My Review of Call Me by Your Name

This week, I watched Call Me by Your Name. I’m going to write a review of it here. And this may say something about how the film has stuck with me, as the only other movies I’ve reviewed on fb have been Star Wars flics. I recommend Call Me by Your Name to anyone. It’s a beautiful, challenging film. I most especially recommend it to parents. 

(The following contains spoilers, but I don’t think they go much beyond what the movie’s preview implies.)

First off, the movie makes you want to live in it. Call Me by Your Name situates itself in an Italian vineyard, in 1983, where a Jewish-American professor of archeology lives with his vineyard-owning wife and their precocious son, Elio. Most of the movie takes place over a summer. And as a result, you have the Italian countryside, and the post-wars ruins, and the spring-fed ponds, and an old guy carrying a fresh-caught fish. And then there’s the food and the wine. And on top of that, you’ve got this villa, which has a piano (which Elio plays), and old books in multiple languages, and Roman artifacts, such as sculptural arms and heads. And it’s all sort of funky and in use, so it’s not at all pretentious. And on top of that, you’ve got the Walkmans and the bicycles and the Orangina bottles of 1980s Europe, plus a cast of characters who speak Italian, English, and French at will. This is a place where artists and scholars drink limonade and do what they love. Who wouldn’t want to visit?

So the complication is that the professor-father has an American, post-doc student come to live on the vineyard. Elio falls in love with him, and after some resistance, the post-doc (Oliver) loves him right back (and forth, and up, and down). This is a movie that portrays a lot sex. The cinematography is too deft and realistic to qualify as soft-core porn, but if you watch the film for your kid, it might be more comfortable if you don’t watch it with your kid. Before all the sex, Oliver just appears out of the blue—and it took me forever to figure out why he was there. Maybe I missed something that flew by in a subtitle, but until the middle of story, I wondered if he was supposed to be Elio’s tutor, or his father’s colleague, or just an erudite boarder. From the book the film plays from, you learn he’s supposed to be 24. (Because there are so many 24-year-old post-docs.) In the movie, he looks like he could be 34. Elio is supposed to be 17 (and he’s played by an actor who is 21), but he looks like he could be around 15. 

The age difference is something that troubles Oliver (who is quite scrupulous), and it has also enraged some of the movie’s viewers. I think the age problem is something worth talking about. I admit that, in the middle of the movie, I shouted, “He’s just a boy!” But I also admit that the age of consent in Italy is 14, and that Elio is by far the aggressor in this relationship, and that maybe back in the European eighties, before people openly discussed either homosexuality or legal age of maturity, this sort of thing just happened. Beyond that, this movie is not at all about predation. Oliver lets Elio take the lead. And all of this lends a touching realism to such moments as when Elio throws himself into Oliver’s arms, and just dangles there, mid-air, while Oliver wears this expression of affection, yes, but also fear. And by this time, you gather that this fear is not of breaking a taboo, but of breaking Elio’s heart. I did wonder, every once in a while, why the filmmaker (James Ivory) didn’t just make Elio eighteen. That would have been an easy fix that avoided some sticky difficulties. But he didn’t, which means he chose not to. Just as he chose to show sculptures of naked men from the classical era, and he chose to make Elio look like a boy and Oliver look like a man. There’s something going on here that I’m not sure I entirely “get.” There’s a kind of master/protege thing that bubbles up—but only in the most loving sense. And I’m left feeling not so much offended but, as I said before, somehow challenged. 

I will contend, however, that this is not the only love story in the movie. And the second one is why I recommend it to parents. Elio’s mom and dad know far more than Elio thinks. And without giving too much away, I’ll say that the point where I broke down and wept is not during the crowning moment in the gay love affair, but when Elio’s father talks to him about goodness and love. I wish I could tell you more without spoiling the movie. (For one thing, it would make this article more proportional). But that moment between a father and son is a speech worth memorizing. In a way, I think all of the movie was leading there. And it is so effective that I sometimes wonder if this is what offends the gay-rights opponents more than any seven-year age difference. The parents—and the movie—aren’t just compassionate with Elio. They understand Elio. There’s a huge difference between the two. They recognize the great thing that has come upon him—and they call it by its name, which is love.

(Originally posted March 16, 2018)

A Tribute to Ursula Le Guin

Le Guin showed that a writer could write seriously, and with serious literary heft, about other worlds. And as what happens when you take such worlds seriously, she showed us our own. Among other things, she spoke for women, and she spoke for hope, and she spoke about how hopeful women didn’t have to give a crap about things that didn’t matter. She found the numinous without ever naming it. She just showed it in the beauty, and the imagination, and the variety that resides in character, predicament, and place. Perhaps not least, she knew how to write about love. I will miss her. I’d like to have met her. And in the world of my doorstop of a book, I think I’ll make her a saint somewhere—never encountered, or even described, but revered: Ursula the Dreamer.

(Originally posted January 23, 2017)

Tack vs. Taste

I have a beef with horror writers. I’m frequently reading them, because although I’m not a horror writer myself, I think you have to be a master at timing and imagination to pull a horror story off. In fact, when I do read horror stories, I’m usually disappointed. This isn’t because I’m so tough to scare, really, but because I find that many horror writers (or film makers) take the low road into disturbia. I dropped a book and a movie last week, because in the opening scenes, both protagonists have a pet dog. The book was The Tommyknockers (because I was in the mood for some junk food) and the movie was The Babdook (which is supposed to be really good). Bad things happen to both dogs. In horror stories, dogs never have it good. And they aren’t the only victims. In early April I sat through It Follows. It turns out that despite the hype, this is not a frightening film–in part because the girl-running/crying/screaming-in-underwear thing is so obtrusive. Yes, one can make a brilliant argument that this film is about surviving sexual assault, but the guy who wrote it denies that something so deep was one his mind. (Sex and death, he said. They just go together.) Right. That, and you’ll score a cheap shudder if you make our contemplation of both into a kind of voyeurism. 

More examples: The Hills Have Eyes (remake) is something I’ve never seen, because the writer decided to include an infant in his journey through irradiated hell. I will never touch more of the The Dark Tower, on account of the protagonist’s hateful scene involving a woman and a gun. China Mieville’s The Census Taker is so full of eloquent ugly that I can’t get through it. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, is wonderful, except for that little dalliance with (again) a dog. And from my reading desk, I can bring myself only to glance at Blood Meridian, which I must read, but fear. 

Dearies, I am not a literary prude. My library includes everything from a 13th-century grimoire on how to summon demons to a photo essay on the the obscenity of lynching. I have an actual Evil section of my collection. But if I ever have the chance to teach young writers for just a moment, I will start by telling them that although fiction is beautiful because anything goes, everything must go for a reason. Any insignificant detail is a waste; that’s God’s own truth. But a random, shocking detail is flat-out tawdry. At best it’s a fun house, and at worst it’s a kind of hostility toward one’s own subject matter. Norman Mailer wrote The Castle in the Forest—which is a novel about Satan and young Hitler—and it has such vulgarity to spare that I lost interest even in that story. That novel has a demon for a narrator. And Mailer might say that such a voice lets vulgarity come naturally. But that is the very heart of my point: You can’t degrade the world without being at least somewhat life-hating, self-serving and essentially demonic. If you involve the torture of animals, or children, or any other kind of innocent, you best earn that detail, both before and after. Otherwise, you’re just asking for attention—which means, essentially, that you’re selling out. And beyond that, you’re breaking the one rule that may be the cornerstone of all good writing. You have got to respect everything—every thing—that you put on the page.

(Originally posted May 11, 2017)

Chase

If I taught creative writing, I would make my students write a chase scene. Oh, I know those things are rarely character pieces, but they make you use word economy like you wouldn’t believe. Everything has to be fast and precise and vivid. Everything has to hit a rhythm without sounding like rhythm. Dearies, it is damn hard to write a chase scene.

(Originally posted January 29, 2015)