Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Kind of Wonderful

It feels a bit weird that all my recent blather about high school movies should correspond with the death of John Hughes, more so that I decided I had to dig out a copy of Some Kind of Wonderful to watch again on the very night he had his heart attack. I've always had a soft spot for that movie, even over the more noted Pretty In Pink, The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I think it officially classifies as under-rated, not least because it actually has the ending Hughes wanted for Pretty In Pink but was denied, so the story goes, by Molly Ringwald (who insisted that her character should end up with the affluent Andrew McCarthy character rather than Jon Cryer's Duckie). So on Thursday night, it seems that I was watching SKoW, just before, just after, or maybe even at the moment when John Hughes died of a heart attack.

I got up the next morning to a message on the "Whatever the Fuck You Want" blog post that said he was dead, and I felt that strange, slightly disengaged sense of shock and sadness you get when something like that happens. Not the hysterical mourning of a Michael Jackson fan or a Princess Diana devotee for the "tragic" death of one who is ultimately a stranger. Just a quietly respectful "oh." A softly spoken "ah, shit." I'll leave it to his family and friends to grieve the man because, you know, screw the Society of the Spectacle and the Cult of the Celebrity; it's not my place to lament his loss when I didn't know the man personally. But there's certainly a real sense of sorrow.

To be fair, I wasn't big on his later comedies -- the Home Alone stuff and suchlike -- and hadn't really thought much about him in his years of absence from the screens. But I was a teenager in the 80s when his movies were directly addressing what it was to be a teenager in the 80s, and in many respects those movies did resonate with me the way they did for many (c.f. Kevin Smith's constant references.) In other respects, to be honest, it's only with repeated viewings that I've got past certain reactions as a geek -- like my initial loathing for Ferris Bueller, who I kind of hated for his insufferably smug "coolness", or my "NO! NO! NO!" reaction when Ally Sheedy gets the make-over in The Breakfast Club. (I still want to see a sequel to Ferris Bueller where maturity has turned Cameron into the indie hipster boho geek who has to drag Bueller out of his workday drudgery as a smarmy, twice-divorced used car salesman. And the variant of The Breakfast Club where Ally Sheedy gives Molly Ringwald the make-over.) But, yeah, over time I've developed a distinct fondness for those movies.

When I watched Some Kind of Wonderful, it was the first time I'd seen it in years. So it was kind of interesting to see where I'd connected with it as a kid, identifying with the Eric Stolz character's arty outsiderness, his being the kid that doesn't fit in -- but that awkwardness not turning him into a dork like Cameron in FBDO or a dweeb like Brian in TBC. That character's blue-collar background isn't mine, it has to be said -- not least because my folks have always been supportive above and beyond the call of duty -- but the "wrong side of the tracks" vibe was certainly something I could identify with in the era of conspicuous consumption that was the 80s, from a small town in Central Scotland which, in its Gregory's Girl mundanity, seemed a world away from that gauche American Dream of yuppies, from even just the unfathomable fantasia of kids with cars and proms and other such alien attributes.

I think I sort of "fancied" Mary Stuart Masterson's tomboy character of Watts too, with her short blond hair and boyish post-punk rock drummer attire (and, oh, those cool-as-fuck faux-chauffeur leathers!) Which is to say, I "queered the text", dropping the "tom" from "tomboy", reimagining the whole scenario with Watts as a male love-interest unbeknown to the oblivious Stolz. (Until the ending, that righteous fantasy of an ending, where he finally realises, the doofus, that he really wants the tomboy.) I suspect a lot of gays of my generation and older learned to "queer the text" like this, for this movie or that, regardless of authorial intent, creating the stories that were unwritten by reading between the lines. There's an interesting "locker room self-consciousness" scene with Watts in SKoW that's hard not to empathise with from a gay perspective. And when Watts offers to help her friend practice his kissing technique, well, what gay kid with a crush on a straight boy didn't run through the most fanciful implausibilities of how that yearning might -- just might -- be fulfilled... if only... if only...?

It occured to me, as I watched that scene, that if someone asked me when I had the idea for a gay retelling of As You Like It, I might just as easily answer, "Twenty years ago," as, "Last week." There's this girl dressed as a boy, offering to help the hero with his skills of romance, secretly besotted with him, and the hero not even knowing that she's the true object of his affections, too busy with his foolish fantasy of a dream girl who's little more than a projection. And what if...? What if she wasn't just dressed as a boy? It had already occured to me, over the last week or so, that given the homosexual flirting of the As You Like It epilogue and the hardly subtle name adopted by Rosalind in drag -- Ganymede -- that maybe that somewhat sexually ambiguous sonneteer Shakespeare was deliberately offering a text that invited such queering. A story told only in subtext, in the ambiguities emergent from a boy playing a girl dressed as a boy playing a girl.

It doesn't seem a radical suggestion me that the sub-surface import of the play is one writer's attempt to write a queer comedy-drama for queer actors to play to a queer audience. I can imagine that mage of the stage -- like Prospero to Ariel, like Oberon to Puck -- smiling at some favourite faggot of a flouncy, flirty power-bottom boy actor and saying, "You're going to love this role, darling. To spare the delicate sensibilities of the straights it's nominally female, of course, but you and I and everyone on stage -- we'll know exactly what it means that the heroine calls herself Ganymede. As will a certain proportion of the audience." Whatever the actual intention, I certainly imagine there were many in the audience who watched those scenes of courtship and queered the text just as I did with SKoW, didn't see "a boy playing a girl dressed as a boy playing a girl," but rather just... a boy who "played the girl" in a different sense entirely.

So last night I was watching The Breakfast Club in honour of John Hughes, and I found myself remembering another adolescent text-queering. It's not that there's much to suggest that Brian, the "brain" character played by Anthony Michael Hall, is gay -- except maybe a hint of interest when Judd Nelson's Bender, the "rebel", makes like he's going to whip his dick out for a piss or, more significantly, a wolf-whistle at Emilio Estevez's Andrew when he goes all buff gymnast after getting stoned. But queering the text works with what's absent in the text as much as what's there. It happens because the abject is absent, because the only places we can see our stories sometimes is in the significances of spaces. Like in the end scenes post-detention, where the kids all leave the school and four of them pair off for their nice heterosexual kisses -- Ringwald and Nelson, Sheedy and Estevez -- but Hall doesn't get anything of the sort. Or in the photograph in his wallet that he claims to be of a "girlfriend in Canada", which we're clearly meant to read as a spurious cover for his virginity, but which one might equally read as cover for deeper concerns with "masculinity"... if one is "so inclined", so to speak.

Even in terms of virginity, it's notable that Brian is the only male among the five who confesses, like Claire and Allison, to being a virgin. Andrew and Bender don't make such admissions. Hell, no! They're real men, red-blooded men who wrestle and wield switchblades -- want to fight other men rather than fuck them (unless we want to go all Freud on their homosocial asses and say, well, come on, isn't it maybe the same thing at a deeper level?) No, it's only the meek geek Brian who opens up about his sexual inexperience, Brian who wouldn't think of snubbing the others in the corridors of school come Monday morning, because (like Allison) he's familiar enough with disregard to know how much it hurts, and that makes him decent, caring, empathetic... sensitive.

When I first saw the movie though, it's not that I thought "this character's secretly gay" -- nothing so crude and straightforward -- more that he just cut a little too close to the bone in ways that made me cringe, and didn't quite cut close enough in ways that made me feel sort of cheated. I kind of hated him a little, truth be told, for not having the bloody fury of the Columbine killer that's hinted at in a boy who ends up in detention because they found a gun in his locker, hated him because it turned out to be no more than a flare-gun, only more evidence of his dorkish inadequacy. I remember seeing that scene for the first time, where he reveals his suicidal urges, that he had a fucking gun in his locker, the way that changes your whole sense of who this character is. And then... And then it felt like they chickened out.

It was a flare gun. And he was suicidal because he got an F in Shop.

So everyone laughs it off, laughs it away.

The tension of the scene has to be released, of course. It's hard to think how you could go to "Brian's in detention because he was going to blow his own fucking head off," and get back from it without finding some absurdity to lighten the angst overload. But I do remember thinking it felt inadequate, felt unfair, like all the rest of these angsty teens get their troubles taken pretty seriously when it comes down to it, (by the text itself even if not by the other characters,) but Brian's become only another sign of his schmuckness, another reason to write him off as a figure of fun (not unlike the friend of his humiliated by Andrew's rather gaybasher jape of buttocks-taping.)

And yet if one wants to queer the text, if one is "so inclined", maybe there's another significance to that laughter. Watching it again I couldn't help feeling that "getting an F in Shop" is, in its own way, not an entirely inappropriate cipher for homosexuality. What subject is more "masculine" than Shop, in heteronormative terms? What's that F there but an F for "fairy", an F for "faggot"? Real men, red-blooded men, heterosexual men -- they don't fail Shop. They can hammer a nail, fix an electrical fault, build and wire and sort shit out. So in a way, that scene can be read as still allowing for a queer subtext even as it offers a simpler reading on the surface. You can forget Brian's pushy parents, that his horrified shame is pinned on academic failure. Watch the way it plays out -- watch it as if you were watching a Pinter play where stable rationales are stripped to pure dynamics -- and what you have is the least likely candidate coming out with the most powerful confession, the revelation that makes the others all stop in their tracks. You have a secret sense of shame that goes beyond self-pity and self-loathing into the absolute abhorrence of one's own existence that drives suicide. And all pent-up in this kid who can't make a light switch work and who carries a photograph of a girl in his wallet just in case, it seems, he needs to present his sexual credentials. Maybe the laughter needs to kick in at this point precisely because there's a confession not being made, a confession too intimate to be made, with too much weight for a teen movie of this era or its protagonists (least of all Brian) to bear. Maybe the laughter kicks in because the movie can only write that confession between the lines. It can circle it, approach it, walk right up to the edge of it in Brian's disclosure of an unbearable shame, but simply cannot make itself explicit.

When you're dealing with "the love that dare not speak its name," aren't silences and misdirections to be expected?

Of course, this sort of queering of the text is a perverse reading in all senses of the term. I'm deliberately "reading too much into it." There's no real evidence here, no making of a case that this is how one should read the character. It's not a matter of clues littered by Hughes, seeded significances that we're meant to glean from this line or that, to fit together into a Sekrit Truth. Rather what we have are imports that might well be as obvious for a queer audience as they are entirely non-existent for the straight writer who has no intention to create them and the straight audience who has no reason to be on the lookout for them. It's about subtext not text, resonances not representations. And since there's no case here, I'm not sure there's much conclusion to be drawn, just some random personal reflections on what a handful of John Hughes movies meant to me as a teenager of the 80s. In browsing the internet in the wake of his death, I came across a couple of comments here and there that criticised him for lack of racial diversity in those high school movies and for failures to follow through on the potentials of characters like Cameron or Watts, Duckie or Brian to be not just read but written as gay. I won't make some specious justification for the former, but when it comes to the latter, well, part of me would much rather have a Watts or a Brian than any number of token Gay Best Friends thrown in to make nice with the liberals, would rather have a Hughes movie where what's unwritten, what's buried in the subtext, still has a damn sight more import for me than a movie where it's all explicit and all quite drearily shallow.

Ultimately I want the best of both worlds, of course. I want the 21st century Some Kind of Wonderful where Watts is a boy, the latter-day The Breakfast Club where Brian is gay, where maybe Bender is a bender too. I want the next John Hughes to have a dash of John Waters to him. But in the meantime, if I refer to The Curiosity of Chance as the best 80s high school movie John Hughes never made, that's not a criticism of Hughes for the lack of gay characters in those movies, but a compliment to TCoC that takes Hughes as a benchmark of something pretty damn good in Holywood terms, maybe even kind of wonderful.

2 Comments:

Blogger ukjarry said...

Honestly, for all the talk of the last few days that’s cropped up about the absence of gay characters in Hughes movies, homosexuals and gay Hughes fans in particular are better off for it. If Hughes had featured any they would almost certainly have been of a piece with The Donger.

The casual throwing around of “fag” and “homo” is par for high school life. So when Hughes characters do the same, it’s just verisimilitude for the audience, and I don’t blame Hughes. It’s when you see the stuff he wrote for the “National Lampoon” in the late 70s that you realise what a lucky escape gay fans had. Between the two of them Hughes and P.J.O’Rourke filled dozens of pages of every issue, and you can see them staking their territory of conventional, middle America, it’s styles, mores and prejudices. Indeed quite a few bits in Hughes films started off in the “National Lampoon”.

But when Hughes wrote about fags and homos for NL, it was the same deliberate lack of concern that he wrote about funny foreigners. That’s not to suggest that Hughes was some rampant homophobe, but I don’t think that the man who wrote those sort of “screw you” style pieces was the man who was going to write an accepting study of gay teenage life. At best his pieces are animated by slight irritation at homosexuals and finds their encroaching lifestyles a little amusing (like “Private Eye” at the same period). At worst it’s a torrent of bizarre offence like:

http://ukjarry.blogspot.com/2009/08/281-beatles-john-hughes-eric-idle.html

- matthew davis

1:09 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Good comment, and I don't disagree. I sort of wondered how many of the commenters I saw criticising him for using "fag" or "homo" in dialogue were confusing representation with advocacy. And when it comes to humour, yeah, what we would have seen is surely the broad-stroked cheap shots that few gave a second thought back in the day.

Interesting thoughts in yer last "Fifty Years of Comedy Queers" entry too, in that respect, with regard to comedy reflecting its era; I'll have to check out the full series when I have the chance.

6:36 pm  

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