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 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).

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