Post #9 - Looking Through Another Lens: Growing in Empathy

For this, my second-to-last entry in this series of watching through the “Top 40 Gay Films From the 1970s On,” I was able to find and watch two of the assigned films - Maurice and Latter Days. Beautiful Thing and Shelter eluded me. (As we climb nearer to the top of this list and the quality of the films rises, I find this constant feature of this endeavor more and more frustrating.) C’est la vie. Maurice and Latter Days are both rich films though, and I’m glad to be able to devote more attention to each of them.

Maurice is a Merchant Ivory production from 1987 based on a posthumously published novel by E.M. Forster by the same name. The film stars James Wilby, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves, each in one of their first film roles, and it was Merchant Ivory’s first film following their critical and popular hit, A Room With A View. The pedigree of Maurice alone would earn it a spot on our list, but the film thankfully offers much more than award-season glitz.

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The film follows the titular Maurice Hall as he struggles to find a way to integrate his homosexuality into the rest of his life in Edwardian Era English society, when “practicing homosexuality” [I hate that term, because it positions homosexuality as a state of being only when it is acted out physically, as if by ignoring it, it goes away. This is the essence of repression, the most passive-aggressive, yet nonetheless aggressive, form of hatred there is. Also, sexuality isn’t sexuality only in action. I’m heterosexual even when I’m not having sex with my wife. The term “practicing homosexuality” maligns all human sexuality.] was a criminal offense.

Merchant Ivory was famous for turning literary works into cinematic works with great skill. Maurice is no exception. Films adapted from novels are almost always “talky,” rife with voiceover narration and extended, staid dialog scenes. Add to those formal conventions a setting in Edwardian England among the typically reserved noble class, and it’s a mixture particularly prone to being unbearably boring. Maurice is anything but boring. Merchant Ivory knows how to let subtext remain subtext, and they trust their actors to bring out the emotional truth of the text. Furthermore, Merchant Ivory knows how to set otherwise tiring conversations in interesting locations, such as when the trio of schoolmates debates the relative importance of religion while punting down the river Cam. This blog series is an exercise in empathy, after all, and I would guess that seeing a gay person’s story told on screen with such artfulness, seriousness, and compassion must have been revelatory to gay persons in 1987. My Beautiful Launderette, which we watched a couple of months ago and which had been release two years prior in 1985, was similarly compassionate and hopeful in that way.

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One of the chief gifts of Maurice must be how it enables contemporary, gay film-watchers a window into the struggles of past gay persons. There is, I imagine, some consolation in seeing that whatever the differences between then and now, some of the struggles are the same. I would guess seeing that helps today’s gay persons feel less alone. On the other hand, homosexuality isn’t criminal in England (or the United States) anymore, thankfully, and there must be some relief to seeing how bad, in comparison, it was then. Watching Maurice is kind of like being constantly reminded that things are better now.

Or are they? I suppose that depends on what culture claims you.

On the other side of the planet, the other side of the 20th century, and the other side of the cinematic universe sits the second film I watched this month, Latter Days. The film chronicles a romance between two young men, one a sexually adventurous playboy named Christian and the other a closeted, Mormon missionary named Aaron. Christian and Aaron meet when Aaron and the other three missionaries on his team move into his condo complex. Their romance causes both to question their respective lifestyles.

More on that mutual questioning in a moment. First, I want to continue the thread I started above about things being better now, maybe, depending on what culture you claim as your own. Neither Christian or Aaron are very happy when Latter Days begins precisely because of the cultures with which they’ve aligned themselves. Christian thinks he is happy jumping from hook-up to hook-up as a liberated Angeleno gay man. Through his interactions with Aaron and with a man strike with AIDS, he begins to long for something more than one night stands. I can only imagine how Maurice would respond to Christian’s philandering. Maurice yearns his entire life for the kind of loving companionship Christian can easily claim if he wants it, but Christian rejects it in favor of cheap flings. Christian isn’t threatened by prison, but he’s kind of in a prison of his own making.

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Aaron’s situation is much more dire. He is Mormon, and admitting his homosexuality means being excommunicated from his church, ostracized by his family and community, and subjected to horrific “reeducation” techniques to “cure” him of his homosexuality. Aaron is in as bad a situation as Maurice, because the culture he is part of is as oppressive as Edwardian England.

Because of this narrative thread, Latter Days can be seen as an explicitly anti-Mormon films. I can’t argue against that. The film depicts the Mormon Church as tyrannical. Latter Days also depicts genuine religious faith as admirable though. Aaron is a truly compassionate person to everyone he meets. He helps other characters through difficult times, and his compassionate example is what inspires Christian to treat the man with AIDs with such dignity and respect. Furthermore, Aaron’s faith is what instills him with the belief that sexuality is precious, and that’s something that Christian badly needs to learn. Latter Days is anti-Mormon because of the way the Church institutionalizes the oppression of gay persons. Latter Days is also pro-religious conviction when that conviction motivates people to care for one another and for themselves.

As I mentioned previously, both main characters are prompted to question their respective lifestyles through their interactions with each other. Christian’s openness prompts Aaron to be honest with himself and with his family; Aaron’s faith-fueled love of all people prompts Christian to love everyone, including himself, more.

This month, Maurice showed us the struggles faced by gay persons a century ago. Latter Days showed us that the struggle continues today in slightly different ways. Latter Days also shows us the particular gifts the LGBTQ and religious communities can offer each other if they are willing to listen to each other and love each other instead of just trying to change each other. This blog series has been an exercise in empathy for me as a heterosexual Christian trying to better understand the concerns of LGBTQ persons. Latter Days demonstrates how empathy from both sides of the table is key if we are all ever going to live at peace with each other.

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Next month is the last month in this series. I will be able to watch all four films – Trick, Brokeback Mountain, Big Eden, and The Boys in the Band. I’m looking forward to it. I hope you are too.