The Awkward Celebration and Embrace of the Movie Call Me By Your Name

President Trump. President Clinton. Weiner. O’Reilly. Rose. Lauer. Moore. Simmons. Thomas. Keilor. Franken. Levine. Spacey. Weinstein. Conyers. Singer…

            The list of powerful men who have been charged with impulsively sexually harassing or assaulting men and women is filled with the names of the powerful, rich and famous. It is list of notable notables that goes on and on. The behavior of these men is wrong.  Their style of apology or excuse is shameful. Simply put: To take advantage of someone because of their lack of access to fortune or fame (sic powerlessness) or their rejection of a sexual advance (sic saying No!) is telling about the place and nature of accountability and responsibility, sexual behavior and sexual ethics in our country.

            At the same time there is an awkward irony in the celebration of Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 film adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name. How are this film, and its sophisticated plot getting a pass by the media, earning rave reviews by the likes of The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Esquire, and The Wall Street Journal, when real life men have had their storied careers ended because of their sexual, predatory, and in some cases, ephebophilic behavior?

Call Me By Your Name is the coming of age story about Elio Perlman, a young (17-year old), gay teenager, who falls in love with Oliver, a mid-Twenty something Ph.D. student in Greco-Roman culture. It is a charming but also a wise novel by Andre Aciman.  Acimen’s acuity in capturing the foibles of same-sex love, characterized by this line: “then just once…as you did back then, look me in the face, hold my gaze, and call me by your name” is stunning in its insightfulness.  Aciman's understanding of first love is revealed in the vivid scenes of Elio and Oliver’s relationship; particularly touching and beautiful is his portrayal of the young gay, innocent teenager, Elio who is on the threshold of becoming a man, but who is still as naïve as any teenager his age. The novel and the film strike me as a timely appearance in an America now dominated by widespread allegations of sexual harassment of men against women and men against men--in every arena of life, from Roman Catholicism to Hollywood to the political world, involving men in positions of power. Aciman sensitively explores the parameters (sic boundaries) of intimacy, something too many today know nothing about.  An exploration we desperately need. 

            I am not certain how some journalists can label Call Me By Your Name a tender love story. The novel and now film portray an older man consummating a relationship with a teenage boy. While Elio’s father may “approve” of his son’s relationship with Oliver this story is just that, a fictitious work that attempts to capture how people with same-sex attraction experience love, intimacy and human touch. Such fictitious ruminations do not represent the real world experiences of many LGBT youth. In America alone there are over 400,000 homeless LGBT youth. Clearly these youth do not have parents who are supportive, many of them are minorities, some live in poverty, while still others are rejected by their religion. What if Oliver were a Roman Catholic priest? What if Oliver “the priest” put sun tan lotion on Elio’s back? Acimen’s work would be condemned, likely banned by the Vatican. Instead, Oliver is a doctoral student, who works and studies within the arena of ideas, intellectualism and Greco-Roman history. This does not excuse his behavior: it is never acceptable for an older person to seek sexual relations with a minor.

            When I first read Acimen’s novel I was a young gay man, in my early twenties. I pined for acceptance from a straight world that excluded gay men. It was a time before wireless internet, dating apps, I-Phones and drones. Most gay movies were confined to the “Indie” list, never making it to the silver screen. I longed for attractive men like Arnie Hammer to play gay men with depth of character on television; Will and Grace was just an immature, mass marketed comedy. That entire cast could have been straight and had the same result: churlishness. That Call Me By Your Name is quickly adding more and more movie venues, receiving Oscar buzz, and still more and more press, suggests that a Hollywood making redundant, often-told-already-stories is seeking a new money making genre of films. Beach Rats (2017) Eliza Hittman’s quietly provocative take on gay youth in Brooklyn only recently became available on Amazon. Tom of Finland (2017) Dome Karukoski’s biopic of the Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen received a limited release in America. But for Elio and Oliver there are already calls for a sequel to Call Me By Your Name. Of course, the fantasy of Elio and Oliver together cannot escape the reality of Alimen’s narrative. 

            The celebration and acclaim of the film adaption of Call Me By Your Name is ironic given the correction of sexually predatory behavior by famous and powerful men. Yes, this work is an important step in the advancement of LGBT rights, including more and more visibility by society. Is this film, with its plot about an older man taking advantage of a gay youth the right film to justify the appropriateness of same-sex sexual attraction and same-sex love? Imagine if this film starred Roy Moore and one of his accusers. How would society celebrate the coming of age story about an adult man and teenage girl who find love in Alabama in the 1970s?

            The current landscape of sexual immorality and predatory sexual behavior by men, and its concomitant response by the virtue minded is threatened by the decline of the character of men. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita received critical acclaim, in that book the character is 12. Still important questions were raised about that text and subsequent movies. Does writing about a youth, still underage at 17, make the issue with the boundaries of love, intimacy and sex more palatable, more licit? Isn’t underage still underage? I imagine that most men in society seek integrity, stability and fairness; it is furthermore dangerous to herald the sexual predation of a gay youth by a gay man and to castigate the sexual harassment of straight youth by a straight man. Absurdity: What is life without this?

            The parallel vilification of predatory men and the enthusiastic celebration of Call Me By Your Name is one that historians will one day evaluate. As the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd once asked, Are men necessary?

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