Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum in "22 Jump Street".
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22 Jump Street isn’t just homofriendly – it’s homolovely

Time and again this smart sequel turns down the opportunity to make homosexuality the butt of the joke. Instead, it provides a welcome mainstream attack on homophobia.

It’s always encouraging to see a smart film doing well – even reaching the top of the box-office charts. Yes, 22 Jump Street is a Hollywood blockbuster with A-list stars, and it’s a sequel to boot; it was never going straight to bargain bins on garage forecourts. Where it exceeds expectations is in marrying the knowingness of its writing to the gleeful, unimpeachable sincerity of its performances. Channing Tatum in particular has developed into a joyous comic actor, coasting on perfumed clouds of oblivious delirium. It isn’t that he plays his character, the undercover cop Jenko, as dumb exactly – though his malapropisms (especially a spectacular one involving the name “Cate Blanchett”, which David Denby in the New Yorker was kind enough to spoil for his readers) are sublime. He reminded me more of Alicia Silverstone as Cher in Clueless, characterised by a lack of self-awareness that insulates him from social ravages. Ignorance is comic bliss. (This contrasts nicely with the combative intelligence of the newcomer Jillian Bell, who gives a film-stealing, star-making performance: an apparent cameo that blossoms into something bigger.)

But I was surprised to read on Indiewire an article lambasting the movie for its “meta-homophobia”. This film isn’t just homofriendly – it’s homolovely. It seems to me that you have to try very hard, and look so far between the lines that you cannot see those lines any more, in order to discern anything homophobic or even mildly hateful in 22 Jump Street. This is a film that relishes all its characters, and gives a rich gloss to even its cheapest jokes. The nearest that the movie sails to the uncharitable is in a scene involving the villain from the previous Jump Street movie; his penis was shot off in a gunfight to be replaced with a makeshift vagina. There are some throwaway gags about how his cellmate, a fellow antagonist from the original film, is coerced into servicing him sexually, but it would take an inordinate amount of effort and distortion to see this as a transphobic jibe. Being transgender is about more than having had one set of genitals replaced with another; it isn’t a dressing-up game in which we can all put on or remove prosthetic body parts. It comes from within: it is about who a person is inside. Any external equipment has to be adjusted to be consistent with the internal, but it isn’t genitalia that makes a person transgender.

To suggest that the prison scene is transphobic is to wilfully misunderstand what it means to be transgender. If you were feeling particularly unforgiving, you might even say that it is actively transphobic to see 22 Jump Street in transphobic terms, because in doing so one overlooks the true meaning of transgender. The worst you could say about the scene is that it doesn’t take seriously the subject of sex in prison. Well, guess what? It still does a damn sight better than The Shawshank Redemption or A Prophet, which cannot even bring themselves to admit that men in prison might have sex with one another for pleasure. In The Shawshank Redemption, sex in prison exists only as gang rape, and a catalyst for revenge; in A Prophet, it happens only to facilitate a murder. At least 22 Jump Street accepts it as a fact of prison life, even if there is a schoolboy snigger around the subject. It even subverts the usual dynamic by making the victim (that is, the unwilling partner) the one who has to perform the penetrative act; it is the aggressor, the man with the artificial vagina, who has to be penetrated. Too much information?

The homophobia charge is especially galling because the homoerotic, or homosocial, relationship between the two male leads – Tatum and Jonah Hill (as Jenko’s partner Schmidt) – is not only one of the running jokes of 22 Jump Street: it is the subject of it. It’s text, not subtext, and the space and dignity the movie affords it elevates it from a joke into a celebration.

We start out with scenes in which they discuss their working relationship in terms deliberately redolent of the romantic – Jenko suggests they should think about going solo and “sowing our wild cop oats”, while a college psychologist misinterprets all their talk about being “partners” and proceeds to give them couples counselling. To appreciate how homofriendly the film is, let’s imagine the traditional (that is, homophobic or patriarchal) structure for that gag.

  1. The cops talk about their relationship.
  2. Psychologist gets the wrong end of the stick.
  3. Cops cotton on eventually to his misinterpretation, long after the audience has, and proceed to profess disgust and repulsion, perhaps attempting a variation on the ostentatiously macho banter with which Steve Martin and John Candy struggle to cleanse themselves of their accidental intimacy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Well, the opposite happens. The psychologist assumes that Jenko and Schmidt are romantic partners, as opposed to professional ones, and asks them to try holding hands to bridge their divide. They do so reluctantly – not because they fear it is “gay” but clearly because they have so much tension between them at that point. At no juncture is the comic “reveal” of heterosexual disgust exploited – because there isn’t any. I’m not just talking about this instance: there isn’t any in the entire film. Like the Jackass boys, Jenko and Schmidt are to all intents and purposes in a loving and intimate relationship with one another. It should be our understanding that the only reason they don’t go the whole hog together is not because they don’t want to, but because they are in a Hollywood movie which isn’t quite ready to embrace fully and openly that concept. That isn’t at all the same thing as it being demonised or even stigmatised. The movie trusts us to read the true content of what is on screen; it flatters us that we are sophisticated enough to do so. And if we don’t – well, the creators of Loadsamoney and Alf Garnett will be able to tell you that it won’t be the first time an audience screwed up.

The “mistaken gayness” situation with the psychologist is repeated later in a new context when Jenko pretends to be giving fellatio to Schmidt in the college library in order to disguise the fact that they are both eavesdropping on the villains in the next aisle. Once again there is an opportunity for Schmidt and Jenko to advertise their disgust at homosexuality (the orthodox mainstream response) and once again it is passed over. Not only do we fail to get the traditional disavowal of their gay masquerade but the scene is transformed triumphantly into an attack on homophobia: when one of the villains refers to Schmidt and Jenko as “a couple of fags”, Jenko upbraids him for his homophobic language. Do not underestimate the importance of a young multiplex audience hearing this chastisement from the mouth of the film’s deeply sympathetic hero. Maybe it won’t stop them calling one another “gay” in the playground. But it will at least have planted some doubt in their minds. They can’t say any longer that they didn’t realise the impact of the word, not now they have heard Jenko’s reprimand.

22 Jump Street goes further than any other mainstream Hollywood comedy in normalising the emotional transactions between men. Crucially, it doesn’t have a gay character who acts as the “Other” and allows audiences to differentiate between the ostensibly straight heroes and the spectre of gayness. Even the brilliant bromance I Love You, Man couldn’t quite avoid the trap of showing audiences what gay people look like, so that we might comfort ourselves that the main characters do not fall into that category. 22 Jump Street is more progressive than that, and far more progressive than a film as paralysed as Withnail & I, which again uses the distraction method – “Look over there at Uncle Monty! Isn’t he monstrous? That is what a gay person looks like, so don’t you dare go thinking that the heroes are gay, no matter how intimate they get with one another. Got it?”

22 Jump Street initially plays for laughs the connection between Jenko and a college football star, Zeke (Wyatt Russell), turning it into a spoof of rom-com convention and generating comedy out of Schmidt’s jealousy over the two men’s increasing closeness. But this too is ultimately treated ingenuously. The shortcomings of Jenko and Zeke’s friendship arise out of it being purely physical – Jenko gets bored when all Zeke wants to do is pump iron. He misses the rounded, comprehensive intimacy he shared with Schmidt, which was about more than just stripping off and getting down to it. In this way, 22 Jump Street reinforces not homophobia but loving and meaningful relationships of all kinds. That’s regressive in its own way, you might protest.  But then that is another argument, and one in which accusations of homophobia have no currency.

22 Jump Street is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain