How can straight men look at men’s bodies in a way that is not gay but is gay? One solution is offered in David Cronenberg’s current “Eastern Promises” in which the hypermanly milieu of Russian mafia in London becomes a site for the covert but comfortable inspection of Viggo Mortensen in his pants and without his pants.
In one scene the muscular actor, his body marked by criminal tattoos that denote, like badges, his affiliations and achievements, is seated, in his underpants, before a crescent of very tough men who are assessing him for induction to their inner circles of badness. The tough men, none of whom you would want to quiz on his sexuality unless you were passing by in a speeding car, study Vig dispassionately yet approvingly. They like what they see but they are seeing as specialists, not gay men. They do, however, create a licence for looking at Vig. The logic seems to be ‘Well, if these fucking hard cases can look at him in his pants then no one is going to criticise us for doing the same.’ The violence of the mafia men insulates the straight male viewer from the destabilising effect of his own sexualised gaze.
In another scene, the pants are off and the violence is extreme. Viggo is attacked in the Turkish baths by two besuited Chechen lunks who pound the shit out of his naked body. He fights back, blow for blow, and his body is seen from a variety of angles, some of which involve full-on cock or arse shots. Finally Vig wrests a curved bladed knife from one of his attackers and drives it deep into his eye, thereby rather abruptly tranquillising him.
And we get to look. And it’s okay because: it’s so violent that a sexual dimension is unthinkable (but it isn’t really); Viggo consistently resists the forcible assault; Viggo punishes his assaulters severely; Viggo’s character Nikolai is, in the baths scene, thought by the Chechens to be another character, the mafia boss’s son Kirill. Given that Kirill is thought to be (and may be) gay by the rival hoods, the mistaken identity element works to reinforce the non-homosexuality of Nikolai. Similarly, our knowing that the Chechens are homophobic helps to innoculate them against being seen as opportunistic pervs.
The muffling, obscuring, redirecting or diverting of the potential for homosexualisation of the male viewer’s viewing is hardly a novel operation in the movies. One of the reasons it obtrudes in ‘Eastern Promises’ is that, while the film is pleasingly tense and gripping (and violent), it’s very hard to say what it’s actually about. It appears to have no subtext that the director might have wished to promote – there are no social issues of any substance aired, no moral messages are delivered. This sounds like a description of that contentious quantity ‘pure entertainment’. If this is the case then the purity functions to mask what some would regard as an impure invitation.