In Cinema Studies, Susan Heyward states in her entry for ‘Queer cinema’ that “Queer theory can be seen as a desire to challenge and push further debates on gender and sexuality…It is a concept that embraces all ‘non-straight approaches to…film and popular culture…it seeks to confuse binary essentialisms around gender and sexual identity…and suggest that things are far more blurred” (p.331). With this in mind—and with Queer theory as the subtextual compass pointing to the animal-magnetic queer ‘pole’—the film, The Towering Inferno discontinues solely being a disaster film and can be viewed as a visually semiotic exercise into gay pornography, 165 minutes of failed conversion/reparative/reorientation therapy, and, ultimately, a queer political commentary on closeted homosexuality (and subsequent ‘spring cleaning’ of said closet) in the 1970s.
Firstly, obviously, and most importantly, it should be noted that The Towering Inferno’s story takes place in the city that every dollar-store drag queen, hanky-literate leather daddy, and flannel-loving bulldyke considers to be, at least historically, the American gay capital: San Francisco. According to glbtq.com, the Northern Californian city “has enjoyed an undisputed reputation as a ‘gay mecca’ since at least 1964, when Life magazine published a path-breaking feature article, “Homosexuality in America,” that described the city by the bay to be the ‘gay capital’ of the United States” (www.glbtq.com). With such a reputation firmly entrenched in the average American psyche by the 1970s, the construction of an immense gleaming glass phallus casting a glittery shadow over the nation’s late-20th century ‘gay capital’ seems less subconscious and more strategic if anything.
Furthermore, the filmic worship of a gargantuan glass phallus firmly planted in the heart of the Frisco skyline is not only a diegetic exercise in excess—and therefore an homage to gay camp—but also carries on a subtextual dialogue with gay-pornographic, fetishistic institutionalization of penis size being an a priori requirement of the gay-porn industry’s stars. In his article “When Size Matters,” Drew Rowsome addresses the ‘size queen’ and the recurring theme of disproportionately enormous penis sizes popular in gay culture. He notes that the term ‘size queen’ is “frequently used by gay men in a disparaging way” (www.fabmagazine.com), and that “a lack of endowment is more likely to be mocked during gay banter” (www.fabmagazine.com). Rowsome also discusses the obsession in gay culture with penis size: “Personal ads brag of endless inches of gargantuan [phallic] girth. [Gay] Pornstars trumpet their enormous erections and add inches of plastic to their namesake dildos” (www.fabmagazine.com). Just as the “breasts had become a sign of the women’s sexual appetite” (Hatch, p.151) in Russ Meyer’s films, the enormously erect phallus becomes a sign of a gay man’s sexual appetite in Irwin Allen’s cinematic disaster opus.
By logical extension veering into the realm of reductio ad absurdum, the focus of the enormity of size in The Towering Inferno runs parallel to the gay community’s fetishistic and masturbatory fascination with the well-endowed, which incessantly and obsessively pops out of every page in gay porn magazines and permeates gay skin-flicks with imagistic attention paid closely to the erect endless inches of the phallic endowment. Furthermore, the fixed location of the permanently-erect Glass Tower in The Towering Inferno is the metaphoric equivalent to the spatiotemporally-fixed fixation of the monumentalized ‘money shot’ in every form of gay pornographic material. The ‘money shot’ is that moment in gay porn when sole attention is paid to the erect, stimulated penis before, during, and after ejaculatory emission. And much like gay-pornographic film where the money shot usually occurs towards the end of the film, The Towering Inferno does the same with its simulated ejaculation of water gushing from the tower’s 135th floor.
Additionally, the allusion to homosexual sex in The Towering Inferno removes any and all notions of the reproductive capabilities inherent in its heterosexual equivalent; thusly, this reproductive void transfigures homosexual sex into one of pure hedonism and pleasure; this is intimated in a particular The Towering Inferno scene that might go unnoticed by the viewer if he/she isn’t paying close attention. During the post-coital immolation by fire of Dan Bigelow and his secretary/mistress, Lorrie, the Glass Tower’s main offices are burnt to a cinder right along with two characters. Here, the textual reproductive assertion of ‘Built for Life’ is etched onto office decorum and seen burning into collapse; thereby, signifying that reproductive sex has no place in this film. That this film is ablaze with desire and absolved of any and all reproductive associations; yet another diegetic suggestion of homosexual sex. Likewise, the fervent, frenzied activities of the film’s characters going in-and-out, up-and-down the levels of the Glass Tower simulates both mutual masturbatory and anal-sexual penetrative motions in gay pornography.
And speaking of characters, those that appear in The Towering Inferno serve the dual metaphoric function as representations of both sexual fantasy played out to maintain the Glass Tower’s constant erection and individual spermatozoa during their travels through the excited erection of the fiery glass phallus, each on its way to find ejaculatory escape from the truly Towering Inferno. In his essay, “The Bug in the Rug,” Maurice Yacowar observes that, in the disaster film, the various stars that appear are often dependent “upon their familiarity from previous films, rather than developing a new characterization. Plot more than character is emphasized…In The Towering Inferno an inherited sentiment plays around Jennifer Jones and Fred Astaire, Robert Vaughn repeats his corrupt politician…and Richard Chamberlain reprises his corrupt all-American” (p285). Likewise, in gay pornography, plot—insofar as the attainment of orgasmic climax—overrides and often supersedes character development. The viewer of gay porn recognizes the porn stars from their previous work, which renders the necessity for character development null and void.
However, in the context of the juxtaposing The Towering Inferno with gay pornography, the sole porn stars of the former are the phallic skyscrapers of the city and not Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, etc. of the film. As I previously mentioned, the actual stars of The Towering Inferno serve as semiotic surrogates for sexual fantasies played out in the minds of the film’s porn-star equivalents: the San Francisco skyscrapers. Moreover the film’s stars equally serve as a microcosmic view of the stimulated penis, constituting its erection as well as the biological act of ejaculatory emission of seminal discharge during The Towering Inferno’s ‘money shot’ ending.
As for the disconnected, often interruptive, fantasies played out by underdeveloped characters to maintain an erection for the duration of the film, considering that this was 1970s—a time when conversion therapy was still believed to be a plausible means of quashing homosexual desires/tendencies/behavior through elaborate system of behavior modification and, more often than not, was legitimated by a somewhat surprisingly large number of practitioners in the psychological and psychiatric fields. Keep in mind, it was only one year prior to The Towering Inferno’s theatrical release that “the American Psychiatric Association’s Board of Trustees removed homosexuality from its official diagnostic manual…The experts found that homosexuality does not meet the criteria to be considered a mental illness” (www.thebody.com). Additionally, this was the era of ex-gay ministries supposedly flipping homosexuals like light switches back into a heterosexual lifestyle, while steadfastly maintaining that heterosexuality was “God’s creative intent for humanity and subsequently view[ed] homosexual expression as outside of God’s will” (www.csufresno.edu).
Is it really any wonder that the actualized sexual fantasies drifting in and out of The Towering Inferno’s mis-en-scene are heavily heterosexual-laden in nature? Mind you, both post-coital reveries (that of Glass Tower architect, Doug Roberts, and his romantic interest, Susan Franklin, and Dan Bigelow and his secretary, Lorrie) revolve less around the sexual act and more around pillow talk of living the heterosexual lifestyle. As a viewer with the abovementioned knowledge of the tortures the Glass Tower must endure due to late-20th century societal disapprovals of homosexuality even in the gay capital, one cannot feel empathy for the Glass Tower as it attempts to cope and come to terms with its sexuality. Furthermore, in the context of the 1970s, one cannot reproach The Towering Inferno for its attempts at conversion therapy via heterosexual fantasies that appear towards the beginning of the film; thereby, remaining in the closet. By the time the Fire Department Battalion Chief, Mike O’Hallorhan, enters the picture the viewer notices as markedly different change in the Glass Tower’s sexual fantasy.
Not only is O’Hallorhan emblematic of homoerotic fantasy in his fetishized and fire-manly sartorial plumage, he is also indicative of a shift in desire from one of heterosexual to that of homosexual. His purpose is to extinguish those flames of desire welling up in the erect phallic edifice; yet his presence has quite the opposite effect. Considering that the semiotic image of a fireman with fire-hose in hand, ejecting jets of water to snuff out the burning homosexual lust is one rife with phallic extensions and orgasmic climax itself, it’s no wonder that the entrance of O’Hallorhan does little to end the now pervasive homoerotic fantasy welling up and exciting the phallic construction.
Moreover, once O’Hallorhan enters into the picture, he constantly materializes in the presence of Doug Roberts, disrupting the architect’s dialogical, interactive scenes with love interest, Sarah Franklin; often leading to Roberts being distracted from his romantic efforts with Franklin and giving O’Hallorhan his undivided attention. To the viewer, it becomes plainly obvious that the Glass Tower’s ultimate autoerotic sexual fantasy would be under the gay-pornographic purview of sexual intercourse between Roberts, the architect of the massive phallic extension, and the fetishized fireman, O’Hallorhan.
This repressed burning drive to actualize O’Hallorhan and Roberts attainment of sexual consummation via sexualized fantasy is best exemplified towards the end of The Towering Inferno and before its final ejaculatory scenes. Here, the San Francisco Fire Department strategizes to shoot a ‘breeches buoy’—a name suggestive of the ‘daddy/boy’ paradigm in many gay pornos, the breeches as garment enshrouding both the anal-sexual orifice and the phallus, and the act of ‘breeching’ or penetrating—to the Glass Tower via a helicopter; thereby connecting one enormous phallic edifice to another, the adjacent Peerless Building. This unification of two symbolic phalluses is orchestrated by Roberts and O’Hallorhan and is representative of the gay-pornographic scenes of foreplay and mutual masturbation; both of which ultimately lead to the orgasmic money shots by film’s end…and The Towering Inferno is no exception here either.
It is also here that the ‘fireman’ fetishization is fully realized as O’Hallorhan’s superior officers materialize in fully-regimented military regalia. This recalls Harry Benshoff’s essay “Representing (Repressed) Homosexuality in the Pre-Stonewall Hollywood Homo-Military Film,” which touches on the military fetishization in gay culture. Benshoff observes that homosexuality in military films of the 1950s and ‘60s was hinted at “in oblique ways, but maintain[ed] plausible deniability should they [the filmmakers] be suspected of actually being ‘about’ homosexuality” (p.75). A character named ‘Johnson’—a slang-word for the male member—is working in conjunction with the fire dept. Johnson also uses the choice words of ‘blow’ and ‘load’; yet again, two more slang-words that, when used in conjunction with each other—as in ‘blowing a load’—they form a catchphrase synonymous in gay porn with the ejaculatory seminal discharge during the orgasmic money-shot scene. This is similar to what Benshoff asserts are allusions “to homosexual meanings in more-or-less coded ways” (p.75) in the homo-military films released 10+ years prior to Inferno’s ’74 release; here too, we have a fetishized regiment of keepers of order, peace, and law inferring homoeroticism.
Likewise, just prior to The Towering Inferno’s orgasmic climax, O’Hallorhan alerts Roberts that the flames of desire are “out of control and coming your way!” The Battalion Chief is obviously referring to the impending ejaculation and discharge of seminal waters from the phallic Glass Tower’s head. As noted in Biology: Discovering Life, “ejaculation is involuntary, so it cannot be controlled by the male” (p.735); thus, O’Hallorhan’s ‘out of control’ comment. Obviously, his use of the term ‘coming’ is in reference to the discharge of semen, which is often referred to as ‘cum’ (verb ‘to come/cum’).
In the moments leading up to The Towering Inferno’s the money shot, O’Hallorhan—with the mutual masturbatory assistance of Roberts—blasts the water tanks above the 135th floor of the Glass Tower, unleashing a flood of water/semen out onto a room filled with only male characters (the homoerotic, orgiastic sexual fantasy fully realized). This seminal water is then ejaculated out of the Glass Tower in all directions from its 135th floor’s sky-rise windows and discharged onto the city, leaving a ‘cumstain’ of hedonistic release across the San Franciscan skyline. …Phew! I think I even need a cigarette after all of that.
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The Towering Inferno. Dir. John Guillermin. Perf. Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, William Holden. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.