Nov 23, 2012

Harley Cross: A Threatened Childhood

 Prejudice always seems to involve accusations that the despised group wants to "get" our kids. During the Middle Ages, Jews were accused of killing Christian children to make Passover matzah.  Gypsies were accused of kidnapping kids to raise as their own.  There have been panics over Satanic ritual abuse, LSD-tainted Halloween candy, brainwashing cults, alien abductions.  And gay men.  The threat is often a sexual threat, the alien out to destroy not only life but innocence, which means heterosexual innocence, which means a heterosexist future.

Boys were threatened by a gay-vague menace quite often during the 1970s, in The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972),  Burnt Offerings (1976), and Salem's Lot (1979).  During the 1980s, Harley Cross made a career of playing them.

In 1986, at the age of eight, Harley played a boy kidnapped (along with his sister) by a gay-vague psychopath in Where are the Children?, an adaption of the Mary Higgins Clark thriller.

Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion that combines traditional West African practices with Roman Catholicism.  It is entirely gay friendly.  But in The Believers (1978), it is an evil cult that leers at half-naked little boys before killing them.

Psychiatrist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) goes to New York to investigate a rash of child murders and gradually comes to realize that the cult has targeted his nine-year son Chris (Harley).  Not to worry; after the requisite falling-in-love montage establishes that Cal is heterosexual, he rescues Chris and destroys the cult.  And manages it all without a single moment of buddy-bonding.

In Cohen and Tate (1988), the nine-year old Travis (Harley) is kidnapped by two mismatched thugs, the older, professional, heterosexual Cohen (Roy Scheider of Jaws) and the "queer" loose-cannon Tate (Adam Baldwin). Travis plays the two against each other, inducing Cohen to feel paternal sympathy and try to protect him from the increasingly violent Tate.  Cohen ends up killing himself to avoid having to kill the boy.

As Harley entered adolescence, the queer threat became more overtly sexual. In The Boy Who Cried Bitch (1991), a young teenager with the ironic name Dan Love (Harley) is molested by the groundskeeper.  He immediately "becomes" gay (although he likes girls), as well as manipulative, conniving, unstable, and amoral.  Two 1990s hunks, Jesse Bradford and J.D. Daniel, play his longsuffering (and heterosexual) brothers.

Harley disappears on an episode of Law and Order (1992), is sent to a brutal mental institution in Crazy for a Kiss (1995), and in Perdita Durango (1997), runs afoul of that evil Santeria cult again.  Teenage Duane and his girlfriend are kidnapped by a cultist with the ironic name Romeo Doloroso (Jauvier Bardem), and his girlfriend Perdita (Rosie Perez), who rape, torture, and hang them.

In Interstate 84 (2000), Harley got to become the queer threat, the villainous Freddy who harasses idiot savant Hap (Joel Garland).

Harley still acts on occasion; he played a young gay man interviewed by the famous sex researcher in Kinsey (2004).  But today he is primarily focused on his company, Hint Mints, an organic, vegan, socially responsible upscale breath mint brand.

Nov 21, 2012

The Possession of Joel Delaney

Often horror movies frame and exorcise the most macabre of all monsters, the "homosexual," but sometimes it reveals the contrived, the oppressive, and the monstrous hidden within the myth of heteronormativity.

In The Possession of Joel Delaney (1972), Joel (23-year old Perry King) has thick wavy hair the color of cinnamon, somewhat feminine pink lips, and dark eyes that are somewhat unfocused.  He is an effervescent hippie who scrawls “Power to the People” on his apartment wall, a spontaneous man-child who sends a magic earring via balloon to the moon; yet he as smooth and milk-pale, his muscles hard and chiseled as marble.  And he is quite obviously gay.

The original novel by Ramona Stewart says only that one of Joel’s friends is a disturbingly feminine hippie, but the movie gives us many more clues.   Joel has just returned from gay mecca Tangiers; he lives in a gay mecca, the East Village.  His overbearing socialite sister Norah (Shirley Maclaine) describes her male lovers and then asks if he is seeing. . .um. . . anyone?

He is: Tonio, a young Puerto Rican man, the son of his landlord They have a remarkable intimacy; sometimes they sit up all night, “listening to music and talking.”

Norah is not happy, perhaps because she would prefer to see him with a woman, or perhaps because Tonio is not “their sort,” but nevertheless she is shocked when she spies Joel talking to a girl, Sherry (Barbara Trentham), at a party.

Some days later, Joel goes to a gay bar, evidently his usual hangout, since he sits quite at home among the interracial same-sex couples dancing to slow jazz or discussing intimacies over drinks; but inexplicably he ends taking Sherry home for a sexual encounter.  She becomes his “girlfriend.”

After this surrender to the constraints of heteronormativity, Joel’s life begins its descent, and there is more odd, out of character behavior.  He talks to someone when there’s no one around, and curses at the maid in fluent Spanish though he’s never studied the language.  He asks Norah inappropriate questions about her sex life and plays too rough with his little niece and nephew (Lisa Kohane, David Elliott).  One night he attacks his landlord.  Then his gal pal Sherry is decapitated.

The police suspect Joel’s “friend” Tonio.  Norah believes that Joel is hiding him.  She begs him to turn Tonio in, or at least end the relationship, but Joel refuses.  Only when it is too late does she realize that Tonio is dead!  He died six months ago, and as a “restless spirit” is taking possession of his lover's body.  But Tonio liked women, too; the possessed Joel grabs every woman in sight, even Norah.  

Many cultural texts insist that gay men spend their lives sewing dresses of human skin (as in The Silence of the Lambs) or arguing with their mummified mothers (as in Psycho), but even their more ordinary sexual practices are supposed to elicit disgust in "us," the human beings. But here the gay Joel is innocent and the heterosexual (or mostly-heterosexual) Tonio is evil.

When Norah finally understands the evil that has irrupted from the East Village, it is too late: Joel has become completely possessed and barricaded himself in the apartment.  Norah flees with her children to their beach house on Fire Island (another gay mecca),  but Joel-Tonio follows and terrorizes them.  He merely intimidates the girl by forcing her to eat dogfood; he forces the boy to dance naked on the coffee table (a scene so shocking that it cannot be viewed today, and has been excised from the DVD version). The police see what’s happening and shoot Joel, releasing him from his possession, but in the final-scene zinger, Tonio finds a new host body in Norah.

The Possession of Joel Delaney is about fear of the Other, the nonwhite, nonheterosexual persons who populate the edges of Norah’s consciousness.  But Joel is so overtly gay that only the refusal to use the word itself keeps him from being open; and for once the gay guy is a favorite uncle, a doting brother, perverted by a weird outside force rather than working himself to pervert others.

Perry King would go on to be featured in After Dark, the gay-vague entertainment magazine, and to play several gay characters, such as a hired killer in Andy Warhol’s Bad (1971) and a fashion designer “cured” by sex with a lesbian in A Different Story (1978).   Later he buddy-bonded with Don Stroud in Search and Destroy (1979) and shared an intimate Starsky and Hutch-type love affair with Joe Penny in the detective series Riptide (1984-86), and in 2000 he guest starred on Will and Grace as an older man who dates Jack.

Menudo: Latin American Boy Band

When I was in high school, studying French got you Tintin, Alix, and Spirou et Fantasio, but studying Spanish got you Papa Soltero, Que Pasa USA and  Menudo.  The boy band (Spanish slang for "young, untried, uncooked") was formed in 1977 by Puerto Rican promoter Edgardo Diaz.  They were a "revolving group": members retired on their sixteenth birthday, and were replaced.  To date, there have been 33 members, including future superstars Ricky Martin and Robi Rossa.

To date, Menudo has released over 40 albums, and a number of their singles have charted in Latin America.  They became popular in the United States in 1983, when they appeared on Saturday morning tv, singing and acting in brief sketches in English and Spanish.

Their cuteness was an obvious draw for gay kids and teenagers, especially when teen magazines began to display endless shirtless, swimsuit, and speedo shots.

But their music was a draw, too.  It was good, evocative, literate, and expertly arranged.  Not to mention accessible to both male and female fans.  At least in Spanish.

It's hard to make Spanish songs non-gender specific, but they often managed it.  For instance,  "Mas Que Amor" (More than Love):

Cuando estoy contigo, no se ni quien soy
no se ni como hacer, me quedo sin palabras
(When I'm with you, I don't know who I am, I don't know what to do, I'm left without words).

But in the heart of the homophobic 1980s, the English translation made sure that boys could sing only to girls::
When I'm next to her, I'm a mess.
The words just don't come out right.

Or "Perdido Sin Ti" (Lost without You):

Perdido sin ti, perdido en el mar
Como un laberinto en la oscuridad
(Lost without you, lost in the sea, like a labyrinth in the darkness.)

The English lyrics aren't nearly as evocative, and give the "ti" a gender:

I'm losing control of myself this time, she's got me losing my head.

Both Ricky Martin and Angelo Garcia (left) are publicly gay, and many other current and former members are gay-friendly.

Nov 19, 2012

Ralph Macchio: Up the Academy

Born in 1961, the short, skinny Ralph Macchio had huge, remarkably soulful eyes that allowed him to feign childhood innocence well into the 1990s, when his fellow teen idols had long since grown into roles as beefcake heroes or disillusioned suburbanites.   He was hired while still in high school to provide a sarcastic voice to Up the Academy (1980) a teen nerd comedy about a Chachi clone named Chooch sent to the abusive Weinberg Military Academy, where he makes friends with three "inmates."  All of them displayed a heterosexual prowess so intense that it provoked anxiety in their fathers: muscular Oliver  (Hutch Parker) got his girlfriend pregnant and ruined his dad's political career; sex-crazed Ike (Wendell Brown) slept with his televangelist-father's girlfriend; and cleptomaniac Hash (Tommy Citera) slept with one of his Arab father's spare wives.

Though the boys take a weapons class in which teacher Miss Bliss (Barbara Bach) presses guns to her breasts, otherwise they are subject to constant adult attempts at “perversion.”  A lisping, mincing “cultural affairs” teacher named Sisson, e.g., Sissy (Tom Poston), accosts them in their dorm rooms, offers erotic tuck-ins, and, explaining that he’s collecting the laundry, drools “Why don’t you slip out of your little undershorts?”  They learn ballroom dance with male partners, but when a dance with real girls is held, an off-key acapella group called “The Landmines” drives everyone away.

The primary threat of “perversion” comes from macho teacher Vervegaert, who tells Hash that he will “rip his balls off” and then corners him in the lavatory in a parody of a male rape (“You want to be my friend, don’t you?”).  Vervegaert is unable to acquire girls on his own, so blackmails the boys into acquiring Oliver’s girlfriend for him. The boys get their revenge by photographing him in ladies’ lingerie and publishing the photos during the big game, thus labeling him a "fag" and forcing him to leave town in disgrace.

However, since the “fag” is exteriorized and far away, the boys are amazingly intimate with each other.  They spend most of the film naked.  Do military cadets really do their homework in their underwear, or sit together on their bunk with their legs pressed together?  Though they drool, groan, and kvetch over girls, their relationships with each other take obvious precedence. They go to great lengths to help their friends; Ike, in fact, gives up a date with Miss Bliss to help Oliver.

The teen magazines ignored his costars, but they loved Ralph Macchio, who was soon displaying his dreamy bod in pinups next to Scott Baio and Robby Benson.  Pulled in to provide additional cuteness to the last season of Eight is Enough, he became patriarch Dick Van Patten’s pet, even invited to appear with Dick and Timothy Van Patten in a nepotistic project called High Powder (1982).  But his big break came with a homoromantic buddy-bond with Matt Dillon in the classic Outsiders (1983), which led directly to the blockbuster Karate Kid (1984)

Nov 18, 2012

Time Bandits

When I came home for Christmas break in 1981, my brother told me, "Go see Time Bandits! If you like Monty Python, you'll love it.  Believe me!"  I liked Monty Python, and besides, he was right about Meatballs (1979) and Popeye (1980), so I went.

It was awful.

11-year old Kevin (Craig Warnock) lives in a dreadful British suburb with abusive parents -- they watch tv  (in the movies, watching tv is a sign of weakness of character, or in parents child abuse). So he escapes through books (which apparently are ok).  His favorite subject is history.  He has plastered his bedroom walls with pictures of Medieval knights and ancient Greek warriors.

Not to mention a cut-out of a muscular Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, in red-striped bikini briefs, placed right next to the light switch so Kevin can see him every time he turns the light on and off.

Neglected, misunderstood kid who reads a lot, and likes nude men.  So far, standard gay-vague.  All he needs is a boyfriend.

Enter the Time Bandits -- six dwarfs who used to work for the Supreme Being. They have stolen a map that shows the location of holes in space-time, which they are using to steal fabulous treasures from Napoleon, Robin Hood, and so on.  They kidnap Kevin and bring him along.

We're supposed to like the dwarfs, but they're manipulative, greedy, self-serving, reprehensible.  With no buddy-bonds.  I kept trying to find special pairs among them, but they acted as a solid mass of reprehensible egoism.

Kevin finally finds the place he belongs, ancient Greece, where King Agamemnon (Sean Connery) offers to adopt him. Not a boyfriend, but at least a hunky father figure, like Jai's Tarzan.  But the moment someone starts to care for him, the dwarfs arrive and spirit him away.

Wait -- what happened to the opening, where Kevin was carefully established as gay-vague?  Nothing comes of it.

But at least ancient Greece was sunlit.  Every other time period is drab, washed-out, depressing.

Not even any beefcake to liven things up.  Agamemnon never takes off his shirt.  Michael Palin is tied up in his underwear, briefly.

Finally -- after many, many people are cheerfully killed,  the Surpreme Being catches the dwarfs, chastises them, and sends Kevin back to modern-day Britain.  Is he better, wiser for the adventure?  Has he recognized his true self?  Does he at least click his ruby slippers together and say "There's no place like home?"

No.  Not at all. His parents explode, his house burns down, and he's left homeless and orphaned on the street, much worse than before. Roll the end credits.

Roll a shot of me and my date blinking as we leave the theater, silent until one of us says "We could have seen Taps. . .or Ghost Story...or Piranha 2."

Cue to us going back to my house and chasing my brother around the room.

Enter the Dragon

Bruce Lee had a small body of work -- The Green Hornet, a few other tv appearances, a handful of movies (only four released in the U.S., all after his death). Yet that -- and the force of his personality -- was enough to introduce martial arts cinema to the U.S. and to popularize Chinese martial arts as a real-life sport (and really, popularize all things Chinese -- the number of Asian Studies majors soared).  He also worked to change the stereotype of the Asian as soft and passive, a sidekick or an elderly sage.

During the late 1970s, nearly every heterosexual boy I knew had a crush on Bruce Lee.  They admired his quiet strength and dauntless courage, his toughness, his cool kung fu moves.

Gay boys found him a kindred spirit.

1. Although he was heterosexual in real life, Bruce was comfortable in gay circles. He got his first acting job in the U.S. through his friend Jay Sebring (gay), his first costar was the hunky Van Williams (rumored to be gay), and he became friends with John Saxon (rumored to be gay) and Sal Mineo (gay).

2. He was not a man-mountain, though he helped inspire the genre;  his body was slim, tight, and sculpted in marble, a work of art as well as a tool.  And he knew it.  He was on display constantly, semi-nude amid a throng of martial arts students in thick, heavy gis, shirtless amid fully-clothed peers.  At the beginning of Enter the Dragon, Lee (Bruce Lee) is competing with other students at his martial arts school.  He wears only a black fundoshi that bulges in the front and lays his backside nearly bare.  We are expected to feel not only admiration, but desire.

3. The martial arts movie is a male-only preserve.  A murdered girlfriend or defiled sister may provide a motive for vengeance, a prostitute or hench-woman may provide a distraction, but the story is about men caring, competing, cooperating with each other.

Enter the Dragon is nothing less than a romance between Lee and young playboy Roper (John Saxon).

Lee goes undercover to a martial arts competition to investigate allegations that the mysterious Han (Shih Kien) is using his island to manufacture and sell drugs. He has a "meet cute" moment with Roper on the boat en route to the island, when they're both betting on a praying mantis match.

Later, at dinner, Lee and Roper talk -- their eyes bulging with unstated attraction.  When Roper leaves, Lee keeps his eyes fixed on him, pointedly ignoring the attractive woman walking by at the same time.

Lee discovers that Han's organization is involved in human trafficking as well as opium production, so he rips his shirt off to go rescue the prisoners.  He is captured instead.  Han orders Roper to fight him, assuming that the seasoned martial artist will kill the less-experienced Lee.  But Roper refuses to fight.

Fine.  Han orders Lee to fight the man-mountain Bolo instead.  Roper places his hand flat on Lee's chest for a long moment and then offers to fight Bolo himself, a touching Damon-and-Pythias scene. (For some reason, Lee fails to mention that he doesn't need rescuing, he could easily annihilate a dozen man-mountains.  Maybe he wants to be the one rescued, for a change).

When Roper defeats Bolo, Han in a rage orders his entire martial arts army to kill them both.  A lengthy battle ensues -- while Roper and some of the human trafficking victims subdue the army, Lee chases Han into a hall of mirrors and finally kills him.  He returns to the battlefield, looks anxiously around the many fallen martial artists for Roper.  Roper, meanwhile, is anxiously scanning the fallen martial artists for Lee.  They see each other, smile weakly, and thumb-up as the movie ends.  I guess a hug would be too much to ask for.

See also: A Beefcake Tour of Eastern Europe (Mostar, Bosnia has erected a statue in Bruce's honor.)

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