Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sunday Night at the Movies: TARZAN ESCAPES, dir. Richard Thorpe (1936)


I used to rush home after elementary school to watch old Tarzan movies on a local TV station, every weekday afternoon at 4:00.

I was born in (north) Africa, so jungle pictures had a peculiar fascination for me because, by my logic, I was African. (I did technically hold dual citizenship till age 14, but my fancy attached itself solely to the romance of Africa, and not so much the Libyan Sahara, where I was born on a U.S. military base.)

My earliest erotic dream had me dangling from Tarzan’s bare feet as he swung from vine to phallic vine beyond a Mutia escarpment where I was Boy and Jane did not exist.

One Tarzan film in particular left its mark on me—a movie that, though heavily censored, retains a general air of rawness and menace, laced with Freudian sex-dream symbolism from beginning to end.

Of all the MGM Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller, TARZAN ESCAPES, the third in the series, was the biggest problem for the studio. It went through two years of production and five directors—including William Wellman, who had directed the first Oscar-winning Best Picture (WINGS), and John Farrow, future husband of Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane) and, even later, Mia’s dad. Only Richard Thorpe is credited.

Adding to the movie’s mystique are rumors that the movie was jinxed. MGM producer Irving Thalberg died just as filming ended. John Buckler, who plays Captain Fry, died in a car accident a month before the premiere. Herbert Mundin, who plays Rawlins, died three years later, also in a car accident.

(As of this writing, the only surviving cast member is Cheeta the chimp, born in 1932 and holding the Guinness world record as the oldest living primate. He lives in Palm Springs—and paints for a living. His ghost-written autobiography—ME CHEETA: MY LIFE IN HOLLYWOOD—is scheduled for publication in February 2009.)

Cheeta, Untitled (2003)
--Cheeta, Untitled Painting (2003)

Ruined by censors and “too many cooks in the kitchen,” the third in the Tarzan series is clearly inferior to the previous two. TARZAN ESCAPES was cut, re-shot, and re-cut before release, since the studio felt earlier cuts were too violent.

The first version, directed by James McKay, featured giant vampire bats attacking adventurers trekking through a swamp. The second version snipped out the bats and introduced a new character to inject some comic relief into what the studio chiefs felt had become an overly savage story.

The character of Rita, Jane’s cousin, was nastier in the original version and in the end was killed by a giant ape. Originally a crocodile killed the arch-villain Fry, who sinks with a subdued gasp into bubbly gunk in the released version.

Further diluting the movie’s brutal Darwinian implications, MGM built an elaborate tree house for Tarzan and Jane—full of Rube Goldberg devices that not only domesticated but gentrified the couple, with hot and cold water, a chimp-powered ceiling fan, and an elephant-powered elevator. The new split-level house helped to disguise the fact that the jungle couple was technically unmarried, a problem as the Motion Picture Code became stricter in the mid-1930s. (Three years later, when the couple was blessed with a “son,” the baby had to fall asexually from the sky—dropped by a plane, instead of a stork.)

Still, the third film retains vestiges of the sensationalistic first version.

What excited me most as a kid—and by “excited” I do mean “sexually excited”—was less Weismuller himself—athletic, 6’3”, but unusually pasty and depilated for a jungle lord—than the art direction. The overall “look” of the first three films oozes exotic, feral sexiness—not the least part of which was Tarzan’s skimpy loincloth.

The MGM jungle is all hairy vines, furled ferns, and soft-focus flowers—suggestive of virility and fecundity at once—a pansexual Eden. Everywhere we see erect, hulking, moss-covered tree trunks, even underwater, even in a cave! Lurking through the paradise, we have nature “red in tooth in claw”—lions, leopards, crocodiles, cannibals, even man-eating plants—a constant reminder that survival of the fittest is the only law this world understands.

As in the previous film (TARZAN AND HIS MATE—a tellingly crude word choice—even Frankenstein has a “bride”), swimming is a metaphor for sex. The nudity in the original Tarzan-and-Jane water ballet doomed the scene to Code censorship, so it is re-enacted, with clothes this time, in TARZAN ESCAPES. Tarzan coerces Jane to “swim,” but despite her squeals and protestations, Jane appreciates the fact that her man takes control.

“Out here, Tarzan’s a king. How do I know what he’d be back there [in London]? Perhaps, at first, sort of a freak. And then, as he learned more about civilization, he’d realize he was dependent on his rich wife. He’d never tolerate that. Or if he did, it might be even worse.”

“Oh, Miss Parker, this looks like your lord and master coming now.”

The early Tarzan films’ mix of sex and deadly force brings to mind Freud’s theory of eros and thanatos (sex drive and death wish) and hints at sado-masochistic fantasy—that is, the repeated “man-handling” of Jane suggests rape, while avoiding the reality. When Tarzan first encounters Rita, Jane’s cousin, he grips the hair on the back of her head—as if she were a kitten to be held by its scruff. Of course, Tarzan’s roughhousing is merely a primitive, masculine form of affection … or interest—but Jane knows that she and Tarzan have a form of love that the civilized world cannot understand.

This passion has to be sublimated in a Hollywood film, though. Midway through the movie, Tarzan wrestles a giant crocodile to its death and yodels his famous victory call. He hands Jane a water flower and stands over her. His shadow lurches over her reclined body, and with a slight shudder Jane lets the blossom slip from her fingers back into the river.

Bondage too is a key point of the plot—necessitating the eventual “escape.” The opening scene establishes Captain Fry as a captor of wild animals. His custom-designed duralium cages prevent the teeth and claws of untamed nature from ripping civilization to shreds—the latter embodied by Jane’s white-clad and well-coifed cousins, also introduced at the opening. Bars, booby traps, inhospitable terrain, and “juju” all work to segregate the savage from the civilized—but these are boundaries Jane and Tarzan are able to transcend.

Subsequent events prove that Fry is a villain (first revealed in his brutal treatment of black native workers), and Tarzan, of course, an embodiment of wild nature and Fry’s intended quarry, repeatedly proves himself to be, as one character puts it, a “gentleman.”

Ironically, if predictably, the hunters become the hunted. Natives capture Fry, the cousins, and Jane and tie them to tree trunks. In one of the most haunting images of execution suggested in film (but not directly shown), the natives tie two of the hunting party’s servants spread-eagle to slender trees, restrained by ropes and crisscrossed. When the ropes are cut, the trees spring apart, thus ripping the victims in half.

At the end of the movie Tarzan escapes from the cage Fry has locked him in and unties the adventurers, while his elephant friends stampede through the village. Tarzan and the hunting party escape the natives by slipping through a cavern (“juju” for the superstitious natives, who do not follow), and it opens amazingly to a swamp, which the cave links to mountains! The geography alone is a dream.

The cave’s features are unnervingly gothic. Darkness, mist, black bubbling pools, dead jagged trees. That it represents death is underscored by Jane’s line: “This is the first time in Africa I haven’t been able to see some sign of a bird!”

I believe the standard Freudian interpretation of dreamt caves with monsters inside is that they represent repressed fears of the self, particularly of the unruly id, fount of lust and rage. So the final obstacle Tarzan and his train face in this adventure story aptly symbolizes Production Code-era suppression of sex and violence in American movies.

When they reach the safety of the other side, Tarzan forces Captain Fry to return to the cave to his certain death. This act of primitive justice shocked and thrilled me as a boy, as it does even now.

And for me, as a kid, the fact that this cave squirms with iguanas (reptiles signify the id-driven penis in Freud), growling in the misty shadows, thrilled me all the more.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Custom Made for a Daydreaming Boy

My last day of summer classes was on Monday, and contrary to my expectations, I have not spent the week reading.

I’ve picked up a couple of books, a gay detective story and a gay memoir, but couldn’t get past page 12 on either. The former is clogged up with similes, by my estimate 8-14 per page (like a toilet full of tampons), and the latter tries hard to be David Sedaris but without, you know, humor.

I’m willing to take part of the blame. I’m probably too tired after reading freshmen essays to read much of anything else just yet. I can’t even bring myself to crack open THE MAGUS, though a month ago I greatly enjoyed re-reading Fowles’ THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN.

I’m not watching television either. Everything I find on television is boring—and loud—not a winning combination. I’ve enjoyed watching some dvds (SHELTER is the best-acted gay-themed movie I think I’ve ever seen), but practically every movie I’d be interested in seeing I’ve already seen.

My e-correspondence has not been successful of late. I had already lost one friend a few weeks ago when I defended Barack Obama from charges that he’s a crypto-Muslim and anti-American—looking back, I should have edited the word “dumbfuck” before hitting send.

Last night another friend wrote, “I don’t blame Bush … he gets blamed for everything.” Besides deleting a couple of paragraphs detailing my daydream of personally stomping the President’s face into the sidewalk, I did little to spare the writer’s feelings or illusions. Obviously, these are friends who haven’t seen me in a long, long while—decades, really.

My dog and I take longer walks than usual—about three miles in the mornings and the evenings, when it’s not so hot outside. We play fetch a lot more than usual, too.

I’m gradually upping the amount of exercise I do—nothing spectacular, just push-ups, sit-ups, and curling my 15-pound dumbbells.

And jerking off. I’ve perfected my widescreen fantasy of nude-oil-wrestling Channing Tatum (twins, he turns out to be) in the weightlessness of Barbarella’s spaceship.

I should take a stab at cleaning up the apartment. I’ve washed five weeks’ worth of laundry in the last 48 hours. But there’s dusting to be done, too. And if I could get ambitious, I’d throw out some old stuff that’s just taking up space.

But ambition is what I lack. I am cut out for a life of idleness—physically and mentally. I lounge around the apartment with my dog Tom Ripley, pretty much taking my cues from him on what to do next. Napping excessively works for both of us.

What amazes me is the time just zips by! I used to think that time flew only when I was involved in something stimulating. But I’m hardly into my third nap of the day before I realize the day is over.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Driving 55

Long long ago I gave up on wishing I could be somebody else. Sure, I would change some things if I could, opportunities more than choices.

I’m 55, 55 and a quarter, on the crest of middle age, with the certainty of an eventual wipeout in view.

I’m single. By choice. No regrets. Naturally, opportunities for sweaty casual fucking thin out with age, especially for someone like me, lacking the desperation the situation perhaps calls for, averse to pursuing unexciting quarry for the sake of having my ticket punched. But, honestly, no regrets.

As a community college instructor, I have good seats for observing the young—the beautiful and the not so beautiful—so I can say with certainty that I do not wish to be young again. I like young people, looking at them and teaching them and hearing their outlooks on life. But I do not want to join them. Envy is not what I am writing about.

Still I want to be the best that I can be, and I have to admit I have let myself go lately. I haven’t stepped in a gym for five years. Letting oneself go is of course liberating in its own way—a way of shouting fuck you to other people’s expectations—but carried too far, it dims energy, pleasure, and hopefulness.

I think it would do me good to look after myself better than I have been doing.

To live is to move forward.

Monday, June 23, 2008

“Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits"

George Carlin (1937-2008); Dody Goodman (1914-2008)

I never found George Carlin either offensive or funny, though I believe people when they say how much his standup meant to them. He seemed like a nice enough guy in interviews, and I hate to hear that anyone decent has died, but I didn’t get him, I guess … like the “seven words” bit, a classic, but these words have not made me feel giddy or naughty since I was maybe thirteen. And it’s not as if he was the first comic to use these words.

Carlin is still a hard act to follow, but comic actress Dody Goodman also died yesterday, in the shadows of the announcement of his death. She, at least, I thought was funny—though, a bit shrill in long exposures—thankfully, she never was onscreen long enough to wear out her welcome with me. She wasn’t a standup comic, at least not to my knowledge, but her distinctive voice and timing, along with her “dizzy redhead” look of perpetual amazement, worked well for her in shows like MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN and the small character roles she got in films like BEDTIME STORY and GREASE.

I’m kinda lukewarm in the eulogies department, I see. Sorry about that, for all you fans out there. But today I walked out into the sunlight after my classes and suddenly realized I was walking in a different, distinctive way, not my usual stride.

Then it occurred to me that I was walking like my friend Luis used to walk on days like this, Luis who died four years ago last month of complications with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

That realization choked me up all of a sudden, and I thought, “Shit. Luis should be here now, walking his own motherfucking walk.”

So for those of you who knew or loved Carlin or Goodman, my thoughts are with you now, and with my pal Luis.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sunday Night at the Movies: NORTH BY NORTHWEST, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1959)

North by Northwest

Trains play key roles in a number of Hitchcock films, including THE LADY VANISHES, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and, of course, STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

A train figures prominently in NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The train is the Twentieth Century Limited, which ran from New York to Chicago for 65 years.

Other forms of transportation (automobiles, planes) also play pivotal roles in NxNW—and, as if to point up the importance of transportation in the story, Hitch’s precocious cameo shows the director just missing his bus in Manhattan.

Famously, the plane in NxNW is a threat, as is the automobile. The bad guys use them creatively but ineffectively to try to kill the main character, Roger Thornhill, played with trademark suavity by Cary Grant, perhaps my favorite classic movie star, whose wit and elegance Hollywood has tried to rediscover in subsequent leading men from Tony Curtis to George Clooney.

But Grant is the quintessential leading man, in much the way that NxNW is the quintessential Hitchcock movie … by design, it turns out—screenwriter Ernest Lehman wrote the scrpt, he said, to be “the Hitchcock film to end all Hitchcock films.”

The modern world of machines is no friend of Thornhill—except perhaps for the train, even one ominously named after the century of American technology and global influence, which ambivalently both saves our protagonist and further complicates his already bad situation.

Like a number of Hitchcock’s other films, this one is an examination of American ethics and power—or the ethics of power—or, more particularly, it exploits Hitchcock’s delight in discovering menace in innocuous and seemingly innocent objects, people, and settings—smalltown America, birds, shy motel clerks, the Statue of Liberty, the U.N., sacks of potatoes, and the sunny wide-open spaces of the Corn Belt.

The trouble Thornhill finds himself in fairly early in the plot stems from the shadowy workings of a think tank in the U.S. Intelligence Agency, over which a man simply called The Professor, presides. The movie climaxes at Mt. Rushmore, where Thornhill tries to elude the bad guys one last time by scampering across the gargantuan, somewhat contemptuous stone faces of Presidents Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and Roosevelt, along with his newly found romantic interest, Eve Kendell (played by Eva Marie Saint in the archetypically glacial blonde mode Hitch favored in heroines).

So the film, planted firmly in the middle of the Cold War, is about espionage, not just as a plot device, but as a way to examine the absence of honesty in modern discourse, now that the USA is a world power.

NxNW has Hitchcock’s usual “wronged man accused of a crime he did not commit” in Thornhill, whose very name evokes Christlike suffering on a new Calvary. But Thornhill is no saint or innocent—his initials are “ROT”—and like the government bigshots who manipulate his reality, he, a Madison Avenue adman, manipulates the reality of the masses. Even more, he fakes chivalry to snatch other people’s taxicabs and escape crowded elevators, and he’s not above bribing his own mother to lie for him.

In the film, mirrored surfaces symbolize the characters’ duplicity and dishonesty—which Saul Bass’s opening credits set up, showing high-rise office windows in Manhattan, indifferently reflecting the comings and goings of the insignificant little citizens below.

The overall look of the film further stresses the point of how impersonal the world has become. Among other things, the movie is quintessentially a modernist work.

Many scenes seem deliberately allusive to Mondrian’s paintings—intersecting lines and sharp angles. The iconic crop-duster scene is carefully composed in diagonal and horizontal lines until, unexpectedly and suddenly, the plane flies directly towards the camera—and us the audience.

Hitchcock’s previous film VERTIGO focused on the fears and obsessions of James Stewart’s character and how they lead him to tragic realizations about his own dark motives, in part with the vibrant colors of San Francisco and the mesmerizing swirling of waves at Big Sur and Kim Novack’s hairdo. (The same swirling movement Hitch used again in PSYCHO, the shower water and blood whirling down the drain.)

Bernard Hermann’s musical score for VERTIGO is beautifully romantic, but his score for NxNW gallops with anxious intensity, punctuated at key moments with clashing cymbals.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST is, apart from Eve Kendell’s bright red coat at the end, almost devoid of color—with grays dominating virtually every scene—the Manhattan skyscrapers, the chrome train, and the looming stone faces at the end. Everything is oversize and threatening and, more importantly, inorganic—civilization removed from nature and humanity.

And deadpan incongruities like the housekeeper Anna’s farewell to arch-villain Vandamme with “God bless you” or the U.S. intelligence officer’s callous response to Thornhill’s life-threatening predicament (“It’s so horribly sad, how is it I feel like laughing?”) suggest to me that NxNW, which operates so obviously on the surface to be dismissible as “just entertainment,” embodies the director’s strongest critique of and skepticism about the dreams and values of his newly adopted homeland.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Baby Don't Pull Away

Today’s topic is intimacy. People think of sex immediately, but, though fucking is intimate, intimacy does not have to be erotic.

Americans are hung up today over closeness and touch. (I include myself to a large extent.) Gone are the days when two hetero guys might share a bed or hold hands and not get a little freaked out. Believe it or not, in the nineteenth century in America, two dudes holding hands was no big deal. Almost gone are the days when two girls can feel comfortable being openly affectionate.

Forget kids. Forget third grade teachers giving the kids a hug and running their fingers through the kids’ hair. Parents and their attorneys would have a conniption. On the one hand, this is tragic, because kids, like dogs, don’t have much vocabulary for expressing and understanding intimacy, and they sometimes need to be touched, picked up, carried around on some adult’s shoulders. To feel adored. To feel protected. To feel noticed.

No, not abused. And not needlessly pushed around either—since, on the other hand, a high percentage of adult-kid touching instigated by the adult serves the ego and interests mainly of the adult, not so much the kid—Remember Aunt Whazzit smashing your tiny face into her itchy wool sweater.

But, still, I could see an adult and a child bonding quite nicely while both use crayons to draw together on a nice big square of construction paper on the living-room floor. Unplug the Wii for a few hours.

Intersubjectivity is a fancy word for intimacy. Sharing and entering into each other’s subjective states. Opening up. Telling your story and listening to the other guy’s story. Empathizing.

Doesn’t have to be a 12-step program. Doesn’t have to be therapy. And doesn’t have to be foreplay.

One of the most intimate things an ex and I did back when we were partners was buy two copies of Larry Rivers’ WHAT DID I DO? and over a couple of days alternated reading chapters to each other aloud. Laughing so hard at parts of it, we collapsed into tears. Having someone read aloud to you is surprisingly intimate. Try it.

Later, some years later, the two of us met up again, post-breakup, at the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park. We were waiting for a third friend to show, who did not show, and it started to rain. We sat under an awning at the tea house, drinking green tea and nibbling rice crackers. We talked for two or three hours about peaceful, friendly, loving matters while watching the rain fall.

One of the great moments of my life.

Accumulating thousands of MySpace friends is not intimacy. It’s statistics.

Intimacy is face to face, with or without touching, with or without speaking. It’s sharing of the self. Humming together. Painting each other’s nails. Inspecting each other’s fur for fleas, like apes.

It requires some imagination—to get inside another person’s head and look at the world through his or her eyes. It requires heightened awareness of sensation—you have to sense the person’s aura or physical warmth.

It’s the one true path to wisdom and understanding.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

24 Satisfying Things that Make Every Day a Pleasure



jerking off

picking off a dry scab, touching the pink new skin underneath

smelling hot food

cuddling a pet

taking off shoes

getting mail

scratching an itch

pulling the sheet and the blanket up to your collarbone

noticing clouds or stars or squirrels or pinecones

passing the asshole who just cut you off on the freeway

remembering a dream or a part of a dream

pouring wine into a glass

popping a pimple or blackhead

making somebody smile

taking a deep breath


leaning against a tree

laughing till you cry

counting your money

blowing your nose

having the last word

massaging your toes

Monday, June 16, 2008

Republicans for Obama

I missed the story when it was news late in April, but in the new issue of ROLLING STONE I saw that Julie Nixon Eisenhower made the maximum possible single-person contribution to Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign.

Yep, she is the daughter of President Nixon and the granddaughter-in-law of President Eisenhower—still a Republican, but throwing her weight behind Obama, not McCain.

Other conservative Americans are also considering Obama. Besides Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of the current President, who announced on the Larry King show that she might vote for Obama, Obama gets favorable words (though not actual endorsements and contributions) also from Colin Powell (who basically said he would not vote for Obama just because he’s black any more than he would vote for McCain just because he’s a veteran) and Peggy Noonan, primary speechwriter for President Reagan.

Does this mean these folks are now liberal? Hardly. For the most part they are reacting against either “neocon”-brand conservatism, which basically has directed White House foreign policy for the past eight years, if not longer, or the scary influence of the military-industrial complex over U.S. politics in both major parties, which has existed at least since President Eisenhower pulled its lid off in his farewell speech in 1961.

These conservatives see Obama as a breath of fresh air in the corrosive world of politics, war-mongering, and corporate greed. Their brand of conservatism calls for fiscal responsibility, reluctance to enter into foreign conflicts, and libertarian views on matters of personal choice—like abortion and gay rights.

Does this then mean that Obama is conservative? Not exactly. In some respects, perhaps yes, if we accept the old-fashioned Goldwater sense of a conservative. Barry Goldwater parted company with Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s over the oppressive influence of the Moral Majority and similar religious-based groups in the Republican Party, and, despite his hawklike militarism of the 1960s, basically espoused the traditional rightwing ideals stated above.

Obama is hardly a libertarian, though. Yet he does not yet appear to be in anybody’s pocket—not the religious right’s, not corporate interests’. His avoidance of the jargon of fear and hysteria, which other politicians have exploited for so long now, appeals to the more rational, commonsense adherents to conservative politics.

Now that McCain so readily embraces Bushism and, in particular, the Iraq war, even thinking people on the right are turning away from him—and seeking a new approach, apparently even if it comes out of the Democratic Party.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Night at the Movies: HATARI! dir. Howard Hawks (1962)


One of my favorite films when I was a boy, HATARI! is a film that exhibits the usual themes of Howard Hawks’s previous films—professionalism and collaboration among significantly different personality types who put their unique strengths behind the tasks at hand—no less true of the blonde and brunette in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES than of the relentless newshounds in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, the snowbound scientists of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, or the cowboys in RED RIVER.

In this case, the director’s auteurist tendencies parallel a new Cold War idealism inspired by JFK’s Presidency and the newly relevant United Nations, a sensibility seen here in John Wayne leading an international cast of actors from Germany (Hardy Kruger), Italy (Elsa Martinelli), the USA (Red Buttons, Bruce Cabot), France (Gerard Blain, Michele Girardon), and (?) Mexico (Valentin de Vargas).

The film foregrounds the characters’ ethnicities and nationalities—Cabot’s character is called “the Indian,” Blain’s character is called “the Frenchman,” and Martinelli is called “the Italian import.”

The task at hand in HATARI! (Swahili for “danger”) is the capture of African wild animals for the global marketplace of zoos.

The movie is also relatively unselfconscious about homoerotic implications of the makeshift “family” formed by this community of mostly men. We learn early in the film, for instance, that Kruger and Buttons share a single pair of pajamas (and Vargas butchly announces that he wears no pajamas at all).

And in a direct nod to RED RIVER, Blain and Kruger bond with each other by trading punches to the jaw and engaging in a sharpshooter’s contest—the latter involving ostentatious displays of phallic firearms, the former bringing the two into direct physical contact. Their rivalry over the same girl resolves itself by bringing the two men even closer together, after Blain saves Kruger’s life. The two seem all but inseparable by story’s end--and by then the girl is out of the picture.

And despite a slowly budding romance between Wayne and Martinelli (with 28 years gaping in between), the mating and nesting are mainly Platonic—witness Martinelli’s “offspring”: three orphaned elephant calves. And Kruger kiddingly calls Wayne “Papa.”

For most of the film, the two women are alternately sexualized and desexualized. We first meet Girardon when she offhandedly asks Kruger to help her zip up the back of her dress—an action performed fraternally but setting up the male crew’s gradual realization that she has blossomed into a woman.

And Martinelli first appears in Wayne’s bed (clearly getting the cart ahead of the horse here), and yet the scene, rich with sixties-style innuendo, remains as chaste as a slumber party at Doris Day’s. She later lets the guys call her “Dallas,” to match Girardon’s gender-neutral “Brandy.”

Gender confusion becomes a running gag in the movie. Buttons mistakenly tries to milk a ram. Later, he calls a male elephant “she” by mistake. (Martinelli reverses this error later in the movie.) Martinelli has to play “top” in her romance with Wayne, and Wayne struggles to maintain his maidenly aloofness, before finally melting into her kiss.

At its worst, the film resembles what it is—a plot designed to link together unconnected chase-and-capture episodes shot on location in Africa, before Hawks assembled the cast and brought them to Africa to shoot the “story” parts of the film. The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, frequent collaborator with Hawks and one of the female pioneers in pulp science fiction, manages remarkably well to string together disparate plot elements—action sequences unmatched in other adventure movies and unfashionably (now) long scenes of everyday life, work, and idleness at the compound.

Henry Mancini’s score for HATARI! is his best ever—not just for the popular “Baby Elephant Walk” but for its jazzy, Africa-flavored symphonic opening, backing up an exciting pursuit of a rhinoceros.

And last there are the resonances of the casting—Bruce Cabot, who had 30 years before hunted the biggest game of all, King Kong, on a mythical island off the coast of Africa; Red Buttons, in a sense reprising his Oscar-winning (SAYONARA) performance as a ladies’ man in exotic places; Valentin de Vargas, after a decade of playing nameless Latin thugs in BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, TOUCH OF EVIL, and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, graduating to what might have been his first sympathetic role; and, of course, John Wayne, uncharacteristically passive and avuncular as the team leader and peacemaker.

Regrettably, the film’s portrayal of international cooperation and pan-ethnic harmony does not extend to the native Africans, who mainly reside in the background. Still, the film is not overtly racist—African cultures are treated as mildly amusing (to Western eyes) but are never derided—as they were in, say, Hollywood’s earlier jungle pictures.

HATARI! lacks the rapid edits of 21st-century action films—and none of the animals are computer-generated effects—but, taken on its own laidback terms, the movie still holds up today. And, in subtle ways, it subverts old prejudices and hints at filmmaking techniques to come by directors like Altman and Spielberg in the 1970s.

The Mystery of the Strawberry Ice Cream Float

My favorite ice cream float as a kid was strawberry ice cream doused with 7-Up.

It’s been decades since I had this treat, so this past week I bought 1.75 quarts of Breyer’s All Natural Real Strawberry Ice Cream and a six-pack of 7-Up.

The results were nothing like what I remembered. The ice cream made the soda taste medicinal—like Alka-Seltzer. At first, I thought the difference was due to changes in my taste buds … or my taste preferences.

Then looking over the listed ingredients, I hit upon my current theory—the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) in the 7-Up might clash with the cane sugar in the ice cream.

Most U.S. manufacturers replaced the natural sugar in soda pop with HFCS between 1975 and 1985. Mexican soft drinks still contain pure cane sugar, which studies indicate is more flavorful and surprisingly less fattening than HFCS. Moreover, even though HFCS has the same calorie count as sugar, it’s less satisfying: that is, you still crave more to drink or eat after supposedly having your fill.

Most packaged ice creams, including Ben & Jerry’s and Haagen-Dazs, use HFCS instead of cane or beet sugar. Although Breyer’s has recently introduced tara gum and whey to its recipes, it’s still using real sugar in its “All Natural” brand ice creams.

So the lesson to take home, I think, is that the next time I try to make this treat, I need to use 7-Up imported from Mexico or else Jones Pure Cane Lemon Lime Soda, instead--just to put my theory to the test

Saturday, June 14, 2008

My Father

He died almost 7 years ago, shortly after raising the flag at half-mast the day after the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon.

At age 65 he could still hold his entire body horizontally with just his hands grasping a vertical pole.

As a boy, he saw his own father die, falling drunkenly off a sleigh and run over by the blades.

In his early 20s, he conducted a streetcar in Milwaukee.

In the 1940s he worked in the southern California desert on the then-experimental jet planes.

He met my mother (his second wife) at the Black Cat Club in Miami, after World War II.

Having been treated badly for being German American while growing up in the Midwest between the two world wars, he wouldn’t allow me to study the German language in school.

He never spanked me, but he did yell at me once for not recognizing a Phillips head screwdriver.

Our long-distance phone conversations never lasted more than three minutes—tops.

When we lived in Fort Walton Beach, FL, he tied a pet rabbit of mine to the trunk of a tree and shot it with a bow and arrow, and my mother cooked the rabbit for dinner that evening.

In his later years he become fascinated with his family’s genealogy.

He liked Bette Midler’s singing voice.

He liked James Bond and Pink Panther movies.

Despite having had a series of heart attacks, he was my mother’s principal caregiver in her dementia during the last years of her life.

He seldom praised anything—his highest praise was to say that something was “not bad.”

He hated Father’s Day and grumbled over any attempt I made to celebrate it with him.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Running Away and Joining the Circus

Eating and drinking with Barbara and Shane last night, I mentioned that, when I was a kid living in Altus, Oklahoma, my mother once encouraged me to run away and join the circus.

At the time, having already given up ambitions of being a missionary to Africa (to see wild animals) or a veterinarian (to play with other people’s pets), I was determined to train animals for the circus. I was eight, maybe nine.

So when the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus came to Altus, my parents and I went—back in the days when circuses were still under a big tent top, smelling of straw, cotton candy, popcorn butter, and animal feces.

During the opening parade, as the afternoon’s performers gaily circled the rings, my mother pointed out a baby elephant, its trunk twirled around its mother’s tail.

“Go,” she said, nudging my shoulder. “Run jump on the back of that baby elephant.”

“Wha-?” I mumbled.

My dad was occupied with his 8-mm camera, shooting feathery pink-sequined trapeze artists in fishnet stockings.

“Hop on the baby elephant’s back,” my mother repeated. Seriously. “Do it. This is how careers are made.”

I didn’t, and my mother didn’t push the matter further, except vaguely to convey her low opinion of my gumption.

It’s not much of a story, I know. But my friends thought I should write it down. If I weren’t going to write my own bestselling memoir, I could at least offer it up as fodder for aspiring writers to use in their work. (Again, you see, the question of my gumption, or lack thereof.)

Anyway, here it is, then, written down.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Message Is You Don't Kill Gays in South Carolina Unless You Love Your Mother

The guy who delivered the fatal blow to William Sean Kennedy last year appeared in court today in Greenville, SC, for sentencing. Kennedy was 20 and gay. His assailant was 18.

Although the arrest warrant stated that the reason for the assault was dislike of the victim’s “sexual identity,” the original charge of murder was reduced to manslaughter, presumably because “no malicious intent” was involved—just a friendly punch in the face—fuck it if queers have no sense of fun.

The defendant was found guilty, but today the judge reduced the 5-year sentence to 3 years, minus the 7 months the killer has already spent in the custody of his mother, after being released from jail on $25,000 bail. He could be released on parole in 2 years.

I’m not a vengeful, eye-for-an-eye sort of guy, but I find it hard to swallow that this senseless death has been dealt with justly.

Jesus. Wesley Snipes got 3 years in jail for not paying all his taxes—and he was sentenced to real jail, not to his old bedroom at Mother’s.

(Postscript--Last month an Egyptian court sentenced 5 men to 3 years in prison just for being homosexual.)

Dear Congressman David Price, North Carolina

Dear Congressman Price:

I strongly support Dennis Kucinich's call for impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush and urge you to lend your support to this measure.

If only for the evidence supporting allegations that the President and his staff knowingly and willfully led the U.S. Congress and the American people into war with Iraq under false pretenses, the President's actions in advocating for and conducting the war require the close scrutiny and authority that a legal trial would confer.

Failure to give this matter at least equal weight with the investigation of former President Clinton's alleged dishonesty regarding his moral conduct in office would be a grievous inequity in our system of checks and balances. To leave the matter entirely in the hands of the media and public opinion to debate and settle would fail to bring the necessary gravity and scrutiny to the matter of why the United States entered into this conflict.

Thank you for your consideration of my request.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Harry Lockhart: She had something, that gal tonight, this quality. Like the girl from high school ... the one that got away. You know what I mean? That haunts you still.

Gay Perry: Yeah, I had that.

HL: You did?

GP: Bobby Mills.

HL: Huh. Well, maybe you should try to get in touch with him. I got 5 bucks says you could still get him.

GP: Really? That's funny. I got a 10 says, "Pass the pepper." I got two quarters singing harmony on "Moonlight in Vermont."

HL: What?

GP: Talking money.

HL: A talking monkey?

GP: Talking monkey, yeah. Came here from the future. Ugly sucker. Only says, "Ficus."

--KISS KISS BANG BANG, writ. and dir. Shane Black (2005), with Robert Downey Jr. as Harry Lockhart and Val Kilmer as Gay Perry

Nobody writes dialogue like this ... only Shane Black and Groucho Marx. Black is the highly paid screenwriter of a series of "L" action movies--LETHAL WEAPON, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, and THE LAST BOY SCOUT, which gave Bruce Willis the quip, "I think I fucked a squirrel to death ..." (trust me, in context, it was hilarious).

Black's 2005 directorial debut, KISS KISS BANG BANG, is an under-appreciated, media-savvy noir comedy, with bullets and one-liners flying in rapid-fire succession. And like other Black screenplays, KKBB centers on the Christmas season, with a distinctive L.A. (i.e., neon decadent) gloss. Black is one of a small band of screenwriters (Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman) whose scripts have distinctive tendencies.

And this one has a gay private detective, nicknamed Gay Perry, played, without affectations, by Val Kilmer. As a development in the action genre, this is kind of a big deal because the unwritten rule in action films is that heroes are 100% straight and gay characters are good only for punchlines and a punch in the face.

Black's previous screenplays bear an undercurrent of homoeroticism (typical buddy film pairings and male bonding) and occasionally a sense of homosexual menace--like Taylor Negron's Milo, the psychotic sissy in TLBS--not to mention the obligatory climactic torture scene in which Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis has to be stripped and drenched--or, in Geena Davis's case in TLKG, water-boarded till her blouse is see-through.

Gay Perry is not a typical Hollywood gay--neither the righteous long-suffering role model nor the funny, flighty sidekick. He is, in his own words, "not a nice guy." He can handle himself in a fight. And he's not idealistic or sentimental about the work he does. Like most noir heroes, he apparently has got his demons--something in the past certainly turned him into the half-jaded cynic that he is.

But apart from the passing reference to "Bobby Mills" and some significant eye contact with a male nurse, we don't see Perry in sexual situations. His gay/straight buddying with Harry Lockhart parallels (and significantly illuminates) the black/white buddying in LW, TLKG, and TLBS.

Typically you won't hear me call for sequels, but I think I would enjoying seeing Gay Perry and Harry team up again sometime--perhaps in KISS KISS KISS BANG BANG BANG.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Let It Be Known that Homosexuals Are Not Cowards"

Willem Arondeus
Willem Arondeus, 1894-1943

"Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards": These are the last words of Dutch artist and author Willem Arondeus, executed for his actions in resisting the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

The son of theater costume designers, at age 17 Arondeus announced his homosexuality to his parents, who strongly opposed this path for their son. He ran away from home at age 18.

Through most of the 1930s, he lived with his young lover, Jan Tijssen, away from the city, in the Dutch countryside. His income was modest, and his paintings, poems, and fiction brought him little income and no fame.

Soon after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, Arondeus and Tijssen broke up, and Arondeus, aware of the Nazi plan to ship Dutch-born Jews to Poland for extermination, founded an underground periodical to urge other Dutch artists to resist the Nazis and create subversive, anti-fascist artworks. He also personally forged false identity papers to assist Jews attempting to escape the country.

In 1943, he and others bombed the census bureau in Amsterdam, to prevent the Nazis from accessing the names and addresses of "registered" Jews. He was caught and executed by firing squad, along with 11 cohorts, a month before he would have turned 49.

The post-war Dutch government awarded him a posthumous medal of honor, but, despite his last wishes, the public was not informed of his homosexuality until 1990.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Sweet Silver Song of a Lark

I've been on a weird Rodgers and Hammerstein jag lately. In the past 120 hours I have watched the old movie versions of South Pacific (twice), Carousel, Oklahoma!, The King and I, and, for the first time in my life (amazing for any 55 year old gay man), The Sound of Music.

I used to reject these shiny confections without giving them a second thought; now I'm hooked on them, and for the exact reasons I used to reject them--their easy sentimentality and glossy professionalism.

The vast outdoorsiness of South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and, to a lesser degree, The Sound of Music (whose Alps try a little too hard to impress, I think), knocks my socks off. I can reconcile myself to Josh Logan's use of color filters to further de-realize the musical numbers in South Pacific, but the crisp Coplandesque vistas of Oklahoma! take the prize.

"Bali H'ai," "Happy Talk," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Climb Every Mountain," and "Oh What a Beautiful Morning" are the hymns of my new church. And the merry melancholy of the "Carousel Theme" reduces me to sobs, as it always did, on an old LP compilation I owned as a teenager, long before I knew the ill-fated love story for which it is the background.

And speaking of hymns, God bless the paganism of these old musicals--"the hills ARE alive," God damn it, and NOT with intelligent design--take, for example, the King of Siam's heartfelt rejection of Moses in favor of Darwin, Ado Annie's pity for all the undervalued dick of the world, Aunt Eller's appreciation for French nudes imported all the way from Kansas City (where they've gone about as "fer as they can go") and her heroic embrace of pioneer hardiness (which, not God, is the only help for a broken heart or the loneliness and neglect of old age), Bloody Mary's "saxy" mysticism, and Jigger Craigin's one redeeming moment of insight as he sings, "There's nuthin' as bad for a woman as a man who thinks he is good." Even Christlike Mother Superior urges the ADHD Maria to "find [her] dream," rather than bury herself in cloistered sanctity.

You'll find no Sondheim doom and gloom in Rodgers and Hammerstein, no Webber and Rice irony--still, the rascals receive more sympathy than the prudes, and ultimately they (usually) prove themselves morally superior to the audience's first impression of them--Luther Billis, Max Detweiler, the Baroness, Kralahome, Mrs. Mullins, and Ali Hakim, all grow hearts before taking their final bows.

In my revised vision of heaven, decorated with crystal pentagrams hanging on invisible thread, I would be greeted by shirtless Seabees showering on the beach and tap-dancing cowboys twirling their lariats. It's gonna be a real nice clambake.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Capital T

People who talk only about truth seldom care about the facts.

Truth is transcendent, a high ideal, ethereal, its ghostly presence haunting every crusade, every pogrom, every witch-burning. Truth accounts for more bloodshed than the mere facts could muster. Even religion has fewer martyrs and victims than the truth.

When our bigotry and obscurantism need justification, truth is there to do the job for us. It is a cancer of feelings unchecked by knowledge or reason.

The truth is seldom in touch with reality. Reality, after all, is fleeting, down to earth, unambitious, and superficial, but truth is blindly certain, deep, and unchangeable. It can not be figured out. The truth doesn't even have to make sense. It exists beyond doubt, it is immune to inquiry and proof. It demands our acceptance, unconditionally, without reservation.

Truth hurts.

We can argue the facts, but truth is something we gotta die for.

Don't trust people trying to sell you on truth, capital T.

Be a smart animal. Trust the senses, and keep them keen. Test the truth against the hard, cold gleam of the facts. Don't be seduced by the immaterial glamour of truth--or its arrogant half-wit sibling, honor--the facts, hard, limited and finite, are usually enough--the facts and the good sense to reason clearly and justly.


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