Friday, January 3, 2020

Harry Lighton | Wren Boys

now and then
by Douglas Messerli

John Fitzpatrick and Harry Lighton (screenplay), Harry Lighton (director) Wren Boys / 2017, general release 2018

Having just watched Irish director Harry Lighton’s 11-minute film, I feel, as a gay man, that I have just been punched in the gut—or even worse hit with a steal bar over the head, as does the sympathetic Catholic priest, Seamus (Diarmuid Noyes) at the end of this startingly revealing film about gay hate crimes.
      Although rather early on in this film you quickly perceive—despite the sometimes almost impenetrable Cork dialect for Americans—that this heavily smoking, perhaps a bit of a heaving-drinking priest—accompanying his young nephew, Conor (Lalor Roddy) who is gay, his mother described as sending everyone in the neighborhood a gift without so much as a card to her own son. It is the day after Christmas, boxing day, and Conor clearly feels boxed in.

    We don’t yet know to where they are traveling, but his priest uncle has just told his flock that, while in his own childhood boys and girls were dressed up each year to kill a small wren as a symbolic transformation into new possibilities, that it was a truly brutal act. In current days, the wren has become a kind of puppet as opposed to the real bird, yet the tradition continues with all of its dark undertones of killing the innocent in order to sustain the society at large.
      Despite the fact the Conor himself smokes, he somewhat agitatedly asks his passenger whether he intends to smoke the entire way.
      Lighton casts their voyage in this short cinematic work as a kind of mystery in several ways. Is the somewhat grizzly uncle also gay? And to where are they traveling, perhaps a secret meeting place? These are careful clues that suggest that something is already amiss, particularly since the priest is nearly constantly straightening up the collar of his holy order, suggesting that he is not only uncomfortable with it, but perhaps being chocked by his pastoral demands.
     We are even more startled, soon after, to discover that the goal of this travels is a regional prison, where they are forced to sit in a waiting room wherein the others, people waiting to see their own incarcerated family and friends, keep snapping pictures on their cellphones of Conor, who evidently has now received some infamous fame among the locals.
     His final nearly violent outburst gives us some clue of what he and his lover, the prisoner, Malky (Fionn Walton) have had to face from Cork society. It is post 2015, when the Irish (not a court or high command as in most other countries) freely voted to allow gays to get married. Although it took a few more battles, the prison systems allowed the same rights to their internees.
     Accordingly, it comes as kind of shock when we realize that the priest has accompanied his nephew to the prison to marry the two, Malky having been imprisoned only because, like Conor, he has become argumentative being about those many individuals who have not shared the views of the general Irish public. Change, this movie carefully says, without any heavy statements, is slow to come.
     The most beautiful scene of the film is when the two lovers are finally able to meet together for the marriage, and by the guards are begrudgingly allowed to share a number of deeply felt kisses.
     The marriage vows are performed, and the viewer can simply hope that Malky will soon be released, the couple living out their lives in the bliss of their love.
     Yet the moment Conor and Seamus leave the prison walls, Malky is attacked by other prisoners who write—we don’t quite know by what method—“Just Married” across his butt.
     It reminds me of the terrible memory expressed by a young man in the movie Kinsey, where a he describes his family members literally branding him and his friend for his gay sexuality.
     Hearing the ruckus on his cellphone, Conor turns back to the prison in an attempt to save his husband from further imprisonment, while Seamus begins to move forward to a local bar they have agreed to visit for a pint of Guinness. It is a tragic move forward, as he is struck with that metal bar by an angry bigot and, apparently, is killed, the movie ending with the priest bleeding with blood flowing from his head on the street. Only a flutter of his eyes makes us hope that he might survive.
     I have often described that Howard’s and my life has been without any obvious sexual prejudice, that we were greeted into the artistic communities in the urban areas in which we lived with open minds. And I still believe that to be true.
     Yet, only a couple of years ago when I visited a friend, a major choral musical conductor, he slightly bemoaned the fact that he took me, a young but precocious 18-year old, to a faculty party. I didn’t even remember the fact; I had been already used to working with elderly faculty members through my jobs in the university Registration and Admissions offices. But suddenly I wondered, had he lost tenure or simply been fired for his actions? He’d gone on to become the conductor of now that he had just retired from his position as the conductor of a major US vocal organizations. What had he meant by recalling up this fact from more than 52 years earlier? Guilt for me (I felt none) or for his own career?
     Even more recently, without intention, I temporarily “outed” a rather well-known actor on Facebook, who declared that he was glad he hadn’t known me earlier or I might have ruined his career. To me, the idea was unconceivable. So many actors were gay or lesbian, and, strangely enough, we had never even discussed the issue; I just presumed the truth. And surely most of his colleagues must have known that as well. In the old days it was what the LGBT community described as “an open secret.”
     I knew as a child back in Iowa, that when the evil Louella Parsons scolded a certain A-list actor for frequenting the Sunset Boulevard pick-up spots, I knew she must have meant Rock Hudson. And George Chakiris had been picked up for gay solicitation. Tab Hunter and other gay boys had been seen cruising down the avenues by many local observers (my friend Paul Vangelisti among them). And our Washington, D.C. friend Bob Orr had had a sexual relationship with Tony Perkins. Cary Grant was now an elderly member in this fraternity. So what was the issue?
     Charles Bernstein once described me as having “outed” the poet John Ashbery. But I had no intention of “outing” him; I thought everyone must have known, and when a poet calls you for the telephone number of a gay friend, how can you imagine anything else?
     I presume because of Howard’s and my so open acceptance of ourselves, that I just couldn’t imagine the fears of those that came before us, fears not only for what happens in Lighton’s film, but for how they would be perceived in terms of their careers. They’d had to face down hate, like the characters of this contemporary film, day after day. Howard and I had become so open that perhaps we might have conceived of as “straight.”
     We had basically shrugged and unseen prejudice off—even when, after telling my parents about our relationship, they got back into the car and immediately drove off back from Washington, D.C. to Iowa. They fled us in utter fear, I felt, clearly of their own bigotry.
     From one quick generation to another, the major changes in our society do not so quickly shift as we’d like to believe. A simple decade can mean acceptance, or in Lighton’s film, in rejection and even death. Gays, lesbians, and certainly transgender folk still today suffer hate and often even death from their sexual orientations. If Howard and I have been basically blessed, or sometimes perhaps just oblivious to the hate surrounding us, so many other young men and women have been faced with familial rejection and forced to encounter a cold world that isn’t, despite these more open times, so very accepting.
      Wren Boys painfully reminded me of this and made me realize that for those of just a few years older than Howard and I were, how difficult it was to simply negotiate one’s life. And today it still remains a difficult negotiation around the world.

Los Angeles, January 3, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).


  1. interesting. I took the altercation in the jail not as a gay bashing but as a celebration between malky and his jail cell co-horts. Malky even jokes about it with conor just before the priest is hit over the head. The accents were hard to understand but yes at first I thought it was a gay bashing going on. Other points when I was a young artist and living with a famous person we just took our gayness for granted and lived our lives openly. Sure there were whispers and taunts behind our backs but never to our face. Maybe we were just naive it was the late 60's. Think many of our "straight" friends found us exotic and erotic. And outing john ashbury, hell everyone knew he was gay, and I never thought he tried to hide the fact. He sure was flirty and out with me along with a number of other gay poets and artists. Oh and yes one day in the early 70's as I waited for a bus on 6th ave in the 20's tony perkins rode by on his bike, slowed down when he noticed me and then stopped and starred. I did nothing, hell there was no way I was going to have sex with norman bates.

  2. Thank you for your comments. Interesting take.