A Very Natural Thing February 20, 2023
1 Hr., 20 Mins.
he title of Christopher Larkin’s A Very Natural Thing (1974) comes from the lips of a lesbian attending a gay-liberation march in New York City after she’s asked about gay love. The film opens with a quasi-documentary of the gathering, compiling soundbites from attendees before moving into a fictional story that puts into practice the beautiful ordinariness that marcher is talking about. A Very Natural Thing tracks
the romance between David (Robert Joel), an English teacher who used to be a monk (ask him and he'll tell you more about it), and Mark (Curt Gareth), a younger businessman. The movie starts off with the typical sweetness you’d see in any mainstream romantic film. A montage following David and Mark around as they playfully roll down leafy hills, ride carousels, take leisurely rolls through the park is consciously imitative of the romantic drama du jour, Love Story (1970).
Things don’t stay there for very long. Though sexually compatible — a fact the film portrays with a refreshing openness — David and Mark are otherwise misaligned. David wants something long-term, domestic. Mark wants things to stay more casual though is willing to settle into something long-term, like David wants, if the relationship can stay open, which David doesn’t want. The movie’s positioning of David as the main character has been looked at by some proponents of the new gay liberation movement as indirectly siding with his more “traditional” values as more substantial; I prefer to look at the movie’s film’s exploration of both his and Mark’s desires more as important early work in challenging the often monolithic portrayal of gay people in mainstream cinema.
The stakes aren’t very high in A Very Natural Thing. The romance doesn’t go anywhere very surprising. It would be boring if this all were happening in a straight romantic movie, a type of film so oversaturated that we now tend to need broad gimmicks to convince us why we need to watch yet another straight couple fall in fictional love. But given the dearth of romantic movies about gay men, made by gay men, and starring gay men, the relative banality of the main story — the normalcy with which it treats a gay relationship, with no tragic underpinnings anywhere — is more than welcome, moving, even. There are no contrivances, just gay men figuring out what they want romantically and who they are more generally.
A Very Natural Thing is the kind of movie you wouldn’t mind spending more time with than its relatively slim 85 minutes. It makes you realize just how cinematically hungry you can get for something you grow accustomed to never having. A Very Natural Thing is very low-budget, stars unknown actors, and was made by a director who had never before made a movie and wouldn’t again after. There are naturally some awkward choices that come from a combination of inexperience and big ambition: the decision by Larkin to insert some man-on-the-street-style real-life interviews with gay people; a final act that has just a little too much didacticism around how these characters conceive themselves and their place in a world where homosexuality is more acceptable than it’s ever been but nonetheless still not the norm.
But awkward choices are forgivable here. The stakes for a movie like this then, and for the most part still now, are high. They’re clearly the decisions of a filmmaker who worried not unrealistically about the chances of him getting to make another movie and knew he’d maybe need to pack everything he wanted to accomplish as a director into this one project. Which, otherwise, is very well-acted and written — made competently in spite of production values that at first glance telegraph an amateurishness you worry will spawn clumsiness. If there is anything clumsy in A Very Natural Thing, it strikes you as more charming than anything.
A Very Natural Thing is technically what you would call a “landmark” movie. It portrayed early on — which is also, it goes without saying, hardly early at all when looking at cinema’s broader history — gay romance with seriousness. It got substantive recognition by mainstream press, too. A declaration many viewers tend to throw around movies like it is that they’re glad it exists, regardless of quality. What’s nice about A Very Natural Thing is that its quality is near equal to its importance, perceptive and frank about the thrills and frustrations of then-modern dating in a way that still feels exceedingly rare. A