Mark Simpson on how we’re all living in Nick Kamen’s Launderette now
Another fondly-remembered part of the 1980s finished its last cycle last week. Nick Kamen, real name Ivor Neville Kamen, the Essex-born much-gasped-over star of the famous 1985 Levi’s 501 male striptease ‘Launderette’ TV ad, checked out.
He was just 59. Sadly, this was more than a decade before his Biblically-allotted threescore years and ten was up. But, self-centred as ever, I couldn’t quite stop myself from thinking: ’59!! How did that doe-eyed young buck in his boxers get to be SO OLD??’ In other words, even older than me.
Ads nowadays are almost invisible rather than cultural moments, and young men taking their clothes off on TV is completely commonplace today, so it’s difficult to grasp now the sensation that this ad and the others in ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s (BBH) legendary 1980s Levi’s campaign caused at the time. Ironically, that’s because we are all living in Nick’s Launderette now – though it’s under new management and changed its name to ‘Instagram’. We’re utterly blasé about male tartiness. We’ve seen it all, dear.
I (over-)analysed the impact of these ads and Kamen’s exhibitionism in my 1994 book Male Impersonators, emphasising how they presented the young male body as a voyeuristic pleasure (for the audience) and a passive pleasure (for the male model) that had hitherto been mostly associated with male homosexuality – along with the way the product (the jeans) is carefully fetishised by association with the phallus. Softcore gay porn became a prime-time hard-sell. Commodified cock for the unwashed masses.
All to the plaintiff, pleading strains of a classic soul song about a man sexually competing with ‘another guy you loved before’ (‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’).
Just look at the way the button-fly of the 501, once the very symbol of it’s trad dadness, is turned into an unwrapping, fingering oh-so-modern tease. The male desire to be desired unleashed.
And let’s not forget, he’s doing his own washing. Where is the mum or the ‘little woman’ in his life that until then in ad land should be doing it for him?
Likewise, the young man working out in the 1986 follow-up Levi’s ad ‘Bath’, as the camera lovingly caresses his muscular body to the strains of an innocent 1950s love song about longing (‘Wonderful World’), stretching the seat of his jeans with squats, as the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up on his arse, is apparently living by himself – and flagrantly taking himself as his own love-object.
The photo of the young woman he looks at before slipping into the bath in his ‘shrink to fit jeans’ (with the camera zoomed in on his crotch) doesn’t straighten things out – it merely emphasises his horny availability to the predatory eye of the viewing public.
Not only are these mute, humpy young men and their packaged packets available for our queer viewing pleasure, they could also themselves be queer. Either way, BBH made it clear that they were definitely ‘TBH’.
BBH’s pimping of the male body was undoubtedly inspired by the great success of Calvin Klein’s first men’s underwear campaign in 1982-3, which saw handsome, smoothly-sculpted and oiled-up American pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus, snapped by manophile photographer Bruce Weber in Mr Klein’s pricey pants, towering over (the then gloriously seedy) Times Square – like a high-class, Olympian hustler. But BBH’s Levi’s ad campaign went one better – and brought Times Square into the living rooms of mid-1980s, prime-time Britain.
BBH didn’t invent male objectification, but they pretty much patented it in the UK. ‘Launderette’ is metrosexual Ground Zero – and clearly left an indelible impression on the 10-year-old David Beckham. Come to think of it, isn’t that him playing one of the kids closely observing Mr Kamen?
Levi’s, previously an ailing ‘dad brand’, was resurrected and remade uber cool by BBH’s male striptease. By 1987, Levi’s 501 sales figures had gone beyond firmed, or even tumescent, and grown to a whopping 8x what they had been before Kamen & Co. started wearing them – or rather, pulling them off. Sales of boxers also went through the roof.
Full, unsolicited disclosure: as a measure of my young impressionability, I myself wore boxers for years after being exposed to those ads – despite the fact they were not very sexy, or practical, especially in tight jeans: they had a way of strangling your baubles. Funnily enough, it transpires BBH only put Kamen & Co. in boxers because they weren’t allowed, by the guardians of televisual mores, to show them in their Y-fronts. In doing so, the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre sentenced millions of young men to CBT.
‘Launderette’ might have been a UK ad phenomenon, but its influence ‘went ballistic’. Top Gun, the definitive 80s movie that everyone likes to now regard as the ‘gayest movie eva’, was released the following year, directed by the British adman (and brother of Ridley) Tony Scott. The earth-bound sequences of the fantastically phallic movie had the same kind of overtly sexualised treatment of man-boyish Tom Cruise as man-boyish Nick Kamen in ‘Launderette’ – with the same warmly reassuring 1950s, Ray-Ban-ed, sepia-tinted, faux nostalgia aesthetic. But this time in an all-male launderette. With added steam.
It also succeeded in making even straight women “gay”… it encouraged women to look at the male body with the same critical, impossibly demanding, carnivorous eye that gay men had used for years. In fact, so much have all our expectations been inflated that Nick Kamen’s ‘fabulously hunky’ body as it was described back then by the tabs, today probably wouldn’t get past the audition stage – he’d be told to go back to the gym and inject some horse steroids.
Pre-1980s there wasn’t much gay lust in ads or, for that matter, Britain. I remember as a kid spending most of the 1970s watching an Old Spice ‘Mark of a Man’ commercial, which featured a surfer riding a vast, spuming wave in very long-shot, to the climactic strains of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. The number of times I waited for that ad to come on as a kid, hoping, praying that this time the camera would move in closer.
In the 1980s, my prayers were answered, and the lens moved in, big time. Since then, it’s never moved back. It has zoomed ever closer, until now we’re looking at the mitochondria on the walls of men’s small intestines.
Maybe I’m an incurable romantic/masochist, but I sometimes find myself missing the aching, blurry, long-shot tease of 1970s’ Old Spice masculinity. Because it never quite delivers, it never disappoints.
(OK, I lied about missing 1970s Old Spice masculinity.)
By the way, on the subject of Kamen’s ‘hunky body’ not being buff enough by today’s standards – it turns out it nearly wasn’t at the time: Kamen was only given the role on the condition that he lose weight.
Madonna had no reservations however, and was famously so enamoured with what she saw she gave Kamen a breathy pop song, “Each Time You Break My Heart”, which went Top Ten in the UK. Further success in his home country eluded him, however. His teen girl fanbase were terribly fickle and cruel. According to the journalist and TV presenter Kate Thornton, a schoolgirl at the time:
“There wasn’t life for Nick Kamen after Levi’s because he broke the rule…he talked!… We just liked looking at him. It was as simple as that. He was a model and he just had these smouldering beautiful looks… but fundamentally he was to be looked at and lusted over, and never to be taken seriously…”
It’s lucky that 21st Century feminism has conclusively proved that only women can be objectified, because otherwise Nick would have been horribly objectified, way back in the 20th Century. (It’s also noteworthy that almost none of the media pieces on his death I saw included a photo of middle-aged Kamen.)
I have to say though that Nick, lovely and historic as he was, and definitely not someone I would have kicked out of my bedsit, was not my fave. If I was Madge, I would have sent my spare song to the lad in the second ad, ‘Bath’. Not only is he, with his home workouts, more proto sporno than proto metro (and has an arse), he’s also got the most incredibly romantico face; lit here like a proper homme fatale. But after his prime-time tease he seems to have faded back into obscurity without even a one hit wonder to his largely unremembered name (James Mardle).
Actually, I’m such a slut that even in Nick’s own ad I always found myself thinking about the young lonely Marine in uniform loitering outside the ‘Laundromat’ promising a ‘power wash’. And clearly, I’m meant to: he’s the curtain-raiser, the first person we see in the ad, as the camera pans tantalisingly past (Nick walks quickly behind him face turned away from the camera).
What or who is he waiting for? A ride? A sweetheart? A john?
By the time we see the street from inside the launderette he’s already gone. Perhaps the driver of cruising Buick in the opening shot has finally picked him up. Perhaps Bob Mizer was behind the wheel, whisking the jarhead to his Physique Pictorial photoshoot.
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.
Elise Moore takes a close, loving look at the protean punkster pop star’s masterfully submissive manipulation of sexual imagery– and his wet shorts
(special guest post)
As a Canadian born in 1975, I knew essentially nothing about Adam Ant until this year. I don’t even have the faintest recollection of “Goody Two Shoes,” his one big U.S. hit, or “Stand and Deliver,” the one everyone in the UK remembers. I do have a vague recollection of “Room at the Top,” which was a U.S. dance hit in 1990: probably I saw the video, in which a suited, slick-looking Ant engages in a lot of elaborate mic play.
At the time it came out, I was already taking an interest in punk and New Wave, a context in which I encountered the cover of Kings of the Wild Frontier a million times, although I certainly would not have connected it with the “Room at the Top” video. I also heard the story of how Malcolm McLaren stole Ant’s band for Bow Wow Wow, and accordingly thought that Adam and the Ants were a comparable packaged post-punk confection. Which I have nothing against, but for some reason, I just never got around to them.
Then the other week, an old, brief post on Ant’s “Prince Charming” video by Mark Simpson that has since disappeared [here’s the enlarged repost] but was probably occasioned by the release of Ant’s comeback album in 2013, rose from my murky subconscious and sent me down an Ant-related internet rabbit hole. Since my thoughts about Ant, as I perused this material, were framed by my familiarity with Mark’s writing, he offered to give me a platform for them.
The benefit of not having “been there” for any part of Ant’s career is the overview of his oeuvre that it gives you. There appear to be two official versions of the story of his career: that of the British music press that was there for his rise as a cult performer in the late punk scene, which is that he was a failed punk who used his pretty face to sell out; and that of the fans he acquired with Kings of the Wild Frontier who grew up to be serious music fans (in part thanks to that album), which is that he was an avant-garde pop genius who sold out with his pop album, Strip, and then utterly betrayed them a few years later by making a, gasp, dance album.
There’s also the revisionist account, prompted by several triumphant tours since his comeback, which is that he was an eccentric pop genius all along, so far ahead of his time that the critics never caught up with him and too protean for the public to stay with him. It’s probably clear, since I’m writing this, that I prefer this version of history.
However, it remains for the exact nature of this eccentric genius to be described. I’m not a musician, nor a music critic, nor even a “serious music fan,” so I can’t say much about that component of Mr. Ant’s career. But the “Adam Ant project,” so to speak, extended far beyond music or even visuals. And the most interesting aspect of it was his conscious manipulation of sexual imagery.
It was as an art student that Ant (then Stuart Leslie Goddard) first became fascinated by transgressive sexual imagery in art and transgressive sexual behaviour in subcultures. Not, according to early interviews, as something he wanted to enact in his own life, but for its taboo-breaking value and visually appealing iconography. This disclaimer rings true, given that one of his heroes was 60s British gay playwright Joe Orton, despite the fact that by all accounts Ant is enthusiastically heterosexual. But more on that later.
Part of what drew him to the punk scene, presumably, and McLaren’s SEX boutique in particular, was its congruence with these interests. The other part was Johnny Rotten’s theatrical and aggressive self-presentation (based on Laurence Olivier’s Richard III, according to Lydon), which so impressed Ant that he quit the pub rock band he’d been in the first time he saw The Sex Pistols. That happened to be their first gig, supporting Ant’s band. But Ant wasn’t married to the sound of punk. Instead, it was the attitude of punk that he never lost, and that he brought to his approach to pop stardom and relationship with the music industry.
Which is the other piece of the puzzle. Ant’s teenage years were dominated by Bolan, Roxy Music, and Ziggy-era Bowie, and it was over the love of glam rock that he bonded with long-time collaborator Marco Pirroni, another ex-punk, when he formed Adam and the Ants 2.0. It wasn’t just the sound, fashion, and theatrics he loved, however. Already a student of human sexuality, he saw the reaction of teenage girls to Marc Bolan and knew what he wanted to do with his life.
When the puzzle is all put together, we have this: an artist whose subject is sexual transgression but who wants to be Marc Bolan. Actually, there’s one more piece, which is Ant’s comedic side. You can see it from the earliest videos, as well as in a Dadaist prank like “Ant Rap,” but he really starts to lean into it with his first solo album, Friend or Foe, perhaps because he’s dropping the Johnny Rotten act and letting more of his own personality through. I don’t know much about the history of music videos, but one that did get on my radar is Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” which has quite a similar sensibility to “Friend or Foe.” The songs also notably share a similar attitude toward the artists’ critics, to wit, Fuck all y’all. If the early 80s music press already found it impossible to deal with Ant as a sex-obsessed, “style-over-substance” sell-out, adding comedy to the mix must have been even more unforgivable.
It went together, really, the style-over-substance accusations and the comedy. Perhaps what was most unforgivable about Ant was that he knew, and didn’t try to hide, the fact that popular music (even, or especially, punk) had always been as much about the image as about the music. In fact, it had been about three things: music, image, and sex. In the reverse order. Punk was perhaps especially about image, because it certainly wasn’t about music or sex. Adam Ant was broadcasting the dirty little secret that serious music fans and adherents to punk or indie “authenticity” didn’t want to hear about. He was a walking, or rather bouncing, deconstruction of pop. The addition of comedy and panto was just another way to refuse to pretend that there was anything serious about being a rock star—the punkest gesture of all.
Sex and comedy come together at what might be the double climax of his career, the albums Strip (1983) and Vive Le Rock (1985). Pun intended. Kings and Prince Charming are two of the least sex-obsessed of his albums, his conversations with McLaren having triggered not only an interest in tribal drumming and vocalizations but also an exploration of the theme of romantic heroism, which drew on Ant’s other obsession, history. Even then, he would end concerts by stripping his shirt off and singing “Physical (You’re So),” a punk-period bump-and-grinder that Nine Inch Nails saw fit to cover. The lyrics, tentatively requesting a romantic date and perhaps a little roughhousing after dinner, are positively sweet, so it’s hard to know what was going on in his head to cause his ecstatic gyrations, but easier to know what was going on in the heads of the women in the audience during them.
(Forget Reznor: you’ve got to wonder if Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick, who wrote Olivia Newton-John’s massive 1981 hit “(Let’s Get) Physical” with a male vocalist in mind, caught an Ants concert.)
Friend or Foe was the fame album, after which the sex theme came to the fore again with a vengeance. How could someone with Adam Ant’s interests resist the opportunity push the envelope sexually in a mainstream context for his audience of pubescent girls? In the process, he alienated the teen boy audience he’d acquired with Kings, and with Vive Le Rock he alienated the girls. But before that happened he had an almost unheard-of opportunity to make pornographic art in a completely mainstream context.
Of course, the 80s were the decade for putting porn into pop. Madonna and Prince were doing it in the United States. Wham! were all leathered-up on the cover of Fantastic already in 1983, and dancing around onstage in tight shorts on their Club Fantastic tour. The problem was really how to distinguish yourself, as a pornographic artist, from what was just normal pop proceedings. I would say Ant managed it, or at least, put his own stamp on the trend.
The Libertine character invented for Strip was a natural evolution of the Prince Charming/Dandy Highwayman character, who had in turn evolved out of the original Buccaneer/Warrior. The Strip character is Casanova by way of Jane Russell: the album cover apparently nods to a poster for Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, a film notorious now and controversial then for the eccentric millionaire’s obsession with his Muse’s mammaries.
It’s not something you can really reproduce with a male body (at least not Adam Ant’s: you’d need a Tom of Finland type), but the reference is a mission statement for the album: we’re here to celebrate sex and court controversy, and Adam is taking the place normally occupied by women in popular culture. Ant, who was the only man in his college course Women in Society, presumably knew all about second-wave feminist objectification arguments, and was only too happy to gallantly relieve women of the gaze. Apparently, he did manage to get the “Strip” single and video banned by the BBC, although the single sounds more innocuous than “Like a Virgin” now and the video looks like an indigestion nightmare after watching too much 70s TV sketch comedy.
I was joking when I said there was an element of gallantry in Ant’s assumption of the role of “objectified woman,” but I may not have been far off. The great crowd-sourced pop archive that is YouTube has a “making of” clip about the “Strip” video in which Ant, who studied filmmaking at college and storyboarded his videos, explains that, far from a mere video babe, the woman in the video is its “hero,” and the point at which he sits in her lap on a park bench a gender-flip of the more conventional heterosexual situation. (Which is easier to do when the man is the same size as the woman.) The lyrics of the song actually reject “sneaky” voyeurism, represented in the video by the moustache-twirling villains who constitute the showgirl heroine’s audience; the alternative offered is mutual stripping, with the man going first. The video’s Psycho homage makes more sense in this feminist context, underlining the aggression in the act of erotic looking. An aggression that Ant evidently felt capable of facing, although his post-fame breakdowns make you wonder. And it’s perhaps worth noting here that the first breakdown was triggered by a female stalker whose aggression levels were comparable to Norman Bates’s.
But back to gender: Ant was already doing gender-flipped versions of narratives in the “Prince Charming” video, in which Ant really assumes the role of Cinderella. Diana Dors, “the English Marilyn Monroe,” is the fairy godmother whose magic wand transforms our baby-faced, biceped working-class hero into an exotic spectacle, a Star. So as with the Strip album, an iconic female pin-up stands behind Ant’s conception of himself as a sex symbol.
The limitation of feminist objectification theory is its rigid structure: only men possess the destructive “gaze,” and only women can be its object. But Ant, of course, beginning with Prince Charming and continuing with Strip, was courting the gaze of his teen girl audience. With his scholarly, historically-oriented approach to pop culture, Ant was aware that Bolan wasn’t the first male star to create mass hysteria in women, and neither were The Beatles (to which “The Ants” nods) or even Elvis. At the end of the “Prince Charming” video he fragments into several characters, one of which is this Ur-male sex symbol, silent film star Rudolph Valentino, The Latin Lover, in his most famous role, cosplaying as The Sheik. The seeds of Strip are there.
Much naughtier than the banned “Strip” single and video was the stage show, which was easily the most outrageous aspect of this phase, or maybe any phase, of Ant’s career. And I include his punk-era appearances in a gimp mask. (Or was it a Cambridge rapist mask? I can’t quite get to the bottom of this story.) Photos of the tour preserved by fans and documented on the internet detail his routine of stripping down to little shorts (also on display in the “Strip” video) and immersing himself in a tank of water before completing the show soaking wet. Which was ostensibly an homage to Houdini, although I don’t quite see what he was escaping from other than his clothes.
His project of making himself, in his late 20s, into a porn star for pubescent girls was apparently entirely successful, to judge from the fascinating and extensive YouTube comments on his videos and live clips. Women now in their 50s gleefully relate how he triggered their puberty; lesbians confess that he was the only man they would have gone straight for; and self-identified straight men come forward to testify to his handsomeness (one even admitting to lusting after him during the “Physical” gig climaxes). (Unless that was another lesbian.) It may be that his own relaxed attitude toward his self-objectification, his entire indifference to presenting himself as “masculine,” made Adam Ant the male star that it was okay for straight men to admit to finding attractive. In his cover of “Y.M.C.A.,” “A.N.T.S,” with lyrics altered to yet another Ants manifesto, he made his hostility toward what the internet has taken to calling “toxic” masculinity, which perhaps might better be called repressed masculinity, crystal clear:
It's fun to go to the A.N.T.S....
Put on that paint and hold up your head
Til all the tough men drop dead.
Ant didn’t stick with androgyny for long, however. With his Dietrichesque canvas of a face (high forehead included), it must have been too easy for him. Instead, with Strip and Vive Le Rock he fashioned himself into first a heterosexual, and then a homosexual porn archetype. You can put over the gay porn archetype with a teen girl audience, as George Michael magnificently proved with his Faith album just two years after Vive Le Rock. But not if it comes with a hair metal-by-way-of-its glam roots sound, I guess. With a single, “Apollo 9,” that hearkens back to the demented bubble-gum of Bowie’s avant-pop album, Lodger (also produced by Tony Visconti), by way of a square dance. With accompanying video featuring Ant decked out as a pink-gloved space cowboy, sporting a band aid-as-accessory long before Morrissey. Incredibly, “Apollo 9” was a bit of a hit, unlike the title single, a more straightforward rocker—that, however, namechecks Tom of Finland. I’m assuming that no heterosexual man would have known who Tom of Finland was in 1985 without a dedicated interest in pornographic imagery and sexual subcultures.
Maybe the only reason Vive Le Rock tanked was that Ant, distracted by acting, let a whole year lapse between the success of “Apollo 9” and the album’s release. In the spring of 1985 he appeared in his first and most noteworthy role, as the title character in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester; Vive Le Rock appeared in the fall. Ant made his first reference to Orton, however, on a 1980 demo called “Prick Up Your Ears,” about Orton’s relationship with the lover who murdered him, Ken Halliwell. The timing suggests that Ant read John Lahr’s biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, when it came out in 1978. Ant has said that he felt he understood Orton very well, and believed that Sloane was Orton’s alter ego.
As someone who is also not a gay man who wrote an award-winning play about Orton and Halliwell in my teens, I feel like I’m in a better position than most to understand what he means. My own take on Orton, who became my alter ego in the play, in some regards, was that he was a narcissist who continually refashioned himself into other people’s fantasies and had no real identity. Well, I think that was actually John Lahr’s take, but it was one that fascinated me and resonated with me. I grew out of that phase, but Adam Ant, for good or ill, found a way not to, by becoming a pop star.
With Orton as one of the guiding spirits of the Vive Le Rock era, I suspect Ant was using this new “gay” image not so much to court a gay male gaze, or anyone else’s at this point, as to explore his narcissism, or, in Mark Simpson’s phrase, his “desire to be desired.” The heterosexual fantasy characters he’d previously enacted had the unfortunate drawback of having, ostensibly, to do something. Even if his Prince Charming/Cinderella in the video, unlike the characters he’s based on, doesn’t go to the ball to meet anyone, but to be looked at. Whereas the rent boy persona of the Vive Le Rock era doesn’t have to do anything except look sluttily available—not even feel desire. It’s not a character that exists within the lexicon of heterosexual fantasy, but Ant, ever the cultural appropriator, doesn’t let that stop him. And it makes sense that the pop music image influences of his 50s childhood, the first rock ‘n’ roll stars, are part of this mix. Because the decade that gave us pop masculinity as we still know it—“rebellious,” Romantic, a bit dangerous in a Byronic way, rough trade for the boys and girls—is also the decade in which masculinity’s desire to be desired came out of the closet.
Rock ‘n’ roll really started with Brando’s leather look in The Wild One (1953), which inspired Tom of Finland to create a gay archetype that grew up alongside the “straight” one. Like a couple of twins checking each other out, exchanging style tips. Whatever label you want to put on this new masculinity, it was both aestheticized and sexualized in a way that masculinity had seldom been before, in the modern world.
In fact the only proper label for it is—dare I use the “m”-word?
My source of unique information for this essay was this article, by a psychologist fan.
As mentioned in the essay, I was a playwright in my teens and early 20s. I’m currently working on a novel, which should be out some time in the next century, if there is one. Meanwhile I like to think about pop culture, usually film. I co-host the weekly film podcast There’s Sometimes a Buggy: Irresponsible Opinions About Classic Film and have published essays with various (non-academic) journals, usually Bright Wall/Dark Room and Bright Lights Film Journal.
Mark and I have been chatting about masculinity in pop culture for about 15 years, although we’ve never actually met.
Morrissey appeared this week on The Late, Late Show With James Corden, giving a bravura, if clap-happy, performance of his new single, a cover version of ‘Back On The Chain Gang’.
Originally released in 1982 by The Pretenders, written and sung by the indomitable Chrissie Hynde, I’ve always liked this up-tempo melancholic pop song musing wistfully-angrily on the discovery of ‘a picture of you’ that ‘hijacked my world last night’.
But I hadn’t realised until now how… Smithsian it sounds.
So much so, that you think Moz has changed some of the lyrics. But on checking it turns out to be very little, just a pronoun here and there. The most substantial change seems to be:
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
Lonely hearts, lonely hearts
Morrissey-esque turns of phrase like:
The phone, the TV and the News of the World Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Or the sun-shines-out-of-our-behinds exhilarating extravagance of:
The powers that be That force us to live like we do Bring me to my knees When I see what they've done to you But I'll die as I stand here today Knowing that deep in my heart They'll fall to ruin one day For making us part
Turn out to be pure Hynde. I just hadn’t listened properly before.
But then it’s probably not a coincidence that The Smiths were formed the same year as this catchy-jangly, bitter-sweet, poetic-dramatic pop song was released.
For the next few days only, Saint Morrissey is available on Kindle for just 99 cents/pence.
I can only assume that Pietro Boselli is getting career advice from an older homosexual. Which makes me very jealous.
He may be a sporno star, but Pietro is far too young and far too cherubic to know who Jeff Stryker is, or the ridiculously butch way he used to talk on the classic gay porn videos he made in the1980s when testing the gag reflex and nose-breathing techniques of his on-screen colleagues.
Though Pietro’s obviously coached attempt to copy Jeff’s wooden and sleazy delivery is very sweet.
Either way the career advice Pietro’s getting seems designed to drive middle-aged homos like me into a tizzy.
All I can say is: it’s working.
But I’m hoping that Pietro isn’t actually hung like Jeff. I’d prefer to think the Bona of Verona has a neo-classically-sized – i.e. tastefully tiny – uncircumcised penis. Instead of a cut cock the size of a lubed dolphin.