No 4 - Spring 2006
Things You See in the Dark
WHEN I was growing up in 1970s suburban Liverpool my father ran a small independent cinema. It sat at the end of a short parade of shops, off a dull traffic island. It was not a glamorous cinema; there was no plush upholstery or elaborate decoration, just a single-screen barn of a building, the small foyer always in need of re-painting.
It being an independent cinema, and because of the rise of the big distributors and studios, my father wasn’t always able to get those first-run big budget films; they only came his way after the cinemas in town had shown them. But this didn’t hold him back; my father ran his cinema with a rolling programme of films throughout the year, often films requested by one of his regular customers. During the week he showed double features, from noon till midnight. Saturday mornings would be the Kids Club, with a film and cartoons; Saturday afternoons – Matinee Feature, usually a drama or romance; then the evening would be a themed triple bill of horror, sci-fi or thriller films. Sunday afternoons would be Classic Matinee, showing one of the 1940s or 50s movies my mother loved so much; Sunday evenings would be Family Features, a double bill my father deemed suitable for family viewing.
The cinema closed for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and Easter Sunday, and though it often felt as if only a handful of people were ever watching any one film, the cinema made a healthy living, and my father was able to employ his three – what my mother called – “happy insomniacs.”
My parents and my older brother and I lived in a tiny detached house behind the cinema. My father said he needed to be on-hand if there were any problems; my mother, who worked two nights a week as a Sister in our local casualty department, didn’t care where we lived, as long as it was warm and dry and had a “nice” kitchen.
I’ve always loved films, losing myself in the worlds they created, even if it was only for ninety minutes. Compared to my dull, grey suburban life in Liverpool, even films set in small-town America were exotic. But most of all, I was drawn to the neat and complete nature of films. They had a beginning, a dramatic middle, and then an ending where all the conflict and action were neatly and tidily resolved. These films weren’t messy and unfriendly and grey like the world around me.
I was not a discerning film-goer; I’d watch any and every film that came my way: westerns, sci-fi, horror, high drama, low camp, even cheap schlock sentiment. I loved them all: the good, the bad, and the plain dull. My father had no problem with me sitting at the back of the cinema watching the film that was showing. I was only kept out of a film when either the cinema was full (which didn’t happen much) or when my father deemed the film “unsuitable for your age.” This latter bar was easy to get around. If a film was playing that I wasn’t allowed to see, I went when my father wasn’t there and one of his employees would wave me in.
In the darkness of the cinema, on the rickety old tip-up seats, I would lose myself, ignoring everything around me. This escapism didn’t leave me unaffected. I had retreated from a world where I was ostracised and bullied, labelled the outsider for no apparent reason. Watching those films, I absorbed, without question or criticism, all their values; but worst of all, I believed their unqualified homophobia.
As I turned into an adolescent, via the hormonal storm of puberty, I became increasingly aware of my sexuality. I felt a physical and emotional attraction to other boys, especially those who strutted around my school like stereotypes of masculinity. The worst thing you could be was a “fucking queer,” and so, with acute self-preservation, I buried my feelings and kept silent.
If they were named at all in the films, they were sissies or fags or queers. All the images I saw of gay men were of sad young men, doomed by their “perversions.” There were “confused” youths corrupted by older men, then rescued by the love of a good woman or lost to death or damnation. There were camp sexless men, flamboyantly-dressed one-dimensional parodies. There was the single friend or neighbour, pathetic and lifeless. There were the predators and psychopaths, a threat to decent people and to family life.
Was this what life had to offer me? Would I have to be the single male friend who gave his everything for the well-being of the straight hero. It was not an attractive life, especially when I was confronted daily with homophobia. The onset of puberty saw the 70s turn into the 80s, and along with the rise of conservatism and traditional values, came AIDS, “the deadly gay plague.” I withdrew further into myself. My sexuality became the dark secret at the centre of my being.
I still went to see films as often as I could. My father, who was now battling the rise in big chain cinemas and a waning public interest in visiting the cinema – everyone (not us!) was buying a video recorder – had to become more and more imaginative in his programming. I got to see films whenever I wanted to, and now that I was a teenager, there were fewer films my father deemed “unsuitable.”
I often fell in love or lust with the leading men of those films. I was attracted to their cleancut, muscular handsomeness, to their heterosexual hero image. I justified this as admiration of all the values and virtues I longed for. They were the ideal I strived for. These men inhabited my sexual fantasies.
Sex in 1980s Hollywood movies was a dangerous thing. It could destroy lives, marriages, whole families. It was as dangerous as any gun or bomb. Yet the flip side was that sex – neat, clean sex – was also the hero’s reward. I longed for the confidence and faith those Hollywood heroes had in their sexuality. I longed for their sexuality.
Independent and European cinema, becoming more prominent in the 1980s, simply didn’t make it as far as suburban Liverpool. The majority of films I saw were from Hollywood, with the occasional flagship British one. The slowly emerging Queer Cinema stopped short of where I was; as far as I was concerned, it didn’t even exist.
One night in the autumn of 1986 everything changed.
I was studying for my O Levels and approaching my sixteenth birthday. I was focused on my studies. Good O Level results meant I could study for my A Levels, and good A Level results meant I could go to university, and university meant I could escape from the place I hated the most – my home in Liverpool.
That week, my father was running a programme of films from the new British film industry, films riding on the success of Chariots of Fire. All I knew about My Beautiful Laundrette was that it was a comedy about Asian businessmen. Taking a break from my homework that Wednesday evening, I slipped into the back of the cinema to watch the movie. There, in the dark cinema, I was swept off into another, unexpected world.
Two beautiful young men – Omar, the central character, and the white boy, Johnny – loved each other. They were affectionate, they kissed, they had passionate and intimate sex. At the end of the film they stayed together. Neither of them died.
I sat absorbed, experiencing the most wonderful moment of my life. Here was a portrait of homosexuality I’d never seen before: a gentle and loving gay relationship, a relationship that brought out the best in its lovers, not one that made them tear each other apart. It was a revelation. It was like witnessing a magic trick, the way these two lovers put pay to all the homophobic lies that had gone before.
Here was a life I could aim for. I was in love. Not with the actors, but with the relationship between the two characters. I wanted to be like them: standing at a sink, stripped to the waist, washing my lover’s chest.
When the film ended – far too quickly – I waited until the handful of other people had left the cinema, then pushed myself up out of my seat and slipped into the tiny foyer. There was Billy, one of my classmates; a tall and lean blonde boy. He smiled back at me, the smile of someone who’d obviously enjoyed the film he’d just seen. Instead of sneaking away, embarrassed to have been caught watching “one of them films,” he walked up to me.
“That was brilliant, wasn’t it?” he said.
“It was great,” I said. “Best film I’ve seen in ages.”
He then lent forward and whispered, “I’d give that Johnny one.”
“I’d give one to both of them,” I whispered back, bold with excitement and his unexpected admission.
“Too right,” he said.
Then we laughed, giggling a slightly silly laughter. The laughter of two boys sharing a private joke.
“You want to go for a coffee or something?” Billy asked.
We didn’t become lovers and walk off hand-inhand into the sunset. Instead, we found in each other a close and lasting friendship. Billy was my first real friend. Together we set about coming out. We bought our first gay magazines together, went to our first gay club together, went to our first gay youth group together, supported each other through our first relationships. Even went to the same university, together, where at first everyone thought we were boyfriends – much to our amusement.
Now we both live in London. Billy with his artist lover only a short distance from the cluttered house I share with my partner, Marc. We still share a love of films and regularly see one together, then spend hours discussing it.
My father retired, bullied into it by my mother when his health started to fail, so my brother bought the place and swiftly turned it into an Art House cinema. He had it redecorated and refurbished, and built a cinema bookshop off the main foyer. He started showing programmes of European films, independent films, classics and movies with limited release. He shows all the films the multiplexes and chain cinemas would never consider showing. And, thanks to his energy and relentless publicity, the cinema is now Liverpool’s leading Art House cinema. Plans to extend it are in the pipeline.
Last summer, during that hot and dry stretch we had in 2005, I returned to Liverpool. My brother was having a week-long Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, and he insisted I had to be there. He’d put together an impressive programme: there was a film about a gay Mormon, another about gay teenagers in love, another about survivors of child abuse, one about an AIDS widower. There were none of the “sad faggots” or “suicidal perverts” of the films I’d grown up watching.
On opening night, I sat in the same seat I’d always sat in – now padded! – in a cinema full of people watching a gay film with openly gay characters, a film I’d never seen before. But I was looking forward to the next evening. Almost twenty years had passed since I’d first seen My Beautiful Laundrette here.
The film’s final scene, of the two lovers washing each other’s chests over a workroom sink, had stayed with me throughout my twenties as a powerful fantasy. I longed for a lover who’s chest I could wash, with whom I could laugh and splash water at over a sink. Marc and I have the relationship I’d dreamed of finding. I’ve washed his back in the bath, cared for him when he’s ill, cooked for him and listened to him, and he’s done the same for me. But I’ve never washed his chest as we stood together, stripped to the waist, at a sink. Two more days, and I’d be back home in London. Was it time to fulfil that fantasy? Would it be as erotic and romantic as the film had been? There was only one way to find out.
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