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.)
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.)
When I first saw the trailer for ‘Weekend’ it seemed to be a tale of two beards that meet in a gay club in Nottingham on a Friday night and then proceed fall for one another over the next couple of days in a council flat.
And then I watched it. Once I got past the beards, ‘Weekend’ was the first ‘gay film’ I’d seen in a long time that didn’t make me cringe. In fact, it was the first British film I’d seen in a long time that didn’t make me cringe.
It’s really rather good, with both Chris New as opinionated, apparently uninhibited Glen and Tom Cullen as shy, lonely Russell turning in fine performances. They have an on-screen chemistry which makes you feel you are watching something genuinely intimate and delicate unfold.
And while I still stick to my argument here that the era of the melodramatic genre of the Big Gay Movie ushered in by ‘Victim’ in which the drama is about homophobia (internalised and externalised) and the narrative is about coming out and acceptance, has drawn to a close – at least in a Western context – ‘Weekend’ does seem to point to a future in which charming ‘small gay movies’ have a place. If that doesn’t sound too patronising.
I particularly liked the way ‘Weekend’ refused to resort to homophobia as a dramatic device, with Glen being quite obnoxiously gay assertive with some beery straight males in a pub but not getting bashed – instead, they panic when he accuses them of homophobia. Russell’s best friend is a straight man who is hurt that Russell won’t talk to him about his dates. There is a suggestion that perhaps Russell might be a bit ashamed of being gay, or at least, not as comfortable as he should be. But then again, neither is in-your-face Glen. The problem, whatever it is, isn’t society’s any more – even if society isn’t and may never be entirely as accepting as it pretends.
Some of the dialogue was cracking, and it reminded me in its freshness of the early 60s New Realist Cinema – the so-called kitchen sink dramas. Though of course it’s 50 years on so it’s a lot fruitier: “ERE YOU LOT!” Glen yells from Russell’s window half way up a tower block at some delinquents down below. “STOP FUCKING ABOUT OR I’LL COME DOWN THERE AND RAPE YOUR HOLES!!”
This might have been deliberate since ‘Weekend’ was set in Nottingham, and sometimes seemed to be a kind of 21st Century gay update of the early 60s Neo Realist classic ‘Saturday Night Sunday Morning’ (there’s even footage of Russell riding around on his bike like Albert Finney). Or ‘A Taste of Honey’ in which Geoff (Murray Melvin) meets a kind of angry gay male version of Jo (Rita Tushingham).
My only criticism – and of course I would have one – would be that unlike those 60s Neo Realist films I don’t really believe the film or the actors have much to do with the city they’re supposed to be living in. Nottingham is just a (very nicely shot) extra in the film. New/Glen you can maybe buy as a provincial gay, but Tom/Russell is supposed to be a working class foster kid working as a lifeguard and living in a high rise council flat, but often sounded posh. Even the way his flat is decorated looks a bit like a Shoreditch hipster’s idea of how a ‘poor provincial persons’ flat would look.
And those beards too seemed more East London than East Midlands. But if ‘Weekend’ had been set in East London perhaps it wouldn’t have seemed quite so ‘real’.
Weekend is out on DVD and Blu-Ray on 19th March
I like Channing Tatum.
I like the fact he hasn’t got a fashion beard. I like his open, boringly beautiful boyish face. I like his GI Joe body. I like the kind of slightly goofy characters he plays. I like that he worked in a strip joint before he started stripping off for Hollywood. I like the way he works the vibe that he’s a no-nonsense blue-collar Southern boy who could have ended up on a gay-for-pay website — and wouldn’t be embarrassed if he had.
I like the way his name is as American and daft and reversible (versatile?) as, say, Todd Hunter. I like the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s like a prettier Marky Mark, sans the hang-ups and machismo and avec a sense of humour instead.
But most of all I like Tatum Channing because he knowingly embodies both the joke and the seriously good news about men’s objectification. The butt of the gag and… the butt. Tatum gives male tartiness a good name.
And I can’t wait for the male stripper comedy Magic Mike. Which is shimmying up to be the must-see metrosexy movie of the summer.
Frankly, we could watch a few more hours of Baldwin chewing the scenery as Pacino and Hader flabbergasted that the producers don’t understand how “gay” their script is: “I say, ‘Ice Man’s on my tail, he’s coming hard.’ I literally said that to a bathroom attendant last night.”
(I’d like to embed here a clip of the fake Top Gun 25th Anniversary audition tape sketch from SNL with Alec Baldwin as Al Pacino and Harvey Fierstein as Hader that HuffPo is high-fiving in the quote above, but Hulu blocks non-US IP addresses.)
Curious how the ‘gayness’ of Top Gun is now part of conventional wisdom and a shared joke. It certainly wasn’t at the time.
Hard to believe, but in the 80s Top Gun, starring the young, tarty Tom Cruise (the Cristiano Ronaldo of his day), with its topless volleyball scenes (to the strains of ‘Playing With the Boys’), lingering locker-room scenes, boy-on-boy central love-story (Iceman and Maverick’s aerial sex scenes are much hotter than anything going on with Kelly McGillis, who has since come out as lesbian) — and awash with enough baby oil and hair gel to sink an aircraft carrier — was generally seen as the epitome of heterosexual virility.
And even nearly a decade later in 1994, when I devoted a whole chapter in my first book Male Impersonators to explaining the homoerotics of that outrageous movie, plenty of people still wouldn’t have Top Gun’s heterosexuality impugned.
Later the same year Quentin Tarantino made a cameo appearance in the movie Sleep With Me, essentially making the same argument, Toby Young, then editor of The Modern Review and Tarantino fanboy, was moved to write a long essay in the The Sunday Times defending his favourite movie’s heterosexuality from Simpson and Tarantino’s filthy calumnies.
Mr Young’s clinching argument? Top Gun HAD to be straight because he’d watched it twenty times – and he’s straight.
But now that everyone and his mother thinks Top Gun — and Tom Cruise — gay, I’m no longer quite so sure.…
In fact, what I told Mr Young in 1994 when he rang me for a quote for his piece was this: “Of course Top Gun isn’t a ‘gay movie’ — but it’s clearly, flagrantly not a straight one either.” I think I’ll stick with that.
Perhaps we’re all more knowing now. Perhaps more people are clued-up about homoerotics. Perhaps it’s down to the Interweb making all the ‘incriminating’ clips always available. Perhaps it’s all my fault. Though I suspect it’s more a case of the past being a foreign country — so ‘gayness’ can be safely projected onto something in the past, even if it was once what hundreds of millions of straight young men saw as the very epitome of aspirational heterosexuality.
I’d better end there as I’m off to the movies — to see Warrior.
Following the discussion of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ in relation to The Last Gay Picture Show I thought I’d post my disenchanted review of it from 2005. As you’ll see, although I had for the sake of conciseness to rope it in with the other Big Gay Movies in that Out essay — and although it certainly has been received and celebrated as one — I’m not entirely sure it is really a ‘gay movie’. I’m certain though that it’s a very, very boring one.…
‘Brokeback Mountain’, front-runner in the Oscar nomination race and big winner at the recent Golden Globes has been dubbed the ‘gay cowboy movie’. Mark Simpson argues it’s more metro than homo and explains why its unconvincing nature is probably the reason for its success
(Originally appeared in Black Book magazine, 2005)
Is there a support group for people who didn’t like ‘Brokeback Mountain’? We must, if the rave reviews and newspaper reports are to be believed, be a very tiny – not to mention vulnerable – minority. Am I dead inside because I didn’t experience the torrent of emotions I’ve been reading about in newspapers and in movie forums? Am I as emotionally crippled as Ennis because I didn’t blub and hug after sitting through this ‘visceral’ movie, but instead wanted to go and ‘help with the round up’? Am I suffering from internalized homophobia?
Probably all of the above. But this doesn’t mean that this film which has become a phenomenon, isn’t as tedious, mawkish, lifeless, unconvincing and bizarrely hypocritical as I found it to be. I wish now that I’d left after the first 15 minutes with the two bored, gum-chewing teen girls in front of me at the multiplex and gone shopping with them for the latest Westlife album instead. There would at least have been more sex.
OK, so there’s a hurried joyless near-rape in the dark at the beginning, but we’ve seen all that before in more detail in prison movie films like Shawshank Redemption. Although this part is true to Annie Proulx’s original short story, the only sex scene in this ‘love movie’ seems to owe more to director Ang Lee’s shame and impatience about MANSEX than Ennis’. While Proulx allows our cowpokes other sex scenes in which they actually enjoy ‘love-making’, this filmic essay on homophobia and its terrible toll goes out of its way to shield us from what it is that these two men have together or what it is that they do when together – or why they would bother to go to the trouble of trying to relive it every year for decades. Across thousands of miles.
Even when they kiss, it’s carefully shot so that we never really see them kiss, the shadows in the tepee artfully falls across their mouths, or if somewhere better lit they appear just to be pushing their faces together, lips and teeth gritted. This makes the scene in which Ennis’ wife spies these desperately ‘closeted’ guys ‘kissing’ outside her home all the more unconvincing and ironic. The realisation suddenly hits her: ‘Omigod! My husband is a fauxmosexual!’ No wonder she’s distressed.
Their boss also clocks the lover boys from a distance. But why their boss would assume they were queer because they liked to wrestle with their tops off rather than wannabe Abercrombie and Fitch models I don’t know; maybe he had special binoculars. But I have to say that I sat right at the front of the theatre and I’m still not really sure what the hell they get up to on Brokeback Mountain. They don’t talk much. They don’t shag. They don’t kiss properly. As Ennis’ wife complains, ‘You go fishing but you don’t bring back any fish.’ The film tells us they’re lovers. Insists that they’re lovers, goddammit. But fails utterly to show it.
Perhaps I’m merely a jaded homosexual. Perhaps I’ve seen too much. Perhaps it’s absurd of me to expect a proper snog between the lovers in a ‘love film’, especially in a film that is telling us over and over again in painfully didactic fashion how bad homophobia is and a film which has been trumpeted for it’s ‘courage’. But in the small provincial town in England’s equivalent of Wyoming where I now live, I’ve several times seen (or rather stared at) drunken young soldiers snogging one another, ‘for a laugh’, tongues and everything, in the middle of crowded pubs, much more convincingly, passionately and lingeringly than these actors who have been told by a thousand interviewers how ‘brave’ and ‘committed’ they were to do these scenes.
But then, there’s not much realistic about this film. Even the impassively beautiful Wyoming countryside seems to have been wrapped in cellophane and Brokeback Mountain a big ribbon bow stuck on top of it. The boys are also very appetising, but while Heath Ledger turns in a fine performance with an almost impossible script and bloodless directing, both of them are too pretty – Jake Gyllenhaal in particular, lovely as he is, looks too metropolitan, too confected, too Details fashion-shoot with a Western theme. By the time he reaches the 70s he looks he like the cowboy out of the Village People: the same haircut, the same black moustache, the same Stetson. But maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising since the cowboy from the Village People, I discovered later, was the ‘gay cowboy consultant’ on this metro-cowboy movie; very Queer Eye For The Western Guy. (Personally, I wished they’d hired Nancy Walker, director of ‘Can’t Stop the Music’ in place of Ang Lee).
‘Brokeback’ is not a serious exploration of rural retrosexuality and its discontents, and certainly not a love story, but rather it’s feature-length propaganda for contemporary, metropolitan metrosexuality. It is an attack on retrosexual repression in general and old-style, ‘outmoded’ stoic masculinity in particular. This is the real reason for its tremendous, zeitgeisty popularity.
Both cowboys, Ennis in particular, are prisoners of their problems with expressing feelings: homophobia, internal and external, is just the biggest symbol of this. Their fat bald boss is an unfeeling bigot. Ennis’ father took him to see the castrated corpse of a local queer when he was a small boy (‘for all I know he mighta done it himself’). Jack’s abusive father is uptight, cold and resentful. His father-in-law is a bullying buffon (who turns out to be a coward for good measure).
None of the older males in this film are fully human – because they aren’t in touch with their feelings. They are all twisted, mean and nasty. Jack and Ennis, a product of that world, are stunted too; they’re just not so mean and nasty. This is why they are also the only attractive males in Wyoming. Their desirability is proof to a modern, metrosexual audience of their sympathy, of their goodness, of their modernity, of the awfulness of their retrosexual predicament.
Because retrosexuality rather than homophobia per se is the real target of this film’s didacticism, the emotional hobbling is hetero as well as homo. Ennis is portrayed as someone who is not just closeted about his passion for Jack but closeted in all his relationships. Whenever confronted with the need for a commitment or a demonstration of love, either for Jack, his wife, his daughter, his new girlfriend after his wife divorces him, he starts mumbling ‘ahh don’t know… roundup is comin…’. Fear and loathing of homosexuality, of male emotionality and sensuality, of explicit tenderness between men is presented as a continuüm.
Which, to some degree, it is. As the ‘father’ of the metrosexual, I have some sympathy with some of the ideology behind this film, if not the execution. And at least in ‘Brokeback’ male sensuality, aestheticism and homoerotics is not displaced into flip-flops and facials and appropriation of stereotypically effeminate homosexual traits as it was in the spayed marketing version of metrosexuality – even if it is somewhat fetishized here into jeans, stetsons and carefully beat-up pick-up trucks.
But dress it up purdy or plain, or call it by any other name, like the marketing version of metrosexuality that preceded it, ‘Brokeback’ is also an accessorisation of homosexuality. This is effectively a film about two straight men who have a homosexual love-affair. After all, the two protagonists are married, the actors who play them are straight, as is the director, the author of the short story it’s based on, the male-female screenwriting partners, and the vast majority of the audience. No wonder they felt they had to hire the gay cowboy from the Village People as fashion consultant. Even the sex is ‘straight’ – there’s rather more hetero sex than homo. ‘Brokeback’ is literally acting out the culture’s current fascination with homoerotics and male sensuality. Which, in itself, is no bad thing. Homoerotics and male sensuality are not the unique property of homosexuals. In fact, they make up a small fraction of those human beings who are affected by these things.
And yes, the reticence of the film in regard to actually showing Jack and Ennis’ love for one another, either sexually or in any other way, and its generally unconvincing air, may not be entirely down to Hollywood’s nervousness or hypocrisy. If their love for one another is merely symbolic, to actually show it instead of just asserting it might diminish its universal message.
But what makes a film a cultural phenomenon doesn’t necessarily make it any good. For me ‘Brokeback’’s metro-cowboy propaganda is right smack dab in the place where it’s supposed to have a big butch bleeding heart and is the very thing which makes it so disappointing. ‘Brokeback’s’ bogus ‘outness’ stands in for and in the way of anything real. ‘Brokeback’ the ‘breakthrough’ movie depicts less credible warmth, intimacy and tenderness between the male lovers than a movie like say, ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ — now nearly forty years old.
And rather less homoerotics than that other, ‘straight’, Gyllenhaal vehicle ‘Jarhead’, another film about lonely all-American boys sharing tents in the middle of nowhere, which, amongst other things, features a Marine gay gang bang in broad daylight — it’s simulated, but rather more convincingly, and joyously, than the sex in ‘Brokeback’.
Palpably ‘Brokeback’ is not the movie that people think or want to believe it is – but it is a movie which, in it’s vagueness, ellipsis and coyness, and even its hypocrisy, allows itself to be misrecognised as the modern explicitly male romance movie people clearly need it to be. Let’s hope that its success means that someone out there can now make a movie that is a little more convincing.
Or even just one in which men in love kiss with their mouths open.
From tortured lawyers, drag queens and cowboys to Mickey Rourke — on the Fiftieth anniversary of Victim the film that started it all, a concise history of the birth, boom, and bust of the big gay movie by Mark Simpson (Out magazine).
A tortured, be-quiffed Dirk Bogarde, backed into a corner by his wife’s questioning, shouts: “I STOPPED SEEING HIM BECAUSE I WANTED HIM! DO YOU UNDERSTAND??”
The up-and-coming barrister played by Bogarde in the 1961 classic Victim is coming out. In case the audience hasn’t understood, his wife, played by a young, pretty and very English Sylvia Syms rams the point home to the audience, screaming: “YOU WERE ATTRACTED TO THAT BOY LIKE A MAN IS TO A GIRL!” Strong stuff, for its time.
This was no ordinary coming out. This was, in fact, the debut of the Big Gay Movie: a form that was to flourish for the next half-century but seems to have peaked with the commercial and critical success of Brokeback Mountain and Milk in the noughties. Fifty years after Bogarde (who was impeccably discreet about his own sexuality) became the first man to out himself on the big screen, the gay-themed mainstream movie feels distinctly past its prime.
The first English-language movie to use the word “homosexual,” Victim caused a scandal in the United Kingdom and was banned in the United States. A plea for sympathy and tolerance and also pity for the victims of “nature’s cruel trick,” it was intended to change attitudes and the law: Any sexual contact between males was illegal in the U.K. at the time. Six years later, in 1967, homosexuality was decriminalized — and Victim was credited with helping bring that about.
It also became the gay movie template for decades to come. That template typically consists of four melodramatic parts: the closet, coming out, homophobia, and… uplift! And like Victim, gay movies also tended to display a slightly condescending yen to educate the ignorant masses out of their prejudices, while simultaneously catering to their curiosity and voyeurism about this curious new species, The Homosexual.
By the end of the ’60s, America had begun to get over its shock at hearing the word “homosexual” and along came The Boys in the Band, the U.S.’s first Big Gay Movie, one that invoked the h-word repeatedly — as a condition one had to reluctantly accept. “You will always be homosexual…. Always, Michael. Always. Until the day you die.” Like Victim, The Boys in the Band elicited sympathy and pity for homos, not least for the impressive amount of self-loathing they display. As one of the ““boys” says toward the end of a nightmare party that isn’t very gay at all: “If only we could stop hating ourselves so much.”
But the movie was already seriously dated by the time it made it to the screen — the Stonewall riots had exploded the year before, and the homos were no longer crying into their martinis. Instead, they were throwing Molotov cocktails and shouting about “gay pride.” Gay activists had overturned the notion of the gay passivist.
By contrast, five years later The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was entirely of the moment – and timeless. Still strutting it’s fishnetted stuff to this day, the longest-running theatrical release in movie history is the least dated, most relevant gay movie ever made — perhaps because it’s not really gay at all. There is no plea for sympathy or tolerance, no condescension, no moral uplift. Not even gay politics or pride. It’s just a really fucking great party to which everyone is invited. Even Brad and Janet. It’s pansexual science fiction that predicts a postsexual future in which queerness would no longer be an issue — because everyone was going to be a little bit Frankenfurter.
Cruising, released in 1980 and picketed by angry gay activists at the time for its “homophobia,” also proved prophetic, but nightmarishly so. Al Pacino plays a straight New York cop assigned to investigate a series of murders of gay men by joining the city’s gay leather S&M scene — but finds himself, like the 1970s itself, strangely drawn to the gay world. But the gay serial killer stalking the streets of New York City turned out, of course, to be HIV. The “gay plague” of the 1980s and the right-wing moralistic backlash on both sides of the Atlantic stopped the sexual revolution in its tracks and firmly quarantined gay from straight.
In this climate of fear and hatred, Maurice (1987), ostensibly an adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel of the same name, seemed almost like a rerun of Victim—but this time with some actual sex thrown in. James Wilby, struggling fetchingly with Edwardian repression, is told solemnly by a sympathetic confidante: “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature.”
Tom Hanks’s dying, closeted gay lawyer in 1993’s Philadelphia, released just before combination therapy galloped to the rescue, is a grim gay melodrama that won him an Oscar. But it wasn’t long before feel-good and fabulous films swished into view: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Beautiful Thing (1996), and The Birdcage (1996), the highest-grossing LGBT-related film ever released in North America. They were celebratory, destigmatizing films about coming out and taking on homophobia — but in order to keep the now-familiar gay movie themes sounding fresh, they had to be set preferably in a public housing project or in the Australian outback. In drag.
By the noughties, gay movies had to resort to time travel to sustain the pathos. Brokeback Mountain (2005), Milk(2008), and A Single Man (2009) were all gay costume dramas, set in an age when homophobia was a life-and-death issue — and the gay movie wasn’t an exhausted form.
Fittingly, the end of the last decade also saw the release of I Love You Phillip Morris, with Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor as unlikely jailbird lovers. It’s breezily casual about homosexuality — we see Carrey noisily buggering a man in the first few minutes of the film — and it refuses to offer the usual uplift or moralizing. The AIDS death scene at the end of the movie, in which the con man played by Carrey cheats death, is an astonishing rebuttal to the mawkishness of Philadelphia. Our gay antihero lives, but in a sense the gay movie dies.
And not a moment too soon. One of last year’s most acclaimed movies, The Kids Are All Right, only handles homosexuality obliquely, as though the topic has become passé. It’s a conventional Hollywood break-up-to-make-up romantic comedy with some less conventional comic details — such as sperm donors and lesbian cunnilingus to gay porn. A same-sex couple faithfully reproduces the heterosexual monogamous nuclear family and its neuroses. Or as The Christian Science Monitor put it, the “family complications in The Kids Are All Right are almost reassuringly recognizable.” Sexuality isn’t the issue of the movie (which could have been called The Kids Are All Straight). Normality is. Gays as a species just aren’t terribly interesting anymore.
But perhaps the greatest proof of the genre’s demise may prove to be Mickey Rourke’s strenuous attempt to revive it. The 58-year-old plastic surgery devotee is currently making and starring in a biopic about 36-year-old gay British rugby star Gareth Thomas. Rourke read Thomas’s story of coming out in Sports Illustrated. “To be a man who plays rugby who is gay and to live with that secret for the amount of years that Gareth had… it takes a lot of courage,” he said recently. Rourke is clearly drawn to Thomas’s tale because it represents the final frontier of the Hollywood coming-out story: a gay guy in the gritty man’s man world of pro rugby. You can see the pitch: another Brokeback Mountain, but with communal baths, even more sheep, and a happier ending.
True, Thomas’s biography does offer plenty of conventional gay movie plot lines: While closeted, he prayed to be straight; upon coming out he dealt with an inevitable divorce from his wife. But Thomas himself is clear that he doesn’t want the film to be about his sexuality: “I don’t want to be known as a gay rugby player,” he said. “I am a rugby player first and foremost.” Adding, somewhat unnecessarily, “I am a man.”
In other words, he doesn’t want it to be a gay movie. And who can blame him? After all, it’s one thing to be played by a 58-year-old Hollywood actor when you’re still in your 30s. But it’s quite another to be trapped inside a 50-year-old and now defunct movie form.
Watching the exhilarating ‘l’amour fou’ movie ‘I Love You Phillip Morris’ recently I found myself falling in love with Jim Carrey all over again — after several years of taking him for granted.
So much so I forgot he was there all over again. The role of Steven Russell the gay con-man is one he was born to play. It’s a return to the Jim Carrey of The Cable Guy — his best and most overlooked film until now. But a bit more grown up, slightly less scary, and with Ewan McGregor instead of Matthew Broderick as the object of his swirling attentions. I don’t fancy Carrey, and I suspect McGregor probably doesn’t either, but Carrey in full-on comic madman mode is impossible to say no to.
So I thought I’d post this love letter to him orginally published in the Independent on Sunday back in 2002.
He’s the funny guy famous for his deviant comic roles. So what is it about Jim Carrey, asks Mark Simpson, that makes him the perfect embodiment of American psychosis?
(Independent On Sunday 19 May 2002)
Whenever I finally confess to my friends that I’m a Jim Carrey fan I almost always get the same reaction. “Oh, I see,” they say, looking me up and down as if really seeing me for the first time. “Yes, well, I can’t stand him, I’m afraid.” Then they pull a slightly sour expression as if I’d farted and explain: “You see, It’s the…” “…gurning” I say, completing their sentence. “I know. That’s exactly what I like about him.” Clutching for some middle ground they then offer: “I quite liked him in The Truman Show, though”. It’s at this point that I quickly change the subject.
It’s all a case of mistaken identity: they see a vulgar spasming idiot where I see a god of comedy… who is a vulgar, spasming idiot. Hence people who don’t like Jim Carrey will probably like his new movie The Majestic. Like The Truman Show (1998), it is played straight(faced), and very competently. People who like Jim Carrey, however, will pull their lower lip over their forehead in frustration.
Appropriately enough, the film is about mistaken identity. Carrey plays Peter Appleton, a Hollywood B-movie scriptwriter who is caught up in the Anti-Red paranoia the 1950s and sacked by his studio and blacklisted as a Commie. Of course, Carrey isn’t really a Commie but just “a horny guy” who was trying to get into the pants of a girl at college who happened to be a Commie. But the cold warriors see what they want to see and Carrey is threatened with a subpoena.
So he gets drunk, crashes his car and suffers amnesia, staggering into smalltown America where he is mistaken for someone more interesting again – Luke Trimble, a young Marine who failed to return from the Second World War. The still-grieving town, having lost several sons, has a form of mass hysteria: benign and healing where the McCarthyite variety is malign and divisive, and everyone believes he is Trimble, even Luke’s father and his former girlfriend. Carrey/Appleton, still with no idea who he is, decides that he might as well be who they want him to be.
However, there’s another case of mistaken identity in this movie: Jim Carrey has clearly mistaken himself for Jimmy Stewart. Carrey makes a passable Stewart, but why on earth should someone who is the unnatural love-child of Dionysus and Jerry Lewis want to be Jimmy Stewart? Besides, Stewart isn’t even dead – Tom Hanks, after all, is still with us.
Mr Carrey, who has just turned 40, is ranked number five in Hollywood’s “star power” ratings – which effectively measures whether we see what we want to see when we look at a screen actor. At 98.46 he comes behind Mr Cruise, Mr Hanks and Ms Roberts who all score a “perfect” 100, and Mr Gibson at 98.68. Although he is already one of the most famous and wealthiest men in America (and recently announced this by buying his own $30 million jet), Mr Carrey would very much like to close that 1.54 point gap and be a perfect 100. Hence the Jimmy Stewart preoccupation.
Carrey’s success of course has come largely through his maniacal, edgy, inspired, disturbed/disturbing – and gurning – performances in films such as Dumb and Dumber (1994), Ace Ventura Pet Detective (1994), The Mask (1994), and Liar, Liar (1997). He even almost succeeded in rescuing the rubber codpiece meltdown that was Batman Forever (1995), with his toxically camp interpretation of The Riddler. Alas, Carrey’s ambitions are “bigger” than such roles allow. He wants to be mistaken for that truly freaky thing: a well-rounded, redeemed human-being. Frankly, his green-furred misanthropic Grinch (The Grinch, 2000) was a more sympathetic character than that.
Carrey seems to be a curious, furious tension between a craving for revenge and adoration. From a Canadian blue-collar trailer park family with a sickly, hysterical mother and a manic-depressive father, he tried to please and distract in equal measure. He wrote himself a cheque for $15 million when he was starting out in the 1980s. (In a curiously ambivalent gesture, he placed the cheque in his father’s coffin). Having succeeded, he surpassed fellow Hollywood comedians such as Steve Martin, Mike Myers and William Shatner – like them, he is a Canadian whose job it is to be mistaken for an American.
So it’s perhaps no coincidence that in most of his films he seems to have “identity issues” – darkness, disintegration and exhilarating release is always just a few facial tics away. In The Mask, appropriately enough the film which brought him to the widest public attention, he plays a mild-mannered nerd who discovers a mask which imbues its wearer with the spirit of the Norse god of mischief. In Liar, Liar he’s a lawyer beating himself up to stop himself from telling the truth. In Me Myself and Irene (2000), he plays a mild-mannered nerdy cop who keeps flipping into a deviant Mr Hyde personality
And then there is the The Cable Guy (1996), in which he plays a nerdy cable installer who wants nice Matthew Broderick to be his best buddy and flips over into a compelling psychosis when Matthew disappoints him. Of all Carrey’s movies, The Cable Guy is the one which comes closest to the truth of his screen persona and also perhaps the truth of the best comedy – that it is about desperation and darkness. Carrey is like the Id monster in Forbidden Planet on the rampage and with a lisp. He turns in one of the most original performances ever seen in a movie – and most reckless, given that this was his first $20 million role.
So when the critics pasted it and audiences used to his “alrighty!” slapstick hated it, Carrey and his entourage panicked and scrambled to make sure that his future projects would not expose so much of his dark side: that people would see what they wanted to see, instead of the rage of Caliban in the mirror. Ironically, even a schmaltzy non-comedy film like The Majestic requires the knowledge of the dark, Satanic Carrey to sustain our interest in his everyguy performance. The gurning lies underneath.
Carrey is a man clearly possessed by voices – the trashy voices of American pop culture we all hear inside our heads: Captain Kirk, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Elvis, Lucille Ball. He’s a latter-day “Legion”, the Biblical madman of Gadarene who spoke in a hundred voices, whose evil spirits were exorcised by Christ (and who, evicted, promptly commandeered a herd of swine and drove them squealing over a cliff into the sea). Unfortunately, given his “healing” tendencies in his straight movies, Carrey also sometimes seems to think he’s Christ too. (In his next movie, Bruce Almighty, he is set to play God.)
Actually, Carrey is someone much more important than God: he is America. At least in terms of his contradictions: hysterical/professional, needy/maniacal, narcissistic/high-minded, base/aspirational, idealistic/hypocritical, cynical/sentimental, amnesiac/media-addicted. In The Majestic Carrey’s character recalls a movie plot but still can’t remember who he is: “You mean you can remember movies but not your own life?” says Laurie Holden. “That’s terrible!” Maybe, but it’s not so unusual.
Like The Truman Show, The Majestic ends with Carrey’s character renouncing the inauthenticity of fame for “real life”. Fortunately for us, the real Jim Carrey is never likely to make that choice.
So I finally went to see Sex And The City 2 the other day. Which is a very rash thing to do. Particularly if you’re not a lady. Or a gay man with lots of lady friends to giggle with at lady stuff.
Almost everyone in the cinema auditorium was female. I was flanked on the left by a gran who tutted loudly at anything sexy – and on the right by a couple of bubbly 30-something women drinking chilled white wine out of plastic cups who laughed a bit too loudly at anything sexy. I didn’t know where to look and was having hot flushes. I don’t think I’ve been exposed to that much oestrogen since my amniotic fluid.
I blame my new American cyber-friend Caroline who suggested I should see it. I think she’s generously trying to educate me about women. To the fact that they exist. And the English film critic Mark Kermode absolutely insisted that I go along. OK, he pretended he was telling everyone not to see it – but his passionate rant against it of course had the opposite effect. And his loud complaint that ‘These aren’t women!! they’re men in drag!!’ sort of clinched it for me.
Actually, as a film it wasn’t quite as boring, pointless and silly as, say, Robin Hood – a film which tries so hard to be taken seriously you just want to roll your eyes. Yes, SATC2 was a riot of bad taste – I mean, Liza and Abu Dhabi in one movie? And yes, the treatment of culture and class was equally tasteless: beneath every burqa is a New York princess just bursting to get out, and how does anyone cope without a nanny?? But like Liza and Abu Dhabi, so off the scale as to make it impossible to take seriously.
And unlike Robin Hood, I did actually care about the people in this film and was quite taken with their naked superficiality. Not a lot, but just enough to take my mind off how much my knees were hurting after two hours of tipsy heart-to-hearts.
However, Kermode’s first advertisement for the film – ‘these aren’t women! they’re men in drag!’ – is very wide of the mark indeed. As well as the worst critical cliché about SATC. What kind of drag queens, I wonder, has Mr Kermode been hanging out with? He really needs to find an edgier bunch. Ones not nearly so obsessed with marriage and husbands and kids and nannies.
And in fact the movie, which begins with a (very) gay marriage, goes to great lengths to distinguish gay men and straight women’s attitudes towards relationships and marriage, in a way which almost daringly goes against the grain of current liberal platitudes that gay relationships are ‘just the same’ as straight ones.
The gay couple getting hitched are quite sanguine about the prospect of ‘infidelity’, to the evident shock of the hetero couples. One of them is something of a reluctant groom: ‘He gets his marriage and I get to cheat!’ His more traditionalist partner doesn’t seem to mind the prospect: ‘He’s only allowed to cheat in the 45 states where gay marriage isn’t recognised.’ (Which would include, I think, New York.)
Now, I realise that some gays will object that the gay couple getting hitched are a ‘stereotype’. Certainly their wedding is an all-singing all-dancing stereotype. And they themselves are a stereotype of hag faggery – plain-looking nellies who haven’t been invited to the circuit party: ‘The music stopped and they were left with one another.’
But SATC deals in stereotypes. Stereotypes and aspiration (aspiration is almost impossible without stereotypes). Each of the female characters is clearly a stereotype. And whilst of course many gay male couples have open relationships, not even the most doctrinaire gay marriage zealot could deny that they are much more prevalent in long-term gay male relationships than hetero ones (about 50% of male-male couples have open relationships according to this survey).
If there is one thing that is definitely not up for grabs for the women in a movie asking for much of its two long hours ‘what makes a marriage?’, as they try and adapt wedlock and family to their needs (and whims), it’s sex outside marriage. This also applies to their husbands. ‘Marriage is marriage’ says one of the straight people attending the gay wedding, offended by the laissez faire attitude of the gay newly-weds. Meaning of course: marriage is monogamy. Or, perhaps, if need be, celibacy.
This is even the case for the central relationship of Mr Big and Carrie, who take on the some of the stigma of a same sex couple since they have resolved not to have any kids – and are scorned for their selfishness by other married hetero couples. ‘So, it’s just going to be you two, alone, forever?’ ‘Yep.’ The disapproval and disgust of the ‘breeders’ is palpable. They even try living separately for a few days a week, which is a strategy of some same sex couples – that can afford it. But even the possibility of an open relationship is never even broached. And the big plot point of the whole movie (spoiler alert) revolves around Carrie just kissing another man – and regretting it, terribly.
Now, I somewhat doubt whether SATC 2 accurately depicts the sexual realities – and experimentations and frailties – of modern married male-female couples. It’s definitely not a cutting-edge movie, or terribly realistic – shouldn’t at least half of them be divorced by now? Or have just remained unmarried because they don’t want to get divorced? And (singly single) Samantha’s role here does seem to be to embody sluttiness, panties literally around her ankles, so that none of the other women have to.
But I think it’s fairly safe even for someone as ignorant of women and relationships as me to say that SATC 2 more or less accurately depicts the Saturday Night aspiration – or necessary illusion – of marriage. That you have found The One. And Only. Forever.
Mark Simpson on the way public information films about policing and justice throw an arresting light on our recent past
Some trace the demise of the British way of life to the day when RAC patrolmen stopped saluting. In fact, as Police and Thieves, a marvellous two-DVD collection of historical documentaries on policing and the justice system from the vaults of the Central Office of Information, shows, the rot set in when bobbies stopped wearing skin-tight white gloves.
The reassuring paraphernalia of policing that I remember dressing up in as a kid to play cops and robbers has pretty much disappeared from our streets today, along with kids playing cops and robbers (everyone wants to be a robber). But in The British Policeman, in 1959 to teach the Commonwealth about the Mother Country, is nothing less than porn for hardcore nostagalics. Pointy helmets and chunky handcuffs, shiny whistles, wooden truncheons, police boxes and those white gloves — perhaps intended as a reminder that, as the very received-pronunciation voiceover intones, “The British policeman is a friend to all except the criminal … he is taught that he is the servant not the master of the public.”
And not a high-visibility jacket or stab-vest to be seen. Back then bobbies were a comforting symbol of the order of British society and the invincibility of its class system. This is underlined by the way that no one shown in the film actually speaks: the clipped voiceover speaks serenely for everyone. Today, of course, police are seen only when there’s trouble — if you’re lucky.
Filmed in crisp black and white on a warm sunny day in a Leicester that looks more like Trumpton than a major Midlands industrial town, this was the high summer of Ealing Englishness, before the 1960s ruined everything. The clumsy propaganda of The British Policeman, like many COI films collected here, is easy to ridicule now — and probably was then too — but it also provides a priceless glimpse of a world that now seems at least as quaint and foreign to us as it did to its intended audience.
No one, except the avuncular bobby protagonist of the film, is overweight. Almost everyone in what may soon be Britain’s first majority non-white city is Caucasian, save for a Commonwealth gentleman at the beginning of the film who asks our helpful bobby for directions. Middle-aged women wear scarves like hijabs. Sullen bequiffed Teds hang around all-night coffee stands. Our bobby helps old ladies to cross the road, untangles schoolboys’ fishing lines caught in trees and attends to a pig-tailed girl’s grazed knee. Proving he’s no pushover, he also apprehends a burglar in a donkey jacket, his pocket full of chisels, who practically shrugs and says, “Fair cop, guv”. Only one female PC makes an appearance, turning up to babysit a runaway girl who has been hanging around with the Teds.
This world thought it was going to last for ever, but the end was waiting just around the corner, cosh in hand. In Unit Beat Policing, a 1968 recruiting film, the white heat of technology has replaced white gloves — and bobbies. Filmed in Chester, it’s a celebration of hardware: panda cars, walkie-talkies, central radio control, electric typewriters and “collecting information”, complete with a Z-Cars–style theme tune. A technocratic chief constable enthuses: “A squad car can do the job of five men on the beat. Which in turn allows us to spend more money on technology that saves manpower . . .”
No female PCs are to be seen in 1968 either, but we do see some women pushing prams and a gossipy lady reports a neighbour for being unmarried, living with a girl, not having a job and generally being shifty. By 1973 in another recruitment film, Anything Can Happen, excitement is now the selling point: big sideburns, action, mateyness, sexism: Life on Mars without the irony. While the young male bobby protagonist is now allowed a voice (albeit a slumming RADA one), female PCs are just dumb bait for recruiting male PCs — two years before the Sex Discrimination Act.
In the 1970s the COI started to move away from documentaries and towards the TV shorts that it is most famous for. Bicycle Thefts (1974) stars a suspiciously pretty, fey young man in a fedora and cravat who seems to have inspired much of David Walliams’s oeuvre: “I’d rather not say what was in my saddlebag. It’s personal.”
Police and Thieves also includes some COI documentaries showing the workings of the post-war justice system: Four Men in Prison (1950), Probation Officer (1950), and the remarkable Children on Trial (1946) (pictured). The public-school paternalism of the age is evident in all these films: “At work and at play we expect you to act like men — we run a civilised, high-class community,” says one governor in his welcoming speech to the new intake. But it is a surprisingly enlightened paternalism that has rather more faith in human nature and rehabilitation than we do today. The future turned out to be much more democratic, but also much less forgiving than class-bound Britain, white gloves and all.
Police and Thieves, the COI collection, Vol 1 is released by bfi
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