Mar 14, 2014

Benito Cereno: Master and Slave Become Lovers

Speaking of beefcake covers on classic novels, check out this cover to the new edition of Benito Cereno (1855), by Herman Melville, the gay author of Moby-Dick and Billy Budd.

Plus there's a nice gay subtext:

Captain Delano of the ship Bachelor's Delight is approached by a mysterious semi-derelict ship, with both white sailors and slaves begging for supplies.  The captain, Benito Cereno, has an oddly physical relationship with his slave, Babo.    Gradually Delano comes to realize that the slaves have rebelled, killed most of the crew, and ordered Cereno to sail them back to Africa.  Babo, the leader of the rebellion, is tried and executed.

But it's not just a matter of a master becoming a slave.  After Babo's death, Cereno is disconsolate.  He falls into a deep depression and dies soon thereafter.  Their bond had become not only physical but emotional.  They were lovers.

The story was made into a French movie in 1969, with Ruy Guerra as Benito Cereno and Tamour Diop as Babo.

Another, The Enigma of Benito Cereno, is due in 2014; it makes Babo bisexual, with a female lover.

In 1964, Robert Lowell staged a one-act adaptation with four speaking parts: Captain Delano, his mate John Perkins, Benito Cereno and Babo.

It has been performed often, most recently with Rafael de Mussa as Benito Cereno and Jaymes Jorsling as Babo.

Mar 13, 2014

The Pearl: Nude Pearl Divers in Junior High English Class

When I was in high school and college, professors mostly ignored John Steinbeck (1902-1968). He wasn't from the Midwest, his stories were mostly set in California, and besides, he wrote screenplays, which made him a hack -- great writers must never even acknowledge the existence of movies or, far worse, television.

Once in a story by Eudora Welty, a child sings "I'm Popeye the Sailor Man."  With a voice of the utmost disdain, the professor told us: This is a reference to an animated cartoon of the period.  It symbolizes the artistic sterility of their lives."

So the only Steinbeck novel that I've read is The Pearl (1947), a requirement for Miss Dunn's seventh grade English class.

I hated it!  Everybody in my class hated it.  I haven't asked a lot of people since, but everyone I've asked hated it.

The plot is atrocious: A poor Mexican pearl diver, Kimo, finds a pearl that causes nothing but trouble for him, his wife, and his infant son Coyotito.  He ends up killing several men, losing his house, and accidentally killing Coyotito.

Bummer.  Heterosexist bummer.

The only redeeming characteristic is the book jacket, which typically shows a half-naked, muscular Kimo. (In some interior illustartions, he even gets naked!)

I looked up the various film versions to see if they also display significant beefcake.

1. La perla (1947): with Pedro Armendariz as Kimo (renamed Quino).  Yes.

2. The Pearl (2001): Lukas Haas as Kimo. No.

Surprisingly, there have only been two.  I guess screenwriters also remember hating it in junior high.

I suggest buying a copy for the cover art and leaving the text alone.

Or skip it and go to the Pearl Fishers opera, which adds a gay subtext to the beefcake.

Mar 12, 2014

Naadam: The Mongolian Festival of Manly Arts

When I was at Indiana University (1982-84), I was ostensibly studying for a M.A. in English, but there were so many options that I ended up rushing around all over campus, taking courses in Mandarin Chinese, Russian folklore, South Asian anthropology, and even Mongolian Civilization at the Department of Central Asian Studies.

The professor told us abut the Naadam Festivals that celebrated the Eriin Gurvan Naadam, Three Manly Arts: wrestling (Bokh), horse racing, and archery.  The biggest is held in the National Sports Stadium in Ulaan Bataar and broadcast on national television, but there are smaller Naadams every July across the country.

Wrestlers wear a distinctive costume: a short jacket that just covers the arms, tight-fitting shorts, a cord around the belly, and leather boots.  There are no weight or age divisions, so it is common to see men of vastly different sizes competing.  The goal is to get your opponent onto the ground without touching his legs.

Every wrestler is accompanied by a zasuul, a combination coach and cheerleader, who encourages him with words, songs, and an occasional slap on the butt.

I was definitely interested in seeing hundreds of muscular Mongolian athletes in shorts grabbing at each other. Unfortunately, going to Mongolia was out of the question during the Cold War, and even today, it's a long haul for Americans, a 20-hour flight with layovers in Tokyo and Seoul. (Maybe worth the effort for bodybuilders, Buddhist monasteries, and the Kharkhorin Penis Stone).

But there are about 20,000 Mongolian immigrants in the United States and Canada, and every July since 2000 they have been holding their own Naadams in Vancouver, British Columbia; San Francisco; New York City; Arlington, Virginia; and Bloomington!

Because of space limitations, they usually omit the horse racing and the archery, and concentrate on the Manly Sport of Wrestling. Plus dancing, cultural displays, and food.

I never saw Westerners participating, but they did on this episode of Last Man Standing.

Mar 10, 2014

John Looney, the Gay Ganster of Rock Island's Past

Growing up in Rock Island, we had our share of local celebrities, but not only heroes -- anybody who we could use to fight our image as a "hick town" surrounded by cornfields.  So not only writers (Carl Sandburg), artists (Grant Wood), actors (Ken Berry), and musicians (Bix Beiderbecke), but gangsters.

Our resident ganster was John Patrick Looney (1865-1947), a lawyer and politician, who began his life of crime with extortion and embezzlement, then moved on to gambling, prostitution, protection, and violence. In 1912 he started his own newspaper, The Rock Island News, to print pro-Looney articles and blackmail prominent residents by threatening to reveal their secrets in print.  After a shootout with rival editor W. W. Wilmington in 1915, he left town, and lay low for awhile in Texas.   

Prohibition brought him back to Rock Island, where he ran the town like Capone in Chicago, managing 150 prostitution, gambling, and bootleg liquor establishments, paying off the police and the mayor, having his hit men rub out anyone who got in his way (including his former associate William Gambel).

He lived in this 5,000 square foot 5-bedroom, 5-bathroom mansion adjacent to Longview Park in Rock Island (now a private home).

On October 6, 1922, Looney's adult son Connor was killed in a shootout, and his empire quickly crumbled.  Looney was arrested, tried for smuggling, bootlegging, and murder, and sentenced to 14 years in prison.  He served 7 1/2 years.

What's the gay connection? Teachers at Denkmann Elementary School and Washington Junior High  who told us the story, and writers who wrote it up in "Rock Island History" retrospectives, never mentioned a wife for either John or Connor Looney, but they did mention several very close male associates.  It was an all-male crime family, with Connor almost a boyfriend rather than a son, and the grief over his death caused John to lose control of his mind and his empire.

By the way, I thought that Connor Looney was a pretty unique name, but it turns out that there are several in the U.S., including a medical intern on Staten Island and a freshman basketball star at Hawaii Pacific University (left). Probably no relation.

The 2002 movie Road to Perdition features Paul Newman as Looney (renamed Rooney) and  Daniel Craig as Connor.  But the main characters are Tom Hanks as hitman Mike Sullivan, and Tyler Hoechlin (left, later photo) as Sullivan's son.

Besides, it takes place in the 1930s, when Looney was already in prison, and Rock Island isn't even mentioned.

See also: Rock Island Boxing.

The Inbetweeners: Classic Britcom About Homophobic Teens

The U.S. usually wins the prize for homophobic comedy.  On tv, we have Family Guy, American Dad, Working, Two Broke Girls, The Game, and everything on Comedy Central. In movies, everything with Seth Green.

Britcoms are usually kinder & gentler.  But The Inbetweeners (2008-2010), which was nominated for Best Sitcom at the British Comedy Awards three times, and actually won "Outstanding Contribution to British Comedy," takes hatred of gay people to an all-time high.

It was about four high school friends:
1. Focus character Will McKenzie (Simon Bird).
2. Foul-mouthed Jay Cartwright (James Buckley)
3. Neurotic Simon Cooper (Joe Thomas)
4. Dim-witted Neil Sutherland (Blake Harrison)

Like the cliched teenage boys of Archie Comics, they are interested in only two things: 1. having sex with girls who have big breasts; 2. proving that they are not gay.  They pursue these twin quests with lots of profanity, misogyny, and homophobia, from the mild ("Homework is gay!") to the severe ("you touched my leg!" gay panic).

If the series wasn't bad enough, it spawned books, "Best of" DVDs, and 2 movies.

The Inbetweeners (2011) has the boys going to Crete to meet women with big breasts and prove they're not gay.  In one particularly offensive scene, Jay and Neil sneak into a nightclub to meet women with big breasts, but it's a gay club!  You know what happens next.

The Inbetweeners 2 (2014) is currently filming in Australia.

And an American remake on MTV (2012) with Jay Pollari, Bubba Lewis, Zack Pearlman, and Mark L. Young. It only lasted 12 episodes.  I never saw it, so I don't know if they toned down the homophobia.

Mar 9, 2014

Saturday Night Live and the Ambiguously Gay Bill Murray

Chevy Chase
In the spring of 1976, during my sophomore year at Rocky High, my friends started talking about a new late-night tv program, with musical numbers and comedy sketches.

"A variety show!" I exclaimed in disgust, thinking of Carol Burnett, with its boring sketches and songs from the dinosaur era.

No, this is different!  Songs by ABBA and Paul Simon!  Spoofs of tv commercials! The cast is young, our age!

So at 10:30 on February 21st, 1976, I heard the words "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night" for the first time.

The guest host was Desi Arnaz, who starred on I Love Lucy in the 1950s.  At that time I had never actually seen an episode, but I had heard of it, so I was mildly amused by sketches involving failed I Love Lucy Pilots (one was I Love Louie, with him married to jazz musician Louie Armstrong!)  

I didn't see it again until April 17th, 1976. I had never heard of the guest host Ron Nessen (Press secretary for President Ford), but I liked a short film about men singing at a urinal, and Weekend Update, with Emily Litella (Gilda Radner) riffing on "Presidential erections" (of statues).

On April 24th, 1976, the guest host was 1960s icon Raquel Welch.  The men kept trying to get her to take her top off and display her breasts.  I didn't like that, but I liked the sketch "One Flew over the Hornet's Nest," where the Bees weren't allowed to watch the Oscars on tv, and the musical guest, Phoebe Snow, singing "All Over":  "The night queen fright wig street Parade may fade, when we laugh at the statues of gods we have made."

And on like that through high school and college, watching occasionally, when I was home and there was nothing good on Creature Feature.  Pleasant but not hilarious, cozy and intimate, like the kinds of spoofs you do among friends.

Occasional gay references, especially in 1977, when Bill Murray joined the cast; he was so flamboyant, with a Castro Clone moustache and a shirt unbuttoned all the way down his chest, that we all assumed he was openly gay.  (Meatballs in 1979 "confirmed" the rumors.)

For the next few years, everyone between age 15 and 30, male or female, gay or straight, knew "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not," "Jane, you ignorant slut," "Land Shark," "Cheeseburger cheeseburger coke coke," and "Oh, no, Mr. Hands."  It was a set of common references for everyone age 15 to 30, male or female, gay or straight.  It was one of the few places in the "straight world" where I felt like I belonged.

When I moved to West Hollywood in 1985, it came on at 11:30 pm, when I was either out or otherwise occupied.  Besides, I was living in a "good place," so I didn't need it anymore.  I haven't seen it in years.

The phrase "Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!" still brings back memories of high school, when the whole world was fresh and new.

Death of Peter Pan: Michael and Rupert Fall in Love

I've seen many tv and movie versions of Peter Pan, and not liked any of them.  A dog working as a nanny?  Sewing a shadow onto someone's feet?  A boy wanting a little girl to become his "mother"?  Besides, it's impossibly heterosexist -- you "grow up" into heterosexual romance.

But The Death of Peter Pan, by Barry Lowe (1988), is not about the story, it's about the author, J.M. Barrie, and his adopted son Michael Davies, who drowned in the Thames along with his school friend Rupert Buxton on May 19, 1921, shortly before Michael's 21st birthday.

The closeness of their relationship led to speculation that they were lovers and committed suicide together.  Oxford Magazine said: "They were intimate friends, and in death they were not divided."

The play dramatizes their relationship, with shades of Brideshead Revisited. 

While at Eton, Michael meets the colorful bon vivant Rupert Buxton.  They go to Oxford, sample Parisian brothels, take swimming lessons, and take holidays with "Uncle Jim," meanwhile falling in love.

Adolescent romance is always difficult, in 1920s England, where same-sex love is beyond the realm of what can be imagined.

Their out-and-swishy classmate Senhouse is delighted by their "wickedness," Boothby (left) thinks of it as a childish diversion, and "Uncle Jim" himself insists that it cannot exist, that Michael must prepare for marriage.

Once again, Peter Pan must "grow up" into heterosexual romance.

The tragic ending is expected.

The Fly on the Wall production in 2013 starred Kieran McShane as Michael, Jordan Armstrong as Buxton, and Matthew Werkmeister (Neighbours) as Boothby, with ample semi-nude scenes to counteract the depressing script.

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