I’ll say it. I think it’s time we move beyond simply being amazed that a gay love story appears on film. And I think it’s time for critics to do the same.
Yesterday I went with a friend to see “Call Me by Your Name” and I was very uncomfortable as it played out. Not because of the gay subject matter—duh!—but because, twenty-five minutes in, my gay friend leaned toward me and said, “Is it just me or is this thing dragging? Is it truly awful?”
It wasn’t awful, at least in my opinion. But the joy of something lessens when the person you’re with doesn’t feel the same. It’s like when I go to a restaurant and the service isn’t great and that becomes the primary focus of your companion. Maybe I should wander into the kitchen to grab someone’s entrée. Anyone’s! And, yes, maybe I can find a projection room and skip ahead a half hour. It didn’t help that the man behind me had a coughing fit during the opening credits and never fully recovered. He unsuccessfully tried to contain his hacking and heaving for the whole movie. My friend left to use the restroom three times and I found myself cringing each time a new scene or development came on screen after the ninety-minute mark, knowing my friend had had enough and the fellow behind me might need a medical attendant.
Even though I liked the film—circumstances notwithstanding—it was slow. The movie clocks in at 132 minutes, but it did feel like three hours. Not much happened during the first half hour aside from characters drinking apricot juice. (If you’re mad that I just gave something away, reread the previous sentence to see what it actually is that I revealed. Like I said,…slow.) It is true that Armie Hammer is easy on the eyes and Timothée Chalamat’s hair is its own natural wonder. I had plenty of time to take in both. It is also true that the intention was to create a sense of unsatisfied longing, given that the movie is set in 1983 and there is a significant age difference (24 and 17), with actor Hammer looking closer to 30.
Here we are, forbidden love and sexual tension. Again. We’ve seen it in “Brokeback Mountain”, “Maurice” and “Moonlight”. All quite good (and coincidentally(?) with beautiful cinematography). But these movies aren’t about the relationship. They’re about whether there will even be a relationship.
I'll admit for the first time here that my mind wandered during parts of "Brokeback" and a different gay friend with whom I saw "Moonlight" fell asleep halfway through. (Perhaps I'm immersed in a social circle of people with ADHD.) These movies have lots of build-up, a connection (often fleeting) and The End. We don’t really see a portrayal of two men in love; instead, the conflict is internal and societal.
I’m ready to see something new in a big gay film, one without AIDS, one without an overwhelming sense of shame, one in which the men fall fast and then have to figure things out. A few years ago, there was a remarkable episode of the otherwise ordinary HBO series “Looking” in which Jonathan Groff’s character had a hookup with Raul and the two then spent the following day trying to catch up emotionally with the level they’d already attained sexually.
This is closer to what gay men experience now. I’m through being dazzled by the fact two men kiss on screen and simulate sex with tasteful lighting. I want to see an actual relationship and all its blips and bumps. I want to see characters navigate contemporary challenges or drift apart. We’re in an era when gay men can get married in a growing number of countries and yet Hollywood has yet to figure out how to create compelling stories that reflect this.
The Victorian view of gay coupling will continue to get its screen time just as there will always be another portrayal of Queen Victoria herself. It’s time, however, to update and diversify gay storylines.