“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty, and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything - what a waste!”
In the emotional last act of Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, Professor Perlman (a ridiculously un-Oscar-nominated Michael Stuhlbarg) says a lot of things while trying to soothe his son Elio’s (Timothee Chalamet) broken heart. But it’s that line above that always flips my sobbing-switch from zero to sixty. Who hasn’t felt that tug-of-war between putting ourselves out there and shutting ourselves off from the world? “Don’t kill it with the joy you’ve felt,” Elio’s father exclaims (thereby sending my sobbing up into the stratosphere).
This timeless lesson felt especially relevant last week, thanks—unexpectedly—to two Disney offerings: Luca and Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Centering on the close friendship between two young sea-monster boys in Italy, the former could be read as a metaphorical queer story (with big shades of Guadagnino’s film to boot). The latter features a close bond between two hot men, so naturally, fan ships set sail, imagining the two superhero characters are off-screen lovers.
That spurred Falcon and the Winter Soldier star Anthony Mackie to make some perhaps well-meaning but definitely mangled comments about the difficulty that actor sees in telling stories about heterosexual male friendships in 2021. Mackie, who went out of his way to call homosexuality “pure and beautiful,” nevertheless seemed to imply that straight men can’t just hang out with each other and be affectionate anymore without people thinking they’re gay. A nightmare scenario! That baton then got passed to Twitter, where a viral tweet from @pegobry stated baldly:
Seems harder and harder to deny that the normalization of homosexuality has killed intimate male friendships.— PEG (@pegobry) June 20, 2021
That tweet got rightly pounced on for placings the onus of the majority’s self-perceived failings on a minority of people. But like Professor Perlman before me, I see this as an opportunity for learning. Shutting ourselves off isn’t the answer - it’s only through openness that we’ll make it anywhere. Don’t make yourselves feel nothing, straight men! Feel everything!
“Is it better to speak or die?” That’s the question raised in a fairy tale that Elio’s mother (a ridiculously un-Oscar-nominated Amira Casar) reads to him at Call Me By Your Name’s midpoint. I ask it of us today - bottling up ourselves, not speaking, is death. It’s clear where I fall with respect to this conundrum: if we don’t speak, we die. Queer people have spent generations dying in the closet, dying in the streets, and there’s no going back to that now.
And yet a tension remains in popular culture, representing as it does in many ways the repressed mindset of our culture at large, that says that there is something odious in projecting gayness onto anything not explicitly labeled as such. You can have the Falcon and the Winter Soldier grinding each other’s knees into each other’s crotches but they’re just buddies goofing and nobody should read into it; you can have little animated Luca and his mer-pal Alberto tearfully embracing at a train station in an almost shot-for-shot re-do of a similar scene between the lovers in Call Me By Your Name but hey they’re kids. How dare we make assumptions!
As if gay kids don’t exist! We’re not officially gay until we start rubbing our “knees” together, I guess. We’re again reduced to sex acts, and not allowed all of our full humanity. All of those confusingly emotional bonds I made with other boys before I knew what was happening don’t exist in the context of pop culture because to say so would somehow spoil our concept of the “innocence” of childhood, which leaves no space for people like me. And it’s not just to the detriment of people like me - to run in terror from anything but the straight path. Even just by implication, harms everyone. Room made for fear is room taken from better things.
The first time I saw Call Me By Your Name I left the theater in a daze. I doubled over on the street, the wind taken out of me—I’d seen a lot of gay movies in my life before that but somehow this one felt different. I felt seen in a way I’d never felt seen before. Sure there were plot specifics about my first love that Guadagnino & Co. put on-screen. Chiefly though, I grew up poor and without supportive parents, and so Elio’s experience for the first time showed in an unfiltered way what The Movies were made to show: it took my emotional reality and idealized it, made it bigger, more beautiful, concentrated into its purest form. It felt like one hundred years of cinematic storytelling finally being slapped into service of speaking to me and me alone, everybody else be damned.
Of course, everybody else wasn’t damned—the movie made good money and got some deserved Oscar nominations including Best Picture and a win for Best Adapted Screenplay. But more than that it seemed to speak to a lot of people of a lot of stripes, all who felt seen and moved by it. It wasn’t just gay men who found something. It turns out our experiences do have things to say outwards to all sorts. Because we’re not just what is happening when a camera pans out a window onto an orchard of fruit trees—our loves and intimacies and life experiences are as universal as any.
When Pixar dropped the trailer Luca a few months back, a lot of us immediately felt that ol’ Elio tickle again. Here was the story of two boys, one slightly older, who become fast friends across the length of one summer in sun-dappled and shimmering Italy. Somebody online even slapped Sufjan Stevens’ Oscar-nominated song “Mystery of Love” onto the trailer, and it fit like a peach.
Would Pixar, subsidiary of Disney, the biggest entertainment corporation in the world, name the love that dare not speak its name in this wee childhood entertainment? Well of course not, and they sure didn’t. Luca’s director Enrico Casarosa quickly gave an interview to EW, where he stated that any overlap between the films was definitely not on purpose— that this was just his simple semi-autobiographical tale of boy-on-boy friendship. Then, Disney released a featurette to double down on the platonic narrative. Behold how many times they say “friendship!”
Nevertheless, the film—full of emeralds and aquamarines and Vespa-shenanigans that would have looked gorgeous on the big screen—was shuffled off to Disney+, as if the Mouse House might have feared where they saw the conversation heading and wanted to cut it off at the pass. (Those alleged lesbians in Finding Dory and Toy Story 4 were trouble enough!)
Whether intentional or not, the truth is that these two films, Luca and Call Me By Your Name, are having a conversation with one another—in the way that all queer stories do, and in the way that such stories are always communicating with the broader human narrative. Our specifics aren’t wholly outside of everyone’s; we just take a slightly different path through the same atoms. So when it comes down to it, I honestly don’t care about original intent. This conversation is just there, and we should speak of it, lest we die.
Like the “train station goodbye” scene there’s a visual conversation the two films are having that could be seen from outer space, but I’m more interested in looking at the ways in which both films filter the queer experience out toward the universal. Yes that means you too, Straight Guys! You know these things too!
Here are five ways Luca reflects Call Me By Your Name:
Books and the “Best Little Boy”
The gifting of a book is of great consequence in both films. In Call Me By Your Name Elio gifts a book of poetry to Marzia, the girl he’d been romancing before Oliver (Armie Hammer) struts into the picture. In Luca, it’s the flipside—Luca’s new girl pal Giulia, seeing Luca’s burgeoning excitement over learning about the literal Universe, gifts him with an astronomy book.
Both Elio & Luca are characters that are tied to a deep-seated and enthusiastic love of education and knowledge. And both films, in tying this characteristic to the third-wheel girl who exists outside of the main male-male relationship, tie this projection of a learned self to Luca & Elio’s outer person. While not in any way a false self, it’s still a compartmentalized presentation of who they are—the one they want the world to see.
And that’s a trope known to many a gay man, myself included, who made a big show of all our time being taken up with books and school and writing music—“Sorry Ma, no time for a social life!” Often referred to as “The Best Little Boy in the World” syndrome it’s by no means exclusively gay, but it’s gay enough that we recognize it. The journey of Luca seems to be its starting point. It’s all about him putting his friendship with Alberto in the past and heading off to school—while Elio’s represents this a little further down the road, as he’s ready to put down the books and turn thoughts into action. But it’s a journey I sure felt in my belly at both ends.
Escaping to the big city
Speaking of journeys, both films show how queer people often have to escape the small and suffocating places where they were raised in order to truly express themselves and, in that admittedly corny turn of phrase, live their truths. Alberto literally drags Luca onto dry land to show him who he is under those scales, and once his parents catch wind of his land inclinations they threaten to send him even deeper into the ocean to live with his creepy uncle. So instead he and Alberto run off even farther, to the big shimmering seaside town of Porto Rosso, where they can ride Vespas together into the sunset.
Elio’s home-life is far more understanding than Luca’s is, but it’s still necessary in Call Me By Your Name’s last act for him and Oliver to escape Elio’s parents’ house and go into the city so they can openly run in the streets and dance in each other’s arms, giving them their happiest, freest moments together, out from under everyone else’s watchful eyes. (Malfada is watching!) And, in a similar vein to Professor Perlman’s speech, what Luca’s grandmother says at that film’s end fits for both characters and their searches for honest selfhood:
“Some people will never be able to accept him. But some people will. And he seems to know how to find the good ones.”
Since I brought up Professor Perlman again, it’s got to be said that you really can’t understate what that character and what his big speech meant for queer audiences—especially gay men, many of whom have had fraught relationships with their fathers and their concepts of what it means to “be a man.” The professor’s idealized acceptance is important, yes, but it was really his threading that through with his own experiences and confusions and loss, his tying it to great truths about what every one of us looking to be loved goes through, that really brought it home.
Fatherhood is important in Luca as well but less so with the main character, whose father is distracted but generally good-natured. In Luca the fatherhood narrative of note is all about Alberto, whose father abandoned him once they got to land, and then the bond that he forms with Giulia’s great big fisherman father, Massimo. Alberto spends the entire film hiding the hurt he feels about being abandoned, feigning an overly-enthusiastic self-reliance, until the pain all comes pouring out of him after Luca (momentarily) betrays him. (And on that note: there’s nothing gayer than having your best friend throw you under the gay bus in front of bullies.)
One of the most touching moments in the Pixar film comes right after this. When learning Alberto has run off, Massimo immediately grabs his coat and goes to find the boy. Before then, the care developing between the two had been spied mainly on the sidelines, but there’s no denying after it that in each other Massimo and Alberto are filling a profound need. One which makes the ending, with the fisherman’s full embrace of his adopted sea-monster son and with Alberto deciding to stay in Porto Rosso instead of going to school, truly moving, instead of it reading as an obstacle just slapped up to keep the boys from too happy a happy ending. Like Call Me By Your Name, Luca aims its sights squarely on eliminating the hurt between boys who are a little different and their Dads, whose perceived notions need to be tossed overboard.
“The River Flowing”
There’s something about Italy, that funny boot sticking out into the sea, that resonates and reverberates in our memories across time, giving the place a timelessness that feels eternal. The myths from thousands of years ago seem to still quiver in the air, as if you could cross and uncross your eyes and there Roman Forum would stand pristine before you. It’s one of those places where the ruins of the ancient past stand alongside the electric wires of the present and that relationship manages to makes sense.
Even if both Luca and Call Me By Your Name exist as markers of their individual decades—the 1960s and the 1980s respectively—they still both do so in a timeless way. The aura of what it says on the clock falls off, away, and the movement of us human beings (or sea monsters) through the world seems on a separate plane. Call it the queering of the clock, but both films make it their project to stand on the outside of the day-to-day looking in. Both Elio and Alberto have secret places where they invite their new male friends, and both films feature relics of other times or places drifting down into or being dredged up from the sea.
Far from being happenstance this thread tying a queer present to a queer past is one that seems to me fundamental to a queer state of being; of a longing for a history that’s been lost, buried beneath the waves, washed away. We tie ourselves to historical figures, to Plato and Alexander the Great, to the Hadrian statue that Professor Perlman pulls up out of the lake which Elio and Oliver both caress. That push-pull between above and below the tides of history, of the past and the present threatening to consume us—what some bad-actors might apparently call “the normalization of homosexuality” and of whatever the state was before this—it’s always there. We can’t go back. And yet without a history who are we?
As Elio’s mother reads the fairy tale about the knight who must decide to “speak or die” to his true love, she and her husband giggle at an inside joke about the word “friendship” translated into German—“Freundschaft.” We’re not privy to the specifics of this joke but, in my dirtier imagination, I can’t help but tie their laugh to the way they both emphasize the word “shaft” — Elio’s mum definitely seems to me the “loves a dirty joke” type of fun lady.
Still later on, when Professor Perlman in his big speech keeps referring to what Elio and Oliver felt for one another as “friendship,” that earlier laugh echoes. Once a shield for safety, there can’t help but be a sting now, post the terrifying-to-some “homosexuality normalization,” when our relationships are euphemized as “just friends.” Our gay uncles were just “roommates,” and with that entire gay histories were wiped clean.
We’ve spent so much time looking for ourselves in between the lines of the history books, digging up the half-rotted statues from beneath the sea, that we cling tight to every scrap that checks off a few boxes. A big blue shirt or a gramophone weighted with so much meaning they can hardly keep it together.
Still this is not a thing to be afraid of, not in itself. You might as well try to erase “North” from the compass, trying to argue against queer readings of the human experience. These things have been and will always be there. All we queer folk are asking is for others to open their eyes a little wider so they can see all of the lines and colors of the world a little clearer; let the light of other lives in. That in itself it’s a beautiful gift; the greatest one at our disposal.
Because how much of what I have just written, for all of its gay specificities, remains nevertheless true to your experiences? Who didn’t try to fit in at school, want to see more of the world; who didn’t feel as if they were letting down a parent or that they don’t comprehend their place in the world? And who hasn’t felt the white hot heat of closeness when somebody understood us and saw all of that back? Here’s what you do when you find a friend. You grab those people and you pull them close to you for as long as you have, because what is the other option? What a waste? That’s no option at all. Speak, tell everybody you love them all of the time, because dying is not an option—it’s an inevitability. And all we have is now, now, now forever.
Image sources (in order of posting): Disney+, Focus Features,