Volume , Number 0
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The Celling of America
Organizing in Lawrence
Poor People's Organizing
Slippin' & Slidin'
High-Tech Transportation Workers
The Heat is On
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Fear of a Queer Planet
One of the most tiresome avenues of gay and lesbian film criticism has been the cataloguing and dismissing of "negative images of gay people" as either bad politics or bad art. Thus defined, the question of "is it good for gay people" feels overly restrictive and unfruitful. Lifeand artis far more complicated than simply producing or enjoying "positive images" of gay people (or Jews, or women, or progressives, or African Americans)that is, gay people who act only in righteous, moral, and virtuous ways. Positive? Sure. But interesting? As Mae West once said, "Goodness has nothing to do with it."
In 1992, when GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and other queer media watch groups were complaining about Sharon Stones murderous bisexual black widow character in Basic Instinct, a noted lesbian novelist came to Stones defense. "I mean, here is a lesbian or bisexual women who goes around murdering creepy men and gets away with it. Whats the problem?" Stone was a positive role model for our post-modern times. More important, the "bad girl" image also dovetailed neatly with a new sense of transgression and edginess that defined some aspects of contemporary feminism and queer liberation; a move that can be seen in the presentation of African American rappers.
But there are times when the flight from positive images does not necessarily lead to the immediate embrace of the good "bad guy." Sure, Glenn Closes bunny-boiling scorned woman was a hell of a lot more interesting than Anne Archers goodly wife in the 1989 Fatal Attraction, but it was no great stretch to see that the film reinforced our cultures most traditional "values" of home, family, and monogamy. Now Lost in Spacethe film version of the mid-1960s television seriesoffers us not only one of the more problematic images of the evil homosexual in recent movies, but a look at how Hollywood is presenting the happy, nuclear family as well.
Plot-wise Lost in Space feels like a repeat of some of the episodes on the original series only 60 minutes longer and with a few lame sexual jokes tossed in. Here the family Robinsonfather John (William Hurt), mother Maureen (Mimi Rogers), and children Judy (Heather Graham), Penny (Lacey Chabert), and Will (Jack Johnson)are lost in space on the Jupiter II space craft and are looking for a way to get home. For plot reasons that are far too complicated to explain here, they are trapped in space with Dr. Smith (Gary Oldman), a completely untrustworthy scientist whoworking for a different space-age power blockhas already tried to kill the cute family Robinson. We are led to believe that Smith is a homosexual of the evil variety because he continually proclaims his loathing for the very concept of family, hates children, has no allegiances to anyone but his own selfish self, quotes Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and mutters Susan Hayward movie titles under his breath. As played by Gary Oldman he also postures and struts like an ego-wounded King Lear trapped on an intergalactic heath, and sounds like an injustice-collecting, complaining Hamlet. He is also far more interesting than anyone in the tediously attractive family Robinson.
The evil homo is nothing new in Hollywood movies. But Lost in Space has some interesting twists on the theme. One of the major plot threads is the tension between the Robinson father and mother over his resistance to spending more quality time with their son, the young Will.
Too concerned with saving the world and battling the hostile universe, John Robinson isin strictly Freudian termsthe uncaring, distant father who fractures the cohesion of the family unit and causes homosexuality in his son. Add to this tension, the holistic family Robinson confronted with the visceral image of the child-hating, family-loathing homo, Dr. Smith.
This tension is explored in a somewhat startling plot twist that posits a clever science fiction variation on psychoanalysis. In traditional analysis the patient goes into the past to revisit a primal scene and from that experience can rectify actions in the present. Hereit being science fictionthey go into the future to find that primal scene.
In the family Robinsons alternative future, they are all dead, except for an older Will (now played by Jared Harris) who has perfected the time travel machine that his father never believed would really work. The evil-homo Smith has become Wills father and mentor (as well as a giant deadly spider; dont ask) and has killed off the Robinson family. This all happened because father Robinson didnt have enough time for Will when he was a boy. The distant father has literally been replaced by the homosexual father and look what happens: familys killed, boy becomes a queer, and the universe falls apart. The older, disenchanted Will now wants to use his time travel machine to go back and prevent the entire space voyage (and by extension the film) from ever happening. The arachnoid Dr. Smith wants to use the time travel machine to go back and conquer the universe, which is, of course, the paranoid heterosexual fantasy of a world-wide queer conspiracy.
Needless to say, father Robinson learns to appreciate Wills talents and intentions and, in doing so, saves the family, the earth, the universe, and heterosexuality. Too bad. The one saving grace is that by changing the future, father Robinson also saves the present. In their quest home, family Robinson is accompaniedas alwaysby Dr. Smith. He may be evil, but he isnt going away. He is the necessary reversal that continually validates the goodness and rightness of the Robinsons.
Beneath its not very special effects and its lame attempts at humor, Lost in Space presents us with a portrait of how the mediaand, by extension, the dominant cultureviews the family. We are being told that things are getting better for gay peopleby the mainstream print media like the New York Times, and gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign. Lost in Space makes it clear, on a metaphorical and entertainment level, that homosexuals are still a danger to the biological, nuclear family. No matter how much cultural, social, and political place "the family" and heterosexuality seems to take up, it still views itself as under attack by homosexuality.
Although Dr. Smith is the most interesting character in Lost in Space, the film does not side with him. Basic Instinct treated Sharon Stones charming murderer with ironic insouciance and Silence of the Lambs presented Hannibal Lector as a charmingly civilized savage (the elegant white version of the racist stereotype). But Lost in Space wants uswell, at least the heterosexual, pro-family audienceto side with the inept and stupid Robinsons and to see Dr. Smith as a spoiler of civilization and family values. One almost expects to see Gertrude Himmelfarb, Pat Buchanan, Phyllis Schafley, and Irving Kristol on the films list of credits.
The "Lost In Space" television show that ran from 1965 to 1968 seemed a trendy retread of 1950s family-values sitcoms: "Leave it to Beaver" on a space ship, "Father Knows Best" in the firmament. But the show was actuallyinadvertentlya more prescient marker of the times. Here was the all-American familyloving mom, professional pop, smart older daughter, sassy teenage brat, quirky kid brotherunanchored from their suburban moorings and spit-out into the scary void. In the 1950s and 1960s, "space" and science was the possible future, but it was also "not home." It didnt take a rocket scientist to figure out that in the TV show the Robinsonsemblematic of the perfect, media created American familywere displaced and facing a dangerous and inhospitable world: not outer-space, but the enormous social and political changes of the 1960s. "Lost in Space" was about the attempted domestication of this new "space"; the family unit was so adaptable that it could function in a space-station outside of a hostile galaxy as well as it could in their perfect pastel kitchens. But this glitzy updating never hid the fact that "Lost in Spaces" basic values and viewpoint were out of sync with the onset of the 1960s counter-culture revolution. By comparison, Star Trek, which began broadcasting in 1969, was much more savvy to its cultural context. Here humans, aliens, and even odd creatures understood that the universe was a new place that could accommodate difference with elan and wit. With Stonewall, feminism, Black power, sex, drugs, and rock and roll just around the corner, "Lost in Space" was Lost in Time.
It is interesting that the movie remake of "Lost in Space" attempts to generate simple-minded nostalgia for the 1960s. It is aimed as much at younger baby boomers as it is at their kids. The difference here is that to make it work, Lost in Space recycles the pro-family nostalgia of the early 1960s with the panic pro-family paranoia of the later 1970s. The message of Lost in Space is not much different from Anita Bryants Save the Children campaign or the spew of the right-wing 700 Club. It is a defense of family values against the onslaught of the encroaching homo-horror.
This is a betrayal of the enormously radical potential of science fiction. Just think about it. We can conjure realities and worlds startlingly different from our own and what do we end up with?: the stupid, heterosexual family under attack by an evil, Judy Garland-quoting homosexual. A more startling leap of the imagination would be to envision a world in which homosexuals (who have done nothing wrong, except not be heterosexual) are under attack by conformist-demanding heterosexuals. Oh, Im sorry. That isnt science fictionthats socialist realism.
Lost in Space gives mainstream audiences no basis for appreciating or valuing Dr. Smith. He is a self-avowed, as they used to say about homosexuals, evil monster. As in the television show, the robot in Lost in Space sounds continual warnings: "Danger Will Robinson. Danger." Ill say. But the danger to innocent Will is not from evil monster Smith, but from Wills own horrid family Robinson whose worth and purity is attained and sustained through attacking the evil homo as the source of all of the dysfunction and dissatisfaction in the universe.