In this biweekly column, I look back through a century of cinema for traces of queerness, whether in plain sight or under the surface. Read the introductory essay.

a very natural thing

For gay filmgoers in 1974, A Very Natural Thing, Christopher Larkin’s nuanced depiction of the burgeoning relationship between two twenty-something men, was an unusual event, a persuasively casual representation of gay love and sex at once mundane and culturally specific. Seen today, it stands alone: tender yet unafraid of sexual explicitness; sweet-natured but not blind to the realities of living in a minority group that had historically been denigrated and, at the time of the movie’s release had no legal protections. Though undoubtedly of primary interest to many as a time capsule, Larkin’s noticeably but elegantly low-budget film has an economical beauty and a purposeful freedom of form that give it a lasting sprightliness.

The relativity of A Very Natural Thing’s renown is a reminder that all canons are subjective. Even if they’ve never seen it, queer movie-lovers of a certain generation probably know about the film, from perusing TLA video catalogs or scanning through The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo (who actually appears on screen in one scene). On the other hand, a very informal poll has revealed that most straight cinephiles in my life have never heard of it. The film may be “essential” and “important” LGBT cinema (it regularly pops up on such medicinal-sounding lists), but it has historically only taken up space in the minds of those with a certain persuasion.

A Very Natural Thing deserves to be taken out of the curio cabinet. A recent viewing in a remarkably well-preserved 16mm print at New York’s renovated but still gay-friendly Quad Cinema—as part of their very welcome “Coming Out Again” series, presented with NewFest—was a reminder that a truly progressive film can never really be “dated” (a reductive term that allows critics to disengage from art of earlier eras), but also that many of us are today seeking the same images of positivity and romance on screen that we were in the immediate post-Stonewall period. As the title implies, in its aggressive-casual way, A Very Natural Thing wants its viewers to share in the easygoing mundanity of gay male love. And though that title may make it seem like the film has been geared toward liberal hetero audiences as a kind of teaching moment (see this year’s “I’m just like you” normie-bullying in the narration and trailers for the otherwise sweet Love, Simon), A Very Natural Thing was primarily intended as a sight for sore eyes, a source of identification for gay viewers. Of course, this alone does not make for good art; agendas rarely do. In 1981, just one year after William Friedkin’s Cruising would piss off just about everyone on the Kinsey scale for its scuzzy, undercover dive into the gay leather scene, Arthur Hiller’s Making Love (1982) would be excoriated (too much, I think) for doing the opposite, embracing soft-focus, middle-class soap operatics in its depiction of gay love. Those who moaned that there was nothing in-between these two wildly different studio products would have done well to look back to Larkin’s film, which finds a sturdy middle ground, indulging in all the trappings of non-hetero male sexual fantasia (bathhouses, orgies, cruising parks and beaches) while also implicitly reassuring that such fleshly pleasures are no big deal at all.

a very natural thing

Because the window was so cruelly small between the era of sexual liberation and the outbreak of the AIDS crisis, cinema, for which progress moves even slower than in our puritanical culture as a whole, never had a chance to catch up. This is why A Very Natural Thing was and remains so singular. It has no real precursors or progeny, and such self-contained films are rare. It was such an odd duck that its theatrical exhibitors and its distributor, a seven-year-old New Line Cinema, had a difficult time marketing and placing it, frequently booking it in theaters that often trafficked in soft-core and exploitation titles, including, in New York, the Cine Malibu and the Cinema Village.

The sticky floors and trench coats such a release evokes would seem, by today’s standards, incongruous settings for such a good-natured, ultimately tender relationship drama. Featuring biographical elements on the part of its director and co-writer, the film begins with images of its protagonist, dark-haired David (Robert Joel) deep in a church ritual, wearing monk’s robes, and indeed Larkin himself was a former monk before turning to filmmaking. It’s a brief bit of background detail, after which the film leaves any foreboding Christian iconography in the dust, following David, now a schoolteacher, as he embarks on a romance with Mark (Curt Gareth), a commitment-phobic blond stud he picks up at a pre-disco dance club. And despite the fact that David owns quite possibly the ugliest sweater vest in cinematic history, they make it work—at least for a while. As the film hops through scenes of unprecedented intimacy, the two men engage in naturalistic banter while wrestling with the concept of monogamy (and wrestling with each other, literally, in a Women in Love homage by a fireplace). David wants to settle down; Mark wants to play the field, seeing homosexuality as granting them something like exempt status from the shackles of hetero social expectation. It’s an age-old same-sex conflict, frequently if not exclusively male, and it still comes up even in this era of aggressive normalization.

Larkin and co-screenwriter Joseph Coencas refuse to cast judgment or project any standards of appropriate social behavior on David or Mark; there’s no agenda to the film outside of its need to honestly represent these two particular men in this specific place and time. Larkin’s drive to situate his characters in an authentic environment is most vividly, radically realized in the documentary aspect of the film, which is evident first in its overall devotion to accurately representing a severely underrepresented—nay, invisible—milieu, from the Fire Island Pines to the Club Baths in Manhattan to the Land’s End Inn in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Even with sudsy romantic flourishes like setting a love session to Samuel Barber’s swoony “Adagio for Strings” (which admittedly wouldn’t seem so jarringly melodramatic if Oliver Stone hadn’t forever co-opted it for Platoon 12 years later), A Very Natural Thing feels more like someone’s lived experience of the seventies New York gay scene than an overly constructed drama.

a very natural thing

Perhaps the film’s greatest claim to fame as an actual historical document is its copious footage from the 1973 Gay Pride Parade in New York, then called the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade. So powerful was the footage and so radical were the people whom Larkin captured that not only did he devote an entre sequence to the parade, he also fashioned an entire opening credit sequence that intercut images of robed Brother David and on-the-street interviews with proud parade-goers. The juxtaposition—between cloistered piety and sun-drenched liberation—is instantly persuasive, a radical social statement that also functions as a visual and thematic strategy. The images of people flooding the city’s streets and squares, and their passionate, politically immediate words (“It’s a pretty fucked-up society when the army gives me a medal for killing a man and dishonorable discharge for loving him”) are testament to a disenfranchised group finding its voice, their open-hearted optimism made all the more poignant for a viewer today by the knowledge that even more difficult battles for acceptance were to come in the following decade.

Larkin deftly uses the parade as a narrative linchpin as well, marking a transitional point in the story. After the end of David and Mark’s fine but doomed romance, David meets angel-faced Jason (Bo White) perched on the grass in Washington Square Park following the march. Less politically complacent, Jason good-naturedly banters with the more buttoned-down David, who’s skeptical about political causes, saying, “I felt I never had to advertise my homosexuality,” and wondering, “How many of these people who marched today are going to back in the closets tomorrow?” David’s questioning the efficacy of such methods of political activism could be even more easily applied to now, when so much of it has become as simple as pushing a “like” button. Yet it’s clear that Larkin doesn’t share David’s cynicism, as the making of A Very Natural Thing is itself a radical act. Jason transforms the film, both narratively and even aesthetically: the final scene consists entirely of three and a half gorgeously stretched-out minutes of David and Jason frolicking nude in the ocean waves, enjoying each other’s bodies without shame, splashing at one another, droplets of water cascading and floating in mid-air around them as though anointing them in some benedictory ritual. This image of the two men on the beach became the film’s poster (and eventual video box art), today instantly recognizable to so many of us. It’s a picture of naked, almost unreal ecstasy—not of sex but of liberation.

Special thanks to Matthew Connolly.

Michael Koresky is the Director of Editorial and Creative Strategy at Film Society of Lincoln Center; the co-founder and co-editor of Reverse Shot; a frequent contributor to the Criterion Collection; and the author of the book Terence Davies, published by University of Illinois Press.