The Swimming-Pool Screening Room

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

I’ve been thinking about one of the main criticisms that has crept in under the rapturous—over-rapturous, if you ask me—praise for Luca Guadagnino’s movie adaptation of Call Me by Your Name, which is that it shyly looks away from all the gay fucking. After all, it’s a famously sexy book. “This novel is hot,” as Stacey D’Erasmo’s book review memorably began. But in retrospect, though I love the novel, it’s studiously euphemistic in many places: compared to all the detailed cocks and “little stoppered farts” of a Hollinghurst novel, say, Call Me often has a rather pre-lib sensibility about the facts and mechanics of gay sex, something more in common with a mid-century author like Mary Renault than with post-seventies gay literature. This isn’t always the case; Aciman occasionally does describe the mechanics of getting fingered in the butt, but many of the book’s sexiest bits are in fact gauzy and lovely rather than rough and raw, even if they do not, as Guadagnino version does, literally pan away from the lovers to the softly rustling trees.

Here, for instance, is the core description of the first time in which Oliver and Elio fuck:

[…] At some point I realized he’d been naked for a long while, though I hadn’t noticed him undress, but there he was, not a part of him that wasn’t touching me. Where had I been? I’d been meaning to ask the tactful health question, but that too seemed to have been answered a while ago, because when I finally did find the courage to ask him, he replied, “I already told you, I’m okay.” “Did I tell you I was okay too?” “Yes.” He smiled. I looked away, because he was staring at me, and I knew I was flushed, and I knew I’d made a face, though I still wanted him to stare at me even if it embarrassed me, and I wanted to keep staring at him too as we settled into our mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing by knees. How far we had come from the afternoon when I’d taken off my underwear and put on his bathing suit and thought this was the closest his body would ever come to mine. Now this. I was on the cusp of something, but I also wanted it to last forever, because I knew there’d be no coming back from this. When it happened, it happened not as I’d dreamed it would, but with a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal. I had an impulse to stop him, and when he noticed, he did ask, but I did not answer, or didn’t know what to answer, and an eternity seemed to pass between my reluctance to make up my mind and his instinct to make it up for me.

Now, I’m going to be very crass and do some translating, because I think it draws into focus just how elliptical this description really is. Oliver and Elio are in bed together. Oliver has already undressed Elio just prior to the excerpted passage. Elio is so overcome in the moment that he doesn’t really realize that Oliver has stripped too, until he does. “[N]ot a part of him that wasn’t touching me.” That’s a dick, surely. Then “the tactful health question.” Another minor criticism of the movie is that it doesn’t talk about HIV/AIDS, though it’s set right at the panicked beginning of the epidemic, but here, in the novel, Elio does ask. The tactful question is probably something along the lines of, “Are you clean?” (A lousy euphemism itself, derogatory-by-insinuation, but people still ask it even in our less panicked, supposedly more enlightened moment.)

After that, a “mock wrestling position, his shoulders rubbing my knees.” Reader, that’s a sixty-nine if I ever heard one. And then, “it happened” with “a degree of discomfort that forced me to reveal more of myself than I cared to reveal.” That is to say, Oliver starts to put his dick in Elio’s ass; it hurts more than Elio expected; Elio hesitates and quails a bit; Oliver senses it and asks if he should stop; Elio doesn’t answer; Oliver doesn’t stop. By the way, between the tactful question and the swift movement to “when it happened,” the strong implication is that they are having bareback sex.

This kind of clinical detail can make for good sex writing (Hollinghurst) and bad sex writing (Bill O’Reilly), so I don’t want to imply any sort of inherent moral or aesthetic value to either its presence or its absence, but I do think that its absence in the text is interesting. The mind races ahead of the exact content of the words and fills in the blanks. Elio’s dreams of this moment have been—with one very notable exception—dreams of submission; he at one point imagines wrapping his legs around Oliver “like a woman.” (I am obliged to say that there’s nothing inherently submissive about the receptive position in sexual intercourse, but that’s very plainly Elio’s sense of the image.) So we read the passage and fill in the details: he is on his back on the bed, and Oliver is on top of him and inside of him.

The film is shier yet; it really does look away with a sort of Hays Code demureness, and that is part of the critique, because earlier in the movie, it somewhat (though really only somewhat) more explicitly shows Elio having sex with a woman. I notice, though, that it isn’t all that different in the book:

There was nothing between our bodies but our clothes, which was why I was not caught by surprise when she slipped a hand between us and down into my trousers, and said, “Sei duro, duro, you’re so hard.” And it was her frankness, unfettered and unstrained, that made me harder yet now.

It’s not Penthouse Forum, but it’s not a “mock wrestling position” either.

The actual erotic heart of the novel consists of the pair’s trip to Rome, in which their relationship reaches a pitch of increasingly erotic desperation (including a scene of what I will gingerly call sensual defecation that seemed to confound certain book reviewers) driven by the fact that the trip marks the end of Oliver’s stay in Italy and their therefore inevitable impending separation. The movie elides most of this episode and sets it elsewhere—to me, a much more unusual and questionable choice than replacing anal sex with an image of summer foliage. Nevertheless, I think the criticism of the movie for its delicate treatment of the young men’s first lovemaking is unfair: the movie is truer in spirit to Aciman’s original text than the criticism suggests.

The movie does have other problems than these, though. The script is uneven, and where it draws dialogue directly from the book, it stumbles. “Look, we can’t talk about such things. We really can’t.” What sounds poetic on a page in a context of slowly unspooling Proustian recollection sounds, in the mouth of the game but miscast Arnie Hammer, merely weird, choked out in the husky tones of a Merchant-Ivory flick. (By the way, you do know who wrote the screenplay…) Elio’s father, in the book a caring but also distant and intimidating figure, “the great man,” who does not like to be corrected, is in the movie rendered as a sort of ingenious gnome, skipping and smiling. The physical chemistry between Chalamet and Hammer is itself all wrong—nothing about them yearns, and while Chalamet’s final scene is a masterpiece of physical acting, I cannot help but think that casting these two straight boys was finally a mistake. I am not for sexual typecasting, but I wonder if any twenty-something straight guy can really know—and therefore replicate—what it feels like to be a teenage boy in the flush of realizing that a man like you wants you as well: the dread and anticipation it engenders within you, the reckless hope that if you sit near enough your knees may “accidentally” touch. This is what Aciman’s oblique and elusive prose manages, even as it too occasionally looks to the trees: it remembers what it all felt like. The film does not.

Girl, I Want Your Body

Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Media, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

We’ll call this the room of love. In this room,
you get to know someone and a spark is struck,
e.g., your research assistant’s down to fuck,
and your marriage, each bitter workday’s-end exhumed
for dinner’s silent paces, then re-entombed,
is done—you haven’t told your wife, but luck
may intervene; she’ll find some other schmuck
to love, right? Sex is the bud that blooms
through every season that does not accrue
to years as age; sex is an intimation
of immortality, for him at least;
why harass when you can simply do
a book together? It stinks of limitation,
a rough but two-backed slouching beast.

 

Archaic Torso of a Chicken

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

You can hate Donald Trump’s views on and treatment of women — and lots of people do! But, to expect Ivanka Trump to publicly condemn her father or his record on women’s issues is a bridge too far. It’s impossible for us to know what Ivanka Trump does (or doesn’t do) to influence her father’s views behind the scenes. And, because of that — and the fact that she is his daughter! — booing her for defending her dad is poor form.

Chris Cillizza

Doing anything is wrong. You should
exist in a state of permanent repose,
a water-coddled jellyfish that goes
to where the current takes it. Honestly would
you be less happy, less inclined to good
behavior if you named your friends and foes,
or joined a youthful revolution in its throes,
wrote an op-ed, canvassed the neighborhood
than if you chose to live as if the tide
rising and falling were all that you need feel?
Cut out your conscience; consciousness is strife
embodied in the human mind; don’t act, abide;
nothing external to the endless dream is real.
You cannot see you. You must not change your life.

At the Mountains of Badness

Art, Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

This space has been traversed for nearly four months by Jared Kushner, whom I first met about 18 months ago, when he introduced himself after a foreign policy lecture I had given.

-Henry Kissinger

About suffering they were never right,
The Old Ones: how little they understood of fear,
An old man at the mountain when a god draws near
Still mostly pines for a restaurant that’s bright
Enough to read the menu, still delights
That the soup is hot, the winter roads kept clear.
Worshipful terror is for the young, the shear
Effort overwhelms. There was one night
Quite recently when I, arising from
My sleeping soil, called the car and went
To a cocktail party where I met the son-in-law
Of our most recent deity; he seemed
All right. I did not find it evident
That he was yet prepared for Saturn’s maw.
He smiled pleasantly and blankly beamed.

Even Hitler Didn’t

Art, Books and Literature, Conspiracy and the Occult, Culture, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Leave the seat up. Put the coffee grinds
in the sink. Use the water glass instead
of the wine glass. Leave just a heel of bread.
His secretaries thought him very kind.
His taste in music really was sublime.
His taste in art was lousy, and he mostly read
trash, but it’s true he’d fought well and bled
for his country. He loved his dog. In short, combined
a number of admirable qualities with those
few regrettable decisions that he made;
well, wouldn’t all of us, if forced to choose
between the genteel poverty that goes
with shitty painting and with global war, obey
the sentimental tug, and kill the Jews?

for Sean Spicer

Killer Kings on an Etruscan Cup

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

You can’t visit Paris anymore.
There are no tourists in churches; only priests.
The Bois de Boulogne’s full of wild beasts.
They’ve shuttered the Louvre and closed department stores.
The Porte de Clignancourt has lost its whores.
Boulangeries use dried, pre-packaged yeast.
They’ve burned the last copies of A Moveable Feast,
drawn the shutters and locked the courtyard doors.
A bateau mouche without a captain’s run
aground against the Île de la cité;
the willows in the Square du Vert-Galant all weep
with joy to see an unencumbered Seine
now swell with fish and swans. Each Paris-gray
morning quiet and slow as a dreamless sleep.

Pilgrim’s Progressivism

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Justice, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

The leaks are real. The news is fake. The sky
is blue. Love always lasts. The dead return
to life at night. The fire will not burn
the true believer’s flesh. The pig can fly.
Use whiskey when a teething baby cries.
No matter what good wages workers earn
they can no longer save enough; they yearn
only for the slightest ease, which we deny
them, spouting instead our stupid incantations:
be enterprising; learn new skills; a man
no longer works to live, he loves his work
and works unto his soul’s attenuation;
pays tax to keep the drones in distant lands;
becomes, faute de mieux, at last, a jerk.

The Art of the Bona Dea

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Media, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized

When he is thirty, Caesar comes upon
a bust of Alexander Magnus and
laments his rather lacking personal brand;
Alexander’d conquered Babylon,
while Caesar suffers Clodius’ carrying on
in a bad frock, soon revealed as a man.
He calls his aides. Please help me understand
how some horse-loving twink in chaps had gone
by now from Greece to India and back,
built self-named cities, fought with elephants,
stymied at last by the sheer immeasurable size
of the globed earth and encircling sea, you hacks.
Torment was the thought of irrelevance:
unmade by age, conquestless, Caesar dies.

We Defile Augury

Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, Media, Plus ça change motherfuckers, Poetry, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Things that Actually Happen, Uncategorized

capture

I call my own shots, largely based
on the pigeons that my priests release, observed
through a single narrow window as they turn and swerve.
The world we think is ours is interlaced
with the realer world of the bored, immortal race
of gods, who’ve little else to do but serve
each other fruit, and get on each other’s nerves.
Yet their gestures do create all time and space.
Why the bird thing works, we cannot know,
though I am assured it can inerrantly
predict a harvest’s weight or revenues
from tax, a war’s conclusion, how much snow
will clog a pass. All popularity
depends upon the augurs that you use.

Skinks for Rump

Art, Books and Literature, Culture, Education, Media, Religion, The Life of the Mind, Uncategorized, War and Politics

Milo Yiannopoulos, the sort of post-Warholian Z-list celebrity aspirant that the anti-social era of social media hocks up with silly frequency, is a public face—a mascot is maybe the better word—of an equally irrelevant but sociologically and aesthetically interesting not-quite-a-movement called Twinks for Trump.

Twinks—some of you already know this, so bear with me—are a gay sub-genre characterized by being young, thin, mostly hairless: the acceptable contemporary for the classically desired pubescent or pre-pubescent boy. The enduring beauty and sexual attractiveness of the adolescent male is one of those things that we’re very careful not to talk about too plainly in the age of gay respectability and marriage and the HRC (that’s the Human Rights Campaign, not Hillary Rodham Clinton, though if you squint, there’s not much difference). The preferred image of gay men specifically and queer people generally is of two fit, mid-thirties, slightly be-stubbled white professional studs who look disturbingly fraternal being married by Joe Biden. But the fact that there is a large gay sub-culture and a mountain of pornography that sexually fetishizes 19-year-olds who look like 15-year-olds is unavoidable, and the defense mechanism is to wink at it as a kind of joke. All those barely legal boys may be barely legal, but they are legal nonetheless.

Also note that twinks, by and large, are white. There are black twinks and Asian twinks and latino twinks, etc., but the group is definitely racially coded as Caucasian: its default setting so to speak.

The twink is a ubiquitous figure within the complex erotic taxonomy of gay male pornographic desire, but unless he is paired with another twink, his function is almost always the same: he is the actor whose youthful effeminacy and receptive position (i.e., he’s the bottom) serve as a highlighting counterpart to the masculine virility of his partner(s). So a common scenario would be to pair a twink with a jock: a slightly older, more muscular, more traditionally and recognizably masculine character. You can imagine the setup. The video is called “My Older Sister’s Boyfriend” or some such.

But equally common and more germane to the erotics of Twinks for Trump is the twink—the boi—and the daddy. The jock will be 29 or 30; the daddy will be 40 and up. In professional porn, the daddy will be somewhere between beefily athletic and totally ripped, a figure of obvious domination; in amateur porn, he’s probably got a gut and some unsightly hair in the small of his back. Either way, this is a sort of recapitulation of the same classical arrangement I mentioned above, where a grown and probably ostensibly heterosexual man gets to take care of his non-procreative sexual energy while the youth gets a figure of, if not wisdom, then at least strength and authority. Obviously this is all overlaid with the titillation of an aestheticized violation of the incest taboo. The video is called “My Mom’s New Boyfriend” or some such.

Unlike straight porn, with its inevitable ugliness and recapitulation of all the weird power pathologies of that strangest of afflictions, heterosexuality, gay porn, though it certainly can be ugly and exploitative, tends to read as good-natured and consensual, and most of these daddy-son scenarios are harmless fun. That said, there is something slightly depressing about the attempted sexual valorization of the daddy figure as an avatar of sexual potency and an object of youthful desire; it can’t avoid a tinge of self-parody, like an ex-NFL coach tossing a football through a tire swing as a euphemism for his pharmaceutical erection, and you can’t help but remember the other part of the exchange: that this older guy who probably can’t get it up without some pretty serious chemical assistance is also the guy with the money and the house and the reservations at the fancy restaurant.

So what you actually end up with is a superficially transgressive erotic exchange as a veneer for the most boring straight cliché: the hot young woman who dates the older guy for his money. And what’s sad about it is exactly what’s sad about Mike Ditka and that fucking tire swing: the exaggerated enacting of male virility only serves to show all the rest of the giggling world just how limp and pathetic daddy really is. No one other than another limply desirous daddy looks at this scenario from the outside and concludes that daddy is a hard, throbbing man’s man; quite the opposite. And the younger and more beautiful daddy’s boi, the less potent he appears, and the more we all titter when he excuses himself from the dinner party to re-up his Cialis in the restroom.

This is the excellent irony of Milo and the twinks for Daddy Trump. These little blond racist shitbirds have got it in their heads that they can help present him as a figure of phallic power, when in reality he—and they—become even more figures of fun. (Interestingly, by the way, the Classical world considered both impotence and well-endowed-ness to be pretty much equally hilarious and unmanly.) They are a punchline that comes to life and imagines itself as the comedian.