We tell ourselves stories, do we not, to share the experience of life on the blue planet. As social creatures, we look for commonality and clues about how to conduct ourselves with others. Do they see things the way we do? It’s all about connection. Which is why we trawl the culture—films, books, art, theatre, music, fashion—for words and images that resonate for us.
Too bad if you were growing up gay in the fifties, sixties or seventies. You would have searched in vain for that desired resonance. The whole culture was predicated on the heteronormative and unless you were lucky enough to connect with, say, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man published in 1964 you would have been seriously puzzled as to where you fitted in. Instead you were required to crack the enigma code of sexual identity in a society which apparently despised your kind.
The key to the code was very simple: homosexuals were unhappy, lonely people who sought to infect others with their unhappiness. Fathers, lock up your sons. Regrettably, the few examples of gay men in the culture were of the type to send you running in the opposite direction. Liberace (who was never ‘out’ anyway), Kenneth Williams, Frank Thring. All were cartoon queens whose role was to be the butt of contempt and pity; figures of fun who no one took seriously.
It was almost impossible at that time to imagine being a man, in the traditional understanding of that term, and being gay. Still you looked to the culture for signs but all you got were tragic figures who were doomed (of course they were) by their disposition. Think Aschenbach sitting on the Lido, the mask of his face literally cracking, as he pines after Tadzio. Or it might be Sebastian Venables in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer being torn apart by the predatory boys of Las Encantades. Or there were those cryptic films like Victim (1961)—the first English language film to use the word ‘homosexual’—where a man is blackmailed for being gay. On TV there might have been a gay character in Number 96 but really we were in sideshow alley with the freaks. For all that, cultural products, no matter how limited or unsatisfactory, could be the key to connecting with someone just like you. So you scanned people’s bookcases—planks separated by house bricks—for James Baldwin or Christopher Isherwood. Pathetic.
You would think that with the advent of the sexual revolution things might have loosened up. Absolutely—for straights. Fortunately, there were small beacons lighting the way through the treacherous seas. Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) alluded to the possibility of a gay life within the hetero context. Having said that, Peter Finch’s gay doctor loses out in the end. Then there was Christopher and His Kind (1976) which was nothing short of revelatory in that it postulated a collective identity for gay men. Similarly A Bigger Splash (1974), a film by Jack Hazan, charting the disintegration of David Hockney’s relationship with Peter Schlesinger was matter-of-fact about the gay life when many of us had been used to feeling like exiles dumped on the third rock from the sun by an interplanetary craft. There were corrections, however. William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) with its equation of gay sex with extreme violence (you deserve to be murdered, faggot) was perfectly timed to coincide with the AIDS crisis. The culture now had an excuse to reinforce those attitudes which it had been exhorted to relinquish in recent times. Gays were bad not because they were a moral hazard (although there was that) but because they were a public health risk.
Somehow we survived the eighties and nineties and suddenly we were old for all our talk of 50 being the new 40. And then something amazing happened with the culture and its presentation of gay people. It seemed to begin with Ellen Degeneres’ eponymous character coming out in hilarious slapstick fashion in Ellen (1994-98). At the same time there was Will and Grace (1998) which toyed with the idea that a gay man didn’t have to be a screamer (Jack) but could blend in with the furniture (Will). Before you knew it there were out Hollywood actors and pop stars and authors like Alan Hollinghurst who wrote stories which assumed that being gay was not some unfortunate aberration but was a part of the weft and weave of life. At which point the baby boomer who had grown up gay might have been tempted to turn bitter (oh that old gay trope) and curse the time into which he had been born. The alternative was to be revitalised by the very real hope that those growing up gay in the future would be able to pursue their destiny without having the culture bludgeon them with images of unhappiness attaching to their sexuality.
Which brings us to Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s extraordinary film of first love. That the romantic context is gay is almost irrelevant. This is a film about the awakening of desire and the transience of all human experience. Both André Aciman’s book on which it is based and the film are powerfully wise about the need to grasp life with both hands and experience all that it has to offer. Yes, there is an element of fantasy in the mis-en-scene. The impossibly sensual northern Italian summer of 1983. The parents of 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalambert) who are unbelievably accepting of their son’s dalliance with the handsome graduate student (Armie Hammer). That both of the lovers pursue their affair within the context of the all-enveloping hetero culture (Elio and Oliver both have girlfriends) is utterly plausible, though. The triumph of the film is that it presents the love between two men as wholly legitimate, even if the affair for one of the men (Oliver) will be an interlude in an otherwise conventional life it does not diminish this legitimacy. As Elio’s wise father (Michael Stuhlbarg) explains to his son who is frankly astonished (as perhaps are we): ‘Most of us can’t help but live as though we’ve got two lives to live, one is the mockup, the other the finished version, and then there are all those versions in between. But there’s only one, and before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now there’s sorrow. I don’t envy the pain. But I envy you the pain.’
There is a universality about this gay love story which might not have been achieved had the director gone down the path of gratuitous sex. This is a film not about sex but sensuality—and sensibility. If the viewer wants cocks a-hoy, there is always the internet.
Some of us grew up at a time when being gay was illegal. When cops could perpetrate any degree of violence or humiliation on gay men and when the self-righteous were free to cure the gay person of his sickness the better to enjoy the fruits of the heterosexual life. For the moment those dark times have receded. There is no guarantee that they won’t return, sadly. In the meantime, we should enjoy, whether gay or straight, a culture which celebrates our shared humanity. That is why we tell each other stories, after all. Please let there be more transformative films like Call Me By Your Name.
Simon Hughes is a writer who is currently gainfully employed as a teacher.