Given the sudden but thorough onset of my annual winter sluggishness and the (literally) exponential increase in the difficulty of my pointless algebra studies, it’s unsurprising that I haven’t posted here since the bitterly disappointing November elections. Oh, yes, there’s also the impending four-year depression that’s sure to be brought on by said election... but, aided by articles like this one on Salon, I hope that I’ve gained a bit of perspective by now, or at least learned to let my anger usurp my despair.
I’m actually in a bit of a politically/culturally bipolar phase. Today I might feel confident that, when the idea of impending war, cultural repression, economic depression, and erosion of civil liberties becomes really intolerable, there’s bound to be an upsurge of reason, tolerance, and humaneness that will eventually cause the ignorant, fear-centered insanity of those inscrutable red states to ebb. However, tomorrow’s news reports of the latest Bush administration lunacy could easily drag me back into a despondency spiral; some new Kinsey protest or FCC ridiculousness could cause me to consider my country to be firmly in the grip of a vast “liberal-elite-intelligentsia”-bashing ignoramus conspiracy ever ready with a punitive response to any intellectual curiosity or attempts at “dangerous” pluralism, open-mindedness, and understanding of the world around us.
I’ve been in and out of these moods over the past couple of months as I’ve treated myself to, among many other things I’m sad not to have time or energy to get into here, a trilogy combining precisely those “decadent” elements of gay sex and rock ‘n roll that a great many Americans seem to believe are poised to topple the nation into moral oblivion: Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story, the Jobriath compilation Lonely Planet Boy, and Todd Haynes’s just-released-to-DVD short, Dottie Gets Spanked. Each is, in its own way, a fine, accomplished work, but the fact that every one of these pieces would undoubtedly be reviled by and/or go over the heads of those mythologized “values”-voting types who’ve turned so many of our supposedly united states red (these proud historical amnesiacs seem to have forgotten all about how “red,” until very recently, was the quite unambiguous color-signifier of Communism) made each one seem that much more deliciously subversive. The dollar may be plunging, but the currency of what once again embodies the thrill of the term “shock value” has never been higher.
Like most people under 40, I first heard of Jobriath through his tireless booster, Morrissey (whose recent appearance on “Letterman,” wherein he vocalized and gesticulated away while wearing a clerical collar and rosary topped off with a snappy sport coat as his band, all clad in matching Jobriath T-shirts, rocked their way through “First of the Gang to Die,” will be etched in my memory well into the foreseeable future as a glorious televised vindication of all that is right with the world). The inner sleeve of one of the latter’s Japanese singles from the early 1990’s captures the members of his band of the period contemplating a Jobriath album sleeve. It seems like ever since, the big M been incapable of letting any opportunity to expound in public pass him by without commenting on the greatness of Jobriath; recordings of this late American would-be glam star’s extravagant melodicizing often emanate from the PA before Morrissey takes the stage.
Those recordings are now something you can have at home thanks to Morrissey’s Attack imprint (which, as previously mentioned here, has also released albums by his other heroes, Nancy Sinatra and The New York Dolls). Lonely Planet Boy culls both of Jobriath’s long, long out of print and extremely rare Elektra LPs (Jobriath, from 1973, and Creatures of the Street, released in ‘74), and these songs, along with Bolan’s from Electric Warrior, Bowie’s from Ziggy Stardust, Ferry’s from Roxy Music (and, I would submit, the Mael brothers’ from Kimono My House), exemplify, in both their lush, luscious form and their achingly aestheticized, simultaneously nostalgic and radically forward-looking content, that hoary old “glam rock” moniker: There’s a literally cultivated air to Jobriath’s music, and the sound emanating from his lively imagination is that of “classical training” and a very thorough knowledge of pre-rock pop music meeting all the self-aware, self-conscious, self-aggrandizing shimmer of street-level sexual revolution. It’s this contrast-- an imperious oversophistication meets the below-the-belt pleasures of rock ‘n roll-- that gave glam its edge. I’m sure there have been times in my life when I’ve almost single-handedly kept the the Reese’s company afloat, but that very fortunate chocolate and peanut butter mishap of yore has nothing on “Hey! You got Chuck Berry in my Cole Porter!”
From Lonely Planet Boy’s opening salvo “Heartbeat,” in which Jobriath’s initial a cappella, power-ballad yowl of “You’re our voice/On the street” sets aloft a tender melody with a “Moonlight Sonata” undertow, through to the closer, a high camp silver-screen hymn called “Dietrich/Fondyke,” the pathos, the defiance, the endlessly elegant expressiveness never let up. The worshipful ballad “Space Clown” is the femme stepchild of “Tears of a Clown,” “Be Still” is a florid, tender love song with a delectable gospel chorus and the curiously touching line, “I know the child I am has hurt you/And I was a woman when I made you cry/But a little boy wants to dry your tears,” and the driving “Imaman,” with its Clara Bow references and ferocious harpsichord, is a languorous genderfuck . My favorite Jobriath composition, “Movie Queen,” is simply brilliant; a brief, whimsical, Tin Pan Alley piano interlude that somehow precisely captures the ecstatic feeling of fantasy and idealization-- as epitomized by the cinema-- being inevitably and indelibly shaded with a certain loneliness.
It’s that very tenuous relationship between sadness and beauty, a protectiveness towards one’s most precious and free imaginings in the face of constant battery at the hands of the mundane, workaday world, that gives this kind of music its impact, and Lonely Planet Boy collects some dazzling specimens.
Although Edmund White is more familiar to me as a biographer and essayist (his biographies of Proust and Genet are first-rate and widely admired), A Boy’s Own Life is, according to the thoughtful preface by Allan Gurganus (White’s queer-literati compatriot) included in my Modern Library edition, considered the cream of the gay-novel crop.
The novel is an autobiographical account of a gay American childhood, and White’s structure, a rich non-chronological stew in which one’s memory of his past life is the churning plenum and events rise to the surface and then re-submerge themselves even as others bubble up to take their place, giving the feeling that each ingredient, each episode, has been selected for its narrative fecundity, its freshness in the memory of the first-person narrator. White has a voice- and certainly a story- of his own, but it seems more than likely that the influence of the author’s aforementioned French literary heroes, the ones who inspired enough enthusiasm to draw from White nonfiction books much longer than this compact novel, is what opened the door for this approach.
The White-based character’s summers with his affluent father, his elementary and junior high school years with his desperately single mother, his sibling spats with his sister, his time at an all-boy school, and his sexual coming of age are all of a piece; however out of order they might seem, they are in perfect emotional/thematic succession, culminating with an ending at once ambivalent and defiantly liberated, Genet-style, of conventional decency. After White has sex with a temporary music teacher at his high school and then turns him in to the administration for smoking weed, knowing that the mores of the time (the mid-1950’s) would force the teacher to silently accept his marijuana-compelled banishment in order to avoid any risk of public knowledge of his homosexual act, he muses, “Sometimes I think I seduced and betrayed Mr. Beattie because neither one action nor the other alone but the complete cycle allowed me to have sex with a man and then disown him and it; this sequence was the ideal formulation of my impossible desire to love a man but not to be a homosexual.”
Gurganus and White (in his afterword) both remark upon the absence of any redemptive “coming out” moment in A Boy’s Own Story, but White’s honesty- his thorough, subtle exposure of the tortuous inner workings of experiences once desired and now recalled, the slipperiness of self-awareness and the trickiness of notions of identity- offers the reader an articulation far more satisfying and resonant than most stories that culminate in a character’s coming out, as if that necessary political act ends all doubt and removes the impossibility from impossible desires or the secrecy from our secret selves. As if we would ever really want it to.
Anyone who knows me knows that Todd Haynes is my own personal cultural superhero. At the tender age of twelve, I accidentally heard of Haynes through the (mis)information network constituted by the American Family Association, whose newsletter my mother received on a regular basis. Haynes’s first feature film, Poison, released in 1991, was causing a bit of controversy because it had been partially funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks in large part to this film, the NEA was savaged by the right wing-- not exactly renowned for their appreciation or understanding of any variety or concept of art-- and the Reverent Donald Wildmon, a longtime right-wing spokes-zealot and head of the AFA, was alerting all concerned tax revolters, imploring them to throw a fit over the way their tax dollars were being spent on “homosexual pornography.” Merely another “values”-based diversion from any remotely real issue, but that’s the M.O. of the American neoconservative movement-- a grotesque variation on “sex sells” (if you can get working-class people all hostile and worked up over two men having sex or wanting to get married, maybe they’ll forget they have shitty health care, live in crumbling white-flight dystopian nightmare cities, and are being left increasingly vulnerable to the relentlessly ultra-capitalist whims of their economic betters)-- and it was in full effect during those last days of Reagan-Bush.
The NEA is now, for all actually artistic intents and purposes, long dead, but Todd Haynes is the phoenix that rose from its ashes, and at least one little boy had Jesse Helms and his ilk to thank for indirectly bringing someone to his attention who, though he’ll probably never be a household name, certainly never would have been heard of in this kid’s house.
Haynes is like a postmodern, more semiotically savvy Gore Vidal: Educated, erudite, intellectual, and allergic to oversimplification, easy answers, and hypocrisy. He is openly but not merely gay and creates some of the most intelligent, unusual, and genuinely provocative work in his chosen medium. At a crucial point in my development, his presence on the cultural landscape made a difference; in the mid to late nineties, there was, I felt, a certain dullness to so much of gay culture, a strange conventionality, an inability to break out of the trap of shallow defensiveness, a willing participation with homophobic, sexist, moralistic, theocratic modes of discourse- nature vs. nurture, is it “right” or “wrong” to be gay, etc.- that seemed innately based in ignorance. What a horrible fate, I felt then (and certainly feel presently, as it seems those same old conversations are bound to play out in all their tedium yet again) to be forced, as sexual minorities, to undergo what amounted to one-sided interrogation at the hands of these idiotic proponents of dominant but decrepit ideas (answers that dignify stupid questions are bound to seem feeble, regardless of how thoughtful, rational, or accurate they may be). Haynes seemed serenely above all that, fearlessly exploring territory-- identity, culture, sexuality-- in a way that seemed strikingly relevant, unbound by stale assumptions about form or content, and therefore incredibly unique. His films radically question the imposition of ready-made sexual categorizations and other predetermined perceptions that are, for the most part, taken for granted even in the kindly “liberal” quarters of our culture.
Dottie Gets Spanked is an almost forgotten piece of the Haynes oeuvre; prior to the new DVD release, it was actually more difficult to get ahold of than his banned Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. A short film made in 1993 under the auspices of the Independent Television Service (which supplied programming to PBS), it bridges the gap between Poison in 1991 and Safe, his masterpiece, in 1995.
Set in the late 1960’s, Dottie concerns the devotion of one introverted, quiet youngster, Stevie Gale, to a Lucille Ball-like television comedienne, Dottie Franks. Stevie also has Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-like dreams which, though they prolong the anticipation by skirting the issue, always seem to come back around to the theme of spanking, an act which is forbidden in Stevie’s enlightened suburban household and therefore holds a special fascination for him; when he overhears a neighbor talk about her daughter’s frequent spankings, he’s visibly intrigued.
Stevie participates in a TV Guide-sponsored contest and wins a trip to the city to meet his heroine and join The Dottie Frank Show’s studio audience, a dream come true only slightly tainted by the revelation that Dottie, far from being the ditzy and charming hausfrau she plays on TV, is a seasoned, intimidating, cigarette-wielding showbiz veteran. In the film’s crucial-- one could say primal-- scene, Stevie witnesses the rehearsal of a bit in which Dottie... well, the title of the film is borne out by its events, and the manifestation of Stevie’s latent interest is further intensified by logistical particularities-- the scene’s blocking, the mechanics of production in a TV studio under Dottie’s professional perfectionism-- delaying and heightening the anticipation for the inevitable and climactic spanking. Stevie’s father, already disgruntled by his only son’s unmasculine enthrallment with a TV diva, is disturbed by his explosively vivid Crayola recreation of Dottie’s slapstick spanking, and Stevie is forced to put away his troublesome interest... for now.
Haynes has consistently offered insightful and informative audio commentaries for the DVD editions of his films (all of them except Velvet Goldmine include a commentary track, and in one of the anecdotes in Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures about how horrendous it was to make Velvet Goldmine for Miramax, it’s made clear that the absence of commentary on that disc was certainly not Haynes’s choice), and he’s quite the generous commentator. He brings no false modesty to the proceedings, but no swaggering self-aggrandizement, either. Instead, he’ll anecdotally relate the shooting of a scene or the processes (fundraising, casting) of getting a film made. Of even more interest to the insatiably curious among us, he often discloses his inspirations. In the case of Dottie, the obvious source (Lucy and her massive television success and cultural impact) was married in Haynes’s fertile mind to Freud’s 1919 article on the origins of sadomasochism, “A Child is Being Beaten.” Haynes, who calls this short his “most autobiographical” work, even based Stevie’s meeting of Dottie upon his own childhood memory of meeting Lucille Ball, whom he remembers as a seasoned showbiz professional, a “general” not at all like her hapless, mischievous TV persona.
Sitcom stardom, rigorously complex Freudian analysis, and the near-universal childhood experience of TV identification are, in Haynes’s hands, fecund themes that allow him to delve into that inexhaustible problem that underlies all his work: The nebulous and multifarious sources over which we have no control but from which our identities are undoubtedly derived. To me, this endless query of Haynes’s couldn’t be more relevant or important, nor could its exploration by a mind as astute and creative as his be any more invigorating and, on its own terms, engaging, entertaining, and satisfying.
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