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109_box_348x490When I got a Mohawk over the summer, my parents reacted with horror:  you look like a punk, my father said.  A no-goodnik.  A Mexican.  I had once joked, as a teenager, about getting a Mohawk, and my parents said that if I did, they’d hold me down and shave my head all the way.  My mother pleaded with Matthew to convince me to revert to my old haircut.  “I can understand him wanting to cut his hair that was if he were young,” my mother told him.  “But he’s almost forty.”

I thought, There’s no way they would have let me have one while I was growing up.  I waged my follicular rebellions in secret.  One evening, when they had gone to dinner with friends, my sister and I mixed up a bowl of sticky blue dye, a color that could only been seen directly under light.  We smeared a protective layer of conditioner along our hairlines—Direct contact with skin may result in a burning sensation, the package read— and tried not to touch anything with our heads for two hours.  When we rinsed, we were disappointed to see the color:  most of it streaked the bottom of the bathtub, and none of it had stayed in our hair.  Our rebellion washed down the drain.

So, at the start of the summer, as Tomacina took the clippers to the side of my head, the revolutionary spirit rekindled.  The grey hairs fell away, a clearcutting of old-growth lumber.  My head felt lighter.  And when she had finished, the black nylon haircut cape was speckled with years of my life, shaved off.

Early in The Scarlet Countess, there’s a scene of Marlene Dietrich on a swing, playing the young Catherine the Great.  When the camera focuses on her face, it’s unmistakably her, though something seems off.  Let’s face it:  Marlene Dietrich is one of the screen’s greatest sexual icons, but she can’t pull off a teenager too well.  Her hair, a mass of blonde ringlets, can’t disguise the sensuousness of her eyes, and despite her attempts to play the ingénue, her sexual persona shines through.

Over the summer, I paid careful attention to other Mohawk-bearers.  We were a secret brotherhood, I thought, until I realized that my brothers were, on the whole, much younger than I was.  The Mohawk was a bit of play-acting on my part, something I could pull off for a short time, but not convincingly.  Maybe it’s better to let Marlene be Marlene and for Viet to be Viet.

My hair grows quickly, so it only too about a month for it to reach sufficient shagginess.  The new school semester was about to start.  I returned to Tomacina, and she asked what I wanted.  I repeated what I’ve said to her at least a hundred times now:  one-and-a-half on the sides, longer on top, kill the sideburns.  She ran her fingers through my hair.  “You’re a mess,” she said.

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I first saw Laurence Olivier’s ‘oysters and snails’ speech to Tony Curtis, not in Spartacus itself, but rather in The Celluloid Closet. In that scene, Olivier argues to his slave that sexuality is a matter of taste, rather than of appetite, and being a matter of taste, is not a moral consideration. “It could be argued so, Master” says Curtis. The Celluloid Closet was part of a queer studies class I took as a junior in college, at which time my own preferences had already ossified. ‘Skinny Jewish intellectuals’ was my taste, rather than a moral judgment on chubby Gentile fools.

***

Years later, I was in New Orleans with my skinny Jewish intellectual, for a conference. He had never eaten raw oysters before, his father having instilled in him the fear of Vibrio vulnificus, rather than Leviticus. We sat at open-air bar at Felix’s, and, around us, was the sultry autumn air, the sound of granular ice, and quick-fingered men with shucking knives and chain mail gloves.  “OK,” he said, “I’ll try one,” and several dozens later, the area was around us a denuded shoal, a mother-of-pearl graveyard.  “Oh, I’ve missed out on so much,” he bemoaned. “I lived in Boston and never had any oysters.”

***

Censors suggested replacing ‘oysters’ and ‘snails’ with ‘artichokes’ and ‘truffles,’ but even after Kubrick reshot the scene, they cut it, leaving audiences, presumably, to wonder why Curtis’ slave has a sudden attack of drapetomania. And while could be argued that the scene dealt with sexuality in a progressive way, for 1960, it might be that the screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, conceived of the scene much differently.  According to Howard Fast, the author of the novel, the more abstract decadences of starvation or slavery were inconceivable to Hollywood types.  But sexuality—this was a decadence that Hollywood could understand.  Most people in Hollywood either knew someone who indulged in it, Fast says, or indulged in it themselves.

***

Matthew and I know oysters. We know the different types: the briny ones from Maine, the mineral tang of those from Prince Edward Island, the creamy flesh of Puget Sound breeds. We don’t slather them in cocktail sauce, but opt instead for a shallot-champagne mignonette or, if that’s not available, a squeeze of lemon and a dab of horseradish. Escargot is fussy: handling the little forks, and maneuvering the shells out of that specialized divoted pan. No, when we feel decadent, it’s much easier to slide an oyster whole into your mouth, liquid and all, even if ‘decadence’ is relative, and, of course, a matter of taste.

***

I learned recently that the ‘oysters and snails’ scene is a reconstruction—the audio long since lost. Tony Curtis, almost 30 years later, re-recorded his lines, and Anthony Hopkins was brought in to dub Olivier’s. Kubrick supervised via his fax machine from England. But even in its cobbled-together state, it still has a delicious charge to it: filmed from behind a gauzy curtain, the two men half-naked and oiling each other up.  “It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?” Olivier says, before concluding: “My taste includes both snails and oysters.”

Part I

In 1996, while I was at Johns Hopkins University, a student I knew committed murder.  He shot another student — once in the head, then once in the chest — before surrendering himself.  This happened on campus.  At the time, I worked as an editor for the school paper, the News-Letter.   Someone rushed into the office — it was the middle of Wednesday evening, and we were laying out the paper — and announced the news, and our editor-in-chief started shouting, “What happened?  What’s going on?”

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I seeks to explain, perhaps, how a person becomes ruthless.  Ivan, at first, doesn’t seem so terrible.  Ivan is horrified when the Tartars shoot down the captives Ivan has strung up on the battlements than surrender them to “the uncircumsized ones.”

Eisenstein suggests three things that may have prompted the change:

Ivan is beset on all sides by sinister profiles, all German Expressionistic shadows and angles.  When Ivan, nearly dead from illness, asks the boyars to pledge allegiance to his son, they turn away, one by one, and this betrayal is almost too much to bear.  The illness itself may have affected his brain.  Or perhaps it was the death of love — his wife, Anastasia, poisoned by politicking boyars, though, historically, her actual cause of death is unknown.

We may never know what drives someone over the edge.

Part II

In the months after the shooting at Hopkins, psychologists diagnosed the killer with numerous personality disorders.  In going through the emails of the two young men, the police found an odd, quasi-Victorian formality to them:  “We once again revealed and expressed ourselves to deeper levels and found profound joy in our bond.”  It was strongly hinted, but never proven, that the two had had some sort of sexual contact.  Months before the murder, the killer sent a message to his victim:  “I’ve cried out for your assistance, presence and help…. You know I’m a private person, very much an introvert, and when finally I wish to talk, to be silenced by one’s friend really hurts.”  And, on the day of the killing, he wrote in his journal, “This was a violation of me, my rights, and my dignity.  But I was embarrassed and kind of humiliated and afraid, and I didn’t want to destroy a good friendship over some act [in] which he overstepped his bounds.”

Ivan the Terrible, Part II sees Ivan succumbing to loneliness.  His movements are arch; he extends and cranes his neck like a bird, pecking at crumbs.  He draws his oprichniks close — his iron band — but they only aid his spiral into paranoia, isolation, summary executions.  Stalin, upon screening the film, summoned Eisenstein.  “Ivan the Terrible was very cruel,” Stalin told him.  “You can depict him as a cruel man, but you have to show why he had to be cruel.”

Eisenstein died of a heart attack before he could complete the trilogy.

I wonder if the answers are in that third film:  how a man becomes cruel, how he becomes a killer.

Part III

Today marks the end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  I remember when Bill Clinton issued the directive.  I had just started college and attending meetings of the gay student organization.  DADT, at the time, was a terribly disappointing compromise, though, in retrospect, necessary.  Clinton’s promise to repeal the ban altogether would never have passed, given the hostile climate in Congress and from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I came to know two gay ROTC members:  a short, curly-haired lesbian from Georgia, Noel, and Patrick, a good-looking, blonde.  They took pride in their service but knew the possibly consequences if they were ever discovered.  I imagine them marching in uniform the way I’ve seen ROTC students practice their formations on campus nowadays.  I never knew what become of Noel — she transferred to another school — and Patrick hinted that his military career would continue after graduation.  In The Best American Short Stories 2006, Tobias Wolff’s story, “Awaiting Orders,” deals with DADT.   In it, an army sergeant hesitates calling his boyfriend a ‘partner.’  His fears of discovery and blackmail overcome his desire to reach out to the sister of a deployed soldier.  I wonder if this is what life was like for Noel and Patrick.  The need to hide.

The end of the policy came with little fanfare, which was what the military had wanted.  Just another day in the war machine.  In the media, however, there’s been a small flurry of stories:  a Navy lieutenant who wed his partner at the stroke of midnight in Vermont to mark the end of the ban; soldiers coming out to their comrades, superiors and families; remembrances of soldiers who could not.

The damage has already been done, though.

Late in Alexander Nevsky, the scene that follows the kinetic battle on the iced-over Lake Chudskoye slows the film to plaintive pace.  Prokofiev’s score takes an operatic note.  Eisenstein scholar David Bordwell calls the music a “threnody.”  Wounded and dying soldiers, German and Russian alike, lie heaped upon the ice, and Eisenstein tracks across them diagonally.  One lifts his head momentarily before crumpling face-down.  On the ice, torches appear, carried by women who peer into the faces of the fallen.  One man rises long enough to say, “Maria.”  As the women move from body to body, another soldier says, “Izaslavna.”  Another:  “Anastasia.”  “Sister.”  Wives, family members, all of their beloved:  their last breaths.  On the field of battle, a mother collapses on a body lying in the snow.

All the years the ban was in effect — how many gay soldiers weren’t able to speak the name of their beloved, even at death?  Who carried torches for them?  Who was allowed to mourn them?  This was the real tragedy of the policy:  silence.  Even in grief.

Sgt. Leonard Matlovich, the first gay servicemember to fight the ban, had this inscribed on his tombstone:  “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

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