Quaran-Scenes: Julius' in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Movies Features Marielle Heller
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Quaran-Scenes: Julius' in <i>Can You Ever Forgive Me?</i>

We’re all stuck inside stewing in our thoughts; ours happen to be about movies. In Quaran-Scenes, writers will take a look at some of their favorite scenes from cinema: how and why they “work,” and what about those scenes they love so much. Find past columns here.

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A confession: I have, only a couple of times, dined al fresco in the last month or so. In lieu of being productive in nearly any other area of my life, including watching new movies (festival season—in this economy?), I have stared at blank Google Docs and resigned myself to once in a while meeting a friend by the park, sitting on the bench, collectively mourning a version of a city that is, at best, now a ghost.

No, I’m not saying, “New York is over.” but it’s certainly different, and that’s OK. I think it’s OK to be uncomfortable with change, and angry at the lack of infrastructure and policy that would have better protected the iteration of the city I had become accustomed to. From those remains, a new version of the city will emerge inevitably. But reminiscing about what was is its own comfort, its own warm nostalgia, and while I discuss with my friend, masks on the table we’ve wandered to, how our lives have changed or how they remain in a bizarre liminal space, I am reminded of a couple of other people who can’t help but replay the past, as if it keeps them alive.

The feats of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? are not only its humanity and sense of humor and keen understanding of writer’s block, but its ability to inhabit an archetype of New York that, regardless of whether or not it was ever a reality, exists almost embalmed in the heads of its leads, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). The actual New York they roam about and stunt in, in the early 1990s, has little place for them: Lee, with her fixations on older celebrities whose lives she can disappear into for her biographies, written with a kind of anonymity that does her a disservice in an industry predicated on persona, and Jack, a hustler from another age, a Gay New Yorker of the sort with whom Kenneth Anger was surely intimately acquainted. Lee and Jack regard their obsolescence with black humor and an admirable stubbornness.

I think queers ought to be that kind of stubborn; stubbornness is a mode of survival, no? They meet one day after Lee has moved her glassy eyes from the blank page to the bottom of a tumbler in Julius’, the oldest gay bar in New York. In her own little world, the dim yellow glow of the light illuminates her apart from everything else in the sparsely populated bar, gray and diffused natural light creating an aura of self-identified moodiness. Julius’ is a place for writers and “writers,” a divey home for misfits who don’t want to be looked at and queerdos who are brought to life by being looked at and doing the looking. “Lee Israel!” booms Jack, a fur coat luxuriating on his spindly body, leaning with theatricality into the bar, awaiting his drink order. Lee is taken out of her reverie, Blossom Dearie’s “Manhattan” switching from soundtrack to diegetic sound on her little tape player. Jack reminds her of how they met (“Last time I saw you, we were both pleasantly pissed at some horrible book party!”) and Lee, inherently antisocial, retorts, “It’s slowly flooding back to me.”

They catch up, the way people at different speeds of camaraderie do—Jack is more forthcoming and recognizes in Lee someone in need of company, while Lee resolutely rejects most forms of companionship—and congratulate one another on how life has mistreated them. The tiny gestures in their performances (how Grant pulls up next to McCarthy, the sound the bar stool makes dragging on the floor, the difference in postures they have beneath the ceiling lamps, the play of emotional warmth and openness, coldness and reticence) and how their environment shapes those details makes me miss the place in which they’re sitting even more.

Romanticizing bars in this time is easy, even as a non-drinker. Perhaps particularly for queers, bars are places of community and history making. For Jack and Lee, it’s like a shelter and a place out of time, a space that has an archive of queer life in each glass. Old Playbills paper the bathroom walls alongside photographs from the gay Sip-In in 1966, and twinkling lights dangle along the walls in the back corner, where everyone clamors for a seat.

Julius’ has been in other works of queer cinema, too; you can see it at its most packed, nearly bursting in the beginning of William Friedkin’s adaptation of Mart Crowley’s pre-Stonewall play The Boys in the Band (1970), and in two of Ira Sachs’ dramas, 2012’s Keep the Lights On and his 2014 Make Way for Tomorrow riff Love is Strange. In the latter, husbands played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina sit at the bar and playfully regale the story of the Sip-In, claiming to be one of the activists there. Regardless, being in Julius’, for me at least, feels spiritual and ecumenical, like communing with those who were there. You feel the joy of cruisings past, even if, like Lee, you’re seated in front, headphones on, in a bubble of your own neuroses and frustrations, nursing, as I do, a Sprite with cranberry juice.

I recognized the lettering on the windows behind Lee, the odd angular location of the entrance door in the corner, the framed photos from other endless nights stacked precariously on top of each other the first time I saw the film in theaters, the real bar itself a 20-minute walk away. Seeing misanthropes cavort in a bar had a warm familiarity about it, and a safeness, too. On the bar stool, the past is less the past and more like a swirling space beyond the confines of linear time, where memory and possibility comes alive. That must have been the draw for Lee and Jack.

Julius’ legacy looms large in a film where its leads live in New York as if it were still the 1970s, and regard any evidence to the contrary with a sneer and acidic remark (probably in the voice of Dorothy Parker). Jack says to Lee, with a wily smile, “Anyways, let’s keep drinking. The day is young!” The queer bar offers a sort of comfort that the outside world rarely accommodates. Now, as Julius’, and otherqueer spaces like it, face an uncertain future, when cosplaying intimacy while dining outdoors isn’t doing it for me, I feel inclined to return to my favorite queer bar in the movies, a place with an incredible burger, many a lovely bartender and spot for a curmudgeon wallowing in writer’s block.

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