Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Very Natural Thing (1971)

          On the rare occasions when gay men were portrayed in mainstream movies during the early ’70s, they were generally depicted as freaks, psychopaths, screaming queens, and/or self-loathing basket cases. (Even the groundbreaking 1970 drama The Boys in the Band features abundant histrionics and stereotypes.) Given this context, the burden of representing gay life in a non-sensational manner fell to indie filmmakers constrained to the margins of popular culture because of limited distribution and low budgets. Hence the serviceable drama A Very Natural Thing, which is about a young man’s quest to embrace his sexual identity and to find a partner for a committed relationship. The movie is earnest and sincere and thorough, exploring everything from the pressure that gay men feel to remain closeted while occupying professional spaces to the tensions that arise when one partner wants to swing and the other doesn’t.
          Still, it’s difficult to identify the audience for whom A Very Natural Thing was made. On one level, it seems to aimed at hip gay viewers, what with the matter-of-fact depiction of casual drug use and orgies. Moreover, flourishes including the slow-mo montage of dudes frolicking nude on a beach seem ill-suited for drawing mainstream viewers into the tent of tolerance and understanding. And then there are the elements that give A Very Natural Thing its gentle sociopolitical message. The documentary footage from Gay Pride events. The prologue showing that the leading character began his life in the ultimate straight community—a monastery. The choice of an unthreatening protagonist who would rather settle down than sleep around. If cowriter/director Christopher Larkin endeavored to make a film bridging gay-rights activism and mainstream entertainment, he didn’t achieve his goal, because the picture is too tame to service the first priority and too in-your-face to service the second. (Even viewed today, the sexual content in A Very Natural Thing is quite frank.) Despite the film’s identity crisis, it’s possible to experience the picture as a simple story about the difficulties that plague all human relationships.
          David (Robert Joel) quits being a monk in order to become a public-school teacher and to embrace his sexuality. At a club one night, he meets a lawyer named Mark (Curt Gareth), and they sleep together. David craves a familial bond, and Mark is more into keeping things casual. They find an acceptable balance between their opposing desires for a while, but during a weekend trip to Fire Island, Mark’s enthusiastic participation in an orgy reveals that being with David isn’t enough to satisfy Mark’s hunger for adventure. And so it goes from there. All of this is completely believable and relatable, even if the stilted dialogue and uneven performances prohibit the creation of an immersive illusion. At some points, the movie even starts to feel like an educational piece illustrating the emotional dangers of trying to make things work with an incompatible partner. At the risk of making a backhanded compliment, the fact that A Very Natural Thing slips into the predictable grooves of old-fashioned relationship melodramas might be the highest tribute to Larkin’s efforts; excepting the overtly homoerotic scenes, he manages to make his characters’ journeys as generic as anybody else’s.

A Very Natural Thing: FUNKY

1 comment:

adam said...

Yeah, the 70's were a brutal time to be gay if you wanted to see yourself reflected in the media. Thanks for a write-up of a film most wouldn't have bothered with.