Call Me by Your Name, or, Let’s Get Real about the Gay

Every year one LGBTQ film ends up in award season…in other words, crossing out of the festival circuit (mostly queer festivals) into the actual theater. We’ve had these films:

  1. The Kids Are Alright (blech)
  2. The Danish Girl (blech)
  3. Blue is the Warmest Color (blech because of the sexual exploitation)
  4. Carol (blech)
  5. Moonlight (flawed structurally, but by far THE BEST. I mean BY FAR)
  6. and this year’s offering, Call Me by Your Name (blech)

For those of you not in the LGBTQ community, I’ll give you a queer perspective on these moves:

  1. The Kids Are Alright offended every lesbian I know who saw it and it make me homicidal. Of the films mentioned, it was the only one that is actually overtly homophobic–an alcoholic workaholic mom, her codependent wife who SLEEPS WITH A MAN (seriously?), and the two kids who are unhappy enough to secretly look for their sperm donor father. Yay, lesbian life. Yay the conflicted unhappy lesbian marriage and the great sex with the guy. The insider jokes about lesbianism played as homophobic in this crossover movie, and the construct of the lesbian sleeping with a man is so flat out offensive I can only say this: most of us don’t go back after discovering who we are because we don’t hate ourselves that much. And the truly bisexual and pansexual women….live pansexual and bisexual lives. BLECH to The Kids are Alright. Triple fucking BLECH! (And I’m not even going to start on the lack of chemistry between the lesbian leads.)
  2. The Danish Girl featured Eddie Redmayne playing a trans woman and I hated his performance so much, and found it so dishonest, that I didn’t make it through the whole movie. The trans community has been very vocal about having trans people plays trans characters. For a reason. BLECH.
  3. Blue is the Warmest Color told a fairly lesbian story of love, insecurity, infidelity. It was well-acted. The problem was how highly eroticized the film was, that the actresses had actual sex with each other, and that the straight male director got off on all of it (read on line articles). We basically watched a “me, too,” experience, though it took the actresses a while to admit it. SERIOUS BLECH.
  4. Carol took us back in time to lesbianism being forbidden love, and the casting was RIDICULOUS. I didn’t believe in their relationship for one hot second. I didn’t believe they knew each other well enough to love, or that they were queer enough to be hot for each other in any way. This film was written by a lesbian and I still hated it. (As for other lesbians, some of them were so grateful to have a film in which they could see their history, they forgave the above. I didn’t.) BLECH.
  5. Moonlight, a huge sigh of relief, had something to say about being queer, being African-American, being different, finding unlikely allies. The casting was very uneven, and the rewards showed that, but the film was deeply moving, and like Sean Baker, Barry Jenkins took us inside a life, rather than glossing over the experience of queer people with some friggin’ fictional erotic fantasy. I thought the transitions between the 3 sections were clunky as hell, but that is something I’ll forgive in the service of meaning and originality.
  6. Which brings us to this review: Call Me by Your Name. Guess my rating? BLECH.

My partner, who is either way less critical of movies or way more, depending on what pushes her particular buttons, says that for many gay men, Call Me by Your Name, is probably a very sensitive portrayal of coming out.

No. First of all, it has a 17 year old protagonist who has sex with a grad school student who looks like he’s 35. THIS IS ALMOST ACTIONABLE PEOPLE! Okay, maybe not in Italy–I don’t know what constitutes statutory rape in that country. So before even talking about plot or character development, let’s talk about what the movie sells–and what it sell is man/boy love. If the character of Oliver (the grad student) had been cast with an actor who looked a young 24, I wouldn’t have found it so disturbing. But casting is a large part of a film’s vision, and this vision sells me a very mature grad student, who acts, speaks and looks like a fully grown adult, having sex with a very young looking 17 year old, who looks and acts like a slightly spoiled, highly gifted but immature kid. That the character of Oliver is worried about whether what he’s doing is right only further disturbed me, because he seemed to be looking to the 17 year old Elio for validation.

We eroticize youth. The vision of film often eroticizes youth. In this film, Elio is eroticized–he’s a beautiful boy. Oliver is eroticized–he’s a beautiful man. And when they come together sexually, Elio acts like a kid in the way he touches, hugs, acts.

Seriously, boys?

Now, my partner doesn’t think the film wasn’t disturbing. She just thinks a lot of gay men will think it’s beautiful. She thinks a lesbian/gender non-conforming couple has a way different view of sexuality and love than these beautiful eroticized men.

Well, since I happen to agree with Lin Manuel Miranda that love is love is love is love, whether it’s set, as this film is, in a gorgeous part of Northern Italy, or whether it’s set in a garish strip of central Florida, I’m not feeling terribly forgiving toward this one, either.

The story is a coming out story, set in a very privileged family. And Oliver, the grad student intruder in the plot (for it is an intruder plot), is athletic, sexy, apparently into women, smart, even erudite. He looks a bit like, well, a blonde California actor or a preppie guy from Wall Street, rather than an academic, but since eroticism seems to be the highest value, and the whole film is about beauty and the body…what can I say. We never get to know Oliver. We never understand him. He doesn’t really treat Elio all that well, blowing hot and cold in his guilt. He doesn’t seem particularly moral, and though we’re told by Elio’s father that Oliver is “good,” his acts of actual kindness or goodness might number exactly one. Otherwise, he’s crude, rude and American.

Elio is more understandable…attracted to the older guy, but having sex to prove to himself…something…and using a girl his own age who is vulnerable to do it.

Basically, Elio falls for the older guy, has sex, comes out, his parents are completely cool about all of it. There’s some very loving and wise lines, but I’m not sure I believe a father in the 80’s would actually say them. They seemed more like the writer telling me what to think. They weren’t, as they too often say in writing classes, earned.

Yes, the film is beautiful. But it’s a double BLECH for me, and sorry, you can’t sell me man/boy love, in a cosmopolitan or any other context. Cast someone who doesn’t seem like a handsome, using jerk, and way too old, and maybe. I say maybe, because it’s hard sell. And one thing I’d need in the sell is some real intimacy. Some basis for connection besides physical beauty or lust.

And let me be clear: it’s not that I don’t think good queer movies are being made. Tangerine was an excellent queer movie. In TV, we have One Mississippi and Transparent (thankfully so far past Queer as Folk and the L Word). I like to believe that the mainstream world is ready for our lives, for films of meaning, like Moonlight. I hope we leave this old vision of queer lives behind us. Like, now.


PS–I love the poetry of the title of this movie. But, once again, it didn’t earn it. Call me by your name should be about blending, intimacy, identity. This barely scratched the surface. (Unless you think that both men using women to hide their desire for each other is enough to twin them.)




The Florida Project: Or, the best movie you didn’t see

Tangerine was the first film I saw by Sean Baker. I thought it by far the best film about the trans community, not about the transition, but about the lives of trans women on the fringe who can’t afford insurance, let alone surgery. Super low production values, super high insight and heart.

The Florida Project shows a rise in the production values, and it has a star, William Dafoe, who does a good job, though I think casting him was a mistake. Why? Because he seems like an actor and all the other actors seem to actually be the characters they are playing. Without Dafoe, the film would read as more documentary than fiction. This, in fact, is Baker’s genius: he takes us so deeply inside the lives the character are living, he removes us enough from the screenplay formula, that we deepen into the most complicated of human understanding. Of desperation, of love, of ugliness, of imprinting, of danger.

Specifically, The Florida project tells the story of Moonee, a five year old girl being raised by her very young, foul-mouthed, tattoed mother, who scraped a living together by stripping, selling bulk perfume as designer, and eventually by hooking. Moonee swears, spits, lights a fire, and is smart, inventive and adventurous. Much of the movie seems like slice of life, because the accrual of events is slow and subtle until the underlying dangers of this life become difficult to watch.

Moonee’s mom, Hallee, isn’t likeable per say, but she is made utterly understandable. In Tangerine, you can’t write off the trans women as tranny hookers; in The Florida Project you can’t write off the young mom as a white trash stripper. And yet they live the fringe lives they live, barely subsisting, imperfect in their connections, and yet…connected.

Honestly, Sean Baker makes every other filmmaker this year look utterly superficial. His vision is at once brutally honest and utterly compassionate. He has something to say, and he says it with subtlety and care. Some of the shots are a little stylized, but they so effectively underscored and communicated the meaning of what he was revealing (often about the nature of childhood…any childhood), I ended up liking them…and I hate stylization for its own sake, in which the filmmaker is showing us how clever he is.

I believe what Richard Linklater said is true–if you want innovation, if you want an original vision, don’t look to Hollywood. Look to independent films.

I can’t recommend this one highly enough. I’m going to watch everything else Baker has ever done.