Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Virtue of a Small Penis

When I first went to Florence, I asked my sister in a museum why all the sculptures of naked men had such small penises. At this, her face screwed up with mischievous delight:
"Yours isn't any bigger!"
She was, of course, totally right. I was eight years old.

Poseidon (or Zeus) at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Bronze, ca. 460 BC.

Two decades and one puberty spurt later, however, things stand a little differently. And while visiting Athens this month, my question from the 90's returned: How come these perfectly formed males sport such relatively modest members? 

Croatian Apoxyomenos, Bronze, 1st or 2nd c. BC.

After a little research, it turns out that the answer is the same as to any question regarding beauty and body cults: it's cultural. The Ancient Greeks quite simply considered small penises better than big ones. Back then, the ideal man possessed authority, intellect and reason. These were all considered unrelated to penis size. Instead, it was believed that a small penis would help a man not to become a victim of his lust (think poor Michael Fassbender in Shame). 

Shepherd pursued by a phallic Pan - Greek vase, Athenian red figure krater

Big penises, on the other hand, were associated with ugliness and foolishness, which is why only animals or half-animals (such as Satyrs) were depicted with them. The fertility god Priapus was cursed with a permanent massive erection. He was associated with donkeys, and so despised by the other gods that he was thrown off Mount Olympus. 

A Greek Terracotta figure of Priapus, ©Christie’s 2015

The playwright Aristophanes summarizes the Greeks' ideal of male beauty in his play Clouds (first performed in 423 BC.) when he says:

If you do these things I tell you, and bend your efforts to them, you will always have a shining breast, a bright skin, big shoulders, a minute tongue, a big rump and a small prick. But if you follow the practices of today, for a start you’ll have a pale skin, small shoulders, a skinny chest, a big tongue, a small rump, a big prick and a long-winded decree.” (Lines 1010 – 1019, emphasis mine)

This male ideal continued to be propagated by sculptors throughout the ages, from the Romans down to the Renaissance. 

Who would have thought? Sometimes there's nothing better than answering your own question. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017


It may not feel like it, but winter is coming to an end. And this means: (Sun) bathing is nigh. In case you have forgotten what that looks like, here three examples from recent and not so recent history.

1 - Collier Schorr, Schwäbisch Gmünd (2007)
2 - Vintage photograph, anonymous
3 - Michiel Sweerts, Men bathing (1655)

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Mania around Moonlight

I first read about "Moonlight" in its New Yorker review last October. The unbeatably clever Hilton Als was smitten by the poetic story about a gay black teenager, and he evoked the key scenes so lovingly that it made me want to see the film more than any other in a long time. I wrote it down on my "to-see" list and never heard about it again.

Until this January. The streets of Paris were plastered with the poster - a serious and somehow vulnerable face daring anyone to look at it. I was so glad. Since when were double-minority (or triple? black, gay and poor) films in the mainstream? And since when do these kinds of films receive Academy Award nominations for Best Feature? 

So when I finally went to see it last night, the expectations were high. I sat down and held my breath, waiting for the magic. Patiently I let scene by scene pass, but little happened. The pace was slow. A silent traumatized boy passes from childhood to adolescence and adulthood, abused by bullies at school and his drugged mother at home. He finds comfort with a couple who pick him up out of kindness, and experiences a glimpse of love with a boy on the beach.

There are scenes that are beautifully done, and some throw up questions you may have never asked yourself - especially those concerning the fate of homosexuals and black identity in the most disadvantaged parts of America.

But ultimately, in its quest to be artistic, the film ends up being frustrating: The bullied child becomes a lonely drug-dealer who hardly knows who he is, and doesn't make an effort to find out. Ironically, the story becomes a little too much like its main character: silent, underdeveloped, and ultimately unresolved. There is a way to make all these things interesting and deep, but Moonlight doesn't manage that. Instead, it relies excessively on stylizations that make one think of Beyonce's Lemonade, with long self-conscious shots of Southern scenery. I so wish the film could have had the courage to go further, to actually tackle questions it throws up. Failing that, it would have been better to condense the 111 minutes to 30 without losing a gram of its meaning. But since this abridged version doesn't exist, I suggest you save your cinema fare and get the best of the film from Als' fantastic review.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Best Café in the World

Before I went to Bar Luce in Milano's Prada Foundation, I had no idea you could feel so strongly about a place that serves tea. But the longer you sit there and watch the bow-tied waiters move around like graceful Russian ice-skaters, the longer you listen to the jukebox playing Nino Rota, and the longer you bathe in the soothing world of Wes Anderson pastels, the more you realize that Bar Luce is not in fact a bar. It's a fantasy come true.

Nino Rota, Theme for Fellini's Amarcord (1973)

Opened in 2015, it's a place without history, evoking a past that only exists in your dreams. It's a place where you can sit for a whole day and come back first thing next morning. It's a place where even the rubbish bins are perfect. And as if its beauty wasn't enough, the paninis are the best I've ever had in my life, and silly affordable. Here you can always find a table (the tourists have not yet cottoned on) and the people-watching is every bit as superb as you may expect. It's official: this is love.

Friday, 18 November 2016

My Favourite Queer Films 2016

So only one of these was actually released in 2016, but so what? A good queer education is nothing without history and a little context. Here the best films I managed to catch this year.

1. Looking the Movie (2016)

Who saw it coming?
Stopped after only two seasons, HBO's "Looking" came back this year with a film, which, rather unexpectedly, was much much better than the series. And much better than "Weekend" (2011), the film that made director Andrew Haigh famous for dreamy hipster gay flicks. Why?
Because the film carries a sense of closure that evaded the show. Because the characters have finally reached their potential. Because it really makes you want to go to San Franisco and dance. And all this made Looking the Movie worth the wait.

Looking the Movie (2016)

2. Caravaggio (1986)

You will never confuse a Derek Jarman film for someone else's. The typical ingredients: the life of a historical gay hero (Wittgenstein, Saint Sebastian, Edward II), sensual tragedy, and surprising cinematic tricks. Caravaggio has all these and much more. With the stunning Tilda Swinton as a prostitute and a love triangle that includes her lover and the Renaissance painter (sporting a very believable Cockney accent).

Caravaggio, (1986)

3. Pride (2014)

Which one of you knew that a group of London queers helped Welsh miners during the anti-Thatcherite strikes in 1984? Exactly.
But that's not the only reasons "Pride" is an absolute gem. Because it doesn't just tell an improbable story of friendship and solidarity, it does so with ridiculous amounts of fun and sensitivity. This may be the perfect film.


"Are all lesbians vegetarians, dear?"

4. Sitcom (1996)

It is incredible how unknown François Ozon's early work is outside of France. "Sitcom" is a story about a suburban bourgeois family and about what happens when la merde hits the fan. Sexy, hilarious, and more than a little rude. Please don't let yourself die without seeing this first.

You can see the trailer here

5. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

So sometimes you need a long time to come around to what's obviously good. But you know when you just really want to resist the hype? Well, you'd be wrong if you included "La vie d'Adèle" in this concerted effort. Because this film is essential stuff, transcending every category you may have in your mind. Adèle Exarchopoulos is a revelation (and has the potential to pull you back a couple of grades along the Kinsey scale) and the story is deep and beautiful. It will haunt you right into 2017.

Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

For the most comprehensive website for queer-themed films, check out the fantastic Cinegay.org. 

Monday, 24 August 2015

Gay Japan

Last month I went to Japan. I'd been wanting to go ever since I saw Lost in Translation a decade ago (sometimes you need to admit to clichés) but I always thought I'd be a better cultural explorer than Bill and Scarlett and pierce right into the country's psyche. I didn't. If anything, the trip brought up more questions than answers.

What I found particularly puzzling was Japanese gayness - or its apparent mainstream absence. The 7/11s don't stock a single gay magazine, you'll never see two men holding hands, and all gay bars in Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, seem to be concentrated on a couple of streets in Shinjuku. How is that possible? 

The notorious Japanese writer Yukio Mishima posing as Saint Sebastian

Before getting on the plane, I read Yukio Mishima's "Confessions of a Mask" (1958), arguably Japan's first gay-themed novel. In it homosexuality is always a source of shame, and it is also closely linked to a fetish for violence. The author himself famously committed ceremonial suicide (seppuku) at the age of 45. 

I presumed Mishima's self-hatred and alienation from himself was an exception or a sympton of his times. But upon visiting one of the gay bookshops that I'd read about, hoping to find some literature, I was rather surprised: It pretty much only stocked porn, most of which involved either bondage or overweight or underage-looking boys. The whole thing felt very creepy. I left quickly.

The late pornstar and campaigner Koh Masaki

A beacon of hope amidst the apparent ghettoization of queer culture was Koh Masaki, a brilliant Japanese porn star, who was a fervent supporter of gay rights. Unfortunately Masaki died two years ago, aged 29. Here a video interview of him and his boyfriend, conducted by Vice, showing them living a rather conventional gay life. Let's hope there are many many more like these out there. 

ps: For deeper insights into queerness in Tokyo, check out this expat's blog post and this article from The Independent. Also, Ellen Paige's excellent documentary about gay Japan, here

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Rebel Beauty

Last year I visited the Sergej Parajanov museum in Yerevan. I had not heard of the filmmaker (1924-1990) before coming to Armenia, but everything I learned about him I liked - his slightly crazy house, accounts of his visually arresting films, and his courage in resisting the Soviets by depicting minority cultures (such as Ukraine's Hutsuls and his native Armenia).

As is so often the case with things you hotly promise youself to do, it took me some time to actually see one of Parajanov's films. It is only today that I got around to watching his probably most famous work, The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). The film traces the life of the Armenian 18th-century poet Sayat Nova through an series of elliptical and otherwordly tableaux vivants

The whole thing is extremely beautiful and extremely bizarre - you cannot quite grasp the effort all these scenes must have taken. What also struck me was the queer undercurrent of the scenes: The men are handsome and sensual and often half-naked, and the poet Sayat Nova is played by an androgynous actress (think Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter's Orlando)

In the museum I'd read that Parajnov had spent many years behind bars for his confrontation with the Soviet system and his refusal to submit to the socialist realist style. What was totally omitted, however, and what some research soon unearthed, is that two of Parajanov's arrests were for "homosexual acts".  Parajanov reportedly denied these charges and he was subsequently married twice, but James Steffen, a specialist on Parajanov, states that the filmmaker was "probaby bisexual, with a preference for men." 

The whole issue is rather nebulous, which is why a recent Ukrainian-produced feature explores this controversial aspect of Parajanov's life. I cannot wait to get my hands on it. And more importantly, I cannot wait to see more of Parajanov's films. Gay, bi, or whatever you want him to be. 'Genius' will cover it either way.

"Parajanov" (2013), Serge Avedikian

The Colour of Pomegranates (1969)