Monday, 14 September 2009

291: The Magic Christian (1969)

“The Magic Christian” (1969)
written by Terry Southern, and John Cleese and Graham Chapman

Adapted from Southern’s short episodic novel of the same name, the film is a series of sketches, in which multi-millionaire Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) employs his money to make people indulge in shocking stunts. So the jokes are two-fold:
1) to demonstrate what indignities people will suffer when offered wads of cash, from minor bribes to a scene of city bankers diving into a vat of ordure sprinkled with pound notes
2) to indulge in stunts which disturb conventional sensibilities - some are intended to be subversive, some are just freak-outs

Vito Russo in his book “The Celluloid Closet” absolutely LOATHED this film: “'fag' jokes fly in a viciously homophobic film".
Somewhere I have a “Spitting Image” parody of late Mel Brooks with the tagline “Totally obsessed with Nazis”. It’s not really stretching a point to say the same about Terry Southern and homosexuals. I mean, really, really, really, really, really obsessed. Well, you understand the emphasis. I suppose he should be given some sort of acknowledgement in managing so many ways for homosexuals to be creepy for comedic gross-out purposes. Maybe, homosexuals really were just that odd and perverse to mainstream audiences at the time, and this film reflects that. (To offset this, there is a very affectionate tribute in Southern’s collection “Now Dig This” to his friend the gay poet Frank O’Hara, capturing his camp, sexually mischievous manner. Although that it SHOULD be the camp, impertinent, sexually mischievous side of O’Hara that Southern fixates on and enjoys...?)

0.00 – 3.22
Laurence Harvey as “Hamlet”
Here’s an instance of satirical humour overtaken by the events of the day. The joke is the unexpected metamorphosis of a performance of Hamlet’s soliloquy into a burlesque strip. Whether it’s actually gay or not is up for debate. When a man performs a woman’s role, it can’t help but look camp. Besides, there’s the fact that he’s offering his body as an object for desire, topped by the chap with the binoculars trying to get a good look at the end.
By the time this was released to the public, cavorting nudity on the stage was very much the thing of the day, with such ultra-hip atrocities of embarrassment as “Hair”, “Oh Calcutta” and “Dionysus 69”. Exploration of homosexuality in Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre also raised its head on the contemporary stage. There had been an all-male 1967 production of “As You Like It”. There had also been an explicitly homosexual 1969 production of Marlowe’s “Edward II”, with Ian McKellen as the lead, and also featuring Peter Bourne (now better known as Betty Bourne of Bloolips). This touring production of “Edward II” aroused a lot of tight-lipped scrutiny from the local moral forces wherever it was staged because of male kissing and unabashed affection. An issue of the early gay lifestyle magazine “Jeremy” had a big feature on the production and interviews with the cast, though no one was questioned or felt up to declaring a personal sexual interest. It also prompted the “Sunday Times” to identify McKellen as one of the actors to watch out for, with a photo-feature of McKellen clad in nothing but some tight leather trousers and sprawling in a chair. Which must have raised a few eyebrows over the breakfast table. (Oh, and I see a BBC recording has been released on DVD earlier this year,) But nothing in this sketch plays off the idea of gay actors, it a subversion of Shakespeare.
So given all this, the overwhelming impression made by this sketch, and indeed by most of the bits and pieces in “The Magic Christian,” is not one of major cultural subversion and criticism, but of a camp, self-congratulatory sense of “How naughty we are!”. As the various outrages are played out, it’s sometime hard to distinguish between the filmmakers portrayal of the onscreen audiences and their attitude to the real one watching the film. There’s a constant sense of being nudged in the ribs, and the impression they want that you should just throw up your hands and cry, “Scandalous! Simply Scandalous!”

0.00 – 1.38
Nosher Powell as the ginger boxer
There’s about 3 previous minutes of verisimilitudinous boxing bout scene-setting before this bit, but I’m sure we’ll all prefer going straight to the real action, shan’t we. In this scene, Southern updates his earlier attempt in the book version of “The Magic Christian”. Then, it was just one boxer pretending to fey and effeminate. Here the ante is upped to actual gay kissing. Nosher Powell has a very fey voice dubbed, and does that limp-wrist gesture. And we don’t get to see the kiss, though the direction is slightly more stylised to point up that fact. As in the book, it all ends in an rioting audience when their taste for violence is subverted. Which is apparently the same conclusion as in “Bruno”.

The discomfort of a stuffy ex-army type suddenly made the focus of homo-erotic attentions. A formal heightening of the oddness of such devotion to the body beautiful by these muscle men, with a little race-discomfort just to add to the mix. As before with the Hamlet sketch, there’s an obvious homosexual, fluttering his tip at the entertainment, and resting his head in a primping manner, just to highlight the faggotry of it all.

Leonard Frey as Lawrence Faggot (pronounced Fag-Oh, French-style, so a joke that probably slips past most of the audience. Because simply calling a gay character “faggot” - oh, ho, ho, ho - no we’re much more hip than that) revisits his performance from “The Boys in the Band”. Solicitously and disarmingly oleaginous with a few up-market camp insinuations, in an outrageously over-styled suit. All of which must have been even more of an in-joke, as the film version of “Boys in the Band” wasn’t released until the year after this.

Two body-builders dancing together. Which is mostly the boxing gag revisited, but in the context of the elite society of the other dancers.
And the all-out oddness of Yul Brynner in drag, overdubbed with a female voice singing “Mad About the Boy” to Roman Polanski. And then the final reveal and reversion to Brynner’s gravelly voice. Intercutting between the two, these is something of an intense perversity to this.

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