Alan Parker and the Unforgettable Midnight Express
RIP, Alan Parker. I will never forget you.
Midnight Express, the movie, was released in 1978, and was naturally banned in South Africa. A consequence of moral and political censorship that deemed sex, nudity, violence, and language unsuitable for a supposedly sanitized apartheid ethos. I was 16 when I saw it for the first time on some bootlegged copy one of my friends had sneakily managed to secure. I had no idea what was in store for me.
It wasn’t just the haunting score by Giorgio Moroder that continues to give me chills to this day. It wasn’t the horrifying depiction of Turkish prisons (or the violent, thuggish, cruel, one dimensional, borderline caricatures of Turks) nor the same primal fear it engendered around drugs and authority, with comparative intensity that Jaws elicited for ocean swimming.
It was the subtle (yet overt for a 1978 mainstream film) depictions of homosexuality that transfixed me, like the first time I discovered a Playgirl magazine, or was aroused by a Boney M album cover. And more importantly, it was the man playing the role of American drug smuggler Billy Hayes, namely Brad Davis.
From the moment he stood in front of a full length mirror in his white underwear examining the foil wrapped slabs of hashish he had meticulously duct taped to his torso, I felt that familiar, forbidden, dangerous stirring. It jolted me again when, after being caught, he was humiliatingly strip searched and forced to stand naked with his hands above his head, as Turkish policemen pruriently licked their lips with unsubtle thirst and unveiled scorn. The camera trained purposefully and unflinchingly on his lithe, muscular back and perfectly sculpted ass.
While this may have been merely risqué for American audiences, for my South African, media starved, culture deprived, censorship trained, virgin eyes, the mesmerizing tableau was nothing short of explosive.
Despite the stomach churning horror of Billy Hayes’ situation playing before my eyes, my hormones competed with my intellect for focus, but there was absolutely no contest. Starved of gay role models, where homophobic depictions of gay men as perverted, flamboyant queens or effete koffie moffies (the colloquial, derogatory term for flight attendants), hairdressers or florists were the only representations I had been exposed to.
Brad Davis’ unapologetic sexuality and raw, inescapable masculinity oozed like dripping sweat, blazing through the camera with such scorching ferocity I could taste the salt.
The steamy, passionate (yet uncharacteristically tender and vulnerable) yoga session with Erich, a Swede also imprisoned for drug smuggling, was warmly lit and filmed through soft filtered lenses. Their oiled up bodies glistening in burning, repressed intensity, were as memory searing for me as the surreptitious, lascivious glances between men in the yard. Everything forbidden, everything taboo simmering dangerously just below the surface.
Even the disappointing and unnecessary shake of the head by Billy following a kiss, rejecting Erich’s attempt to take things further (albeit a day late and lira short), in case, heaven forbid, one dared imagine the consensual sex recalled by Billy Hayes himself in his autobiography of the same name, upon which the movie was based. And imagine, one did. (The unsubtle and clumsy rape suggestions were fine for the moviemakers though, even though they were fictionalized.)
My prior, tentative and sticky fumblings with my neighbor, Alan, would never be quite the same.
And for reasons better suited for a therapy session or different recollection for another time, even the final attempted rape scene, and its attendant violence, confusingly created yearnings rather than its desired revulsion, despite the obvious intentions of Alan Parker who directed it, or Oliver Stone who wrote it.
Not that he burnished an enduring type or anything, but suffice to say, Brad Davis made it extremely easy for Christopher Meloni to win my affectionate lust in HBO’s groundbreaking prison series, Oz, decades later. Like Midnight Express, for the curious or closeted, one could justify watching Oz for the gratuitous violence and pretend to be oblivious to the impossible to ignore homoerotic overtones.
Alan Parker would continue to impress me with indelible images as time progressed, with the life changing audiovisual masterpiece, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, to the extravagant spectacle of Madonna’s star turn in Evita.
(For what it’s worth, Oliver Stone, on the other hand, following impressively bold moves with Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, ended up mainly disappointing. Most recently with a cowardly and subservient thumbs up to Putin’s flagrant and homophobic policies in a series of interviews, imaginatively titled The Putin Interviews.)
As for Midnight Express, it tapped into something deep within me. The planting of an, alas only figurative, seed that would grow into a painfully slow but certain realization that the strong, fearful yearnings inside my adolescent brain and almost post-pubescent body were an inescapable but primal strength, rather than a weakness. A crackling energy. Something new and exciting to explore rather than repress in fear and panic. Imprinted in my memory and stunningly embodied by an impetuous and unpredictable, devastatingly handsome Brad Davis. Inspiring a younger me, however, to emulate — if not improve upon — idiotic and reckless behavior rather than learn from it, including how to travel internationally with narcotics adhered to the body without breaking a sweat. Conflicted, a recurring theme for yours truly, over whether I wanted to fuck him or be him.
Notwithstanding the corrosive passage of time and harsh discomfiture of reality, few films have had as much of an impact on me.
Rest In Peace, Alan Parker. And thank you.