Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April Showers, Midnight Express (1978)

April Showers

I've always been a little bit a lot perplexed by the famous shower scene in Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978). I'm not exactly sure why it's in the movie. Midnight Express has, at its best, an expressive physicality and a gritty tactile quality. You often feel like you're right there in the grotty hellish Turkish prison, sweating and suffering along with Billy Hayes (Brad Davis). But the sexual vibes coming off of Midnight Express are at times unfathomable. Is it gay? Is it bi? Is it straight? Is it just horny? Or is its ambiguous eroticism simply a by-product of casting Brad Davis in the lead role?


As warm up to the famous shower scene we get a montage detailing the friendship of Billy and Erich (Norbert Weisser) a fellow prisoner. They've been in this hellhole for years. They do yoga together. They bathe each other. They even duet on a private meditation mantra...
Monastery. Cloister. Cave. Prison
They lock eyes while chanting this repetitive phase. Billy drops his head with sadness at the word "prison" and we dissolve to a shot of the intimate friends showering together. In the steam Erich tenderly grabs Billy's soapy hand, slides his hands up Billy's body and pulls him slowly into a passionate kiss. Billy hesitates and then fully reciprocates.


Here's the curious part.

Moments after he's begun passionately kissing Erich back, he pushes him away. Lifts his hand to kiss it, shakes his head in a strangely condescending manner (I love you but I'm not that way) and exits the shower. Despite his willingness to work out, chant, bathe and lock lips with his friend... he draws the line at sex.

Erich is understandably bummed.


Never mind sequential logic. Never mind that Billy has gone for years without sex. Never mind that he's already comfortable kissing, being bathed by and getting naked with Erich. Never mind that the real life Billy Hayes actually did have consensual sex with fellow prisoners according to his autobiography. In Oliver Stone's Oscar nominated screenplay, "Billy" isn't having it. This scene has always utterly confused me on a basic human level, sexual orientation being beside the point. I'm gay but if you threw me in a prison for years and my only option for human tenderness was sex with a girl I liked who was into me? I wouldn't shake my head and walk away. I'd be... 'how often, when, where and what position? Let's go!'

I recently saw the elusive picture Girlfriends (also from 1978) and there's an oddly parallel sequence: the lead character's new female roommate begins to caress her shoulder and tries to kiss and undress her. Our heroine gently pushes the misguided girl's hand away and quietly says "no." I can only come to the reductive conclusion that in 1978 this was exactly the way liberal Hollywood felt about the gays -- tolerated them, kinda dug them on an one-on-one basis, but were still totally weirded out by them. The sequence in Girlfriends is a throwaway and doesn't interrupt the movie's flow. In the case of Midnight Express, the filmmakers seem to be letting their own sexual prudishness get in the way of narrative logic. Answer me this: If Billy wasn't going to have sex with Erich, why was their foreplay still included in the movie?
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25 comments:

BeRightBack said...

Isn't that Stone's MO (lead-up, but then last minute avoidance), as in Alexander? So it might not be a time period thing?

Glenn said...

That scene always confuses me too. It just sort of happens and then it's over just as quickly.

Adam said...

This is actually my favorite bit from "Midnight Express" because it's so unexpected and yet so very desired. Why watch a prison movie with Brad Davis for any other reason? It gave me all the hope I needed to survive this Turkish prison.

NATHANIEL R said...

Hope even though it's a rejection?

JA said...

It gave me a fierce rejection.

vince said...

Wasn't that around the same year homosexuality was taken off the psychiatric books as a mental disease?

vince said...

I hated that scene in Midnight Express. I had such a crush on Brad. SO disappointing.

Adam said...

Well I think my joy of this scene is entirely in its being out of place and ultimately pointless. Camp value I suppose since it's in a steamy awkward montage that seems way too gay before it ever gets gay. I agree it makes one wonder about Oliver Stone's preoccupations. He'll work you up and shoot you down!

It also probably helps that I watched "Querelle" immediately after. That's definitely enough gay Brad Davis to sustain me.

Roberta Lipp said...

He was so lovely. I loved him for life after Sybil.

pablo said...

God Nat, you really can't think straight (pun intended) for a second, can't you ?

Billy not being gay, the mere fact of feeling that someone cares for him is enough.

Also he does realize that the other dude is really into him and it's a way to say "sorry dude but I'm not no power bottom" in order to avoid becoming the b*tch of the prison because, let's face it, if the other guys ever knew of their intimacy, they'd come and ask Billy for some cookie as well

Marshall said...

The only kind of gay they could handle back then was James Coco, and just barely.

NATHANIEL R said...

pablo... but then how do you explain that the real Billy (also not gay) did have sex with other male prisoners ... on purpose!

;)

i'm just saying: If you wanna pretend that these things dont' happen when you withdraw the opposite sex from the equation, shouldn't you pretend all the way and not include the scene?

Michael said...

I'm hoping your April showers series leads us to the great Orson Welles-directed Turkish bath scene in OTHELLO, and the tale of how that scene came about. ;)

- The Opinionated Australian

Wayne B. said...

Aww, I feel bad for Erich! Having to put up with that tease Billy.

vince said...

BeRightBack has a good point ... things got a little homoerotic (for me anyway) in the pot-smoking scene with the rifle (? long pipe?) scene in Platoon ... I thought Dafoe was on the verge of making out with one of his soldiers ... anyway ...

Janice said...

Isn't this just more of the same-old, same-old white middle-class "I want to look liberal without having to actually confront my own prejudices" bull..? I don't think it's so "period" - look at the reactions on the Huffington Post during the controversy about Rick Warren being asked to do the invocation - a lot of readers telling gays to, in essence, sit down and shut up. And this was at a "liberal" blog where I thought "we" (GLBT community) might get a little support from our "allies".

Chris Na Taraja said...

Only a few years later, Steven Speilburg was unable to do the love scene between Celie and Shug in the Color Purple. He does get them to kiss and smile, which is progress from 1978.

Jeff D. said...

I think it's Hollywood's way of having it's cake and eating it too. In 1978 there was no way a studio was going to release a film where the main character was gay. Therefore they made him "not gay". He does everything a gay man does except be gay. I saw that movie when it came out in the theatre. I was 15 and that shower scene couldn't have thrilled me more if he was gay.

M M M said...

Getting in kind of late on this, but I just wanted to make a quick comment. I assumed that his refusal of sex had more to do with its potential repercussions in Turkey, where they might be punished (severely) if caught.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about using the anonymous feature. I don't have a Google account!! Anyways...

I caught part of this movie when I was barely a teen (don't ask) but I got the same impression as M M M posted.

The shit was gonna hit the fan if they got caught.

SpecialClass said...

Just saw it, and googled that mantra, and this came up!

We never see Erich again after that scene, which is totally weird, and I don't accept that they would be that close and go that far without a sexual relationship, so...

I decided the shower represented their break-up after a long physical relationship. Something happens mentally to Billy during their workout to make him want a change.

Something to do with landing in "prison" in the mantra game of karmic spin the bottle.

So...the rejection in that scene doesn't mean, "no never," it means, "not anymore."

Maybe?

NATHANIEL R said...

special class well, that's a new theory. thanks for commenting... it is an interesting perspective.

Gordon said...

Hmm, your remarks about the attitude of Hollywood; the disinterestedly tolerant refusers of gay sex - that all seems like an unfair assessment.

Being the object of unwanted sexual desire and rejecting it sympathetically is not homophobic.

Accepting sexual frisson up to a point but drawing the line at intercourse is not homophobic - I am a straight man and have done the same thing with women I just didn't want to go down that road with. It's just judgement and restraint; and degrees and types of desire. It's a nuanced thing, right? It's not just fuck or no-fuck.

I could never have sex for the rest of my life and it would maybe make me go slightly crazy and masturbate an inordinate amount, but it would not make me suddenly have homosexual desires.

I think that sex gets tangled up with other emotional needs and dysfunctions. A rapist conflates sex with power & violence. A long-term prisoner may get sexual gratification and tactility and affection all in one act, from one person. Jeez, I am trying to understand it but I don't. I have no problem with the plasticity of sexuality that undoubtedly does exist, but I rankle a bit when a gay man talks like straight guys are being all square and uptight just for having a definite strong preference for women. That's a kind of prejudiced judgement that wouldn't fly if it was travelling in the opposite direction.

NATHANIEL R said...

Gordon but that's not what I was arguing. I don't think straight men are uptight if they don't want to have sex with men! That just means they are indeed straight. ;)

But I do think under these circumstances if this was a man's only option for sex for years and years... he'd take it. Especially since it's a true story and in the true story he did.

I think most gay men would have sex with women if that was their only option too. which is what i tried to express in the post/question.

Sid said...

I saw it as they had developed a very intimate male friendship, his friend suddenly introduced a physical/sexual element, and he, being starved for affection and caring for his friend, started to give in to it, give it a try, went as far as a kiss and then decided he couldn't do it.

Could be he couldn't do it because he was just too straight to get into it, but I think part of why Stone might have done it is because it fits with Billy's struggle through the whole movie. He's got the attitude that this whole thing is just a temporary injustice, and he's determined not to let it get to him, not to let it change him before he's set free, and not to accept any comfort that distracts him remembering what has been done to him and how much he hates it.