Jan 19, 2013

Rescuing Boys on 24, Part 1: Behrooz

Though in the 2000s gay characters were commonplace on cable and even appeared occasionally on network television, the suspense series 24 (2001-2010), about federal agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) saving the world from terrorists in real time (every hour-long episode covers exactly one hour in a very long day), offers only homophobia.   One executive producer, Joel Surnow, is a self-professed “right-wing nut job” who openly expresses his dislike of gay people.  Of more than a hundred characters, none were explicitly designated as gay or lesbian.  Two were bisexual, both evil.   
But in spite of the incessant heterosexism and homophobia, men rescue adolescent boys with amazing frequency.  In nearly every season, the day begins with an adolescent boy climbing half-naked out of bed or flexing his muscles before a mirror or lounging by the pool in a swimsuit.  As the day progresses, he is  kidnapped, tied up, and threatened by one or more “bad fathers.”  Finally Jack Bauer rushes to the rescue; man and boy melt into each other’s arms and promise to stay together forever.

Although boys with bad fathers appear in earlier days, the homoromantic rescues begin in earnest on Day Four (2005-6).  After years of emotional and physical abuse, teenage Behrooz Araz (sixteen-year old Jonathan Ahdout) hates his father, Navi, but he is not aware that the elder Araz is a terrorist.  Then his girlfriend sees too much, and Navi orders Behrooz to kill her.  

He is unable to comply, so his mother does the job, and the nonplussed Navi orders a henchman to take Behrooz out into the desert and kill him.  Behrooz escapes from his assassin and runs away, with his suddenly repentant mother tagging along.  

At a hospital where his mother has sought medical attention, Behrooz meets Jack Bauer, who promises to keep him safe “from now on.”  Then Navi reappears, tries to kill Behrooz, and finally holds him hostage in the hospital basement.  Jack comes storming in to the rescue.  

Jack’s response to the rescue is a surprising throwback to the physicality of 1940s adventures.  He has spent only a single previous scene with Behrooz, hardly enough time for a realistic emotional intimacy to develop, and since he rescues hostages frequently as part of his job, he should be dispassionate and professional about it.  Yet he hugs Behrooz enthusiastically, has difficulty letting go, and tells him that everything will be ok now, as if he intends to personally guarantee the boy’s safety.  Perhaps Jack wants to atone for his job at the CTU, which has put his own daughter at risk several times previously.  Perhaps he fancies himself a “good father” substitute for the evil Navi. But mere guardianship cannot explain the effusiveness and physicality of the bond.  

Later in the day, Behrooz waits at the CTU for the crisis to end so he and Jack can embark upon whatever future they have agreed to.  Jack is captured by head terrorist Marwan, who wants the boy (for no comprehensible reason except that he is important to Jack), and suggests a trade.  Jack adamantly refuses, but to his horror, the CTU agrees.  We see Behrooz for the last time tied up, being driven away by henchmen, no doubt to his death, while Jack looks on in anguish and yells his name (in two deleted scenes on the DVD, we learn that he was rescued  just in time, but not by Jack).  

Again, Jack seems far more distraught than one would expect from a seasoned federal agent faced with the demise of a near stranger. One wonders just what sort of future he expected with Behrooz.

Not to worry, he'll get a new teenage boy pal in Day Five

Ancient Egyptian Beefcake

Ancient Egypt seemed familiar from my earliest childhood, due to the Biblical stories of Joseph and Moses and the Pharaoh, and to the movies of the mid-1950s Egyptian craze that kept showing up on late-night tv: : The Egyptian (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Ten Commandments (1956). Yul Brynner, the bisexual star of The King and I,  played Pharaoh.

I bought this copy of Mika Waltari's The Egyptian (1945) at a garage sale in the late 1960s, because. . .well, how could you not?

It was too hard for me, but there were lots of children's books about ancient Egyptian boys sticking together: The Golden Goblet (Eloise Jarvis McGraw), The Great Pyramid Mystery (Morgan De Wolfe), Shadow Hawk (Andre Norton), Hawk of the Nile (Robert James Green).

One day my grandmother invited me to pick out any toy in the toy store.  I chose an ancient Egyptian play figure set.  "Are you sure you wouldn't rather have a bicycle?" she asked.

But I already had a bicycle, and besides, I never turned down beefcake.  Even if the figures were wearing makeup.

In May 1977, some students from my high school went to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago to see The Treasures of Tutankamun, an exhibit of Egyptian antiquities, and I got a statue of the boy king (long gone, but it looked like this one).  I was 16 years old, so he was too young for me, but nudity is nudity.

Jan 17, 2013

Summer 1981: Male Nudity in German Class

After the 1978 of Grease, my favorite Boomer summer was the summer of 1981. I went to an Italian Film Festival, moved into my own apartment, learned about the Canterbury Tales and the Beat Generation, and saw a dozen movies: Clash of the Titans, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Wolfen, Arthur, American Werewolf in London, Hell Night, The Chosen.  Not to mention TV: One Day at a Time, Alice, Taxi, Soap, Barney Miller. And  subtext songs on the radio.

Every morning I worked in the college library, checking out books and scouring the shelves for works that my American, British, and French literature professors left out. Everyafternoon, I took summer school classes: Chaucer in June-July and Culture and Civilization of Modern Germany in July-August.

When I took Introduction to German Literature a few months before, Dr. Weber tried hard to prove that Death in Venice had nothing to do with gay people.  But now the gloves were off: Homosexualitat absolutely, emphatically, did not exist in 20th century Germany.

Photographer Wilhelm van Gloeden (1856-1931) moved to Taormina,, Sicily, where he specialized in placing local men and boys in classical settings with pillars and laurel leaves, usually nude, channeling the homoerotic glory of ancient Rome. According to Dr. Weber, he was trying to evoke the military might of ancient Rome as a model for Germany's future. No Homosexualitat.

What about Stefan George (1868-1933), who became obsessed with an adolescent named Maximilian Kronberger?   When the boy died of meningitis on the day after his sixteenth birthday in 1904, George wrote a series of poems, The Seventh Ring (1907)which described their encounter as that of a mortal meeting a god (in Dante's Inferno, the seventh "ring" of hell  is inhabited by sodomites).  Eventually the "Cult of Maximin" drew a circle of gay artists and writers.

According to Dr. Weber, Maximin represented the symbolist quest for beauty for its own sake.  No Homosexualitat.

What about the physical culture movement, a celebration of the male body, often nude, a fascination with gymnastics, boxing, and track and field, arguably the origin of modern athletics?  (Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis, was a devotee).

Dr. Weber: the glorification of male bodies was a remedy to the feminization of German culture among the symbolists.  No Homosexualitat.

At least he Said the Word several times.

He positively refused to discuss the gay symbolism of Steppenwolf, by Herman Hesse, or Der Eigene, the first gay magazine in the world, published from 1896 to 1932.  An offshoot of the physical culture movement, it had over 1500 subscribers and contributors like Thomas Mann and Wilhelm von Gloeden.

See also: The Gay Werewolf of Steppenwolf; and Death in Venice.

Jan 16, 2013

Everybody Hates Chris

Everybody Hates Chris (2005-09),  loosely based on the childhood of comedian Chris Rock in the 1980s, was about a boy named Chris (Tyler James Williams) beset-upon by weird neighbors and a crazy family.  School is even worse; as the only black student at Corleone Junior High, he suffers both overt and well-meaning liberal racism.

True to the tradition of erasing black beefcake, no one disrobed on camera.  But there were nearly as many bulges as on The Jeffersons, and you could easily find shirtless and nude shots elsewhere.

Tequan Richmond, who played Chris's opposite, his supremely lucky and supernaturally attractive brother, posted many muscle pix on his website.  He now plays a teen hunk on General Hospital.

Terry Crews, the Dad, is a former football star with a bodybuilder's physique who often flexes in his movies (most recently he has done voice work on The Ultimate Spider_Man).

The word "gay" was never spoken, though once they used "androgynous" as a euphemism.  And, at least in the first season, Chris featured one of the strongest teenage homoromantic subtexts in contemporary tv.

When Chris arrives at Corleone Junior High, the only kid who will befriend him is the nerd Greg (Vincent Martella, now voicing the Disney Channel's Phineas and Ferb).  Soon they become inseparable  -- and exclusive; when one courts another boy, the other seethes with jealousy. They break up, realize how much they care for each other, and reconcile again.

They have a Romeo-and-Juliet moment in “Everybody Hates Greg” (November 24, 2005): Greg’s father forbids him from seeing Chris, and the two go through absurd machinations to be together, behaving according to media conventions for heterosexual participants in a “forbidden romance.”  Finally Greg’s father relents, saying “You’re big buddies, huh?”, apparently recognizing that the emotional importance of their bond transcends that of ordinary “buddies.”

The adult Chris Rock, who narrates each episode, seems somewhat discomfited by the intensity of the pairing.  Some of his asides, such as “Hey, this ain’t Brokeback!” (referring to the gay-themed movie Brokeback Mountain) deny that the pairing is romantic while explicitly linking it with gay romance.

Other asides, such as “How could I have so much drama without a girl?” appear to proclaim that the relationship is invalid because it does not involve girls, but actually indicates that girls are not necessary, that “drama” (emotional turmoil) is equally possible in same-sex relationships. The attention paid to the homoromance, and its thematic association with heterosexual romance, suggests that it is significant, even intentional.

However, it is temporary; after the first season, the two become ordinary best friends, both are wild about girls.

Jan 15, 2013

Boy Meets World

Boy Meets World (1993-2000) was a teencom about a boy named Corey (Ben Savage, left), his girlfriend and eventual wife Topanga (Danielle Fishel), and her jealousy over his his stylish, feminine, gay-coded boyfriend Shawn (Rider Strong).

The subtext was nearly text, same-sex romance always just beneath the surface.  In "Learning to Fly," Topanga finds Corey and Shawn hugging and cries, "Stop it!  You're both boys!"  A flashback reveals another same-se hug in kindergarten, and Topanga again crying "Stop it!  You're both boys!"  Evidently she has spent her life policing Corey's actions to ensure that he "remain" heterosexual.

After they are married, Topanga continues to be jealous of Shawn, referring to him as Corey's "boyfriend" and insisting that Corey choose between them.  At Topanga's instigation, Corey must constantly explain that he is in love with her and not Shawn.  In "The Happiest Show on Earth," in the midst of a conversation, Corey suddenly feels the need to tell Shawn: "When I see Topanga, I want to hold her, hug her, kiss her.  When I see you, I have no desire to do any of those things."  This is a nonsequiter.  Shawn has never intimated that he wants Corey to hug, hold, or kiss him (although they hug all the time).  Shawn remains placid, waiting for the audience howls to die down before he goes on to his next line.  Really, there is no way he could act without foregrounding the possibility that their relationship is indeed romantic.

Corey's older brother Eric (Will Friedle) is a gay-vague free spirit.  When Corey asks  Eric about his "first time," Eric says "Remember Mitchell Davis?"  Stunned, Corey stops him: "Why don't you tell me about your second time." Instead Eric tells about how Mitchell Davis convinced him to take the training wheels off his bike before he was ready, a parable about waiting for sex.  Yet he also evades the question of his first sexual experience.  His knowing smile suggests that it may have well been with a boy, but he switched to the bicycle story upon determining that Corey would respond badly.

In the fifth season, the producers sought to replicate the Corey-Shawn homoromance by introducing Corey's older brother, Jack Hunter (Matthew Lawrence, left) to hook up with Eric.  He also got some on-the-air time with Jason Marsden.

All of the male cast members have been the subject of gay rumors, but none except for Matthew Lawrence have been involved in particularly gay-friendly projects.  Rider Strong (left) starred in Cabin Fever (2005), with its infamous "shooting fags" line, but he also played a gay character, Davis, in Crumbs (2006).

Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel are currently planning to reprise their characters as married with children, in the new sitcom Girl Meets World.

Jan 14, 2013

Dead End

Before Raviv Ullman starred in the revival, we had Dead End (1935), the film version of Sidney Kingsley’s sociological analysis/Broadway play.  It was scripted by infamously radical Lilian Hellman, and it starred box office big-shots Humphrey Bogart and Joel McCrea, who competed to see who would get the best lines.  Innocent of this back-story were the five “Dead End Kids” from the original play, child stars grown into young adults when no one was looking: Billy Halop, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Bobby Jordan, and Leo Gorcey. None really came from Dead Ends, but they created the myth of the Lost Boys, the slum-dwelling "angels with dirty faces," wise-cracking, irreverent noble savages who would endure in hundreds of films, radio plays, pulp stories, and novels for twenty years.

Dead End takes place within a single day and night on a single block in Manhattan near  the East River, where the poor Irish immigrants in their tenements and the ultra-rich Anglo-whites in a highrise apartment complex peer out windows at each other.  Two childhood chums have returned on opposite sides of the law: architect Dave Connell (Joel McCrea) and gangster Baby Face (Humphrey Bogart). A group of neighborhood boys, all teenagers,  immigrants’ sons, orphans, zoom across the set.  They spend the day swimming, playing cards, fighting, assaulting sissies, offending the sensibilities of the rich, and posturing for the approval of “big men.”  The men, in turn, take an interest in the boys, and compete for their attention.

Meanwhile the boys compete for our attention.  Their bodies are displayed blatantly and continuously.  Before five minutes have passed, Tommy (Billy Halop, the bully in Tom Brown's School Days) rushes out of his tenement apartment wearing overalls and no shirt.  It’s a hot day, so he and his friends decide to go swimming in the East River, an excuse to spend the first third of the movie in their underwear.  Water signifies the boundary between civilization and savagery, childhood and adulthood, the liminal space of adolescence itself.  

At midday, they put on clothes to play cards, but afterwards they strip down again.  Tommy drops his pants and converses for awhile in his underwear, and in case we haven’t gotten a good enough look, gets grabbed by a rich man, so he can squirm and twist, muscles straining.

Dead End Kids are smooth, lean, and very pale, their bodies almost glowing against the dark, sooty backdrops, suggesting that they do not belong there.   They belong in an angelic world, in an Eden unsullied by sin (Bobby Jordan’s character is even named Angel).

One is reminded of the somewhat more bucolic setting of Thomas Eakins’ Swimming, where Berger locates in the adolescent nudes “a reassurance of an essentialized masculine identity.” Yet they represent something more, an elemental connection with each other, sensuous, intense, and physical, erotic but pre-romantic.  They are not yet separated into homoromanic pairs.   They are a pack.

 The boys exhibit no interest in heterosexual coupling, except for a taunt from Spit (Leo Gorcey) at a rich girl who can’t find her boyfriend:  “Won’t I do?”  When they see rich couples dancing on a balcony, they pretend disgust: “Look, they’re dancing like they like it!”

But they are quite aware of same-sex erotic practice.  When they taunt the sissy with “what are ya, a boy or a goil?”, evoking the classic intersexed pansy of 1930’s comedies,  they add a sexual dig.  Angel thrusts his pelvis backward and forward, not side to side as he would to signify girlishness – he is emulating coitus, pretending that he wishes to have sex with the boy.  He has been to Reform School, and knows about the same-sex practices there; when Tommy is arrested, he offers explicit advice on whom to hook up with and whom to avoid.

Early in the film, the kids encounter a new boy, who is acting the mollycoddle by rocking a baby carriage.  He and Tommy exchange shy smiles, but the others try to strong-arm a quarter out of him. He only has three cents, so they grab him, throw him to the ground, pull up his shirt, and start to pull down his pants. There is a close up of his waist, with many hands on his belt, one cupping his crotch.  He struggles wildly. At that moment, an adult intervenes, and surely prevents a sexual assault.  Amazingly, the boys’behavior was toned down by the censors.   In Kingsley’s original play, dirt is rubbed directly into the boy’s privates, and in other scenes the boys playfully grab at each other’s zippers.

The film ends with the architect winning Billy's heart, the first of many adult-teen homoromantic relationships that audiences in the 1930s couldn't seem to get enough of (another is Born to Fight).

Jan 13, 2013

Love, American Style

In November 1966, my bedtime changed from 7:30  to 8:00, and a dozen beefcake and bonding shows were opened up for me:  It's About Time, Run Buddy Run, Time Tunnel, and My Three Sons, 

In November 1969, my bedtime changed from 8:00 to 9:00, and I felt terribly grownup as I watched Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-0, It Takes a Thief -- and Love American Style.  

It was an anthology show.  Every episode had 3 vignettes about heterosexuals interested in having sex with each other.  Bosses chased secretaries around the office. A plumber seduced a coed.  A wrong number turned into romance.

Sex was on everyone's mind, the unspoken impetus to every action.  No one ever had any, but they often planned to, as Hollywood mirrored the sexual revolution.  In the end the traditional "no particulars until your wedding night" was affirmed.

It was fascinating, a glimpse into a completely alien world.  There was nothing like this on The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family.

Yet it was familiar and comfortable, due to the endless parade of guest stars that I knew and liked from other programs: Davy Jones, Bill Bixby, Don Grady, Ted Bessell, Tony Randall (left), Barry Gordon (below).

The adults all insisted with knowing grins that in a few years I would be joining their motley crue, with my own tongue-lolling machinations after girls, so I watched to get a glimpse of my future.

And I found:

1. Beautifully decorated apartments, groovy threads, a world of light and color.

2. Beefcake.  The men were always taking their shirts off.

3. Buddies.  While the protagonist quested after girls, his quiet, loving best friend stayed home and waited.  So wherever I went in life, at the end of the day there would be a man waiting.

In the first episode I saw, "Love and the Dating Computer" (November 3, 1969),  a mixup at a computer dating service matches two men, Francis (Broderick Crawford, right) and Marion (Herb Edelman, left).  They have everything in common -- they are perfecly matched  -- except for that little matter of being of the same sex.  But maybe that was what they were looking for all along.

See also: Love Boat/Fantasy Island


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