Love is Strange begins with an easy, unforced reflection of the parallel truism that love is natural. Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play George and Ben, Greenwich Village lovers who, at an advanced age and having been together for decades, decide to tie the knot officially and publicly.
From there, things get decidedly more complicated in their lives. Despite the fact that same-sex marriage is legal to them in New York, it is still not accepted by other institutions. And so when George and Ben’s nuptials are recorded in the newspaper announcements, the Catholic school where George teaches choir claims they have no choice but to release him of his duties.
With no reliable income, the two are forced to crash at friends’ and families’ equally diminutive NYC apartments … separately. The disparity between everyone’s unbridled joy at their wedding and the strain the ties that bind them endure in the messy aftermath call to mind the drama of Leo McCarey’s 1937 tearjerker Make Way for Tomorrow, itself the inspiration for Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 classic Tokyo Story. (The latter is frequently listed among the best movies ever made, but truth be told, I have always reserved a special place in my heart for McCarey’s film.)
Director Ira Sachs, working with screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias, works within a melodramatic context to tease out moments of sublime delicacy between both actors, even though they spend most of the movie’s running time apart. Their connection is even more deeply felt in their mutual absence. Alfred Molina, playing the younger of the two, simmers with barely concealed resentment at his situation, possibly blaming himself secretly. And Lithgow (who as other critics have pointed out has rarely been an actor of small gestures) is heartbreakingly fragile while remaining resilient.
I had the chance to talk with Sachs about his film a few weeks back. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Eric Henderson: I loved the movie, but I sort of thought I would even before I watched it. Because the tagline that I’ve seen on a couple reviews was “Make Way for Tomorrow in the age of marriage equality.” Was that movie a conscious influence?
Ira Sachs: That was one of many films. Ozu was a big influence — Tokyo Story, which I haven’t actually seen again in 20 years. But my co-writer and I spent a couple of months every Saturday in New York going to the IFC Center when we were working on Keep the Lights On together and going to a different Ozu movie every Saturday. So we saw 10 or 12 of those films. I realized in these last couple of days that each decade I’ve had a key obsessive influence. Cassavetes when I was in my 20s, and Fassbinder maybe. Ken Loach was really important to me in my 30s. I think now I’m in my Ozu decade.
Henderson: And next decade, maybe, John Waters.
Sachs: Yeah, maybe!
Henderson: Did you have a favorite Ozu movie?
Sachs: To me they’re all one movie. Individually, they’re like great novels, but if I told you whether it was Late Autumn or Early Spring, I’d get the name wrong. … I didn’t see Ozu, except for Tokyo Story, until I was 40. You hope that you can keep having these discoveries. I spent three months in Paris when I was a junior in college. I didn’t speak French and I wasn’t actually enrolled, and I ended up going to 196 movies in that short time span. I just ended up going three times a day. That was a big part of my creative education.
Henderson: There are differing opinions on labelling something “gay cinema” these days. Maybe we’re beyond identity politics to some level?
Sachs: I believe in those terms when they’re useful for cultural identification. I run a series called Queer/Art/Film. But as a filmmaker and an artist, I don’t feel the adjective is enough. It doesn’t seem to define me or my characters. On the other hand, to choose not to put gay characters in a film, whether consciously or unconsciously, for the first 15 years of my own life was I think a form of cultural closeting. So I think it’s meaningful to have gay stories; maybe you could say that these are gay stories. But I don’t know that you could say that this is a “gay film.”
Henderson: The question is still interesting though because this movie touches on how we’re currently in a transitional state in regard to gay marriage specifically. Tennessee just ruled that their ban on gay marriage is somehow constitutional. So there are still some growing pains in this movement.
Sachs: I think in terms of this film, what’s really important to consider is that a relationship isn’t lived in isolation, it’s lived in context. And this couple is part of a family and part of a community, and that whole multi-generational, interwoven fabric is really … someone had a good word for it. They said it was “a little epic.” And then I started thinking about films that were very important to me like The Magnificent Ambersons. I’ve always wanted to do a multi-generational family drama. I just didn’t know it would center on a house, or an apartment. This kind of small case. Summer Hours was important to me, showing how ownership and possession and real estate become so important to family in terms of how they define themselves.
Henderson: Going back to identity politics a bit, I noticed that on Rotten Tomatoes, this movie was categorized under the genres of “drama” and “special interest.” And I thought, “Oh, no!”
Sachs: I don’t think gay people identify as subcultural or marginal anymore, so they don’t identify with what is made into marginal cinema. They identify with the mainstream. So my feeling is if the film is a mainstream success, gay people will show up.
Henderson: Sure, I went to Gravity like everybody else.
Sachs: Exactly. So I think that’s true even of films with gay content, that actually getting people to the theater has to do with that crossover. So if your mother goes, you’re going to go.
Henderson: Right … well, actually no, not technically true. If she goes, I might be a little less likely to go. So I was obviously watching the movie a little bit through my love for Make Way for Tomorrow. It’s a melodramatic premise, but all of these details show up that subvert that. Melodrama is all about the grand gestures, but this movie is about small, very private observances.
Sachs: In a way, the neorealist in me came out. That movement was about mixing melodrama with documentary realism, and how you could blend those two and tell a story that was dramatically potent while still being sociologically accurate. I kind of think that has been my strategy in building a film, to create the kind of anthropological reality in which these characters live. But there’s a limited time to affect an audience, and I’m more interested in traditional drama than I used to be. To succeed in that is really an interesting creative challenge. My previous films were also about the ways that relationships can be challenging, but more specifically they were films of self-discovery. That by nature is a different sort of plot, whereas (Love is Strange) is a remarriage comedy. There’s a book by Stanley Cavell called Pursuits of Happiness, which is all about the remarriage comedies of the 1930s. There’s a bunch of them — The Palm Beach Story, It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve. They’re always about people who are together and, in that period, married, for various reasons separated, and then at the end coming back together. That’s a classic comedy structure, a Shakespearean comedy structure. And I think there’s a reason that plotline has been effective.
Henderson: Two of my best friends have been together for over a decade, and after gay marriage was legalized in Minnesota, I asked if they would be getting married. And they said, “I don’t think so.” I know they have their reasons, and some of them seem reflected in this movie. It would essentially be like restarting their relationship.
Sachs: This is not a pro-marriage film. It’s a pro-equality film. I don’t think marriage is the answer in any relationship. What I think is different about this film … its optimism is something that I think is newfound for me in my 40s. The end of Keep the Lights On is really about coming to a point where the character is open with who he is. And for me that meant making Keep the Lights On, which was the inverse of my previous 20 years, where everything was hidden. At that point, I met my partner, who is actually a painter and painted John’s paintings in the film. But I think I was ready to have a relationship that has the potential to be good for a long time. That wasn’t true for the 40 years before. I think that feeling of the film, which you’ve talked about in an aesthetic way, is also a tone. And I think that tone reflects me.
Henderson: But also in a more omniscient way. One of the things I loved about the movie was seeing a passing of the torch. You have Ben and George at the Stonewall bar, by virtue of their age pretending to have been pioneers for LGBT rights and getting a free drink from the bartender. It gets a big laugh, with the knowledge that the younger generations have benefitted from those advances. On the other hand, you have the teen kid who constantly says “gay” as a pejorative, and is constantly reminding Ben: “Gay doesn’t mean ‘gay’ anymore.” It means something else.
Sachs: You want to try to be accurate about the time you live in, and this film talks about a culture in shift and in flux. And I think that flux is, in terms of what happens in the film, always exciting.