Rummaging around in an old hard drive one lockdown, I found this review (for Details ) of the Sex Pistol’s Finsbury Park reunion gig from June 1996. Ah! The summer of ’96! When they were so young! And I was even younger! And when gigs – and life – still existed….
In those rancid gift shoppes, where American tourists stock up on their London Bus paperweights and Houses of Parliament ashtrays, there are three types of (fading) postcards available: guardsman in their quaint busby hats outside Buckingham Palace, Beefeaters in their cute red pantaloons and pikes outside the Tower of London, and punks in their zany bondage trousers and pink spikey hair in front of Trafalgar Square. British eccentricity – don’t ya just love it?
What most Americans don’t know, however, is that since 1979 all those punks posing for their cameras have been French – the British punks having moved on to New Romanticism, or the soybean futures market.
Or California – like the world’s second punk band the Sex Pistols did after they split up in 1978, self-detonating in the most glorious and perfect rock parabola ever just two years after their launch and at the height of their fame, and who have now decided to spoil it all. Yes, the passage of time and the rising cost of swimming-pool maintenance has healed their differences and brought them together again for the Filthy Lucre Tour and live album recorded tonight at London’s Finsbury Park.
The band who told us: ‘Don’t know what I want but I know how to get it’ has now decided that what they want is our money.
The world’s first punk band, of course, was the New York Dolls – those seriously scary Yanks in eyeliner and fishnets that Malcolm McLaren managed briefly and later plagiarised at length when he put together the Pistols in 1976. In addition to shameless thievery, there were four main ingredients to British Punk: Carlsberg Special Brew, teeth-gnashingly bad speed, and boredom. Lots and lots of boredom. The kind of boredom that takes hundreds of years of history and only three TV channels to produce.
Oh, and skinny people – the final ingredient of punk. You see, skinny people are nervous. Skinny people don’t have enough tissue between them and the world. Skinny people are disaffected. Skinny people are ANGRY. And Johnny Rotten, Pistols front man, later John Lydon of PIL, was the skinniest, angriest man in the world – a pair of mad staring eyes and spraying, sneering, snarling lips atop a Dickensian bundle of rags and bones.
But not anymore. ‘It’s only uncle Johnny and the boys here,’ he shouts, half challengingly, half apologetically, when they emerge on stage from behind a tattered curtain of ‘Pistols Outrage’ newspaper clippings (yes, they really were shocking once). ‘We’re fat, forty and back!.’ As ever, Johnny tells it how it is.
His face and chin has filled out in a way his lime green cartoon explosion hair can’t sharpen. Beneath his black and white check jacket lurks a definite paunch. Guitarist Steve Jones, wearing sorely tested spangly pants, doesn’t waste any time getting his shirt off to reveal a heavy, tanned body that perhaps shows some evidence of Beverly Hills Athletic Club membership, but his intensely highlighted hair and tiger-print stretchy pants makes him look a bit off-season female bodybuilder. (In fairness, Glen Matlock for his part looks even slimmer than he did 20 years ago.)
But when the fat, stinging chords of their first number ‘Bodies’ (‘I’m not an animal!’) hit an epiphany happens. The crowd is instantly transformed from a bunch of well-behaved, plump thirty-ish people with mobile phones standing around minding their own business into pogo-ing accountants and civil servants, full of bad attitude. It’s intoxicating. We feel rowdy, we feel dangerous, we feel important. We feel like someone we used to know.
And the sound – the real Pistols were never this good. They were too drunk, stoned or fucked. The rolling attack of this guitar noise is enough to spike your hair without gel – but it’s professional. Nowadays, they really do mean it, man. This is Punk-lite. But when they strike up ‘Anarchy in the UK’ the crowd goes completely doolally and, having been born too late the first time around, I finally realise a lifelong ambition – to slam-dance to the Pistols with Johnny mewling and spewling the best lines in rock ever: ‘I wanna beee an-arr-keee!… Well, the best lines after, ‘There’s no few-cher, no few-cher/No few-cher for you!’ (‘God Save the Queen’). Which, in turn, are the best lines after, ‘We’re so pre-tay/Oh-so pre-tay/Vay-cuhnt… And we don’t caaarrre!’ (‘Pretty Vacant’).
Yes, it’s definitely fun pretending you’re angry, skinny and happy again. It’s especially fun when you’re British but now you’ve an excuse to actually touch other people. But twenty years on you’ve got to conclude that you’re not so pretty or vacant anymore and that there are, actually, far too many things you care about.
Like the fact that someone just pogoed on your lovely new trainers.
Mark Simpson recalls meeting Cornelius and his ‘hungry eyes’
Grief these days seems to come easier when attached to the death of celebrities. Especially when seen as the end of not just a media relationship but an age of innocence. For some it was the death of Diana, Kennedy, Lennon or Martin Luther King. For me it was the death last year of that international icon, superstar and chimpanzee Roddy McDowall.
What TV giveth, TV taketh away. BBC1 Sunday lunchtime news, to be exact: ‘Roddy McDowall, the British-born actor best known for his role in Planet of the Apes (1968), has died of cancer at his L.A. home aged 76. He never married.’
I was eating some toast and Marmite at the time and began to choke.
It is not entirely true to say that he never married. After all Roddy’s first big screen appearance was in Lassie Come Home (1943), aged 15, playing a schoolboy devoted to a very human bitch.
But it was not until Roddy was all grown up and cast as a very human animal himself, that he really impacted my young consciousness – in the dystopian Sci-Fi film and TV series Planet of the Apes. Watching them on TV in the 1970s I promptly became as fond of him as he had been of Lassie.
Man has destroyed himself in some apocalypse and buried the Statue of Liberty up to its elbow. The apes have taken over and enslaved their former masters the humans. Roddy plays Cornelius, a more articulate, Simian Lassie, befriending and helping the last humans, led by a creaking Charlton Heston in his ‘mature period’. I particularly remember the odd way Roddy has of cocking his head to one side while looking up at Moses with his big brown eyes begging for a petting that never came. At least not before I had to go to bed.
Years later, when I was grown up too, or as grown up as I’ll ever be, I had the pleasure of looking into those big brown eyes myself when I was interviewing the Hollywood actress Nancy Allen (who memorably played the bitch Chris Hargensen in Carrie) for a glossy American magazine. You can imagine my excitement.
I was sitting down with Ms Allen at Orso’s, a swanky Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills, when suddenly she gasped, “Oh! There’s Roddy!’=” and waved at a table close to ours where a skinny elderly man was sitting with another, slightly less elderly and much fatter man and lots of papers.
It wasn’t until he came over to our table to introduce himself and I could see those monkey-yet-strangely-human eyes that I realised it was Cornelius. He shook my hand a little too firmly and a little too long and gave me a brazen once-over with those glittering round eyes that had once reflected the miniaturised and slightly humiliated image of Charlton.
“What a surprise to see you here!’ Roddy trilled to my companion in that charmingly sing-song syrupy voice of his, ‘I’m just lunching with my agent.” Ms Allen introduced me as ‘a journalist from Glossy American Magazine. He’s interviewing me!’ she said, a bit too surprised at the idea herself.
“A journalist, eh?” Said Roddy, looking me up and down again. “That’s a good one! I’ve never seen shoulders like that on a journalist before!” He leaned towards me holding a liver-spotted hand to the side of his face and hissed in a stage whisper: “Watch her now, Mark! She’s wicked!” And with a lascivious wink and a leathery grin he sauntered back to his table. My audience with Cornelius was over.
Meeting a legend like this was shocking enough. But I was even more shocked by the way he was quite obviously and openly fag. Call me naïve, but I never thought of Cornelius as having any kind of sex at all.
Looking back and re-writing history as we do, I can now see that of course that Roddy’s entire Hollywood career was queer as a coot (a creature which I think actually makes an appearance in one of the Lassie films, and ends up swapping Judy Garland stories with Roddy). The boy who developed over-intense relationships with animals, and who grew up to be an ape with twinkly eyes identifying with humans stranded in a world where they were now the oppressed minority.
Then there is the 1967 film It! (1967), aka Curse of the Golem, a reworking of the Frankenstein story that is quite possibly the queerest movie ever made. Roddy plays a meek assistant museum curator in London living with his domineering mum who finds his boss’s death lands him the job of running the museum and ownership of a two thousand year old statue which comes to life to do his bidding – a Golem.
Naturally, it all goes to poor Roddy’s head (he can’t negotiate that pesky Oedipus Complex), and he destroys half of London trying to impress an uninterested woman who knows a Lassie when she sees one. Roddy is finally locked up – but breaks out after he hears his mother has died. An hysterical Roddy hijacks a hearse, kidnaps the girl, and heads off with her and the Golem to the cemetery where his mother is buried.
And I think most of us, one way or another, have been there.
Roddy’s greatest asset was also his greatest give-away—his eyes. In person they were the gayest eyes I’ve ever seen: that bright, alert, hungry quality, mostly found in children and small animals, but which in adult men is the nearest thing to a reliable indicator of inversion.
On TV in the 1970s they just looked very friendly.
Two teenage working class lads, Matt and Phil, hitching from London to the South Coast, are in the back of a car driven by a middle-aged man with a moustache and a bowtie, who has asked why they’re headed there.
“What??” he replies, puzzled for a moment by the honeymoon answer. “Oh, I get ya – fast workers, eh? I could teach you a thing or two! Promise them the Earth and they’ll settle for you, know what I mean?” And then starts boring on about all his probably imaginary heterosexual conquests.
“No, we’re wiv each ovva. It’s our ‘oneymoon!” brunette Phil (Lee Whitlock) insists, leaving him no wriggle room. Before leaning forwards and adding with a grin to his blond chum Matt (Jason Rush): “But don’t worry, you’re not our type”.
At this Mr Moustache pulls over sharpish and kicks them out of his family saloon. “Bloody deviants!” he shouts, screeching off in a cloud of burned rubber.
The hitchhiking is probably the part that made you realise the movie this scene is from is a bit of an oldie. Two of Us is now over thirty years old, to be horribly precise.
Back in 1987, at the height of the ‘Gay Plague’ terror, when the tabloid newspapers were full of spit-flecked fury about ‘QUEERS!’ – and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ to schoolchildren (later Section 28) – the BBC made a cheap but sweet little film about two likeable late teen boys who fall in love at the municipal swimming baths, where Matt, a vision in Speedos, is teaching Phil how to dive. (This seven years before Tom Daley was even born.) They decide to run away together to escape from bullying peers and uncomprehending parents.
Instead of the Emerald City – or Brighton – they end up in Seaford, a dreary seaside town near Eastbourne in Sussex, which was probably where they went on their ‘olidays when they were kids. The white cliffs, like the water they swim in, a symbol of the purity of their affair.
See, on this ‘oneymoon there’s no funny business. Matt who is gay is all for it, but Phil, who is bi, and has a girlfriend called Sharon is still working things through, and is less certain. Besides, in 1987 UK men were legally required to wait until they were 21 to touch one another. There is however a tender, poignant scene in the swimming pool showers (still wearing their swimming cossies) where Matt reaches out and briefly touches Phil’s face and chest, grabs his shoulder and says: “It’s alright”.
It’s a scene that lasts just a few seconds, but remains one of the most iconic in the history of gay cinema. It really wasn’t alright in 1987 – but Two of Us made it seem possible that it might be, one day. That our Jason Rush might come and make it alright.
There was another even more persuasive reason why they never do ‘it’. Written by Leslie Stewart and directed by Roger Tonge, this big little film was made for UK schools. It’s also why the ending was changed. In the original version Phil appears to leave with Sharon, who came to Seaford to get her man back, but he reappears at the top of the cliffs above the beach where Matt is camping. “What are you doing ‘ere?” shouts Matt, smiling. “We’re mates aren’t we!” Phil shouts back. Matt and Phil run, fully-clothed, laughing into the sea together.
A panicking BBC, worried about the looming introduction of Section 28, insisted on removing the beach reunion, but when Two of Us was shown to schoolkids most of them thought that Phil should have stayed with Matt. Perhaps that had something to do with the way it portrayed Sharon as a sulky cow who didn’t do anything except whinge, eat crisps and check her makeup.
In this, as in some other details, Two of Us borrows from the mild misogyny of The Leather Boys, a classic 1964 film about two working class London biker lads, Pete (Dudley Sutton) and Reggie (Colin Campbell), the latter with a nagging young wife (Rita Tushingham), who basically fall in love and are going to run away to sea together before Reggie discovers that Pete is queer and very much part of the queer world.
To ‘challenge stereotypes’, in a way that has become very over-familiar in the past thirty years, but which seemed fresh at the time (perhaps because I hadn’t seen The Leather Boys yet), Phil and Matt (and, I think, both of the actors playing them) were straight – and their characters, apart from an out-of-character waltzing interlude on the beach to ‘Shall We Dance’ from The King & I, ‘straight acting’. They are also not part of or apparently even aware of London’s already large in the late 1980s gay world.
Back in the 20th Century, rather than a tired, possibly oppressive trope which it has become now, their ‘straightness’ and ‘normality’ seemed to be a slightly radical idea, one that emphasised a kind of subversive innocence – “We’re mates aren’t we?”. It also confirmed their gay desirability. After all, most gay porn in the 1980s featured gay-for-pay models enacting situational homo storylines with ‘buddies’. I doubt it was intentional, but Two of Us was a kind of porno romance, with no fucking, just the bit before the muzak kicks in.
And Jason Rush as Matt is totally Falcon (by way of Walthamstow) in his pouty, broody, splendour – filling out his stonewashed jeans and those Speedos very nicely indeed. But it was those lazy-lidded blue eyes that were the real slayers. That keen connoisseur of male beauty Morrissey was to recruit him for his ‘Last of the International Playboys’ video a couple of years later, playing a young East End boxer who idolises the Kray twins. I myself managed to contrive an interview with him for a magazine in the late 1990s, even though he was no longer working as an actor – just so I could check out those eyes in person. (Full disclosure: my first proper gay encounter after hitch-hiking to London from the provinces in 1984 was with a 19-year-old blond lifeguard from north London.)
The whole film is based on an impossibility anyway – as romantic storylines should be. Phil who was bi, was never going to really run away with Jason and turn his back on crisp-eating Sharon and the world of Hendon Central normality – not in 1987. It was all a fantasy. An enjoyable seaside daydream in a cub scout tent. The BBC-ordered altered ending was the more realistic one – and perhaps also a more satisfying one. The romance is never tainted by either consummation or arguments over whose turn it is to empty the chemical toilet.
So why am I banging on about this ancient, minor, slightly-shonky in places, non-theatrical release Brit movie? Now that we’re eighteen years into a new millennium, Section 28 has been abolished, Aids is no longer the ‘Gay Plague’ (or even AIDS), the UK age of consent has been equalised, anti-gay legislation excised from the statute books. And now that teenage same sex couples can get civil partnered or married and legally go on their ‘oneymoon?
Because this diamond in the rough from 1987 is I think much more deserving of the limitless praise heaped on two soppy gay cinematic love stories released exactly thirty years later in 2017, made with much more money and in much less difficult times: God’s Own Country (UK) and Call Me By Your Name (Italy/US). The latter nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay (which it won), and is currently the top-rated romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Two of Us, made for school kids, did much of what these films do three decades later for adults, but rather better and in a more grown-up fashion.
Call Me, directed by Luca Guadagnino, like The Two of Us, is also set in the 80s, and also teenage in focus: a seventeen-year-old boy’s first same-sex romance. But with a 24-year-old male archaeologist instead of a schoolmate. It also involves a lot of swimming. However the weather is better, and so are the locations. Instead of dreary old Seaford, it’s set in northern Italy, the smoking hot scenery essentially rendering this romance a ménage a trois. The teenager, Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet, is almost as pretty as Jason Rush in his prime – though Armie Hammer (could there be a more American name?) who plays his lover Oliver, is definitely not. At least for my popcorn money.
Unlike Two of Us however I’m not entirely sure what the point of this pretty, soppy well-made film is, except perhaps as a liberal-minded travelogue for middle class people who want to catch up on their sleep and have something to mention at dinner parties. But who am I to quibble? It has been hailed by Variety, no less, as a movie that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ and a ‘modern gay classic’ by the mighty Vanity Fair. Whatever these accolades are supposed to mean now. And whatever movie critics are supposed to be for now.
This ‘modern gay classic’ that ‘advances the canon of gay cinema’ is not even a gay movie. Remarkably, impressively, there is almost nothing gay about it – except perhaps for the longing the camera has for Elio, whose dazzling beauty is the nearest thing this movie has to a point, and the early Bruce Weber aesthetic. Though of course Weberism isn’t officially gay either, just ‘all-American’.
The writer whose eponymous novel was adapted, Andre Aciman, isn’t gay. The actors aren’t gay. Their characters aren’t gay and I’m not entirely sure that they’re intended to be seen as bisexual either. It’s a post-gay movie set in an almost pre-gay universe: early 80s Italy, on holiday, before AIDS. In truth, the non-gayness of Call Me By Your Name is actually its defining feature. (For all its straight-acting, Two of Us was definitely not pre or post gay: one of the boys identifies as gay and the other as bisexual, and it was made in the height of the 80s gay wars.)
Guadagnino is ‘openly gay’ as the media still likes to put it, but he is himself emphatic that it isn’t a gay movie but a movie about the ‘beauty of the new-born idea of desire, unbiased and un-cynical.’ And in making a ‘universal’ movie of course you land yourself the biggest potential audience: heterosexuals. That said, plenty of gay men apparently love it – let’s face it, gays today love to be part of something big, successful and nicely-lit. But watching it as ‘a gay’ for my part I found it bizarrely alienating, almost like an out-of-gay-body experience: though this may have had something to do with the glacial pace. It’s not that I wasn’t moved at all by the film, or didn’t care about anyone, but I felt as if I were watching a romance between two men taking place on another planet. Or in fact, watching gayness being colonised. And I say that as a post-gay pre-gay homo.
Perhaps it’s because I don’t fancy Armie Hammer – or maybe I was just jealous of him – but contrary to the reaction of the schoolkids who saw Two of Us in 1987, I found myself wanting Elio to run off with his pretty, smart girlfriend Marzia whom he dumps for naff Oliver. And of course Elio is let down in the end by Oliver, who gets engaged to a woman: causing Elio to bawl his eyes out into the camera so very beautifully and lengthily in the final scene. Call Me has the same satisfyingly melancholic conclusion as the censored version of Two of Us, but it makes much more of a meal of it.
It seems though that my feelings about Marzia were not entirely capricious. Guadagino, discussing the possibility of a sequel has stated: ‘”I don’t think that Elio is necessarily going to become a gay man. He hasn’t found his place yet. I can tell you that I believe that he would start an intense relationship with Marzia again.”’
Call Me probably isn’t a ‘sexually-fluid’ movie either. Rather, it is a movie that explores romance and infatuation through the story of two people who both ‘happen’ to be men, as a way of rediscovering ‘romance’ – in part because actual heterosexual relationships are currently so loaded, and so fraught, being situated as they are on the frontline of the sex war. That’s why it’s currently the number one romance movie on Rotten Tomatoes. If it were the story of a seventeen year-old girl’s romance with a 24 year-old man staying in her parents’ house the reviews, I venture, would be much more ‘mixed’. That’s if there were any reviews at all, apart from denunciations and boycotts.
It’s also part of the reason why Call Me also mostly shied away from depicting yer actual gay bumsex. Instead, the peach gets it: in an odd scene (but not played for laughs, American Pie style), Eloi masturbates with the fruit, which Oliver then tries to eat. Oh, and the fact that both American actors insisted on ‘no full frontal nudity’ clauses in their contracts for this very liberal, very European-style movie. James Ivory, whose original screenplay adaptation had reportedly contained ‘all sorts of nudity’, was not best pleased with this modesty clause – and put it down to what he saw as an ‘American attitude’. After all, it’s not 1987 anymore, and this isn’t a movie for schoolkids.
Ivory (who is himself American) had also been originally slated to direct the film, and of course wrote and directed Maurice, the classic 1987 adaptation of EM Forster’s ground-breaking novel about homosexuality in Edwardian England – a novel so ground-breaking that Forster, timid to the very end, forbade it being published until after his death in 1971. It told the story of a very closeted, virginal English gentleman Maurice (James Wilby) swept off his feet by a rough but smoothly handsome groundsman called Alec (Rupert Graves).
You’ll think me obsessed, but the movie adaptation was a kind of big budget, cross-class costume drama Two of Us – which came out in the same year – but told of course from a bourgeois perspective. Forster like many middle class men of his era fantasised about being rescued from their effeteness, neurosis and timidity by muscular, direct, and passionate working class chaps. But then, don’t we all?
It’s easy to mock, especially now, but Maurice which was largely overlooked when it was originally released was a braver and better film than CallMe, made thirty years later to enormous fanfare. Although ‘Scudder’ became something of a punchline for gay jokes this was probably because the urgency of ‘deviant desire’ that he represented was as embarrassing as it was hot. Scudder was in fact the whole point and truth of both Maurice and Maurice, cutting through all the bourgeois bullshit and ‘decency’ by climbing up that ladder into ‘masters’ bedroom and giving him a right proper fucking. ‘Scudder’ is lust, in all its filthy, rough, irresistible ‘inappropriateness’.
I wonder what would have happened if Ivory had been allowed to direct Call Me? Fewer clothes and hang-ups, probably – but perhaps also fewer awards and takings.
Films set in a self-consciously working class world can actually be worse, however. Boring as it is, Call Me is still a more enjoyable movie than 2005’s miserably mawkish Brokeback Mountain. Not only did the ‘gay cowboy movie’ as it was dubbed (they are in fact shepherds, at least when they meet) have rather more hetero sex than the homo variety, the original story was written by a woman who is not gay (Annie Proulx), adapted by a man and woman who are not gay, directed by man who is not gay (Ang Lee), starring actors who are/were not gay (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal). Hooray for the non-gay gay cowboy movie!
In fairness, the characters themselves in the ‘gay cowboy movie’ are not gay, or even particularly bisexual – they just have a love-affair that causes them a lot of pain because of their place in the world: one of rural, working class poverty with attendant homophobic/traditional masculine attitudes. It was precisely this emotionally painful aspect for the otherwise straight men that the main audience of the film – straight women – seemed to enjoy the most: a kind of sex war schadenfreude.
Hollywood loves gloomy gay movies. Moonlight (2016) the first LGBT film – and the first with an all-black cast – to win the Best Picture Oscar sometimes makes Brokeback look like a musical. Set in the Miami projects, it tells the story of young gay black man Chiron Harris [played at different stages of his youth by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert] coming of age and coming to terms with his sexuality in a tough environment where his softness makes him a target—even for his own mother’s homophobic abuse.
Moonlight is artful and affecting. It even won Best Kiss at the MTV?Movie Awards, which alone puts it streets ahead of Call Me. Like Brokeback, it makes a point about masculinity and identity–but this time in a black urban context that is far more relevant than sheepherding. It is also in many ways a more beautiful film than the moneyed, white, self-consciously ‘beautiful’ Call Me.
Of course, it is almost unremittingly gloomy. I watched Moonlight with subtitles on, and the descriptions of the soundtrack—“[tense droning music]” or “[ominous music]”—began to look like complaints.
Only toward its end does Moonlight’s gloom begin to lift. An adult Chiron, now a drug-dealer, reunites with Kevin—a friend/crush from high school and “the only person I let touch me”. And it really was just a touch, which makes Chiron come almost instantly – a nice touch. It’s an unlikely happy ending, even more so than the original uncensored end for Two Of Us—but a welcome one after all that “tense droning music.”
But yet again, neither Chiron nor Kevin seem to know anyone else gay. And there is even less gay sex than in Brokeback—that touch and a wet dream is all you get.
Given the always small but now fast-diminishing number of men employed in raising sheep, and the even smaller – one assumes – number of them involved in fucking one another, and even smaller number of those who fall in love, it seems very odd, bordering on the downright fetishistic, that someone would want to make another shagging-shepherds movie. But that’s exactly what Francis Lee, the gay writer and director of God’s Own Country did.
Oft-described as ‘Britain’s Brokeback Mountain’, it might be better described as a gayerBrokeback Mountain. Though the love-birds are straight-acting straight actors again, with apparently no connection to a wider gay world of other gay men, it has a lot more man-on-man sex and (unlike Call Me) there is full-frontal nudity (that’s flaccid cocks to you and me) and was heralded by Vice as part of the ‘lineage of queer cinematic greats’. Foolishly, as with Call Me, I thought at least some of this hype must be merited and dutifully went to see it. But it struck me as being an even more boring movie than Call Me or Brokeback – and much soppier and soapier. A kind of underwritten PG Emmerdale omnibus.
Set in the Yorkshire Pennines somewhere in the not too distant past – or perhaps in an imaginary place in England where there is no internet and no mobile coverage and thus no Grindr, just lots of gritty, analogue authenticity – it follows a disgruntled young sheep farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) who is having lots of casual sex with men (despite the lack of Grindr) and drinking too much. The film begins with him dry-retching at dawn over a toilet bowl in his father’s farmhouse. Who will save our Johnny? Who will be his Good Shepherd?
Enter a young(ish) bearded Romanian farm-hand Gheorghe (Alex Secareanu), hired to work on the family’s small sheep farm. Johnny initially taunts him, calling him, in unconvincing scenes, a ‘gyppo’ and a ‘Paki’, on account of his dark, Latin looks – but ends up of course having mad passionate sex with him. In the freezing mud. Lots and lots of mud. Locally-sourced, organic, artisan mud. Because that’s what shepherds do.
Gheorghe/Secareanu is smolderingly handsome as well as infinitely patient and knowledgeable – and spends much of the movie looking up at the camera through his dreamy Latin eyebrows. Dreamy is the word because he is not an actual human being, but rather a walking liberal wank fantasy – a woke gay Jesus figure, or a European ‘magical negro’ (a character in American fiction and film who only exists to help the white characters). Gheorghe turns the other cheek, heals the sick, raises the dead (lambs) and teaches the repressed, blocked, stupid, bigoted miserable working class Brexit-voting English how to live, love, do their job and make Ewe’s cheese. My dear, he’s a whizz in the kitchen! He even manages to spice up a Pot Noodle!
The smouldering Romanian is coded as ‘exotic’, but also ‘middle class’: “my mother taught English”. ‘”Fancy!” mocks Johnny’s mum. He is reduced to working as a farmhand in the UK because ‘my country is dead’ – but he’s just a better person in every way than the people he has been sent to save. No wonder the film was a hit with critics, gaining a 99% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It plays to almost every single metropolitan middle class prejudice – on a super-squeaky viola.
Johnny, who is a kind of fucked-up Scudder, falls for Gheorghe – how could he not? – and is slowly saved from his semi-feral lifestyle, domesticated by his Good Shepherd with the Great Eyebrow Game. But Jesus, sorry Gheorghe, has to be spurned before he can be fully accepted – so Johnny gets drunk and lapses back into his casual sex ways in a pub toilet, while Gheorghe has beer flicked at him by a threatening bigot. You can almost hear the cock crowing.
Understandably, Gheorghe fucks off. Johnny is left to hug, sniff and wear the chunky cable-knit sweater Gheorghe has abandoned in his haste to off fuck. It’s an echo of an earlier scene where Gheorghe puts the fleece of a stillborn lamb on a living one so it will be fed milk by the bereaved Ewe – and also of course the shirt-sniffing scene at the end of Brokeback, a movie this one is clinging to like a security blanket.
Johnny tracks down Gheorghe to Scotland, persuades him to come back with him and move into the farmhouse, which they share with Johnny’s grandmother and invalid father. The farmhouse door closes behind the happy couple. The End.
This movie may have begun with Johnny dry-retching, but it ended with me sicking up a bit in the back of my mouth. If only, I found myself wishing, the BBC could have censored the happy ending the way they did with Two of Us!
Annie Proulx recently complained about all the men who write to her after seeing the film of her short story:
‘They just can’t bear the way it ends – they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed.’
God’s Own Country seems to have done exactly that, giving it a gayer, happy ending. But the unhappy ending of Brokeback was, as Proulx has said, the point. It’s not a point that I thought made the film version worthwhile, but it was the point nonetheless.
God’s Own Country has done away with that point. It’s a gay shepherd movie with a happy ending.
Yes, like Call Me, it’s a post-gay movie which mercifully accepts that ‘coming out’ isn’t enough of a story-line and homophobia can’t stand in for drama any more – the shepherds’ sexuality isn’t really an issue for them, or as it turns out the other characters. But by the same token, a sentimental, soapy love story isn’t enough to carry a movie either now, just because your lovers both happen to have penises. Or are highly unlikely characters (again). No matter how beautiful or brooding or straight acting they might be, or how impeccably metropolitan and liberal the sympathies of the impossibly rurally-located film might be.
Then again, perhaps the raptures of the critics over brilliantly mediocre and impressively unoriginal gay movies like this suggests that maybe we’re not so post-gay after all. Apparently gay movies still can’t be judged honestly, or by the same jaded standards as non-gay ones.
For all its failings, Two of Us, definitely had a point – with either ending. It was after all the kind of gay propaganda that Section 28 was supposed to stamp out. Despite or perhaps because of the strictures of its making, it was also rather more erotic, and dare I say ‘liberated’, than the current crop of critically-praised Anglo-American cinematic gay lurve stories, even though much less happens. (The 2014 film The Way He Looks, about a blind boy’s growing friendship with a schoolmate, is a notable, touching exception – and is in some ways an updated and improved Two of Us – but then, it’s definitely not an Anglo movie: it’s Brazilian.)
Thirty years on it’s probably time to come out to ourselves about the fact that after all the dramatic changes that have occurred in gay lives and gay equality, gay cinematic love stories, at the very moment they have become mainstream enough to be ‘Hollywood’, seem to have run out of road. Much like straight ones.
Without Mr Bowtie-n-Tache yelling ‘BLOODY DEVIANTS!’ the ‘oneymoon is so over.
I’ve been devouring – a little late – High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess, Charles Fleming’s page-turning and hair-raising 1998 biography of the late Hollywood producer and ‘bad boy’, who along with his ‘good boy’ partner Jerry Bruckheimer were the most successful independent producers in Hollywood in the 80s and early 90s. Inventing, or at least formulating and trademarking, the so-called ‘high concept‘ blockbuster – such as Flashdance (1983), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Crimson Tide (1995) and The Rock (1996).
Simpson, originally hailing Anchorage, Alaska, comes across as surprisingly compelling figure, in many ways monstrous and grotesque, yet strangely likeable, in all his human weaknesses and vanities: a kind of real-life, if slightly less believable, Bret Easton Ellis character – working right at the evil, cracked heart of the American Dream factory.
While working as a producer at Paramount in 1980, before going independent, he crafted a ‘Paramount Corporate Philosophy’ paper, which is gobsmacking in both its honesty and clarity about what Hollywood is – and isn’t.
“The pursuit of making money is the only reason to make movies. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art… Our obligation is to make money, and to make money it may be necessary to make history, art or some significant statement. To make money, it may be important to win the Academy Award, for it might mean another ten million dollars at the box office. Our only object is to make money, but in order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies.”
But you’ll understand why I particularly perked up when I came across an account of my namesake and Bruckheimer’s attempts to seduce a reluctant Tom Cruise into starring in a film they were producing that you may possibly have heard of, called Top Gun.
According Admiral (Rtd.) Pete Pettigrew, the US Navy liaison they had hired to keep the USN sweet (Top Gun was made with the support of the Pentagon – who famously loaned them an aircraft carrier), it seems that those steamy locker room scenes the movie is now famous for, partly thanks to the dirty mind of yours truly, was Mr Cruise’s idea. He wanted the movie not to be about killing but about ‘sporting excellence’.
‘At their first meeting, Cruise, who had just finished shooting Legend and still wore his hair shoulder-length, expressed his concerns. Primarily,… Cruise did not want Top Gun to be a movie about killing. He wanted to know about the “locker room” scenes and the locker room facilities at the Top Gun school, because… Cruise felt that’s where a lot of the action should take place. “He wanted to make this look like a sporting event, not about warmongering but about competition and excellence,” Pettigrew said…. Pettigrew expressed his doubts. The USN flying school at San Diego did not encourage competition…’
Disappointingly, the Top Gun trophy, central to the movie and the hotly contested object of desire for smouldering, slicked-back rivals Maverick and Iceman, was entirely the creation of the scriptwriters. It didn’t and doesn’t exist.
Despite the understandable reservations of Pettigrew, the idea was eagerly seized upon by Don Simpson – albeit for more fleshly reasons than those advanced by Tom. Pettigrew was overruled (as he seems to have been almost consistently) and his concerns over long-haired Tom’s yen for lots of locker room scenes were addressed in a typically blunt Simpsonian fashion:
‘When Cruise left the room, Simpson told Pettigrew, “Look, we’re paying one million bucks to get him. We need to see some flesh.”
And boy, did we.
Simpson was hyper-heterosexual – and if he were still alive, his aggressive sexual behaviour would undoubtedly be the subject of a plethora of #metoo accusations. But he was certainly not blind to male beauty, not least because he was a producer who longed to be a movie star. He was forever trying to improve and enhance his looks and was a high-rolling, early-adopter of metrosexuality. On the ‘cutting edge’, in fact.
In addition to his dandyish foibles (he would berate staff for pressing instead of fluffing his jeans), according to Fleming, between 1988 and 1994 Simpson had at least ten surgical procedures to enhance his looks. Including collagen injections in his cheeks and chin, a forehead lift and a restructuring of his eyebrow, to give it ‘sterner definition’; liposuction of his abdomen and a collagen injections in his lips and fat injection into his penis to make it bigger.
This latter procedure was, as is usually the case, a failure – penis enlargement ops are essentially a very expensive form of penis mutilation. But because it was Simpson’s penis the op had to fail on a big scale. “It had turned all black-and-blue, and it was very painful”, a source is quoted as saying. “There was a lot of swelling and fever. In the end they had to take out whatever it was they put in there. You can’t believe how pissed Don was.”
In yet another glimpse of the masculine future, Simpson was not simply all about the phallus either. His masculine self-consciousness was versatile – he also had a ‘butt lift’ op. Apparently he was particularly disappointed in his natural buttock bestowment.
“Every time I ever visited his office, he was always in there trying on jeans and complaining about his ass,” a friend of Simpson recalls. “He always thought it looked funny in pants.”
Simmo also struggled with his weight – binge-eating pizzas and entire jars of peanut butter, then switching to punitive diets. Essentially he was a constant work in progress, one fuelled by self-loathing and self-loving. And lots and lots of drugs, prescription and proscribed – particularly cocaine. The highness of his concepts was largely white-powder-fuelled.
The sequel will be helmed without Don Simpson, however. Like that other pop cultural, pill-popping over-consumer, Elvis, he died of massive heart failure on the crapper, in 1996, aged 52. Twenty one different drugs were found in his system, including antidepressants, stimulants, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Fleming reports that Simpson was spending $60,000 a month on prescription drugs alone.
The Elvis parallel doesn’t end on the crapper, either. Critic Peter Biskind argued in 1999 that Simpson was to “gay culture what Elvis was to black music, ripping it off and repackaging it for a straight audience”.
According to Biskind, Paramount, where Simpson started his career, was ‘the gayest studio’. While there, Simpson was instrumental in bringing American Gigolo (1980) to the screen. Produced by his future partner in crime, Bruckheimer, Gigolo is a definitively 1980s film that that even out-gays Top Gun.
This was because Paramount:
‘took gay culture, with its conflation of fashion, movies, disco and advertising… and used it as a bridge between the naive high-concept pictures of Spielberg in the 1970s and highly-designed, highly self-conscious pictures’.
‘High concept’, in other words, was highly camp.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon page.
Special thanks to Simon Mason for sending me Fleming’s bio of Simmo.
Mark Simpson takes examines some professional show-offs
I want to talk about Jeff Seid’s tongue.
I want to talk about what’s attached, so exquisitely, to the famous fitness model and aesthetic bodybuilder’s tongue as well. But, despite the rest of his body being so very good at talking, his tongue is probably the most eloquent part of him – without actually saying anything. Just by sticking it out in that signature way of his, Mr Seid communicates so much about himself, and about spornosexuality – second generation, body-centred, sexed-up metrosexuality.
Jeff’s 26-year-old tongue – he was born in Renton, Washington, in 1994, the same year as the metrosexual – appears to be directly attached to his biceps so that whenever he flexes them, out it pops. It’s a big, fleshy, generous tongue, that lolls over most of his square, dimpled chin.
Perhaps that fleshly muscular organ used for tasting, licking and swallowing is promising ladies, or lads, a good time. Perhaps it’s just expressing an estimation of his own tastiness. Perhaps it’s a cheeky, boyish affront to the world. But what that big, lolling tongue definitely signifies is Mr Seid’s hunger. For it all. For everything he can get. For the money shot of fame.
There’s an early, amateurish Seid video on YouTube from 2012, as funny as it is scary, that everyone who wants to understand today’s generation of self-sexualising, body-commodifying young men should watch.
It stars an eighteen year-old ex-High School wrestler and just recently ex-football jock Jeff, pre Bieber-esque fringe, pre Mr Olympia Men’s Physique title, pre all those fitness mag covers, pre-sponsorship deals, pre-jetting around the world to appear at expos and pose for selfies with fans and wannabes, pre his own clothing line (SeidWear) and workout books. Pre a zillion professionally produced ‘inspirational’ videos of him working out topless with romantic lighting. And pre-3.9M Instagram followers.
Before, in other words, he became a pro-sporno.
That’s to say, an online high priest of spornosexuality – whose body arouses fascination, envy and desire and helps convert other young men to the sexy cult. And thus converts into loads of filthy lucre.
Jeff, whose dreams of a pro football career had not long been ended by an injury, has nothing at this point, except his hunger to be looked at. Wanted. His ravenous desire to be desired. And that tongue. Oh, and attached to that tongue, a body. Not yet quite the glistening, ‘totally ripped’, awesome ‘aesthetic’ (a key word for Jeff and other spornosexuals – but do they know it’s Greek for ‘beautiful’?), globally-monetised ‘pro’ thing that it is today.
But certainly one that can still stop traffic.
And that’s exactly what the cheeky scamp does, eagerly stripping down to his pants and fake bake on the sidewalk in Las Vegas, that tongue panting, as he flexes. Passers-by pose for selfies with him and stuff dollar bills into his pants. Which makes his tongue stick out even more. Appropriately enough, Jeff doesn’t really speak in the video, but a charmingly amateurish subtitling tells you: ‘I made like $50 in 20 minutes!’. Innocent days! (Seid is now estimated to be earning c. $1M/year)
In case there’s anyone in Vegas that still hasn’t seen this showboys’ abs and bis, the future ‘king of Aesthetics’ then stands up, somewhat precariously, in the sunroof of a limo which is driving around, a little too fast, in circles, while he furiously flexes and poses his body and his tongue – completely unbothered that a sudden brake could bisect him and his buffedness. Jeff is a mechanised, unstoppable young spornosexual, firing on all swole cylinders without, apparently, a shred of fear, shame or embarrassment anywhere in his flawless, shredded body.
We never stood a chance.
David Laid – apparently this is actually his real name, and not one made up to riff suggestively on Seid’s – doesn’t stick his tongue out very much. In fact, I can’t remember seeing his tongue. However, this 22-year-old does pull rather strange, twitchy faces in the gym, in his many, many and rather lengthy YouTube videos. If it’s true that the faces we pull when exerting ourselves in the gym are our ‘sex faces’ then Mr Laid would make for a somewhat distracting bedroom partner.
Then again, his extraordinary, other-worldly body would be much more distracting. And several hundred thousand people are already regularly distracted by it, regularly.
Mr Laid is a 20-year-old ‘influencer’ and YouTube star from Atlantic City with 1.4M Instagram followers. Seven years ago he was a 98 pounds and ‘an absolute twig’, as he puts it, who was bullied in school for being so scrawny. So he turned to YouTube videos for advice on lifting – including, it seems, Mr Seid’s – and began his ‘personal journey’ and ‘natural bodybuilding transformation’ into the 200 pound ripped, strangely ethereal and yet highly corporeal creature he is today.
With inevitable logic in a social me-dear world, his own transformative YouTube videos have gained him 1.4M YT followers keen to take inspiration of various kinds from his ‘muscle journey’ – and lucrative sponsorship from the spornowear company Gymshark.
Laid lifts several hours every day and somehow finds time to devour nearly 5000 calories a day in between workouts. And of course everything is documented on video. In fact, voracious eating in what appears to be the kitchen of his (always unseen) parents’ big suburban American house seems to be a major part of his videos – and a lot of what he and his two sidekicks eat isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘clean’. Visits to MacDonald’s drive-thru feature frequently. Youth and high metabolisms are so unfair.
Maybe this is because what fans really want from a David Laid video is the sense of hanging out with him and doing fun stuff – he is more of a ‘personality’ than Mr Seid, who is more of a… tongue. Or perhaps it’s because watching Laid work out in his inspirational videos is remarkably un-inspirational. It may be down to his long limbs and goofy expressions, but he seems to struggle and wobble with weights like a new-born foal trying to walk. Bambi the bodybuilder. Especially when he does his idiosyncratic version of a dead-lift, with his long legs so far apart they’re almost around his ears.
Then again, perhaps I miss the point that it is inspirational that someone so non-jockish should have succeeded in turning themselves into a muscle ice sculpture.
Stripped down to his pants and posing in the locker room after a pumping workout while other gym-goers pretend not to notice, Laid is a perplexing sight. The long, v-shaped torso, the vanishingly small percentage of body fat – Maccy D’s notwithstanding – the armoured abs, and the silver knight shoulders, beautiful and imposing yet flowingly pretty and willowy. It’s difficult to know quite how to respond. Laid looks less like a 20 year-old-from Atlantic City, NJ, who works out than an androgynous alien cyborg, crossed with an anime pre-Raphaelite painting. It’s almost as if he represents the next step in human development – after Jeff Seid (he’s three years younger – which in our accelerated culture now represents a generation).
His sidekicks are both cute and buff – and rather difficult to tell apart, save one has bigger pecs than the other – but shorter, less goofy, and more conventionally jock-ish: managing not to twitch and gurn and wobble when working out. They seem almost to have been selected to throw Laid’s startling appearance into sharper relief.
Actual, hormonal heterosexuality, as is often the case with these spornographic videos, doesn’t really raise its head – because spornosexuality is the sexuality here. The orientation or relationship that matters is the one the star has to his own body and our voyeurism of that relationship, even though our eyes are the mirror.
In one video, shot as many are in a kitchen, surrounded by boxes of newly arrived Gymshark stretchy-kinky superhero style gym wear that Laid and his chums have been trying on, enthusing over the tightness and texture, he shows his sidekicks some selfies scantily-clad female fans have just sent him. “How does that make you feel?” he asks. They look, but don’t reply.
Which is also kind of my reaction to Laid.
You are probably thinking that YouTube pro spornos, low, meatish animal cunning aside, are not the sharpest tools in the box. Or, rather, hoping that. Because of course, if you don’t have a body like theirs you need to clutch at any consolation you can. I know I do. All that pumping iron atrophies your brain, right?
Well, their pumping of iron that in turn pumps our nether regions may atrophy the voyeur’s brain, or at least starve it of oxygen, but not necessarily the sporno’s. Who has, after all, figured out a way to make himself indispensable in our hypervisual culture – unlike the intellectual.
Allow me to introduce you to Pietro Boselli, someone invented to cruelly deprive you of your faith in sporno stupidity, albeit with a dazzling and entirely disarming smile. Boselli, is living, geometrically consistent proof that spornos don’t have to be dumb. And also that for all their self-sexualisation, spornos can be romantico. Angelic, even. Boselli With his cherubic facial features, those bucolic, rosy cheeks that belie his 31 years, and that smiley submissiveness – and 2.7M Instagram followers – is the thoughtful, studied, articulate – but no less shredded – reply to Seid’s impish tongue. Boselli is sensuous lips. And nips.
Oh, and a big buff brain. Dubbed the world’s ‘sexiest maths teacher’ by the press – or perhaps by his own cunning PR – Boselli has a PhD in mechanical engineering, and taught undergraduate mathematics as a side-line for a while to lucky engineering students at London University. One of whom according to Wikipedia, ‘took note of his physique and stumbled on his modelling career’.
Stumbled. I suppose you could stumble while hyperventilating and rushing home to Google ‘Boselli’ + ‘naked’ in the privacy of your own bedroom.
Boselli, originally from Verona, Italy, is no longer involved in the world of old-skool engineering. He is fully-employed nowadays in the new wave of engineering – designing his own machine-body and working as a fitness model, offering body-blueprints for others to copy or just lust over. And it’s a stunningly successful project. In fact, Boselli was a model long before he was an engineer: he was chosen as the face of Armani Junior campaign in 1995 when he was just seven.
The boyish face and the smoothly mannish body are slightly reminiscent perhaps of the young Marky Mark in Mr Klein’s underpants, sans the compensatory bad-boy rapismo. Boselli is a very good boy on the streets – but, we like to think, a very naughty one between the sheets. The bona from Verona. As a reminder that we’re talking about second generation male tartiness here, Boselli was just four years old when Wahlberg was grabbing himself on the side of buses.
In addition to magazine ‘spreads’, he has his own YouTube channel where we can dissect the secrets of his beautiful body (Pietro Boselli’s Exercise Anatomy), and also listen to him offering thoughtful, philosophical advice about bodybuilding, and beauty tips, including ways to keep your skin hydrated by “drying your clothes indoors”. Pietro is not just a fitness coach – Pietro is a way of life.
Though admittedly it can be a little difficult to focus on all those words. His genetics are very distracting – and anyway tend to undermine his message. Most of us are never going to have skin or abs or lives like him, no matter how much washing we hang up in our untidy apartments. Paradoxically, that’s why we’re sat there in our onesies eating pizza and drooling over his fitness and beauty advice videos. Or is that just me?
The Bona from Verona likes to wax philosophical about the Cartesian ‘mind/body dualism’ in our culture. One which tends to both assume/hope he will be dumb because he’s hot – but which has also made him even more famous than he would have been if he had just been a pretty face and studly body. Boselli gave a TED lecture called ‘How I survived as professor on the runway and model in the classroom’ – looking like he was on a catwalk rather than in a lecture theatre while doing so. There was certainly a lot of telephoto lens action from the audience.
Boselli also likes to post photos of himself on Instagram/Facebook etc. in his Speedos, looking lonely somewhere scenic – or looking scenic somewhere lonely – usually with a self-improving motto attached. Such as:
Learn to think. Embrace being alone with your own thoughts.
I’m not sure whether it’s down to the Cartesian mind/body split, but these uplifting messages – as is often the case with the self-help slogans that many pro spornos go in for when posting sexy photos of themselves – seem sincere, and also a kind of parody at the same time. After all, the thoughts that Boselli is mostly in the business of provoking already involve a great deal of lonely self-embracing.
A little bit like Laid, Pietro is a confusing/intoxicating phenomenon to behold. Not just because of his boyish, Dorian-esque head on his pumped, smooth, statuesque body. Or his near-androgyny: all truly beautiful things, as Sontag famously noted, are a mixture of masculine and feminine – like early Tom of Finland drawings, Boselli has a wonderful, firm voluptuousness to his ‘hyper male’ body. But also because – unlike say Mr Seid who has made it perfectly clear exactly what we’re supposed to do with him – we don’t know whether to put Signore Boselli on a pedestal or in a sling.
His buff beauty, like his buff brain, is exquisitely discombobulating.
(Don’t worry, I’ve not forgotten Matt Does Fitness, who with 2M YouTube followers, he is possibly the UK’s most popular pro sporno. He and his assets deserve a scrutinising post all to himself – and will soon be getting one.)
A version of this post originally appeared on Mark Simpson’s Patreon
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