NOW PLAYING

in theaters


new on DVD/BluRay


review index

HOT TOPICS



CLASSIC OF THE MOMENT

THE FILMS OF ROBERT WISE
(CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

 

Welcome

The Film Experience™ was created by Nathaniel R


 Gemini, Cinephile, Actressexual. Also loves cats. All material herein is written and copyrighted by him, unless otherwise noted. twitter | facebook | pinterest | tumblr | letterboxd

 

Powered by Squarespace
Comment Fun

COMMENT(s) DU JOUR
"10 Best Voice Performances Ever"

WHO DID WE FORGET?

"Mercedes, Mercedes, Mercedes! That voice almost made you smell sulfur. - brookesboy

"John Hurt in Dogville is everything." - Noecitos

"Joanne Woodward's voice work in The Age of Innocence is exquisite." - Ian

 

 

Keep TFE Strong

Your suscription dimes make an enormous difference to The Film Experience in terms of stability and budget to dream bigger. Consider...

I ♥ The Film Experience

THANKS IN ADVANCE

For those who can't commit to a dime a day, consider a one time donation for an article or a series you are glad you didn't have to live without.

What'cha Looking For?
Subscribe
« Tribeca: Courteney Cox Delivers a Dud in 'Just Before I Go' | Main | Box Office: Cameron Diaz Still Sells Tickets »
Sunday
Apr272014

April Showers: Midnight Express (1978)

Waterworks some nights at 11. This one is from the vaults from the first season. But it's worth a revisit as the film is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.


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 strongest asset is arguably its expressive physicality and gritty tactile quality; you 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 the movie 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 a star as carnally charismatic as 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. We see them do yoga togethe and 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, though the steam obscures a lot of what's happening.

Billy hesitates and then reciprocates, though the steam obscures most of their kissing



Here's the curious part.

Moments after he's begun kissing Erich back, Billy pushes him away. He lifts Erich's 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 while naked ... he draws the line at sex.



Erich is understandably bummed and the camera dissolves to an exterior shot of the prison, over his sad wet face.

Never mind sequential logic. Never mind that Billy has gone for (literally) 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 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!'

Another 1978 picture, the elusive but strong Girlfriends has 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 '78 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 sequence is given a lot of weight and the filmmakers seem to be letting their own sexual prudishness get in the way of narrative logic. There's nothing wrong with changing material from book to screen, don't get me wrong, but if Billy wasn't going to have sex with Erich, why was their foreplay still included in the movie?

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (14)

I know! This is such a weird scene in such an otherwise sensibly made movie. It's sexy, but like you said, what's the point in showing such a tender near-moment?
I'd love to get a director's commentary on it. "We needed the audience to know our protagonist wasn't into men. But we also wanted to get a little wet and wild. The trick was finding the right place to draw the line..."

April 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Nice write-up, I'll have to check it out. Not least because these narrative beats remind me of a 1930s autobiography about a POW in Turkey who did yoga in his prison cell. Rather than cutting out same-sex contact (which was likely but not mentioned in the book version either), the film version (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer with Gary Cooper) found it necessary to cut all the yoga stuff, which became the author's claim to fame. Oh, those unspeakable prison desires and how they change (or at least, what is unspeakable) over time...

April 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

Nice write-up, I'll have to check it out. Not least because these narrative beats remind me of a 1930s autobiography about a POW in Turkey who did yoga in his prison cell. Rather than cutting out same-sex contact (which was likely but not mentioned in the book version either), the film version (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer with Gary Cooper) found it necessary to cut all the yoga stuff, which became the author's claim to fame. Oh, those unspeakable prison desires and how they change (or at least, what is unspeakable) over time...

April 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

But, to put this in perspective of the times.................this was a HUGE step forward in the depiction of gay characters and gay sex in film. While the character of Hayes may have turned Erich down, he did not strike out at him, did not run screaming to the hills, did not shun him going forward...... There was no punishment for Erich except being turned down. It showed that a gay man and a straight man could be friends without issues. It was very important in moving acceptance of gay characters forward. The critical success of the film was icing on the cake.

It didn't take long for word to get out about the truth either which was another positive.

This film was made only 7 years after the Stonewall riots. and 3 years before Cruising with Pacino. It was the first major film role for Davis who had only done television. It was very risky, both for the producers, the actor and the studio. It might seem silly to have rewritten the scene to you youngsters, but it meant a lot those of us who saw it first hand.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

i think the politically correct expression is "cocktease"

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Excellent comment, Henry. Thank you for the insights.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermatt

"There was no punishment for Erich except being turned down"

Well yes but you fail to mention that he's being turned down by prime Brad Davis! BRAD DAVIS!!! Prime Bad Davis!!! That's more punishment than any human being's ever deserved. ;)

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJA

@JA: But who gets to even shower with Brad Davis?

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

JA--Paul Outlaw. Who gets to even make out with Brad Davis? And you know it happened more than once.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

An excellent film. Oscar nod for Best Pix, Oscar win for Best Screenplay. Alas, no Oscar nomination for Brad Davis.

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

@brandz--Alas, no Oscar nom for Davis. It was 1977. He kissed a boy and he liked it.

(At least enough to look guilty when he walked away.)

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Henry -- i appreciate your perspective on this. I imagine it was a revelation at the time but because they pulled their punches from the truth, narratively today it hasn't aged well because it doesn't make much sense.

April 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This was the first time I ever saw two men about to make love on the big screen...maybe it's time for a re-make but who would play Billy- ( Brad Davis was beautifully perfect)

April 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

It seems that the whole homosexual experience the real Billy Hayes had was played down in the movie... according to Irene Miracle that is... Read my interview with her at http://retroladyland.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/its-long-time-till-midnight-interview.html

June 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRetroLadyLand

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>