Feb 192019
 

A boy named Jared is the son of a pastor and doesn’t seem as into his high school sweetheart as she is into him. He also has a tendency to look a second too long at other boys. At university, he is raped by a friend, and his assailant, afraid Jared will speak out about what has happened to him, tells Jared’s parents he’s gay. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Jared uses this moment to admit that he might be and agrees to go to a conversion camp. There everything is obviously terrible and abusive and Jared seems to see this and to reject the whole idea of conversion pretty quickly despite some early talk about wanting to “change.” Eventually he tells his mother he wants to leave the camp, that he is who he is, and the mother takes him away and works to convince his father to accept him as he is. The boy then moves to New York, finds love, and writes the memoir that becomes the basis of the movie.

I found this movie to be devastating but not, I think, because of the movie. It’s the subject and the bald presentation of the religious world view that makes conversion camps possible that got to me. The people in this film really are living in a different world, and it is a world where a rapist can catch his victim and bind him into silence by confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness in the moments following the assault. It’s a sick world in which religious delusions distort everything and it’s a world tied to particular places, especially the South. (In the film, Arkansas.) I’ve been inside this world, and I’m not convinced there’s any way to show the people living there that what they see and believe isn’t real or good. Watching the film, knowing what I was seeing was true was devastating.

The film itself though—the dramatic narrative performed on my screen—had a point of view problem that manifested as a third act problem and it’s hard for me to see a way around these. Jared’s story has very little drama. He’s oddly untouched throughout. He embraces a gay identity as he enters the camp and leaves because the camp wants to change that identity. The film has to show the camp and what happens there because without those images there’s no reason for the film really, but there is no drama in those scenes, only horror because the boy isn’t there to struggle. He observes. He witnesses. Like the film, like the viewer, he knows what he is seeing is wrong and that the people around him are misguided. The only question is how long he’ll put up with it.

To the extent the film generates drama it involves the mother and to a lesser extent the father, both of whom must confront the consequences of their beliefs and both of whom must change in the final act for the film to come to a proper end. They do change. Yet because the film focuses on the boy, their change happens off screen and out-of-sight. The problem this causes is captured nicely by the film’s trailer. The film clearly is being marketed as a dramatic (if saccharine) social issue film, but in order to generate sellable drama, the trailer has to rely on footage of the parents drawn almost exclusively from the final moments of the film. Again, I don’t see how the film gets around this without jettisoning its source, and ultimately, as flat as the film is, the horror of what it does show is enough to make it powerful. So ultimately, the film is what it is, dramatic problems and all, and what it is isn’t terrible.

Gloomy and bland as everything else is, there are two visually beautiful moments in the film. These are:

  1. Jared standing in front of a photograph of a male model—it’s an ad at a bus stop—and he reaches out and places his hand on the man’s face, then steps back, and, angry, throws a rock shattering the glass; and
  2. Jared staying over at a ridiculously gorgeous young artist’s ridiculously gorgeous apartment, but doing nothing except chastely staring into each other’s eyes in bed together.

The film knows these are pinnacle moments of beauty and sets them off as such in the narrative. The marketers do as well: both are given pride of place in the trailer.

For someone watching from Quebec, the film had one additional loop of interest. Let’s call it the “Xavier Vortex.”

First, cinematic wünderkid and world-class sex-pot, Xavier Dolan plays a deeply fucked up resident of the conversion camp who is always there to say something creepy and damaged to Jared. Second, the artist Jared spends the night with—named Xavier, but not Dolan—is played by Montreal actor Théodore Pellerin.

So the quebecois invasion of Hollywood continues apace…

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.

Jan 222019
 

One of the most moving films I’ve seen in a long time. The narration—multimedia, impressionistic—was thrilling and the performances offered up by the youngest son and his father are just extraordinary.

On a personal level, I have near unbounded sympathy for young, lonely characters who, naively and without pretensions, live a rich imaginative life and are made to suffer for it. The final scene of the boy collecting his journals and drawings from the garbage and then walking off across the field broke my heart.

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.

Feb 272017
 

A small film offering a convincing portrait of what life is like in a moment when what you knew and relied upon is failing you and falling apart but what comes next hasn’t taken shape yet and seems like it never will.

There are no easy options for the young protagonist, no quick jumps beyond the reach of his felt obligations, beyond the limits of his situation. And the film ends with a meaningful question that, after a lot of thought, I am still not sure I know the answer to (or even if there is one).

I really liked this movie.

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Feb 092017
 

I find everything about the Beats fascinating. Yet oddly (and I would have thought impossibly), I also simultaneously find most things about the Beats deadly boring.

This film is no exception, and I find my reaction to it an inexplicable jumble of engagement and disregard.

Kudos though to Daniel Radcliffe for caring enough about the project to put his knees where his ears are, which is pretty amazing to see. A popular star in his position doesn’t have to take the career risk a gay sex scene this blunt entails. That he does and that, as a result, so many different types of people will see it is no small thing.

Jan 132017
 

When I was doing my BA, a friend told me a story about her younger brother. As I remember it, while growing up, her brother loved Bette Midler and Patsy Cline despite the fact that they were performers from and for another generation. He’d collect photos, news stories, anything else he found, and paste them into elaborately decorated and carefully maintained scrapbooks. He was extremely proud of these books and showed them off to friends and family, who took them as signs of his creativity and individuality.

Eventually when he was older, the brother realized he was attracted to men, came out as gay, and it is at this point that the story of the scrapbooks takes a tragic turn.

Once out, the brother began to meet other gay men, and it wasn’t long before he realized that Bette and Patsy were common gay obsessions, both of them campy as hell. Learning this, he understood that his scrapbooks weren’t simply testaments to his creativity. They were billboards advertising his emerging sexuality to anyone with the sense to read the signs. He was in other words the the object of a painful irony, his scrapbooks were now embarrassments, and as I remember the story, he threw them out, although I’m less certain of that than the rest.

I thought of this story reading Halperin’s book because his object of study is precisely these odd, recognizably gay cultural obsessions. The book is wordy and overlong and, in chapter after chapter, Halperin finds reasons to discuss at length Joan Crawford, his own camp obsession. But despite the weakness of the writing and the seemingly impossible scope of his project, Halperin’s descriptions of experiences like those of my friend’s brother often ring true and his attempts to explain how they work are thoughtful and thought provoking.

Jan 122017
 

Todd Haynes’s Carol offers so careful and so powerful a reading of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt that it acted as a screen between me and the novel, directing my attention and shaping my responses. And so for me, Carol and Therese are as glamorous, sophisticated and brave in the book as they are in the film.

I wonder though: if I hadn’t seen the adaptation, would the attention to gloves and furs and scarves and purses and all the other recurring details of dress that I read as glamour, would they instead have seemed fetishistic? Would the silences and hesitations of the women as they test their sense of what’s possible between them have seemed so romantic? Would the brutality of the men’s rejection of their relationship have upset me more than it did?

Whatever the case, my movie-addled sense of the novel is that Carol and Therese are enjoying a slow-moving game of cat and mouse in which both of them are cats and both of them are playing mouse.