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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, January 5, 2018

Two significant allusive subtexts of Call Me By Your Name, hidden in plain sight and sound

[WARNING!: Some spoilers as to some aspects of CALL ME BY YOUR NAME]

Last weekend, my wife and I went to see Call Me By Your Name, the new James-Ivory-written film which has generated a great deal of buzz, as well as garnering an impressive array of nominations and awards for a small independent film.  No small part of the attention to Luca Guadagnino’s film has focused on its atypical depiction of gay first love in the early 80’s in an impossibly idyllic, because utterly non-homophobic, Northern Italian country village fictional world.

While we found it to be less powerful and well-made as cinema than we had expected, in part due to its excessive length vis a vis the story told, nonetheless we also agreed that it was a very important landmark in the history of mainstream cinema. It seemed to mark the long overdue progress in the past decade of a positive society-wide shift in attitudes toward same sex love, such that the love story depicted seemed not very different than it would have been portrayed had the lovers been heterosexual.

I’ve sampled some of the reviews of the film, and found the following to be the best of the bunch so far, because it tells you everything you’d want to know (including, however, major spoilers), and also does a brilliant, economical job of making the case that the bright sun of the idyll is not quite as bright as it seems:  “The Shadow Over Call Me by Your Name”  by Spencer Kornhaber  01/03/2018
The acclaimed depiction of gay romance forgoes politics and doesn’t mention AIDS—but there are hints at a broader, darker context for its story.

While I’d urge you to read Kornhaber’s entire article, here is the introductory section thereof:
“The masterful shot that closes Call Me by Your Name asks the viewer to do the same thing the character on screen is doing: think. Over 7 minutes, Elio Perlman, the 17-year-old played by Timothée Chalamet, simply stares into a crackling fireplace as tears well in his eyes. He presumably is reflecting on his tryst with Oliver, Armie Hammer’s 24-year-old grad student who visited Elio’s Italian home for the summer. And on Elio’s own father’s life in the closet, revealed to him toward the end of the film. And maybe on his future, perched as he is on the cusp of adulthood, and having just had an affair that felt life-changing.
The audience should be reflecting on those things, too. It’s possible, though, they’d be considering something surely not on Elio’s mind: AIDS. At least, that was the case for me—a fact that has gotten me into arguments with friends who are, understandably, wary of over-reading a film devoted to young love’s bittersweetness and the glory of short shorts.
The acclaim for Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of André Aciman’s novel has, overwhelmingly, focused on its cinematic loveliness and emotional power. As Guadagnino’s camera inhabits the gaze of a young man whose fantasy becomes reality, it refreshingly depicts “a story of queer love that isn’t tinged with horror or tragedy,” as my colleague David Sims wrote. The flip side is that Call Me by Your Name’s prettiness has come in for rebuke, too, with some critics faulting it for trying too much to appeal to a “universal” audience, and others asking why it has won so much more attention than more provocative, political queer stories.
But I’d argue there actually is a tinge of tragedy to Call Me by Your Name, and part of the richness of the movie is in the way it makes a larger point while mostly keeping politics off screen. The story does feel sealed, its characters happily isolated in a landscape of ripe fruit and ancient ruins that almost feels pre-electricity. Yet on the edges of the film are reminders of the broader social struggle that Elio and Oliver feel temporarily exempted from—and maybe, just maybe, of the epidemic that queer men were beginning to contend with.”  END QUOTE FROM KORNHABER ARTICLE

I’m here today to add two other strands of subtext which have been inobtrusively woven into the fabric of the film, which deepen the suggestiveness of this complicated love story still further.

First, even before we saw the film, I was struck by the oddness of the title, which is the same as the title of the Aciman novel upon which Ivory’s screenplay is based. It’s not the expected “Call me by my name”, it’s the strange “Call me by your name”. As I thought about it, that seemed to be a reflection of the two lovers both being male, hence they are “the same” in a way that heterosexual lovers are not; so it makes metaphorical sense for them to celebrate that loving sameness by calling each other by the other’s name.

When I got home, I checked and verified that the repetitions of that motif in the film was indeed taken directly from Aciman’s novel, especially from the following narration by the young protagonist, Elio:
“...breathe out his name in the dark. Ulliva, Ulliva, Ulliva—it was Oliver, calling me by his name when he’d imitate its transmogrified sound as spoken by Mafalda and Anchise; but it’d also be me calling him by his name as well, hoping he’d call me back by mine, which I’d speak for him to me, and back to him: Elio, Elio, Elio…”

And the reason why I checked that in the first place, was that as I was watching the film, and heard that dialog spoken aloud, with the repetition of their names, I suddenly realized the sly literary word game that Aciman had played, which, when dredged up from the deep (like one of Elio’s father’s marine archaeological sites), and brought to the surface and examined, reveals an entire additional layer of meaning which enriches the story, by invoking a very famous literary work from long ago, which also depicted same sex love. Can you guess what it is?



The answer begins with recognizing that it’s not just random that Elio gets the idea of Oliver calling Elio “Oliver” – it’s precisely because Elio and Oliver are names which are very much alike in a particular way – i.e., the four letters of “Elio” are all contained within the six letters of “Oliver” – they are anagrams of each other!

But, even though that’s a lovely subtle touch, providing a plausible explanation for the title phrase, it’s not the main point I see, which is that almost the identical word game was played over four centuries ago by some hack named Shakespeare, in some dog of a play called Twelfth Night, which has in it not two but three characters with anagrammatically related names:

VIOLA, the young female protagonist who cross dresses as a young man, “Cesario”, and carries love messages from her master, Duke Orsino, to OLIVIA, who falls in love with VIOLA (disguised as Cesario), and who is also loved by MALVOLIO. And don’t forget VIOLA’s twin brother Sebastian, and Antonio who loves him.

Along with As You Like It, Twelfth Night represents Shakespeare at his gender-bending, wordplay-drunk best, and it’s easy to see how it relates to the love story of Call Me By Your Name –in particular in how the unwitting same sex love of Olivia for Viola, and the witting love of Antonio for Sebastian, are in the end overridden by the mandatory heterosexual “happy ending”, with Viola matched with Duke Orsino, and Sebastian with Olivia – but you have to wonder whether those heterosexual couplings will remain rigidly intact in the hereafter of the story, or if they will turn out to be convenient masks for more complicated romantic permutations.

And in general, the concept of “Twelfth Night’, the night before Epiphany (how fitting for Elio’s epiphany that he loves men), is that of reversal of roles, of stepping outside one’s normal life for a brief moment, before returning – how fitting for the story of Call Me By Your Name.

And Aciman leaves one additional erudite wink at Twelfth Night, when he makes Oliver an author who just happens to be working on a book about Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher who famously wrote words to the effect that you can’t step into the same river twice, because life is flux, etc etc. Oliver even reads some of his draft in progress to Elio, in scholarly jargon that is utterly incomprehensible. It just so happens that after “Cesario” (aka Viola) leaves Olivia after delivering Orsino’s love message, the suddenly besotted Olivia acknowledges to herself that her heart has been stolen:

'What is your parentage?'
'Above my fortunes, yet my state is well:
I am a gentleman.' I'll be sworn thou art;
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit,
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast: soft, soft!
Unless the master were the man. How now!
Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth's perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes
. Well, let it be.

And guess what? That line “To creep in at mine eyes” was glossed a century ago by Morton Luce as follows: “In Shakespeare’s earlier philosophy of love, this is an important element; cf ‘It is engendered in the eyes, With gazing fed’ The Merchant of Venice.The germ of this doctrine may be found in Heraclitus”

I don’t know about you, but I’d bet the house that Aciman understood that, and meant to direct the knowing viewer back to the text of Twelfth Night, and to think about how the Heraclitean flux that sweeps Olivia up also informs the fleeting love affair of his anagrammatical lovers Elio and Oliver.

Now, that was the first of the allusive subtexts I saw in Call Me By Your Name – the second, which I have since confirmed was also seen by several Tweeps, because it should be obvious. is that the film, again mirroring Aciman’s 2007 novel, contains a subtle homage to Brokeback Mountain, which played in the theaters during the very time Aciman was writing his novel. I refer to Elio’s request that Oliver, when he leaves Italy to return to the United States (and, as we shortly thereafter learn, to heterosexual marriage), make a gift, as a romantic keepsake for Elio, of the denim workshirt Oliver wore while Elio was falling in love with him.

In Brokeback Mountain, after Jack is murdered and Ennis travels to Jack’s parents, Jack’s mother gives Ennis, also as a keepsake, Jack’s bloody workshirt which symbolizes their romantic idyll on Brokeback Mountain before Jack married a woman, leading Ennis to do likewise.

Nobody needs me to explain more than that, and so I will conclude, and leave it to you all to make of the above what you will, and most assuredly as you like it.

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Ann H W said...

Another anagram from Oliver is I Lover. (Too many word puzzles in my youth made this pop up like an annoying ad.)

Arnie Perlstein said...

Ann, that is a great catch, Ann, and i believe, totally intentional on the author's part, because it fits with the meaning of the title!