Tuesday, December 12, 2017

On Oliver & Elio & Bottoms & Tops (Oh My)

I've been considering writing a few more thoughts about Call Me By Your Name that've been plunking around in my head since the last big piece I wrote over at The Film Experience, and two factors have conspired over the past few days to make it happen (it is happening right now, you see). First off there was that question at the Q&A this past weekend with Timothée Chalamet that I posted video of, the terrible one about whether he and Armie had discussed the sexual roles Elio and Oliver would take in the bedroom - which was the "top" and which was the "bottom." Here's that video:

And the second factor that's got me yapping more is this lovely review of the film by Tomas Trussow at Film inquiry; specifically this section from it, which brings up the pan out the window which I went into a detailed defense of myself in my last piece:

"When they finally consummate their relationship, Guadagnino pans to the bedroom window—but not out of prudishness. It is rather a normalizing gesture, since for time immemorial, a pan away from the lovemaking couple has been a traditional feature in cinematic romances. It is to give them their privacy, as well as to give our imaginations a stake in the process.
Here, Guadagnino seems to say, the love of two men now belongs in that tradition. Desire is not always dependent on whatever is made explicit, and here, it is enough to imagine the intensity of love that no actor—not even actors as extraordinary as Chalamet and Hammer—can reproduce as convincingly as two people so madly in love as Elio and Oliver are."

You can maybe kind of see where I'm going to go with this at this point, but I've got to give credit to my boyfriend, who made this case to me immediately after reading my piece last week, well before either of these factors came around to goose me into action today - that part of the reason for the privacy that Guadagnino extends to Oliver and Elio by panning out the window is due to the politics of gay sex and the idea of power, submission and dominance. The act of gay sex always gets complicated by who is the "top" and who is the "bottom" and what that says about who is in control at that moment, yadda yadda - it's an exhausting and stupid conversation quite frankly, and I don't blame Luca for wanting to side-step it entirely since it would only at that point in the film serve as a distraction.

Trussow's piece lays out the structure of the film nicely - how its split into thirds, with Elio coming to realize his attraction to Oliver in the first third, with Elio pursuing Oliver in the second, and with their post-consummation bliss through its end in the final act. The turning point from the second to the third act is when Elio & Oliver have sex and the camera pans out the window, and it seems to be foundational to the structure of the film that the two of them be on equal footing in our minds at that moment. The audience shouldn't be thinking about one dominating the other - that moment is about them finally being on the same page, eye to eye.

The book, of course, has time for a back and forth - the two characters trade roles in bed as Aciman lengthily details their lovemaking over the span of their final couple of weeks together. That's the benefit of writing a book, which is not the same as writing a basic three act film. And it seems to me Guadagnino made the right choice to entirely circumvent the power conversation at that moment, and focus instead on finally immediately realizing Elio and Oliver as equals, partners, joined side by side like those twin beds I wrote about in my other piece. Even if you think the conversations around passive versus active roles in gay sex are silly and unnecessary like I do there's no denying that they interject themselves into the conversation whether you want them to or not. And that's not the conversation this film needs to have to work.

Once Elio and Oliver do consummate their relationship the bottom (so to speak, hardy har) really falls out of the film time-wise and its previous languid pace is tossed out the window - you really get the sense in its last act of time escaping too quickly, of the air running out of the room. When Marzia shows up she says three days have passed since she last saw Elio and every time I watch the movie that statement surprises me - where did all that time go? And then before you know it they're on the bus to Bergamo and then they're saying goodbye. I love the Rome section of the book, where the boys meet all the hip literati and have a magical night, but cutting that lengthy section, which would've brought the film to a standstill, was imperative for the film to get across this sensation of Oliver & Elio's time together ending before its even properly begun. That's the tragedy of First Love, gone before we even realize what we had and what it was doing to us, that was Guadagnino's aim and ultimately his bullseye.


mangrove said...

How do you know it was Guadagnino who made that call and not Ivory? Was there a script published which attributed that choice to him?

(Ivory not getting the recognition is irking me.)

Perhaps they should have flipped-flopped and that would have that question done with? Or would it have been too much for American eyes?

JA said...

The script has been online and I haven't read the script yet but I did read that there is more sex in it. So I'm about 90% sure Guadagnino made that call.

As to your second point I address that in what I wrote here? And in the looooong piece I wrote before. I think there are a billion more substantial reasons why the scene is shot the way above puritanism, which the film is not in any sense of the word anyway

NealB said...

They left out Rome? So what has the movie got to do with the book? Unless you're obsessed with the details, Ivory and the director just reduced the book to a formulaic romance / erotica with hot male actors playing the leads. They left out Rome? Hmm. Didn't know that. Sketchy as that part of the book was, as well as least interesting though more active than the (much) longer earlier part of the book where Elio's daft about his attraction to Oliver, and Oliver doing a variety of things that could be explained in a variety of ways: the book held my attention but was so oddly vague at the end that I wondered if the author had lost interest by then, in the story he was writing, or, more sadly, the necessary capacity to write it. Guess Ivory and the Italian guy directing had the same experience of the book and to keep a long story short just stopped where they did. Maybe Guadagnino is serious about doing a sequel(?). Why not a movie about one long night in Rome with Armie and Timmy, topping and bottoming, and their strange reunions many years later?

Manny said...

I’ve never seen a fandom so fervently obsessed with justifying each and every deviation from the source material. I mean, I suppose I’m not THAT versed in fandoms, but the CMBYN community has been a suffocating entity that continues to refuse and deny nearly all contrarian perspectives from their own, and I DON’T mean the age difference BS, because that has never irked me (because seventeen year old boys don’t know desire? Give me a break!).

On the plus side, it has been a community that has shown me the power of words and argument, and as an English major and writer and teacher, it’s heartening to see that nearly every side is arguable and can even prove convincing in its own way. Nothing against that, as that’s the fuel of true conversation.

But SERIOUSLY, guys... Why do we have to keep justifying the director or writer or actors in all they do and what’s more, sing gospels about their bravery and honesty and rightness? It’s kind of sickening, mostly because it inhibits the ability for someone to discuss this film AT ALL... there is no discussion in this community, just blind legion. Passion is wonderful, but true passion isn’t perfect, nor should it be, so when people try and speak about the imperfections in a project clearly treated with care and love...

Why do we have to write essays discrediting their point of view without so much as an admission that they may hold a shard of the truth too?

Sorry, just had to make mention of that. It wouldn’t be so insufferable if it weren’t such a blanket standard applied to CMBYN.

Jason, your obsessive adoration for the film and novel is as apparent as the sun on a clear summer’s day. But is it too much to ask that you keep CMBYN from the pedestal and talk about some of the things it doesn’t get right? The choices you would have made differently?

Frankly, it’s also a little odd to me that this is now the barometer by which people are setting intimacy and passion and love in cinema, gay or otherwise.

Oh, and the pan out because that’s what happens in the straight melodramas, circa Sirk? That’s a good one. And an argument I’d swallow if the Elio I’ve internalized wouldn’t slap me something fierce.

Anyway, just as you need to vent so do us on the other side (those who love the adaptation, but refuse to name it the next best thing), so that’s all. :)

JA said...

Manny I know you've got a personal stake in this, having worked on an earlier draft of the script, but that's just it - you're taking this personally. I'm not forcing anybody to think the way I do. I am just expressing my take. I am just one voice on the internet who fell in love with this movie. I have complaints and nits to pick about 99.9999999999% of the movies I see -- why I can't be allowed to fall head over heels in love with one thing is your problem, not mine.

Manny said...

Oh absolutely. Totally personal. 100% right.

But you are also completely blind to the criticism and I feel like that’s not the way to properly love anything, either. You don’t have to feel force anyone to think like you. Shoot, in a way, I wish I’d be able to just throw myself into the films I call my favorites and just not discuss or even mention in passing it’s defects or bad spots or missed opportunities...

In a way, maybe I just envy that you can love something and just talk about that?

It’s just my perspective. Love however and whatever you want.

Just know that your take is as personal and as high-stakes as mine. And as imperfect.

This is simply the other side.

Have a lovely rest of your day!

For the record, there’s PLENTY left for me to pick at and analyze again and again without ever having a history with CMBYN. But you’re damn right it makes the faults sting all the more (and the highs that much higher, like the Soundtrack, and Marzia, and the production/costume design, and the train station and... you get my point).

We’re never going to agree, but I look forward to more. :)

JA said...

I'm not "blind to the criticism" - I just haven't seen much of any that I agree with at this point. And I haven't gone out of my way to argue with every single criticism. Just the ones that I most strongly disagree with. I mean mostly I've just harped on the sex scene when it comes down to it, because those criticisms it was getting are the ones that have really stuck in my craw.

But I do agree with you that I'm choosing to talk about this film so much because I love it unabashedly, and I just want to talk about something that makes me happy these days since otherwise the world is making me fucking miserable. I've stated that several times before - that this movie came at just the right time and wrapped me up in it when I needed it. So yes, that is personal.

Manny said...

Stuck in your craw, stuck in my craw... Haha!

I get it, man. Just as I trust you understand where I come from.

Maybe you don’t see the criticism because your love for this is so overwhelmingly raw and all-encompassing? It’d be nice to see you take on CMBYN five to ten years from now... THAT I will love to read. Probably just in time for this “sequel” as well.

But hey, we gotta stand by our loves. No one can ever ever say you don’t.

Loving in different ways is just one of the benefits of being alive!

Anonymous said...

I like that you liked it so much but, um:


rigs-in-gear said...

As far as movie sex-substitute clichés go, I prefer the cut-to-train-entering-tunnel to the pan-to-window, retaining the who's-the-train and who's-the-tunnel question.