A Very Natural Thing

Waterbearer Films,

Christopher Larkin

Joseph Coencas,
Christopher Larkin

Robert Joel,
Curt Gareth,
Bo White,
Anthony McKay
Howard Blakey,
Jay Pierce,
Robert Grill

Rated R, 80 minutes

That 70's Show
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online November, 2010

M. Faust, a fellow film critic who writes for Buffalo's ArtVoice Magazine, told me something that has always stuck with me. Faust was once the owner of Mondo Video, the only video store in Buffalo where you could find really obscure indie and foreign films. (A good chunk of the queer films that I reviewed in the late 1990s were rented at Mondo.) Amongst the films in his eclectic inventory was an early 60s soft porn movie that featured Yoko Ono. He considered the film to be an important document because it preserved on celluloid a Manhattan setting that is now a very distant memory. The same thing can be said about 1974's A Very Natural Thing (directed by Christopher Larkin from a screenplay by Larkin and Joseph Coencas), one of the first positive American films about homosexuality. Aside from offering a groundbreaking story about two men struggling to maintain a relationship, it also documents, for posterity, a period of pre-AIDS gay liberation that is but a hazy recollection now for an entire generation.

I plan to discuss why this title is important and place it in its historical context. Warning, there will be spoilers ahead.

Robert Joel stars as David, a young gay man who has rejected life as a monk in a monastery and embraced the sexuality he once sought to suppress. He is now an English teacher, teaching Shakespeare's sonnets to a class of bored high school students. His lover is Mark (Curt Gareth), a straight acting business executive. These two men are hot for each other but they have drastically different ideas about their relationship. David wants love, marriage and apple pie. Mark tells David that he's a "pretty good fuck for an ex-monk" and that he's "flattered" that David wants to include him in his "fairy tale world," but he thinks romance and marriage went out in the 50s. "I'm liberated," he insists, "I'm not as traditional as you."

Societal pressures aside, these guys are comfortable with being gay, they just aren't jelling as a couple. "Do we have to do everything together?" Mark asks. He mocks David's old fashioned ideas and enjoys other men on the side. David, in an effort to salvage their relationship, agrees to experiment with him. Participating in an orgy on Fire Island proves disastrous and the two men wind up going their separate ways. After feeling unsatisfied on a solo trip to the baths, David meets Jason (Bo White), a divorced photographer, at one of the first Gay Pride Parades. The two men hit it off but David isn't ready to leap into another relationship unless he knows it's a sure thing. They agree to just enjoy each other's company, and the film ends with a slow motion, naked romp in the surf at Cape Cod.

Even though the film screams 1970s, A Very Natural Thing (originally titled For As Long As Possible) is surprisingly unapologetic for its day. Both men, though closeted in their jobs, are not having self loathing coming out issues like most of the cast of 1970's The Boys In The Band. Mark has been out since prep school where he dated, and slept with, women until he discovered that he preferred the company of men. David became a monk to curb his urges but the experience "left a bad taste in [his] mouth about God, like He's either sadistic or incompetent." Though tame by today's standards, A Very Natural Thing was quite a gutsy film. There is full frontal nudity, kissing, and a few sex scenes. I loved a throwaway moment where they buy a tube of KY Jelly and the pharmacist gives them a dirty look. The orgy and the trip to the baths are explicit for 1974 but not quite porn. (Gay porn already existed at this point, Wakefield Poole's 1971 The Boys In The Sand is the most famous example.) Audiences were not used to seeing men being romantic together on the screen and these guys enjoy many intimate moments.

A Very Natural Thing, was savaged by the few mainstream critics who bothered to review it. The film was dismissed as a gay version of 1970's Love Story and mocked for recycling the same standard Hollywood romance cliches. A cute montage sequence that depicts our lovers rolling in Autumn leaves and riding a carousel reinforce this notion but methinks the director was invoking parody here to mock Tinseltown traditions. Am I apologizing for sloppy filmmaking? No, I don't think so, because Mark actually refers to David as Love Story's Ali McGraw, and he also references that same film's cheesy tagline ("Love means never having to say you're sorry") when he says "Love means never having to say you're in love."

The film was similarly dismissed by much of its target audience. We were in the throes of a sexual revolution in the early 70s and hip gay men who wanted sexual liberation found David's quest for romantic love and monogamy to be outdated and square. Audiences disagreed with the film's politics and undoubtedly felt that the director was on the side of the romantics. As if to confirm this, David's trek through the baths is accompanied by ominous music and the scene looks like Night Of The Living Dead. Mark is also clearly the bad guy in the relationship. Ironically, this very theme makes A Very Natural Thing still appear modern and contemporary (despite the clothes and the hair). The debate over fidelity vs. an open marriage still rages today and remains a standard dramatic device in much of queer cinema. Another familiar debate was first articulated on film here. David doesn't think marching in a Gay Pride Parade is going to change people's minds about faggots. Being truthful about his personal life could compromise his job as a teacher but his new beau, Jason, insists that we need to be out so that someday future gays won't have to hide.

Gay films were a rarity in 1974 and director Larkin, knowing that his film was a milestone of sorts, threw everything but the kitchen sink into his opus. Some of his elements are disruptive to the narrative but remain important as documentary. He begins the film by cutting the Pride March, and interviews with the participants, with David's de-frocking at the monastery. More of these talking heads return (along with the parade) in a segue leading up to David's meeting with Jason at the Christopher Street Pride celebration. Though these interview sound bites stop the narrative dead, it's poignant to hear what they have to say because we realize that, for all our gains, some things still haven't changed.

Another "first" presented here was a happy ending in a queer film. David and Mark might not last as a couple but David appears to have a future with Jason. They come to an understanding over wanting to be together rather than having to be. No one commits suicide, no one has a tree fall on them, and no one says "Show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse" like Michael, the poster child for whining, at the end of The Boys In The Band. Instead we see liberation as a slow motion beach frolic that is lyrical and beautiful even if it goes on for a bit too long.

For all its good intentions, A Very Natural Thing will be remembered more as a political act than as a polished work of classic cinema. The cinematography is, at best, adequate. It is often too dark (especially the scene at the baths, though some of this may be attributed to the film's age and the lack of restoration). Some of the dialogue is a tad stiff too. Modern audiences will need to forgive a few shortcomings but there is also much to savor. As noted earlier, the film documents a bygone age and we are treated to the era's gay bars, the historic baths, Fire Island and the 1973 parade. A few nicely constructed scenes stand out. I loved the wordless interlude when a woman on the street thinks that Mark is cruising her until he comically walks away with the man standing next to her instead. At one point, the audience is deceived into thinking that David and Mark are getting married but then the camera pulls back to reveal that they are attending a straight friend's wedding. The marriage vows continue on the soundtrack, providing ironic commentary while we watch David move into Mark's apartment. One of the most striking cinematic moments occurs at the orgy when David's frightened face disappears under a sea of naked men.

Gay historians and film buffs might recognize a very young Vito Russo when he appears briefly at a party on Fire Island.

Most of the historical information on the film I was able to find comes from Russo's The Celluloid Closet and from a Wikipedia article. It appears that parts of the script are autobiographical; I had thought that David being an ex-monk was an odd plot detail, but online accounts reveal that Larkin himself spent several years in a monastery before he came out. In the 80s, he was known as Purisha Androgyne Larkin and became a sexual guru of sorts. His spiritual philosophies about fisting can be found in an interview in Mark Thompson's book, Leatherfolk: Radical Sex, People, Politics, And Practice. His experiences as a "radical-sex shaman" were reported in his book, The Divine Androgyne According to Purusha. Larkin spent the last two years of his life battling AIDS and he committed suicide in 1988. He was 54.

In closing, the execution might not always live up to the director's ambitions but A Very Natural Thing remains a very important title in the queer cinema canon; a trailblazer that set the stage for many films to come.


Other 1970s gay films on
The Boys In The Band (1970)
Fox And His Friends (1975
The Naked Civil Servant (1975)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975
Saturday Night At The Baths (1976)
Johan: Mon ete 75 (1975)
The Consequence (1977)
In A Year Of Thirteen Moons (1978)
La Cage Aux Folles (1978)
Nighthawks (1978)
We Were One Man (1979)
Cruising (1980)