No City for Old Men
By Michael Koresky
Love Is Strange
Dir. Ira Sachs, U.S., Sony Pictures Classics
The cinematic image is so inherently powerful that even the seemingly mildest of films can carry the heavy weight of representation. Ira Sachsâ€™s Love Is Strange, for instance, by virtue of its subject matter, is as pointed and political as it is warm and lyrical. Near the beginning, two men, just past middle age, share the briefest of kisses. Itâ€™s unremarkable and it should be. Yet the image calls attention to itself, even for a gay male viewer like myself. Despite all the remarkable strides in gay political acceptance and social visibility in this country in the last decade, itâ€™s hard to imagine a time when the image of two men kissing will not be scrutinized, stigmatized, or in some way delegitimized. Itâ€™s the politics of perceptionâ€”difference comes from the act of seeingâ€”and itâ€™s as true on the screen as it is on the street. Among many other matters, Sachsâ€™s moving new film is concerned with this persistence of such vision: the invisible barriers that remain regardless of how far weâ€™ve come. Love isnâ€™t strange, but this world sure is.
We first see George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), sixty-something New Yorkers, waking up beside each other in bed, tangles of legs and feet; soon theyâ€™re getting dressed, one calls the other â€śsweetie,â€ť and theyâ€™re madly dashing out of their home, a quaint but impressive, art-filled apartment of the sort that only longtime city dwellers and the inordinately wealthy could possibly own. Outside, a Charles Street sign clues us in that they live in the West Village. Their destination, as it turns out, is their own wedding. Even before we really get to know George and Ben, much is clear about their personal narrative right off the bat: they have been in a loving, decades-spanning relationship and are only now tying the knot because it has recently become legal in the state for them to do so. The celebration is small, cozy, and loving, surrounded by smiling well-wishers, most of them conspicuously younger. â€śAre you both making this decision of your own free will?â€ť asks the officiant. This questioning of free will shall prove resonant throughout the film, in which, against their desires and better judgments, George and Ben, after thirty-nine years together, will be forced to make choices that seem counter to their happiness. Itâ€™s a story not of large, draconian measures that stifle human joy, but of the small, incremental decisions that lead to heartbreak, and which can make our everyday lives seem downright dystopic.
The film starts out in an aggressively gentle register, with a distanced camera and minor-key piano score casting a somewhat objectifying sense of preciousness over George and Ben, especially as they scramble through their morning. After the wedding, though, a pall spreads over the narrative. For this tale of an aging couple separated from one another out of seeming necessity, Sachs effectively and smartly uses as a template Leo McCareyâ€™s 1937 Hollywood film Make Way for Tomorrow, about which Orson Welles once famously said, â€śIt would make a stone cry,â€ť and which was already sort of remade by Yasujiro Ozu as 1953â€™s masterpiece Tokyo Story. In McCareyâ€™s heart-wrencher (this is not hyperboleâ€”if you have a heart, that film will clamp and twist it into pulp), an elderly husband and wife are forced to move out of their house during the depression and are subsequently batted around like birdies by their selfish children, who take them in but, due to space issues, separate them in different houses; as the film wears on it becomes clear that they will never really be together again.
Love Is Strange takes off from the same basic premise, although it adds the instantly troubling complication that George and Ben have no offspring, and thus when they have to sell their apartmentâ€”which is being turned into a co-op they cannot afford, especially after George is fired from his job as a Catholic school music teacher when news of his nuptials gets outâ€”they must rely on the kindness of nephew, niece, and neighbor. Adding insult to injury, neither of these old-school New Yorkers drives, making them seem all the more like helpless children in the eyes of their mostly well-meaning younger family and friends. These supporting charactersâ€”progressive yet mundanely self-absorbedâ€”are treated more forgivingly by Sachs than their counterparts were in McCareyâ€™s film. But that was a crusher; this one gently lets us down. We first get a sense of their squabbling in a cramped, awkwardly blocked scene in the stairwell of George and Benâ€™s apartment, after they have been informed of the menâ€™s dire financial situation. These potential saviors include Benâ€™s nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei); niece Mindy (Christina Kirk); and neighbors Ted and Roberto (Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez), policeman lovers; we can clearly count out Mindy, who lives in Poughkeepsie and proves herself the most toxically negative of the crew with a few short lines of dialogue. Ben will stay with Elliot and Kate and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan), in Brooklyn; George will shack up with Ted and Roberto. Itâ€™s clear that these people want to help George and Ben, but that they donâ€™t want to do the actual work of helping them. No matter, of course, since, as Ben says, it will be â€śprobably just a week or two.â€ť
With the assistance of Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris (Alps, Before Midnight), Sachs uses the gloriously sunny spaces of the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn to signal hope for their changed situation; Ozu-esque pillow shots between scenes nicely exploit areas around Grand Army Plaza and Eastern Parkway for their wide-open charms. Nevertheless thereâ€™s an antiseptic quality to Elliot and Kateâ€™s bright, white modern apartment that begins to feel impersonal in comparison to the lost paradise of George and Benâ€™s more charming, cramped home. The architectural precision of the place also makes Ben seem all the older, like a misplaced relic. Itâ€™s here that Lithgowâ€™s performance grows especially poignantâ€”thereâ€™s a pleasing lack of vanity to his work as a bearded and bumbling near geriatric with bad joints. Benâ€™s blithe chattiness soon gets on the nerves of Kate, an at-home writer distracted from her work by her guestâ€™s constant interruptions, and he also begins to irritate Joey, whoâ€™s recently turned to minor delinquency and is getting to the age when an elderly roommate is particularly unwelcome. Perhaps not since his performance as Debra Wingerâ€™s long-suffering fling in Terms of Endearment has the normally grandiose Lithgow come across as this vulnerable. Yet Sachs also refuses to make him entirely sympathetic or the mere victim of callous young folk: taking a page from Make Way for Tomorrowâ€™s multilayered treatment of Beulah Bondiâ€™s displaced matriarch, the writer-director makes Ben imperfect, something of a self-pitying layabout, however sweet-natured.
Meanwhile, George is stuck in a different kind of young personâ€™s world, as Ted and Roberto party every night, engage in goofy role-playing games, and host a seemingly endless rotation of friends, dropping pop-culture references that elude their houseguest. A South London transplant living in New York for decades, George has too much decorum to kick up much of a fuss about his less-than-ideal living situation, so he often quietly bows out of the place, one night showing up in tears at Benâ€™s doorstep in Brooklyn before sharing Joeyâ€™s bunk bed with his husband. Molina, keyed-down and graciously allowed his own British accent, is marvelous in this film, constantly exuding both exasperation and patience, especially deftly in a scene when George and Ben discover that the â€śflipâ€ť tax on their apartment has considerably dwindled the profit they can make on the home theyâ€™d been in for twenty years.
Thereâ€™s so much painâ€”the kind of emotional agony that comes from feeling helpless in the face of depressingly ordinary injusticeâ€”in Love Is Strange that itâ€™s miraculous how hopeful the film ultimately feels. Part of this is Voudourisâ€™s crisp, sun-dappled palette; and part of it is the lovely, ever-deepening intergenerational relationship that ultimately blooms between Ben and the troubled young Joey. But mostly itâ€™s because of the spirit of generosity that Sachs injects into what otherwise could have been a lonesomely bitter film about aging. In another page out of the Make Way for Tomorrow book, Sachs gives George and Ben one resplendently low-key night out together in the city, which, as it slowly becomes clear, will likely be their last. After attending a classical music concert (during which we only see their faces, finally becalmed, in close-up), they end up at a West Village gay bar, where they reminisce about their lives and open past infidelities, and even tell a little white lie or two: Ben informs the bartender he was denied service in the pre-Stonewall daysâ€”a sly fib for free drinks. Later, as Ben descends into the subway, the neon sign for the landmark Waverly Diner stands in for a lost New York City, the image ever so slowly fading out into blackness. The unbearably poignant lines at the end of Make Way for Tomorrow are not recycled here, but they come to mind: â€śIf it should happen that I don't see you again, it's been very nice knowing youâ€¦â€ť
Many people will be moved by Love Is Strange, and many will talk of the universal feelings of love and longing it generates. Yet Sachsâ€™s film is entirely specificâ€”to its milieu and people. This is very much a film about a certain kind of city living, and itâ€™s intractably, and without judgment, a film about what it means to be an aging, childless, gay man in that city. Its images are poignant, small, everyday, yet because these are people we donâ€™t normally see on screen (other than as, perhaps, supporting characters in the stories of people with decades ostensibly stretching out ahead of them) these images rest heavily on us. The film might not be able to provide solace for those of us who wonder who will take care of us, but the constant stream of love running underneath it leaves us anything but bereft.