The Things That Matter: On Love, Inspiration, and Call Me By Your Name

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Ah, Call Me By Your Name.

Call Me By Your Name.

What words can I write of this movie, what songs of love can I sing of it that have not already been written, have not already been sung by critics and film lovers and emotional gay men more thoughtful and intelligent and articulate than me? None, I would wager. But I have a lot of feelings about it that need expressing, so I will try to express them here.

I have seen the film four times since it opened in New York, and on each viewing I have uncovered new layers in it, new meaning, new ardor and appreciation for what director Luca Guadagnino and his entire cast (especially Timothée Chalamet—an absolute marvel in the role of Elio), crew, and creative team have accomplished. Call Me By Your Name is, simply, a stunning piece of work. Gorgeous, powerful, emotionally-searing in ways I am only just beginning to process. Evocative, melodic, sensual, and poignant. It is an exquisitely crafted, deeply moving film that is simultaneously bold and delicate, raw and refined, humble and humane.

I should note that my rapturous reaction to the movie was not entirely unanticipated. I have for many years been a fan of the novel by André Aciman on which the film is based. I have also, over the last several years, become a fervent admirer of Mr. Guadagnino, whose two most recent films, I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, I found myself completely enamored of. And I have, for as long as I can remember, for as long as I have loved and appreciated movies, worshipped at the altar of screenwriter James Ivory, whose entire canon of work should be counted, in my opinion, among the best and most beautiful films of all time.

Suffice to say, I expected to like this movie. I had been eagerly awaiting its arrival in theatres since hearing in early 2016 that Aciman’s book was being adapted into a film starring the very handsome Armie Hammer, whose performance in The Man From Uncle was one of my favorites of 2015, and Timothée Chalamet, whose face seemed somewhat familiar at the time but with whose work I had not yet been acquainted. The film’s glowing reception at Sundance further piqued my excitement, and throughout 2017 I relished each new trailer, clip, and news article that was published about the movie. Sometime around October, I began counting the days until its release.

What I did not expect was for Call Me By Your Name to knock the wind out of me in the way that it did. When I finally saw the film for the first time, on a cold and rainy Thursday in New York, I was utterly overwhelmed. Like so many others, I fell under its spell immediately. From the first frame until the last, I surrendered myself wholeheartedly to its tremendous warmth, artistry, and compassion, and I was not, even for one second, disappointed.

For me though, Call Me By Your Name is more than just a good film. It is deeply, instinctively, painfully personal in a way no film has ever been before. Since its release, much has been said and written about the film’s universality, its relatability, by critics and viewers of various backgrounds and identities and persuasions. I am glad for that. I really am. The fact that a story about queer love and queer characters and queer heartbreak has resonated with so many viewers is perhaps the most exciting, remarkable thing about Call Me By Your Name. It is a testament to how far we have come, in our politics and our society and our art, that a love story like this is unfolding every night on cinema screens across the nation (and in fact, the world), and that it is eliciting the response it has. This is thrilling for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the film’s success, much like that of Moonlight last year, will presumably (hopefully) encourage the writing and production of new movies like it—tenderly told, honest, meaningful films about same-sex and queer and nontraditional love and experiences.

So while it is wonderful that Call Me By Your Name has appealed to and moved so many non-queer viewers, the film’s truest, most remarkable accomplishment is the way that it has spoken to and for queer audiences (especially white gay men like myself). It is always, always a gift and a pleasure to come across a film that provokes a genuine emotional response in you—that moves you in some way, that feels real, that speaks to problems or situations or truths to which you can relate, even if only on the most general of levels. I feel extremely grateful that many films over the years have done this for me.

But it is something altogether different, rarer and far more powerful, to encounter a film or a story to which you not only relate, but that feels private, intimate, familiar—real in a way no other story is or can be. A story you do not have to interpret or project your own experiences onto because it is a story you already know—one that you have lived. That is what Call Me By Your Name is for me.

As I write this, I am 26 years old and have been in love (or something like it) three times in my life. The third time was the hardest, the most tumultuous and traumatic. The second time was the sweetest, the one I look back on with fewest regrets. But the first time was by far the most significant, the most enduring and transformative.

It began when I was 19. I was just beginning my sophomore year of college, having returned shortly before from a semester abroad in France.

I had gone to France for many reasons. I’d never been before (I’d never been anywhere before) and had always dreamed of going. I spoke the language but had never before had real cause to use it. And, most of all, my world seemed nearly as small after a semester of college (albeit a wonderful semester) as it had always been before, and I was restless. I wanted something different out of life, something more, but I didn’t know what that something was, or where to find it, or how to make it mine. So when the opportunity to spend six months living and studying in the south of France came to me, I said yes almost immediately. I packed up my dorm room and everything that my life had been, and that I had been, up to that point, left it in the attic of my parents’ house, boarded the night plane to Paris and did not look back.

I’m not entirely sure, even now, what it was that I went to France in search of, but what I found there was what I needed to find. On the cobblestoned streets of Paris and Toulouse, Figeac and Carcassone, I realized for the first time who I could be in life—where I could go, what I could do, the things I could see and accomplish—and in fact, who I already was.

Somewhere on the coast of Southwestern France, in the early hours of the morning in a seaside hotel in the spring of 2010, I kissed a boy for the very first time, and in that moment and the ones that followed, began the process of coming out—first to myself, then gradually to the people in my life. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes it still isn’t. But I knew then, as I suppose on some level I had always known, that I could only go on pretending, ignoring, lying, deflecting for so long. The day had come, as Anaïs Nin warned it would, when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. I knew I would never find real happiness or fulfillment in life if I couldn’t be honest about who I was and what I wanted. I couldn’t expect the world to accept me if I didn’t learn to accept myself.

So I did learn to accept myself. And to like myself. And to believe that I deserved to love and be loved, like anyone else, without fear or silence or shame. So when, during the fall of my sophomore year, I met a handsome graduate student from the Midwest, with blonde hair and broad shoulders and a smile that made me weak in the knees, who for some (still) unknown reason took a romantic interest in me, I was ready. Ready for him, and for it, and for us. Ready to accept what he had to give me, in friendship and in love, and to give what I had in return, without reservation or apology. And that’s what I did.

It wasn’t perfect, certainly. He wasn’t perfect and neither was I. But it was real and it was right and it was good. I know that sounds mawkish and schmaltzy, but it was. It was more than I thought it could be. And I was happy.

I sometimes wonder now if he meant more to me than I meant to him. He was my first love, my first heartbreak, my first…a lot of things, and I was more in love with him than I’ve been with anyone since. I don’t believe I was his first anything, and I know I wasn’t his last. I’m sure he’s loved someone, maybe multiple someones, as much as or more than he loved me.

But he did love me. I try to remind myself of that. What we had was special, I knew that and I know he knew it too. But it ran its course. When the year ended and the time came for him to begin his PhD program out West, he half-heartedly asked me to leave school and go with him. I said no, as he knew I would, and he left and I cried and we tried to stay in touch but didn’t and that was that. Sometimes that’s just how it goes. How it’s meant to go.

But I would be lying if I said I didn’t still think of him. I do. Whenever I have champagne or strawberry ice cream, or hear Fleetwood Mac, or pass by any of the places in New Orleans we used to go to together. And sometimes, when I’m alone in bed at night after a bad date or an especially prolonged romantic dry spell, and the loneliness comes, my thoughts turn to him and I wonder if maybe he was it for me. Maybe he was the one. Maybe I’ll never love anyone as much or as hard or as uncomplicatedly as I loved him. Maybe I let him go too easily.

Then I think of what André Aciman wrote from Elio’s perspective, about his relationship with Oliver many years after it ended, in Call Me By Your Name. “In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we’ve always known, and not saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.” Then I think of him again, and I wonder if he thinks of me too, even if not in entirely the same way. And I hope that wherever he is now and whoever he is now and whomever he is with, every once in a while, he does.

So when I watch Call Me By Your Name, I don’t just see or appreciate the characters, or their storylines, or the things they think and say and feel—I know them. I know Elio because I was him. In some ways I probably still am. I know Oliver because I loved him. In some ways I probably always will.

Like so many others, this film has given me so much for which I am grateful. But most notably, it reminded me just how broad an array of people and experiences, and in particular queer people and queer experiences, exist in this world, and that each and every one of those people deserve to see themselves represented on screen.

I feel very fortunate to be alive at a time when so many films about queer love are being made and made well. Just in the last few years, Weekend and Blue Is The Warmest Color and Pride and Carol and Moonlight and The Handmaiden and God’s Own Country and BPM and Battle of the Sexes and Princess Cyd have all delighted and destroyed me in equal measure. I loved each of these movies, and was deeply affected by the characters they featured and the stories that they told. But, I am not those characters, and those stories are not my own. After 26 years of watching movies, including all of the LGBT-themed movies I could get my hands on, it wasn’t until Call Me By Your Name that I ever felt like I saw myself, really saw myself, in the context of a love story on screen. And really, I didn’t know what I was missing.

But now I do. I know how powerful and important it is to see yourself and your story, at least some aspect of it, represented in film. I love seeing films about queer characters of any kind, with whom I have something in common or with whom I have nothing in common, because each new depiction of a queer person increases visibility for all of us, and helps to inform and remind everyone, queer and non-queer, about the diversity and humanity and relatability of queer love and experience. But, more than anything, Call Me By Your Name has made me greedy for even more visibility, for more queer stories, for new and as-yet untold ones to be brought to life on screen. Surely most members of the LGBT community (and indeed the community at large, I hope) will relish Call Me By Your Name, and its aching, alluring depiction of first love. Anyone who’s ever been in love, or ever had their heart broken, should find something in this film to cherish and walk away with and hold on to. But how many will experience it in the intense and personal way I did, as a requiem for a very specific love with a very specific person that I had once but lost, and am sometimes still haunted by? Some, certainly, but likely not the majority of viewers.

But I wish for everyone, every person in the world who watches and loves and appreciates movies, a film that it is for them what Call Me By Your Name is for me. I wish this especially for every queer person, because, like women and people of color, so few of us, even today, are represented in the way we deserve to be, and because, when we are, it means so much more than perhaps it does when a straight white man sees another film made by a straight white man about a straight white man experiencing life and love the way only a straight white man can or does.

I feel confident in and deeply energized by the strides being made in Hollywood towards meaningful diversity of representation. But there is still so, so far to go. There is no more tangible proof of this than the fact that, as many of us predicted but hoped would not come to pass, Call Me By Your Name’s prospects this awards season seem to be slipping more and more each day, in large part because, as several Academy members have made clear, there is a reticence on behalf of voters to celebrate another “gay’ movie when they just celebrated Moonlight last year.

What the Film Academy and its members, and the Film industry, and indeed the world needs to understand immediately is that “gay movies” do not exist, cannot exist, at least in the way they used to. The Boys in the Band, Longtime Companion, and Brokeback Mountain are all excellent movies about gay men. But none of these films, or any other (even Call Me By Your Name), can any longer be considered any sort of authority on what it means to be a gay man, or what life is like for a gay man, or how gay men think and act and feel and experience love.

Call Me By Your Name is a movie about gay love, yes, just as Loving is a movie about interracial love, and The Shape of Water is a movie about interspecies love, and Casablanca is a movie about love between two straight white people. But at their core, these movies are about the same thing. Love, as we all know, can take many different forms, and manifest itself in many different ways. But at the end of the day, the form it takes or the way it manifests itself doesn’t matter. Gay love = straight love = interracial love = intraracial love. Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. It’s all the same.

Academy voters certainly wouldn’t refuse to crown a Best Picture winner about straight white people just because they had done the same thing the year before, or the ten years before, or the 50 years before. So it is utterly unacceptable, in this day and age, to withhold a vote from a deserving film simply on the grounds that it is not about straight white people. In 2018, white and straight and male can no longer be the standard or the norm, in movies or in politics or in anything. Movies about women and queer people and people of color can no longer be considered token or niche, because women and queer people and people of color are no longer token or niche. Our stories are just as important, and just as valuable, and just as worthy of being told as anyone else’s, and the movies and filmmakers who tell those stories are just as deserving of recognition and awards. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not deserve to be sitting in judgment, of films or anything else.

Call Me By Your Name was a gift for me, and a wake-up call. It has inspired to me to be part of the change I want to see in the world, and encouraged me to actively begin doing what I have always wanted to do: create beautiful, powerful narratives about dynamic, interesting, diverse people, especially queer people, and tell those stories on screen. I hope I can take that inspiration and harness it to someday produce something as lovely and impactful as this film is—something that will evoke in someone else what Call Me By Your Name evoked in me. That, I think, is how we move the ball forward, and how we express our gratitude for the films and stories that change and inspire us: by creating new films and stories that will change and inspire others.

For all that Call Me By Your Name has given me, that is the least I could do to say thank you.

xx

JB