The opening credits should have been a warning that this movie wasn’t going to be for me. Call Me By Your Name opens with its titles slashed in a bright yellow “energetic” font over a bunch of photographs of naked male statues. This opening credits sequence reeks of old men trying to market things as “hip” or “cool” by faux deconstructing them in a way to appeal to the younger generation. Sure, the title sequence is lame, but many good movies have had lame title sequences. And then comes the name that strikes fear into my coal black heart: JAMES IVORY.
James Ivory is an 89-year-old man who made movies for nearly half a century with his romantic partner Ismail Merchant until Ismail’s death in 2005. Much like openly gay director Luca Guadagnino, Merchant and Ivory spent the majority of their career making stuffy pretentious art films for heterosexual audiences, specializing in boring period pieces like A Room With A View and Howard’s End about rich white people having rich white people problems. This was fine to attract attention from film critics looking for period pieces as a break from modern cinema; their weaknesses always arose if they dared to venture into the modern era.
Arguably, Merchant-Ivory’s lamest feature was an adaptation of faux-biographical short stories about “hip artists” trying to survive modern New York City; Slaves of New York was a film so dismal, boring and out of touch that Roger Ebert once wrote “I detest Slaves of New York so much that I distrust my own opinion.” To wit, this is a movie so boring, it turns Supremes-singing drag queens playing baseball into an interminably snoozy affair. The subject matter is also far outside their wheelhouse; Merchant and Ivory spent so much of their time honing boring period movies for boring straight film critics that they forgot how to queer it up.
They did make one gay movie, 30 years ago: Maurice. Back when I was first coming out, my older ex-boyfriend tried getting me to watch the movie, but I either fell asleep or turned it off because it was so…boring. This year, I watched it again. It’s a snooze fest designed to not offend the straight audiences who were going to be offended anyway. Maurice is a dull empty shell of a character whose sluttiness would almost count as a personality trait if the sex wasn’t so lifeless. His hair has more character than he does (and that’s not saying much). Last year, during Maurice‘s 30th anniversary, straight and old gay male film critics fell all over themselves to reclaim this boring-as-hell movie about schoolboys in love growing into adults and the heartbreak therein. Spare me.
Call Me By Your Name‘s director Luca Guadagnino shares a similar, though far less prolific, career path to the Merchant Ivory team: he specializes in boring art house movies for straight people. Guadagnino loves straight sex. A Bigger Splash and Melissa P were full of heterosexual sex. Despite being openly gay, he makes movies about straight people for straight people, and these movies usually feature straight people fucking.
On the 30th anniversary of Maurice, Guadagnino finally makes his first “gay” feature film, as written by James Ivory. The biggest problem is: Call Me By Your Name is not very gay. By the time I walked out, 90 minutes into the feature, I had seen two heterosexual sex scenes and a pair of breasts. I saw a boy and girl rut and cum from an overhead shot, and another shot of a boy’s head down between a girl’s legs. Yet, when the two men finally get down to bone: we get a tasteful pan away to a moonlit tree at night even before they get their pants off.
I should back up…
Call Me By Your Name is about the homoerotic awakening of Elio, a rich and clever teenage boy in 1980s Northern Italy. Elio, the offspring of an archaeology professor and an intelligent mother, is the type of obnoxiously precocious teenager who thinks interpreting a piece of music as it might have been composed in different eras is a form of flirting. He spends his days doing fuck all, lazily wasting away his summer by hanging out under trees, reading and occasionally fucking his girlfriend.
Elio’s plans are interrupted by Oliver, a hunky 24-going-on-40 graduate student who may or may not be attracted to boys or girls and may or may not be grooming Elio to sleep with him during the summer. The first 90 minutes are all heterosexual fucking and nosebleeds as Elio tries to figure out his attraction to Oliver, Oliver plays coy with his semi-seduction, and then they bang. And the camera pans away.
That’s not to say Call Me By Your Name is a bad movie. It’s an obnoxiously boring movie about privilege and lazy summers. It achingly depicts those moments in young gay/bi men’s lives when you’re attracted to somebody who might be gay or they might be straight and you get so frustrated by the chase because if they end up being straight or just rejecting you it hurts you to your very being.
Really, who doesn’t want to relive 90 minutes of that is-he/isn’t-he cat-and-mouse tension that was abandoned after high school for our own mental sanity? Is anybody really nostalgic for that pre-internet time period when everybody was still closeted because of the homophobic culture and there was no way to casually find out that the person 100ft away was gay and looking? Do people really yearn for more depictions of a culture where the homophobia was so casual it kept people from expressing their true selves? I sure didn’t want to revisit that era, and I didn’t need to see all the heterosexual sex that I have to endure in heterosexual movies all the time. Straight people, if we can’t have gay people loving it up in your movies, kindly keep your fucking out of our gay movies.
They say that the final act of this film redeems any of its faults. They say that the final speech is perfect and heartstring pulling and everything melancholy that people want. They may be right. I don’t know nor will I ever know. This movie in particular is not for me. I left behind the life of the closet nearly 20 years ago. I don’t look back on the closet very fondly. I don’t have warm nostalgic fuzzies when I think about the low level homophobia that surrounded me. I don’t have an urge to romanticize the times when I was practically asexual because I didn’t really want to date a girl. And I certainly won’t downplay the times when I was gazing off into space and some guy thought I was staring at him and threatened violence (and he wasn’t even my type!).
That’s perhaps my biggest problem with Call Me By Your Name. It is a romanticized version of an era that has long past. In the 90-or-so minutes I watched, there was no underlying threat of violence; there was no risk that anybody’s ass would be beaten because they hit on the wrong person. The underlying homophobia is of a low-level, almost genteel, variety that barely rates these days. Call Me By Your Name is a whitewashed version of an era that should have been left in the ditch. It’s a sanitized version of life that dangerously downplays the real dangers of the era.
But, Julius, “this isn’t a Neo-Realist drama. This is a romantic film!” Yeah, no. Fuck right the hell off with that. Listen I’ve practically got a porn-formula story about losing my virginity, and there was always a bit of the risk of violence involved. Do I romanticize that? No. It’s just the way shit was. I’m sure there’s a whole swath of gays who want to have a nice romantic yearning story about the old days with a bit of melancholic pathos and a bit of a fantasy about coming out to a father who kind of understands…but, I can’t help but thing this is a softened version of the gay experience made for straight audiences who don’t know and don’t want to know the sheer amount of torture and terror that came with a predilection for same-gender body parts. Straight people need the experience softened for them too feel good about themselves and so they can “understand” the experience of a marginalized community.
Which brings us back to James Ivory. Rumor had it that he wanted more gay sex and male nudity in Call Me By Your Name. Maybe he’s wizened in his old age, but he’s always had a problem with gay sex in his previous films. I don’t trust his opinion. In a nod to Roger Ebert’s epic line of The Slaves of New York, I detest Call Me By Your Name so much that I distrust my own opinion.