The homosexuals in the text: Robert McLane and Curt Gareth in "A Very Natural Thing" (1974)

Who would have ever thought that Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” could be used to underscore a sex scene?  The piece was used memorably in The Elephant Man (1980) and Platoon (1988) to evoke tragic pathos, but in the gay relationship drama A Very Natural Thing (dir. Christopher Larkin) it signifies the burgeoning romantic passion between David (Robert McLane, billed as Robert Joel) and Mark (Curt Gareth) as they make love by firelight.  The piece takes on added resonance when considered in light of Barber’s own homosexuality.  It would be tempting to read this as an act of queer re-appropriation—taking Barber back for gay culture after the “Adagio” had been popularized by mainstream films like Platoon—except that A Very Natural Thing, which came out in 1974, got there first. 

A Very Natural Thing is often said to be the first film to take gay relationships seriously, tracing the history of Mark and David’s couplehood from the moment their eyes meet across a crowded gay bar until their bittersweet parting a year and a half later.  It’s a quasi-exploitation film, too (scenes set at a bath-house and on Fire Island are a shade away from soft-core), and a political movie that mixes scripted scenes with documentary footage of a gay pride rally and short interview segments (think Word Is Out).  But its primary focus is on Mark and David as two men trying to understand themselves and each other, and it does so with an honesty and a sensitivity that rivals such mature Hollywood movies about relationships as Annie Hall (1977).    

Seen today, the film feels like a time capsule in its depiction of gay New York in the ’70s.  But it also feels timeless.  Watching it, I was reminded of Ira Sachs’ Keep The Lights On (2012), a more recent (though less affecting) attempt to chart the trajectory of a gay relationship as it unfolds messily over the course of some years.  For all its “datedness,” A Very Natural Thing remains prescient.  The questions that Mark, David, and their friends ask themselves about commitment, monogamy, and happiness are still being sussed out forty years later by the characters in Sachs’ film, and by the men on HBO’s Looking—to say nothing of the audiences watching them.  Larkin’s ambition in mapping the whole landscape of a gay relationship, from sex to grocery shopping and everything in between, is still the ambition of our contemporary gay auteurs.  That very few filmmakers have been able to do it as successfully speaks to the singular importance of this film.

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