Feb 1, 2013

The Great Elephant Escape

In The Great Elephant Escape (1995), bratty fourteen-year old Matt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes on safari in Kenya, where he begins a sniping, argumentative relationship with Jomo (Frederick Tocumboh M’Cormac). When a baby elephant named Ellie “falls in love at first sight” with Matt, Jomo feels slighted:

Matt: Don’t be jealous, dude. Girls love me.

Jomo: I’m not so sure how I feel about you.

Matt codes his bond with the elephant in romantic terms in order to present himself as aggressively heterosexual (“girls love me”), but Jomo’s response suggests a homoerotic dynamic at work: he is saying, in effect, “Girls may love you, but I’m not sure if I am in love with you or not.” He thus codes his relationship with Matt in romantic terms, a tactic repeated several times during the movie: when they argue and Ellie becomes upset, for instance, he says “we shouldn’t fight in front of the child,” presenting himself and Matt as parents.

The three head out for the bush when a boorish, sadistic Texas businessman buys Ellie, but they had good reason to leave anyway: Matt is upset at his divorced Mom for smooching up the hunky tour guide, and Jomo’s father is constantly berating him for being unmanly. In search of an elephant herd to adopt Ellie, they have predictably picaresque adventures, with lions, hyenas, spear-carrying Maasai (who are actually quite friendly), a jailbreak, an exploding car, and an elephant knocking over tables at a ritzy outdoor restaurant. Jomo consistently codes their relationship as romantic (and volatile): during an argument, he shouts “I never want to see you again!”, the sort of thing one says to a boyfriend, not to a buddy, and he makes the supreme sacrifice, selling the necklace passed down from his ancestors so Matt won’t have to part with his expensive American watch.

But Matt won’t accept the gay subtext: he allows no touching except during arguments, no hugging, not even when they ride the elephant together. When a tiger threatens Terry and Raji in Maya, they hold hands, but when a lion threatens Matt and Jomo, they run off in different directions. At the end of the movie, after Ellie has been adopted by an elephant herd, Matt gives Jomo a harmonica, rather a lackluster sort of offering, and then asks his mother if they can return to Africa next year to visit Ellie. His relationship with Jomo was obviously tepid and expendable. The final shot shows Mom, hunky tour guide, and Matt all hugging, with Jomo (left, recent photo) nowhere in sight.

Degrassi Junior High

During its early years, Nickelodeon aired several Canadian programs, such as You Can't Do That on Television and Rin Tin Tin: Canine Cop.  Degrassi Junior High (1987-89) was a teen angst drama set in an urban high school on De Grassi Street in Toronto. After three seasons, it became Degrassi High (1989-91), and then, after a 10-year hiatus, Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2009) The teens have more problems than any daytime soap opera: alcoholism, drugs, child abuse, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy, sexual harassment, stalking, HIV, suicide, disease, death, plus the usual dating triangles. Not quite as scandalous as Beverly Hills 90210, but for the children and teenagers used to squeaky-clean teencoms like My Secret Identity and Out of this World, it was a revelation.

Gay people appeared twice in the original series, but not among the teenagers: a teacher is rumored to be a lesbian, and one of their older brothers announces that he is gay.  Both episodes received howls of outrage from homophobic watchdog groups, and were not aired in the U.S. until later.

There was a huge cast of characters, including a number of hunks for the straight girls and gay boys to swoon over, often with underwear or swimsuit shots.  The casual nudity was quite risque by American standards.

The main focus of the original series was on Joey Jeremiah (Pat Mastroianni), a quick-witted, impertinent slacker who always wore a signature fedora (usually on his head).  In Next Generation, he returned as a used car salesman and mentor to the new generation of kids with problems (including Ryan Cooley, Jake Epstein, and Daniel Clark).

Joey had two close friends, Snake (Stefan Brogren) and Wheels (Neil Hope, left), but his strongest bond was with Wheels.  Though each dated and had relationships with girls, as they helped each other through various crises, broke up and reconciled, got jealous over each others' outside friendships, they came arguably close to the passion and heat of a homoromance.  

Jan 30, 2013

Gomer Pyle: Out at Age 82

Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964-1969) was one of CBS's popular "hayseed comedies," getting laughs from the foibles of colorfully backward hicks (others included The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and The Andy Griffith Show).  In this case, gawky stringbean Gomer (Jim Nabors) cut his teeth as a small-town gas station attendant on Andy Griffith, then joined the marines, where his ineptness drew the wrath of gruff bulldog Sergeant Carter (Frank Sutton).

Or did it?

Gomer "takes to" Sgt. Carter immediately, following him around with a puppy-dog grin, doing everything he can to make the Sgt. hug -- um, I mean manhandle -- him. In one episode he even sends Sgt. Carter anonymous love letters.

Sgt. Carter takes longer to warm up to Gomer, but by the second season, they are comrades in arms rather than antagonists.  Both date girls, of course, and get steady girlfriends by the end of the series -- but only as fodder for plot complications.  The two are partners -- permanent, exclusive, emotionally intimate.

After the series ended, Frank Sutton and Jim Nabors remained close friends.

Before Gomer, Frank Sutton had a number of other roles in movies and on tv, includig Tom Corbett Space Cadet, The Satan Bug, and Marty.  Afterwards, he did mostly live theater, including the homophobic comedy Norman, Is That You?, before he died of a heart attack in 1974.  He never married.

Jim Nabors moved to Hawaii and became famous as a singer.  He met his partner, Stan Cadwallader, in 1975, and finally married him in 2012.  For 40 years he was quick to yell "slander" at anyone who implied that he might be gay.  When a rumor made the rounds that he had married Rock Hudson, he was careful to never come within a thousand miles of the movie star again.

So let's sum up:  for at least 38 years, he knew that he was gay, yet he screamed "I'm straight!" over and over, and threatened to sue anyone who implied that he might be gay.

He kept on insisting that being gay was something shameful through the Moral Majority, AIDS, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Proposition 8, It Gets Better...

Then, at the end of his life, he says "Oh, I was gay all along."

I can't think of any response to that.  It's just unimaginable.

Jan 27, 2013

The Coral Island: Three Boys in Paradise

William Golding may have gotten the inspiration for his Lord of the Flies from The Coral Island, an 1858 novel by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne.  But while Flies has a depressing view of the beast emerging once the veneer of civilization is lost, Coral Island is all about bringing civilization -- by which Ballantyne means the British Empire -- to the wilderness.

Three boys are shipwrecked on the desert island: 15-year old Ralph Rover, 18-year old Jack Martin, and 14-year old Peterkin Gay.  They cheerfully construct an idyllic island paradise like that in Swiss Family Robinson, hunting, fishing, sunbathing, and even inventing the sport of surfing.  The only problem is the island next door, inhabited by savage cannibals who sacrifice children to their eel god, but after the British boys trounce them in a battle, they keep to themselves.

After many months, pirates arrive, and capture Ralph.  He befriends one, Bloody Bill, and helps him fight the natives.  Eventually Bill is killed (after converting to Christianity) and Ralph returns to his friends.

After few more adventures, the natives all convert to Christianity, and the boys head for home.

In spite of the moralizing and racism, the book is a perennial favorite,still showing up under Christmas trees across the former British Empire.

The gay content is obvious:

1. The boys are described in adventure story terms as stunningly handsome and supernaturally muscular.  They are frequently nude.

2. No girls allowed.

3. Lots of nick-of-time rescues, falling into each others' arms, holding each other.

4. Jack and Peterkin form one homoromantic couple, and Ralph and Bloody Bill another.

It has been adapted for television twice.

1.  A 1983 British-Australian miniseries starring Danny Adcock, Richard Gibson (top photo) and Nicholas Bond-Owen (second photo).

2. A 2000 British miniseries starring Adam Deacon, William Mannering, and Ashley Walters (left, later photo).

A Real Heterosexual Boy: Pinocchio

Hardly anyone outside of Italy reads the Carlo Collodi novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883).  If you do, prepare for a shock; it is nothing like the 1940 Disney movie.

The Disney version was about Gepetto, who wants a son but not a wife so the Blue Fairy brings his wooden puppet to life.  Pinocchio (Dick Jones, who would later become a tv star on Range Rider and Buffalo Bill Jr.) longs to be a real boy, which means obeying your parents, going to school, and conforming to 1940s society.  Of course, he fails.  He is lured to "Pleasure Island," an all-boy paradise where boys can smoke, gamble, get into fights, and stay up late, ultimately turning into donkeys.  His salvation comes when he sacrifices his life to save his father.  He is resurrected as a real boy (insert Christ metaphor here).

The gay content:
1. A son created without a wife, a single-father family.
2. An oddball outsider longs to fit in, to become a "real boy."

Later versions have often noticed -- and tried to "fix" -- the gay content, often with disastrous results.

1. The 1968 musical version starred rocker Peter Noone (right) as Pinocchio and Burl Ives as Gepetto.  It minimized the woodenness to emphasize the alternate family.

2. In 1996, Jonathan Taylor Thomas became a rather disturbing version of the wooden boy, in a film dedicated to a realistic portrayal!  What would a boy made of wood look like, act like, negotiate everyday life?

3. In a heterosexist 2000 version, comedian Drew Carey became a middle-aged Gepetto, with Seth Adkins as the wooden boy and Julia-Louis Dreyfuss as the Blue Fairy/girlfriend/surrogate mother.

4. In 2002, Roberto Begnini became a rather old version of the wooden boy.  This time he's the one who gets the Blue Fairy girlfriend.

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