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Love is Strange

Love is Strange

And it's mean and cruel, and fluffy and silly, and silky
and oh so manageable, too.

dir: Ira Sachs


Love is indeed strange, and wonderful and terrible, and a bunch of other descriptive words and adjectives. And it’s stronger than death, lighter than helium and more painful than anything else we can experience or imagine.

And it can also be a comfortable, gentle thing, as invisible to the rest of the world as it is obvious to us.

What it’s not is the solution to all the mundane problems that beset us in our daily lives. Sonny and Cher, a married couple at the time, sang that some other churlish soulless wretches could say that love won’t pay the rent, but everything’s okay because "I Got You, Babe", and that makes everything fine and dandy.

Well, fuck that. They were rich bastards who got divorced anyway, but their rent being paid was never a problem for them.

For the rest of us in couples, the sheer magnitude or sun-bright brilliance of the love we feel for each other doesn’t get us anywhere near closer to paying the rent living in expensive cities, or taking care of mortgage payments. Sure, last time we were late on the rent and the mortgage simultaneously, I tried explaining to the landlord and the bank manager ‘hey, we ain’t got the money, but we have Love! Lots and lots of love! Surely that counts for something?’

They both screamed “Fuck your love, pay us!” and started pistol whipping me while The Rolling Stones played in the background.

That may or may not have happened. I may have fallen asleep on the couch watching Goodfellas on cable last night. I’m not sure. But what I am sure about is that movies generally are about the pedestal-like importance of ‘getting’ love, as in, achieving some kind of success by ‘getting’ that girl or guy by movie’s end in order to validate one’s own existence for the audience to leave content and satisfied.

They’re rarely about the limits of love.

Love is Strange is a quiet little film about an old gay couple, Ben and George (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina). They’ve been together forty years and they have plenty of love for each other and the people around them. They’ve lived in New York for most of their lives and all of their coupledom, and now that the state allows for their legal status to be acknowledge, they’ve decided to take the sweet and altogether pointless step of getting married.

After forty years of being together? Why marry the cow when you’ve been fucking the milk for free? Wait, no, I think I stuffed that analogy up. Why marry a bull when it’ll fuck you for nothing more than a bit of milk every day?

Nah, didn’t get it right that time either. To them it seems to be the perfect way to affirm their love for each other surrounded by their family and friends, even if at this stage its legal importance is more symbolic that anything else.

The problem for them is that it’s not a legal protection worth supporting or a sweet gesture worth acknowledging for all other people. The Catholic Church, long known for its gentleness and sensitivity towards the downtrodden (only when they’re paedophile priests), is outraged, OUTRAGED that one of its music teachers (George) would dare abrogate their unspoken rule: It’s all well and good to be gay, and we’d pay your legal bills if you assaulted children and such, but don’t you dare get married! We’re against marriage, didn’t you know that?”

George is called onto the carpet by the head priest/principal (John Cullum) of the private school where he teaches music, and told in no uncertain terms that the bishop of New York is happy to cover up the crimes of countless predators, but won’t tolerate a teacher at their prestigious school enshrining their monogamous relationship with a legal document.

Too bloody right. It would give the kids the wrong idea entirely. Monogamy is for chumps after all.

This all might seem like I’m spinning wheels describing a case of prejudice or discrimination or whatever, but really it’s the precipitating event that causes the couple to be separated.

The separation itself is not depicted as a tragedy, as star-crossed lovers torn apart by heartless forces that endeavour to keep them apart until everyone learns a life-affirming lesson at about the 90 minute mark. It’s just about the logistics of living in probably one of the most expensive cities in the world, when that’s where you’ve always lived, when income’s temporarily a problem and you have to rely on the kindness of family and friends.

Ben and George are separated from each other because of a confluence of economic and demographic factors. Everyone they know who lives in New York lives in tiny places they can only afford because they’re rent controlled apartments. Anyone they know who lives in a bigger place lives in a location too far from the city they love to be considered acceptable.

I know, it seems like such an eye-rolling conceit, or like the whitest of white middle class middle aged problems, but that’s the essence of the story. It’s not depicted as a grand tragedy: it’s a minor inconvenience, perhaps one they could have managed better, but it is what it is, and it ends up revealing other aspects of their characters and those of the people around them.

Funniest for me is the character played by Marisa Tomei, who, at Ben and George’s wedding (she herself is married to Ben’s nephew) falls over herself to talk about how much she and her husband love Ben and George, and how their union is an example to us all, and blah blah bling bling blah. I think she works in a plug for her book as well into the wedding toast, the cad.

When Ben comes to live with them temporarily, it’s a very different tune she’s whistling. She becomes (she’s the only real villain in this flick) this absolute pinnacle of a passive-aggressive self-involved city jerk, such that her only purpose really, since she barely even qualifies as a character and exists more as a horrible plot device, is to show that some people in New York are less than genuine about wanting to help out their family and friends when they need it.

I understand that house guests can be a disruption, truly, I can, especially if they’re awful people. The thing is, though, and it’s a perfect part of the story, Ben disrupts their affluent apartment household not because of anything he does but simply by being there.

George similarly fares no better crashing on the couch of a younger gay couple living downstairs from the apartment Ben and George used to live in but can no longer afford. The difference here is that the young gay couple (both cops!) are happy to have George around, but they’re young, and they’re partying all the time, and they’re even playing Dungeons and Dragons at all hours of the day and night.

Dungeons and Dragons! Seems implausible, but maybe there are aspects of the contemporary New York gay scene that I’m unfamiliar with. Probably that would be all of them.

George and Ben are lonely and out of place where they find themselves, and miss each other terribly, but in a way we’re perhaps meant to be gently chiding them for their preciousness. There are plenty of ways, even if the deck is stacked against them financially and such, that they could be together if they elected to live away from New York. They keep being offered a place to stay with one of Ben’s nieces in upstate New York (state, as opposed to the city), where rent wouldn’t be a problem.

But then they wouldn’t be living in the vibrant metropolis they love so much.

It’s a poignant and gentle story, which is more about what it’s like to be in a long term relationship than anything else, with no real villains and no real momentum. There are also (mostly unspoken) aspects of the relationship that have a light cast on them, like the impact of a substantial age difference on a long term gay couple (Lithgow’s character is in his 70s I believe, where the pressure on George to work is still strong, as he is a long way from retirement).

Art and feeling also represent an underlying theme (Ben being a painter, George urging his young students to deep passion in their playing) in the lives of the main couple and of the people around them. All of it, everything that happens (barring a few moments with the youngest members of the cast) comes across in undramatic, unrushed ways. You forget you’re even watching a movie. It’s like you’re just watching people go about their day. And so much goes unsaid or unspoken, with little if any underlining to let us know what’s quotidian and what’s important.

That doesn’t sound like a thrilling couple of hours, I know, but this film is something of a hidden marvel. I really did love watching it (even though there aren’t the kinds of manipulative highs and lows that usually get me sobbing like a little girl with a skinned knee), gentle and low-key as it is. I loved the relationship as depicted between Ben and George, and the relationship that builds between Ben and his great nephew. And the minor key irritations of the people around them are just part of the set design, seeing as this is always a story about a loving old couple separated against their will in the greatest city on Earth (as far as New Yorkers are concerned).

Love is Strange, but it’s also beautiful, and certainly worth watching if you’re in the mood for something quietly beguiling.

8 times the scene at the bar where Ben lies to the bartender is probably one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year out of 10

“I have missed having your body next to mine too much to have it denied to me for reasons of bad engineering.” – let nothing sunder that which God has brought together – Love is Strange