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Thursday, August 28, 2014
private lives/public lives
by Douglas Messerli
Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias (screenplay), Ira Sachs (director) Love Is Strange / 2014
Most of the nearly unanimously positive reviews of Ira Sachs’s Love Is Strange portray the film as being about a gay couple, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) and their relationship during a period of time when the couple suddenly discover that they can no longer afford their condominium and are forced to move in with others, Ben to his nephew’s Brooklyn home where he lives with his family, and George to the nearby apartment of two gay cops. And most critics have highly praised the film’s portrayal of the couple’s relationship by its two leads. Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey, for example, summarizes this critical respect: “…in the hands of two of the craft’s best, the most ordinary of moments become illuminating, penetrating.”
In fact, I’d argue—although I’d agree that Lithgow and Molina are both very good actors in this movie—that there are so few moments in this film that truly reveal the nature of their actual relationship that we have to make a great leap in simply assuming that after more than 30 years this couple is deeply in love and barely able to survive without each other. Only in the very few scenes—in an early gathering after their marriage ceremony, as they joyfully sing a Broadway standard together in their living room amongst friends; in a second scene where the two cuddle up with other in a transitory gathering in the bunk-bed in to which Ben has been assigned to share with his nephew’s son, Joey (Charlie Tahan); in a nearly speechless encounter at a concert after which they joking spar about Ben’s Romantic sensibility; and in a penultimate scene in which the two gather for a quick drink at a Village gay bar (once a favorite of mine, Julius’ on the corner of 10th and Waverly) during which the two briefly hint at Ben’s occasional unfaithfulness and George’s more steady support of his companion and his art—does the film give any evidence of what their life together might have been like. As my husband, Howard, complained: “We don’t really get to know them very well, do we?”
Although we do get to know a little more about each of them than I have just suggested, we discover very little about them as a couple, or even why they have decided to marry. Sachs leaves it to our imagination to fill in how these two might have behaved in their “private lives.” What we do perceive is that Ben and George are, in fact, very private people. Neither of them— so we discern through Ben’s “lie” to the bartender about being involved with the original protest against Julius’ original discrimination against homosexuals—has been particularly politically active. For many long years, George, a religious believer, has quietly taught music at a Catholic school where, although his sexuality has been an “open secret,” he has clearly never ruffled any sensibilities. As an artist, Ben has seemingly has spent more time as an observer of art than as a painter whose who has been shown there—a man who, visiting all the major galleries, has apparently lived his life dreaming of someday being “discovered.” Although they live comfortably in their condominium, they apparently have not been able save much for the days of retirement (willingly in Ben’s case and enforced in George’s) which they now face. Although they have regularly entertained in their home, their closest friends appear to be family members and gay friends who live nearby. And although it is apparent that those friends clearly love and enjoy the company of this couple, they seemingly know little about just how much their separation will affect the two, and how different their own patterns and behaviors are from the more quiet pleasures of George and Ben. In short, they have lived an utterly normal life that, as do so very many gay couples, they have remained under any “cultural” radar.
These two men have lived a life not so dissimilar to that of Howard’s and my life in which we, after 45 years of living together, have few gay friends, living openly in a world which our relationship does little to intrude on or question the relationships of others.
Only when the two men in the film marry, the event that sets all the concerns of the film into motion, does their life suddenly become “public.” And that moment changes everything, beginning with the unstated (and by the movie unchallenged) homophobia of church doctrine, as George is fired by the priest who has been a life-time friend. His excuse is that of all those who shirk moral responsibility: it’s the fault of the higher-ups—and besides, hadn’t George signed away his life by committing to the values of the Church when he joined the teaching staff?
That decision suddenly catapults them, living in a world of exorbitantly outrageous real estate prices, into a kind of homelessness as they engage—as if they were embarking upon a hunt for the holy grail—in a search for an affordable rental space, something that, as the movie progresses, seems more and more like perusing a technical manual written in governmental agency doubletalk.
More importantly, their sudden public identities require that they both truly engage with others, revealing perhaps how little we know—and as Ben, suggests, how little we really might want to know about the lives of our friends. Although they all struggle bravely to resist hurting each other, the family and their “life” into which Ben is thrust is fraught with filial, marital, and simply emotional tensions, as the father Elliot (Darren Burrows), mother Kate (Marisa Tomei), and son Joey work hard to ignore one another. Into their silent avoidance of each other, Ben tromps in like a buffoon, disrupting Kate’s work on her novel and Joey’s private adolescent searchings, while Elliot continues working (vaguely as a video producer of some sort) long hours before occasionally diving back into family life. Sharing his room with the odd intruder, Joey is particularly flummoxed. How are you supposed to discover who you are, intellectually and sexually, with an old gay man sharing your bunk bed each night.
Joey has developed a rather mysterious relationship with a slightly older friend, a Russian boy named Vlad (Eric Tabach), an odd relationship in Elliot’s eyes and a fascinating one from Ben’s point-of-view, who quickly makes the whole situation more complex by Ben’s seemingly innocent recruitment of Vlad as a model for his roof-top painting. Joey’s hostile reaction when he discovers his friend’s temporary role seems out of proportion to any logical emotional response. Could it be, we are led to ask, between the two boys something sexual is going on?
We soon perceive that it is not that, but might as well be. The two are in love, so to speak, with desire—the desire for something outside of their temporarily closed-off lives; in this case it is a love of all things French, including books in that language they cannot read which Vlad has stolen from their school library. How can parents be expected to comprehend such a complicated love as that which has suddenly obsessed these two bright boys, binding them momentarily, in a private commitment to another world and one another in the process? How can a distant relative possibly be expected to help the young boy with whom he neverously sleeps each night? Miraculously, Ben does open up the conversation to question Joey about his love life, and gives him the permission, somehow, the boy needs to approach the opposite sex. But Ben can have no answers, surely, for the parents who, in their self-centered activities, appear to be destined to destroy any marital ties they have left. Is it any wonder, living in the unstable world of such fraught loving, that Ben falls down a flight of stairs, betraying the early signs of a problem with his heart.
At least George’s new public life is more transparent; but that is just the problem. Living with the two young cops who party late into every night, George’s life has become so thoroughly public that he has hardly any of his self left to inhabit. The pair and their friends, like Elliot and Kate, might also be said to be uncommitted to any deep relationships, but at least Ben can occasionally find a night of rest, whereas George must torturously wait out their noisy evenings before he can lie down upon their living-room couch. And it is he who first cracks, rushing off to Brooklyn just to hold his missing mate, revealing the impossibility of living a public life without his beloved other. Yet even within the din of noise and meaningless partying in which few of the guests even know their hosts, George also discovers another lost soul, a young man, Ian (Christian Coulson), who just happens to have an inexpensive apartment to rent!
But in Sachs’s sad fable, the now public couple’s economic salvation comes too late. Through a narrative break in time, we discover George living in the new hospitable space, but now even more privately than he had before, Ben having died. Joey sheepishly shows up, in part to explain his absence from the funeral (he wanted to remember Ben, he justifiably explains, as he had been, not as a corpse) and to deliver up a special gift—the unfinished painting Ben had done of Vlad—a token of the past meant, clearly, to heal the broken present. Of course, it cannot mend the tear in George’s heart. Between that totally public roof-top encounter of the old artist and his young model and the now quiet entombment of his surviving mate, lies an entire unknowable world that no matter how much one tries can never be truly bridged. Between the private and the public self, perhaps, there can be no complete communication. That gap, between feelings and actions, between the regretted past and the redeemable future, between troubling desire and peaceful comfort is quietly expressed in Love Is Strange by the boy’s extended pause in the hallway outside of Ben’s new apartment, where he releases those built-up tensions in a gentle torrent of tears.
A few moments later, Joey has hooked up with a girl who obviously is his new friend, the two of them skate-boarding into the sunset and, just possibly, into a new privately-lived golden age of togetherness.
Los Angeles, August 25, 2014
Reprinted from Nth Position (September 2014).