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Posted October 2, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Thin Drama
 
 

Love is Strange: Another Average Film in 2014

My God, 2014 is turning out to be the Year of Mediocre Cinema. Add Ira Sachs’ Love is Strange to the long list of average films that have been released commercially in the United States thus far in 2014.

What we’ve seen very often this year are films with almost no story, a fascination with banality (example: 90 minutes of footage of people puttering around their homes or walking down the street), flaccid directorial style, and ordinary cinematography.

The acting has been reasonably good; it’s the scriptwriting and filmmaking that have been mediocre. Think of it as the YouTube version of cinema. Let’s just compile footage of people.

Almost all the arthouse films I’ve seen recently have had this type of mediocrity or a similar variant of it, including: Magic in the Moonlight, A Most Wanted Man, Boyhood, Only Lovers Left Alive, Locke, Under the Skin, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Quite stunning is the rapturous response that several of these average films, including Love is Strange, have received from critics and from a fairly large segment of the arthouse audience. In America today, we want our arthouse films thin. Bland is the new black.

An interesting counterpoint is that the reverse has happened in television. Intelligent Americans now want their arthouse TV rich in content and intense in style, but their arthouse cinema thin on content and milquetoast in style.

This tendency is getting so entrenched now that it appears audiences expect hollowness in an arthouse film — even require it. With critics repeatedly raving about featherweight films, some audiences have begun to think slightness is a sign of quality!

When I offered this view in other forums recently, people responded with statements like, “You just want there to be more explosions in movies.” I cannot tell you how many times someone has used the word “explosions” when challenging my assessment of current arthouse cinema. As if the two choices we have are banality or explosions.

I don’t want arthouse films to be more like popcorn movies, filled with explosions and CGI. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want arthouse films to have more content — more ideas. That’s what the arthouse is supposed to be, no? A place for art. Deep reflection on reality and the human condition, and then an innovative presentation of these ideas. My model for arthouse cinema is Ingmar Bergman, not Michael Bay.

Lately what I see is small, obvious ideas presented in a flat, pedestrian way. Welcome to the 2014 arthouse.

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In Love is StrangeAlfred Molina and John Lithgow play a Manhattan couple that has been together nearly 40 years. They marry soon after the 2011 legalization of gay marriage in New York.

Molina’s character, George, almost immediately loses his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school — not because he’s gay, which everyone at the school already knew. It’s because his marriage, complete with Facebook pictures circulated among colleagues and clergy, is interpreted by the bishop as a “public pronouncement of a view contrary to Church doctrine,” something prohibited in the employee contract.

The couple goes into financial crisis. They sell their apartment and crash at the homes of friends and family while they look for an apartment and George looks for a new job. The main focus of the film is how difficult it is for them to handle their new surroundings. George bunks with a young couple that has many parties. Lithgow’s character, Ben, stays with his nephew’s family, sleeping in the teenage son’s room.

The nephew’s wife is played by the magnificent Marisa Tomei. It’s tough to see an actor of Tomei’s caliber in a film as slight as this. But I don’t hold it against Tomei for taking the job. She’s got to take work where she can get it. All her character gets to do is to walk around feeling irritated by Ben’s inane banter. She’s a writer and works from home. Ben has almost nothing to do and hovers around, trying to engage in pleasant chitchat. He never says anything of consequence, and neither does she. They just get mildly annoyed by each other. Gripping cinema this is not.

Tomei’s teenage son, Joey, is played by Charlie Tahan (I Am Legend). Joey is also irked by Uncle Ben, but his vexation has deeper and more puzzling roots. That’s why Joey is the most interesting character in the film by far. Tahan’s acting is only adequate, but his character is quite intriguing.

Joey’s best friend, Vlad (played by newcomer Eric Tabach, who gives the best performance in the film) becomes somewhat fond of Uncle Ben and begins modeling for him (fully clothed) when Ben begins a new painting. Like many older gay white men in Manhattan, Ben paints predictable paintings, mostly focused on the male form. Retired housewives paint landscapes; retired gay men paint the male form.

Vlad’s modeling for Ben sends Joey into a fury, for no apparent reason. Is it homophobia? Not in any obvious way. It’s more like jealousy. Vlad has charisma oozing out of every pore. It’s not exactly surprising that he would catch the eye of just about everyone he meets. It must be hard being Vlad’s best friend, watching everyone fall in love with him.

Is there a touch of pedophilia in Ben’s choice of model? I think so, as there is in many of the paintings and sculptures made in the past 2500 years. But there’s not the slightest indication that any serious desire or contact is happening between Vlad and Ben.

The triangle between Ben and the two boys is the only thought-provoking part of Love is Strange. The problem is that the film doesn’t invest much energy in it. If the film had any guts, it would have dug more deeply into this. Meaningful, uncategorizable relationships between adult gay men and teenage boys have been going on for thousands of years, one of the major wellsprings of art.

As usual with an Ira Sachs film, this is hinted at only in a sketchy way. Sachs’ previous film, Keep the Lights On (2012), also focused on a Manhattan gay couple. It had far more content than Love is Strange, but it also suffered from sketchiness. Sachs has ideas, but it doesn’t appear that he likes to explore them in a sustained way. He likes to hint at an idea and then move on to other things.

Sketchiness is a major problem in the arthouse today. Imagine a painter drawing a sketch of a painting but never turning the sketch into a painting. Sachs and most of his arthouse peers today have difficulty going from the sketch stage to the painting stage.

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Finally, I feel obliged as a gay Manhattanite to address the depiction of my brethren. Depicting minorities as victims is of course a long story-telling tradition, and it’s largely based on fact. Like other minorities, gays have suffered a tremendous amount in America and in most areas of the country continue to suffer.

But to depict white, college-educated gay men living in midtown Manhattan in the 21st century as victims is an enormous stretch. White gays today practically run Manhattan. I’d be more inclined to believe a story of a homophobe in Manhattan today feeling oppressed and marginalized.

A white gay man fired from a midtown Manhattan school for marrying his lifelong partner, another white gay man? All they’d have to do is hire a Manhattan gay lawyer, and there are tens of thousands of those, most of whom would take a case like this for free. One press conference and the heavens would rain down fury on the Catholic school trying to fire a white gay man for marrying.

Every Manhattan private school would then make an offer to this gay Music teacher with a substantial salary bump and a signing bonus. The school that succeeded in hiring him would then hold a press conference to tout its liberal bona fides.

Oppressed white gays in midtown Manhattan? Please. The Victimization School of Gay Filmmaking has to be rethought if the subject is white Manhattanites.


William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.