Author Archives: unavitavagabonda
For the first ten minutes after Call Me By Your Name ended, I sat still, moved by the visual beauty of the film and, I will admit, emotionally caught up in the cheap sentiment of the final scene.
But the more I thought about it, the more Call Me By Your Name pissed me off.
NO ONE is gay in this film, except maybe Elio. Oliver is the sort of bisexual that gives bisexuals a bad name, and it’s clear Elio was never going to be more for him than a summer fling.
And that’s fine. Yay summer flings. OIiver and Elio aren’t going to be together for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that no mainstream movie is ever going to tackle the complications of a relationship between a 17-year-old boy and a man nearly twice his age.
Elio’s father isn’t gay, though he sort of is and sort of regrets not being and sort of tells Elio he ought to be, if that’s what his heart wants, but it’s a tortured and weird conversation that I could hardly follow, so I have a hard time believing a 17-year-old followed it. Meanwhile, the only identifiable, non-closeted gay people in the whole film are a clownish male couple, figures of fun à la La Cage aux Folles. (The author of the book on which the movie is based, André Aciman, plays one member of that couple, by the way, which is all very meta: the straight author of a book about pseudo-gayness turned into a film with straight actors who pretend to be in lust with each other and in which not even a very briefly-seen gay couple is allowed to be an actual gay couple.)
Oliver isn’t gay: He makes out with women in the town and then goes back to his nice, safe life in the states, all ready to enter into a heterosexual marriage, now that he’s gotten the dick out of his system.
Can we talk, by the way, about how badly the women in this film are treated by men who can’t figure out what they want? (Or even about how Italians are treated, relegated as they are to cameos as a folkloric servant class for a family that is not merely rich, but obscenely rich?)
Initially, Oliver pretends he wants no involvement with Elio (Elio shouldn’t “act on” his feelings, is how he puts it, which nobody has ever told a straight adolescent boy, ever), but of course he actually does. Later, though, he insists he never tried to fend Elio off, but was sending him “signals” all along. No. No, he wasn’t, and Elio ought to have punched him for that attempt at gaslighting.
Anyway, here’s another clue the filmmakers dropped to make sure no one mistook Oliver for a homo: the man cannot dance to save his life. Now, maybe it’s Armie Hammer who can’t dance, which is certainly possible. He’s a strapping, patrician 6’5″ straight boy with some very nice parts except for a pair of disturbingly skinny legs, so he’s not exactly from the House of LaBeijia. But the director kept showing Oliver dancing, and showing him dancing, and showing him dancing, so it started to feel more like a feature than a defect. I mean, Oliver may not be averse to a cock snack, but he’s not some dancy, disco fag or anything.
Aciman has told anyone who would listen that he isn’t gay and never has been, which I guess is supposed to make it even more marvelous that he wrote a novel with gay(ish) protagonists, something a lot of very fine gay and lesbian writers have been doing for decades and not getting their books made into films.
James Ivory isn’t gay—or, at least, he’s adamantly refused to say he is, which is tantamount to the same thing for purposes of this argument. To give credit where it is due, he has made some swell gay movies and apparently lobbied for there to be dicks in a film that’s all about boy-sex, but was ultimately overruled. Still, he’s the author of the terribly coy dialogue between Elio and his father, so I’m not letting him off the hook.
The director, Luca Guadagnino is gay, but I’d really like to see his membership card. He spreads “euro-chic” over the depiction of homosex in this film like Nutella on toast. In an October 2017 interview with Screenprism (http://screenprism.com/insights/article/luca-guadagnino-talks-call-me-by-your-name-at-the-55th-new-york-film-festiv), he described Aciman’s novel as “as “a Proustian book about remembering the past and indulging in the melancholy of lost things” and commented, on the character of Elio, that “the body of an adolescent is really going everywhere and the person doesn’t know where it’s going,” both of which are cutesy, pseudo-erudite ways to say that, “Don’t worry folks, there’s nothing in the Oliver-Elio relationship you have to take seriously.”
If gay adolescents “don’t know where they’re going,” then their sexuality isn’t real—though no one in history has ever told a heterosexually active teenage boy that he “didn’t know where he was going” and could well turn out gay one day. No, this is an observation reserved exclusively for queer teens.
The main actors aren’t gay, and both of them are doing that unspeakably offensive straight-boy-actor thing of going around giving interviews about how funny and brave it is for men to kiss other men on screen and how Timothée Chalamet used to grab Armie Hammer’s crotch on-set (hilarious!) because that’s the sort of not-serious thing straight boys can do nowadays, and isn’t it great that we’ve come so far?
Meanwhile, the United States is in the midst of one of the great sex panics of modern times, the kind of giddy terror about the anarchic, even treacherous potentials of sexuality that Andrea Dworkin probably had nightmares about. In that context, the universal admiration being showered on CMBYN is, in a word, inexplicable.
How is America in love with a film about a grown man boinking a teenage boy? Why aren’t we KevinSpaceying and #MeTooing the living fuck out of Aciman and the entire crew of CMBYN?
Well, I have thoughts.
First, notice that virtually all descriptions of the film say that Elio falls in love with Oliver — not the other way around and not mutually. For the filmmakers, then, as for reviewers and a great swath of the public, Elio, the younger partner, is the aggressor and seducer.
That’s an odd proposition in a Zeitgeist in which the great progressive minds repeatedly insist that a teenager cannot be an aggressor, cannot choose to be sexually active with an adult because … something incoherent and tautological about “power.”
For consistency’s sake, at least, Elio ought to be receiving universal sympathy as a victim and Aciman-Ivory-Guadagnino ought to be losing their jobs for promoting pedophilia! But that’s the opposite of what’s going on, and the reason is the cleverly constructed prison the film’s makers created for Elio.
Like the hundreds of heterocentric, heterosexist novels and films that have come before, CMBYN punishes Elio for his desire generally and, more specifically, for his attempt to pervert a nice straight guy who doesn’t know better than to wear those shorts.
What is more, to the extent the film suggests that Elio is the “real” homosexual, he is the carrier of “sin” and, because of that, cannot be truly innocent, which is as much as to say he cannot be a victim.
Luckily, Elio’s clumsy attempt at recruitment doesn’t take. But if his seduction ultimately fails, if he is rejected by Oliver in favor of marriage to a woman, and if he is left disappointed and alone, that is both his proper punishment and the reassertion of “normal” heterosexuality in the world.
It’s also the manifestation of a literary trope that’s well more than a hundred years old. OK, sure, it’s been updated: Elio doesn’t have to die, except emotionally.
What Aciman doesn’t tell you — and what the filmmakers won’t tell you — is that Oliver is an asshole. He provokes Elio’s desire and sometimes satisfies it, but he simultaneously sees it as comical, perhaps even mortifying. (The “cummy peach” and “thwarted standup blowjob” scenes, for example; in the latter, Oliver sucks Elio just long enough to get him hard, then leaves him standing there, commenting, “That’s promising.”) In other words, Oliver encourages Elio to desire him but never abandons the unhealthy dynamic of unequal participation: Elio really wants it; Oliver can always do without. If Oliver also gets hard from having Elio’s dick in his mouth, we’re certainly not allowed to know.
In another scene, Oliver and Elio are walking in town at night and find themselves in the shadowy recess of a doorway. The sexual tension is, as they say, palpable. “I would kiss you if I could,” says Oliver.
Well, he absolutely could. Nothing stops him – except his interest in protecting his heterosexual image, except “society,” except his willingness to participate in the preservation of a status quo that oppresses him (which is what makes it so clear that Oliver is also a Republican). Elio would have kissed Oliver, but then Elio’s incipient queerness has turned him into a wanton.
I suspect that those of us who were precocious little queers, desperate, at age 14, 15, 16, 17, for someone to love and/or fuck us, have an easier time recognizing that Oliver is an asshole. But I also suspect that’s most gay men, if we’re telling the truth. And that’s one major reason why this heterosexualized fantasy rings so false. Gay desire serves a metaphorical, literary purpose in CMBYN but cannot be permitted to be what it actually, literally is.
And who knows? Perhaps Elio’s character grows up to be an ethical, aware, and loving gay man, having witnessed first-hand his father’s dissatisfaction and been stung by Oliver’s pusillanimity. (In fact, in one brief scene, he calls Oliver a traitor, which was probably the truest thing Elio said about their relationship, though he doesn’t do it to Oliver’s face, which is a damn shame.)
Or perhaps he comes away wounded, contracted, and wary, as is more likely, because of the insistence of the adults in his life on considering both his passion and his pain no more than delectable “Proustian melancholy,” because he recognizes, as so many of us have, that his desire will never be on equal footing with heterosexual desire, and that it will always make him a quantum more vulnerable.
If we’re talking about traitors, then, Aciman is first among peers for his false, inauthentic novel, and Ivory and Guadagnino stand alongside him on the same podium for their disingenous, evasive film. And now that I’ve written this, I’m more pissed off than before.
We’ve come a short way, Baby.
Insidiously, but constantly, promulgated the notion that the only true “red-blooded American males” were heterosexual, masculine, and capitalist. Funded the work of Masters and Johnson. Thought that women could liberate sex but that only men could liberate women. Supported gay rights long before others did. Worked to banish shame about sex. Published interviews with Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Martin Luther King, and assigned Alex Haley to interview Malcolm X for the magazine in 1963. Was once reportedly told by Gloria Steinem that “A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.” Turned women into decorative objects and furniture. Published a magazine that contained some of the best journalism of the 20th century. Wrongfully equated sexual liberation and sexual objectification. Pushed an early version of prosperity theology in which God was bourgeois consumption, and sex with hot, big-breasted women was salvation. Bravely challenged corrupt American puritanical notions of morality. Reinforced and popularized standards of physical beauty that were and remain demonstrably harmful to women. Made substantial donations to the Guttmacher Institute, NARAL, and Planned Parenthood, and supported the Women’s Business Development Center and Women Make Movies. Popularized a philosophy in which women’s sexuality was an ideal defined by men. Contributed $25,000 to the reward that helped break the case of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi in 1964. Sold straight men a fantasy of never having to grow up. Supported the Rainbow PUSH Coalition in its earliest days. Demonstrated Foucault’s dictum that a liberatory, even “transgressive” attitude toward sexuality could serve perfectly well as an oppressive deployment of power. Provided initial funding for the then-newly invented rape kit in the late 1970s. Affirmed a straight, male, middle-class fantasy of urbane consumption in which sex was recreation and women were the toys. Brought black artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole to headline his TV shows as early as 1959. Made millions by paying women to take their clothes off. A visionary and pioneer. A misogynist and pimp.
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me is a slight book, and its breeziness and lack of depth will either strike a reader as charming and flâneur-like or will be irritating in the extreme.
What is called a memoir is actually little more than a commonplace book, including extracts of diaries, snippets of conversation, and notes taken with studied casualness and later transcribed into the text. The low point of this approach comes when Hayes describes replacing Sacks’ typewriter ribbon. Testing the new ribbon, the latter strikes random keys and types nonsense phrases, all of which Hayes dutifully reproduces in a two-page spread. It’s hard to avoid the sense that one is watching a doting mother hang her two-year-old’s incomprehensible fingerpainting in an expensive frame over the family mantle.
Throughout Insomniac City, in fact, Oliver Sacks is constantly performing Oliver Sacks for the delectation of his amanuensis Hayes; and Hayes never stops elbowing the reader to say, “Isn’t Oliver wonderful? Doesn’t he have a brilliant mind?” Anecdotes about “the great man” abound, but they remain sterile.
On his own, Hayes eccentrically tools around New York having “experiences,” offering $20 bills to homeless people and chatting with strangers, the quintessential ecotourist in other people’s existences.
The glimpses that Hayes offers into his and Sacks’ intimate relationship are tantalizing but vague, with a kind of maidenly lack of specificity that is out-of-place in a book whose entire purpose for existing is the relationship between the two men. Hayes is, after all, the reason that Sacks ended a period of celibacy that spanned more than 30 years, about which the public is evidently going to learn nothing more in this lifetime. Sacks doesn’t say much about it in his autobiography, published shortly before his death, and Hayes follows suit.
There would have been no need for pornographic detail, surely, but a bit more candor about the late-in-life relationship of two men, one of whom was nearly 40 years older than the other, would have been both useful and appropriate.
Instead, Insomniac City feels oddly and, one suspects, deliberately de-gayed to serve the needs of its high-end mainstream publisher and of its hip and urbane “New Yorker” public who are surrounded by gay people but really don’t want to talk about them all that much.
Hayes is too in love with his own beautiful little phrases to focus on substance, and, apart from noting that the prose is ornate, a reader might be forgiven for wondering why so much air has been pumped into the spaces between the words.
In the end, Insomniac City feels very much like “Oliver Sacks: The Souvenir Program,” pretty, superficial, and forgettable.
- Al Jolson Commemorative Blackface Competition
- Book signing by Rachel Dolezal
- A demonstration of African-American cooking by Paula Deen
- Showing of Driving Miss Daisy in the White House screening room (invitation only)
- Black English, A Precious Legacy: Justin Bieber recounts the exciting story behind his invention of the word “crunk.”
- A panel discussion of “Post-Racial America” featuring Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and former US Representative Allen West
- TED Talk on African American heroes: That guy who invented peanut butter
- A Festival of African-American Musical Contributions: Alternating Program. Wednesday & Friday evenings – A Vanilla Ice Retrospective. Thursday and Saturday evenings – The Queen of Soul (Celine Dion sings Aretha’s greatest hits)
- Touch My Hair! Teams of traveling stylists will set up booths along the Mall to provide makeovers and tips: dreads, weaves, braids, twists, cornrows and more for white people hair!
- Celebrating Black Literary Representation: Guest lecture by Lionel Shriver
- Special Kennedy Center performance by the cast of Hidden Fences
Tomorrow, the epic journey—from nearly the most southeasterly point in the contiguous forty-eight to nearly the most northwesterly—comes to an end. I arrive in Seattle on the shortest day of the year, which means the days will only get longer going forward. And that’s some kind of, like, good omen, right? Besides, I know that whole thing about the sun going down at 4:19pm is just a norwester’s insider joke. Because that can’t really happen, right? Ha, ha. Good one, Seattellians.
Anyway, other than showing you this cool picture of Mt. Shasta all covered with snow …
… I thought this would be a good occasion to lay some of my Wisdom of the Road and Long-Distance Travel Axioms on you.
- At the very first gas station you see after you leave the one where you filled up your tank, the gas will be cheaper.
- If you can choose a smoking or non smoking room in a motel and you can choose what size bed you get, why can’t you choose whether or not to have a full length mirror? There’s a reason I don’t have those in my house.
- No complimentary breakfast in any motel has never received a compliment and the name is, in fact, the earliest known example of post-truth in American culture.
- In the south, the number of liquor stores is directly proportional to the number of Baptist churches.
- I understand that Texas would like to be known as the “Lone Star State,” but the only nickname that truly makes sense is the “Road Kill State.” That there are any deer left in its entire 268,581 square miles is no thanks to the people who drive the state’s highways. Let’s not even talk about the armadillo.
- There comes a time in every road trip when there is only one thing that will make you feel better, and that thing is Doritos.
- I’ve already discussed the problem of Keeping Track Of Where Things Are. What I’ve realized is that this task requires a second passenger whose job is to do nothing else. If your car is like my car, however, there is no room for this person, so you will have to strap him or her to the roof.
- The best slogan I came across anywhere on the road was in Louisiana, where it was painted on the sloping metal roof of a barn: “Root hog or die.” It reminds me of one of the first folk sayings I ever learned in Italian: “Campa cavallo che l’erba cresce.” It’s still one of my favorites, and it doesn’t have a direct translation. Well, I mean, the concept is easy enough to describe: A starving horse cannot eat until the grass grows out again, but the wait is long, the outcome is uncertain, and there’s a good chance he won’t last long enough to see it happen; in the meantime, if he’s smart, the horse had better figure out some other way to survive. It’s not precisely parallel, but “Root, hog, or die!” strikes me as close in spirit.
- I know they are hard-working men and women with a job that takes a heavy toll on their bodies and their families. I know they are the salt of the earth. I know we depend upon their labor for the products we consume, for our food, and for who knows what else….But I’m still going to say it: big-rig truckers are lousy fucking drivers. They monopolize the road, they always drive too close to the center line, they are terrifying on curves (which they always take super-wide, as if they were completely alone) and, most irritatingly, they love to play a game with other truckers in which they pass one another in s-u-p-e-r-s-l-o-w-m-o-t-i-o-n, flooring their semis to reach the lightning speed of 57 because they can’t stand another minute of being behind that slowpoke trucker who is only going 55. Meanwhile, those of us who would really like to be going the legal speed limit of 70 have formed a convoy twenty-seven cars deep while we wait for you dicks to pull back into the right lane. I’ll say to you what Obama said to Putin: Cut it out.