Feb 052019
 

I’ve never written about this film except in side comments made in other logs. Mostly this is because I don’t know what to say. The film overwhelms me and continues to do so each time I watch it. And now, a year and multiple screenings later, I’m still not able to separate myself from the experience enough to pull it apart. I simply love the look sound people and story of this movie and it touches me deeply enough that after all this time, I can still wind up in tears while watching it.

What I can say after my most recent screening, is that three moments stood out to me as capturing the moral or ethical stance of the film.

The first: the father’s rightly celebrated and nearly too beautiful and honest to seem possible talk with Elio on the couch at the film’s end. The father doesn’t reduce love to make it easier. Instead, he loves fully, offering himself up and showing as best he can by example and words why love’s worth the struggle and the pain. He points the way toward love, offers encouragement, but also leaves Elio the dignity of his own search and of his own way. The speech is lifted nearly word for word from the novel, but Michael Stuhlbarg’s and Timothée Chalamet’s performances in this moment make that speech on its own a work of art.

The second, again at the end of the film: as Elio returns from the train station, the young woman he had sex with while he struggled with his feelings for Oliver tells him she’s not mad, says as a question that they will be friends. Her love is not only about her and not only about need. Neither is his. They are for each other even if they are not everything for each other. So Elio responds “pour toujours.”

The third: a man and a boy in love but unable to speak except to pick and to annoy. Elio holds out the arm of a Greek bronze, asks “Truce?” Oliver shakes the beautiful bronze hand, says “Truce.” The boy, the man and the father end the day swimming together in the lake. They are people with bodies and feelings, minds and desires, finding their way to themselves and to each other through art and through the nearness of the world.

These moments capture I think something of the sensibility of the film. There’s more to say, surely, but I don’t know how to say it. Maybe later.

Jan 302019
 

This film began screening on the festival circuits and in cinemas around the same time as Call Me By Your Name. So perhaps inevitably, many people I knew took sides, arguing that one or the other was extraordinary and the other dishonest posturing. Now I love a heated movie debate over a second pint as much as the next guy, but this particular one annoyed me for two reasons.

First, there still aren’t enough smart movies about gay experiences, even today with all the progress of the past few decades. Yet, here, suddenly, are two great movies out at the same time, and rather than rejoicing and reveling, the conversation becomes a fight over which one “counts” and which one doesn’t, often based on something as ridiculous as whether we see dick or we don’t. (Yes, Merchant Ivory, as much as I love him, made himself a stooge for the wrong side of these dust-ups.) Now, again, don’t get me wrong. Arguing the relative merits of dick versus no-dick over a second pint can be fun, but when that pint is gone, I want everyone to come together to thank the cinema gods that we have both options beautifully projected on our screens and I want us to enjoy them both.

Second, too often, the debate seemed to ignore how different the two films’ stories are. Call Me by Your Name is a classic and moving story of coming out and first love. God’s Own Country is a movie about a young man—very much out to himself and seemingly out-ish to family and friends—finding love, unexpectedly, across lines of cultural and regional prejudice and then struggling to turn that love into a stable relationship. The man’s sexual habits, his unhappy family situation and his general immaturity all threaten to sabotage the budding relationship. The film’s deep beauty emerges from his honest confrontation of his shortcomings and genuine efforts to overcome them.

What I love about Call Me by Your Name is the nuanced portrait of the amorous freedoms of the green space, which I think of as a realm of magic and possibility evoked by countrysides and forests seemingly untouched by social systems consigned for a moment to an “elsewhere” hidden beneath the horizon.

What I love about God’s Own Country is its willingness to acknowledge the need for apologies, to imagine their intricate difficulties, and to trust in their power to heal. I watched its last fifteen minutes waiting over and over for the sad parting shot I expected it would use to skip out before the heavy work of making things right had to be confronted, but that shot never came, and the two men end their story together in a farmhouse trying to make a life from what they find there. The beauty of it left me overwhelmed, but—and I guess this is the final example of my point—that beauty takes nothing away from the equally beautiful but fundamentally different closing shot of Call Me by Your Name‘s Elio crying silently by the fire as his heart breaks for the first time.

…despite their posturing I’m guessing (hoping?) my friends understood that as well.

Apr 222018
 

…if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste! …

But remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between. But there’s only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, must less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy the pain. But I envy you the pain.

—André Aciman, Call My by Your Name

Apr 062018
 

Carson McCullers is interested in the feelings and the states of understanding of adolescents and other marginal people who are on the cusp of self discovery or transformation. She also writes in slow motion, capturing their subtle emotional variations and incremental changes in perception. She sets the tiniest stages of a thought in sharp relief. As a result, following her narration of a scene takes patience.

McCullers’s novel made me conscious of how—during  important periods of my life, yes, but also in ordinary days and boring weeks, in conversations with others but also when I’m alone—my feelings operate as a process and develop through variation. Yet in memory, the process isn’t retained. I remember my feelings as nouns rather than verbs. McCullers’s novel reminded me of the busy work of feeling that I continue to forget and restored (at least for a moment) the complexity and significance of that work to my sense of the fleeting moments of daily life. (Aciman’s in Call Me by Your Name reminded me of this as well.)

Frankie, the novel’s young protagonist, is difficult and cantankerous. Yet everything about her bristles with life and enthusiasm: she is alive to herself and is working as hard as she can within her limited means to make the materials of her childhood into a Self. She’s fierce, takes risks and is playing for stakes, yet she remains open to being touched by others as she struggles to be different, elsewhere and better, three terms that to her are largely synonymous. How can you not be charmed by that?

Finally, it’s worth saying that McCullers’s diction here is a feat of strength. Without resorting to odd neologisms or showy deep-dives into the OED, she describes subtle difference of emotion and of setting while maintaining a consistent register of lanugage. If this novel were a painting it would be richly monochromatic. The effect is so seductive that, by the end, I found myself nostalgic for a Georgia summer heat I’d fled years ago because her description of it convinced me that I’d somehow missed its beauty. I hadn’t—I’m sure of that—but if you’ve ever endured that heat without air conditioning for any length of time, you can appreciate what a powerful spell McCullers must weave in order to make me think I had.

Feb 282017
 

I first read Call Me by Your Name as I flew to Rome in December 2009 to work on a translation for a friend. I was staying in an apartment a couple blocks from the Coliseum, the Forum wasn’t much further away, and I was excited. The work was intense though, and for three weeks I was indoors all day every day, going out only for coffee and sandwiches, both taken standing up in nearby cafes in the mid-afternoon. My Rome, like Elio’s, was the nighttime city we walked through to go to restaurants and bars.

The book has been on my mind again recently because Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, The Big Splash) has filmed a soon to be released adaptation that I’m eager to see. So when an old friend asked for some book recommendations, I suggested it to him. Once I had, I decided I wanted to go back and read it again myself.

Reading it was, thankfully, less overwhelming than it was the first time. I knew what I was in for, which meant I wasn’t dying inside every few pages. Yet the power of the book was undiminished. Aciman writes a story of desire that is narrated in terms of desire. Chronology is indistinct but the experience of time is palpable. Identity is indistinct and yet every detail of every scene testifies to the presence of a person.

What was most astounding to me though was the extent to which the various wild and roaming feelings sparked by and constituting desire and love are represented clearly and authentically by the narration. In my own memory of being young and in love, I retain my feelings whole. Aciman remembers the pieces constituting that whole and brings them back to life for me as I read. It’s intoxicating stuff.