“Let us try to focus all our energy and all of our love on these two men, George and Ben.”
“Always, always, you must focus on the instrument you are playing.” – Love Is Strange, 2014
“All history is defined by shifting modes of reality and time and how things change. That’s what I love about cinema. It changes in the moment.” – Ira Sachs, director, Love Is Strange
The evening before I watched the film Love Is Strange, a friend of mine used the phrase “He can’t focus on anything,” referring to someone I did not know. I immediately think that is an old problem but also very much a millennial problem. Apps now guide our attentiveness, which nevertheless scampers from one smartphone app to another, a newer version of “surfing” the web all night, pursuing one link after another, no focus lingering long enough to bring anything to some semblance of continuity or a thread of meaning that ideally should mysteriously dissolve within us as a lingering experience.
So – a favored word now that mocks continuity while revealing a lack of focus on what has preceded, on what your interlocutor has said – I watch Love Is Strange as an exploration of focus, although the film asks us at the very beginning, in the words of the officiator at the marriage of George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), to try and focus totally on these two men.
I don’t know if my prior inclination to focus on focusing or the film’s own failure to focus just on these two men is at work here, but I find that the film’s multiple and always unfinished focusing somehow creates an aesthetic and psychological/philosophical wholeness. The film’s non-compliance with the marriage officiator’s injunction to focus all our energies on these two men leads us to focus elsewhere and everywhere, which, oddly enough, is our present cultural disposition.
Marisa Tomei’s Kate (right), married to Ben’s nephew, Elliot (Darren Burrows), is a writer at home trying to focus on her writing but is interrupted continually by a clueless Uncle Ben. Elliot’s family life focus is constantly detoured to work, now conveniently facilitated through the ubiquitous cell phone. When Elliot accuses Kate of being “too nice” to their son Joey (Charlie Tahan), Kate accuses him of being “too nice” to Uncle Ben. Elliot cannot focus on what is really going on with Uncle Ben in the house because Elliot is out of the house most of the time.
For both Kate and Elliot, Joey is out of focus. When Elliot attempts to focus on his son Joey’s alleged thievery of French-language books from school, his lack of focus on his son’s life leads him to believe that drugs are Joey’s problem, something our own audience focus see as “missing the picture” of what’s up with Joey. And that picture moves the focus of our camera far from where we began, the marriage of two elderly gay men.
Joey, who has been to a therapist the year before, now has Vlad (Eric Tabach) as his only friend. Vlad is the focus of his life. Joey is focused on Vlad, who we really know from only two scenes, but we know he is very confident and self-assured. He responds to a skeptical Kate with an unwavering, “I don’t flunk.” In another scene, as soon as Vlad sees the attractive young girl who works for Joey’s parents, he makes a play for her. What we see is that Joey is very attracted to Vlad’s mature self-possession. Elliot finds the relationship between Vlad, who “just looks older,” to be “strange.” They are like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo,” Elliot declares.
Elliot’s own focus is fractured and partial, but it’s Uncle Ben who can see more clearly what is going on with Joey because his own experience brings Joey into focus. Uncle Ben sees that Joey needs to develop a self-confidence that does not rest in or imitate that of another, in this case, Vlad. He redirects Joey’s focus when he asks him “Have you ever been in love?” to which Joey replies that he is not gay and Uncle Ben tells him he wasn’t implying that. The focus here is not on gayness. It is on Joey saying this: “There was this girl once . . . I watched her from the beach and one day I saw her watching me.” And in the final scene of the movie, we see Joey meet a young girl, perhaps the same young girl, and the two skateboard into a bright sunset.
Vlad’s charisma has faded from Joey’s focus. He has in the end a heterosexual focus. Was this a natural development, from gay to not gay, or has Uncle Ben merely led Joey to seeing beyond his one male friend, to viewing a wider world of choices, realities that extend beyond his youthful focusing frame? It’s not then about gayness but about apprenticeship to life.
This Joey/Vlad focus of the film also opens to a view of focus itself. When Joey finds Vlad posing as Uncle Ben paints, he declares “It’s so gay,” to which Vlad explains that Joey does not mean homosexual but just stupid. “Gay” has a new meaning with the millennials, Kate tells Uncle Ben. The focus has changed; the old focus is out of focus. If reality is what it appears to us and what appears to us is what we focus on, it seems now that old reality is gone and a new reality has replaced it. But if there is a reality that inheres and is present regardless of what a current, faddish focus may be, then words, as James Joyce reminded us, bear within them all their prior linkages. And the world we focus on remains unconstrained by our focus. What our focus leaves out or distorts remains there to be seen and heard. Words float free of our personal focus.
The film offers us an opportunity to focus, through the Vlad/Joey relationship, on the toughened offspring, Vlad, of a world much harsher than the new gentrified Brooklyn, on one youth already armored to meet the world and the other in need of therapeutic support. But the film does not pursue or clarify this hint of a focus. It moves on, just as we have already moved on from the wedding of two elderly gay men. This is a repeated motif of the film: a setting up of an issue, unsettling and not to be settled in the film, just as it is not settled in the world outside the film. A focus and then a movement away.
George loses his job at a Catholic school because by chance, a photo of his wedding to Ben appears on Facebook and that photo reaches the school authorities. George composes a letter to the parents in which he asks them to have a conversation with their children on whether or not justice was served in his termination. “Love does not delight in injustice but rejoices in the truth,” George affirms, quoting St. Paul. And then we move away. We are left to complete the focus, one that remains open as the film moves elsewhere.
Nevertheless, we have caught a glimpse of something, something that again resonates powerfully with us because we too seek to represent our lives on our social media. We find our focus in our “Facebooking,” scrolling down what others have focused on, the threads of connection missing as if the enterprise of making sense of things was irrelevant. A joyful union finds its way to a photo on Facebook that is narrowed by Catholic dogma to a focus that undermines the reality of George and Ben’s marriage. An order of representation in cyberspace is powerful enough to displace reality and establishes reason to take away George’s livelihood, to erase all the years of dedicated teaching, to tear the two lovers apart.
Focus shifts also to the difficulties of finding a place to live in drastically divided rich/poor New York on limited unemployment checks and a retirement income, George and Ben’s situation. George and Ben go to a city housing department in order to find an apartment they can afford. What they discover is that although the rentals are city sponsored, whatever that means, the tenants are selected by lottery and then have to meet the criteria set by real estate developers. “The city itself does not rent the apartments so that if you are selected, this will be a private real estate transaction between you and the real estate developer.” This is a hot issue to focus upon because the entire arrangement of public and private, of government and the private sector, is at the heart of the political divide in the U.S.
It does not matter whether this is a homosexual or a heterosexual couple. This is a wealth divide class issue, not a gay issue. The combined incomes of both must not be below or above certain parameters, and, in the example George gives, the figures are $19,000 and $23,000. You do not qualify if your combined income is less than $19,000 and you do not qualify if it is above $23,000. It seems clear, if you focus longer than the film does, that these “city-sponsored” rentals will serve a limited few, probably because there are a limited number of rental-controlled apartments available. Continued focus, which is yours and not the film’s – although the film invites this – leads you to think that the “real estate developer and marketing agent” contribution to this rental service is to make sure that few people qualify and few apartments are available. The millennial goal is not to give away real estate that can be rented or sold for astronomical sums.
What we are also invited to focus on is George and Ben’s own failure to focus on their own future. They, in fact, seem to have left their future well-being to chance. Ben is a painter who lives not on the sales of his paintings but on his retirement, which turns out to be more of a Social Security retirement than a stock portfolio one. And when George loses his job, both men fall at once into neediness.
This plunge from middle-class well-being to hard times is as quarrelsome and resonating an issue as the private/public mix, for it touches on personal choice and accepting the consequences of those choices. Perhaps the Religious Right might be more upset by gay marriage than this personal choice issue, but the Market Rule Right sees no issue more crucial than this. The needy need to assume personal responsibility for poor choices, while the affluent need to assume personal responsibility for their good choices, the latter being infinitely easier an assignment than the former.
Ben and George are clearly intelligent, unconstrained individuals who have not made their life decisions under duress. George teaches music, a subject education seems to no longer have a budget for as governments turn away from funding public education as part of a campaign to privatize for profit. In the Neoliberal view, George’s career choice ignored market forces. Ben lives in the hope that “one day a curator will come along and say this is the greatest painting” and he will have a one-man show at a famous gallery. His choices are even further than George’s from reckoning with the market forces that Neoliberals accept as all-determining.
More grievous from a Neoliberal view is Ben and George’s failure to plan for the certain dire consequences of their choices. Their first recourse is to seek some help from family and friends until they can get an apartment. So Ben winds up in a lower bunk in his nephew Joey’s room, and George winds up sleeping on the sofa in the apartment of two party-loving young men. Although everyone is well-intentioned, these arrangements prove disastrous, not only because Ben and George no longer can fit in any lifestyle but their own, but because the millennial U.S. is far more an “I’ve got mine, you get yours” society than a “lean on me” society.
Their failure, then, to wisely focus on the trajectory of their own lives may be to an unknown extent a result of their failure to assume personal responsibility for their choices but rather expect that friends, relatives, and the government will come to their rescue. Their second tactic is to seek government aid in finding an apartment they can afford. This, in the Neoliberal view, is like expecting Social Security and Medicare to save you even when you have totally fouled up your own life.
Only chance, which has led to George’s termination, gets an apartment for George and Ben. Chance, in fact, is in focus more than anything else in this film. The play of chance and not the government bails them out. George meets Ian by chance, who by chance, has a rent-controlled apartment he has to give up because of a new job in Mexico. And so, George and Ben find a place to live.
Our focus is now on chance, which we see as a strong player in our lives, for good or ill, and that awareness, which once again the film does not pursue, is a deconstructing one that troubles our faith in our freedom to choose and our presumptions of individual autonomy. Perhaps chance put the billions in the pocket of the billionaire? Perhaps chance laid the homeless low?
Thus, the focus on chance that emerges from a focus always wandering elsewhere in this film, subverts focus itself. Even the best-laid plans can be interrupted by chance. Even a writer can be interrupted. Even a film.
We go back to my friend’s observation regarding the person who could not focus on anything. Let us say he has a tweet-sized focus, whether it was preexisting or a product of his focus eventually being shaped by tweets, we can never know. A tweet-sized focus does not focus on this matter. Consider what the consequences here are: you cannot focus long enough on anything to bring it to meaning and meaning to an understanding that structures your life, gives it unity, coherence, and continuity. You cannot follow the path of your own choices because your focus has even wandered away from those.
The Neoliberal must assume that you are free to focus to the degree that you can bring your life to your chosen order so that you can assume personal responsibility and so that others can detach themselves from any responsibility. But what we see in this film is that chance overrides the order of Ben and George’s lives, and though theirs is a losing order, logic tells us that chance can interrupt any order. Once again, chance, not choice, can possibly rule success or failure. What the proportion here is between choice and chance is itself an issue of chance, an issue requiring a Sherlock Holmesian capacity to focus.
Nothing in the film comes anywhere close to focusing as I have done throughout this essay because focus itself is in this film not assumed but under interrogation, under suspicion. Can we do it? is the question the film raises and therefore cannot commit itself to answering with a sustained, single focus. And if we presume we can focus, are we choosing what to focus on, or are we focusing on what by chance comes before us? Can we focus long enough to settle the quarrels regarding what should be public and what should be private? Long enough to decide how free are our choices and how correct is it to assume responsibility for those choices? Is our social media extending our realm of free choices, or is it confining us to very superficial and misleading representations of our lives, as on cyberspace’s social media?
Finally, is this film an opening of many lenses because the idea of a single, determining focus has given way to a fragmented, multiplex view of reality? Or is Love Is Strange wandering in focus because now in American culture we no longer know how to focus?
Ironically, given all this undecidability, the film’s penultimate scene is a long, sustained focus on Joey standing in the stairwell of George’s apartment. Nothing happens. Joey stands there; he is distressed. There are tears and silence. We expect to move on; we expect a change in focus but it does not come. With so long a focus we delve for meaning; we have enough time for that. Time for us to review every scene, every person, and every bit of dialogue the film has focused on. Time enough to bring Love Is Strange into focus.