Feb 20, 2013

12 Things I Love and Hate about Seinfeld

I had a love-hate relationship with Seinfeld (1989-1998), the sitcom about four friends having coffee and kvetching in a surreal, absurdist small-town Manhattan: comedian Jerry Seinfeld (playing himself); nebbish George Costanza (Jason Alexander); failed book editor Elaine Benes (Julia-Louise Dreyfus); and hipster doofus Kramer (Michael Richards).

I've seen every episode a dozen times.  I have huge portions memorized.  I recognize actors who appeared just once when they star in something else.  There are lots of things to love about it:

Grandmother's House: Gay Kid Saves The Day

Threatened gay-vague kids were surprisingly popular during the 1980s.  Lee H. Montgomery in Night Shadows, Harley Cross in The Believers, Jeb Adams in Flowers in the Attic, the kids of Clownhouse.   But no one was more threatened, or more gay-vague, than Eric Foster:

1. Death House (1987), aka Zombie Death House, directed by action star John Saxon: the inmates at a federal prison go zombie, break out, and terrorize Luke Hagen (Eric).

2. Cry Wilderness (1987): a Bigfoot kidnaps Paul Cooper (Eric), but turns out to be nice.  He's really terrorized by an escaped tiger.

3. Dark Room (1988): Abused Perry (Eric) grows up to be a psycho-killer (played by Aarin Teich).

4. Grandmother's House (1989).  After their Dad dies, David (Eric) and his older brother Lynn (Kim Valentine) must live with their grandparents.  Grandpa is played with threatening intensity by Len Lesser, Uncle Leo on Seinfeld, left.  Grandma is played by Ida Lee.

During the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic, even relatives had hidden secrets and malicious motives, and David soon realizes that something is wrong.  Bodies are found in the neighborhood.

By this point, Eric was fourteen or fifteen, with feminine mannerisms that marked him as gay, especially when David hangs out at a public pool, grooving on the teenage boys.  He buddy-bonds with a teenage hunk named Raymond.

They see Grandpa carrying a body into the basement.  They catch glimpses of a lady with a butcher knife and a crazy smile.  David calls the police, but no one believes him.  Then the lady traps them in the house.

Guess what?  It's not Grandma.

Let's review: nuclear families are evil and threatening.  But the gay-vague kid saves the day.

 Eric was having a pubescent growth spurt, so in some scenes the actor is an inch taller and his voice has deepened.

Apparently four movies were enough.  After a few episodes as a high school kid on The Wonder Years, he retired from show business.

Feb 19, 2013

Sam Jones as Flesh/Flash Gordon

During the early 1980s, movie producers were just beginning to realize that man-mountains like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Swarzenegger sold tickets, but they didn't know exactly why.  Maybe women were having romantic fantasies about them?  So they hired a cadre of musclemen to play iconic heroes who eventually save the day, but mostly stand around getting looked at by a woman.

Christopher Reeves as Superman. 
Miles O'Keeffee as Tarzan.

And Sam J. Jones in a rather peculiar choice,  Flash Gordon.  

In the 1930s comic strip, Flash Gordon was an American polo player who crash-landed on the planet Mongo, along with his love interest Dale Arden and the know-it-all scientist Dr. Zarkov.  They explore the planet, solving the problems of many local potentates, while trying to keep the main bad guy, Emperor Ming the Merciless, from conquering or destroying the universe. It was still running in the 1980s, but only in a few newspapers, and the radio series, comic books, Big-Little books, and cereal premiums were long forgotten.

The 1980 film version was jokingly called Flesh Gordon (coincidentally, there really was an X-rated Flesh Gordon in 1974).  The star, Sam J. Jones, had posed nude for Playgirl, so his penis was nearly as familiar to audiences as his biceps.  Playgirl reran his pictures, retro-dying his hair blond to look more like Flash.

The movie was played for naughtiness and camp, sort of like Buck Rogers on tv, so the beefcake was nonstop.

And everyone Flash encounters, without exception, wants to tie him up, rip his shirt off, and have sex with him: Dale Arden, Princess Aura, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed),  even Ming himself (Max Von Sydow).

The gay subtexts completely overwhelm the hetero romance, and Flash doesn't fall in love with anyone (Barin and Aura provide the fade-out kiss.)

Gay audiences were astounded.  Heterosexuals, not so much.  The film wasn't a big box office success in the U.S., maybe because no one knew who Flash Gordon was, but it became a cult classic, propelling Sam Jones into a career as an action hero:

Code Red (1981-82): a family of firefighters.
Jungle Heat (1985): a man-mountain saving people in Vietnam
The Spirit (1987): the comic book hero of the 1940s.
The Highwayman (1987-88): a trucker solves crimes.
Jane and the Lost City (1987): Indiana Jones meets Tarzan
L.A. Takedown (1989): things explode
75 movies and tv series to date.

And when he's tired of jumping out of burning cop cars and having women comment on the size of his...um, gun, Sam and his wife Ramona run a side business in hostage negotiation.

Feb 17, 2013

Blue Velvet: Slow, Depressing, Homophobic

Blue Velvet (1986) was the first "mainstream" success of surrealist director David Lynch, whose sci-fi epic Dune flopped two years before.  It borrows its title from a slow, depressing song from the 1950s that apparently Lynch liked.

She wore blu....u....e. . . .vel....vet

The plot is convoluted, the story sordid and unpleasant.  College student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a severed ear crawling with bugs in a field near his small town of Lumberton.  Investigation leads him to the Slow Club (naturally), where a dazed, depressed singer named Dorothy (Isabella Rossilini) performs "Blue Velvet" while sobbing quietly.

Becoming obsessed, Jeffrey hides in her closet and spies on her, but unfortunately she is already spoken for.  She is the sex slave of the violent psychopath Frank Booth (Davis Hopper), who likes to get high on noxious fumes, chew on blue velvet, and beat her up.  Frank, in turn, is the sex slave of flamboyantly feminine Ben (Dean Stockwell), who likes to lip-synch the slow, depressing Roy Orbison song "In Dreams" to get him hopped up.

In dre...ams....I walk....with....you...u....u

Oh, plot point: to keep everyone in line, Ben is holding Dorothy's husband and son hostage (the ear belongs to one of them).

Eventually all of the baddies get shot through the head (Lynch has a thing for massive head trauma), Dorothy and her son leave town, and Jeffrey settles down to a nice "normal" relationship with girl-next-door Sandy (Laura Dern).  Pleased that the natural order of things has been restored, two robins appear, and eat some bugs (see, love triumphs over evil!).

I hated this movie.  I wanted to take a shower afterwards.  But there were three things for gay people to like, in spite of the incessant homophobia (which, to be fair, you have to expect in David Lynch's movies.  He's never tried to hide his hatred of gay people.)

1. If you can overlook the many, many shots of Dorothy nude and abused, you can find some some beefcake.  Kyle MacLachlan had an adequately muscular physique, and in one scene there's frontal nudity.

2. David Lynch hates sexually active heterosexuals as much as gay people.  Their acts come off looking incredibly vile.  Heteros have sex because they have guns pointed at them or because they're suffering from weird fixations, while all the time they're struggling desperately not to.  There's no such thing as  a positive sexual experience, gay or not.

3. In the 1980s, the Moral Majority, Ronald Reagan, and The Waltons had us believe that big cities were cesspools of dcadence, small towns havens of "family values."  Guess what -- even Lumberton has a seedy underbelly.  A nice movie to show your various relatives who bemoan the social decay of your West Hollywood home.

See also: Twin Peaks: the owls are not what they seem.

Alan E. Nourse: The Universe Between

In the September 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Alan E. Nourse published “The Universe Between,” about a parallel dimension so unimaginable that anyone “crossing over” goes crazy, except for seventeen-year old Robert Benedict.  He began crossing over shortly after his birth, and he always emerges unscathed, though he can’t explain anything he experiences on the other side.

When the inhabitants of the parallel dimension suddenly begin slicing off large pieces of the Earth, like the lower third of Manhattan, only Robert can try to communicate with them and figure out what’s going on.  But crossing over is becoming increasingly unpredictable, disturbing, and dangerous; he returns screaming.

The gruff elder scientist in charge of the project treats Robert as a laboratory animal, ignoring his needs and safety, but assistant Dr. Merry takes a personal interest in him.  Not much older than Robert himself  – usually called “Hank,” and first introduced oversleeping and missing his college math class – the young engineer seems quite taken with the handsome teenager.  They smile at each other, joke, and enjoy a physical intimacy, with many touches of arm or shoulder.  When a crossover goes wrong, Hank rushes to Robert’s side much faster than his parents:

[Robert] stood shivering, literally blue with cold, gasping for air and looking so ill and exhausted that [his mother] stifled a cry and Hank leaped across to catch his arm before he fell. “Robert!  What happened?  What did they do to you?”  The boy shook his head numbly as Hank eased him to the floor and loosened his jacket. “Easy, fella,” Hank said softly.  “Just get your breath and rest a minute.”

So far this is a classic gay romance, requiring only a coda that shows the permanence of Robert and Hank’s relationship.  But when Nourse revised several of the parallel dimension stories into a novel, The Universe Between (1965), he added another sort of coda: many years later, Robert and Hank are business partners, transporting people across the galaxy via interdimensional shortcuts (it is perfectly safe as long as they wear blindfolds to avoid going crazy).

And the reader finally discovers, in a last-paragraph “tomato surprise,” that the parallel dimension is really our own world; Robert is the one who lives in a parallel world, where America never broke away from Britain, there were no Presidents Lincoln or Kennedy, and democracy was never invented, nor capitalism, nor freedom  On one of his crossing-over expeditions, Robert falls in love with someone from our democratic, capitalist, free United States, a girl named Sharnan, “beautiful, with violet eyes.”

He decides to cross over permanently to be with her.  He tells Hank “I’ll be in touch,” but no doubt he means that he will send an occasional postcard.  Hank has no place on the other side; only Robert has the capacity to look at the intertwining of democracy and heterosexual destiny without a blindfold. So he must reject his  buddy for the girl: “Sharnan was waiting for him there.  As he had known she would be.”

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