Love Is Strange
Not a review, just reflections
Spoilers galore: if you haven't seen the movie Love Is Strange yet please go! Then come compare notes with me.
Ira Sachs, the filmmaker, spoke to the audience after the screening I attended. He said the film was about generations and family. I saw those things but I also saw light and dignity.
Light in the sense of charm and levity is what Ben used to get through life. And light suffused his vision: scenes of him painting the Manhattan skyline from a Brooklyn rooftop evoked the big sky of the great plains lit by the warmth of the Hudson Valley. Dignity is what George had: a quiet independence that got him through even the toughest moments. He was often shot from behind so that all we saw was his massive back bearing up when he was sad or frightened.
So many scenes had few or no words. The underscoring, all Chopin, mostly piano but with an occasional touch of orchestration, spun out long sequences of pure emotion. I loved the unhurried quality of the screenplay, which allowed moments to be savored.
The contrast between the two men, one reticent and one voluble, underpinned the movie from the opening sequence of their getting ready for their wedding through the extended date night: concert, bar visit, and farewell at the subway station. They were so natural and comfortable and honest with each other, discussing music and gay history and their individual histories with sexual exclusivity or freedom. George registered both his acceptance and a touch of sadness without judgment at Ben's adventures.
Natural and honest unfortunately did not extend to the presentation of George as music teacher. His Catholic School choir sang Cantate Domino (good choice) while he flailed his arms in a way that did not suggest he had mastered conducting! And I think I heard him say something about the difference between a half step and a semi tone during his piano teaching scene (WTF?). That scene mostly showed him in a state of distraction, which may excuse his listen, lecture vaguely, have the student play it again teaching style. But his monologue over the repeated Chopin was a marvel -- was it a letter or email he sent to all the kids he had been exiled from teaching or was it what he wished he could send? It managed to be a powerful statement about honesty without in any way seeming to be an attack.
I do not paint. So I wonder if painters had the same level of detailed reaction to Ben's painting that I did to George's musicianship! (and the level of music consulting that did or did not go into the writing and directing) (and this is a minor issue in a terrific movie!)
One feature of the screenplay was the way that plot events were carefully set up and then allowed to recede into background. That way when something happened there was a why but it didn't hit me over the head with a hammer. Why are these people stepping up to house the homeless couple -- oh yeah, they all swore to uphold them in their love at the wedding! Why does the story suddenly take a turn for the worse. Oh right, the orthopedist made a suggestion that was obviously ignored.
Ben and George, forced to find separate refuges with friends and family but finding those refuges to be cramped, undignified, maddening, also find moments of tender communication: George rushing out in the rain in Manhattan and throwing himself sobbing into Ben's arms in Brooklyn... and the two of them cradling each other in a tiny lower bunk.
They are not young. They are not gorgeous. They are two older people in love and they are both men. So weird and wonderful to see something other than airbrushed hunks and starlets in a movie! The generation below them consists of Ben's distant nephew and his very present wife, who take Ben in, and the gay cops downstairs, who take George in. The gay cops run a party pad and the scenes in their place were so crowded and confusing that I didn't get a very detailed sense of them as individuals. Ben shares the room of his grand-nephew, who runs the gamut of reactions to this invasion from sullen to furious. He has a weird friendship with a Russian boy who dominates him and also poses for Ben to paint. There is a fair amount of discomfort about all of these things but they end up as the cocoon state from which the boy will emerge in the final two scenes of the film, suddenly taking the lead.
The other leading role is played by the city. The New York that Ben and George inhabit stopped existing decades ago, but due to rent stabilization and the possibility of buying for an insider price when buildings go coop they have lived for years in a manner that no-one can now afford. Greenwich Village. Piano and paintings. Losing the income to pay for it threatens not just their ability to be together but their continued presence in the artistic bohemia of the past. The audience at the Merkin Hall concert they attend is mostly older people because younger people cannot move here the way they used to. Some still do, crammed into tiny spaces in outer boroughs. But a painter and a music teacher in a nice downtown apartment? That stopped happening about 1980. And the only possible salvation is the random and magical offer of taking over a rent stabilized lease: that is the movie's Deus ex machina! But the Deus grants his boon to some and not others and George is left alone in a wonderful location to enjoy the rest of his life in his city as best he can. I hope all the people who vowed to support him and Ben in their love will be present for him going forward.