The magic, they say, happens after the lights dim and the images begin to flicker on the screen. In this case, though, for most, there would be little magic as the story was already known. But for others who were young like me, black like me, and torn asunder by my queer loins like me, the movie represented the quintessential combination of anticipation and dread.
Somehow viewing Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at some now-forgotten movie house became a ritual for the English classes at my school. Seems like we did it at least twice, if not three times. Field trips were commonplace at this school. Once a few of the science classes went to the scene of a recently extinguished wildfire to observe how some plants have adapted to thrive and propagate in such a harsh environment. We had no gym, so for physical ed sometimes we took a quick hop to a local skating rink and worked out to the Stones’ “Start Me Up” or other hits of the day. Sometimes we went to Griffith Park and hiked in the hills. Once a group of us made it all the way to the Observatory — and got in big trouble upon our return for making the group late getting back to school because of our extended sojourn. The R & J trip saw the English teachers leading the pack. I expect we had read the famous tragedy aloud beforehand in class, though I can’t recall now. We often read the classics aloud in class, each of us taking parts.
The repeat viewing I do recall. Though I’m sure most were glad to get away from the campus and do something different, that didn’t stop them from grumbling about seeing such a “nerdy” film. Star Wars had already changed the film landscape by that point, so expectations for film watching were correspondingly higher. Nope! my English teacher declared with her characteristic, ever-present smile, we’re watching a classic. I didn’t mind the trip or the film and remembered it from the year before, though a phantom menace did shadow me, which I kept closely guarded.
These were the days before iPods, iPads, cell phones, and their ancillary activities, shuffling, texting, and tweeting. But as with all kids of all ages, means of distraction were always at hand. There were the old school handheld video games like Football or Star Hawk, their distinctive beeps immortalized on such tunes as Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” and The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah.” But then there was always good old-fashioned chewing the fat with your friends. The teacher-guardians did their best to control both distractions, though at times the rowdiness reached a crescendo.
One such crescendo, the rowdiest, occurred about midway through the film. I’ve since learned that it is a rather famous scene and one which caused quite a stir when the film debuted in 1968. I didn’t know this at the time. I just knew that for me, it caused the usual conflicts. There they were, the two star-crossed lovers rising out of bed, the glow of morning light and youthful innocence upon their supple skin, strings playing the theme tenderly, all of this telling us that love making had taken place. Then, Juliet turns around and shows a glimpse of her breasts, unobstructed by clothing. Cue the howls and catcalls! Hubba-hubba, woo-woo! The guardians did nothing; it’s best to let some tempests pass on their own accord.
I sat in smugness, unmoved by the sight, falsely bestowing a maturity on my brow which I did not deserve. Perhaps my jaded detachment was a defense mechanism, a way of showing control over my groin which the deepest part of me knew, under the right circumstances, did not exist. I longed for control, though, knowing what did stoke my fire. Mr. Spock’s discipline served me well, at least superficially, though in reality it only delayed the day of reckoning, my ability to look in the mirror and see through the oneway glass that projected the false reflection I held for everyone else’s gaze.
After Juliet removed herself from bed, her beauty for all to see, her lover rose, his back to the camera and no clothing to hide his small, tight, well-formed ass from view. It was the moment I secretly longed for, and then it was gone. Two events interrupted my turn at hubba woo-woo. First, the picture suddenly went to dark, even as the soundtrack continued. Second, before the picture vanished, the crowd reaction was loud and absolute, even more so than for Juliet’s skin scene. Eeeewwww! Don’t look! I ain’t no faggot, I ain’t looking! And so on.
I strove for continued nonchalance. Glancing behind me, I saw someone I knew who was a year ahead of me, sitting calming with his arm over some girl’s shoulder. His face wore a bemused look. Looking at him calmed me a little. He possessed the detachment and maturity I longed for. Neither Juliet’s T or Romeo’s A moved him to act out in any particular fashion. I identified with his comportment and though others may have thought I possessed it as well, I knew that I did not. For his inner calm came from the security of knowing and acknowledging who he was. He sat with his girlfriend and they enjoyed the movie, to the extent possible with the raucous crowd in attendance. My inner calm, however, was just a front. I sat alone, knowing that I belonged to the group derisively called out once the man ass appeared on screen. I was part of their ire and verbal assaults. I longed to look at the scene, before the blackness truncated it. Therefore, I was the faggot. And the homo-bashing catcalls only strengthened my resolve to stay hidden from myself.
All was not totally lost, however. Hope, though dormant, existed. The picture eventually returned, still in the bedroom, still a glimmer of Romeo’s butt to be seen before he clothed himself. And something else happened. As the crowd simmered down and the rest of the movie flickered before us, I began to stew a bit. Did they deliberately turn off the projector light when Romeo came on the screen, ass and all? Did they aid and abet the homophobes? I got cross thinking about it. Why censor his ass when Juliet’s tits were there for all to see? It’s good that I felt cross. It meant that part of me even at that time recognized that I had as much right to hubba-hubba woo-woo as everyone else. My indignation should have given me cause to hope that things would in fact get better.
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.