In a 1988 Sight And Sound interview, Patricia Highsmith talks about film adaptations of her novels, from Strangers On A Train (1950) to The American Friend (1977)
Posted May 15, 2014
The summer of 1993 is one I will never forget and can barely remember. It is a sultry, humid swamp haze of hundred degree days spent with no air conditioning in a run-down neighborhood draped in Spanish moss and populated almost entirely by burn-outs, freaks, and students ages 19-25 living in ramshackle, rotting houses and cheap apartments. We were young, without supervision, with few responsibilities, without money, hopped up on hormones and drugs and forties of King Cobra. The heat was so stifling that we woke late in the day and stayed up until just past dawn, rarely bothering to close doors or windows or put on more than a pair of cut-off shorts and the thinnest of t-shirts if we wore a shirt at all. Male and female public nudity was commonplace because it was just so damn humid. The musk of sexuality but also a run of the mill asexuality. A mix of lust and simple necessity. Drinking (there was a lot of that), sex (there was a lot of that, too), drugs (there were plenty), violence (not much, but every now and then). It was a neighborhood-wide orgy of heat-induced, malt liquor-stoked over-indulgence. We were the kings and queens of a decaying empire.
It was that sordid, glorious summer that helped me understand — if not actually like — William S. Burroughs’ Wild Boys, the short, post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel that inspired Duran Duran’s epic “Wild Boys” video.
For my money, Duran Duran’s “Wild Boys” is the greatest seven minutes the 1980s ever produced. It’s my favorite music video, and short of Road Warrior it’s my favorite post-apocalyptic “movie.” It was directed by Australian Russell Mulcahy, known at the time as the director of the surprisingly arty “giant killer pig” movie, Razorback. Upon coming to the United States, he fell into directing in the still very new medium of music videos, though he dreamed of returning to feature film work. Music videos are more or less a lost art form these days, with most current ones being nothing but a lip synching performer or band either standing in a room and playing a song, or standing in a room and dancing with some backup dancers. While we had plenty of those in the 80s, there was also a streak of the experimental and the avant-garde. Often times the incomprehensibility of 80s music videos trumps even Burroughs at his maddest.
Mulcahy’s big idea was to make a film version of Wild Boys, which seems rather a challenging project. Disregarding the self-indulgent structure and juvenile crudity of the book, Wild Boys is still a pulp adventure about a collapsing society that gives rise to gangs of violent, feral homosexual boys who spend all their time killing people, screwing each other, and masturbating. Not MPAA-friendly storytelling.
That sounds pretty entertaining, but Burroughs and I do not get along. He is one of those writers whose contributions to art I respect without actually liking. By and large, Wild Boys is no different, but it’s more frustrating than most because I find the core idea fascinating. If you could peel away the nonsense, the random cut-and-reassemble, the pointless repetition and asides about characters who have nothing to do with the story — in short, if you could get someone besides Burroughs to rewrite this book — you could tell a fabulous tale. Not that everything Burroughs did in Wild Boys was bad. The society the wild boys build for themselves on the ashes of the dying world they’ve helped burn down is interesting. There are moments of incredible beauty; sentences that are haunting in their eloquence, their imagery; scenes that evoke a totally alien otherworldliness.
Homosexuality is presented as neither perverse nor exceptional. It’s just what they are. Burroughs’ prose deals with homosexuality, and sex and violence among boys, very frankly and with an uncomfortable mix of affectionate beauty and crass crudity. Sex, nudity, and masturbation happens frequently and without guilt or shame because the boys have not been taught that they should be ashamed of such things. And where the traditional examples of masculine power — soldiers, generals, secret agents — are weak, ineffectual and only understand power in terms of subjugation of the will of others, the homosexual wild boys “out-manly” them. They fight better, fuck better, have more fun, and are the only ones who are free.
Because Burroughs choses to focus on homosexual boys, there is little to offer narratively to women. At the same time, it’s pretty easy to swap male for female pronouns and retool (err, so to speak) the many sex scenes to have yourself an instant female version of the story. Wild gangs of post-apocalypse lesbians running roughshod over authority is no less compelling to me than Burroughs’ lads.
The book is explicit, and at times grotesque in its level of detail, and that can be off-putting even if it isn’t offensive. The violence is less explicit, though certainly it is present. Think Lord of the Flies with a lot more hardcore porn — and hardcore porn is how Burroughs thought of it. He wrote a screen treatment himself in the early 1970s, with the intention of turning the book into a XXX movie. That project never came to fruition, and Wild Boys itself was overshadowed by books like Naked Lunch and Junkie. But it remained influential in the under-underground, especially among people involved with the nascent Pride movement. Given the crumbling state in which New York City found itself in the 1970s, it must have been easy for those Stonewall rioters and street level activists to identify with Burroughs’ iconoclastic wild boys running through the burning streets of a collapsing world.
It certainly made an impression on Russell Mulcahy. When he began working with fittingly androgynous (and definitely sexy) pop superstars Duran Duran — themselves no strangers to artistic weirdness — he pitched his idea for Wild Boys to the band. This would have been during the making of the controversial Duran Duran concert video, Arena, which ended up being less a concert video (to the chagrin of eager Duran Duran fans) and more a surreal, baffling science fiction film in which evil scientist Durand Durand — the character from Barbarella that the band named themselves after — returns from space and sets about destroying Duran Duran for stealing his name. Actor Milo O’Shea reprises his Barbarella role, ensconced within a suit of futuristic armor and weird quadrupedal stilt suit as he conspires to kill Duran Duran during a concert, employing a totally incomprehensible plan that involves Time Bandits-esque little people, sexbots in pools of green slime, mutants, finger lasers, shapeshifters, phallus monsters, and a lingerie-clad roller derby army suspended above goo pits. Then John Taylor leaves the stage, walks down a hall, and has a Heineken.
The whole thing is a weird collision of Time Bandits, Road Warrior, Roller Blade, a fetish club, and an Aquanet commercial. Fans were outraged. They just wanted to watch the band, but Arena frequently interrupts the performance, seems to have no interest in it. Mulcahy obviously considers the loony sci-fi elements the main attraction. It’s that aspect of Arena that led to “Wild Boys.” He wanted to make an adaptation of the book, and he wanted Duran Duran to score it, like Queen had scored 1980’s Flash Gordon. Based on this pitch, Simon LeBon and the boys wrote the song “Wild Boys,” and Mulcahy devised a lavish music video that would serve as a demo reel for the prospective Wild Boys movie.
It was one of the most complicated and expensive music videos ever made, drawing on imagery from Burroughs book as well as the post-apocalyptic film The Road Warrior by Mulcahy’s old Ozploitation buddy George Miller. The video is a riot of science fiction and 80s pop insanity. LeBon is gussied up like Mad Max, tied to a giant windmill, and fights a monster. Lithe, painted young men and women dance, flip, flail, and fight across the massive soundstage while fireballs erupt everywhere and guys on hang gliders zip around. There’s an electric whirlwind that sends dancers spiraling into the air. The dancing walks the line between athletic and violent, erotic and disturbing. Where Burroughs’ novel begins with the assumption of homosexuality as a norm, Duran Duran uses their own image and this mix of savage, mostly naked men and women to confuse the issue of sexuality. The whole thing captures the anarchic spirit of rebellion that ran through the book. It’s just glorious, to the point that it brings a tear to my eye every time I watch it. Freaky, deviant, chaotic, sexy.
The video appears in the middle of Arena with no connection to anything else, which is par for the course in Arena; not once does the band interact with any of the fiends Durand Durand throws at them, and the mad scientist is eventually defeated by some brave Duran Duran concertgoers. The song was released as a single and as the only studio track on the Arena live album. While the Arena concert video is considered a baffling failure (one well worth watching — it’s only an hour long), the album was a hit and the “Wild Boys” video became legendary. It seemed like, despite the fan and critical backlash against the Arena video release, Mulcahy had enough clout now to get a feature film made.
Just not Wild Boys.
Not surprisingly, getting a studio to bankroll a movie about post-apocalyptic feral gay boys ended up being kind of… impossible. Even if Mulcahy made concessions — no hardcore gay porn, sadly — it was just too controversial. With AIDS ravaging whole populations and being blamed by politicians and the media on homosexuality, the United States was poised for a wave of homophobia that would not take kindly to a movie about tribes of homosexuals declaring war on the rotting remains of the mainstream. Wild Boys never got past the music video concept, but least we got a truly remarkable video. Mulcahy went on to direct Highlander (scored by Queen, incidentally).
Nearly two decades later, and despite the fact that LGBT rights have made huge advances, the world is probably still not ready for a big budget Wild Boys movie — though I certainly am. Queer cinema needs something utterly crazy to balance out the endless parade of melancholy films about people struggling with their sexual identity then committing suicide. A movie about a gang of crazy gay (and lesbian, why not?) kids in loincloths and dayglo jockstraps armed with slings, knives, and old rifles would be a nice change of pace. However, even as the mainstream becomes more accepting of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, the bulk of society is still most comfortable when homosexuality is presented as an amusing novelty — a sassy gay best friend or an outrageous drag queen. In other words — a movie about corrupt politicians and military types fighting a hetero band of post-apocalypse heroes is fine; a movie about corrupt politicians and military types fighting a homosexual band of post-apocalypse heroes is dangerous.
And while the “mainstreaming” of LGBT rights must be the ultimate goal — we should not be attacked because we are homosexual, or murdered if we are transgendered — there is still something lost when the dangerous edge is dulled. These traits must become inconsequential if we are not to be engaged in endless, exhausting conflict, but even so, there is a nobility in the fight and a sense of loss when the unique becomes the mundane. I look back on that animalistic, decadent summer of twenty years ago, and I realize I am better off now. Employed, stable, better fed, better traveled (certainly fatter — I weighed 105 pounds when I was 20). And yet, I am aware that I lost something in the trade regardless. We win the war but lose something in the victory, the domestication. While we fight to be accepted as normal, there is an attraction to being not normal. A romance to being the dangerous, the threatening, the profane; to rejecting rather than being part of. To forging our own morality instead of integrating with theirs.
There is an allure to being a wild boy.
Burroughs’ book is worth reading, even though it will frustrate and probably bore (sort of like Arena). But there is a lot of good buried in there, and the fact that after finishing it I kept thinking about it and wanting to write about it means that, even if it wasn’t a great reading experience, it’s obviously a book that means something to me and affected me in some way — even if that effect was just to lie around on steamy nights and think about how I would have written the book or adapted it into a movie. And just as Arena is only an hour and therefore worth watching for the Schadenfreude, if nothing else, Burrough’s Wild Boys is a slim volume, easily read in a day or two.
As for Duran Duran’s video — my God, it’s a thing of beauty and oddly faithful to the book it its way (except Duran Duran’s tribes include athletic, topless, punk women along with the boys, because Duran Duran) and a worthwhile piece of actual science fiction. You could spend hours trying to decipher its meaning. And the song itself is wonderful, too. On the rare occasion I’m out in a club and it comes on, it takes all my willpower to not jump up and run toward the dance floor.
No. Instead, I stand up and purposefully stride toward the dance floor. Wild boys always shine.
Keith Allison wonder where is glory.