‘You should look at my face’, says Alexandra Daddario to Zac Efron after accusing him of staring at her breasts. ‘I’m trying,’ replies Efron, ‘but it’s so close to your boobs.’
So far so Babewatch. But the recently-released trailer for the upcoming Seth Gordon directed Baywatch movie knows times and tastes and focal points have changed. After this exchange about boobs, the very next scene shows Efron stripping off his shirt and flashing his tits and abs on a jetski. The boobs on display in the trailer are mostly male. And none of us are expected to be trying very hard not to look at them.
Baywatch has been updated. As slapstick comedy – which is what it always wanted to be. And moved to Muscle Beach. Or perhaps West Hollywood. It’s certainly looking way gayer.
The original hit 1990s TV series was hilariously naff. It starred the mesmerizingly un-sexy David Hasselhoff as ‘Mitch Buchannon’, a veteran lifeguard who acted as furry, heroic patriarch of the beach. Plus lots of babes. Most famously, Pamela Anderson – whose pneumatic breasts deserved their own credit and as the trailer jokes, always appeared in slow motion. This was the heterosexual division of perving on primetime TV back then.
In 2017 David Hasselhoff’s hairy, sucked-in dad bod has of course been upgraded to a massively muscular, inked, shaved Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – whose beachball pectorals also deserve their own credit.
But such are the competitive, promiscuous times we live in that even all this isn’t enough. His boss is already bored with his ex pro wrestler and looking for a newer model. He’s found a young, ripped, spornoexual sidekick online, played by Zac Efron, and wants to bring him in to ‘restore the Baywatch brand’.
This movie may be silly, but it seems to know exactly what it’s doing.
Understandably, the shredded scamp seems to provoke jealousy and excitement in equal measure: ‘Why you grabbing me so tight?’ Efron complains to ‘Mitch’, who is riding pillion on a pink scooter.
Since his transformation from sweet twink to raging spornosexual, the former High School Musical star’s movie career has – like his shirt – taken off. His famous sexualisation has frequently become part of the characters that he plays.
So when Mitch’s boss enthuses about Efron’s character having won gold medals we know he means for taking his top off.
Zac Efron suddenly feeling very hot. (Accepting MTV award for ‘Best Shirtless Scene’, 2015)
We don’t really do subtexts in the see-through, digital 21st Century. Sextexts, definitely. Subtweets, possibly. Subtexts, not so much. Who has the time? Who can even be bothered with having a subconscious? Subtexts are so analogue.
Perhaps this is why Toby Kebbell who plays Messala in the 2016 remake of Ben Hur with Jack Heston as Hur, announced recently that there is ‘no gay sub plot’ in the new version. Explaining that it’s ‘not necessary today’.
But back in 1959 when William Wyler’s Technicolor version of the chariot-racing, Jesus-praising epic was unleashed – scooping up a record 11 Oscars – repression and subtexts were all the rage. They made High Hollywood what it was. And Ben Hur, a story about two boyhood buddies who dramatically fall out as adults, has one of the most famous – and bitterly contested – subtexts in Hollywood history.
As Gore Vidal, an MGM screenwriter in the 1950s, put it in the 1991 documentary The Celluloid Closet getting around the mores of the time and the medium meant ‘you got very good at projecting subtexts without saying a word about what you were doing. The best example I lived through was writing Ben Hur.’
Vidal claimed that he had convinced an initially reluctant Wyler that the only way to justify several hours of widescreen, in living Technicolor hatred between Jewish prince Judah Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman Messala, played by Stephen Boyd, was to have an unspoken homoerotic backstory. That this was, in effect, an epic lover’s tiff.
Vidal’s plan was to suggest in the scene at the beginning of the movie where these boyhood best buddies are reunited – without saying so in words – that they were once lovers, and that Messala very much wants to pick up where they had left off, but is jilted by Hur.
According to Vidal, Boyd was told of the subplot idea, and loved it, but Heston was spared the knowledge. Wyler advised: ‘Don’t say anything to Chuck because he will fall apart.’
A prescient warning. Heston, close friend of Ronald Reagan and now President of the National Rifle Association, reacted furiously to Vidal’s interview and denied everything, essentially calling him a liar and a braggart in a letter to the papers: ‘Vidal’s claim that he slipped in a scene implying a homosexual relationship between the two men insults Willy Wyler and, I have to say, irritates the hell out of me.’
Naughty Gore! ‘Slipping’ homosexuality into Heston’s biggest, butchest picture!
Vidal of course responded. This time, no Vaseline. Even more ‘irritatingly’, he quoted from a letter the publicity director for the film had sent him, ‘…the big cornpone [the crew’s nickname for Heston] really threw himself into your “first meeting” scene yesterday. You should have seen these boys embrace!’
Certainly, when you watch that scene now, Vidal’s account makes perfect sense. Boyd has a look of total love on greeting Heston – his eyes roving hungrily all over his beloved’s face and, almost imperceptibly, his body. While Heston looks slightly nonplussed.
Quipping in reply to Hur’s suggestion that the Emperor’s interest in Judea is not appreciated by Judea, Messala even speaks the line: ‘Is there anything so sad as unrequited love?’
Wyler however claimed not to remember the conversation Vidal reported, and that the scene he wrote was anyway rewritten by another screenwriter (though there is evidence that a significant amount of Vidal’s input survived into the final version of the movie script).
But whether or not Vidal was having some mischievous fun slipping in a homoerotic subtext at the time, or decades later, trying to detect it is now easily the most interesting part of an often rather tedious, pompous movie.
Which does make me worry about the subtext free remake.
It should be mentioned though that nowadays 1959’s highly homosocial Ben Hur looks like the story of Hur’s love affair with not one, but four men. Messala, the Roman consul Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) whose slave and then adopted son he becomes, the Arab Sheik Ilderim (Hugh Griffiths) who befriends him in his tent and lets him ride his best stallions, and also, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.
In fact, Heston/Hur gives the young carpenter and fisher of men – whose face we never see – the kind of gooey looks that Messala/Boyd once gave him.
Subtexts were tricky. They had to be sub, not texts. A year after Ben Hur Stanley Kubrick’s sword and sandal epic Spartacus was released minus a bath scene in which the Roman general Crassus, played by a middle-aged Lawrence Olivier, attempts to seduce his ‘bodyservant’ slave Antoninus, played by Tony Curtis in his doe-eyed prime, through a heavily suggestive dialogue about ‘eating snails’ and ‘eating oysters’ – arguing that taste is not a matter of morality.
Preview audiences nevertheless expressed their moral distaste and the scene was cut (but was restored in the 1991 re-release). Lord knows what they would have made of the recent TV series of the same name that featured some very explicit snail eating.
Sword and sandal movies had a snail-eating reputation anyway: all that muscle, leather, slavery and pagan license. The 1950s underground gay mag Physique Pictorial often used Greco-Roman imagery.
Although male homoerotic subtext had served Hollywood well from the 50s to the 70s in classic movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (1969), and Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974) – giving them both universal appeal and psychological depth – by the 1980s the increasing visibility of gay people and the growing influence of gay culture on the mainstream meant that homoerotic subtext was having more and more difficulty staying sub.
Tony Scott’s flyboy blockbuster Top Gun, released in 1986 – about halfway between us and 1959’s Ben Hur – starring Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer at their prettiest as rival Navy pilots slathered in hair gel and smugness, saw the gay subtext – intended or not – swallow the script.
The official, patriotic, heterosexual storyline is completely eclipsed by the steamy sexual tension between rivals Kilmer and Cruise, frequently acted out in changing room scenes that look like a Roman bath-house. Or maybe a Matt Sterling one.
Top Gun is an airborne, way gayer Ben Hur – but with a happier ending.
Although most of the people who went to see Top Gun in 1986 probably weren’t conscious of the gayness, by the beginning of the 21st Century we had all become far too knowing for gay subtexts to stay sub. In its place Hollywood was offering us out gay storylines, and self-conscious, chaste ‘bromance’ – where almost by definition anything physical would be a kind of incest.
Perhaps to ward off any attempt to read a gay subtext, the remake of Ben Hur has made Hur and Messala ‘adoptive brothers’, instead of boyhood pals. A literal, legal, ‘bromance’ – albeit one that goes very wrong indeed.
Saw Hue & Cry t’other night on the tellybox for the first time since I was a nipper.
This recently digitally restored kid-oriented Ealing Comedy presents as its climax a London-wide mobilisation of boys (and a few tom-boys) for a ‘big adventure’ – beating up baddies that the police had failed to nab, or even notice. I always loved that kind of film – in which kids show-up the groan-ups, and also give them a good hiding.
Officially the first Ealing comedy, it was directed by Charles Crichton (who went on to direct The Lavender Hill Mob) and shot in 1946, just as the Welfare State was being founded and the horrors of the past were being swept away by the post-war Labour administration of Clement Attlee – who had himself swept away Winston Churchill (the wartime leader who was not nearly so popular as official histories like to tell us).
Maybe it’s because I’m now the middle-aged enemy, but watching it today, Hue & Cry seems really rather disturbing to adult, contemporary health & safety sensibilities. All those kids in rags running around in bombed-out houses, wading through sewers and getting into fights with cops and robbers? Someone call social services!
The sainted Alistair Sim (and no, I didn’t write that book about him) makes an appearance as the enjoyably eccentric and laughably timid author of the ‘blood and thunder’ comic book stories that the barrow boy protagonist (played with enthusiasm but little skill by Harry Fowler) is obsessed with. Scarf-wearing Sim lives at the top of a German expressionist spiral staircase, his only companions a cat and the Home Service.
But it is bomb-damaged, bankrupted London that is the real star of this movie – shrouded in steam and smoke, with chimneys, spires and dock derricks the only things troubling the still-Victorian skyline. Digitally-restored and viewed on HD widescreen, the past seems almost unrecognisable – even the past in the form of vaguely remembering watching a scratchy print of it on 1970s TV.
Bomb-damaged London is populated, in its bomb-craters and burned-out shells, by its bomb-damaged cheeky-chappy lads and lasses. Intentionally or not, beneath all the jolly cockernee japery, Hue & Cry presents a kind of comic-book PTSD in which the apparently orphaned and traumatised children of the war can’t stop fighting a global conflict that is already over. Note the surprising sadism of some of the fight scenes, in amongst the slapstick (does that baddie really need his head banging on the ground that many times?).
After the clip above ends, the Cockney hero finishes off the mini-tached, side-parted, long-fringed evil-genius (played confusingly by the later Dixon of Dock Green) after a lengthy showdown in a bunker-esque bombed-out warehouse – by jumping onto his prone stomach from the floor above. With great relish. In an earlier scene the gang tie up a glamorous female villain and set about torturing her to extract the identity of her criminal boss (her terror of mice turns out to be the key to her interrogation).
The real version of this world is the one that twins Ronald and Reginald Kray, born in 1933, grew up in: the semi-feral East End gangsters famous for the violence, sadism and terror tactics they employed building and maintaining their underworld empire in the 60s – a parallel demimonde that was both part of and also an affront to the ‘white heat’, glamour and shiny modernity of ‘Swinging London’. The Krays were the sewer rats of social mobility.
Like the tearaway in Hue & Cry they also couldn’t stop fighting the war that they grew up with – but were only interested in their own war, no one else’s. When they were conscripted into National Service in the early 1950s they decided the British Army was their enemy. By employing all kinds of fiendishly childish and inventively savage tactics (Ronald being proper psychotic probably helped) they won, and the British Army, like the cops and the baddies in Hue & Cry, beat a hasty retreat from the onslaught, giving the twins dishonourable discharges.
They then employed much same tactics on rival London gangs, effectively eliminating the opposition. When this terrifying comic-book duo were finally sentenced in 1969 to thirty years maximum security chokey for murder, the judge dryly observed: ‘society has earned a rest from your activities’. Ronald died in prison in 1995, aged 61; Reggie in 2000, aged 66. But they had already been immortalised on the big screen in the rather good 1990 film The Krays, played by brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, working class London lads who achieved riches and fame by being pop stars in the hit band Spandau Ballet in the 1980s – rather than by switchblades and gangs.
Another working class pop star, Steven Patrick Morrissey, had a year earlier anatomised the highly homoerotic hero-worship of the Krays and the pernicious glamour of violence in his single ‘The Last of the Famous International Playboys’.
For all their crimes, ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ are almost as fondly-regarded in British culture as an Ealing comedy, and arguably most of the UK gangster movies made in the 1990s and Noughties that followed The Krays were cartoonish homages to the terrible twins. They were certainly comical, even when they didn’t intend to be.
Their story has now been revisited again in a recently-released UK film Legend, starring Tom Hardy playing both roles. I’ve seen it and will offer you my pearls about it shortly. Suffice to say that it’s not so much about Ronald and Reggie, or about class, or about London in the 1960s.
It’s all about Tom – and the 21st Century’s obsession with male sexuality.
Mark Simpson fondles the pecs and thighs of James Bond’s latest ‘outing’
When at their first meeting in Skyfall a rather forwards Raul Silva, played by a bleached-blond Javier Bardem, takes caddish advantage of James Bond’s/Daniel Craig’s indisposition – tied as he is to a chair – running his hands over 007’s craggy face, ripped chest and powerful thighs, and flirtatiously-threatingly suggesting “Well, first time for everything, Bond…” you could feel the audience in my local cinema freeze.
And when Bond delivered the now-famous laconic retort “What makes you think it’s my first time?” you could hear the audience’s sharp intake of breath over the THX sound system. Wot?! James Bond a bender!?!
Oh bloody hell!, I wanted to shout out, at Raul, the audience and the world in general. Has ANYONE been paying attention? Of COURSE it’s not Bond’s first time! In Casino Royale Bond tried a spot of CBT with Mr Big and his knotted rope, while tied to a RIM CHAIR!!
Craig’s Bond proved a sensation on screen, one which finally realised the tarty promise of Sean Connery’s beefily glamorous, disturbing sexuality in 1962’s Dr No – long since forgotten in the sexless knitwear catalogue model Bonds of the 70s-90s. By reconnecting Bond to the metrosexy revolution in masculine aesthetics, the male desire to be desired, that the original Bond movies anticipated but which had been left to other movies to exploit, Casino delivered us Bond as a 21st Century fully-fledged, self-objectifying sex-object. Bond as his own Bond girl. Hence Craig’s Ursula Andress in Speedos moment.
So when Silva has a good feel of Bond’s pecs and thighs in Skyfall he’s just doing what pretty much everyone, male and female, has wanted to do since Casino Royale.
If Casino Royale outed Bond’s omnisexual tartiness, Skyfall, which is at least as good a movie – effacing the mortifying memory of Quantum of Solace – outs the queerness of the Bond villain. Someone who was often implicitly coded queer (those cats, those cigarette holders, those hulking goons), partly as a way of making unmarried, shaken-not-stirred Bond seem straighter. After all those decades of coding, Bardem’s openly flirtatious swishy villainy seems exhilirating. It’s certainly a great pleasure to watch.
Though, like Bond, Silva isn’t actually gay. As a result of the speculation surrounding Bond’s ‘shocking’ admission of his bi-curious past in Skyfall Craig was asked in an interview recently whether he thinks there could ever be a ‘gay James Bond’. “No,” he replied, “because he’s not gay. And I don’t think Javier [Bardem’s] character is either – I think he’d fuck anything.”
Much like Bond, then.
What’s ‘gay’ about Skyfall isn’t the thigh-squeezing, or even Daniel Craig’s circuit party tits (which I’m happy to report are regularly on display again) it’s the glorious camp excess. “Was that meant for me?” Bond asks Silva during an underground pursuit, after he detonates a bomb behind our hero by remote control, blowing a hole in the roof of the vault. “No,” deadpans Silva. “But this is.” Right on cue a tube train falls through the hole, headed for Bond, while Silva disappears up a ladder.
Some film critics complained that this scene is ‘over the top’. This makes me wonder: a) What kind of movie franchise they think Bond is, and b) Whether they have any sense of humour at all.
The whole premise of Skyfall is of course pretty camp: that Silva, a former ‘favourite’ agent of M’s is going to so much trouble – hacking MI6, stealing, decrypting and publishing lists of secret Nato agents, blowing up the MI6 building, personally storming the Houses of Parliament dressed as a David Walliams character – just to get his own back on M (played by gay icon Judi Dench) for dropping him.
That’s some hissy fit.
Fortunately camp isn’t code here for ‘crap’. It’s a testament to Bardem’s skill as an actor and Sam Mendes direction that he’s vividly, entrancingly menacing. He steals every scene he’s in. Actually, his hair steals every scene he’s in. What’s more, you really feel, perhaps for the first time, that this Bond villain has a point. After all, what kind of fucked up family is MI6? Particularly since in the opening scene of the movie Bond is betrayed too – badly wounded and nearly killed after M orders another MI6 agent to take a dodgy shot at the baddie Bond is battling (atop a moving train, of course). ‘M’ is for ‘Mother’ – bad Mother.
Skyfall is very queer psychodrama – delving deep into the twisted family romance of MI6 and the orphan Bond’s quasi incestuous devotion to M. Silva may be on a deliciously queenie rampage, but we all know that it’s Dame Judi who is the real (Virgin) Queen. When Craig appeared in that embarrassing clip for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics this Summer it was quite clear to everyone that constitutional monarch Elizabeth Windsor was Judi’s mere understudy. M has the power of life and death, after all.
Silva’s first scene with Bond – ‘Do you like my island Mr Bond?’ – is gripping, and not just in a groping sort of way. But the scene where he meets M and denounces her crimes and invites her to gaze upon her handiwork trumps it as a piece of pure theatre. Again, it’s deliberately overwrought – but then, so is any family romance. Even the ruthless, steely M is clearly affected by this confrontation with her aborted boy toy.
Perhaps because there’s not enough Bardem in it, the shoot-em up final reel is a bit of an anti-climax after the emotional tube-train crash of the first couple of hours. Even in a Bond film as Freudian as this one it is too symbolic for its own good. More like a bad dream than a finale, Bond and M – and an ancient Albert Finney – are holed up in his family estate in the Scottish Highlands, which he hasn’t visited since his father died when he was a boy. His buried past, in other words.
The Gothic, mouldering pile is called ‘Skyfall’ – a name which is possibly intended to bring to mind God’s favourite, Lucifer, being cast out of heaven. Sure enough, Silva, the agent who was cast out of MI6 by M, arrives with his goons and start shooting the place up in the kind of pyrotechnic assault we’ve seen in a hundred other movies.
Though as with the rest of Skyfall, the final reel is beautifully lit. The attack begins at dusk (Lucifer is the ‘evening star’) and the light progressively turns bluer until it is as dark as death, the only light the hellish orange of Bond’s ancestral home aflame. Like the family romance itself, Skyfall is suffused with nostalgia. Nostalgia for the Bond franchise (it’s a half century since Dr No was released). Nostalgia for 1960s aesthetics. Nostalgia for Britain and Britishness. For the Mother Country. And mother-love.
Heavily pregnant with symbolism, Bond and his Secret Service mother drive to their Highland honeymoon from hell in his Goldfinger Aston Martin DB5 he’s kept in a London lock-up, presumably since the 1960s. On the way he displays what Freud would call his ‘ambivalence’ by jokingly threatening M with the ejector seat, fingering the red button on his gear stick. Of course, Bond never repudiates his mother-love and remains true to Judi.
However, it won’t be giving too much away to say that Skyfall does finally press that button on 007’s behalf.
This review was originally written for the adult site Nightcharm
The animated gif above will save you £8 and 109 minutes of disappointment.
Yes, I’ve done my invert duty and been to see Magic Mike. Which, according to The New York Times, gay men are ‘flocking’ to see in numbers not seen since Brokeback Mountain.
Even if they’re not all as jaded as me I think they’re going to be very disappointed. And not because in Magic Mike gay or bisexual men don’t exist, even as a famously generously tipping audience for male stripping – except as a punchline. In one ‘hilarious’ scene Alex Pettyfer’s uptight sister thinks for a hairy moment he might be gay because he’s shaving his legs. Phew! He’s not gay. He’s amale stripper!
No the betrayal is much, much worse than any of that. And judging by how quickly the mostly female audience in my cinema auditorium stopped giggling and having fun it’s not just The Gays who are going to feel betrayed.
Magic Mike just doesn’t deliver the goods. The junk stays in the trunks. It’s a 110 minute prick-tease without any pricks and very little tease. Most unforgivably of all, this male stripper movie – starring Channing Tatum – wants to be taken seriously. It thinks it has a plot.
And the plot is… another fucking Hollywood morality tale. Will Tatum manage to escape the sleazy, druggy, boys-together world of male stripping and Alex Pettyfer’s winsome grin and end up with his judgey, bossy sister, Cody Horn?
Especially since there’s not nearly enough sleaze on display. I can’t remember the last time I was so bored. Oh, yes, I remember now. Watching Brokeback Mountain.
Fatally, this stripper movie has no sense of timing. Not just in the literally pointless strip routines. Magic Mike suffers from perhaps the worst case of premature ejaculation in cinema history. Two minutes into the film you get the money shot – two seconds of Tatum’s smooth bubble-butt in all its firm, bouncy glory heading for his en-suite in digital Panavision. Which is very nice.
But that, as they say, is a wrap.
Except you’ve got another 108 minutes to go. Another 108 minutes in which as far as I can remember you never see Tatum’s ass properly again. In this movie about male stripping and the commodification of the male body. Given that you can see Tatum’s bouncy ass scene for free in a trailer for the movie it’s the con of Captain America all over again – but even more of rip off. The wrong kind of rip off.
It goes without saying that you never even glimpse his cock. Floppy or otherwise. Or even a dangly bollock. It is, after all, Hollywood, and while Tatum may have worked as a male stripper in the past and worked that past to get where he is, he is now a Proper Hollywood Star and Proper Hollywood Stars don’t show you their cocks. Because that would be low class. Especially in a move about male stripping.
And apart from a glimpse of a couple of silhouettes of clearly prosthetic penises you don’t see anyone else’s cock, either, floppy or otherwise. Magic Mike is essentially a movie about cockless male strippers. Male stripping with no stripping. Which could have been interesting in an avant-garde, sadistic sort of way. But of course, it’s really not that sort of movie.
Maybe I underestimate the director Steven Soderbergh. Maybe he decided to ruin his career by deliberately making a crowd-pleasing summer movie that didn’t please anyone.
A more likely explanation however is that Soderbergh was frantically trying not to scare straight male punters. And safely sublimated homoerotic sub-plots aside, he does work overtime in this movie to reassure that the male strippers are all a) straight and b) dudes. But if he was pandering to straight men he failed there too. Straight men search online for pictures of (big) dick as much as they do for pussy. They are going to be at least as disappointed as everyone else. Except maybe lesbians.
What’s going on here is yet another instance of the puritannical American Phalliban at work. Protecting the sanctity and power of the phallus by making sure the cock is never shown in public. After all, no matter how freakish, the cock never lives up to the promise of the phallus. Even if Magic Mike had the balls to show us… balls it would still have been something of an anti-climax. As I put it in Male Impersonators back in 1994 (which, let’s face it, is really the era when Magic Mike is set):
‘The myth of male stripping mesmerises precisely because it contradicts itself with every discarded item… No matter how freakish his genital attributes, no matter how craftily engorged and arranged with rings and elastic bands, no matter how frantically it is waved and waggled, the stripper’s penis, once naked, never lives up to the promise of the phallus: the climactic finale of the strip is… an anti-climax.’
Femininity is traditionally seen and represented in Hollywood movies as ‘masquerade’. The clothes, the hair, the breasts, the heels, the make-up all stand in for the ‘missing’ phallus. Masculinity meanwhile is meant to just be there. Because men have the phallus. Women appear. Men act. Or so the traditional reasoning went.
But Magic Mike, because it’s a cockless movie about male stripping, is, inadvertently, a good if boring example of masculinity as masquerade. With thongs and leather and cop uniforms and oiled tanned pecs and really bad, unsexy dance routines standing in for the phallus. A kind of male Showgirls, without the camp or the fun. Or the ‘show’. There’s a scene where Tatum is dancing dressed in a thong, a SWAT cap and black webbing ammunition pouches over his torso. It looks like a butch basque.
Perhaps because it can’t show us dick, and because it’s trying to reassure an imagined straight male punter, Magic Mike does though keep ramming down our throats that the men have cocks and women don’t – and is mostly unable to negotiate women’s active, assertive sexuality, something that of course the commodification of cocks so characteristic of today’s culture is based on.
By way of a pep talk Matthew McConaughey, who plays (with real relish) the owner of the male strip club, likes to ask his male dancers: “Who’s got the cock? You do. They don’t.”
Or as Tatum, dressed as a cop in the now famous opening scene of the main trailer says to a nervous sorority girl he’s about to frisk:
Mike: You don’t have anything sharp on you that I can stick myself with, do you? Kim: No. Mike: Good. ‘Cause I do!
[rips off pants, women scream]
But does he? After all, we only have his word for it. And anyway, those words are highly unreliable. Don’t his words actually tell a different story to the one the movie is telling us? Don’t they say either:
a) I have a penis large enough to fuck myself with – please allow me to demonstrate
b) Stand back ladies and watch me use my night stick on myself!
Sadly, he doesn’t do either, of course. That’s an entirely different and much more watchable movie. One that I suspect we might have been able to see if Channing Tatum hadn’t had the misfortune to become a Hollywood star, and instead of being condemned to theatrical releases on the big screen had graduated from stripping in South Florida clubs to live shows on our PC screens.
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’.
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.
'Don't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.'
Middlesbrough, Teesside, one of the last steel-making towns in the UK or in fact one of the last places in the UK where they still make anything, is probably the right place to go and see, as I did last week, Warrior, the recently-released, much-hyped MMA Rocky remake set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Warrior is essentially a bromantic MMA Rocky. This time there are two Rockies: Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, playing actual brothers (rather than ‘bros’) forced to fight one another. Both Rockies are considerably easier on the eye and ear than Sylvester Stallone ever was.
The cinema in ‘Boro was (half) full of groups of young, mostly working class men, several of them even more worked-out than the stars of the movie – but in contrast to the resolutely ‘timeless’ grainy Hollywood faux butchery of Warrior that often looked as if it were set in an MMA version of the 1970s, they were fake-baked, shaven-chested, sexily dressed and very much Twenty First Century tarty. (The North East of England is after all home to Geordie Shore the UK version of Jersey Shore)
Of course, not everything about the film is trying to be timeless. I assume the young men had been drawn, like me, by the poster and trailer for the movie featuring naked, hulking Hardy and a ripped Edgerton eyeballing each other, and the promise of a very sweaty, if incestuous porno climax. (Or, as the promotional copy has it: ‘…the two brothers must finally confront each other and the forces that pulled them apart, facing off in the most soaring, soul stirring, and unforgettable climax that must be seen to be believed.’)
Like all trailers, of course, it lied. Unlike Captain America the deceit wasn’t that the trailer provided you with the only tits in the movie – for free. There were oodles of shots of Hardy and Edgerton’s tits and abs. In fact, toplessness was the default setting of Warrior, and for much of the movie Hardy’s intricate tattoos were the nearest thing he had to a shirt. No, it lied about the spornographic climax. But more of that whinge later.
There were though plenty of homoerotics. It’s a movie about brawny male love – because they’re beating the crap out of one another it can afford to be sentimental and tender, not to mention physical in a way that most ‘bromances’ (essentially a middle-class version of the buddy movie) can’t. It’s about two blue-collar brothers’ twisted, jilted love for one another. About an alcoholic, abusive father’s love for his angry, bitter sons (who of course, love him really). About the love between a coach and his eager charge. And the love between comrades/warriors.
And also about the hero-erotic love that so many straight men have for MMA fighters.
The MMA winner-takes-all tournament both brothers enter (and end up fighting one another) is called ‘Sparta’ – the Ancient Greek City State so famously warlike that according to legend, women had to dress as boys on their wedding night to lure their husbands to bed. Hardy is an ex-Marine who is the subject of a YouTube tribute from another young (cute) jarhead whose life was saved by Hardy. The Theban/Spartan band that is the US Marine Corps turns up en masse and in uniform at Sparta to profess their love and sing the Marine Corps Hymn to Hardy. If this sounds a bit camp, that’s probably because it is.
There are really no women in the movie (and there were very few in the cinema). Edgerton’s equally pretty wife (Jennifer Morrison) is sometimes glimpsed in the background worrying about his fate. But it’s almost as if she’s there as proof of his domesticated goodness – and to make the wisecrack about his flamboyant, handsome ‘unorthodox’ trainer (played by Frank Grillo) who uses classical music to ‘condition’ his fighters being his ‘boyfriend’.
(The coach chooses Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ as Edgerton’s swishy entrance music, reminding me of the Allegretto from B’s Seventh Symphony in The King’s Speech, which then made me think: a) The King’s Speech is something of a bromance, and b) It’s also something of a boxing movie – voice coach.)
The on-screen relationship with his trainer is clearly coded as a romance. The moment Edgerton persuades him to take him on again is a classic seduction scene. In fact, Edgerton is all come-hither smiles and giggles around his coach and when Edgerton professes later ‘I LOVE MY COACH!!’ it’s quite clear what he means.
Hardy has nothing to do with and doesn’t talk about women, except his dead mother. At one point he calls a woman with kids and reassures her he will live up to his promise – and then you realise he means his promise to his deceased USMC buddy, who we learn described Hardy as his ‘brother in arms’. So it’s about male love again. Male love with big kissable titty lips.
Hardy takes on his father as his coach to train for the tournament, but abuses him in revenge for the treatment meted out as a kid. But after a drunken confrontation finally forgives him and literally takes him to bed, holding his old wreck of a dad between his legs and arms and petting him to sleep. He loves his coach too.
After a long, exhausting, slightly tedious and very clichéd final reel, Edgerton gets Hardy where he wants him in the ring, holding him tight in a ‘rear naked choke’ echo of Hardy’s tender moment with his dad – and whispers “I love you” in Hardy’s ear. They stagger out of the ring and out of the arena, clinging to one another. Brothers in arms, finally.
Essentially Warrior is one of those movies about ‘brothers’ that isn’t really about brothers at all. It’s a movie about how ‘real’ brothers are usually no match for those that men call brothers. The way that “I love you like a brother, man” is something of a lie, because most boys and men don’t love their brothers that way. As in this movie, sibling rivalry, age differences and family stuff tends to get in the way. It’s the ‘brothers’ you choose to love that you really love. At least for a while. The phrase men use, and the strapline for this movie, should really be: ‘I love you like I don’t love my brother – that asshole! – man’.
But in one way Warrior is true to the sentiment of ‘I love you like a brother, man’ – the sentiment of ‘not in a gay way’. For all the passionate homoerotics it’s channelling – and despite the very norty, very arousing trailer – it manages to clean-up MMA. A feature-length movie, Warrior is considerably less pornographic than almost any UFC match, which usually last just a few minutes. The fight scenes were mostly a headache-inducing blur of shaky, grainy, poorly lit camera movement. None of the vulgar, compromising and downright lewd positions that characterise the sport and none of the shadowless, multi-angle, explicit, zoomed, overhead voyeurism of pay-per-view UFC (that I wrote about breathlessly here) were permitted.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the audience disappointed not to see Hardy and Edgerton going at it in HD. Any red-blooded UFC fan – and there are loads of them in the UK, as it fast overhauls boxing in popularity – would be.
Perhaps the chasteness of Warrior’s MMA down to the fact that the two actors are just that – actors, not actual MMA fighters, let alone top-level fighters. So the director couldn’t afford to show too much. Or maybe it was because the gritty, obscene mechanics of MMA were too much – for the bromantic storyline. In the end, despite the trailer, Warrior didn’t want you to think it was that kind of girl of course, and offered an emotional climax rather than a physical or even visual one.
Though admittedly, any film starring Hardy’s lips can hardly be called clean fun.
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.”
Curious how, twenty five years on from its release, 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.
Captain America is ready for his Men's Health cover shoot
You know how everyone complains that the best bits of a movie are in the trailer these days? Well, in the case of the new super-hero blockbuster Captain America the ONLY bits are in the trailer.
But WHAT bits they are! At around c. 1.40 mins Chris Evans’ oiled bazookas burst out of the instant stud machine he’s been strapped into by the German-Jewish Frank-N-furter. Everyone’s jaw in the lab slaps the floor as the camera trolleys in for a worshipful close-up on those shiny, massive melons.
Injected with gallons of steroids and popped in the gimp microwave the skinny nerd’s buns have risen, transforming him, not into an ultimate fighting machine but into the ultimate Men’s Health cover model. And in just a few moments instead of the several months it usually takes everyone else using gear — or the seven days that Charles Atlas promised. Isn’t this every boy’s metrosexy dream come true?
So I eagerly coughed up £8 to see more of his super tits last night. But I was robbed. Turns out that this is the only time Evans’ gets his tits out in the whole movie. What a con! What a TEASE!
What’s more, this scene comes very early on in the film, and is its climax — in every way. Unfortunately, there’s another hour or two to go, in which our hero tediously battles the evil Nazi bad guy, fully-clothed — and wearing that daft helmet. Desperately trying to prove he’s not, as Tommy Lee Jones’ hard-bitten old Colonel character dismisses him after he has done one too many propaganda shows, a ‘chorus girl’.
But he so IS a chorus girl. No one went to see Captain America because they wanted to see him throwing his stupid bouncing dustbin lid around (has there ever been a more rubbish super-power? Or a camper one?) Male, female, gay, straight, young, old, animal and vegetable they ALL went to see his TITS.
And I’m not even mentioning the terrible script, total lack of any plot – or credibility – the completely lifeless direction, and the terrible acting (Evans’ body may have been injected with steroids but his face seems to have been injected with Novocaine). It is, after all, a super-hero movie.
Towards the end of this very long, very disappointing, very chaste movie date, Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson in a dashing eye-patch, tells a defrosted Evans running around Times Square (finally levered into a nice tight t-shirt — but it’s much too little much too late): ‘You’ve been asleep for 70 years, Cap’n.’
‘YES!’ I felt like shouting at the screen in my local cinema, ‘AND SO HAVE WE!!’
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 roped 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 its ‘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 continuum.
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 its 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.
Fears of a Clown
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.
Guys! Do you worry that your body isn’t sufficiently lean and muscular? Do you frequently compare your muscles with other men’s? If you see a man who is clearly more muscular than you, do you think about it and feel envious for some time afterwards?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions it used to mean that you should send a postal order to Mr Charles Atlas to ask for advice. Nowadays, if the myriad articles about the latest ‘disease’ to afflict men are to believed, it means you might need to see a therapist to talk you out of going to the gym so much because you may be suffering from ‘bigorexia’ – the delusion that you’re not beefy enough.
On the other hand, it might just mean that you go to the movies.
We expect as a matter of course that our male leads these days will have perfect pectorals, bounteous biceps and corrugated steel stomachs that speak of thousands of hours of sweat, tears and neurotic dieting. ‘Brad Pitt’ is now Esperanto for ‘six pack’. What, after all, is the point of being a film star if you can’t hire the most sadistic personal fitness instructor in town and feast on egg white omelettes and rice cakes? More pertinently, why should we puny punters pay good money to gaze up at men on the big screen who aren’t themselves bigger than life, but sport waistlines that speak of no life at all?
It wasn’t always thus. In fact, until the Eighties muscles were usually so few and far between on the screen that the oiled man in swimming trunks bashing the big gong at the beginning of Rank films was as much meat as you were likely to get at the movies. It was of course an oiled Austrian action hero and former Mr Universe who changed all that, banging a gong for bodybuilding in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (1982) and ‘Terminator’ (1984) introducing us to the spectacular male body and changing forever the way we see the male physique.
True, all those steroid-pumped chests look excessive now, ‘tittersome’ even, and screen muscles have tended to come in a more manageable, more covettable size for some years, but a male Hollywood star who doesn’t work out is as unthinkable now as an American who doesn’t floss.
And Arnie, like the cyborg he played in his most famous movie – or a personal fitness trainer from hell – keeps coming back. He refuses to acknowledge that he’s mortal, or, which is much more hubristic, out of fashion. Next week sees the opening of his new action-hero movie ‘Collateral Damage’, in which he plays a fireman seeking to avenge the murder of his wife and son by terrorists. Next month he begins filming ‘Terminator 3’, quickly followed by ‘Total Recall 2’ and ‘True Lies 2’ Single-handedly, and Promethian-like, fifty-five year-old Arnie, who had major heart surgery five years ago, seems to be trying to haul the Eighties back. (Not least because his political ambitions seem to promise ‘Reagan 2’.)
Meanwhile, his former arch-rival and Sylvester Stallone is currently trying to get funding for yet more sequels to his Rocky and Rambo films (6 and 4, respectively if you’re still counting). Also fifty-five years old, Sly hasn’t had a hit movie for a decade. Post September 11th he hopes America is ready again for a muscle-bound, if slightly wrinkly hero and that Hollywood will buy the idea of Rambo parachuting into Afghanistan in a thong and putting the fear of god into Bin Laden and Al Quaeda. So far his attempts to get funding have been unsuccessful, but if the Austrian Asshole succeeds in making a comeback from the knackers yard, who will be able to stop the Italian Stallion?
Of course, Arnie and Sly weren’t the first musclemen to make it in movies – just the first to succeed in making it really ‘big’ business.
Back in the 1930s there was Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic swimmer turned jungle vine swinger in a loincloth. His muscular tartiness in the Tarzan movies was made acceptable by the fact that his physique was practical in origin (swimming, vine climbing and wrestling alligators). He was also an ‘ape-man’. As a (white) noble savage, who hardly spoke except to ululate loud enough to make the tree tops quiver, or shout ‘Ungawa!’ at a startled passing elephant or chimpanzee, he was spared many of the enforced decencies of 1930s Western civilisation. Interestingly, like Arnie he was originally Austrian: ‘Weissmuller’ is German for ‘white miller’; while ‘Schwarzenegger’ means ‘black plough’. Modern bodybuilding owes everything to Aryan farming.
By the 1940s and 50s Sword and Sandal epics, the pre-cursor of the action movie, starring people like Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, and B-movie body-builder-turned-actor Steve Reeves legitimised the display of more naked, shapely male flesh (hence the line in ‘Airplane’ when the pervey pilot asks the lad being shown the flight-deck: ‘Son, do you like watching gladiator movies?’). Russell Crowe of course was to revive this genre in 2000 in ‘Gladiator’ and went out of his way in interviews to claim that his brawny physique had been formed not in the gym but in ‘practising sword fights’ – in a leather skirt. (Some cynics might say that he failed to gain the Oscar for ‘A Beautiful Mind’ because by then he seemed to have lost his beautiful body).
In the Fifties and Sixties, Rock Hudson, epitomised the ‘All-American’ clean-cut hunk. A Tarzan of the suburbs, if you will. He had a body, but was not sexual. His masculinity was pleasingly superficial and unthreatening. (And now we know that there was never any chance that he might do Doris Day at all).
But it was that other fifties phenomenon Marlon Brando who inaugurated a new era – the male as brazen sex object. His tight-T-shirted, sweaty muscularity was openly erotic; his brutish, built but sensual Stanley Kowalski was the streetcar named Desire (‘Stell-la!’). Clift and Dean were faces, but Marlon was a face on a pouting body. There was something androgyne yet virile about the Wild One’s most physical roles. Perhaps as a kind of revenge on the industry, Marlon famously developed an eating disorder (something usually associated with women) and later became notorious for his ‘work outs’ with gallon tubs of ice cream. In an odd way, Brando’s weight-problem is a kind of ‘bigorexia’, and probably even harder work than staying trim in the way that, say, Clint Eastwood has (and having sex in ‘In the Line of Fire’ with his tight white T-shirt at 70).
In the Fifties-come-around-again Eighties, Tom ‘Risky Business’ Cruise somehow managed combine Brando’s erotic narcissism with Hudson’s clean-cut sterility, this time in a pair of Y-fronts. Later, in ‘Taps’ he played an intense right-wing recruit with an obsessive interest in bodybuilding and showering. In ‘Top Gun’, the definitive Eighties movie, he legitimised the new male narcissism as something patriotic and Reaganite. Most of Tom’s oeuvre since then has stuck to the same theme of boyish vulnerability mixed with determination; passivity and masculinity; sensuality and respectability – and the identity problems that this creates (e.g. ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and ‘Vanilla Sky’). By the same token, his muscles, with the exception of those seen in ‘Taps’ – and his preposterous forearms in ‘Mission Impossible’ – have never been huge, but they have always been very definitely there if needed. Or desired.
The Eighties ‘roided’ bodybuilder action heroes such as Arnie, Sly, Mel, Bruce ‘Die-Hard’ Willis (who for most of the Eighties seemed to be wearing Brando’s unwashed vest from ‘Streetcar’) and the ‘Muscles From Brussels’, Jean Claude Van Damme were less happy to be sex objects. True, these were film stars whose claim to fame rested largely on their willingness to display their bodies, but there was also slightly desperate disavowal of any passivity – hence the emphasis on being action heroes. Arnie and Sly were offering their spectacular bodies for our excitement. Like the explosions and the stunts, their bodies were special effects – in a pre CGI era they were perhaps the most important special effects of all.
Since then the mainstreaming of bodybuilding, the increasing sophistication of CGI and the reconciliation of a new generation of young men to their ornamental role has left their Eighties action heroes’ antics looking rather embarrassing. Today’s male stars work out, but the compensation of hysterically massive musculature, hard-on vascularity and single-handedly wiping out entire armies isn’t needed. Aesthetics have become more important than arm-aments. Arnie may have succeeded in getting Hollywood down the gym, but it is (early) Marlon and Tom who have inherited the World. Keanu Reeves, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ethan Hawke, and all those close-ups on hunky-but-pretty Josh Hartnett’s long-lashed Nordic eyes in the war movies ‘Pearl Harbor’ (2001) and ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2002) prove this. Even Will Smith in ‘Ali’ (2002) doesn’t really look terribly heavyweight.
And former WWF wrestler Dwayne Douglas Johnson ‘The Rock’ who made his debut in ‘The Mummy Returns’ may be hailed by Vanity Fair as ‘the next Segal, Stallone and Schwarzenegger rolled into one’ (a queasy image), but seems extravagantly ornamental, with his plucked eyebrows, lip gloss, make-up and decorative tattoos.
However, that’s not to say that the new relationship to the male body is any less pathological. When for example we see Brad smoking or eating a hamburger in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, we can’t help but wonder how much it cost in CGI. (Reportedly he and his wife don’t keep any food in the house and have all their meals calorie counted and delivered to their door). It’s difficult to imagine any of today’s generation of male stars finding anything they’d actually swallow – and keep down – on the menu at Planet Hollywood.
Meanwhile Arnie and Co., the ‘bigoxeric’ heroes of yesteryear’s big screen, seem unlikely to bring back the outsized Eighties not just because no one really needs them or can find a use for them, but because they are looking their age – older actually, in Hollywood terms. The steroids Arnie began using at the age of 14 to produce those ‘special effects’ can hasten the ageing process and may well have contributed to other ‘collateral damage’, such as his heart problems (they have also become mainstream – 7% of High School boys in the US admitted to taking them). Having been convinced by Arnie to put so much faith in working out and getting beefy, the world does not want to be reminded that it can’t keep you young forever and in fact can have the opposite effect.
Yes, in ‘Collateral Damage’ Arnie’s Panzer body is still there, trundling around beneath his pill-box head, but it is faintly embarrassing now – so much so that everyone in the movie pretends not to notice it. He plays a fireman, which is nice and useful and human-scale. But we know, post September 11, that most American firemen, beefy and worked-out as many of them are, do not look like ageing male masseurs. As one of the characters complains, almost surreally, when Arnie turns up unexpectedly: ‘You order cheese pizza and you get German sausage’.
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 in my cramped cinema seat 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 cliche 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.
Inevitably Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which I went to see last night, was Gladiator crossed with Kingdom of Heaven – but with the embarrassing mistake of Orlando Bloom dead-headed. Though actually I found myself missing Bloom’s lightweight charms. Robin Hood is even more boring and pretentious than both of Scott’s ponderous epics combined (which is an achievement of sorts). Except that is for the entertainment provided by Russell Crowe’s idea of a northern English accent – a mixture of Harry Enfield Scouse and Brad Pitt Irish, with some Kiwi mumbling thrown in.
Much worse than Robin Hood though is the news that Ridley Scott is going back to the future by making not one buttwo 3D prequels for his masterpiece Alien. The prequels will make scads of money of course, but almost certainly at the cost of making you think you didn’t like the original very much after all.
It needs to be said: Ridley Scott can’t make great or even particularly good movies any more. Mostly because almost no one can. We live in an age when movies don’t really matter any more. There’s nothing sacred about widescreen when everyone has one in their front room, and a widescreen HD camcorder in the bedroom. Which is of course why Hollywood as a whole wants to go back to the future and convince us that we need to see movies in souped-up 1950s 3D.
In a sense, Scott dramatises this sorry development more poignantly than any other contemporary director, because, as this appreciation (below) published in 2005 shows, his films used to matter more than most – literally inventing an epoch that we’ve yet to properly escape from. The 1980s.
And also because his films helped bring about that world in which pretty much all films are forgotten before we’ve even seen them.
Men at Arms
First he predicted our dark and soulless future in ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’. Then he opened our eyes to a new, softer kind of man and a harder kind of woman. Now Ridley Scott has turned his attention to the Middle East with a film set during the Crusades. But if his work has always been prophetic, says Mark Simpson, what is he trying to tell us this time?
(Independent on Sunday, 24 April 2005)
Generally speaking, I’m not terribly interested in film directors. At least, not living ones. I don’t rush out to see so-and-so’s latest; I watch films that have nice trailers (and am usually as disappointed as everyone else). But the British director Ridley Scott, whose new Crusades epic The Kingdom of Heaven is out next month, is different. I usually make a point of seeing all of his films, even the unwatchable ones like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and GI Jane. Why? Because Scott’s films don’t only tell us about the world we live in today. They are that world.
It may be a sign of the degradation of our culture, or it could just be my brain, but amongst other terrifying things about our future, Ridley Scott’s first blockbuster Alien (1979) seems to predict reality TV: a bunch of people sealed off from the world, a sense of being watched, a Hobbesian battle for survival in which only one person comes out alive, and very bad table manners. When I re-watched the film recently I noticed that the spherical room where the ship’s giant computer (called “Mother”) is consulted even looks like the Big Brother diary room.
Like reality TV, the purpose of Alien seems to have been to put humans in an inhuman environment and find out what being human was really all about. There is a great deal in Alien that proved eerily prophetic. What’s striking about the film now is how it hasn’t aged; the vacuum of space has preserved it perfectly, which is rather more than can be said for the legion of non-Scott directed sequels. Perhaps this is because Alien invented the 1980s – a decade that none of us has actually escaped. And Ridley Scott, who was born in 1937 and grew up in Teeside, was perhaps more than anyone its visual architect.
In Alien the world of scary opportunity beckoning from the other side of the 1970s is apparent. The crew bicker over shares and bonuses, and in fact they only investigate the distress beacon and seal their doom because a clause in their contract means The Company will rescind their share entitlement if they don’t. It’s every man and woman for themselves. In the same year as a champion of the free market emerged as the victor at the British polls, the sole survivor of the Darwinian struggle unleashed on the Nostromo turns out to be a tough, bossy iron lady (though without the handbag or the hairdo). The female of the species, Scott seems to be telling us, is more deadly than the male.
Consider also that crewmate Kane, played by John Hurt, is orally raped by a face-hugging organism with testicle-shaped lungs, impregnating him with the monster that kills him gruesomely and then goes on to massacre his crewmates. All this, years before Aids, the great terror of the 1980s, had even been named. Kane, it turns out, not Gaetan Dugas, was patient zero.
Like Aids itself, the symbolism of Alien (designed by Ron Cobb and H R Giger) went very deep. Part of the reason why it is such an extraordinarily arousing film is that it’s horribly Freudian. The entrances to the alien spacecraft are giant vaginas. The hatches in the ventilation shaft are clenching steel sphincters. And then there’s the creature itself, with its huge penis-shaped head and phallic-jackhammer tongue that drips with a threading, translucent fluid as it unsheathes before penetrating its victims.
For many years before he started to make films Scott had worked as a director of adverts. And advertising knows about Freud and about desire – in particular, that our desire is actually something that stalks us. Advertising of course tells us to say yes to desire, because in doing so we are saying yes to advertising, which then uses us in its own sweet way. Alien gives us a glimpse of what an “id” world fuelled by consumerism, competition and appetite might look like. That world has arrived. The eggs in the hold of the alien vessel contained the future. Or, at least, embryonic reality TV contestants.
But perhaps the most prophetic part of Alien is its bleakly beautiful look. Every detail is closely controlled by former art-director Scott (who also shot around 80 per cent of the movie himself: “My performance,” he once said of his films, “is everything you see on the screen”) and his trademark high-contrast background and low-lit foreground makes everything seem desirable. Even the Nostromo’s dazzlingly complicated self-destruct mechanism becomes something you feel your home is really missing.
“Its structural perfection is matched by its hostility,” the Science Officer (Ian Holm) famously says about the creature in Alien – something that could be said of several of the lead characters in Scott’s other famous films: the replicant rebel Batty in Blade Runner, Lt. Jordan O’Neil in GI Jane, Maximus in Gladiator. Scott’s early interests in the Nietzschean superman are put on display in the shop window here, helping to make Alien so much more than just “Jaws in space”.
Blade Runner (1982), set “early in the 21st century”, is almost a kind of sequel to Alien. (It was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; as with almost all of his films, Scott is not credited as a writer on Blade Runner.) It shows a chaotic, isolated, cool and cold world of surfaces that could have produced the Nostromo. In this world of signs, people have become artefacts. Replicants. And the famously “layered” technique Scott used to create a believable future actually helped to bring that world about – then trademarked it: almost every major sci-fi film since makes reference to it. We may not have flying cars yet, but the globalised, mediated, soulless, virtual world it portrays is here right now.
Perhaps the most prophetic scene has turned out to be the one in which replicant “retirer” Deckhard (Harrison Ford) explores a photograph via a computer, going around corners and examining reflections in mirrors to catch a glimpse of a sleeping, partially dressed woman.
Even in the pre-digital age of the 1980s, film, advertising and music were fast replacing human memory. The fake memories implanted in the Blade Runner replicants to make them think they’re human are like the fake memories implanted in us all by pop culture – and Ridley Scott films. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is the way it manages to evoke a sense of ersatz nostalgia. The simulacrum of being human.
We now live in a world where so many memories are being manufactured in so many different formats and media that we really don’t have enough room for them. Like today’s ads and pop music, films are designed to be forgotten before you’ve even finished watching them to make room for the next implant. Blade Runner, seen next to something inconsequential like Minority Report, would be much too rich a diet for today’s audiences.
Scott did such a good job of imagining what the 1980s would look like that, after Blade Runner, the 1980s had no further use for him. The film was a critical and commercial failure when it was released (though now it regularly makes lists of the top 10 best films and has earned millions in video/DVD sales). Scott’s next three films, Legend (1985), Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989), were hardly noticed. It was not until Thelma & Louise in 1991 that he hit paydirt again.
Despite or perhaps because of its ostensibly serious subject-matter – two women on the lam after shooting dead a rapist before consummating a suicide pact – Thelma & Louise is something of a hen-party movie, complete with a baby Chippendale in the form of a young, lithe Brad Pitt in his first major role as the hitch-hiking cowboy who gives Geena Davis a night of six-packed passion and then steals Susan Sarandon’s life savings. For much of the previous decade, ads had been addressing women with the codes of gay soft-core pornography, reprogramming them to treat men as commodities and pursue their desires – and associate feminine freedom with consumption. Even more appropriate then that Thelma & Louise should take the form of an ironic rehash of that notoriously male homoerotic genre, the buddy movie.
Pitt appears here as an early sighting of a simulacrum of masculinity that is now dominant, a pleasingly-made hospitality replicant known as the metrosexual (though Pitt is a particularly annoying example: I found myself agreeing with Harvey Keitel whose character in the film complained: “This guy is beginning to irritate me” – and this was just Pitt’s first big movie…). Interestingly, Scott’s brother and business partner Tony, who also has a background in advertising (and pop promos), made the film Top Gun (1986), which lit the afterburners for Tom Cruise’s career by portraying military life as a gay porn shoot.
With Thelma & Louise Scott succeeded in setting the tone for the Nineties, but once again his success undid him: his other Nineties movies Conquest of Paradise (1992), White Squall (1996), and GI Jane (1997) met with muted responses. GI Jane (alias Ripley – played by Demi Moore – Joins the Army) is a fictional tale about a woman who tries to complete an elite, all-male, hellish training course; it is not so much a feminist film as another example of Scott’s Nietzschean tendencies: the Will to Power. The sadistic DI asks at the end of every new torment, “Are you ready for the next evolution?” Clearly audiences were not. (Though even as I write it has been announced that a woman is taking the Parachute Battalion training course.) The most memorable moment in the film, where Demi tells the DI who has threatened to rape her to “suck my dick”, is a self-conscious reference to Thelma & Louise, where the rapist’s use of the line prompts Louise to shoot him. But by this time audiences probably thought Scott was quoting Madonna.
Perhaps the failure of GI Jane persuaded Scott that, after three decades of unprecedented change, what people wanted was nostalgia. Maybe he himself, now in his sixties, was tired of the changes that he had helped to bring about. Gladiator (2000), was Scott’s first hit since Thelma & Louise, and the first sword-and-sandals epic for nearly 40 years (spawning several others, none of which repeated its critical or commercial success). It seems to reject the brave new androgynous world and retreat to more reassuring, manly sentiments. A very well-made film to be sure, but it’s difficult though not to feel like you’re being sold something dodgy – like one of the fake photographs/memories in Blade Runner. It’s rather like Scott’s most famous and memorable UK ad: the boy on his bicycle on cobbled streets to the strains of Dvorak selling us tasteless, industrially-made bread as something timeless and authentic (it even seems to use the same golden filters).
Like noble, self-sacrificing Maximus’s (Russell Crowe) vision of being reunited with his family as he lies dying in the Colosseum, Gladiator is a sepia-tinted reverie of masculinity, selling back to us what capitalism has already alienated us from. It is, however, a spectacularly convincing world.
Maximus’s nemesis, Emperor Commodus (Joachim Phoenix), is selfish, cruel, unmanly, perverted, posturing – in other words, representative of the contemporary world. Wittingly or not, Gladiator provided the ideological-sentimental palette for Bush’s successful election campaign in 2000 against the “corrupt’ and “immoral” Clinton legacy. (Bush turned out to have much in common with Commodus’ populist posturing in the Colosseum: such as his Op Gun moment on a US Navy aircraft carrier – a photo opportunity that referenced Tony Scott’s classic Eighties flyboy movie.)
Gladiator has other portents in its entrails. The famous opening of the film, the awesome, flaming forest battle sequence – “at my word, unleash hell” – seems to have anticipated, or prompted, the “shock and awe” opening to Bush’s own blockbuster, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Scott has mentioned in interviews several times that he very nearly joined the Royal Marines after attending art college but was persuaded to go back into education by his father, an officer in the Army. Black Hawk Down (2002), based on the events in Mogadishu in 1993 when two US Army helicopters were downed and in the ensuing fire fights 19 American soldiers died, seems to be Scott’s paean to his lost/alternative world of male camaraderie and esprit de corps.
Black Hawk Down isn’t just Scott’s lost world, however, but ours too. Cynicism is everywhere. Talking about civilians who think soldiers are drunk on war, a grunt in the film complains: “They don’t understand. They don’t know it’s all about the man next to you. That’s all there is.” This fraternal love is very physical – so physical that it’s beyond sex; a point underlined by a scene in which a soldier has to root around in his wounded buddy’s pelvis for his severed femoral artery in a (fruitless) attempt to stop him bleeding to death.
It’s a harrowing, brutalising and moving film, and quite possibly Scott’s best for two decades, certainly a far more realistic movie than, say, Pearl Harbor – or Top Gun.
But the gory glory of war is precisely what gives Black Hawk Down its glamour. It seems that its gorgeously shot (again that golden filter) heroic realism, and the almost pornographic detail of the SFX mutilations, may have helped prepare the American public for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Originally slated for a 2002 release it was rushed out a few weeks after 9/11. American audiences, reeling from the civilian casualties at the World Trade Center, and understandably looking for someone to punish, must have been relieved to see American men who were actually trained for battle in the firing line instead. Mogadishu may have been a disaster, but Black Hawk Down turned it into America’s Rorke’s Drift. In other words, another memory implant. (Ironically, given what was to happen in Iraq, some critics attacked the film at the time because it seemed just one long, shocking, confusing, endless battle.)
Maybe Scott regretted the way Black Hawk Down was interpreted. Or maybe he calculates that a contemporary Hollywood film set during the Crusades needs to portray Western intentions in the best possible light. Whatever the answer, his new epic Kingdom of Heaven goes so far out of its way to show war as a terrible last resort, to emphasise respect for Islam and to advance tolerance in the “multicultural” world of the medieval Middle East, that the whole thing gets lost in the woolly undergrowth. The Blairite preachiness of the film and its patronising cod-history leaves you longing for a bloodthirsty massacre. Whatever happened to Scott’s Nietzschean/Darwinian tendencies? Whatever happened to all those alien eggs? Surely one must have survived? How did we end up, 26 years later, with this Care Bear of a Crusades movie?
One of the major problems is that the film’s star, Orlando Bloom – who plays an orphaned blacksmith who becomes a great swordsman and defender of Jerusalem – is too much of a modern pleasing simulacrum of masculinity for us to believe in as a hero. But then, that is the nature of the world that Scott made for us. Whatever the reception for Kingdom of Heaven, it is clear that, for Scott, historical epics are the new science fiction – his escape shuttle from the eternal Eighties.
Now that the future has arrived, and has proved inevitably to be something of a disappointment, the past is the place to colonise. And it is the science of CGI which makes that fiction possible. Scott may not have joined the military, but he has become a general, even if most of his men are virtual ghosts.
The memory implant he has given us with Kingdom of Heaven is, like his earliest movies, a visually stunning and entrancing world. It may be a manufactured memory designed to make living in the present, uncertain world more possible and peaceful – to help us sleep more soundly, like an android dreaming of electric sheep. But even if it were twice the picture it is, then it would still, in this digital, Blade Runner-lite world, be just as disposable as all the other implants out there.
Banning gay propaganda can backfire. Spectacularly.
“All Saints should be presumed guilty until proved innocent.”
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