Category Archives: Write … che ti passa
Here is what I learned at the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine, CA:
First, what they mean isn’t “western film history” but “film history of the Western” (or, maybe, “Western-film history”), which is different.
Second, the “suggested donation” isn’t suggested and it isn’t a donation. It’s a mandatory entrance fee. There’s even a sign that says “Minimum donation: $5.00.” I don’t mind paying, but I do mind people telling me that words don’t mean what they mean.
Third, when John Wayne was young, he was a friggin babe!
FOURTH AND MOST IMPORTANT — Between the 1930s and the early 1970s, film Westerns were the unfolding of a long and multidimensional saga of white dudes. White dudes did everything; they were capable of anything. They were good guys and bad guys; hustlers, heroes, cowards, and cooks; rustlers and ranchers; loners, law men, and outlaws; the moral conscience of a community and the reflection of its vilest impulses; sidekicks, loyal friends, and back stabbers. In short, white dudes were Just People.
Then there were some Others. Women, to start with. In the posters for Westerns (as in the movies themselves) women are in danger or are being saved from danger; they are behind men or, sometimes, literally under them in embraces that looked like they made someone’s back hurt. Mostly, they aren’t on the posters at all. Women could do a few things — take care of children and men (or ruin them); attempt to exert a “civilizing” influence, however unavailingly; suffer loss beautifully. They could shoot, sometimes, if there were no men around to do it for them, or run a ranch or a business if tragedy had left them without a man to do *that* for them. Women were often nearly people in Westerns but never quite completely.
The other Others were people of color — mostly American Indians but sometimes Chinese railroad workers or borax miners, sometimes black cooks or laborers. As for Indians, virtually their only job was to be bad guys, except on a very few occasions. They and the other Others were not even close to being people.
Of course, there are exceptions to all these rules. But the point is that they were exceptions.
What’s kind of unforgivable is that the Museum of Western Film History doesn’t try to tackle any of this. There’s a great deal of quoting of critics and directors and actors (white dudes all) about how Westerns showcased America imagining itself — and they did. Just not exactly in the way these guys meant.
There’s lots of information in the Museum about stuntmen, for example, but nothing about the role of the (many) Native American actors who appeared in Westerns (or of the Pretendians who not infrequently were cast in “native” roles).
Don’t get me wrong: There’s great stuff at the Museum. But there’s no attempt whatever to trouble the notion that America’s vision of itself and of its values, as transmitted in and by more than 50 years of Westerns, is an almost exclusively heterosexual male-centered, white-centered vision.
And yet all this other life is there, just at the edges of the camera frame, waiting to be seen.
If Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History shifted its gaze only slightly, it would realize it had all the materials necessary to tell the real (and much more interesting) story behind American fantasies of manifest destiny, masculinity, and white supremacy that Westerns helped create and promulgated for decades.
As it is, though, the Museum’s exhibits simply reify and occasionally even glorify the Western’s sociopathic attachment to the hallucination of America when it was “great,” its sentimental, delusional belief in White Male Benevolence.
Or put it another way: Mythologies are, arguably, neither good nor bad, but what’s perhaps most interesting about them is why they’re needed in the first place and by whom and why some so stubbornly endure.
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 teenage boy and a man more than ten years his senior.
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 badly, and showing him dancing badly, and showing him dancing badly, 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 is, I suppose, gay of the “everybody knows, so there’s no need to say it” variety, but up until very recently he had raised dissembling to the level of an art form. Admittedly, in his May 2017 interview for the New Yorker, he did get off lines like “I lived openly with [Ismail Merchant] for forty-five years, in New York and wherever else we were. That says what it says,” but even that much declaration was more than he’d said in public for decades. To give credit where credit, etc., Ivory has made some swell gay movies and apparently even lobbied for there to be dicks in CMBYN, a film that’s all about boy-sex, but he 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 like to see his membership card. He spreads “We’re European So We’re Above Sexual Labels” 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 terrific that we’ve risen above worrying about all that?
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?
Not surprisingly, 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 the latter’s marriage to a woman, and if he is left disappointed, alone, and melancholic, 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 occasionally 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 do without. If Oliver also gets hard from having Elio’s dick in his mouth, we’re not allowed to know. (P.S. “That’s promising” is a very odd thing to say to your lover’s hardon.)
In another scene, Oliver and Elio are walking in town 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 the filmmakers’ titubation regarding what goes on between men who are in love and in lust, except his willingness to participate in the preservation of a status quo that oppresses them both (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.
Perhaps the biggest falsehood of Call Me By Your Name, though, lies in the notion that the film is a “coming-of-age story.” That tagline, which began with the film’s release and only seems to be gaining traction over time, does two things: First, it prays the gay away (otherwise, it wouldn’t be so difficult to say out loud that it’s a movie about two age-disparate men who are fucking each other); and, second, it camouflages the fact that the spoiled first love in CMBYN isn’t “just like all the other” [meaning heterosexual] stories of bittersweet adolescent romance. In fact, CMBYN contains elements that are specific to gay mens’ experience: the importance of the older man who may be guide, lover, or exploiter (or all three); the way in which engaging in a sexual relationship implies questions of identity (and possibly levels of secrecy) that do not arise for straight people; the reality that it’s possible to be rejected not solely for all the usual reasons but also because the relationship places one of the partners in a category he finds socially and/or psychologically intolerable.
If we’re talking about traitors, meanwhile, 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.
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.
Something there is that doesn’t love a well-packed car.
At some point in any road trip, organization begins to unravel. In my case, entropy set in on the evening of the second day. What started out as Tetris quickly devolved into the truck from the opening credits of the Beverly Hillbillies.
When everything went into its place at the beginning of the trip, what I hadn’t taken into account was having to use those things. And then it became difficult to put everything back where it had come from because things weren’t as handy once they were put away.
It takes discipline of steel to keep putting things back where they originally came from. We all have the urge to spread out, but almost no one has unlimited space. There are now at least three things that I know are “in the car somewhere,” but I would be hard-pressed to lay hands on them if I had to.
The other thing you don’t really count on is the dust, which is everywhere. On a few occasions, plagued by flies, I’ve opened all the windows at 75 miles per hour to blow them out. But that doesn’t fully account for the layer of silt that covers the dashboard; the boxes, suitcases, and bins in the back; and, presumably, me.
Dirty clothes are another problem. There never seems to be any good place to put them. They can’t go back into the suitcase with the clean clothes, but if you put them in a bag by themselves, waiting for the next motel with a laundromat, that bag is one more thing that takes up space in a car in which space has been allocated with determination if not necessarily with foresight.
Anyway, at the beginning, you spend a lot of time thinking about what might be useful on the road and, depending upon the vividness of your ability to imagine both contingency and catastrophe, this also means that the well-packed car is claustrophobic. Things that might be useful tend to suck up your space. And that is why I am traveling with a corkscrew, a tape measure, extra packing tape, a first-aid kit, and a bottle of gin. So far, I’ve only used one of them.
The things you pack for a long road trip—and what happens to them as the trip progresses—share certain metaphorical similarities with the things that turn up in a house being emptied in preparation for a move. As you sift out all of the belongings that are truly important or that you know, without ambivalence, should be kept, you find yourself with a collection of random objects, the flotsam of your life, whose purpose you are not always sure of and whose provenance you may no longer remember: Postcards. Coupons from the grocery store. A refrigerator magnet from the plumber. Random screws. A tube of glue. Extra shoelaces that you’ve never used.
A lot of the debris that float to the surface at the end of a move are things that you’ve never used, but which you might. Some day.
Food was especially hard to throw away. After the movers had come and gone, I was semi-paralyzed by the small amount of leftover food in the fridge. At one point, I found myself standing at the sink, trying to finish off a half-jar of sweet gherkins. I’d made it through two-and-a-half when I realized that I didn’t really want pickles. But it isn’t as though you can ask a friend to take half a jar of pickles off your hands, and so I threw them away. They joined a stick of butter. A bottle of salad dressing. Half a loaf of not-very-good bread that was in the freezer against the possibility that I would one day turn it into stuffing.
I understand why people hoard—or, at least, in this moment I think I do. I understand why old people die with their houses full of useless things. People think hoarders can’t let go of the past. I think hoarders are thumbing their noses at the future.
Everything they keep will come in handy someday. The day will come when they will want to find an article in those old newspapers, cook something from a recipe in one of those old magazines, see a photograph again, sew a button on a shirt, put something in a plastic sack. Their “stuff” represents a stake in “some day.” It is an act of defiance against “the end.” The day will come.
The idea that things will be useful someday, will have a purpose, is like throwing a grappling hook into the future and hoping it will catch, giving you both something to climb over on and something to keep you tethered so you don’t float entirely away.
Filament, filament, filament said Walt, willing the ductile anchor to hold.
Some day the silver cord will break, / And I no more as now shall sing went the old hymn by Fanny J. Crosby, who seemed to have written most of our church’s hymnal. I remember hearing one of my teachers sing that particular song, so sweetly. This is fifty years ago.
There will always be a some day. There will always come a day when things are useful. Because there will always come a day.
Which is undeniably true, right up until it isn’t.