Feb 21, 2014

Michael Strogoff: Jules Verne's Gay Couple

Jules Verne is most famous today for his science fiction novels, like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island, but during his lifetime his biggest fame came for a romance, Michel Strogoff, or Michael Strogoff: Courier for the Czar (1876).  

It was translated into a dozen languages, and there are film versions in English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Turkish. The 1970 French-Italian version starred counterculture beefcake icon John Phillip Law (the nude angel in Barbarella), and the 1975 German version rugged bear Raimund Harmstorf (left).

The plot sounds unrelentingly heterosexist:  In "contemporary" Russia, Tartar rebels have taken control of Siberia, and the governor, brother of Tsar Alexander II, is trapped in the besieged city of Irkutsk.  Michael Strogoff is assigned the task of traveling across enemy-occupied territory to warn him of a plot to blow up Irkutsk.

On the way he meets and falls in love with Nadia, who is traveling to meet her exiled father.  They are captured by the Tartars, who decree that Michael be blinded (in a shirtless scene that appears on almost every book cover and movie poster).

But the blinding doesn't work, and Michael and Nadia escape and continue on to Irkutsk to save the day.  Then they are married. The end.

But there is also a gay-subtext couple, French and English reporters Alcide Jolivet and Harry Blount (played by Donatello Castallaneta and Christian Marin in the 1970 version), who accompany Michael on his journey.

They meet as jealous rivals for the same "scoop," but then they must work together.  They help Michael fight off a giant bear.  Harry is shot, and Alcide tends to him.  They are captured by the Tartars, and escape together.

At the end of the novel, they attend Michael and Nadia's wedding, with an exchange that sounds very much like a marriage proposal:

"And doesn't it make you wish to imitate them?" asked Alcide of his friend.

"Pooh!" said Blount. "Now if I had a cousin like you—"

"My cousin isn't to be married!" answered Alcide, laughing.

"So much the better," returned Blount, "for they speak of difficulties arising between London and Pekin. Have you no wish to go and see what is going on there?"

"By Jove, my dear Blount!" exclaimed Alcide Jolivet, "I was just going to make the same proposal to you."

And that was how the two inseparables set off for China.

Kaspar Hauser: Too Beautiful for the Heterosexual World

As you know from the story of My Date with Richard Dreyfuss, I have always been fascinated by the paranormal, especially mysterious disappearances and appearances, like the puzzling case of Kaspar Hauser.

A handsome, "well-knit" young man appeared wandering the streets of Nuremberg on May 26, 1828.  He spoke only a few words of German, and was unfamiliar with many everyday objects.  Gradually, over many weeks, he told a story of growing up in a dark cell so small that he couldn't stand up all in it.  He saw no other people, but food and water appeared by his bedside every morning.

Kaspar became an international celebrity.  He made a strong impression on everyone who saw him, and several men vied to become his guardian with an urgency that suggest homoerotic attraction.

Finally the British nobleman Lord Stanhope fell in love -- um, er, I mean "took an interest" in the teenager, moved him to Ansbach, and promised to take him back to England.  But before he got the opportunity, on December 14, 1833, Kaspar was stabbed by an unknown assailant.  He died three days later.

Who was Kaspar Hauser?  A prince held captive so he could not inherit the thrown?  A charming con artist who made the whole story up?

Science fiction writers have speculated that he was an alien, a time traveler, and a genetic experiment.

Writers such as Herman Melville and Hans Christian Anderson have made him into a gay symbol, the man who is too beautiful to live long in the tawdry heterosexual world.

The most significant film version, by gay director Werner Herzog, is The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle, 1974).  It does not shy away from the gay symbolism.  Bruno Schleinstein played Kaspar, and Walter Landengast played his main mentor, Professor Daumer.

A 1993 version, directed by Peter Sehr, stars Andrei Eisermann (top photo) as Kaspar and Udo Samel as Professor Daumer.

The town of Ansbach, about two hours from Munich by car, has erected two statues of Kaspar Hauser, one as he originally appeared, and the other as the "refined young man" he became.  There are also a number of artifacts from the case and other  memorabilia in the Markgrafenmuseum (on Kaspar Hauser Platz).

Feb 20, 2014

Sasha Jenson: The Bulge of 1980s Teen Horror

You probably remember Sasha Jenson as Don Dawson in Dazed and Confused (1993), one of the high schoolers who spends graduation night in 1976 carousing and buddy-bonding. Don is the most physically effusive of the lot, although he disapproves of "faggots," like everyone in 1990s movies.

But I remember him most from Ghoulies 2 (1988), for an iconic scene in which the mischievous monsters invade a Halloween haunted house and attach two teens to torture devices, Jon Maynard Pennell to a guillotine and Sasha Jenson to a pendulum. Everyone thinks they're part of the act as the blades slowly fall.

We get a nice shot of Sasha's chest, belly, and exceptional bulge as he struggles and is saved at the last moment.

Born in 1964, the hunky Sasha Jenson is primarily a stuntman, but he's done his share of acting, notable for displaying the biggest bulge in teen horror.

He played Brady, one of the first teens snuffed by Michael Myers in Halloween 4 (1988).

And Martin, a bully who gets snuffed by monstered-out teen Rodney Eastman in Deadly Weapon (1989).

And Chuck, a college boy talked into murder by A Girl to Kill For (1990).

In 2003, he starred in the buddy-bonding sports drama Grind, thanks to the largesse of his good friend Jason London.  And in 2010, the heist drama The Grind.  Sort of a strange coincidence.

Since Mr. London is not known as a gay ally, I'm going to guess that Sasha isn't either.  But he certainly provided his share of eye candy in the 1980s.

Thomas Gibson: Gay-Free since 1998

We often see actors taking gay roles when they're young and struggling.  Then when they become famous, the gay roles fade into oblivion as they concentrate on "real" heterosexual characters.

You may know Thomas Gibson as grim, non-nonsense FBI agent Aaron Hotchner on Criminal Minds (2005-2014), or as the uptight yuppie dating a free spirit hippie on Dharma and Greg (1997-2002).

I don't.  I've never seen a single episode of either of those programs.

But I remember when he was playing gay characters.

Love & Human Remains (1993): gay waiter David (Gibson) and his roommate-ex girlfriend Candy look for love amid a serial killer's rampage.  It's a comedy.

Tales of the City (1993): Scheming San Francisco bisexual Beauchamp Day (Gibson) seduces everybody in sight.  He reprises the role in More Tales of the City (1998).

Psycho Beach Party (2000): a send-up of the 1960s beach movies. Gibson plays the popular but seedy surf honcho Kanaka.

He plays a surprising number of scheming, popular but seedy yuppie types.  Unfortunately, exclusively heterosexual ones during the last 13 years.  But at least he still displays a nice physique.

Jewel in the Crown: Gay British Officer in Love/Hate with India

When I was in grad school in Bloomington, Indiana, I watched the tv miniseries The Jewel in the Crown (1984), only because my roommate Viju had invited me to India next summer, so I was boning up on all things Indian.

It wasn't good.

The plot: in the last days of the British Raj, Indian Hari (Art Malik) is dating the British Daphne.  One night Daphne is raped, and Hari is arrested.  He goes to prison, where Daphne's ex-boyfriend, Ronald Merrick (Tim Piggott-Smith) whips and gropes him.

Gropes him?

In the ultimate humiliation, Hari tells us, Merrick put his hand "between my legs" and asked "if I was enjoying it."

Then Hari vanishes from the movie -- I guess he's released -- and Merrick is rejected by Sarah, who prefers Guy Perron (Charles Dance).  Then he rather likes a British guy named Teddy, who is killed, so he marries Teddy's widow, who happens to to be Sarah's sister.   He tortures and gropes some more prisoners, and finally Guy exposes him.

Rather homophobic all around -- the evil gay guy forcing himself on the noble heterosexual Indians.  A metaphor, of course, for the colonial occupation of India.

At least the interrogation scenes have some nice shirtless and nude shots.

Art Malik (below), who bulked up a bit after Jewel, has had a long career in Indian and American productions, including some gay or gay-friendly roles. Tim Piggott-Smith (Merrick) has also played gay roles, most notably Marco, part of the only gay couple on the 1970s Doctor Who tv series.  

The original 1966 novel makes Merrick's gayness more explicit.  His unconscious attraction to Hari fuels his hatred, and leads to his downfall.

Author Paul Scott was gay or bisexual (accounts differ) and spent his early years in India.

Many gay Europeans found colonial India "a good place," where same-sex romances were open and free.  Their experiences led to a whole genre of the European-Indian boyfriends, from Jonny-Hadji to Alix and Enak.

Feb 19, 2014

Kojak: Who Loves Ya?

The 1970s was the era of the quirky detectives: cowboys, rabbis, obese gourmands, rumpled nebbishes, nogoodnicks, representatives of various ethnicities.  All they had in common was a big-city beat, a penchant for solving murders, and an easily-riled, by-the-books commanding officer.

They never interested me much, so I never saw a single episode of Kojak (1973-78).  But you could hardly miss the image of Telly Savalas, the bald, hirsute bear, with his trademark Tootsie Roll pop and gravely "Who loves ya, baby?"

He worked out of New York, he was of Greek ancestry, and he had no sidekick, although he sometimes worked with young plainclothes cop Bobby Crocker (Kevin Dobson), or Fatso Stavros (George Savalas).

In 1976, gay activists were riled by an episode in which a foreign diplomat is accused of molesting young boys.  They wanted Kojak -- or someone -- to make it clear that most pedophiles are heterosexual.  The episode aired unchanged.

Who loves ya, Baby?  Not Kojak

Telly Savalas appeared in over 100 movies and tv shows, playing a lot of psycho types and villains, such as Pontius Pilate in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Archer Maggott in The Dirty Dozen (1967).  

Not a lot of gay content, but I wonder about Beyond Reason (1977), which he wrote, directed, and stars in.  A psychiatrist (Savalas), distraught over losing a male patient , Howie (Jason Ronard), to suicide, becomes unhinged and starts an affair with a woman.  The photo on the IMBD shows him gently stroking the man's chin.

He was politically conservative and a devout member of the Greek Orthodox Church, so I'm guessing not a gay ally.

Feb 18, 2014

The Quest for the Bushman Penis

When I was in junior high in the 1970s, I read Lost World of the Kalahari, by Laurent Van Der Post, about the Bushmen or San.  Today it seems rather simplistic and colonialist, full of "noble savage" myths, but to a 15-year old in the Midwest, it was fascinating:

1. The Bushmen lived in the arid Kalahari desert, the most inhospitable place on Earth
2. Their culture hadn't changed in 40,000 years
3. They drew rock paintings similar to those of our cave man ancestors.
4. Their language used a distinctive pattern of clicks.
5. They were a distinctive race, yellow-skinned, wrinkled, with steatopygia (I had to look it up: large buttocks).

6. And, most intriguingly, the men "were born, lived, and died" in a semi-aroused state.   They were proud of their difference from other men, and called themselves Qhwai-xkhwe ("always standing") to openly proclaim it.

I had to see that!

The book had no illustrations, so one day I went to the Rock Island Public Library and checked out The Harmless People and Hunters of the Desert Land.  Nothing.

I didn't think about it again until college, where our library offered an Interlibrary Loan service.  So I requested The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa, Pygmies and Bushmen of the Kalahari, The Bushmen, and Namibia Old and New.  Nothing, although Bushmen rock art regularly depicts men in a state of arousal.

In college I saw The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980), about a Bushman who finds a discarded Coke bottle, the only relic of Western civilization he's ever seen, and tries to return it "to the gods."  He concludes that the "gods" are crazy.  Some nice physiques, but even if you look carefully, you can't see anything.

In West Hollywood, I saw A Far Off Place (1993), about two Western kids forced to flee across the Kalahari with the assistance of a helpful Bushman boy.  Nothing.

I didn't think about it again until I visited Durban, South Africa  in 2000.  There weren't any Khoisan or San speakers at the conference, that I know of.  There was a tourist attraction called the Bushman Caves, in the Drakensburg Mountains on the border with Lesotho, but no "real" Bushmen.

Then, the night after my regrettable experience with the Hottest Man in the World, I went back to the Lounge (it was the only gay bar in town).  This time there was a more working-class crowd.  And I saw a Bushman -- proper term, "San" or "Khoisan."  At least I think he was -- short, yellow-skinned, kind of wrinkled and wizened-looking.

Should I go up, introduce myself, and grab?  Follow him into the bathroom?  Hope that he went to the dark room?

I decided to introduce myself.

"Hi, my name is Boomer," I said.  "I'm from Montreal.  I used to work in porn films."

"Jerry." (Probably not his real name.)  He reached out to shake my hand, and kept on holding it.

He didn't speak English very well, but I got that he was Khoisan, he lived in Port Elizabeth, about 10 hours away by bus, and he was here for the conference.  AIDS was increasing rapidly among his people, due to a lack of awareness about safe-sex practices, and a refusal to believe that same-sex behavior existed.

Of course, it did.  It was everywhere.

He hadn't stopped holding my hand!  And now he was running his other hand against my thigh. 

Time to check.   On the small side, at least by African standards, but definitely aroused.

Wait!  Was he always aroused, or just aroused because he was interested in me?

By that point, I didn't care anymore.

See also: 10 Ethnic Groups on my Bucket List; and The Truth about the Formosan Penis.

Grant Wood: More Than Pitchforks and Cornfields

When I was growing up in Rock Island, we had a lot of local celebrities.  Grant Wood wasn't one of them, even though he was the most famous American artist before Andy Warhol, and he was local, from Anamosa, Iowa, just north of the Quad Cities. He spent his life in the area, overseeing Stone City Art Colony nearby, and teaching at the University of Iowa, about 45 minutes away.

We ignored Grant Wood because of American Gothic, the second most famous painting of all time, and the most parodied.

It gave the Midwest a bad name.  The goggle-eyed farmer with pitchfork looks like he's about to go storming off to protest civil rights, or gay rights, or violence in comic books.  The weepy woman, her beauty faded by the boredom and isolation of farm life, dreams of escape.

Even today, if I admit to being from the Midwest (I usually don't), I get "How awful it must have been for you!  Nothing to do but watch the corn grow and fight all those redneck bigots!"
Um...no.  We had more to do than watch the corn grow: we had symphonies, live musicals, operas, ballets, art galleries, and museums. And about those bigots:  Iowa had the first class in Gay Studies in the world, and was one of the first states to get gay marriage.

So I didn't know much about Grant Wood until I started investigating John Bloom, who sculpted the statue of a naked man that I got for Christmas in junior high.

In 1926, the aspiring artist won a prize for an oil painting, "The Burial," at the Iowa State Fair.  The judge, celebrity painter Grant Wood, invited him to join his new Stone City Art Colony.  For the next two years, they lived together, in a converted ice wagon (rather a small space!). Together they worked on murals for libraries and post offices all over the state.

In 1934, when Grant went to the University of Iowa, he took John with him.

In 1935, Grant married Sara Sherman Maxon (the marriage ended in divorce three years later).  John moved to Davenport, where he married Isabel Bloom in 1938.

Sounded a lot like a spurned lover.

Sure enough.  A new biography, Grant Wood: A Life, by R. Tripp Evans, reveals that Grant was gay.  When he got to the University of Iowa, some faculty members in the Art Department suspected, and they already looked down upon Grant for rejecting the status quo of European Impressionism -- ergo his screen marriage and giving John Bloom the boot.

After his divorce in 1938, Grant had a series of handsome male "roommates."  This riled the homophobic faculty so much that, superstar or not, they wanted him out.  They waited the fall of 1941, when he was on sabbatical, and invited a writer from Time magazine to investigate "sexual improprieties."  The University President managed to put a kibosh on the story and quickly moved Wood into a new division.  However, he didn't get a chance to return to the faculty that loathed him.  He died of pancreatic cancer in February 1942.

But if you look carefully at his work, you can see the glimmers of homoerotic desire.

And even that stupid American Gothic isn't heterosexist.  Everybody thinks the woman is the farmer's wife, but she's his daughter.

Feb 17, 2014

I Didn't Do It: Disney Channel Teencom with Underwear Models

I'm mad at the Disney Channel.  They bragged for months, "We're going to have gay characters on our teencoms!  Aren't we just too, too progressive?"  The gay characters appeared on a single episode Good Luck, Charlie: Bob and Amy have each met "the wife" of their toddler's preschool friend, but disagree about her name.  Then the couple arrive to drop their son off for a play date.

Surprise: two women!  Bob is shocked, Amy is nonchalant, the teen characters aren't around, the end

And it was just before the series ended, so no problem with any ratings catastrophe.

Wimpy move, Disney!

The new teencom I Didn't Do It (2014-) is even more wimpy.  It's about five teenage friends centered on the twins Lindy and Logan.  Each episode begins with the aftermath of a catastrophe, and the twins' differing Rashomon-like account of what happened.

The two boys each have different gay codings.  Logan (Austin North, left) is flamboyant and feminine, and Garrett (Peyton Clark) is neat, fussy, and well-groomed, a teenage Felix Unger from The Odd Couple.  Since they're paired, there's some gay subtext potential (I haven't seen any yet).

But they're not only absurdly hetero-horny, they're "guys," gender-polarized to the nth degree. Sometimes they are forced nto feminine activities like mani-pedis, but they are truly comfortable only in the world of dirt bikes, tag-team wrestling, twelve-inch hoagies, and grunting.

Not a lot of gay connection in the pair's other activities. They don't have many prior screen credits.  Austin North appears to be a Christian fundamentalist.

Not a lot of beefcake, either. No shirtless shots of either one. But fortunately, Disney has made up for it by filling minor roles and guest spots with hunky models like Robert Scott Wilson (top) and Chad Buchanan (left).

Feb 16, 2014

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

I like the music of ABBA as much as the next child of the 1970s.  Though I like them a little less now that I have discovered that they're not four drag queens, but two "very heterosexual" couples who were shocked to discover that songs like "Dancing Queen" and "Gimme (A Man After Midnight)" resonated with gay people.

But Mamma Mia (2008), the movie based on the musical based on ABBA music, is another story.

The songs are good, and the Greek Island settings are colorful, but the plot!

Expat American Donna runs a failing hotel.  Her daughter Sophie is getting married to web designer Sky (Jordan Dean on Broadway), and in honor of the occasion, she wants to meet her biological father.  Donna was something of a free spirit 20 years ago, so there are three possibilities:

1. Sam, a dashing Irish-American architect.
2. Harry, an English banker.
3. Bill, a Swedish sailor and writer.

Sophie invites all three, without mentioning it to Donna, who is horrified by the idea.

Meanwhile Donna's two friends from her partying days show up:
1. Unlucky in love Julie
2. Multiple divorcee Tanya

And Sophie's friends, and Sky's friends, until it gets really, really crowded in that hotel.  After misunderstandings, exasperating conversations, break-ups, reconciliations, and lots of ruminating over "Should I take a chance?" and "Am I ready to love again?", everyone hooks up.   Donna-Sam, Bill-Julie, Tanya with a teenager she met on the beach, and Harry with the only gay guy on the island.

That's right, there's a gay character, and a very, very minor gay romance.

1. Harry comes out to his roommate Sam, and Sam concludes that he has just now figured it out.
2. There's a dozen people in a circle dance, all boy-girl, except Harry is boy-boy.
3. Harry tells Donna that he is dating someone.
4. The boyfriend, who is unnamed, stares lustfully at Harry while the other couples are smooching it up.

That's all.

The ads proclaimed "Something for everyone," by which they meant "There are gay people," but really, blink and you miss it.  I imagine that most moviegoers left the theater with no idea that Harry got a boyfriend.

But, surprisingly enough, it's more than you get in the theatrical version.  There, Harry doesn't come out until a last scene "reveal," and he doesn't get a boyfriend (he has a partner back home).  So no dancing, no lustful stares, no nothing.

Here we go again: heterosexuals get infinite space, and gays a couple of lines.

Oh, well, at least there's substantial beefcake.

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