By David Greven.
An exchange I had with an older, straight, white academic in Film Studies serves as an instructive example of a particular phenomenon that I will call the Miller Effect. Hearing me express admiration for Ang Lee’s 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, which I consider a masterpiece, he stared at me incredulously before saying, “But surely you read the essay on the film by D. A. Miller?” Miller’s essay on Brokeback in Film Quarterly took a view of Lee’s film characteristic of the critic’s response to texts generally, especially if they happen to feature gay/queer content. Miller’s essay on Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, a 2017 film adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel, closely echoes the one he wrote on Brokeback. In both essays, Miller painstakingly strives to expose the hidden homophobic logic at the core of films that purport to be about same-sex love and desire. That Lee is a straight man and Guadagnino an openly gay one doesn’t matter. Both of their films belong to a tradition that Miller dubs the “MGM,” or mainstream gay movie, and this “exasperating tradition” includes the Merchant-Ivory film Maurice (1987) and Moonlight (2016). James Ivory not only directed Maurice but also wrote the screenplay adaptation of Call Me By Your Name, so he – another openly gay man whose life partner Ismail Merchant produced his movies – figures prominently in this regrettable series.
It’s entirely predictable that Miller would be hostile to a movie like Call Me By Your Name, which, like Maurice, Brokeback, and Moonlight, wears its sincere heart on its sleeve. It also makes the highly troubling maneuver of foregrounding humanist values, largely considered suspect if not altogether passé in our current academic context. Miller argues that the MGM pursues three main objectives: to promote a sympathetic response to gay people by enshrining gay male love; to achieve this goal by diminishing the importance and especially the visibility of gay male sex; and “to be a thing of beauty – beauty so overpowering, or overdone, that (provided the other objectives are met) it persuades viewers they are watching a masterpiece, ‘gay sex or not.’”
Since I happen to love all of the movies Miller denounces as “exasperating” in these ways, Call Me By Your Name very much included, I find his review unpersuasive and frustrating, embedded in its own hostilities while clearly the work of an intelligent, incisive commentator. My larger concern, however, is with the Miller Effect. Like those of other prominent gay male queer theorists heavily influenced, like Miller, by the works of the French social historian Michel Foucault – David Halperin, Michael Warner, and others – Miller’s positions are received as emblematic of attitudes within queer theory.
I’ve learned much from all of these critics over the years, and their work has certainly made my own possible. Nevertheless, the education they’ve given me – and, yes, I’m riffing on the title of Miller’s Call Me review, “Elio’s Education,” in reference to the film’s young protagonist – has been an often dispiriting and rebellion-inducing one. Something strange happened within the history of gay male criticism of the arts from the 1980s forward. If gay men had once been champions of beauty, aesthetic sophistication, and rigorous craft, from the 80s forward they became unyieldingly adamant arbiters of what counts as appropriate representations not only of gay male sexuality but of sexuality itself.
A key dimension of this fastidious approach, remarkably consistent in the critical sensibilities of academics like Miller, Halperin, and Warner, is that anything that smacks of personal investment – emotional ties, personal and mutual – must be evacuated from any depiction of sex and sexuality. For to include the emotional life in sex, particularly gay male sex, is to be complicit in the gargantuan heteronormative project that strips gay men of sex. Moreover, to imagine that emotions are part of sexuality is to reveal complicity with liberal-humanist fantasies of the autonomous subject. Foucault had shown us, had he not, that the sexual subject was a modern invention, an outgrowth of ingenious forms of social discipline that chiefly focused on the regulation of the body and sex. “Sexuality,” pioneered as a concept by Freud and psychoanalysis, is the umbrella term for an entire host of disciplinary classifications and terminologies of the new science of sexual discipline that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century.
Foucault’s ideas, widely disseminated since the 1980s in American academia, are one thing; the contentions of Foucauldian critics who interpreted his work in idiosyncratic ways and promulgated their interpretations as dogma are another. Miller’s reading of Call Me By Your Name reflects the same kind of surveillance-culture thinking that informs his signature study of the 1980s, The Novel and the Police (1988), and his 1990 essay “Anal Rope” on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film. (1)
To approach a movie like Call Me By Your Name the way that Miller does is to read the film hostilely from the outset. It is to impose a series of political stipulations on a film, which in this case revolve around what does and does not count as appropriate gay/queer content. Call Me By Your Name makes the mistake of letting gay male “sex degenerate into love,” to borrow Halperin’s language. Miller makes his cynical contempt for the subject of love among gay men explicit from the first paragraph of his review. But what is especially characteristic of the Miller approach is his thesis that, far from merely being poltroonish, or simply reserved, about the depiction of gay male sex, the MGM actively seeks to “limit the visibility of gay male sex.” In the scene in which the teenage protagonist, the seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and the twenty-four-year-old graduate student he lusts after, Oliver (Armie Hammer), finally have sex for the first time, the director cuts to a nighttime shot of the peach orchard outside of Elio’s bedroom. It’s impossible for Miller to imagine that, perhaps, the film is employing a certain level of decorum here to frustrate our appetites for full-on consummation in a manner that is commensurate with its larger, painstakingly maintained themes and aesthetics of longing to the point of deprivation. Rather than some kind of disciplinary refusal to allow us the pleasure of same-sex sex, the decision to cut away here is an artistic choice meant to convey a larger thematic.
The entire movie inhabits a sense of gathering, restless sexual desire, and longing, on Elio’s part. A prodigiously gifted, intellectual young man who plays more than one musical instrument, speaks several languages fluidly, and is remarkably beautiful to boot, Elio is both well-prepared and ill-equipped for the significance of his overwhelming, frustrating desire for the tall, strongly made, blond Oliver. Surrounded by a loving, dynamically intellectual family – an archeology professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg); a sensually beautiful Italian mother (Amira Casar), an adept on-the-spot translator who has inherited the villa; and, really a part of the family as well, Mafalda (Vanda Capriolo), the housekeeper and cook – Elio greets Oliver, the latest of Professor Perlman’s graduate students, to spend the summer with the family at their Italian villa, as “the usurper.” What Oliver will do is usurp Elio’s defensive, self-protective heart.
The opprobrium that middlebrow, or seemingly middlebrow, movies, especially those by Merchant-Ivory, generate has been a longstanding one. Miller expresses scorn for the type of erudite, elevated high culture atmosphere of Merchant-Ivory movies, marveling contemptuously at how learned the Perlmans, and by extension, Oliver are. This may give one pause coming from the erudite Miller, whose objects of study – Eliot, Austen – exemplify high culture. But Miller reserves his chief scorn for Perlman père, in whose long climactic speech to the broken-hearted Elio the father comforts the son and affirms his experiences with Oliver:
These enlightened parents believe they can curate their son’s sexuality in the same way they must have chosen his piano master, or seen to his French lessons. So of course now, the father’s idea of loving care is to bury his son’s homosexual experience under his own beautiful idea of it. Like the closet case he admits to being, he does everything he can to embellish – and thereby desexualize – the relation with Oliver. “You two had a beautiful friendship,” he affirms, going on to lift a phrase I once wrote for a personal ad: “maybe more than a friendship.” A reference to Montaigne and La Boétie sets the high-cultural seal on this transfiguration of the sexual relation into an amicable relationship; and the father’s faux coming out – “something held me back or stood in the way” – is just more holding back.
To be sure, the father’s speech deserves unpacking; it’s an artful, stylized speech with formal language (“I am not such a parent,” Samuel Perlman tells his son, noting that most parents would have at best discouraged Elio from engaging in his relationship with Oliver). But the majority of gay viewers I’ve spoken with about this speech have found it intensely moving – and I think this response has to do with the speech’s novelty. It’s at heart a fantasy of what a queer person would be able to count on experiencing if the world were consistently just – if gay experience was no less affirmed and sanctioned than heterosexual experience, if queer people were free to pursue their desires without fear. My own working-class, immigrant, mixed-race parents certainly would never have given me such a benediction at that age, and in this I’m far from alone.
What High Queer Theory, which Miller emblematizes, specializes in is a critique of liberalism as pernicious, the fanged menace beneath the smiling surface of middle-class politesse and “tolerance.” Foucault taught us only too well to see in the seeming benedictions of normalizing society a crushing program of control. Though a Freudian, I have a lot of sympathy for this Foucauldian outlook – at times. The problem is that Foucault as a centrally defining guide is a catastrophe for gay and queer subjects, despite the hype. Foucault’s work, as Graham Robb has shown, has denied, or has been used to deny, gay/queer history. Miller’s essay, with an almost admirable explicitness, expresses the defining logic of his version of queer theory, the strict separation of sex/uality from the emotional life.
The normalization of queer life and sex/uality, especially in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage, does indeed concern one. The hygienic, tourism-affirming banalization of New York City demonstrates how costly the results of normalization can be. But not all forms of queer subjectivity seek out depersonalized sexual experiences as the height of experiential queerness. Some queer people want, value, and pursue lifelong romantic relationships and love. For some reason, the idea of same-sex love became a bugbear for queer theory, which has cast it as a form of capitulation to and hapless imitation of heterosexual society. One can debate about how very recent the invention of love really is, in cultural terms, but insofar as people pursue their romantic and sexual desires and hopes, the theoretical has its place, the experiential another.
Call Me By Your Name does something very few movies do – it puts you in the mind, heart, and especially body of a young man desiring an older man. In terms of content, though not of style, it most closely resembles André Téchiné’s work, such as his film Wild Reeds (1994). But that film focused on sexual desire and love (both frustrated) between teen males, whereas Call Me By Your Name foregrounds a teen male’s lustful love for an older man. As the object of Elio’s affections, Armie Hammer – who came into prominence playing humorously eerie, buff twins at Harvard in David Fincher’s Facebook-origin movie The Social Network – is perfectly cast. Tall and supple and strong and blond, remote yet sardonic, he embodies an ideal of American manhood made more interesting still by the fact that he’s also, like the Perlmans, Jewish. In many ways, the film is an exploration of distinct styles of masculinity and of one particular style of masculinity’s ardent fascination with and desire for another.
This holds true for films such as Maurice, Brokeback Mountain, and Moonlight. All of these films offer important and sustained critiques of the politics of masculinity. Miller leaves this dimension of the films unexplored. For example, in Brokeback, Lee devises a brilliant, allegorical shot in which the taciturn, lonely, protagonist Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is framed against a nighttime sky exploding with fireworks during a Fourth of July celebration after Ennis has punched a man for making derisive comments about his family at a patriotic picnic. The shot forces us to consider Ennis not just as closeted gay man but as a version of the American male generally understood, as violent and inarticulate as he is closeted and suffering.
Similarly, in Call Me By Your Name’s infamous peach scene, Oliver exudes an overpowering male arrogance when he openly defies Elio’s wishes and eats the peach that Elio has used as a sexual toy, orgasming into it one hot shady afternoon in his bedroom. “It’s sick,” Elio self-reprimands when Oliver discovers the semen-filled fruit. “Want to see something really sick?” Oliver asks as he meticulously begins to taste and then eat the fruit as Elio, almost unable to express his protest verbally, flails at his lover, saying “Why are you doing this to me?” before collapsing into mournful tears. Oliver’s physicality and formidable will inform his nearly intractable refusal to respond to Elio’s evident distress. It’s a display of masculine arrogance that nearly vanquishes Elio before he can finally make Oliver feel the force of his shame and desperation. The scene calls our attention to how deeply vulnerable young skinny plaintive Elio really is – that he’s playing a man’s game of sexual dominance without yet being a grown man himself.
The peach scene indicates the movie’s approach to its subject matter. It’s a scene that references sexual activity and appears to be a prelude to other sorts, this time between Elio and Oliver. But it’s actually more like a dissection of their power roles, shifting and contested; certainly, it’s a portrait of Elio’s anguish within the fulfilment of his transgressive fantasy of possessing this older, seemingly unattainable man for himself. The shock of the scene’s blush-inducing content conveys the inherently volatile, controversial nature of the film’s subject matter. It’s Death in Venice from Tadzio’s point of view, a Death in Venice in which nobody dies. Elio’s vulnerability and Oliver’s volatility, at the heart of their sexual and emotional dynamic, feature prominently in the film’s exploration of precarious desire.
But Miller will be appeased by nothing short of “the unlovely spectacle of blood, shit, and pain that is the initiation of Elio’s desiring asshole.” Miller wants the money shot and then some, even if such graphic content would deviate from Guadagnino’s plangent, Jamesian decorum. Certainly, there is a place for depictions of graphic sexual content between males in a movie, as well as an impatiently registered demand for one. But this film about unsatisfied desire’s numbing duration before satisfaction occurs decides not to make satisfaction its chief focus. (Ivory’s screenplay was actually much more sexually graphic than the film version, it should be noted.) I believe that this reflects the filmmaker’s attempt to negotiate several competing interests – making, indeed, an MGM and finding a way to get such tricky subject matter on the screen. But more importantly, Guadagnino chooses to emphasize the emotional intensity and rapture of the men’s physical contact, artfully conveyed in the shot of the men looking into each other’s eyes from an angle at which their faces are upside down. We’re invited to contemplate this disorganization of their physical features as complementary to their newfound physical intimacy. If, as the title commands, they call each other by the other’s names, their bodies reflect this blurring and merging of identities, as it becomes harder to distinguish their styles of masculinity, their discrete faces and bodies.
Queer theory has emphasized the nonnormative, resisting conventions in gender and sex both. But Miller still wants, safely and explicitly achieved, the conventional cynosure of gay male sex, “the distinctive gay male sex act,” which is presumably sodomy. First, this is a film in which orality, not anality, dominates (Oliver’s slurping up of soft-boiled eggs; his impromptu performances of oral sex on Elio; Elio’s sensual ingestion of stone fruits).
Second, the film’s most achingly, overpoweringly sexual scene involves not the anus but feet. Oliver systematically cracks each of Elio’s toes in order – so the older man says – to soothe his pain over a nosebleed. Elio’s breath hisses out with each crack, but he submits; it’s sweetly sadomasochistic. There are many ways of depicting the erotic onscreen; doesn’t this one deserve recognition? (To my mind, the heterosexual sex scenes in the film, which Miller claims are far more graphic than its homosexual ones, are rather run-of-the-mill and also not particularly graphic.)
Call Me By Your Name transplants the viewer to an alternate realm that resembles those in the works of Henry James and Edith Wharton, in which the privileged speak in ornately complex and art-conscious ways and pursue their desires in a manner both unfettered and constrained. Not everyone likes movies like this; Pauline Kael made a career from her dislike of the Merchant-Ivory middlebrow. But I can think of few movies that so exquisitely convey a teenager’s sexual and emotional hunger for an adult. How can this be anything other than a volatile, challenging subject? Guadagnino, Chalamet (in an astonishingly open, transparent, finely modulated performance for the ages), Hammer, and the rest of the cast rise to the subject with grace and finesse. In its rapturous immediacy and the rigor of its design, the movie transcends the confines of Miller’s constrictive, inevitable demands.
1) See also Williams, Tony, “What Shall Remain Unseen?: Hidden Hitchcock by D. A. Miller,” Film International, September 12th, 2016, http://filmint.nu/?p=19291.
David Greven is Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. His books on film include Intimate Violence: Hitchcock, Sex, and Queer Theory (Oxford, 2017), Ghost Faces: Hollywood and Post-Millennial Masculinity (SUNY, 2016), Psycho-Sexual: Male Desire in Hitchcock, De Palma, Scorsese, and Friedkin (Texas, 2013), and Representations of Femininity in American Genre Cinema: The Woman’s Film, Film Noir, and Modern Horror (Palgrave, 2011).