I saw this extraordinary movie from 1974 recently on DVD, only because Netflix apparently bought just one copy of the popular new releases, which means I'm facing a "very long wait." This movie more than made up for it.
In a way, I don't really need to review it here. Michael D. Klemm has already written a great review on his site, Cinema Queer, that says almost everything I feel about it:
But not quite everything.
As Klemm says, Christopher Larkin's movie "documents, for posterity, a period of pre-AIDS gay liberation that is but a hazy recollection now for an entire generation." Emphasis on "documents." This is that rare movie where saying it sometimes feels like a documentary is a compliment of the highest order. As I watched, I forgot the movie was scripted and that Larkin was making a point. It all seemed so real, so … natural.
Starting with actual footage of the 1973 Gay Pride parade, Natural tells the story of David, a young gay man leaving a monastery to rejoin the world and look for love. There's no agonizing about being gay, from him or any of the characters. I had expected more of that tortured 80s soul-searching and the usual timidity about showing gay men as people with functioning bodies below the waist. Instead I saw young men as I remember them: open, friendly, sexual but innocent in many ways. David hooks up with a hot guy, moves in with him, and tries to make things work. Their friends refer to the other gay couples they know as "marriages" and, long before same-sex marriage was even a distant improbability, the idea that gay and straight relationships are basically the same and face the same issues is the movie's central theme.
It's sad and ironic that the movie received mostly bad reviews at the time. The few mainstream reviewers didn't get Larkin's humorous references to the infamous weepy 1970 romance Love Story and failed to see what was right in front of them: a cheerful, optimistic, forward-looking paean to the boundless future of newly-liberated gay love. Even more ironic is that gay reviewers scolded Larkin for being too focused on monogamy and not giving more attention to the free love and sexual adventure that would distinguish modern, liberated gay men from their downtrodden heterosexual counterparts.
Of course AIDS killed all that. But I wonder how much of it is also generational, economic, fashion- or mood-changes, or whether any one strand of that rats' nest can be untangled and held wholly responsible.
All I know is that this movie not only rings true almost 40 (gasp!) years later but is a reminder that there are very few new ideas in the world. After the thrills of orgies and fisting and open relationships and kink and drugs and BDSM have been explored, we can say with certainty only that (some) men choose monogamy because the alternative is misery-inducing. To be a successful couple requires work, but, more important, finding the right person, the one who wants to be part of that successful couple too.
I strongly urge anyone who is too young to have adult memories from this time (or wasn't born yet) to see this movie, because whatever you've heard or been told about those times is probably wrong. Not necessarily a lie, just … not true. And if you are old enough to remember those days, please, if you haven't seen this film or not recently, do yourself a favor. It will bring back so many beautiful and ugly, ordinary and crazy memories: the dreadful music and dancing in the clubs right on the cusp of disco, that make disco seem like Mozart or Sondheim by comparison; the scenes of the baths and Fire Island before they were shut down or turned into gay theme parks for the 1%; and best of all, the young male bodies that look the way nobody does anymore. They're skinny and raw, not all beefed up from "working out," and before the obesity epidemic turned us into a nation of walking marshmallows. I remember boys like that, but it's been a hell of a long time.
When the two young lovers take that last slow-motion naked run down the dunes and into the water, laughing and splashing, cocks dangling and swinging, I wanted to weep and shout with joy at the same time. These young men are so lovely and so doomed, full of hope and love, courage and strength. They embody a concept we talk about a lot but rarely understand: genuine manhood. Why did we not see it at the time? Or couldn't we bear to recognize what we were being shown?