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Joel Cairo: American Icon

I confused the hell out of Holly the other day, because I was praising the Maltese Falcon. That in itself wasn’t what shocked her, I’ve spent enough time talking the story up that no one should be surprised by my love for it. No, what got her was a particular incident that I found amazing.

Now it’s no Spoiler to tell you that the character of Joel Cairo is presented as a homosexual in the book. He’s sort of swishy in the movie, strangely when watching the movie I always peg Gutman and Wilmer as the gay ones, but in the book they come right out and say that he’s queer. I can’t remember the exact wording, and the books are all packed, and I’m not sure I have a paper copy anyway. The point is that in the book they make no bones about the fact that Joel is homosexual. In the book, like the movie, Joel pulls a gun and as a result gets the stuffing slapped out of him by Spade. I’ve always loved that scene, because Spade doesn’t pull his punch and gives the gay guy one across the chin. Now this is the section that got me a funny look, because I was declaring it so awesome that the gay guy got some lumps too. I phrased it kind of funny, saying that it was awesome that the gay guy got slugged and slapped around, which is what confused Holly and required explanation. No wonder this confused her, I’m not in the habit of applauding people for beating up on gays.

See, I first read the book in about 1992 or so. In those days, there was a new liberalism, which had spawned Political Correctness, which was stalking the land like Frankenstein’s monster on a bender. Now if you only came to cultural awareness in the years after 2000, you might not know this, but there was a time when PC wasn’t just something conservative crybabies whined about on cable TV. It was a bit of foolishness that threatened to come to Nazi like proportions when it came to changing the language and forcing new meanings onto old words. Let me tell you kids, Special Treatment met its match when it came up against Those In Need of Special Assistance. I’m all for not using words like cripple, faggot and that most offensive word for blacks that I won’t even use because I think I generate enough flame bait on my own thank you very much. It just went too far, and some of its practitioners got over enthusiastic in their support for the concept. Remember, I’m a long labeled liberal telling you this. So with that in mind you know I’m not just complaining that I’m not allowed to use offensive words to be deliberately offensive. I use them all the time when I want to be deliberately offensive.

One of the results of this tidal wave of senselessness was that people would complain if anything other than white adult males were shown in anything like a negative light. Let us remember, that the gay community had just gotten done complaining about Basic Instinct like it was some sort of document of cultural importance rather than a cheap excuse to get a beaver shot of a not particularly good actress. The word was clear though, we had to treat homosexuals with a hands-off attitude and if any of them were shown in anything other than a shinning light the perpetrators would forever be labeled as fascists and dick-sniffers*. We’ve started to get over that, and come to the conclusion that gays can in fact play in our reindeer games, and can be allowed to be bad guys sometimes, so long as we are all held to the same standard.

I’m all for not bashing gays for being gay, but imagine what it was like for a young fairly open minded lad of 16 to be deeply mired in the early 90s and reading that section. It was a great shock to see that Joel Cairo was being slapped around purely for pulling a gun on Sam Spade. It wasn’t because he was gay, or a sissy, or even for smelling of gardenia, but simply because he pulled a gun on the wrong private eye. I loved that idea, that Joel was a full fledged player of this game, and was only being slapped and treated badly because he attempted to hold up Sam Spade. You try to hold up Sam Spade, you get an ass kicking. Q.E.D.

It was a shock because I’d more or less understood that America was a right wing conservative country that hated everything that wasn’t white, and Christian and only sort of tolerated not being male from its inception right up until 1963 when some drug addled proto-hippie invented liberalism. If I took my literature and movies as my historical teachers (which I sort of had to do because American schools suck for teaching history that isn’t the Revolution) then I had to admit that before reading this book I’d understood that homosexuality hadn’t even been invented before 1975 and it was a VERY controversial invention. We didn’t even have gay men in the 90s, just hot girl on girl action.

If there were gay men, they were a weak willed bunch of sissies, only useful for comic relief or victimization. Everything about them was linked to their homosexuality. If they were beat up, it was understood that they were being beaten up for being gay. If they were humiliated, it was understood that it was funnier because they were gay and it was supposed to be funnier to humiliate a gay than it was a normal person. Any time a person was labeled as being gay, a big deal was made out of them being gay. Not only was a big deal made, but a big target was placed on them.

When someone wanted to painted a less bigoted picture though, they would invariably go too far the other way. Every gay was a spiritual, wise, and never came to any harm unless it was intended to pull at our sympathetic heart strings. Unfortunately, when this was done, it would often come off like a puppy getting hurt since the character in question was often no better defined than to be a Gay version of the Magical Negro. In many ways in fact these characters were worse and came off as more shallowly written. At least when a sissy is being played up for joke it tends to be in a light comedy where no one is very deep, having a heavy drama where every character is well defined except for the poor homosexual who you know will die near the climax doesn’t cut it. Yeah, I watched a lot of independent stuff in the 90s, which is why I mostly watch old movies and action fare now.

The point I was trying to make though, was that Joel Cairo was gay, but it wasn’t a big deal. I’m not even sure it was mentioned five times in total. He wasn’t considered weaker than Spade because he was gay, he was weaker because he wasn’t Sam Spade. Actually Spade tends to avoid the Captain Kirkesque “That’s why he’s the goddamn captain” sort of super tough guyness and instead opts for a definition of toughness best defined as an ability to bluff the hell out of everyone else. He’s tough because of his nerves not because he can make everyone else eat a bullet sandwich, another point of love for me and one I should try to emulate more. Sadly I’m cured with the ability to write comic book style action sequences and semi-realistic characters, which doesn’t make for good Spade emulation. Once again though, we’re on a tangent.

That was what I loved about the book, trying once again to get back to my point. The gay guy isn’t treated any different for being gay. He’s just a guy who is gay and will probably be outsmarted by the protagonist. That was why I loved the book, because the gay guy could be slugged for pulling a gun on the hero and as a result was treated like everyone else who pulled a gun on the hero. Even more so, I love that Cairo doesn’t whine or whimper like a little bitch after being slugged, he takes it like a man.

I also liked the way the killer was eventually unmasked, but we’ll talk about that later.

Fancy’s Notes:
1. The boy is mildly exaggerating many of the deficiencies of his shitty American education.
2. *Please note the irony presented.
3. You ever get the idea that he puts all these links in just to avoid having people ask him what any one concept or idea is? I think he’s trying to stop himself from directing people to justfuckinggoogleit.com on a constant basis. Of course if you click all his links, you realize what a cruel and self-amused bastard he really is.

June 18, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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