This is part of The Film Experience’s April Fools Day Edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot.
(And what an apt April Fools joke this is!)
As a result, the young men compensate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes, (what an age for the fetishist!) to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.
– Myra Breckinridge, 1968
Gore Vidal’s protagonist may as well have been talking about The Village People, the apex of the fetishistic masculine gay persona in 20th century American culture. The film that tells their story, Can’t Stop the Music (1980) is a glitter of a bomb. No, seriously, despite attempting to watch it the whole way through, Steve Guttenberg’s tone-deaf line readings, the (yes, yes, intentionally) tacky decor and too-bad-it’s-almost-good-except-it’s-bad-bad plotting and dialogue made me turn it off.
And yet, I wanted to soldier on. Happily, one of the early scenes piqued my interest for the way it so oddly pitted gay male fantasies, sexist imagery and, implausibly, glitter. Just as The Village People exists as a sort of gay male drag group (blurring the line between mockery and condescension with a dollop of exploitation), Can’t Stop the Music cannot reconcile the gay male imagery it so lustfully and parodically presents with the heterosexualist agenda its script so bluntly seems married to (that scene between Sam and Ron in their underwear is painfully unfunny but also in keeping with the weird tonal discrepancy between the gay male gaze the film purports to borrow and the straight-laced sexuality it instead indulges in).
And thus we come to the scene that hypnotized me, the “I Love You to Death” number where, no joke, we see the “cop” writhing and twerking (or whatever it is we called it back then) on the dancefloor as lithe red-dressed women armed with glitter seduce, attack and repel him. You have to see it to believe it:
[It’s harder to do so now since the YouTube video has been taken down!]
It’s an odd number for various reasons, but the way it soars from presenting an obviously exaggerated version of masculinity (in the attire of an authority figure) to enacting a choreographed female-bashing sequence all the while framing women as slinked up sirens ready to rip your clothes off is nothing short of obscene. The glitter and camp of it all would suggest there’s a distancing here (these are roles! it’s all a performance!) and yet it’s presented as a dream sequence with lyrics that veer quite close to an imagined rape sequence (“When your lips get close to mi-hine/ Know the heat will drive you crazy/ I’m gonna make that body mine”). I’d be less inclined to sound so negative about this film and this sequence if it weren’t so unkind to its lead female who’s actually told “Go pick a dress and sell your ass off!” and once she signs the group while leading her ex-boyfriend on gleefully remarks “I used my brains and not my body, do you know what kind of accomplishment that is?” without any sense of irony. I mean, at some point the film goes from full on bonkers to crassly misjudged, no? Maybe this is why the Breckinridge line kept echoing in my head, in many ways, the Welch-starring adaptation of Vidal’s novel skirts similar territory but while that failure of a film (“about as funny as child molester” – TIME) is a fascinating misfire intent on breaking down sexual stereotypes and attempting to imagine a new world order (however implausible and hilarious that would be), Can’t Stop the Music is just disco without the winking, just the posing.
That tin-eared tone is best exemplified in the “I Love You to Death” number where the unease of female agency, gay male fantasies and disco come together. And so, here it is, my “favorite” shot: