If you're one of those people who, like me, wants to know as little as possible about a film or book or play before you see it, who avoids reviews until afterwards because every revelation, no matter how small, robs you of your own experience of that revelation as you're experiencing the work -- if you're one of those people, don't read this post. Read this sentence and then stop: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a wonderful, funny, deeply moving film, and I recommend it.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Recently at a cabaret-type concert of songs from new musicals, after 2 or 3 songs in a row had been about gay characters or situations or relationships, a close friend -- another writer, a straight man -- who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said with what sounded to me like exasperation, , "Why does every story lately have to be about gay stuff?"
The answer is so obvious to me that I'd barely given it thought, but I realized then that of course it's not obvious to someone who is not a queer person who has lived through the last 20 or 30 years in America, even to someone like my friend, who is straight but works in the theater and is open-minded and liberal, so of course he's had lots of routine contact with, and lots of close friends who are, homosexuals.
Everything is gay lately. Gay is all over the TV, all over the movies, all over the theater, because for so long nothing was allowed to be gay, unless of course it fit very narrow parameters.
We've read our Vito Russo; we know the story. Gay characters could not be presented unless they were deeply coded or harshly disapproved of, and gay stories could not be told unless they ended tragically. Then, starting around the 70s, those judgments started to loosen up a bit, but yet, even if it wasn't the intention of the artist, anything with the slightest hint of queerness in it was perceived, reviewed, talked about as edgy and provocative, sexy in a dangerous way. There was no room for the subtle or complex, or, paradoxically, the ordinary, when it came to stories about gay people's lives. Whether or not it was true, if a story had anything queer in it at all, it was talked about as if it was about queerness.
But now that things are more open and because most people seem willing and curious to hear the stories, the floodgates have opened.
There are lots of assumptions and theories as to why there's been an avalanche of change in awareness and attitudes toward homosexuals in the last 20 years. That whole subject is beyond the scope of what I sat down to do this morning, which is to tell you all that I watched a beautiful film last night called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It's a sort of fable about old people and new beginnings. It's stuffed full of stock characters and clichés about seeing oneself in stark relief against the backdrop of an exotic culture, learning things that one could never have learned in the familiar surroundings of home. Because it's a fable, the clichés don't rankle. To me they read as gestures toward larger truths and meanings rather than just the tricks of a lazy storyteller.
I don't remember seeing anything about its theatrical release. My husband and I saw a trailer for on-demand cable and it looked good. The trailer and the promo I saw did not, I think wisely, mention the gay storyline. Yes, things have changed and the effect is certainly milder, but the mention of a gay element can still, in press and reviews and even casual chat, obscure other elements of a story.
The characters are familiar, except for one. A gay English man who, upon retirement, decides to travel to India where, as a young man, he had a passionate and short affair with an Indian man, an affair which caused a scandal for the man's family and from which the English man fled and did not return until now, 40 years later. He goes back to search for this man and make peace with his regrets.
Each step, each turn in his story is a surprise, bracing, eye-opening, and deeply affecting. It occurred to me as we were watching the film and I was thinking about how the outlines of the stories of most of these characters were so predictable, but a story like this gay man's was forbidden for so long and so not predictable, that I was seeing the birth of a new stock character, a new stock story: the homosexual, in a new more open time, returning to the scene of a relationship that was shaped by the shame and secrecy and danger of the past, in order to reckon with a situation from which he fled.
I supposed we'll be hearing stories with this outline for a while now. At least until we move past a time when queer people share a shame and danger-filled past. May I live to see the day.