Judged by its place in the history of opinion, Call Me by Your Name turns out to be the most noteworthy movie to appear in years. It's an articulate symbol of a fundamental change in the status of homosexual love in Western society, an alteration of moral and emotional life. People who once vainly hoped to be tolerated are now increasingly celebrated.
Call Me by Your Name is a romantic, coming-of-age story about a precocious 17-year-old boy, Elio, who has a homosexual affair in Italy with a more mature bisexual scholar, Oliver. In the heat of a few days in the summer of 1983, Elio obsesses about sex with Oliver and finally makes it happen. Told from Elio's standpoint, their relationship seems highly desirable, a triumph when finally it happens. Later, Elio's father confesses that he's envious. He regrets that he passed up a similar experience in his youth.
The film is not a comedy, like The Boys in the Band, the 1970 film about a heterosexual man who finds himself at a party where everyone else is gay, and it's not a solemn fantasy like Angels in America, in which gay love is terrifying or secretive or an accusation to bring against Roy Cohn, the evil Mc-Carthyite lawyer. The power of Call Me by Your Name lies in its ordinariness.
It signals that in the 21st century, gay sex doesn't need hilarious comedy or dark melodrama. After a generation or more of struggle, it has become a kind of love that others can accept -- or even admire.
The director, Luca Guadagnino, paints a landscape of glamour around the earnest narrative. Everything takes place in a luscious Italian town where even the tourists are beautiful. The central characters are warmsouled, good-hearted people, treating each other with kindness.
Much of the film moves at a weary pace, always threatening boredom, but at the Academy Awards it won first-place for adaptation (by James Ivory, from André Aciman's novel) and had three other nominations. Judges of many lesser awards were enthusiastic. The critics were respectful.
All that adds up to a transformation. For generations, homosexual love happened in books and sometimes in the theatre -- and nowhere else in public. Today, for the first time, we encounter it in mainstream films, TV shows and magazines. What was forbidden for generations is now welcomed.
Typically, the London theatre currently offers The Inheritance, a seven-hour play at the Young Vic, by Matthew Lopez, a frankly updated gay version of Howards End, the famous E.M. Forster novel.
Forster (1879-1970) was homosexual, and regretted that he could not openly express his sexuality in his work. He wrote one novel with a same-sex theme, Maurice, but believed the content made it unpublishable. He showed it to friends, such as Christopher Isherwood, but it remained private until after his death. Now a gay playwright has transformed Howards End into an openly gay drama. Howards End, the house that Forster depicted as a symbol of English life, now stands for what one critic calls "a liberal and humane modern gay identity."
Prominent gays today make a point of exhibiting their sexuality in ways their community once found extravagant, scandalous or dangerous. The current issue of the New York Review of Books carries a tribute to the late Julius Eastman, a minimalist composer wellknown in the exhibitionist gay life in New York. He often appeared in leather and chains and stated frankly his personal goals: "I am trying to achieve what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest."
The respectability of gay love has encouraged academic interest in seeking the hidden corners of a once forbidden love. The University of Toronto Press is publishing a book by Valerie J. Korinek of the University of Saskatchewan titled Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, exploring the regional experiences of queer men and women from 1930 to 1985.
These developments in gay life have been encouraged by the wide acceptance of same-sex marriage but their roots go back to the 1960s and the arrival of the Mattachine Society members and their decision to borrow the style of the Civil Rights Movement. They expressed their rights by targeting bars that posted signs saying, "If you are gay, please go away." New York police continued to raid gay bars but Mattachine (named after secret societies in medieval France that were empowered to criticize the monarch) set out to educate "homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples." That was not so long ago, when gays faced brutal and implacable enemies, but their campaign for freedom succeeded more than even they could have imagined.