a gay old time
by Douglas Messerli
Harry Macqueen (screenwriter and director) Supernova / 2020, 2021 release
There is an LGBTQ genre that for long periods of time goes dormant before suddenly reappearing—a bit like a comet whose tail pops up every so many decades only to orbit out of sight soon after—that of gay or lesbian couples portrayed on film in their old age.
Although the character was alone in his elder years in The Empty Bed (1988), the film was still concerned with his relationship with his youthful lover as it was relived through his memories in his last years. In the AIDS masterwork of 1989 Longtime Companion one of the central couples upon which the film focused was the elderly David and Sean. And even before that, the women of The Killing of Sister George (1968) and the men of Staircase released the following season had lived together for many years, as had the gay man and his lover who dies in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), the displaced elderly gay couple in Ira Sach’s 2014 film Love Is Strange, the historically important Swiss couple of Der Kreis (2014), and the visiting gay couple to the Perlman House in Call Me By Your Name (2018). And let us not forget the long-lived relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy represented in Chris & Don of 2007, along with a number of others, including the several films which reference or focus on Gertrude Stein and Alice. B. Toklas. The lifetime relationship between Dorian Gray and his closeted painting was portrayed numerous times on celluloid and video tapes.
As in all cinematic fare, however, younger attractive couples are simply more engaging to most audiences. And, particularly in the gay context, which was long been characterized as a world of short-lived relationships, the central gay figures are often seen pulling away from long-term relationships since they were not blessed by church or state. “Fags are fickle” might almost be yet another homophobic assumption.
And then, most obviously, members of the LGBTQ community simply didn’t survive very well on film, which often required their being killed off before they even reached middle age let alone their twilight years. If they weren’t done away by jealous lovers, homophobic bashers, the police or other governmental authorities, or just by the fluke of cooked-up studio plots, AIDS got them, or, if all else had failed, suicide did it best.
At the present moment we seem to be again enjoying a sky full of such astronomical apparitions with the release in the past couple of years of a number of silver-haired sightings, most notably in Chris Bolan’s A Secret Love (2020), Alan Ball’s Uncle Frank (2020), Heidi Ewing’s I Carry You with Me (2020), and Ray Yeung’s 2019 film, Twilight’s Kiss, about seniors coming out—at least to themselves and one another.
The most artful of these, if not the most innovative, is Harry Macqueen’s Supernova. But that sentence, perhaps, also wraps up this work’s most serious problems.
But let us begin with the film’s many positive qualities. First of all, unlike any of the characters in the other recent films I’ve mentioned, the central figures of this work have seemingly never been closeted to their friends or the various communities in which they co-exist. In fact, the only thing that matters about these characters being gay is that for the first time in a long while, it doesn’t matter a wit. Tusker (Stanley Tucci), a well-known novelist and an amateur astronomer, and his lover of a lifetime Sam (Colin Firth), a pianist with many recordings to his name, both live in liberal worlds where one’s sexuality has come to be meaningless; they have also come to be fully accepted by Sam’s loving family and their friends.
Their lives, if I can take a moment to read this work personally, are very much like my husband Howard and mine, who as an art curator and writer-publisher have hardly ever encountered a instance (if you forget my reluctant father) in which we were not thoroughly accepted by our peers and families. And what a difference that makes. Being gay is no longer the issue. Loving, aging, and surviving is what truly matters, just the way it does with nearly every agèd heterosexual couple. The serious stuff of most gay films is suddenly wiped away. Accepting, explaining, regretting, and denying oneself and one’s sexuality is utterly irrelevant.
It frees director Macqueen from having to dim the lights so that we can only vaguely see what these men do under the sheets or—far worse—turn on the spotlights so that we observe what many might still see as perverse sexual acts so as to titillate or shock us into the recognition of our similar or utterly different inclinations. Like almost anyone over 60, these two kiss, cuddle, gently stroke, and lay their bodies over one another in the clumsy manner that people who have lived together for decades generally do. Their love-making makes us smile instead of sweat.
Their arguments simply don’t matter, having been rehearsed and repeated hundreds of times. Their criticisms of each other, while perhaps introducing us to their someone different personalities, are those they recognized in each other from the very week of their having come together. Nothing about what these two say to one another throughout this film will result in a revelation or, likely, even a frisson.
Even though this film, which takes these two old lovers on a road-trip to the beautiful Lakes region of Great Britain, seems to be a work that depends on the character’s words—after all, what can they possibly do in what critic Michael O’Sullivan writing in The Washington Post describes as a “boxy old RV trundling along the one-lane roads of rural England”? They can do a little night-time cooking, tape record questions they pose to another, and, if he were up it, Tusker might write. One night outside their door, Sam sets up Tusker’s telescope and successfully triangulates it into sighting the Milky Way, and after a few nights on the trip they stop by Sam’s sister’s house to celebrate their visit and relationship with family and friends. But there isn’t much else that truly happens, until the very end when Sam plays a piece at the concert which has apparently occasioned their journey.
Accordingly, even if they have nothing earth-shattering to say, we hang on to their every word in hopes of discovering why we should even care about this talented but otherwise very ordinary couple. Fortunately, given the extraordinary acting talents of both Tucci and Firth this is a rather pleasant project. And slowly their seemingly everyday words—Sam’s constant inquiry about Tusker’s health and his inordinate attention to what his companion has brought along with him on this trip, Tusker’s constant requests to help with the cooking and in mapping their journey instead of the Margaret Thatcher-sounding vocal instructions programmed into their GPS device—add up to something quite devastatingly revealing.
Eventually even their most minute actions—Tusker simply wandering off with their pet dog Truffles while Sam shops in a roadside mart and Sam’s simple Buddha-like position against the camper wall appearing as if, as his friend describes him, he is “holding up the universe”—alerts us to the truth. Like all road-trips they will never be able to return to where they have started. For Tusker, in particular, is entering a world into which he is no longer a willing passenger traveling a place where soon he will not even be able to know he was a passenger, or even who he is when he reaches his destination, death. For Tusker, we realize, is suffering from dementia.
In many respects this film repeats the concerns and tropes of Peter Haneke’s film Amour (2012), except while that work veers off into such complete denial that it turns bizarre, Sam is determined to keep Tusker in a world of normalcy as long as possible. Hence their trip through a countryside which they have visited several times previously and their brief stay at Sam’s sister Lilly’s (Pippa Haywood) lovely home, where Tusker has organized a farewell party for himself and a celebration of Sam with family and friends.
But even here, in the very midst of love and normalcy, both men, their family, and friends began to observe the cracks in Sam’s determined wall of defense when Tusker cannot read the words he’s written for his valedictory, and Sam is forced to self-consciously utter the praises his lover has heaped upon him. As Firth has so many times in his career, he reads these terribly awkward lines with absolute grace, even if in doing so he is expressing his recognition that Tusker’s words do not just express a leave-taking of Sam’s family and their friends, but of Sam himself.
A casual comment by one of the party-goers reveals something Sam has not yet been told by his lover, that he can longer work on his new novel and all progress on it has stopped. Desperate to check out a reality he has long been afraid to face, he temporarily leaves the party and entering the camper breaks into Tusker’s precious writing box—surely a true-life version of Pandora’s box—where leafing through his lover’s notebooks he perceives the quick shifts from a regular manuscript to work that is frustratedly crossed out and edited, before, in its final pages, it turns into illegible handwriting, and finally lateral scrawls crossing the page followed by evidence of later pages torn away.
Even more awful, Sam discovers hidden below the manuscript book an envelope containing pills that when swallowed end in death. A tape recorder hidden even deeper in the box explains Tusker’s intentions to kill himself while Sam is performing at the concert only a few days away.
Evidently, there can be no normal world for even these well-adjusted and accepted gay men. Understandably, Sam is furious and when the two reach a large cottage they have rented with plans for Sam to rehearse and Tusker to write, he explodes, retrieving the evidence and forcing Tusker to face the truth he has uncovered.
They argue seriously and violently for the first time in this film. This represents new territory, as Sam, in anger, storms out of the house. From outside he hears the howls of an animal in pain, suffering in the spasms of death. When he renters the house, all the table crockery is broken upon the floor. We never see Truffles again, but we must accept the fact that Tusker has removed the burden of his pet from Sam as well.
Finally the two talk, Sam insisting that, despite his own doubts, he is ready to care for Tusker even if he no longer knows who Sam is or no longer knows he needs his care. As K. Austin Collins summarized Sam’s position in his Rolling Stone review: “He is prepared to take care of the man he loves. This being a performance by Colin Firth, that commitment comes across in nearly every shot of the man, particularly thanks to wisdom in his eyes, which bear no illusions about the time to come. But you also feel it in the sense of utter weight, the heavy endurance of constant, watchful care, that anchors Sam to the ground with loving seriousness.”
But Tusker is firm, reminding Sam what he said the very first day that the doctor reported his condition. At that time he declared his determination to remain in control of his life. “I’m becoming a passenger. And I am not a passenger. This thing is taking me to a place where I don’t want to go.” Alternatively, he has planned so that, as he argues with Sam “I [will] be remembered for who I was, not for whom I’m about to become.” It is not appropriate, he pleads, that he is now beginning to be mourned while he is still alive.
They spend the night clinging to one another, but awakening to know that Tusker, after all, is right. There are no tears, and little sentimentality in this film. But the quiet inevitability of it seems to echo so many LGBTQ stories that it almost breaks the heart. Not only is normalcy not possible for these two men, despite their attempts to live a totally normal life, but once more, as in so very many gay films, the queer must die, by suicide no less.
In The Boys in the Band the character Harold, if I remember correctly, says something to the effect that “no one loves an old queer.” In a sense, he is right. Although Tusker has also secretly tried to arrange that Lilly and her husband will care for Sam in his old age, any gay man, lesbian, or transsexual individual knows siblings have their own families to look after. LGBTQ people have no children to take them in, no one to truly look after them. And all the planning in the world does not answer for that fact. People from the LGBTQ community are often made to feel unwelcome, moreover, in basically heterosexual elder housing facilities and nursing homes. Losing a gay lover late in your life, accordingly, generally means one has to go on alone.
It is hard to know who the supernova of this work’s title is meant to represent. Is it Tusker’s death that has so intensified the light he once projected, or his lover’s life now locked into place by the black hole of his star’s loss? Maybe they will become their own galaxy, symbolically gravitating their way through space.
Macqueen’s film is so very carefully tasteful and emotionally taut that it seems afraid, after all, to enter the very territory it has set out to examine. How does one live on alone without the other in a world still basically antithetical if not hostile to the very love by which one was sustained? Is there truly a possible normalcy to an LGBTQ individual in a heterosexually dominated world? Sam and Tusker, moreover, were well off, as was Sam’s family. What if these two men had been true nomads on a voyage toward death? Would they be worthy of such a moving piece of film-making if instead of being metaphorically represented as supernovas, they were simply two pieces of spatial debris?
Los Angeles, February 22, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (February 2021).