Friday, January 10, 2020

Neil Armfield | Holding the Man

a matter of geography
by Douglas Messerli

Tommy Murphy (screenplay, based on the memoir by Timothy Conigrave), Neil Armfield (director) Holding the Man / 2015

Australian director Neil Armfield’s Holding the Man (2015) is a painfully touching film about two teenage boys who fall in love, but whose parents attempt to keep them apart.
      Indeed, Tim Conigrave (Ryan Corr), whose letter to John Caleo (Craig Scott) has been intercepted by their geography teacher at Xavier College in Melbourne, is threatened with a lawsuit by John’s father (Anthony LaPaglia) if Tim attempts to continue his relationship with John.
      When Tim’s parents are notified of the letter and the boys’ sexual actions, they also, although kindlier, forbid him from any further relationships with John. But Tim, in utter defiance, quickly escapes from the house and bicycles to John’s bedroom window, where the two kisses through the wire screen.
      When John’s father suddenly enters the bedroom suggesting that he and his mother intend to send him to a psychologist, the boy bolts the moment his father has left the room, the two of them escaping via bicycles into the night.
       Unfortunately, thereafter Tommy Murphy’s screenplay—adapted from Timothy Conigrave’s book that relates the 15-year long relationship between the two—transforms into what I might describe as a “diary-film,” as years toggle back and forth, announced in huge white numbers. Directorially, this is a rather clumsy device.
       That is not to say this movie about gay life in the 1970s and 1980s is not completely engaging, as, like so many gay men, these two lovers are torn away from each other by many forces, including Tim’s desire to study acting in Sydney. Although he gets into the famed drama school—now celebrated by his young friends as a possible new Mel Gibson (rather strangely, since Gibson is recognized as a homophobe)—it also means that the boys, now young men, will be separated from one another; and, preparing for that separation Tim asks for a “trial separation,” wherein each is allowed sex with others.
       Tim’s teacher in Sydney, Barry (Geoffrey Rush) puts his classes through somewhat ridiculous exercises (performing as chickens, etc.) in order to toughen them up to play the heterosexual roles they will be asked to perform—yet another attempt by a adult to deny Tim and the many other gay men in the school their identities. Tim rebels, and the role as Stanley Kowalski is taken away from him—another oddity given the creator, Tennessee Williams’ own sexuality.

      Tim, again almost in rebellion, begins to have sex with several of his acting classmates. And when asked to create his own play, determines to interview several sufferers of AIDS, a disease in this period that didn’t even have a name.
       In the midst of performing role from Noel Coward’s (another gay man) Private Lives he discovers John in the audience, and instead of proclaiming his desire for the women to who he is speaking, declares “I want you back, John.”
       The blunder helps the two to get back together, but given Tim’s recent sexual activities, including a visit to a gay sauna, and his recent encounters with those who are suffering from AIDS, he and John agree to be tested. John tests negative, while Tim proves positive for HIV; that is until the doctor, calling them back into his office reveals there has been a mix-up in records, and that John also is positive.
      Toggling back to 1988, while Tim is visiting Melbourne for his sister’s wedding, he receives a call from the Red Cross, notifying him that from their records of him having given blood, he has infected another man with AIDS, realizing that he has “killed the man I love.”
      These scenes are at the heart of this sad film, and tears welled up in my eyes when I realized that both Howard and I, who had occasional “other” sexual encounters, sometimes as threesomes, were incredibly lucky in that very same period.
     Just before we met, in 1970, I had lived a wild life in Manhattan, with sexual encounters nearly every night; and even when after we met, old habits are not easily erased, particularly when we too were separated geographically between Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia for week and week.
     Yet here we are in our 70s, about to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Others we knew, like Paul Monette, did not sadly survive. There is a certain guilt in having amazingly never contracted a disease that killed so many. Loving one another as we do, Howard’s and my relationship was, in its early days (even today), never easy; and we both, at times, sought other sexual possibilities, just as this young couple.
      John, the least sexually active of the two, is the first to die, with Tim gradually deteriorating while still able to write the story on which this book is based. At one beautiful moment, they both imagine they might be able to escape the ravages of the disease, being part of what they describe as “The Second Wave,” imagining there might soon be a cure.
      They would have survived only if they were in the “Third Wave” one now realizes, when an expensive regimen of pills allows men and women to go on to longer lives.
       The film ends with a trip by the surviving Tim to the beautiful Lipari, Italy in 1994—evidently the town where from John’s family originated—from where the surviving lover, in a kind of panic, suddenly calls his female friend, Pepe Trevor (Sarah Snook), wanting to know where John sat at a party they attended as teenagers.
       The question, given John’s death, seems almost meaningless, yet for the now dying Tim it appears to be momentous, as if he was attempting to find yet another way to remain in the world of someone he has lost.
       In the first scene of the movie, he cannot reach her. But in the last, the concierge calls him back from his swim to deliver up the answer to his question from Pepe—whether truthful or not we cannot know—“he sat next to you.”
       As fellow students in a geography class, the two central figures of this work are continually defined by large and small geographical positions: the barriers imposed upon them by their families, their separation between Melbourne and Sydney, the space created between them by John’s death, and, finally their immediate proximity at a celebratory table in their youths. In this film space and place mean everything—even their comical attempts to fuck in a small car or in a house thought to be abandoned by John’s family.
       In and afterword, we are told that 10 days after completing this memoir, Tim also died at the young age of 34, at a time when Howard and I were just a few years shy of our 15th-anniversary.

Los Angeles, January 10, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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