Everything’s in Color

I’m just six, wearing a tee and baggy shorts, hand-me-downs from my older brother. He’s smart and funny and eight inches taller than me. My hair is cut short, no frills, and a year from now, I’ll come home crying because someone at school called me a boy. When I look back at pictures from that time, I can’t imagine how anyone could think that pixie with a toothy grin and sparkling blue eyes was anything but a girl.

Though I haven’t dressed up, I know this night is special. My brother and I are going to a big party with Dad. People fill the house. Kids are packed together on the floor and couches, clustered around a TV set, with the grownups standing in all the space that’s left on the first floor. It’s a special night, worthy of a party, because the Wizard of Oz is going to be shown on TV for its annual broadcast. I’ve seen the Wizard before, but this is the first time I’ll watch it in someone else’s living room with so many other people.

The movie starts, and there’s Dorothy in her house in Kansas. Then there’s that terrible storm. And then the magic part begins, the part where Dorothy is with all the munchkins and they all love her and help her. But something is different. When she comes out into the munchkin world, everything is in color!

I watch in excitement and confusion. Even as the story unfolds, fresh and new with the bright emerald green city, I struggle to grasp how I’d seen before only a dim black and white vision—and understood only a few of the many references—of this multi-hued world. Tonight I finally understand what the witch means when she talks about Dorothy’s ruby red slippers. Her shoes are actually shiny bright red!

Back then, our family had a small black and white set, just like my grandma did at her house. Until that night, I didn’t realize you could watch things in color. What was even more confusing, the movie starts in black and white. Why did everything change when she left home?

Years later, in a film history class, I’ll learn that the B&W frame was a cinematic plot device to accommodate the emergence mid-production of Technicolor 4 film. But when I was six, all I knew was that the world we kids wanted to be in, the world of excitement and magic, was the world of brilliant, vivid color, of yellow brick roads and blue skies and orange lollipops. And that night, children and grownups alike were sharing the excitement of it together.

***

Nowadays, I don’t have to wait for an annual broadcast or a special party. I can watch the Wizard of Oz around the world whenever I want. With instant access to shows via Netflix or Hulu, I can see practically everything, all the time, anywhere I get the Internet or have access to a DVD player, which is now everywhere. I can watch it on my phone or on my laptop, in my room, in a café, on a bus, or on the street with other people nearby. I could wear earbuds, those itty bitty devices you can carry in a pocket that have replaced bulky headphones. These earbuds connect to my phone, which, of course, has been freed from its connection to a wall. Instead, it fits in my pocket and travels with me.

I’ve never actually watched a movie on my phone, preferring to watch on a larger screen. But I know I can, and I’ve seen you do it. You listen to your music or movies on your portable device, and no one else is bothered, like they used to be when people had much larger devices called boom boxes because the music boomed as they walked by. That was the whole idea, to make the world listen to what you wanted, at high volume. But now that you’ve left the boom box in the attic, and you walk down the street with your ears attached to cords, and you don’t make eye contact, you aren’t being thoughtful of others, but rather you don’t want to be bothered by them. You’ve tuned them out, so you don’t have to talk to them, don’t have to share your music or your thoughts.  If others talk to you, you won’t even hear them, because you are plugged directly into the thing you’ve chosen to put in your head, and it has pushed everyone and everything else out. You now have the tools to shut out the noise of other people for just a little while, or maybe for life.

Which makes me wish I could return to a simpler time.

I want to hear “Over the Rainbow” again, to think about the charm of the movie, the sweetness of Dorothy, and the beauty of her singing. I want to be in that living room full of people and remember seeing the green emerald city for the first time. So I youtube it, because it’s the quickest way to get to the song. But instead of finding Judy Garland, with her voice of a young girl-woman, my search reveals Israel KamakawiwoOle’s version. That’s because his is far more popular than Judy Garland’s. So I listen to him instead, and am transported, as he’s done for so many millions of others, that is, 44,134,920 for this particular video on this day, with 228,643 likes. And his song takes me away, and I close my eyes, and I think I am going back to Kansas.

But I’m wrong, because it’s really not Garland’s version. KamakawiwoOle has blended “Over the Rainbow” into a medley with “What a Wonderful World,” but the lyrical shift isn’t the only difference. When he asks “Why, oh why, can’t I?” his voice is no less moving, but it isn’t that of a young girl on a farm. It’s the voice of someone who will die of a heart attack at age thirty-eight because, despite being all laid back and Hawaiian and playing a uke, he’s also a grownup, and his enormous girth suggests that he didn’t embrace moderation as he grew, and maybe everything didn’t go all that great for him. He’s singing that he can’t fly somewhere over the rainbow, and I believe him. Because we can’t. None of us can fly. And even if we could, we can’t fly over a rainbow.

And I think to myself, not what a wonderful world it is, but why, as a child, I didn’t hear Garland ask that same question: why oh why can’t I. Why did her song sound so full of hope, and his sound so uncertain, when the lyrics were the same? Was it them, or was it me?

Maybe it’s because she’s singing in black and white. She doesn’t get to appear in color until she reaches Munchkinland.

As I sit and listen again to KamakawiwoOle’s vision, I realize that I can’t figure out the shades of color in the world we now inhabit. Sometimes it feels like Munchkinland, as I look around me in wonder at all the crazy mix of styles, the wondrous magical devices, the inexplicable people. It’s a raucous splash of life, but it’s also colored by the undertone of our limits.

I remember my excitement when I first noticed color as a child. But when did I start longing for that simple time when I heard only hope in Garland’s black and white song?

##

Unusual Objects

Jacksonville was a man’s world, the whole damn place a bachelor pad. The main road leading to Camp Lejeune wasn’t much more than asphalt and spindly pines. The rest was car lots, strip clubs, and tattoo parlors, chain restaurants, and a sad excuse for a mall. Young men with matching crew cuts roamed in packs on the sides of roads. Colorful hot rods purchased with deployment money revved up at red lights. And during rush hour, on the median of Western Boulevard, the Jacksonville Ninja, an anonymous man who seemed as natural to the place as the pines, practiced his finest karate moves with a boombox on his shoulder. Background noise was artillery rounds and low-flying aircraft, both so loud they often set off car alarms. Few people were local, nearly all its residents transplants somehow connected to the Marine Corps. It wasn’t the kind of place a woman chose.

In a town full of bored young men, the place wasn’t short on house parties. Cleve warned me on the way to the first one I ever went to, “The guys get pretty wild.” He said it was best I avoid the back rooms because the owners of the place were swingers. “Sometimes they snort lines and shit, too. Nothin’ you wanna mess with,” he told me as he took a sharp turn into a neighborhood of shabby duplexes and shiny cars.

I rolled my eyes and laughed. Not because I was overly confident going into the environment he described, but because it sounded familiar. I’d recently lived in Tampa, a place known for its nightlife; I’d survived parties like this before. I’d worked at an ale house and that meant sleeping in, working late, then going to whatever rager was happening that night. The house parties were often at pastel-colored, palm-tree-adorned mansions with kids rolling blunts the size of cigars, pissing in the pool, streaking through the house, tripping, snorting, and fucking in the back rooms.

As shy as I was, I’d grown to enjoy the proximity to chaos and recklessness, the thrill of trying something mysterious, something new. A sort of high came with the risk involved: a fight could break out; someone was probably cheating somewhere; the neighbors could call the cops at any moment. I found it addictive, much more interesting than the life I’d had before I turned eighteen with my ten-o’clock curfew and Sunday morning services. Besides, it was easy to fly under the radar, everyone too sloshed to judge me sitting in the corner, petting the dog, and observing the circus around me. It was even easier when I was sloshed, too.

The truth is, my love for it all began when I realized this version of me was much cooler than the one that played it safe. When I was drunk, when I played into the recklessness and the chaos, I made friends. I’d spent years feeling out of place when I was younger, moving from school to school as my parents bounced from one job to the next. I’d become painfully self-conscious my inner monologue always something like, “There’s no way they want to talk to you” or “I’ll never be as pretty as her.” I was lonely and tired of it. Being wanted became my most important endeavor. When I figured out that recklessness made me more interesting, that booze made me more confident, I didn’t see any other choice.

“I can handle it,” I said.

I was surprised about the drugs, though. I’d assumed the military’s random drug tests would keep the guys straight. Instead, I found out they had ways of getting around the tests including chugging gallons of water, eating iodine pills, and going for long jogs wearing trash bags to “sweat that shit out.” It seemed to work for some, but every once in a while, a kid would get busted and booted from the military, a dishonorable discharge slapped onto his record.

I reached for Cleve’s hand, pulled it to my mouth for a kiss. “I’m not the innocent Alabama girl you met in eighth grade.”

“Well, that’s for damn sure,” he said with a wink. He let go of my hand and squeezed my boob.

When we arrived at the party, a man wearing nothing but socks stood on a coffee table, swinging his dick in circles screaming ​Wooo! ​over and over between his sips of beer. Behind him, empty cases of Bud Light were stacked against the wall up to the ceiling. The air smelled like stale cigarettes and broccoli, and to the left of me, a man with pink hair like an old brillo pad was sprawled across a tattered green couch, his head and one of his arms hanging off the edge. “He took a Xanie bar,” the naked guy said. “He’s fine…Woo!”

Cleve made his rounds, said hi to all his friends. I followed behind him, holding onto the back pocket of his jeans. It reminded me of when we were kids, him with his confident jokes, me quietly hiding in his shadow. On the back porch sat five people in their underwear. They told us they were playing strip poker. It was winter and freezing, and I thought they were crazy. A shirtless guy introduced himself by telling me he had a third nipple. “See?” he said, pointing to a spot in the center of his rib cage. It looked like the chicken pox scar I had on my chest, powder pink and slightly raised. I wondered for a second if my Mom had lied to me, and I actually had three nipples, too.

“I’m too sober for this shit,” I said, and Cleve led me to the beer. I drank as much as it took for my anxiety to slip away, for a messy confidence to take its place.

The next morning, I woke up on a blow-up mattress next to the mountain of beer boxes with a pistol under my pillow. Cleve told me one of the guys in his unit found out his wife was cheating and pulled the gun on her. Cleve talked him down somehow, took the gun, and thought under my head was a safe place to hide it because nobody would think to look there.

“Just put it in your purse,” he said, no different than if he’d asked me to hold onto his keys.

“There aren’t any bullets in it.” He popped the magazine out to show me.

I’d never held a pistol before, only a shotgun. I was nine. Dad had awoken me in the wee hours of the morning, snuck me out of my room, and driven me to the edge of my Aunt’s farm. We sat in a tree stand for what seemed like hours before we spotted a doe. He placed the gun in my arms and positioned it toward the target.

“Look through here,” he said. “Do you see it?”

“Yeah,” I whispered, afraid the deer might hear me.

The creature was apparition-like, peacefully grazing on soybeans in the dawn light.

“Put your finger on the trigger here,” he said. He placed his finger over mine. “Ready?”

I nodded. Dad pressed his finger on mine, and the gun felt as if it had exploded, the recoil strong enough to leave a sore spot on my tiny shoulder. The doe disappeared.

Later, I’d overhear my Dad talking to my Uncle. They’d found it dead in the woods not far from where I shot it. It was pregnant. I imagined the baby inside her and hated myself for what I’d done. I never wanted to shoot a gun again.

The gun in my purse was heavier than it looked, and I didn’t totally trust that there weren’t bullets in it, that it wouldn’t go off in my purse by accident. I carried it, anyway. Cleve and I eloped later that week.

A few nights before Cleve’s unit was to deploy, he snuck me into the barracks. Typically, civilians weren’t allowed in after hours, but he was friends with the guy “on duty.” To be on duty, I learned, meant you were in charge of making sure no shenanigans were going on in the barracks. The guys who lived there rotated shifts and most of them were friends, so they often turned a blind eye from things that were technically not permitted.

This part of Camp Lejeune was mostly parking lots. It had few trees and what wasn’t paved was dirt and weeds. The barracks were red brick and shaped like shoe boxes with two rows of white railings lining the walkways that encircled the buildings. It was dusk. The moon sat just above the horizon, and as we made our way up the stairs, I smelled cigarette smoke and noticed a crushed beer can crammed in the railing. We reached Cleve’s floor, and a man in a military green t-shirt and gym shorts passed us, carrying a box of belongings that was too big for his arms to wrap around. Another man ran up behind us, passed us, and almost knocked the guy with the box over.

“Reiser, you motherfucker!” the man with the box yelled.

“Sorry, man! Girl’s waitin’ in the car!”

Around the corner, two men, both with medium-reg haircuts and Bud Lights in their hands, peed off the side of the balcony. Cleve grinned. “What the fuck do y’all think you’re doing,” he asked the guys.

“What’s up, Kinsey?” the shorter of the two said, zipping up his pants before reaching his hand out for a handshake.

“You really think I’m gonna touch that hand, Burns?” Cleve said. “You’re outta your mind.”

Burns told Cleve to fuck off before looking to me and smiling. “Who you got there?”

His smile was flirty and his teeth too big for his face. I half-smiled back, chewing on the inside of my mouth, a nervous habit I’d had since childhood.

“This is my wife, Karie,” Cleve said putting his arm around my waist. I said hi and shifted from one leg to the other, hid my free hand in my pants pocket.

“Shit, I didn’t know you got married, man!” He scanned my body. “Not bad, not bad.”

I’d felt like an object since I’d started visiting Cleve at Camp Lejeune, the men and their wives always sizing me up. I’d gotten the impression that, given the chance, a number of his friends would have gladly slept with me. One even said once over a game of pool, “You’re basically my dream girl.” He had scooted so close to me, I could smell the Fritos and whiskey on his breath, could see every hair and bead of sweat on his upper lip. Cleve had just gone to the bathroom. It was difficult for me to understand the relationship he had with some of the other Marines, calling each other brothers, fighting together in war, hoping for chances to fuck each others’ wives.

Cleve squeezed my side as if to say, Just ignore him.

Everyone in the barracks was either cleaning, packing, or drinking. Some were doing all three. When we got to Cleve’s room, one of his roommates was cross-legged on the floor, digging through a giant green duffle bag. He looked up and smiled. “Kinseeeey!”

“Sup, Mallot,” Cleve said. “You gettin’ ready for that sandbox?”

“Fuck yeah. I don’t want my mom finding some of this stuff if things go wrong.”

“I hear that,” Cleve said, and I wondered if he had anything to hide before deploying—secret love letters, porn, incriminating emails. I grimaced.

“Which bed’s yours?” I asked, and Cleve pointed to a single next to the entrance. I sat on it and examined the room while the boys chatted. It was small and gray with a set of bunk beds on one wall and Cleve’s bed on the other. At the back were metal closets and drawers with a mirror in between. The place was drab, reminding me of a hospital waiting room. I wondered if the guys weren’t allowed to have art or if they just hadn’t taken the time.

“Where’s the bathroom,” I asked.

Though I did need to pee, I was mostly curious to see what the bathroom looked like in a place shared by so many men.

Mallot pointed to the back right of the room. “Through that door. Watch out, it’s messy. We share it with the boys next door. Six Marines in a bathroom is no joke.”

“Noted,” I said, making my way to the back.

The bathroom was small, containing only the essentials: toilet, standing shower, and sink. No color, no art, no candles. A couple of pairs of shower shoes parked at the door and anime porn on the back of the toilet, which, I guess, could be considered art. It wasn’t as dirty as other bachelor pads I’d seen, but I still hovered, just in case.

When I was done, I came out to find another guy in the room’s doorway. He had a black trash bag thrown over his shoulder. “They didn’t tell me a lady was here,” he said.

Cleve greeted him with a handshake. “She’s cool.”

“Alright, alright. Well, could I interest ​you​ in some porn? Only five dollars,” he said, gesturing toward me.

“Get outta here, Cortez,” Cleve said, starting to push him out the door. “She doesn’t want any of your used up porn.”

“Hey now!” I said. “What do you have?”

“Oooooh!” Cleve and Mallot yelled simultaneously.

Cortez pushed past Cleve. He opened the bag and pulled out a fistful of DVDs.

“Well, let’s see here. ​The Anal Girls of Tobacco Road​, ​Good Assternoon​, Sperms of Endearment​,​ Ultra Kinky #79​,​ Hooters and the Blowjob​, ​Unusual Objects​. . .”

I asked him what Unusual Objects was all about and he handed it to me. Cleve and Mallot were laughing in the corner. The cover featured women inserting various objects that, indeed, were unusual into their vaginas. It was disgusting, but I wanted to get a rise out of the guys, so I said, “I’ll take it.”

I’d been living with Cleve’s friend Stephens and his wife, Shannon, since Cleve and I married. Because it was so close to a deployment, the paperwork couldn’t get pushed through fast enough to get us a house of our own. Shannon had mentioned to Cleve that she would consider letting me stay during the deployment, but she wanted to get to know me first. The night we eloped, she invited me over for some wine. We hit it off instantly, and I moved in the next day.

Because they didn’t want to spend their last night before deployment in the barracks, Cleve and Mallot came over for a sleepover. On a whim, we decided to watch ​Unusual Objects​. We gathered around the TV in our pajamas drinking Bud Lights Cleve had bought because he was the only one old enough. Shannon put her six-month-old to bed and gave us the go-ahead to push play. Though we thought it would be funny to watch porn stars put unusual objects in their bodies, it was actually horrifying. Anything to get our minds off war, I guess. I was relieved when the DVD froze just before a woman sat on a sprinkler head.

Stephens stood up. “Welp. Who wants to watch ​America’s Funniest Home Videos​?”

We woke up with the sun the next morning. Shannon stood in the living room in sweats, her hair in a knot on the top of her head, her baby on her hip. She’d done the deployment thing once before, so she chose to stay home and feed the baby while I dropped Cleve and Stephens off. Mallot drove himself. Shannon gave her husband a kiss goodbye, and we piled in the truck.

When we arrived, multiple busses were lined up in front of the barracks. A pile of duffle bags, around four-feet high and ten-feet long, were on the grass. We got out of the truck, and Stephens took off almost immediately. “Later, Fugett,” he said to me as he ran in the opposite direction. I’d kept my last name because I wanted to keep the name-change for the real wedding we were planning to have after they got back. I yelled after Stephens to take care of himself.

Cleve and I hugged. We hadn’t slept much the night before, and the morning had gone by so fast. Until that moment, what was happening hadn’t settled in. I began to cry.

“Don’t worry about me, baby. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

I said every melodramatic thing I could think of, then cupped the outer edges of my hands around his eyes like a little cave, placing my eyes on the other side of that cave—our very own space away from the chaos. I pretended he and I were the only two people in the entire world. “Please take care of yourself,” I said. There was yelling in the distance, then Cleve said he had to go.

He gave me one last kiss on the forehead and took off, disappearing into a sea of uniforms. I sat in the truck, all tears and cigarette smoke, watching the busses pull away. When they were out of sight, I closed my eyes, tears everywhere. I took a deep breath. When I opened my eyes again, I could hardly see my hands, my arms, my thighs through the tears and smoke. I wondered if I was disappearing, wondered how I would survive without him in this unusual town made for men.

##

Guadagnino’s Ivory Tower: Setting, Intellectualism, and Desire in Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name could have easily drowned in its own pretension.

Italy. Lombardy. Summer. The 1980s. Bright bathing suits and plenty of Italian Europop. Luca Guadagnino’s film takes up residence in an idle northern Italian 17th-century villa and tells the story of Elio Perlman, a precocious seventeen-year-old who spends his days transposing music, reading, and hanging out with other young summer residents. His primary responsibilities include partaking in the social engagements that his highly-educated parents ask him to attend and occasionally entertaining guests with his killer piano abilities. The family employs a cook and maid, Mafalda, and a groundskeeper, Anchise. Oliver, “the usurper,” enters their isolated, ethereal world. He is a 24-year-old graduate student spending the summer as Mr. Perlman’s live-in assistant. Together, Oliver and Elio read endlessly, engage in hyperintellectual banter near various bodies of water (they dredge up an ancient statue from one of them), and eat plenty of fresh fruit. They lead lives of leisure far-removed from the vast majority of modern audiences.

The scholarly, luxurious world of the Perlman’s villa almost guarantees Guadagnino’s inability to engage with the intersection of race, class, gender-identity, and non-normative sexual identity (with the notable exception of Elio and Oliver’s shared Jewish identity). There are certainly grounds for arguing that the queer love story illustrated in Call Me by Your Name only provides representation for the upper echelons of society and should therefore not be viewed as the coming-of-age queer story of our time. There is also an argument to be made that, because the film is more palatable for easily-shaken audiences—those who may write off a film that challenges them on more than one front (in the way that Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight engages with race, class, and notions of masculinity)—Elio and Oliver’s story more effectively sways these viewers’ understandings of queer relationships. These are questions that must be asked of queer cinema, but we are not asking those today.

Instead, we ask how Guadagnino’s erudite protagonists and ethereal setting contribute to the central thrust of the film—Elio’s process of acknowledging his own desires, articulating them to another person, and having those desires be fulfilled. The political rumblings beneath the surface of “somewhere in northern Italy” become more and more apparent throughout the film and mirror Elio’s internal conflict in understanding his sexuality. Furthermore, Elio’s verbal limitations during his interactions with Oliver challenge the notion that Elio is the incredible linguist that the film sets him up to be. These tensions in setting and language heighten viewers’ understanding of Elio’s sexual awakening.

“Somewhere in northern Italy,” 1983.

There seems to be no better place for Elio to learn about his sexuality than Italy, which has always occupied a liminal identity. Former center of the Roman Empire but a country struggling with its Constitution and party strife in the 1980s in its first forty years as a nation after WWII. Seat of the Vatican and Catholicism, yet also known for its beauty, sultry romance, and passion – the same passion that constitutionally let honor killings off easy until the early 1980s. Until 1981, if someone killed their spouse and their lover caught in the act of an affair, jurisdiction could be more lenient because of a perceived sense of honor that needed to be upheld.

Similarly, though Italy may feel open and free as Oliver and Elio dance and kiss in the streets of Bergamo near the end of the film, the next day they share a hug at the train station, unable to kiss in public. Italy lags behind Europe in terms of gay rights, and acts of homophobic and transphobic hate crime remain common. Italy is ripe with contradictions and dualities, providing Elio with a space in which to explore his sexual identity beyond a binary understanding of love: he finds pleasure with both Oliver and Marzia and allows himself to explore both relationships.

Throughout the film, Italians on TV and at the table discuss Bettino Craxi and the Historic Compromise, an important shift in government coalitions in the 1970s between the Christian Democracy and Italian Communist Party, a shift that people disagree about and fight over its importance years after it occurred. A shift spearheaded by Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democracy, that led to his kidnapping and murder in May 1978. The 80s brought the pentapartito—a coalition of five parties—the beginnings of the EU, and important focus to economic development. Individualism called for more free-market and less state, and Italy became an important economic player on the world stage.

And yet, Italians in town don’t have anywhere to be: they drive tractors and do manual labor, drink coffee, and go out with no sense of urgency or needing to accomplish anything in particular. Everybody just exists. Instead of being the movers and shakers, Italians around Elio think and debate. The 80s were a time of change in Italy, yet the background of Elio’s summer is stagnant, in suspension with its lazy bike rides and quiet mornings in the town square. Change may have been happening a short trip away in Milan, but in the countryside people luxuriate in the thick of summer.

When Elio and Oliver visit a woman’s house for a glass of water, a framed poster of Mussolini hangs above the threshold. The classics surround everyone as well, dredged up from Lake Garda, observed in slides in Elio’s father’s study, in conversations between Elio and Oliver. In inhabiting Italy, people occupy an identity influenced by the glory, honor, and disgrace of the nation’s history. Italians operate within the gray areas, accepting blurry definitions of state, self, and identity. That people inhabit a space of political in-between underscores Elio’s process of asking himself what his feelings towards Oliver are as they begin to surface. If Elio sees people dwelling in liminality in other arenas, why not allow himself to think about his own definition of sexuality as well? His own sexual awakening—exploring love with Oliver, Marzia (and the oft-cited peach) simultaneously—comes to mirror Italy’s own nuanced understanding of self.

The tensions arising from setting become even more personal as the film progresses. As Elio and Oliver become closer, the realities of summer ending become even more apparent. Perhaps the most devastating disruption to the ethereal setting is the eventuality of Oliver’s departure.

“Is it better to speak or to die?”

Spoiler alert: Elio (thankfully) does not die. He does speak, though. As he and Oliver encircle the World War I monument for the Battle of Piave, Elio circuitously professes his interest in Oliver. Until the statue scene, like the knight who debates professing his love for the princess, Elio is unable to express his feelings for Oliver. That Elio is fluent in so many languages renders his own speechlessness with Oliver more poignant. His intricate knowledge of the external (history, literature, music, art, language, etc.) has not quite aligned with an understanding of his internal state. Part of the journey of Call Me by Your Name is witnessing Elio transpose his external knowledge—the stuff that he is familiar with—into a language of love that acknowledges the internal rumblings he feels as soon as the usurper, Oliver, enters his world.

Elio uses music, history, art, and literature, as jumping-off points to express his interest in Oliver. Because he is more familiar with the language of intellectualism, engaging in intellectual discourse with Oliver seems most natural. Furthermore, it allows Elio to minimize the vulnerability that comes with directly discussing his feelings with Oliver. Early in the film, when Oliver asks Elio to play a song on the guitar, Elio is emboldened to hike up his jean shorts and tell Oliver to follow him. He proceeds to play the same song in a range of styles: young Bach’s version, Liszt’s alteration of Bach’s version, Busoni’s alteration of Liszt’s version. Elio’s performance is an attempt to impress Oliver, which it seems to do. The scene ends with Oliver folding himself into the couch, in awe of the young musician. The piano scene is one of Elio’s first attempts to grab Oliver’s attention through a familiar medium—music. Although Elio grabs Oliver’s attention, he hasn’t yet clarified his interest in Oliver (to himself or to Oliver). The chaotic range of emotions, which the various versions of the song convey, reflects Elio’s confusion with his own identity. Does Elio feel more of the jolting Busoni version of the song toward Oliver? Or perhaps the mellower Bach version. The scene is indicative of Elio’s ability to replicate the external but inability to listen to himself and share his own version of Bach’s melody with Oliver.

Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5726616/

Before he communicates his desire to Oliver, Elio must acknowledge that those desires exist within himself. Guadagnino expertly tracks Elio’s slow recognition (made possible by Timothée Chalamet’s commanding performance) in the film’s iconic dance scene. Elio watches Oliver kiss Chiara as they dance.  He overhears his friends’ typical teenage reactions to a dance floor make out; the conversation is almost comically adolescent in the way it unfolds. One of the boys says that he wants to be in Oliver’s shoes. Another boy cheers on his efforts. Elio tries his best to not engage in the conversation. One of the women says, “Who wouldn’t want to be in her shoes?” An example of James Ivory’s masterful writing, the question maintains the conversation’s heteronormativity while allowing Elio to have his own, quiet answer to that question through Guadagnino’s visual storytelling. Midway through the question, Guadagnino cuts to a medium shot of Elio, who very much wants to be in Chiara’s shoes. As Elio shifts his eyes and smokes his cigarette, he continues watching Oliver on the dance floor. Elio leans into the camera, which creates an intimate close-up. His confusion, let-down, and realization of his feelings for Oliver have never been clearer. As he shifts in his seat, the camera fails to maintain focus, reflective of Elio’s internal chaos—his biting realization that his admiration for Oliver is not quite normal.

It takes a nudge from parents to push him to speak. The Perlman family curls up on the couch on one of the few rainy days in the film to read a 16th century French romance novel (that is written in German but translated into English, courtesy of Elio’s mother) about a knight who fails to profess his love to a princess. Elio, in one of his more vulnerable moments in the film, tells his parents “I’ll never have the courage to ask a question like that” to which his father supportively responds, “I doubt that.” His parents introduce a particularly relevant novel to their son. They perceive that something is going on with him – whether they know that it specifically has to do with Elio’s feelings toward Oliver is unclear. Either way, his parents exhibit an understanding of Elio’s need to intellectualize his own feelings in order to enter into them; they create a new language, one that merges a shared language of intellectualism with musings on unspoken love. The story becomes an entry point for Elio to understand that it may, in fact, be better to speak, and his parents’ support gives him the courage to consider doing that.

Source: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5726616/

Seemingly inspired by story time with his parents, Elio makes tentative moves to share his feelings with Oliver when he brings up the French love story with Oliver as they lounge by the pool. The princess and knight’s story becomes an allegory for whether Elio will tell Oliver of his interest in him beyond friendship. Elio sits yards away from Oliver, who is perched on the pool ledge with his back facing Elio. The camera starts from Elio’s point of view to remind viewers of his limited ability to read Oliver’s reactions during the conversation. In a conversation already ridden in subtext, Guadagnino’s blocking of the characters heightens the sense that neither character has a clear understanding of where the other is coming from. Guadagnino cuts to a close-up of Oliver during the conversation. In a film with very few close-ups, this one stands out. The framing mirrors the close-up of Elio during the dance scene (in the dance scene, Elio occupies the left side of the frame and in the pool scene, Oliver occupies the right). In both instances, the shallow depth of field ensures all eyes are on the subject and his processing of the scene. In the same way we begin to understand Elio’s attraction to Oliver in the dance scene, the close-up of Oliver at the pool is the first clear evidence that he seems deeply affected by what Elio has to say. In other words, Oliver seems in on the subtext, and viewers begin to understand that more clearly, even though Elio’s positioning makes it so that he can’t be as certain.

When Elio reveals that the knight “fudges” telling the princess about his love for her, Oliver jokingly says, “Figures, he’s French.” The subtext continues—Elio is (part) French. Does Oliver think that because of that, Elio lacks confidence to share his feelings? Within that single joke, there are layers and layers of complexity removed from an actual discussion of their feelings for one another: they are talking about fictional characters (and not themselves); Elio himself is ambiguously French; and to top it off, the idea is delivered in a joke, which is inherently difficult to understand as either serious or lighthearted. The limitations of allegorical conversations are clear: when speaking in allegory, Elio cannot be sure whether Oliver is on the exact same page as him.

Simultaneously, their pool conversation highlights the benefits of speaking allegorically. Communicating through the lens of a fictional story allows Elio to not be as vulnerable with Oliver, which provides a layer of protection in case the feelings are not mutual. Furthermore, if the opposite is true and Oliver seems to engage with Elio on the subtext, then Elio has permission to be more honest about his feelings. From Elio’s point of view during the pool scene, Oliver’s level of engagement lies somewhere in between, as it often does with subtext. Whether Oliver is engaging in the subtext or not, the main sentiment that Elio can derive from Oliver’s response to the story is that Oliver would prefer speaking over fudging. Oliver, an American, mocks the French for not having the confidence to share their feelings. Elio gleans a bit of knowledge about Oliver in a conversation that is seemingly purely academic. As a result, he is better able to gauge how Oliver may respond to a more explicit discussion of his interest, although there is certainly still a chance that Oliver made his remark about the knight without Elio in mind.

The boys bike to Piave. Elio moves into the realm of the more explicit as they explore the town. Although the language Elio uses to explain his desire is still quite enigmatic, it is in this scene that Oliver understands. As in previous scenes, Elio’s entry into the conversation as they encircle the fountain is made possible by a discussion of his academic knowledge: Elio clarifies the history of Piave’s World War I monument. When Oliver rhetorically asks, “Is there anything you don’t know?” Elio says, “If you only knew how little I know about the things that matter.” When Oliver asks him to clarify, Elio slyly responds, “You know what things.” Oliver, who is walking on the far side of the fountain, physically crosses through Elio, who is in the foreground of the shot. Guadagnino indicates a shift in their understanding of one another. Instead of operating in a world of subtext and ambiguity, their relationship has entered into the realm of honesty and openness. They meet at the other side of the fountain, a physical unification that symbolizes their unification of understanding.

“Call me by your name and I’ll call you by mine.”

After they unite in their understanding of one another in Piave, Elio and Oliver create a new language to express their desires—one of openness, self-discovery, and dancing. The film’s titular scene may bewilder viewers, but it is tailor-made for Elio and Oliver to be intimate with each other. Together, they experience the chaotic excitement of a new relationship, all the while knowing that the end of summer looms.

Call Me by Your Name is wrapped up in heady discourse—“Somewhere in Northern Italy” could just as easily be “Inside the Ivory Tower.” Yet the Italian backdrop asks us to uproot our understanding of place, to dwell in contradictions and duality, to give ourselves over to Elio’s processing of himself in a liminal space. In understanding how the languages, the novels, the World War I statues that populate Elio’s summer actually embody tools he needs to become familiar with his own desire, we learn that their purpose is not to rarefy his world and mystify us. They exist to empower Elio, a seventeen-year-old who has to figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t allow him to easily understand homosexual desire. In the end, Elio’s erudite understanding of the world challenges us to engage, to learn how to understand this depiction of queer desire, and to learn to welcome other stories of queer romance onto the screen.

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Source of photo at top of page: https://www.nme.com/blogs/call-me-by-your-name-sequel-release-date-trailer-cast-news-2255772