Before the First World War, a bunch of Italian avant-gardistes called the Futurists, who didn’t get out much and got turned on by steam trains, thought technology offered the possibility of a revolution in human consciousness and believed that artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past, abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats.
Before the Third World War, a bunch of Ohion avant-gardistes called Devo, who didn’t get out much and who got turned on by pocket calculators, thought that technology offered the possibility of a de-evolution in human consciousness and believed artists should produce propaganda which encouraged people to break with the past and abandon traditional forms and syntax and wear silly hats.
Apart from proving that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy the second time as pastiche, especially if you attend art history classes at Kent State University, the nerdy, cynical ’70s New Wave band Devo’s greatest achievement was to, quite simply, change the world. We are all Devo now. The ‘kooky’ blend of performance art, film, choreography, and music they pioneered mutated into MTV: nerds have come out of their bedrooms and knocked IBM into a cocked hat. Techno is everywhere, cynicism is a way of life and New Wave is back in vogue – verily the geeks have inherited the world.
However, Devo proved to be the embodiment of their own belief in the second law of thermodynamics – that everything is unravelling and cooling down. After the debut singles, the sublime ‘Mongoloid’ (1978) and the robotoid, sexless, ‘Satisfaction’ (1976), possibly the smartest, funniest, most blasphemous cover version in rock history – a kind of Mick Jagger for lab assistants – and two great albums, Q: Are We Not Men A: We Are Devo! (1978) and Freedom of Choice (1980), which attracted the attentions of Brian Eno and David Bowie, Devo petered out. Hastened by the huge and terrifying world-wide success of ‘Whip It!’ (1980). However, they went on to record another thirteen albums and toured up until the end of the eighties.
As so often happens when you change the world, the world turns out not to be so grateful or interested. Having accepted their fate back in 1990, Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Bob Casale, the core members of Devo, are now Mutato Muzika, a factory producing music for TV shows, films and adverts, housed in an electric green flying saucer shaped building on Sunset Blvd where I am today, that used to be, appropriately enough, a plastic surgery hospital. Credits include Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Beakman’s World, Liquid Television and ads for Coke, Nike, Microsoft and scores for films such as Johnny Mnemonic.
Nice work if you can get it, I’m sure, but isn’t this all a bit of a come-down for pop stars – let alone avant-garde ones?
‘Not at all,’ counters Mark Mothersbaugh, his face, which was always strangely middle-aged, now actually middle-aged, but contradicted by his stainless steel thick-rimmed glasses, sneakers, jeans and slightly intense, slightly shy, slightly adolescent demeanour. ‘We’re very lucky. What’s a better gig than being paid to write music and do artwork every day?’
In a way you’ve mutated yourselves into… ‘…what we always wanted to be,’ interrupts fast-talking Mark, who has a habit of finishing sentences for you, in an impatient but friendly way. ‘And we influence more people than we ever did before. People don’t hear the name Devo or Mark Mothersbaugh, but you know that our music is being heard by millions and millions of people every day – of all ages. There’s a whole generation of people who know Bob and I as the composers of Rugrats and Adventures in Wonderland. Sometimes they say, “My dad used to listen to you twenty years ago when he was at college”.’
But after being regarded as the wave of the future, isn’t it all a bit disappointing? ‘No,’ reasserts Mark, politely. ‘I mean we called ourselves Spuds, we knew we weren’t Royalty. You know, we came from working class households and none of us went to clairvoyants and found out that we were Egyptian kings in some other lifetime.’
But, frankly, some people will look at Mutato Musika and just think: oh, has-been pop stars looking for something to do. ‘Yeah,’ agrees Mark with disarming honesty. ‘Everybody does! And it could be bar-tending. But somehow I was lucky enough that people liked my stuff enough for me to become a composer.’
The problem of growing old disgracefully as an ex pop-star, or for any of us nowadays really, is how to grow up but not ‘grow up’ – how to mature but not become your dad. Devo, like a whole post-sixties generation, appear to have achieved this by immersing themselves in juvenile pop culture – TV, film, ads, jingles – the pop culture that their music, in fact, de-evolved out of. Maybe this is why the offices of Mutato Musika, with their curved walls, Day-Glo colours, strange sounds, and proliferation of TV and computer monitors resemble a cross between a Dutch crèche and an American teenager’s bedroom. The de-evolution that Devo represented was ironically partly the traditional rock message of not growing up into what you were supposed to be – a refusal of manhood: ‘Are we not men? We are Devo!’
‘It was about choosing your mutation consciously – mutate don’t stagnate,’ explains Mark, still animated by his ideas after all these years. ‘Rather than letting things be thrown on you that culture and the world wants you to buy into, wants you to become a part of, wants you to get skin cancer and die – but which kills you long before that spiritually.’
‘This was what ‘Mongoloid’, our first single was about – kind of “breeders v. readers”
The difference between the people that just kind of bought into the rap and were able to sleep their way through life – the wad. Versus those that would consciously make a choice to go somewhere different. You’re probably too young to remember but in the early seventies your choice of music was disco, a beautiful woman with no brain, or hard rock, a big pompous over-inflated, you know, thing that went out and wobbled around on a stage.
‘And we were watching things fall apart all around the world. We were seeing things devolve. We were saying: wait a minute, things are not getting better, things are getting crazier! But we ended up being promoted by Warner Bros and Virgin as you know, like wacky, kooky clowns because instead of figuring out what we were about it was easier to market clown versions of what was going on.’
While Mark acknowledges the influence of the Futurists, he traces the inspiration for the title and motto of the band from a 1930s movie called Island of Lost Souls with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi he caught on late night TV.
‘Laughton is this scientist on a tropical island and he’s trying to turn these animals into humans in a laboratory called the House of Pain, but they never quite become humans, so they become subhumans, kind of zombie-like, running around the jungle and generally unhappy and depraved. But when they began to get restless Laughton would stand on this rock and he would crack his whip and they’d all cower in fear. And he’d go “What is the law?” and crack his whip again, and they’d recite “Not to walk on all fours. Are we not men?”
And I’m watching this in 1972 on a little crappy 13 inch black and white TV in my bedsit and go oh my God! I know all those people! They all live in this town! All these hunched over subhuman characters looked like they were just falling out of the rubber factory after a hard day of work.’
Growing up in a town like Akron Ohio in the seventies can make you very weird. In its ‘heyday’ the Rubber Capital of the World, by then Akron was just a corporate, post-industrial, depressed, overcast dump full of overweight people who spent their spare time reproducing, listening to Foreigner and bouncing up and down on the heads of artistic people with ideas above their station – i.e. any ideas at all – like Mark Mothersbaugh. In other words, Akron Ohio was much like any other place in the seventies. Devo was Mothersbaugh’s revenge on ‘breeders’ everywhere. ‘We didn’t drive a van, we didn’t like hard rock and we couldn’t afford drugs so we had to form a band.’
Not surprisingly nobody wanted to hear their music in Akron. ‘We’d only get to play shows by lying and telling people we were a top forty band, but by the second or third song they’d know something was up, because we’d have like these janitor outfits on and there’d be all these hippies out in the audience. Then we’d say, OK, here’s another song by Aerosmith and we’d play “Mongoloid” and then the police would have to be called.’
Mothersbaugh’s mischievousness and anti-Akron sentiment lives on in Mutato Musika. Mark confesses that they are putting subliminal messages in their TV commercial sound-tracks.
‘The first was in an ad for Coke – I think it was “Biology, Destiny”. Then there was that candy commercial for kids and we put in the message “Question Authority”. The funny things is, we’d be a bit scared but then we’d go to meetings with ad agency people and they’d be sitting there snapping their fingers and bobbing their heads to the music going “Yeah, Yeah” and then I’d come in and say “Be like your ancestors or be different, so shall your species survive.” And I’d blush and Bob Casale would break out in a sweat and they wouldn’t hear it. Not once has anyone told us “take that out”.
Mark’s ambition is that Mutato Musika will become a world-wide franchise. But then the band of self-described ‘suburban robots here to entertain corporate life-forms’ will become a corporate life-form themselves. Which may have a bearing on a dream Mark tells me he had recently.
‘I was octopus-fishing on a boat out on Santa Monica Bay with about seven other people and we pulled in the net, but there were too many octopi, and too big – they chased us around. I woke up just as this one old guy that kind of looked like Popeye had an octopus wrapped around him which pulled his false teeth right out of his mouth.’
Maybe Mutato Musika is the octopus? ‘Maybe,’ shrugs Mark. ‘That would, I guess, make me the old guy having his false teeth sucked out.’
Rummaging around in an old hard drive one lockdown, I found this review (for Details ) of the Sex Pistols’ Finsbury Park reunion gig – a quarter of a century ago. Ah! The summer of ’96! When they were so young! And when gigs – and life – still existed….
In those rancid gift shoppes, where American tourists stock up on their London Bus paperweights and Houses of Parliament ashtrays, there are three types of (fading) postcards available: guardsman in their quaint busby hats outside Buckingham Palace, Beefeaters in their cute red pantaloons and pikes outside the Tower of London, and punks in their zany bondage trousers and pink spikey hair in front of Trafalgar Square. British eccentricity – don’t ya just love it?
What most Americans don’t know, however, is that since 1979 all those punks posing for their cameras have been French – the British punks having moved on to New Romanticism, or the soybean futures market.
Or California – like the world’s second punk band the Sex Pistols did after they split up in 1978, self-detonating in the most glorious and perfect rock parabola ever just two years after their launch and at the height of their fame, and who have now decided to spoil it all. Yes, the passage of time and the rising cost of swimming-pool maintenance has healed their differences and brought them together again for the Filthy Lucre Tour and live album recorded tonight at London’s Finsbury Park.
The band who told us: ‘Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it’ has now decided that what they want is our money.
The world’s first punk band, of course, was the New York Dolls – those seriously scary Yanks in eyeliner and fishnets that Malcolm McLaren managed briefly and later plagiarised at length when he put together the Pistols in 1976. In addition to shameless thievery, there were four main ingredients to British Punk: Carlsberg Special Brew, teeth-gnashingly bad speed, and boredom. Lots and lots of boredom. The kind of boredom that takes hundreds of years of history and only three TV channels to produce.
Oh, and skinny people – the final ingredient of punk. You see, skinny people are nervous. Skinny people don’t have enough tissue between them and the world. Skinny people are disaffected. Skinny people are ANGRY. And Johnny Rotten, Pistols front man, later John Lydon of PIL, was the skinniest, angriest man in the world – a pair of mad staring eyes and spraying, sneering, snarling lips atop a Dickensian bundle of rags and bones.
But not anymore. ‘It’s only uncle Johnny and the boys here,’ he shouts, half challengingly, half apologetically, when they emerge on stage from behind a tattered curtain of ‘Pistols Outrage’ newspaper clippings (yes, they really were shocking once). ‘We’re fat, forty and back!.’ As ever, Johnny tells it how it is.
His face and chin has filled out in a way his lime green cartoon explosion hair can’t sharpen. Beneath his black and white check jacket lurks a definite paunch. Guitarist Steve Jones, wearing sorely tested spangly pants, doesn’t waste any time getting his shirt off to reveal a heavy, tanned body that perhaps shows some evidence of Beverly Hills Athletic Club membership, but his intensely highlighted hair and tiger-print stretchy pants makes him look a bit off-season female bodybuilder. (In fairness, Glen Matlock for his part looks even slimmer than he did 20 years ago.)
But when the fat, stinging chords of their first number ‘Bodies’ (‘I’m not an animal!’) hit, an epiphany happens. The crowd is instantly transformed from a bunch of well-behaved, plump thirty-ish people with mobile phones standing around minding their own business into pogo-ing accountants and civil servants, full of bad attitude. It’s intoxicating. We feel rowdy, we feel dangerous, we feel important. We feel like someone we used to know.
And the sound – the real Pistols were never this good. They were too drunk, stoned or fucked. The rolling attack of this guitar noise is enough to spike your hair without gel – but it’s professional. Nowadays, they really do mean it, man. This is Punk-lite. But when they strike up ‘Anarchy in the UK’ the crowd goes completely doolally and, having been born too late the first time around, I finally realise a lifelong ambition – to slam-dance to the Pistols with Johnny mewling and spewling the best lines in rock ever: ‘I wanna beee an-arr-keee!… Well, the best lines after, ‘There’s no few-cher, no few-cher/No few-cher for you!’ (‘God Save the Queen’). Which, in turn, are the best lines after, ‘We’re so pre-tay/Oh-so pre-tay/Vay-cuhnt… And we don’t caaarrre!’ (‘Pretty Vacant’).
Yes, it’s definitely fun pretending you’re angry, skinny and happy again. It’s especially fun when you’re British but now you’ve an excuse to actually touch other people. But twenty years on you’ve got to conclude that you’re not so pretty or vacant anymore and that there are, actually, far too many things you care about.
Like the fact that someone just pogoed on your lovely new trainers.
Mark Simpson recalls meeting Cornelius and his ‘hungry eyes’
Grief these days seems to come easier when attached to the death of celebrities. Especially when seen as the end of not just a media relationship but an age of innocence. For some it was the death of Diana, Kennedy, Lennon or Martin Luther King. For me it was the death last year of that international icon, superstar and chimpanzee Roddy McDowall.
What TV giveth, TV taketh away. BBC1 Sunday lunchtime news, to be exact: ‘Roddy McDowall, the British-born actor best known for his role in Planet of the Apes (1968), has died of cancer at his L.A. home aged 76. He never married.’
I was eating some toast and Marmite at the time and began to choke.
It is not entirely true to say that he never married. After all Roddy’s first big screen appearance was in Lassie Come Home (1943), aged 15, playing a schoolboy devoted to a very human bitch.
But it was not until Roddy was all grown up and cast as a very human animal himself, that he really impacted my young consciousness – in the dystopian Sci-Fi film and TV series Planet of the Apes. Watching them on TV in the 1970s I promptly became as fond of him as he had been of Lassie.
Man has destroyed himself in some apocalypse and buried the Statue of Liberty up to its elbow. The apes have taken over and enslaved their former masters the humans. Roddy plays Cornelius, a more articulate, Simian Lassie, befriending and helping the last humans, led by a creaking Charlton Heston in his ‘mature period’. I particularly remember the odd way Roddy has of cocking his head to one side while looking up at Moses with his big brown eyes begging for a petting that never came. At least not before I had to go to bed.
Years later, when I was grown up too, or as grown up as I’ll ever be, I had the pleasure of looking into those big brown eyes myself when I was interviewing the Hollywood actress Nancy Allen (who memorably played the bitch Chris Hargensen in Carrie) for a glossy American magazine. You can imagine my excitement.
I was sitting down with Ms Allen at Orso’s, a swanky Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, when suddenly she gasped, “Oh! There’s Roddy!’=” and waved at a table close to ours where a skinny elderly man was sitting with another, slightly less elderly and much fatter man and lots of papers.
It wasn’t until he came over to our table to introduce himself and I could see those monkey-yet-strangely-human eyes that I realised it was Cornelius. He shook my hand a little too firmly and a little too long and gave me a brazen once-over with those glittering round eyes that had once reflected the miniaturised and slightly humiliated image of Charlton.
“What a surprise to see you here!’ Roddy trilled to my companion in that charmingly sing-song syrupy voice of his, ‘I’m just lunching with my agent.” Ms Allen introduced me as ‘a journalist from Glossy American Magazine. He’s interviewing me!’ she said, a bit too surprised at the idea herself.
“A journalist, eh?” Said Roddy, looking me up and down again. “That’s a good one! I’ve never seen shoulders like that on a journalist before!” He leaned towards me holding a liver-spotted hand to the side of his face and hissed in a stage whisper: “Watch her now, Mark! She’s wicked!” And with a lascivious wink and a leathery grin he sauntered back to his table. My audience with Cornelius was over.
Meeting a legend like this was shocking enough. But I was even more shocked by the way he was quite obviously and openly fag. Call me naïve, but I never thought of Cornelius as having any kind of sex at all.
Looking back and re-writing history as we do, I can now see that of course that Roddy’s entire Hollywood career was queer as a coot (a creature which I think actually makes an appearance in one of the Lassie films, and ends up swapping Judy Garland stories with Roddy). The boy who developed over-intense relationships with animals, and who grew up to be an ape with twinkly eyes identifying with humans stranded in a world where they were now the oppressed minority.
Then there is the 1967 film It! (1967), aka Curse of the Golem, a reworking of the Frankenstein story that is quite possibly the queerest movie ever made. Roddy plays a meek assistant museum curator in London living with his domineering mum who finds his boss’s death lands him the job of running the museum and ownership of a two thousand year old statue which comes to life to do his bidding – a Golem.
Naturally, it all goes to poor Roddy’s head (he can’t negotiate that pesky Oedipus Complex), and he destroys half of London trying to impress an uninterested woman who knows a Lassie when she sees one. Roddy is finally locked up – but breaks out after he hears his mother has died. An hysterical Roddy hijacks a hearse, kidnaps the girl, and heads off with her and the Golem to the cemetery where his mother is buried.
And I think most of us, one way or another, have been there.
Roddy’s greatest asset was also his greatest give-away—his eyes. In person they were the gayest eyes I’ve ever seen: that bright, alert, hungry quality, mostly found in children and small animals, but which in adult men is the nearest thing to a reliable indicator of inversion.
On TV in the 1970s they just looked very friendly.
Two teenage working class lads, Matt and Phil, hitching from London to the South Coast, are in the back of a car driven by a middle-aged man with a moustache and a bowtie, who has asked why they’re headed there.
“What??” he replies, puzzled for a moment by the honeymoon answer. “Oh, I get ya – fast workers, eh? I could teach you a thing or two! Promise them the Earth and they’ll settle for you, know what I mean?” And then starts boring on about all his probably imaginary heterosexual conquests.
“No, we’re wiv each ovva. It’s our ‘oneymoon!” brunette Phil (Lee Whitlock) insists, leaving him no wriggle room. Before leaning forwards and adding with a grin to his blond chum Matt (Jason Rush): “But don’t worry, you’re not our type”.
At this Mr Moustache pulls over sharpish and kicks them out of his family saloon. “Bloody deviants!” he shouts, screeching off in a cloud of burned rubber.
The hitchhiking is probably the part that made you realise the movie this scene is from is a bit of an oldie. Two of Us is now over thirty years old, to be horribly precise.
Back in 1987, at the height of the ‘Gay Plague’ terror, when the tabloid newspapers were full of spit-flecked fury about ‘QUEERS!’ – and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ to schoolchildren (later Section 28) – the BBC made a cheap but sweet little film about two likeable late teen boys who fall in love at the municipal swimming baths, where Matt, a vision in Speedos, is teaching Phil how to dive. (This seven years before Tom Daley was even born.) They decide to run away together to escape from bullying peers and uncomprehending parents.
Instead of the Emerald City – or Brighton – they end up in Seaford, a dreary seaside town near Eastbourne in Sussex, which was probably where they went on their ‘olidays when they were kids. The white cliffs, like the water they swim in, a symbol of the purity of their affair.
See, on this ‘oneymoon there’s no funny business. Matt who is gay is all for it, but Phil, who is bi, and has a girlfriend called Sharon is still working things through, and is less certain. Besides, in 1987 UK men were legally required to wait until they were 21 to touch one another. There is however a tender, poignant scene in the swimming pool showers (still wearing their swimming cossies) where Matt reaches out and briefly touches Phil’s face and chest, grabs his shoulder and says: “It’s alright”.
It’s a scene that lasts just a few seconds, but remains one of the most iconic in the history of gay cinema. It really wasn’t alright in 1987 – but Two of Us made it seem possible that it might be, one day. That our Jason Rush might come and make it alright.
There was another even more persuasive reason why they never do ‘it’. Written by Leslie Stewart and directed by Roger Tonge, this big little film was made for UK schools. It’s also why the ending was changed. In the original version Phil appears to leave with Sharon, who came to Seaford to get her man back, but he reappears at the top of the cliffs above the beach where Matt is camping. “What are you doing ‘ere?” shouts Matt, smiling. “We’re mates aren’t we!” Phil shouts back. Matt and Phil run, fully-clothed, laughing into the sea together.
A panicking BBC, worried about the looming introduction of Section 28, insisted on removing the beach reunion, but when Two of Us was shown to schoolkids most of them thought that Phil should have stayed with Matt. Perhaps that had something to do with the way it portrayed Sharon as a sulky cow who didn’t do anything except whinge, eat crisps and check her makeup.
In this, as in some other details, Two of Us borrows from the mild misogyny of The Leather Boys, a classic 1964 film about two working class London biker lads, Pete (Dudley Sutton) and Reggie (Colin Campbell), the latter with a nagging young wife (Rita Tushingham), who basically fall in love and are going to run away to sea together before Reggie discovers that Pete is queer and very much part of the queer world.
To ‘challenge stereotypes’, in a way that has become very over-familiar in the past thirty years, but which seemed fresh at the time (perhaps because I hadn’t seen The Leather Boys yet), Phil and Matt (and, I think, both of the actors playing them) were straight – and their characters, apart from an out-of-character waltzing interlude on the beach to ‘Shall We Dance’ from The King & I, ‘straight acting’. They are also not part of or apparently even aware of London’s already large in the late 1980s gay world.
Back in the 20th Century, rather than a tired, possibly oppressive trope which it has become now, their ‘straightness’ and ‘normality’ seemed to be a slightly radical idea, one that emphasised a kind of subversive innocence – “We’re mates aren’t we?”. It also confirmed their gay desirability. After all, most gay porn in the 1980s featured gay-for-pay models enacting situational homo storylines with ‘buddies’. I doubt it was intentional, but Two of Us was a kind of porno romance, with no fucking, just the bit before the muzak kicks in.
And Jason Rush as Matt is totally Falcon (by way of Walthamstow) in his pouty, broody, splendour – filling out his stonewashed jeans and those Speedos very nicely indeed. But it was those lazy-lidded blue eyes that were the real slayers. That keen connoisseur of male beauty Morrissey was to recruit him for his ‘Last of the International Playboys’ video a couple of years later, playing a young East End boxer who idolises the Kray twins. I myself managed to contrive an interview with him for a magazine in the late 1990s, even though he was no longer working as an actor – just so I could check out those eyes in person. (Full disclosure: my first proper gay encounter after hitch-hiking to London from the provinces in 1984 was with a 19-year-old blond lifeguard from north London.)
The whole film is based on an impossibility anyway – as romantic storylines should be. Phil who was bi, was never going to really run away with Jason and turn his back on crisp-eating Sharon and the world of Hendon Central normality – not in 1987. It was all a fantasy. An enjoyable seaside daydream in a cub scout tent. The BBC-ordered altered ending was the more realistic one – and perhaps also a more satisfying one. The romance is never tainted by either consummation or arguments over whose turn it is to empty the chemical toilet.
So why am I banging on about this ancient, minor, slightly-shonky in places, non-theatrical release Brit movie? Now that we’re eighteen years into a new millennium, Section 28 has been abolished, Aids is no longer the ‘Gay Plague’ (or even AIDS), the UK age of consent has been equalised, anti-gay legislation excised from the statute books. And now that teenage same sex couples can get civil partnered or married and legally go on their ‘oneymoon?
Because this diamond in the rough from 1987 is I think much more deserving of the limitless praise heaped on two soppy gay cinematic love stories released exactly thirty years later in 2017, made with much more money and in much less difficult times: God’s Own Country (UK) and Call Me By Your Name (Italy/US). The latter nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won), and is currently the top-rated romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Two of Us, made for school kids, did much of what these films do three decades later for adults, but rather better and in a more grown-up fashion.
Call Me, directed by Luca Guadagnino, like The Two of Us, is also set in the 80s, and also teenage in focus: a seventeen-year-old boy’s first same-sex romance. But with a 24-year-old male archaeologist instead of a schoolmate. It also involves a lot of swimming. However the weather is better, and so are the locations. Instead of dreary old Seaford, it’s set in northern Italy, the smoking hot scenery essentially rendering this romance a ménage a trois. The teenager, Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet, is almost as pretty as Jason Rush in his prime – though Armie Hammer (could there be a more American name?) who plays his lover Oliver, is definitely not. At least for my popcorn money.
Unlike Two of Us however I’m not entirely sure what the point of this pretty, soppy well-made film is, except perhaps as a liberal-minded travelogue for middle class people who want to catch up on their sleep and have something to mention at dinner parties. But who am I to quibble? It has been hailed by Variety, no less, as a movie that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ and a ‘modern gay classic’ by the mighty Vanity Fair. Whatever these accolades are supposed to mean now. And whatever movie critics are supposed to be for now.
This ‘modern gay classic’ that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ is not even a gay movie. Remarkably, impressively, there is almost nothing gay about it – except perhaps for the longing the camera has for Elio, whose dazzling beauty is the nearest thing this movie has to a point, and the early Bruce Weber aesthetic. Though of course Weberism isn’t officially gay either, just ‘all-American’.
The writer whose eponymous novel was adapted, Andre Aciman, isn’t gay. The actors aren’t gay. Their characters aren’t gay and I’m not entirely sure that they’re intended to be seen as bisexual either. It’s a post-gay movie set in an almost pre-gay universe: early 80s Italy, on holiday, before AIDS. In truth, the non-gayness of Call Me By Your Name is actually its defining feature. (For all its straight-acting, Two of Us was definitely not pre or post gay: one of the boys identifies as gay and the other as bisexual, and it was made in the height of the 80s gay wars.)
Guadagnino is ‘openly gay’ as the media still likes to put it, but he is himself emphatic that it isn’t a gay movie but a movie about the ‘beauty of the new-born idea of desire, unbiased and un-cynical.’ And in making a ‘universal’ movie of course you land yourself the biggest potential audience: heterosexuals. That said, plenty of gay men apparently love it – let’s face it, gays today love to be part of something big, successful and nicely-lit. But watching it as ‘a gay’ for my part I found it bizarrely alienating, almost like an out-of-gay-body experience: though this may have had something to do with the glacial pace. It’s not that I wasn’t moved at all by the film, or didn’t care about anyone, but I felt as if I were watching a romance between two men taking place on another planet. Or in fact, watching gayness being colonised. And I say that as a post-gay pre-gay homo.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t fancy Armie Hammer – or maybe I was just jealous of him – but contrary to the reaction of the schoolkids who saw Two of Us in 1987, I found myself wanting Elio to run off with his pretty, smart girlfriend Marzia whom he dumps for naff Oliver. And of course Elio is let down in the end by Oliver, who gets engaged to a woman: causing Elio to bawl his eyes out into the camera so very beautifully and lengthily in the final scene. Call Me has the same satisfyingly melancholic conclusion as the censored version of Two of Us, but it makes much more of a meal of it.
It seems though that my feelings about Marzia were not entirely capricious. Guadagino, discussing the possibility of a sequel has stated: ‘”I don’t think that Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man. He hasn’t found his place yet. I can tell you that I believe that he would start an intense relationship with Marzia again.”’
Call Me probably isn’t a ‘sexually-fluid’ movie either. Rather, it is a movie that explores romance and infatuation through the story of two people who both ‘happen’ to be men, as a way of rediscovering ‘romance’ – in part because actual heterosexual relationships are currently so loaded, and so fraught, being situated as they are on the frontline of the sex war. That’s why it’s currently the number one romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. If it were the story of a seventeen year-old girl’s romance with a 24 year-old man staying in her parents’ house the reviews, I venture, would be much more ‘mixed’. That’s if there were any reviews at all, apart from denunciations and boycotts.
It’s also part of the reason why Call Me also mostly shied away from depicting yer actual gay bumsex. Instead, the peach gets it: in an odd scene (but not played for laughs, American Pie style), Eloi masturbates with the fruit, which Oliver then tries to eat. Oh, and the fact that both American actors insisted on ‘no full frontal nudity’ clauses in their contracts for this very liberal, very European-style movie. James Ivory, whose original screenplay adaptation had reportedly contained ‘all sorts of nudity’, was not best pleased with this modesty clause – and put it down to what he saw as an ‘American attitude’. After all, it’s not 1987 anymore, and this isn’t a movie for schoolkids.
Ivory (who is himself American) had also been originally slated to direct the film, and of course wrote and directed Maurice, the classic 1987 adaptation of EM Forster’s ground-breaking novel about homosexuality in Edwardian England – a novel so ground-breaking that Forster, timid to the very end, forbade it being published until after his death in 1971. It told the story of a very closeted, virginal English gentleman Maurice (James Wilby) swept off his feet by a rough but smoothly handsome groundsman called Alec (Rupert Graves).
You’ll think me obsessed, but the movie adaptation was a kind of big budget, cross-class costume drama Two of Us – which came out in the same year – but told of course from a bourgeois perspective. Forster like many middle class men of his era fantasised about being rescued from their effeteness, neurosis and timidity by muscular, direct, and passionate working class chaps. But then, don’t we all?
It’s easy to mock, especially now, but Maurice which was largely overlooked when it was originally released was a braver and better film than CallMe, made thirty years later to enormous fanfare. Although ‘Scudder’ became something of a punchline for gay jokes this was probably because the urgency of ‘deviant desire’ that he represented was as embarrassing as it was hot. Scudder was in fact the whole point and truth of both Maurice and Maurice, cutting through all the bourgeois bullshit and ‘decency’ by climbing up that ladder into ‘masters’ bedroom and giving him a right proper fucking. ‘Scudder’ is lust, in all its filthy, rough, irresistible ‘inappropriateness’.
I wonder what would have happened if Ivory had been allowed to direct Call Me? Fewer clothes and hang-ups, probably – but perhaps also fewer awards and takings.
Films set in a self-consciously working class world can actually be worse, however. Boring as it is, Call Me is still a more enjoyable movie than 2005’s miserably mawkish Brokeback Mountain. Not only did the ‘gay cowboy movie’ as it was dubbed (they are in fact shepherds, at least when they meet) have rather more hetero sex than the homo variety, the original story was written by a woman who is not gay (Annie Proulx), adapted by a man and woman who are not gay, directed by man who is not gay (Ang Lee), starring actors who are/were not gay (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). Hooray for the non-gay gay cowboy movie!
In fairness, the characters themselves in the ‘gay cowboy movie’ are not gay, or even particularly bisexual – they just have a love-affair that causes them a lot of pain because of their place in the world: one of rural, working class poverty with attendant homophobic/traditional masculine attitudes. It was precisely this emotionally painful aspect for the otherwise straight men that the main audience of the film – straight women – seemed to enjoy the most: a kind of sex war schadenfreude.
Hollywood loves gloomy gay movies. Moonlight (2016) the first LGBT film – and the first with an all-black cast – to win the Best Picture Oscar sometimes makes Brokeback look like a musical. Set in the Miami projects, it tells the story of young gay black man Chiron Harris [played at different stages of his youth by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert] coming of age and coming to terms with his sexuality in a tough environment where his softness makes him a target—even for his own mother’s homophobic abuse.
Moonlight is artful and affecting. It even won Best Kiss at the MTV?Movie Awards, which alone puts it streets ahead of Call Me. Like Brokeback, it makes a point about masculinity and identity–but this time in a black urban context that is far more relevant than sheepherding. It is also in many ways a more beautiful film than the moneyed, white, self-consciously ‘beautiful’ Call Me.
Of course, it is almost unremittingly gloomy. I watched Moonlight with subtitles on, and the descriptions of the soundtrack—“[tense droning music]” or “[ominous music]”—began to look like complaints.
Only toward its end does Moonlight’s gloom begin to lift. An adult Chiron, now a drug-dealer, reunites with Kevin—a friend/crush from high school and “the only person I let touch me”. And it really was just a touch, which makes Chiron come almost instantly – a nice touch. It’s an unlikely happy ending, even more so than the original uncensored end for Two Of Us—but a welcome one after all that “tense droning music.”
But yet again, neither Chiron nor Kevin seem to know anyone else gay. And there is even less gay sex than in Brokeback—that touch and a wet dream is all you get.
Given the always small but now fast-diminishing number of men employed in raising sheep, and the even smaller – one assumes – number of them involved in fucking one another, and even smaller number of those who fall in love, it seems very odd, bordering on the downright fetishistic, that someone would want to make another shagging-shepherds movie. But that’s exactly what Francis Lee, the gay writer and director of God’s Own Country did.
Oft-described as ‘Britain’s Brokeback Mountain’, it might be better described as a gayerBrokeback Mountain. Though the love-birds are straight-acting straight actors again, with apparently no connection to a wider gay world of other gay men, it has a lot more man-on-man sex and (unlike Call Me) there is full-frontal nudity (that’s flaccid cocks to you and me) and was heralded by Vice as part of the ‘lineage of queer cinematic greats’. Foolishly, as with Call Me, I thought at least some of this hype must be merited and dutifully went to see it. But it struck me as being an even more boring movie than Call Me or Brokeback – and much soppier and soapier. A kind of underwritten PG Emmerdale omnibus.
Set in the Yorkshire Pennines somewhere in the not too distant past – or perhaps in an imaginary place in England where there is no internet and no mobile coverage and thus no Grindr, just lots of gritty, analogue authenticity – it follows a disgruntled young sheep farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) who is having lots of casual sex with men (despite the lack of Grindr) and drinking too much. The film begins with him dry-retching at dawn over a toilet bowl in his father’s farmhouse. Who will save our Johnny? Who will be his Good Shepherd?
Enter a young(ish) bearded Romanian farm-hand Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), hired to work on the family’s small sheep farm. Johnny initially taunts him, calling him, in unconvincing scenes, a ‘gyppo’ and a ‘Paki’, on account of his dark, Latin looks – but ends up of course having mad passionate sex with him. In the freezing mud. Lots and lots of mud. Locally-sourced, organic, artisan mud. Because that’s what shepherds do.
Gheorghe/Secareanu is smolderingly handsome as well as infinitely patient and knowledgeable – and spends much of the movie looking up at the camera through his dreamy Latin eyebrows. Dreamy is the word because he is not an actual human being, but rather a walking liberal wank fantasy – a woke gay Jesus figure, or a European ‘magical negro’ (a character in American fiction and film who only exists to help the white characters). Gheorghe turns the other cheek, heals the sick, raises the dead (lambs) and teaches the repressed, blocked, stupid, bigoted miserable working class Brexit-voting English how to live, love, do their job and make Ewe’s cheese. My dear, he’s a whizz in the kitchen! He even manages to spice up a Pot Noodle!
The smouldering Romanian is coded as ‘exotic’, but also ‘middle class’: “my mother taught English”. ‘”Fancy!” mocks Johnny’s mum. He is reduced to working as a farmhand in the UK because ‘my country is dead’ – but he’s just a better person in every way than the people he has been sent to save. No wonder the film was a hit with critics, gaining a 99% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It plays to almost every single metropolitan middle class prejudice – on a super-squeaky viola.
Johnny, who is a kind of fucked-up Scudder, falls for Gheorghe – how could he not? – and is slowly saved from his semi-feral lifestyle, domesticated by his Good Shepherd with the Great Eyebrow Game. But Jesus, sorry Gheorghe, has to be spurned before he can be fully accepted – so Johnny gets drunk and lapses back into his casual sex ways in a pub toilet, while Gheorghe has beer flicked at him by a threatening bigot. You can almost hear the cock crowing.
Understandably, Gheorghe fucks off. Johnny is left to hug, sniff and wear the chunky cable-knit sweater Gheorghe has abandoned in his haste to off fuck. It’s an echo of an earlier scene where Gheorghe puts the fleece of a stillborn lamb on a living one so it will be fed milk by the bereaved Ewe – and also of course the shirt-sniffing scene at the end of Brokeback, a movie this one is clinging to like a security blanket.
Johnny tracks down Gheorghe to Scotland, persuades him to come back with him and move into the farmhouse, which they share with Johnny’s grandmother and invalid father. The farmhouse door closes behind the happy couple. The End.
This movie may have begun with Johnny dry-retching, but it ended with me sicking up a bit in the back of my mouth. If only, I found myself wishing, the BBC could have censored the happy ending the way they did with Two of Us!
Annie Proulx recently complained about all the men who write to her after seeing the film of her short story:
‘They just can’t bear the way it ends – they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed.’
God’s Own Country seems to have done exactly that, giving it a gayer, happy ending. But the unhappy ending of Brokeback was, as Proulx has said, the point. It’s not a point that I thought made the film version worthwhile, but it was the point nonetheless.
God’s Own Country has done away with that point. It’s a gay shepherd movie with a happy ending.
Yes, like Call Me, it’s a post-gay movie which mercifully accepts that ‘coming out’ isn’t enough of a story-line and homophobia can’t stand in for drama any more – the shepherds’ sexuality isn’t really an issue for them, or as it turns out the other characters. But by the same token, a sentimental, soapy love story isn’t enough to carry a movie either now, just because your lovers both happen to have penises. Or are highly unlikely characters (again). No matter how beautiful or brooding or straight acting they might be, or how impeccably metropolitan and liberal the sympathies of the impossibly rurally-located film might be.
Then again, perhaps the raptures of the critics over brilliantly mediocre and impressively unoriginal gay movies like this suggests that maybe we’re not so post-gay after all. Apparently gay movies still can’t be judged honestly, or by the same jaded standards as non-gay ones.
For all its failings, Two of Us, definitely had a point – with either ending. It was after all the kind of gay propaganda that Section 28 was supposed to stamp out. Despite or perhaps because of the strictures of its making, it was also rather more erotic, and dare I say ‘liberated’, than the current crop of critically-praised Anglo-American cinematic gay lurve stories, even though much less happens. (The 2014 film The Way He Looks, about a blind boy’s growing friendship with a schoolmate, is a notable, touching exception – and is in some ways an updated and improved Two of Us – but then, it’s definitely not an Anglo movie: it’s Brazilian.)
Thirty years on it’s probably time to come out to ourselves about the fact that after all the dramatic changes that have occurred in gay lives and gay equality, gay cinematic love stories, at the very moment they have become mainstream enough to be ‘Hollywood’, seem to have run out of road. Much like straight ones.
Without Mr Bowtie-n-Tache yelling ‘BLOODY DEVIANTS!’ the ‘oneymoon is so over.
I’ve been devouring – a little late – High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, Charles Fleming’s page-turning and hair-raising 1998 biography of the late Hollywood producer and ‘bad boy’, who along with his ‘good boy’ partner Jerry Bruckheimer were the most successful independent producers in Hollywood in the 80s and early 90s. Inventing, or at least formulating and trademarking, the so-called ‘high concept‘ blockbuster – such as Flashdance (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Crimson Tide (1995) and The Rock (1996).
Simpson, originally hailing Anchorage, Alaska, comes across as surprisingly compelling figure, in many ways monstrous and grotesque, yet strangely likeable, in all his human weaknesses and vanities: a kind of real-life, if slightly less believable, Bret Easton Ellis character – working right at the evil, cracked heart of the American Dream factory.
While working as a producer at Paramount in 1980, before going independent, he crafted a ‘Paramount Corporate Philosophy’ paper, which is gobsmacking in both its honesty and clarity about what Hollywood is – and isn’t.
“The pursuit of making money is the only reason to make movies. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art… Our obligation is to make money, and to make money it may be necessary to make history, art or some significant statement. To make money, it may be important to win the Academy Award, for it might mean another ten million dollars at the box office. Our only object is to make money, but in order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies.”
But you’ll understand why I particularly perked up when I came across an account of my namesake and Bruckheimer’s attempts to seduce a reluctant Tom Cruise into starring in a film they were producing that you may possibly have heard of, called Top Gun.
According Admiral (Rtd.) Pete Pettigrew, the US Navy liaison they had hired to keep the USN sweet (Top Gun was made with the support of the Pentagon – who famously loaned them an aircraft carrier), it seems that those steamy locker room scenes the movie is now famous for, partly thanks to the dirty mind of yours truly, was Mr Cruise’s idea. He wanted the movie not to be about killing but about ‘sporting excellence’.
‘At their first meeting, Cruise, who had just finished shooting Legend and still wore his hair shoulder-length, expressed his concerns. Primarily,… Cruise did not want Top Gun to be a movie about killing. He wanted to know about the “locker room” scenes and the locker room facilities at the Top Gun school, because… Cruise felt that’s where a lot of the action should take place. “He wanted to make this look like a sporting event, not about warmongering but about competition and excellence,” Pettigrew said…. Pettigrew expressed his doubts. The USN flying school at San Diego did not encourage competition…’
Disappointingly, the Top Gun trophy, central to the movie and the hotly contested object of desire for smouldering, slicked-back rivals Maverick and Iceman, was entirely the creation of the scriptwriters. It didn’t and doesn’t exist.
Despite the understandable reservations of Pettigrew, the idea was eagerly seized upon by Don Simpson – albeit for more fleshly reasons than those advanced by Tom. Pettigrew was overruled (as he seems to have been almost consistently) and his concerns over long-haired Tom’s yen for lots of locker room scenes were addressed in a typically blunt Simpsonian fashion:
‘When Cruise left the room, Simpson told Pettigrew, “Look, we’re paying one million bucks to get him. We need to see some flesh.”
And boy, did we.
Simpson was hyper-heterosexual – and if he were still alive, his aggressive sexual behaviour would undoubtedly be the subject of a plethora of #metoo accusations. But he was certainly not blind to male beauty, not least because he was a producer who longed to be a movie star. He was forever trying to improve and enhance his looks and was a high-rolling, early-adopter of metrosexuality. On the ‘cutting edge’, in fact.
In addition to his dandyish foibles (he would berate staff for pressing instead of fluffing his jeans), according to Fleming, between 1988 and 1994 Simpson had at least ten surgical procedures to enhance his looks. Including collagen injections in his cheeks and chin, a forehead lift and a restructuring of his eyebrow, to give it ‘sterner definition’; liposuction of his abdomen and a collagen injections in his lips and fat injection into his penis to make it bigger.
This latter procedure was, as is usually the case, a failure – penis enlargement ops are essentially a very expensive form of penis mutilation. But because it was Simpson’s penis the op had to fail on a big scale. “It had turned all black-and-blue, and it was very painful”, a source is quoted as saying. “There was a lot of swelling and fever. In the end they had to take out whatever it was they put in there. You can’t believe how pissed Don was.”
In yet another glimpse of the masculine future, Simpson was not simply all about the phallus either. His masculine self-consciousness was versatile – he also had a ‘butt lift’ op. Apparently he was particularly disappointed in his natural buttock bestowment.
“Every time I ever visited his office, he was always in there trying on jeans and complaining about his ass,” a friend of Simpson recalls. “He always thought it looked funny in pants.”
Simmo also struggled with his weight – binge-eating pizzas and entire jars of peanut butter, then switching to punitive diets. Essentially he was a constant work in progress, one fuelled by self-loathing and self-loving. And lots and lots of drugs, prescription and proscribed – particularly cocaine. The highness of his concepts was largely white-powder-fuelled.
The sequel will be helmed without Don Simpson, however. Like that other pop cultural, pill-popping over-consumer, Elvis, he died of massive heart failure on the crapper, in 1996, aged 52. Twenty one different drugs were found in his system, including antidepressants, stimulants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Fleming reports that Simpson was spending $60,000 a month on prescription drugs alone.
The Elvis parallel doesn’t end on the crapper, either. Critic Peter Biskind argued in 1999 that Simpson was to “gay culture what Elvis was to black music, ripping it off and repackaging it for a straight audience”.
According to Biskind, Paramount, where Simpson started his career, was ‘the gayest studio’. While there, Simpson was instrumental in bringing American Gigolo (1980) to the screen. Produced by his future partner in crime, Bruckheimer, Gigolo is a definitively 1980s film that that even out-gays Top Gun.
This was because Paramount:
‘took gay culture, with its conflation of fashion, movies, disco and advertising… and used it as a bridge between the naive high-concept pictures of Spielberg in the 1970s and highly-designed, highly self-conscious pictures’.
‘High concept’, in other words, was highly camp.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon page.
Special thanks to Simon Mason for sending me Fleming’s bio of Simmo.
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