A VERY NATURAL THING
Director: Christopher Larkin
Stars: Robert Joel, Curt Gareth, Bo White
I would normally be wary of any film championed by Vito Russo, let alone one that he actually appears in. Roped in as an extra, Russo plays in a crowd scene somewhere, so watch closely in the bustling Fire Island beach-cruising and disco scenes, and you may be able to make his wiry, homophobia-seeking form out.
Promoted as a “gay version” of Love Story, a huge hetero hit released in 1970, A Very Natural Thing is actually nothing more than a dramatised discussion about the shape gay life, then in its infancy, should take. Should it mimic the male-female model and aim for monogamy and domesticity, or should it acknowledge that such a model doesn’t exactly fit male-male partnerships and forge new territory based on the polymorphous freedoms of the Sexual Revolution?
The New York Post was correct in dismissing the film as “an argument rather than entertainment”. The film is bookended with lengthy documentary footage of gay pride marches, where gays speak directly to the camera about the legitimacy and wonderment of being gay and being proud of it, for all the standard 1970s reasons. In between these non-fiction bookends is a dramatisation of two men attempting a romantic relationship. This relationship fails, according to the story, because one of them wants to stay at home and the other wants to wander, but mainly, I think it dies because they do little with each other but argue incessantly for seventy minutes about which of them has the right idea about what a gay relationship, and why.
David (Robert Joel, who was credited in other films as Robert McLane) gives up his life as a monk in a monastery (true) because the the brothers expect him to be celibate and of course, certainly not homo. Defrocked, he heads for the downtown gay bars, where he shimmies around amid a sea of checkered cardigans and paisley neck scarves before being beckoned by Mark (Curt Gareth) to share a dance. They begin an affair and both show their cards immediately, with romantic David wanting to caress and cuddle after the first night’s fucking, and Mark shooing him away on the grounds that “affection went out in the 50s”. Scene by scene we get more of the same, with David somehow getting Mark to agree to move in together and for a while, there’s verbose domestic bliss.
Amid the endless monologue about what form a gay relationship should take and how it can be valid and noble etc., there are at least two thigh-slapping one liners. The first is a nod to Love Story with Mark playfully shrugging off David with “well thank you, Miss Ali MacGraw” and, my favorite, “you’re a pretty good fuck for a former monk you know”. Additionally, there’s a side-splitting sequence where the happy pair stroll through a park in the Autumn and visit a fun fair where they ride carousels and roller coasters. Needless to say, you can still hear them arguing about the form of their relationship even when they’re on the roller coaster.
It all comes unstuck at Fire Island (a phrase which could apply to gay history in general) where David wants to lie by the ocean happily in love, but Mark can’t keep his bum on his beach towel for more than three seconds at a time while ever there’s cruising going on in the bushes up the back. A drugged-out orgy follows, and when the pair return to the city, things disintegrate fairly quickly. At the 1973 Gay Pride March, David meets Jason (Bo White), and they embark on what seems to be a much more equitable and enterprising love affair.
I guess there is one ironic, and rather moving, connection between Love Story and A Very Natural Thing, which chronicles a time when the gay experience did glisten with numerous threads and possibilities, all of which would be swept away by the tsunami of the AIDS Crisis which made calibrated internal criticisms frivolous and ushered in the tow-the-party-line gay gulag that remains in power today. Likewise, the arguments presented inA Very Natural Thing remain frozen: should we get married, or not get married? Promiscuity or monogamy? Health or dangerous pleasures?
Robert Joel/McLane, whose David called for monogamy and domesticity, went on to die of AIDS in 1993. Russo, also in the film, died of AIDS in 1990. I wonder how many more of the guys talking in excited expectation of their futures are no longer with us?