Holding the Man is a tough narrative to summarise in a tweet, or on deadline for a six-hundred-word stock-format review. Certain themes predominate in critical and audience responses to the play and the film: the idea of a ‘faithful’ adaptation of the book, that is ‘really’, ‘above all’, or ‘fundamentally’ a ‘love story’ and ‘for all of us’.
The remarkable consistency of these responses displays a degree of compulsory affect – the emotion you’re socially obligated to perform, like when you get a new job and you’re ‘daunted’ but also ‘excited’ and ‘determined’, even though your felt emotions may be more complex, ambivalent and unresolved than that.
In this case, the compulsion may be ‘I need to signal my emotional sensitivity to the tragedy of AIDS’. At a panel at last year’s Melbourne Writers’ Festival, writer and artist Colin Batrouney described telling people at barbecues about his work in HIV: ‘People put on their compassion face and say, “Oh, that must be very hard.”’
These responses index a distanciation from both the gay community experience of the AIDS epidemic and what researcher Dion Kagan has called the post-crisis reality of HIV in contemporary gay community life, ever since the first effective treatments for HIV became available in drug trials, twenty years ago this year.
That distance is evident in – and is perhaps a precondition for – claims made about gay men and our sexual lives, such as Ben Naparstek’s view of unprotected sex as a ‘pathological sexual practice’ and ‘suicidal conduct’ involving ‘potentially lethal semen’.
Or the idea, more common in America but still heard in Australia, that marriage equality and monogamy will end the HIV epidemic among gay men. Anyone making these claims simply hasn’t been paying attention.
In 1994, gay man and cultural studies researcher Michael Hurley wrote:
I keep thinking about the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. I think about how it contains one of the most profound representations of one gay man grieving the loss of another that I have ever seen. And then I think about how that representation of a gay man’s grief is used to signify the importance of love, a love in which the specifics of gayness disappear … I think about how the relationship between these two men is empty of any hint of sexual activity between them, of how they barely touch at all, of how any notion of a wider gay community is absent from the film.
That is not a criticism that could be made of Holding the Man, whose sex scenes run the gamut from frantic and awkward, illicit and erotic, to tender and loving, and which shows the university, political, sexual and cultural settings for gay community life.
But it can certainly be made of those critical and popular responses that aim to de-gay and de-AIDS the film, positioning it as an example of a universal romantic discourse that can unite gay and straight people.
The claim ‘we’re all the same really’ was ditched from anti-racist discourse decades ago, so why try it now with gay people? Does a love story really tell us more fundamental truths about ourselves than one about death and dying?
The idea of a ‘faithful’ re-telling also does a disservice to Tommy Murphy’s labour of love – and considerable ingenuity – in adapting the book for the stage and screen.
I saw the play at the Belvoir and I left it enraged by the decision to end the play at John’s deathbed, leaving out his funeral, at which the Caleo family demoted Tim to ‘John’s friend … who provided such support in the final months of his life’.
At the thirtieth anniversary of the Victorian AIDS Council, founding president Phil Carswell spoke of the many funerals where families de-gayed their dead sons.
Like Tim, lovers, if mentioned at all, became ‘friends’. Friends sat up the back and listened to eulogies in which recollections of the departed ceased at age seventeen, back when he was still a ‘dear sweet boy’. (Before his death from ‘cancer’.)
Another friend of mine, a funeral celebrant, remembers one occasion where the dead man’s partner got home to find his partner’s family had sent removalists to take away all their possessions – during the funeral.
During the dark years, AIDS councils offered workshops on ‘grief and loss’, but the community experience was clearly one of trauma, and the challenge now is to knit together the narrative of our community’s survival.
In his reflection, Michael Hurley goes on to note Four Weddings and a Funeral is:
a rare instance within mainstream culture of asserting what the gay communities have known for some time: that the communal speaking of grief is central to living in the epidemic, and… celebrations of gayness are a life affirming rejoinder to a world which prefers the grief to remain unspeakable.
So it really matters that the film adaptation of Holding the Man reinstates the funeral scene, and that we recognise the film as a powerful and moving remembrance of gay sex, relationships and community, AIDS and death.
The key to the film’s emotional power is not ‘faithful’ adherence to the particulars of a much-loved book. The text has its flaws – most notably the way Tim struggles to depict his partner John as a complex human being, not an extension of his ego.
Rather, what matters is the way the film remembers the text-as-community.
Two performances are crucial to this alchemy.
Craig Stott imbues John Caleo with a sense of humour, toughness and agency missing from ‘John’ of the book; through his candescent performance John seems literally angelic in the closing third of the film.
Anthony La Paglia physically embodies the fear, confusion and anger – as well as the love – John’s father Bob Caleo must have felt; this revealed an unexpectedly emotional seam in the real life narrative that I had never tapped reading the book.
The film does justice to the text by showing respect for the relationships and emotional investments of Tim, and John, their families and community, and the community of readers who love the book.
The device Tommy Murphy has found to bookend and structure the film is a doozy. In a very Hollywood way – and I don’t mean that dismissively – it reasserts the importance of collective remembrance and the powerlessness of death over love.
That was the theme of Tim’s reading at John’s funeral, a message that has nothing to do with universal love, and everything to do with that particular time, community, and epidemic; it must have had incredible poignancy for Tim’s friends, knowing the road he had to travel in the years and months ahead.
I am just waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near, just around the corner.
All is well.
Tommy Murphy has been generous in discussing his ten-year journey with Timothy Conigrave’s iconic text. See his account in the Saturday Paper or listen to him interviewed by Toby Leon and Erin Dewar in the Not in Print podcast.