ears. I think the technical term for this is a “full mount.” Or maybe it’s “ground and pound.”
As the chiseled and blond bad guy with the low-slung shorts (Cam Gigandet) in the recent mixed martial arts (MMA) exploitation flick Never Back Down says leeringly to the doe-eyed brunet boxer good guy (Sean Faris) new to MMA, the good news is that in this sport you can choke, kick, punch, pin, and throttle; “the bad news is that it’s gotta end with you looking like a bitch in front of everybody.” Perhaps it was bad news for him — and for the auburn lad in the ring tonight — but certainly not for the 22,000-strong overwhelmingly young-male audience for the biggest-ever UFC event.
Over 2,500 miles away in Las Vegas, “slapper” Brit boxer Joe Calzaghe is tonight defeating light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins on points. In the long-established world of boxing, there is rumored to be an ancient and secret tradition called the “perk,” or “perquisite” — by which the losing man may be required later to literally give up what he has lost symbolically. In other words, the fucked gets…really fucked.
I don’t know how much truth there is to the “perk,” though the breathless trash talk of modern-day boxers in the run-up to a fight — “I’m gonna make you my bitch/girlfriend/punk” — certainly doesn’t discredit it. But I’m fairly certain that the “perk” doesn’t exist in the “full-contact” brave new world of mixed martial arts, an omnivorous blend of boxing, freestyle wrestling, judo, tae kwon do, kickboxing, karate, jujitsu, and Thai boxing that is rapidly replacing boring old traditional boxing, especially among young men, as the fighting sport. The perk isn’t needed. Because in MMA you get fucked in the “ring” in front of everybody. On pay-per-view TV. The “perk” is the whole, er, perking point, man. And UFC, by far the most successful purveyor of MMA fights for the cable TV voyeur, looks remarkably like gay porn for straight men: Ultimate Fuck-Fighting.
Read the article in full here.
Why does the love story of Hadrian and Antinous seem so contemporary? Mark Simpson argues we’re all pagans now.
(Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 09/06/2002)
OF ALL THE MEN who wore the purple of Rome, Hadrian seems the most “modern”, the most sympathetic and the most tasteful.
This second-century Emperor’s characteristics read like a contemporary TV schedule. There’s his aestheticism (a patron of the arts). His muscularity (an Army man, he could march 20 miles a day and “would withstand all elements his head uncovered”). His yen for travel (he spent much of his reign touring the far-flung provinces of the Empire). His insecurity, his melancholia, his obsession with fame, and of course his fascination with architecture, interior design and elaborate gardens with complicated water features (for example at his famous villa at Tivoli). If he were alive today, Hadrian would definitely have his own cable channel: Imperial Lifestyles.
It was, however, his passionate and public love-affair with the athletic, handsome, curly-haired Greek lad Antinous which was undoubtedly the most modern and enduring legacy of his reign — more enduring than all his grand monuments and buildings, including that wall he built to keep Caledonians out.
As much as we might want to get to grips with this Caesar’s material achievements, it’s the romance which keeps catching our eye. Perhaps it’s a reflection on our time rather than his; and then again, perhaps it’s the way that he wanted it. Whichever, Elizabeth Speller’s new book, ‘Following Hadrian’, a meandering though often interesting journey in the footsteps of the emperor, returns again and again to the hypnotising figure of Antinous.
Hadrian, perhaps the first pop Svengali, discovered the lowly born but divinely beautiful Antinous on one of his great tours of the Empire, making him famous and turning him into the last pagan god by Imperial edict after his mysterious death by drowning in the Nile in AD130. A grief-stricken Hadrian employed all the media power of the mighty Roman Empire to make his boy Number One, erecting statues and temples to him across the ancient world, and even founding a kind of theme park to him called Antinoopolis: a city on the Nile, complete with statues of the expired youth on every street.
Antinous was the Pop Idol of the ancient world, at a time when “idol” meant something you looked up to rather than down on. He was cuter than Gareth or Will — and also rather better at hunting and wrestling (he may have been Hadrian’s boy but he was very much the youthful masculine ideal of the time). Perhaps because he came to represent the very idea of the Beautiful Boy, perhaps because people were less fickle back then, or perhaps because there wasn’t much in the way of reality TV in the ancient world, Antinous was worshipped enthusiastically all over the Empire, especially in the Greek East, for hundreds of years after his death.
Just as today, narcissism and intimations of mortality were at the root of this cult of personality. At that time it was customary for Emperors to adopt their heirs rather than sire them. Hadrian himself was adopted by the Emperor Trajan (with whom he was thought to have been romantically involved). Later, when Hadrian had grown too old and bearded for Trajan, they very nearly fell out over some pretty young men in Trajan’s court. All this is hardly surprising, since the “adopt an heir” Imperial game show itself echoed the Greek model of homosexuality/bisexuality — in which an older man chooses a youth to “reproduce” him and his tastes.
We will never know whether Hadrian would have chosen Antinous to succeed him. Politically. However, by building statues and temples to him and declaring him a god, he “chose” Antinous personally in the most public way and ensured that Hadrian — or his desire — was immortal. Antinous remains, even after all these centuries, the face of desire, at least in the sphere of art history.
Perhaps this is why some whispered at the time that Hadrian had either killed Antinous himself, or persuaded the lad to take his own life, in a form of human sacrifice to grant Hadrian immortality. Poetically, hubristically, Antinous’ death by drowning echoes that of Narcissus — though it may have been Hadrian’s vanity he drowned in.
Whatever the truth of this rumour (Speller dissects the evidence adeptly and concludes that it was unlikely), the beautiful boy who represented Hadrian’s spiritual immortality rather than his worldly legacy would, after his death and deification, never grow old; or even into full, bearded manhood. Interesting that both Christianity and the cult of Antinous should have been founded on images of naked young men effectively sacrificing themselves to their daddy’s desire. Hadrian even named a new star in the heavens after Antinous, believing that it was Antinous’ soul ascended into the heavens.
However, stars can signify nemesis as well as deity. A peaceful and pragmatic ruler who consolidated the Roman Empire by withdrawing from unnecessary conflict, Hadrian is nevertheless remembered forever by the Jews as the destroyer of the Temple and the architect of the Diaspora. His intolerance of Judaism helped foment a bloody rebellion in Judea shortly after Antinous’ death, led by the latest self-styled Messiah, Shimon bar Kokhba — which means in Hebrew, “son of the star”.
It may even be the case that the nova Hadrian named ‘Antinous’ was the same portent that bar Kokhba used to prove his Messianic claims. Reading Speller’s vivid accounts of the ruthlessness of the Imperial troops, the fanaticism of the Judean underdogs and the Emperor’s implacable opposition to any kind of accommodation or compromise with the indigenous population, it’s difficult not to think that history repeats itself, but likes to swap the roles around. The revolt was finally quelled, but not before it cost several legions and much of the reputation of Hadrian in Rome.
Some historians have suggested that Hadrian’s anti-Semitism was a product of his Hellenist tendencies. Part of the spark for the Judean uprising was his ban on circumcision (a mutilating outrage to a Hellenist — the Greeks considered the foreskin sacred). Greek and Jewish culture were in competition at that time in the Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the Judeo-Christian tradition turned out so hostile to homoerotics.
Certainly, Hadrian’s transformation of an ordinary Greek boy into the last pagan god of Rome 100 years after the death of Christ ensured that the Christians would be more than a little bit sour about him. Perhaps it didn’t help that the pagan god looked better with his clothes off than theirs. Early Christian fathers routinely sounded off about the abomination of Hadrian’s ‘catamite’ being compared to The Son of God. (The biggest collection of Antinous statuary today is in the vaults of the Vatican. And arguably the cult of Antinous was assimilated by the Church of Rome, partly in the form of the Saint Sebastian myth.)
As part of his preoccupation with immortality and posterity, Hadrian penned his own memoirs. Sadly, these have been lost. Speller tries the device of introducing each chapter with “memoirs” of the poet Julia Balbilla, friend of Hadrian’s neglected wife Sabina. It’s a nice idea, and apparently endeavours to correct the “male bias” of the Hadrian story, but alas, it doesn’t quite work; Speller isn’t able to bring Balbilla to life, or even distinguish the voice of “Julia” from that of the rest of Speller’s prose.
Ultimately, the most striking thing about Hadrian is not how modern he was, but how much we in the West appear to be revisiting his reign: an extraordinarily sustained period of affluence, persistent uprisings in Judea, the Beautiful Boy worshipped and immortalised in the temples of Hollywood, advertising and pop music — while aesthetics, narcissism, interior design and complicated water features in gardens have become all-encompassing concerns.
The Early Christians saw all this as evidence of the decadence of Rome and how doomed paganism was. Now it just looks like evidence of its longevity.
Copyright Mark Simpson 2002
Contenders, ready! Gladiators, ready! Cross-Your-Heart male bra, ready!
It’s back. This weekend that naff 90s Saturday Night family entertainment staple Gladiators returns to British TV — though this time on sattelite and cable only.
A few, possibly superfluous, observations:
It looks a lot kinkier. It looks, in fact, like a suburban fetish party. Rather ‘dark’, with a lot of leather and rubber and a lot of porno pouting — and that’s just the guys.
The most popular male Gladiator, ‘Spartan’, wears a skirt.
Some of the men also seem to be wearing bras. It’s difficult not to wonder they’re a bit lacking in the tit department but have good abs, so they gave them something to cover up their saggy breasts or over-large nipples.
Or maybe, along with the skirt, it is just more evidence that the male body is now as packaged and fetishised, not to mention scrutinized, as the female variety — at least on Prime Time TV.
Actually, on the basis of the new Gladiators, you could argue that women are now held up to less exacting standards. The men are showing more flesh than the ladies — and their flesh is much more spectacular. Spartan’s abs aren’t really terribly useful, but they do look fantastic, so let’s have him hanging by his arms while the camera zooms in on them.
Either way, the Gladiators, male and female, with the exception of pigtailed Battleaxe who looks like she might actually be able to handle herself in a pub fight, seem less like super-heroes than a bunch of tarts.
But then, tarting’s what we want these days. Especially on family shows like Gladiators.
It’s a measure of how mainstream metrosexuality is now, how ‘normal’ it’s become, that even naff old Gladiators has been metrosexed up — ‘for all the family’. The original series was of course also a form of lycra-clad voyeurism, but with a It’s a Knockout/PE-teacher heartiness as fig-leaf. New Gladiators, on the other hand, like the brave/terrifying new metrosexual world we’re living in, isn’t the least bit shy and doesn’t need fig-leafs. Instead, we’re given skimpier outfits and flickering, lustful, wicked flames licking around their perfect bodies.
Sometimes the effect though can be very confusing. Atlas (left), with that long blond hair and sly wink he does on the website, looks less like Charles Atlas, than a cross between Popeye, Jessica Rabbit and Dick Emery. It used to be said that female bodybuilders looked like men in wigs — but looking at Atlas I can’t work out who or what is wearing the wig. Transexy time again.
Perhaps inevitably the trailer for the new series includes a pastiche of the hit 2000 film Gladiator, set in the Coliseum. Gladiators were slaves, commodities of worked-out human flesh that were bought and sold and pitted against one another in a life and death struggle by Roman showbiz at the point of a sword. Now though it’s done at the point of a TV contract. Who says civilization doesn’t advance?
Perhaps I’m reading too much in again, but to my eye this adds a layer of irony to the inclusion of several black Gladiators — in an attempt to update the format to reflect multi-racial Britain. Or perhaps simply to make it look more ‘exotic’ and saleable.
The muscliest gladiators meanwhile seem even musclier. Atlas and Destroyer look more impossibly massive than the big Gladiators of the Nineties series, such as Hunter and Wolf. The bar has, literally, been raised. Their shoulders in particular are vast — perhaps because since the 90s, partly down to the original Gladiators series, we’ve all got a personal fitness trainer — or are related to one. So they have to be EVEN BIGGER.
Or perhaps it’s because we’ve all got widescreen TVs now.
Somehow I don’t think it terribly likely the steroid ‘epidemic’ that drug agencies have warned is rampaging amongst young men today because they want a desirable body like the ones they see in the media will abate anytime soon.
Madonna interviewed with this month’s Elle magazine, excerpted this week in the Daily Mail under the headline ‘My amazing sex-life’. Apparently hubby Guy has encouraged her to be more feminine.
Madge said: “I think I’ve been honing and finessing my feminine side. I’ve always been very comfortable with my masculine side — the confidence, the ballsiness. I’ve learnt to be more pliant, more vulnerable — and to be comfortable with that.“‘
I know it’s rude to quote yourself, especially in public, but it does remind me of something I wrote for this month’s Out magazine about transexy celebs who are obliterating sexual difference with botox:
‘Even when a celebrity couple, like Maddy and Guy, act out a reassertion of traditional roles, it only serves as parody. When Madonna brags about her mockney gangster groupie husband bossing her about, it only serves to make it clear that Guy is the English nanny whose duties include having to pretend to dominate Madonna seven or eight times a week.’
But what, I wonder, was Guy saying when the pic (left) was snapped?
Given this story from last year about Madonna’s sex toy gift for him, perhaps it was: “The strap-on was that big I couldn’t get my hand around it!”
Eminem is overweight, addicted to drugs, suffering attacks of pneumonia, struggling with a heart condition, is a virtual recluse surrounded by parasitic hangers on and can’t write any new music, according to the Sun and his estranged mother’s new book.
Worst of all, Marshall Mathers, now aged 35 is ‘spotty’ eats ‘fatty food’ and has even let his bleached blond hair grow out. Now that is really tragic.
OK, so he’s going through a bad time at the moment, and spent Christmas in hospital with life-threatening illnesses, but there’s really no excuse for such sloppiness in a man these days is there?
Even his beloved daughter Haile appears to be deserting him: now 12, she is reportedly becoming more independent and no longer so keen on staying in and being being doted on by her daddy-mommy. And who can blame her if he’s got spots and needs a bleach job?
The Sun prints a still taken from one of Marshall Mather’s videos spoofing a fat, late-period Elvis who also took ‘traditional black music to the mainstream’ and points up the ‘irony’ of it all, how an obese Elvis locked himself in his Graceland mansion, surrounded himself with parasitic hangers-on and ‘died of a heart attack, aged just 43, after years of drug abuse’.
Well, now, it would be entirely churlish of Em not to complete the eerie parallel and die of a heart attack himself, wouldn’t it? (Note to Em: don’t wait til you turn 43 before helpfully dropping dead on the john as the Sun will have forgotten all about you by then.)
Unmentioned however is the main and most striking paralell between Elvis and Em: two Southern boys who loved their Mommas. And boys, who, in their own ways, never quite got over that - and certainly never grew up. The article does though quote some lines from his prescient song ‘Role Model’ that hint at this pathological Momma Love: ‘I’m bout as normal as Norman Bates, with deformative traits/A premature birth that was four minutes late’.
Norman Bates, some of you younger readers probably need to be told, was a 1950s Hitchcock psychopath (played by a homosexual actor) with multiple personality disorder (Slim Shady? Eminem? Marshall Mathers?), who kept the preserved body of his murdered mother in his basement and dressed up in her clothes to slash ladies he fancies to death with a large knife. Seeing as Em has rapped about slaughtering both his ex-ex-ex-wife Kim ‘the only woman I’ve ever loved’ and his smothering mother, the ‘New Elvis’ was clearly living at the Bates Motel instead of Graceland, at least inside his Gothic head.
As this bilious piece of mine below from 2003 shows, the ‘New Elvis’ turned into the old ‘Old Elvis’ some time ago. (And if you want to understand my disappointment, read this.)
Though in the pic used in the Sun (above) he appears to have turned into Boy George.
His majesty the baby
Isn’t it about time Eminem grew up? Mark Simpson on the rapper who elevated spoilt tantrums into an art form
Independent on Sunday, 27/04/2003
A few years ago a pasty-faced, bleached-blond, underfed white boy rapper arrived on the scene waving a chainsaw who, thrillingly, seemed to hate everyone, especially himself. He took pot shots at all kinds of pretension and bullshit, including the fame that he had achieved for himself and the industry that had made it possible.
Although he was a white rapper, he was decidedly no Vanilla Ice. In fact, there was nothing vanilla at all about this scatologically talented, potty– mouthed misanthrope who sounded like Bugs Bunny crossed with South Park’s Cartman on crystal meth. He was hailed by some as the “new Elvis”, and although the comparisons were full of hubris, like Elvis he had taken a “black” music form and made it his own, and in the process fashioned a new kind of pop. In this instance one which seemed genuinely, dangerously, neurotically interested in words and narratives. For the first time in years, people began talking, arguing and even demonstrating about a pop star.
Marshall Bruce Mathers III, alias Eminem, alias Slim Shady, was the evil, comical, candy-buzz of consumerism laced with melt-in-your-mouth cyanide, promising a little indigestion in a saccharin-sweet, always smiling, aspirational pop industry of boy blands and Britneybots. On his smash-hit work of Gothic genius The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) he famously sneered, “You think I give a damn about a Grammy? Half you critics can’t even stomach me…”
And then in 2001 he appeared on the damn Grammys, in that very disturbing duet with the evil fairy godmother of showbiz pop blandness, Elton John. Millions of viewers were treated to the sight of Slim Shady conscientiously sucking the Grammys’ cock while a pink-polka-dotted bewigged Elton sucked his (Em later claimed he ‘didn’t know Elton was gay’). For his consummate skill at controlling his gag reflex, Em was awarded some Grammy consolation prizes for which he was gosh-awfully grateful. Countless other awards came his way, eliciting various other embarrassing, actressy acceptance speeches in a hip-hop stylee.
Then last year at the MTV Awards, when some audience members booed him, he accused “that girl” Moby of being behind it and threatened to beat him up. This was greeted with many more boos from MTV’s liberal-leaning great and good, and Em, seeing his career slipping away, ended up humbly apologising and mumbling something about attending “anger management classes”. So it was official. Em was just like all the other “faggots” he’d berated so profitably on his records: he only wanted to be liked. It was all about suckcess, again. It was just more showbiz bullshit.
Meanwhile, the critics lauded Em’s mediocre Marshall Mathers follow-up album The Eminem Show, full of empty vanity, forced, phoney politics and pompous 1970s guitar riffs, especially in famously “street” publications such as the Guardian. Maybe I’m just bitter because I feel betrayed, but it seemed that everyone wanted you to know how much they liked Eminem — and how cool, ironic and post-PC that made them. As a final confirmation of his total tiredness, his awesome over-ness, the tedious, toothless autobiographical flick 8 Mile (complete with a Be Nice To Fags public service announcement) which merely showcased his sullen, scrawny lack of charisma, saw the “new Elvis” being hailed now as the “new James Dean” on the front page of the rebel-loving hipster organ the Daily Telegraph. As a sign of the accelerated times we live in, the New Elvis had become the Old Elvis in the space of two years.
Oh, and by the way, Eminem, the voice of teenage angst, is actually 30. If you ever felt that Em was reminiscent of a Harry Enfield character, Nick Hasted’s biography will confirm your suspicions. Em himself seems to know that the Kevin-ish sullen stares, hissy histrionics and spiteful tantrums he has based his career on are essentially childish, and has been shaving a couple of years off his true age, like an ageing rent boy, for most of his career. Until, that is, his estranged mother — damn you, bitch! — “outed” his real date of birth recently. That’s the terrible thing about mothers: they are the original Women Who Know Too Much. No wonder he’s said he wants her dead.
Much as I’d like to be able to add Nick Hasted’s book ‘The Dark Story of Eminem’ (Omnibus) to the long list of embarrassing examples of molesting dad-culture rubbing up against Em’s “enormous pop culture talent” and “credibility”, it’s a largely clear-headed assessment of his career, his strengths and weaknesses, as well as something of an expose of the inevitable deceits this artist famous for reckless “truth-telling” has disseminated.
We learn, hilariously, that little Em was a quiet, shy, sensitive child who liked to colour pretty little pictures, which he would plead to be sent to his absent, deadbeat dad who never once attempted to get in touch with his son. As he grew up, an only child, Marshall’s rage ended up directed towards someone within reach: his single mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs. As we all know, he has accused her, over and over again, of neglecting him. She denies this: “The real problem is not that he had a hard time, but that he resents I sheltered him so much from the real world… I was an over-protective mother who gave him everything he wanted and more.” It’s perhaps self-serving but quite convincing, not least because Em is still bitching and moaning about her neglect into his fabulously wealthy and famous thirties.
So when Mathers-Briggs recalls: “I got kicked out of stores because he’d be like the spoiled brat, lying in the aisle, arms and legs spread open”, it’s impossible not to cackle. After all, little Em managed to turn flailing and screaming about the world in general, and women in particular, not giving him enough attention into a spectacularly successful, attention-seeking career. In an early sign of his Springer-esque instincts, he has bragged how he would tape his mother throwing him out of the house to play to his friends to convince them “how crazy she was”.
Hasted, who did not have access to what Freud might have termed His Majesty the Baby himself, or his fractious family, has assiduously digested the clippings, piecing together a more consistent narrative than most of us have gleaned from the public slanging matches in the tabloids and in Em’s songs. Hasted also assesses the oeuvre, giving credit to Mr Mathers’ real talent, but also not quite letting him off the misogynistic hook with his “Ha-ha I was only kidding ladies, you know I love you” routine at the end of songs about butchering his ex-wife in cold blood in front of their daughter, and analysing his all-important, all-consuming relationships with the women in his life: his mother, his daughter Haille that Em keeps telling us he loves so much, and his ex-ex-wife Kim (since the book was written they are reportedly very much in love again and living together with Haille — the whole family admiring Em’s sweet “Kim: Rot in Pieces” tattoo over breakfast). My abiding impression is that, alas, Em doesn’t hate everyone, just women — and mostly because he is so pathetically dependent on them. Which isn’t exactly very special.
Hasted also visits Mathers’ home town of Detroit and discovers that Em’s background was not quite so white-trash as he has made out — more blue-collar and semi-suburban. Less productively, he spends rather a long time standing in the playground where a young Marshall was allegedly thrown by a bully head-first into a snowdrift (Marshall was a favourite target of bullies, and it’s easy to see why), re-imagining the seminal incident which prompted the song “Brain Damage” and caused Em to be hospitalised for several days. His mother apparently had to nurse him for many months afterwards. (Probably, it seems to me, another reason he hates her: bad enough to be of woman born once, but twice.…)
In fact, Em’s fame appears to have been based on the murder not of ex– wives but of mommy’s little boy. Em’s first album, Infinite, now airbrushed out of history by Em, while critically well-received was apparently too sensitive, romantic and polite to be a commercial hip-hop success, especially with the suburban teen white boy audience who buy hip hop to piss off their nagging feminist moms and keep them out of their bedrooms. In other words, the don’t-give-a-fuck, mother-hating, wife-murdering, potty-mouthed — and smash hit — Slim Shady persona conceived (“while I was taking a shit”) after the failure of Infinite, seems to have been all about… giving a fuck.
There never was any Real Slim Shady.
© Mark Simpson 2008