April 26, 2020
Some of my friends have regular family movie nights with their kids. In this house, we’re lucky if we get in one 22- minute episode a week of “Schitt’s Creek,” and even then, our oldest boycotts it, for reasons only known to himself.
But if you can’t have family movie nights during a lockdown, when all five of you are living under the same roof again like some kind of frigging miracle, then you are truly a lost cause. So we watched “Casablanca” together last week (my choice). This week, our oldest — yes, the “Schitt’s Creek” boycotter — wanted his turn. He picked the 2017 film, “Call Me By Your Name.”
It’s a film about a 17-year-old boy who falls into a love affair with the 24-year-old male student who has come study with his father for the summer. The story is set in northern Italy in 1983. The countryside is green and lush. The home where the family gracefully resides has a spareness and classicism that feels almost pre-industrial; in one scene, just before there’s a blackout, the father and the son are listening to the mother read a book aloud.
In short, there is a romance to the entire movie that makes it feel as though it’s been pulled out of time, and hovers in the ether of eternity.
Except, there’s that date — the summer of 1983.
It meant nothing to our children, but to my husband and myself, it was unmistakable. It was the last moment of innocence for gay men. After a long history of repression, open love seemed like a possibility, for some if not for all. But in a blink, the AIDS epidemic would descend, blanketing them in a terror they could not, in the summer of 1983, even begin to imagine.
Spoiler alert: this next part discusses the last scene of the movie. If you haven’t seen it and you want to, you might want to stop here (though personally I think the magic of the movie lies not so much in the destination as in the journey).
It’s wintertime; the family, who is Jewish, lights Hanukkah candles as snow falls softly outside. Inside, the 17-year-old, Elio, sits in front of a fire, tears rolling in slow succession down his cheeks. He’s just learned that his older lover is engaged to marry a woman, but the man has told him to feel fortunate, because Elio’s parents welcomed and validated the summer love affair between the boy and the young man. As he looks into the fireplace, I imagined that he was thinking about the future, and what it might hold for him.
The viewer stares and stares at this hopeful face, as the credits begin to roll on by. All I could think was that the future would come bearing horrors that seemed impossible in this cozy, gauzy moment.
Who knows what I would have thought in those moments, had I seen the film six months ago? Even three months ago? The AIDS crisis felt more relevant that evening than it had in decades. I remembered that, by the time I arrived at college, in the fall of 1986, I was terrified of catching the virus from casual sex — and I was a straight girl. I recalled 1994, when my then-fiancee worked as a resident at the LA County General Hospital, and how the wards were filled with dying AIDS patients. Then, about a year later, the first protease inhibitors came on the market, and everything changed.
Everything changed — after ten years.
I looked at that boy, gazing into the fire, a dreamy smile on his lips despite the wet gloss on his cheeks, and I thought of myself on New Year’s Day. We had our annual NYD potluck that morning. The house was filled to the brim with friends and family. Everyone brought something from home and casually lay it on the dining room table — that is, when they could find a bit of space. We all ate my homemade chili from the same crockpot in the kitchen.
We couldn’t imagine it any other way. But here we are, and we all want to know so badly how much longer — how much longer! — this will go on.
The gay men of the 1980s, when they understood the relentless nature of the plague boring down on their community, had no idea when it would end. A decade or more would have seemed unbearable.
And it was, but there was no choice.
We’re all trying so hard to end this thing, so we can get back to our lives. But as the movie reminded me, they couldn’t tell the future. And neither can we.