The Falls Trilogy : Films by Jon Garcia
Part One: THE FALLS 
Plot spoilers and some mild explicit language
I am attracted by the economical and ethically sound nature of writer/director Jon Garcia’s approach in the production of the first film in the trilogy. Basically, Jon had a combined production team and cast (which amounted to a handful of very talented and dedicated individuals) and next to no budget; but, a strong belief in, and understanding of his subject matter, and the skill and unique style of Jon’s direction in efficiently getting across the important messages within the storyline, gives this small independent film a newness – a combination of polished professionalism and a naive rawness – which raises it above most other films of this kind. Overall, ‘The Falls’ has the look and the feel of a film created by a much larger production company with higher production values. It has been positively acclaimed by film critics and public worldwide, and has reached the point where it has out-grown it’s cult status.
When I first viewed ‘The Falls’, I was completely unaware that there were two more complete films already out there, which were related to, and continued from, where the original story ended. And so, I saw the film as a separate one-off project (which it was originally intended to be) and in complete isolation from the others.
I knew immediately that I was watching something special and not in a general way: the film is fresh, completely absorbing and has a certain realism without it feeling like a documentary-drama. The characters stand out as credible (mostly endearing) people, performed by unfamiliar talented actors in an effortless and believable way: more so (with a few rare exceptions) than most, in the glut of gay related ‘issue films’ that are being produced nowadays.
By now, R J, Chris and Rodney will have won the hearts and minds of countless thousands because they are believable and fallible creations. Along the way I learned a few facts about the Mormon faith of which I was completely ignorant. Unity is a strong point and that is established well from the tight opening scenes. The family as a unit and the church predominant within that. R J’s kindness, wholesomeness, and love for his religion and his family is apparent. We don’t know at this point whether or not he is gay. He’s put out by the fact that he has only to travel 60 miles to his mission base, an indicator that he does want to break free of that strong family tie and have an adventure … “but”, states R J, “our Heavenly Father has sent me there for a reason.” God is the instigator in bringing R J and Chris together, to test their loyalty to Him and their strength of character. Will they stray from the ‘straight and narrow’ path? I prefer to think that He brought them together because they were meant for one-another.
Elder Harris is imposing and suspicious of R J and Chris from their first tentative meeting. Admirably played by Quinn Allan as a smug, nasty piece of work who makes the most of being zone leader by trying to expose the pair: jealous of their bond because he has been recently jilted by his girlfriend.
The slow break-down in Chris’s confidence, his mission and his closet door is well structured. When his enthusiasm for scripture and his telling of how the Mormon religion was founded is dashed by a surly prospective convert, Chris privately vents his anger and humiliation to R J. R J’s affection for Chris, and his constancy and reliability, is established very well from there in. He draws on his comedic nature and ably brings Chris around, when Chris gets too serious. The tension between the boys begins to relax and there is a touch of comedy during a mission interview regarding the Three Degrees of Glory, which lightens the mood before Chris’s jealous, possessive outburst concerning R J spending time with Sister Tulsa: a subtle, but plainly obvious indicator to the viewer that Chris is put out for quite a different reason.
When Rodney (another prospective convert) invites the boys in to talk on their second visit, the focus on him carving out his dead brother’s name on the varnished coffee table top with a hunting knife, initially gives the scene a dangerous and uncomfortable edge, but fears for the boys safety is quickly dispelled when R J draws Rodney out, to talk about his wartime experiences. Chris remains conservative, as his character would, even lightly reprimanding R J for being too inquisitive.
From there on, the theme of wrestling (which dominates all three films) and the various forms it takes, becomes apparent. Chris is wrestling with his suppressed desire for R J. His inability to act spontaneously begins to lessen. The reassuring touch of R J’s hand (their first intimate physical experience) across the table in a diner, results in R J literally becoming Chris’s ‘knight in shining armour’, when he wrestles two obnoxious homophobes who pick a fight after witnessing R J’s affectionate gesture.
The application of an ice pack by Chris to R J’s bruised hand is intimate and resembles a proposal of marriage with Chris on one knee.
R J is ashamed he has done violence, as he states, “Mormons aren’t supposed to fight.” Chris replies, “Mormons aren’t supposed to do a lot of things”, and this is almost a confession of his suppressed sexuality and the point where R J feels sure that Chris is gay, like himself. They have both been wrestling for a long time with forbidden desires which are at odds with their religious beliefs, but the barriers between them are breaking down, and their growing trust and closeness is admirably established, when Chris and R J go to watch a film (a forbidden pastime) like two sweethearts on a first date. They just can’t fight their conflicting emotions any longer. The scene when Chris is half asleep with ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ held to his chest and R J lovingly observing him is, to me, one of the most tender passive love scenes on film. The cutting, lighting and the music are sublime and I was moved to tears at this point.
So, who will make the first move? The following day while walking in an area of woodland, they’re carefully dipping their toes in the water as they converse about doubt and temptation.
It is a surprise to R J when Chris asks him if he was going to kiss him the previous evening while he was dozing and he is genuinely taken by surprise when Chris makes the first bold move and kisses him. The first kiss is so tender that the ensuing off-screen blow-job, given by Chris, directly following the kiss, comes as a big surprise to the viewer, as well as R J who nervously accepts the act. It is at this point that R J’s mostly passive sexual nature is indicated.
“When we were done”, states R J “we both prayed.”
For forgiveness? No. I think they’re thanking God for the experience, for bringing them out and uniting them. R J is sure that Chris is the one for him from here onwards and throughout the trilogy.
The following is a beautifully constructed scene. The simple shots of R J’s feet playing with Chris’s as they lie together and their discussion about how this will affect their devotion to the church is so intimate that a sex scene was simply not required. Jon Garcia, mastered the kissing scenes from the very first and they continue to be satisfying throughout the three films. New love is tenderly depicted, with the pair reaffirming their devotion to God and R J’s reassurance that whatever comes to challenge their new-found love, they will weather it. R J is a rock. The surer of the two throughout the trilogy that they were meant to be together. The kiss on the tram is so special. Chris is now relaxed enough to do that in public and R J is reassured by it.
The shocks begin with the intrusive insistence by Elder Harris that the lovers play some basketball. His nerdy oversized outfit was well selected. He’s a petty bully and his spiteful comment that they’re H O R s (an acronym for a basketball manoeuvre) is an insinuation that R J and Chris are whores and the double meaning is shocking. They now know that he has their number and it’s only a matter of time before he exposes them.
Their third visit to Rodney’s apartment is delightfully anarchic, but innocent. The boys needed, and have now found a ‘safe space’ where they can relax and be themselves and finally come out to someone they can trust. They smoke pot with Rodney and when they’ve mellowed they unashamedly hold each others hands. The scene is about R J and Chris letting go and breathing a great sigh of relief. Rodney’s casual approval (he’s seen it all many times before in the military) is reassuring and very funny and the thought of two Mormon elders, running wild, high on marijuana and breaking into a library and stealing the whole collection of Hans Christian Andersen books (one of Rodney’s many suggestions that they should perform as an act of liberation) is hilarious. I am guessing that line of Rodney’s might have been ad-libbed. It’s a great line anyhow! I will be tempted to say the same one day if the Mormons come calling.
Early one morning, Elder Harris intrudes on the naked lovers asleep in the same bed. The external shot of the picture of Christ stuck to the windowpane, looking outwards into the street, reminded me of how people would turn the holy pictures and family portraits to the wall before sexual activity took place.
Not only is Elder Harris a creep, he’s a liar! He clearly did not knock before entering the boys dorm, as he said he had to President Pierce on reporting the immoral couple.
The cutting back and forth, and the overlapping voice-overs between the discovery scene and R J’s interview of reprimand with President Pierce, is one of the technical highlights in the film. Chris’s angry declaration to R J that maybe R J is the bigger faggot and therefore to blame is gut-wrenchingly hurtful and spontaneously defensive, but a realistic reaction of denial in the confusion that ensues before Chris and R J are sent home in disgrace.
With Chris out of the picture, the dialogue between R J and his dad is candid and brave. It appears to be a case of like father, like son, when Elder Smith delicately hints, that he had a similar same sex attraction in his past, which he overcame (suppressed).
In the film ‘Covenant Of Grace’, Jon Garcia expertly inserts a similar conversation between R J and his dad, but, in greater detail, and it is more of a confession on the part of Elder Smith to R J. A quietly understated bonding between suppressed gay father and a confident, out, and supportive son on whom Elder Smith can rely. This is one, of many genuinely moving scenes, in a roller coaster ride of raw emotions that laid bare throughout the trilogy of films.
Finally, the intensity created by the use of close-up and extra close-up shots throughout the film is what makes it all so special and affecting.
R J’s interview with the head of the church and his speech defending his actions is one of the most moving I have seen in a film. With his honesty; his unfaltering loyalty to Chris and his conviction that their love is pure and right, the strength of Jon Garcia’s personal message to any religious organization hits the bullseye.
“Shame on you!” states R J, accusing the church of homophobia; hammering home Jon Garcia’s message in an emotional speech that he should be proud to have written. The two main actors have the fine ability for acting naturally, believably, realistically and are perfectly cast. Most importantly: besides having become close friends in real life, Nick Ferrucci [R J] and Benjamin Farmer [Chris] have great chemistry on-screen and embody their characters effortlessly, in a connection which upholds the trilogy, in spite of the other very fine actors in the stories. The fact that the film concludes with an open ending is very reassuring and the final shot of a letter addressed from Chris to R J is the reason why R J is motivated and heading out on highway 35 to see Chris. A hopeful ending, which indicates that the lovers might be reunited, and resume their personal and spiritual journey.
Copyright © Russell Liney 2019
The Falls Trilogy : Films by Jon Garcia
Part Two: TESTAMENT OF LOVE 
Plot spoilers and some mildly explicit language
Jon Garcia’s epic, intense, love story really begins to accelerate and take flight in ‘Testament Of Love’. He moves the characters into adult territory, with a mature story about responsibility, family loyalty, and the isolation and the trauma brought about by self-denial in an attempt to please ones own family. The primary focus of the film follows Chris on a journey into his own private hell, with R J in hot pursuit, in an attempt to rescue Chris and convince him of the folly of going against his natural grain; existing within a heterosexual marriage and enduring the false heterosexual identity which has been forced upon him.
‘The Falls’ concluded with a voice-over by R J, indicating that he was setting out on the road to visit his lover Chris in the hope of resuming their friendship, and perhaps, reignite their sexual relationship, after it had been so horribly and prematurely terminated.
R J’s voice-over at the beginning of ‘Testament Of Love’, is spoken as one who has experienced all the joys of same sex love, in a rite of passage that has transformed him bodily, and consciously, into a man who knows what he is, and who and what he wants. R J’s quotation from “Ecce Homo: Ruminations on a Theology of My Queer Body” by Connell O’Donovan, is highly erotic, romantic and spiritual. The words convey R J’s passionate belief that he and Chris are one in body, and soul.
The intensity of these words sets the mood for the entire film. This is to be a drama where feelings and passions are laid bare. Soul-searching, conflict, guilt (religious or otherwise) and finally redemption are all played out here with great emotional power but without violence (with the exception of one scene of desperation on the part of R J in his motel room on his last night in Salt Lake City).
I’m naturally drawn to stories in films like this, which have an almost elemental force about them. I enjoy the intensity of romantic themes and the use of colour and locations which emulate and capture the mood of a scene. ‘Testament Of Love’, has very definite echoes of some of Alfred Hitchcock’s later colour films and also some of Woody Allen’s very serious dramas.
The ever present themes of wrestling and the journey through life are revisited here, but a new one, abandonment, takes centre stage.
R J’s monologue reveals that he and Chris did in fact hook-up again and spend a year on the road in a mutual state of loving bliss. Their story resumes five years later. The actors have matured in real time between the filming of ‘The Falls’ and ‘Testament Of Love’ and this helps in making the leap of five years feel authentic.
R J is in the process of writing their love story in the form of a novel, which we observe in a series of flashbacks to his and Chris’s younger days. There is an upsetting jolt in the narrative; the revelation that, after their road trip, Chris deliberately cut R J out of his life and that five years have since passed. R J is revisiting in his imagination, the sweet kisses he shared with his mission companion Chris. As early on as this, we know that R J is still in love with Chris (or the idea of their love) and that he must find out the reasons why he was abandoned and whether or not there will be a chance for them to be reconciled, disregarding all that has taken place in their separate lives in the interim period.
There is a montage of Chris dating Emily, getting married and enjoying the company of their child. It is upbeat and accompanied by an uplifting song, ‘I’m In Your Church At Night’ by Active Child, and it concisely conveys, the path Chris has taken. Under pressure from his dominating father, he has reformed since the ‘error’ of his gay liaison with R J and is now on the ‘righteous path’; though he is, in reality, way over his head in the quagmire.
R J also, has a new lover. He has satisfied his need for the basic human requirements and has found regular sex and a domestic existence in the company of another man, Paul, but Paul is not life partner material, and R J is not in love, in fact, can not love him. Paul, is loyal and loving – a thoroughly lovely guy – but too needy and desperate in his attempts to make R J love him back. R J’s body language when he’s around Paul is negative and he is unresponsive to Paul’s attentions, which indicates that he’s deliberately keeping himself at a physical and emotional distance and, where possible, avoiding intimate connection.
The breakfast scene between Paul and R J (after R J has had to wrestle Paul out of bed so that he can get to work on time) is beautifully understated and natural. Paul is standing casually butt naked while they breakfast but the nudity does not seem gratuitously deliberate. It gives the scene an atmosphere of domestic reality, but Paul’s, “I love you”, as R J leaves for work, is so weak as to be pathetic and is either inaudible to, or deliberately ignored by R J. Paul is being isolated and he feels it.
When R J actually does arrive late to work and interrupts the staff meeting, the spectacled female colleague (rolling her eyes at his lateness and agitated by his intrusive phone ringtone) with her uptight, disapproving attitude is a direct reminder of Elder Harris and his brittle personality in ‘The Falls’.
Rodney’s untimely death will bring R J and Chris together again. The night before his departure, R J’s prayers are interrupted by fond memories of kissing Chris. R J’s loneliness, longing and isolation is beautifully presented here. By comparison, it is plainly obvious to the viewer that when Chris is departing his wife and daughter for the funeral, there is a look of calm expectation on his face, perhaps at the thought that he might see R J again. But, on the contrary, both during and after the service, Chris deliberately tries to avoid R J. R J is unhappy about this and confounded by Chris’s behaviour.
Chris is icily remote and wears dark sunglasses (which he uses as a shield) that give him the appearance of a C I A agent, in what is a deliberate attempt to intimidate R J and keep him at a distance. R J confronts Chris and Chris reluctantly agrees to meet and talk before going their separate ways. A regular pattern of suspense followed by relief, begins here.
During their uncomfortable conversation in the hotel dining room that evening, “You’re married?”, is R J’s hurt and somewhat baffled response to Chris’s unexpected announcement. Chris’s assumption that R J is in a relationship with a woman, slaps him back in the face when he asks of R J, “What’s her name?” and R J replies, “Paul.” The suspense is maintained in the following scene when R J offers to walk Chris up to his room. Chris deliberately side-tracks R J’s attempt to extend their conversation. He bars the way into his room, denying R J access, and, to R J’s calm astonishment, he is offered nothing more than a friendly handshake. Chris terminates the conversation before it becomes intimate by closing the door in R J’s face. This act widens the gulf that is between them to monstrous proportions, when literally it is just the thin wood of a door which divides them.
Back in his own room, R J opens the note from Rodney, which Rodney’s mother had handed to him at the funeral. It also contains a joint from Rodney for R J to smoke in remembrance of him. It is a blessed relief to R J at this point in the film and R J derives some comfort from it, while Chris, alone in his room, slowly sinks into his mattress in shock and despair.
On returning home, Chris finds he is unable to make love with his wife Emily, so, privately, before the bathroom mirror, he savagely masturbates to relieve himself. The scene is expertly directed and brilliantly acted out by Benjamin Farmer. What Chris is imagining during it, we can only guess at. His face, reflected in the mirror has a look of self hatred that is frightening. It is as though he’s going slowly out of his mind. All of his pent up homosexual feelings are released and exposed in the act.
Back in Seattle, R J, toying with the small plastic Mormon figures on his work desk, is an indication that he can not rest or forget Chris until he has spoken to him openly about their past relationship and try to find some kind of closure. Also, R J hasn’t responded at all well to Paul’s warm welcome since he returned home, so, it’s now or never. He has to make a clean break.
Why is it in films, that when a person decides to break up with someone they do it in the most uncomfortable and public of places; a restaurant?
Paul’s hushed hysteria that he’s being ditched is very well handled here. Paul’s justification speech before leaving R J and all the points he raises are valid and it leaves R J ashamed. Rightly so! But, they were not marriage material and now that Paul is out of the picture R J can fully concentrate on Chris.
R J behaves like a stalker with an obsession about his lost love: surprising Chris by turning up at his house uninvited. Very much like Scottie does, when he follows Judy Barton up to her hotel room in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, ‘VERTIGO’.
Next, there is the scenario of the eternal triangle. Chris has no choice but to introduce R J to Emily, who welcomes R J into their house for dinner and a sleep-over. But, this triangle is not destined to be eternal: it will break under pressure very soon and turn Chris and Emily’s ordered existence into turmoil. It is at this point; halfway into the film that the roller coaster ride begins. It brought to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s example of how the elements of suspense and relief in his films are comparable “to riding the ‘Switchback Railway’” (roller coaster): the cinema audience gets relief from the tension of a scene they’re engaged in, in the same way the passengers on the roller coaster ride do, when they let out a scream on rushing down the track after the slow, suspenseful, climb to the top. The emotional tension constantly escalates and dips throughout the latter half of ‘Testament Of Love’.
Emily is a beautifully written character. She is elegant, completely engaging, and a genuinely lovely person: Chris has likened her to an angel. This makes it all the more devastating to the audience and we feel for Emily when she accidentally discovers Chris’s true sexual nature. Hannah Barefoot, the actress who plays Emily, has the type of beauty and poise that Ella Raines and Katharine Hepburn had in their 1940s films. The camera naturally loves her, and that also goes for Nick Ferrucci as R J, who at times bears an uncanny resemblance to both the masculine Robert Ryan in ‘CROSSFIRE’ melded with the elfin feminine features of young Rita Tushingham in ‘A TASTE OF HONEY’. Benjamin Farmer as Chris, has an other-worldly Celtic beauty which glows on screen.
During an arranged meeting in ‘Memory Grove’ Chris berates R J for his recklessness. It turns into a showdown with the pair hurling Bible quotes at each other and R J insisting, “Chris … you’re not straight”. Chris soon relents, and, sneaking out of the house one night, he visits R J in his motel room and by way of an apology and to break the ice, he brings take-out Thai food and they reminisce. “Life is a journey”, Chris states, and he clearly hates the road he’s taken.
The colour red comes into the visual quite vividly and regularly from here on. The neon sign outside R J’s motel room window is red. There’s something sleazy in the aspect of what motel rooms are generally used for and the use of red is appropriate, for it is here that Chris will, in time, visit R J for sex. Nothing sexual happens at this point and the ex-lovers part amicably. Alone in his motel room, R J gives voice to his thought that, “maybe this is the closure I’ve come looking for.”
The closely-cropped head shots designed throughout most of the second half of the film during key speeches are expertly juxtaposed with extra-long shots. My first example, is during the scene where Chris is left alone with his friend Aaron after sending their wives out to buy ice-cream. Aaron insinuates that Chris is gay, and when Chris pretends otherwise, Aaron then confirms he knows that Chris is gay, and that this had been told to him by R J and Chris’s former mission leader, Elder Harris.
The aspect of the camera, zooming in on the returned wives and the increased volume of their chatter as they enter the tense scene between Chris and Aaron, who appear to their wives like conspirators who have been caught off guard … engaged in what? … is a technical highlight.
My second example, is of Chris and Emily, filmed as though they’re being literally subsumed into their clinical family home environment. People oblivious of one another or of anything going on outside of their own thoughts. The drama and tension within the relationships in ‘Testament Of Love’ is heightened by the close-ups. The isolation that Emily feels is filmed starkly and from a long way off. She might be an individual inhabiting a room, or alone in a diner, like the solitary people in the paintings of Edward Hopper.
Emily is due to get her promotional red jacket at work; yet another red. Chris takes advantage of her absence and visits R J: again it is night. The ensuing declaration by Chris of his sham of a marriage and his unendurable inner pain and turmoil is the rawest speech put on film in a long time and Benjamin Farmer’s performance here is shockingly and heartbreakingly real. Chris reveals he has undergone reparative therapy to correct his sexuality at the insistence of his father; a despicable request for any parent to make of an offspring and a terrible thing for anyone to have to endure.
Chris’s removal of his wedding ring is a significantly symbolic statement. He’s both betraying Emily and showing R J the respect he deserves. It’s inevitable they make love at this point. After Chris has bared his soul to R J the ensuing love scene is one of torrid, urgent, passion. Five years worth of unburdening release.
The curtains have been drawn by R J prior to sex but the invasive red light filters very effectively through them onto the lovers. Red for passion and lust. Red for danger. [The flashing red neon sign outside the apartment window in Alfred Hitchcock’s, ‘ROPE’ when the gay murderers are exposed] The red of a traffic light signalling STOP! The words in the song, ‘Once I Believed’ by Haywood, playing over their love making, are apt and fit the mood of the scene very well. The camera, focusing mainly on R J’s head and torso leaves the sexual acts being performed on him to the imagination, and the scene is all the better for it. The pair drift off to sleep in each others arms, satisfied, as the bluesy love song ends.
This motel room scene, and the one following, where Emily, while driving home from her ‘red jacket debut’ spots Chris’s car in the motel car-park, is my personal favourite part of the film.
The first scene: the build up in tension during Chris’s confession and their subsequent love making, plays like an homage to the love scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘VERTIGO’; but in reverse. R J [Scottie Ferguson] has been seeking out his lost love, and, on finding him, has acted as the catalyst that successfully transforms Chris the stern, distant Mormon [Madeleine Elster] back to Chris his earthy lover-companion [Judy Barton]. The love scene in ‘VERTIGO’ is bathed in electric-green neon light, emanating from the sign outside Judy’s hotel room window and the room is ghostly green when Madeleine is recreated out of Judy and born again in Scottie’s eyes. When Chris is reborn, Jon Garcia very rightly and aptly used red. The transformation scenes in ‘Testament Of Love’ and ‘VERTIGO’, are both highly erotic products of directors with romantic personalities.
The action in the following scene is where Emily’s new journey begins. It’s going to be a bumpy ride; far more so than the tram-lines she crosses as she does a U-turn to double check whether that was actually Chris’s car in the motel parking lot she has just driven by. She is drawn to that red neon light like a moth to a flame. Parked in her car – Chris’s number plate having checked out positive – instinctively, her gaze is transfixed on a certain room. She is immediately suspicious and in what is an incredibly moving and subtly silent performance, through Emily’s searching, desperate eyes and her minutest expressions we see all the dreaded thoughts rushing through her brain. The plaintive strings on the soundtrack accompanying her voyeurism as she witnesses R J and Chris kissing before parting, echo her inner feelings. Her eyes hold defeat, sadness, emptiness but above all a kind of longing: for what she is witnessing is a far greater communion than she has ever experienced with Chris.
Emily’s breakdown at work is masterfully understated both in acting and directing. Her need to confront Chris and get everything out in the open hastens the action back into family and religious territory. “Can we pray this away?” she states. No, this is an earthly matter and Chris’s direct, gut-wrenchingly brutal, but honest reply, “The feelings that I have for him (R J); I can never have for a woman”, is the hammer driving the final nail into the coffin on the death of their marriage.
The sound and lighting of this scene is immaculately placed. Outside, the rain is heavy and persistent. The sound of water running along guttering and down pipes increases the loneliness and hopelessness of the interior and the light falling on Chris’s very white skin gives him an almost supernatural beauty and presence as he makes his statement. [Woody Allen’s films, ‘SEPTEMBER’ and ‘INTERIORS’ spring to mind during this scene] Emily’s ultimatum to Chris, is that he tells the truth to his family.
Chris’s coming out is a surprisingly calm affair conducted more as a family counselling session; a discussion, rather than a histrionic or melodramatic outpouring. Bolstered by the presence of R J, Chris expresses proudly and confidently, that he is in love with him. Emily has the appearance of a cornered Vixen and is the only person to lose control of her emotions in a room of confused and shocked people. Chris’s sister giving verbal support to Chris equally balances out those ‘for’ and ‘against’, with Emily trapped in the middle of what is a beautifully choreographed scene which then, seamlessly blends into the following scene by a tremendously clever and spot-on cut, from R J leaving the family ‘outing’ (there’s irony in the framed statement ‘Families Are Forever’ which he passes by on leaving) to R J opening his motel room door to admit Chris later that day, where Chris finds solace in R J’s arms.
The final few scenes were constructed more like theatrical tableaux.
R J’s father, Elder Smith, sides with his son during Noah Merrill’s angry tirade over the telephone. This isn’t just paternal loyalty but proof that Elder Smith is comfortable, not only with R J being gay, but with his own personal growth on the journey he is making alongside R J. Elder Smith is a great role model and the speech he delivers to Chris’s father was written specifically to instruct and inspire parents to support their gay sons and daughters. His effusive support of R J is counterbalanced by Noah Merrill’s devastation and after Noah terminates the call abruptly, the sadness in Noah’s one word “Chris”, is likely to produce goosebumps.
Back at the motel, R J realises the enormity of the damage he’s caused and as much as he needs his heavenly father at that moment, he can not ‘see’ Him or find God there to help him, in spite of desperate attempts to pray and commune with Him. R J’s wrecking of the motel room (devised by Jon and Nick) was a brilliant idea. For over five years R J has been like a pressure cooker about to burst and now he does, injuring the palms of his hands in the process and cutting his Mormon vest to use as bandage. The symbolism here is one of the stigmata. R J is on the verge of losing his faith, and, with the feeling that his heavenly father has forsaken him, he bins his vest as easily as if it were his faith.
R J and Chris’s future together is now in the lap of the Gods; if indeed there are any. R J has to take a chance and do something which will either cement the lovers together or have the catastrophic effect of tearing them apart forever.
Chris’s rendering of the Celtic style hymn at his parents anniversary dinner is poignant and moving. He might be singing of R J’s love saving him, and not God’s. R J turns up, unexpected, like the spectre at the feast, to set his plan in motion, but firstly he asks Chris to forgive him for what he’s about to do. He has to declare their love to the assembled guests and with a passionate kiss he outs Chris to those congregated. That kiss will test their bond and it is in the affirmative because Chris kisses him back with the same passion. The thread of saliva that visibly links their lips when their lips part is symbolic of the tie that eternally binds them.
Chris’s mother, offers her love and parental support in one of the most memorable and moving speeches in ‘Testament Of Love’, vowing that even if her husband and their heavenly father won’t accept Chris, she will. Another key message to mothers out there to support their gay children, no matter what, even if the fathers won’t.
Chris finally stands up to his father, who is about to disown Chris. The moving speech, where Chris expresses his love for his father and confirms how he has always done everything to please him out of respect for him, is solidly written. Chris needs to convince his father that although everything from there on will change, Chris is going to be alright, but he needs his earthly father with him on his new journey. Noah Merrill’s response, that all he wants is for Chris to be happy, is an encouraging start to their new, father and son relationship. Everything that any parent needs to know on how to adapt positively to change when a child of any age comes out, is in this film; in those two separate conversations Chris has with his mother and father.
The ending montage is of R J back home in Seattle, expectantly looking out (for Chris) from his apartment window, and of Chris and Emily’s amicable separation at the commencement of their individual journeys. R J’s voice-over is full of hope that he will be reunited with Chris, because Chris has written saying, “I forgive you”, a confirmation that R J will be seeing Chris again at some point in the not-too-distant future, but the question is, when?
Once again, the ending is left open to the imagination of the viewer. A kind of cliff-hanger, giving us hope that R J and Chris will, one day, be united forever.
Copyright © Russell Liney 2019
The Falls Trilogy : Films by Jon Garcia
Part Three: COVENANT OF GRACE 
Plot spoilers and some mildly explicit language
Of all the films in The Falls Trilogy, ‘Covenant of Grace’ is the most emotionally complex. It was not easy to deconstruct and analyse the film; but, nevertheless, it is one of the most rewarding, emotionally uplifting, engaging and cathartic experiences I have had, whilst watching the film (or any film, at that) many times, prior to, and during the writing of this tribute.
The ending of Ang Lee’s gay film romance ‘Brokeback Mountain’, left the participant devastated and without hope. Jon Garcia, gave us a long awaited, positive, and, I would say, realistic happy ending. In this third and final film, Jon Garcia’s manipulation of the viewer’s emotions is masterful and without mercy; except for the last few minutes of the story, which brings about catharsis of the best possible kind, because, after nearly six hours of heart-rending drama throughout the trilogy, with little relief from tension, he allows us to cry tears of joy.
The opening montage: a forest of frosty pine trees and a sun-kissed mountain peak at dawn is filmed from the air, whilst, on the soundtrack, Matt Alber’s passionate love song ‘The End Of The World’ conveys, in part, the present state of R J and Chris’s relationship.
The pastoral location is a surprise, but a relief, after the stark interiors of ‘Testament Of Love’. Once again, we’re on a roller coaster ride of emotions, similar to those in ‘Testament Of Love’, but this time we’re high up in the air, the pilots of gliders or angels on the wing. Our emotions soar in the anticipation of the couple rediscovering true happiness and oneness as we rise on warm air currents: then, with each obstruction they encounter along the road to unification, we hit a cold current, and experience the sudden, unexpected dive to danger, which begs the recurring question: Are R J and Chris going to make it, after all?
R J has shed his smartly tailored look and dresses mainly in sports wear, which compliments his out of doors fitness regime, although, in spite of the exercise he doesn’t look well. His body is in great shape, but his face is gaunt and his short beard growth accentuates this. His eyes seem to be dark hollows; so very telling of his loneliness and emptiness, for, still being apart from Chris, R J no longer looks for Chris from an apartment window on a busy street in Seattle, but from a mountain top, a solitary figure at the summit of his daily ritual. This is his look-out point but also his church. Since he lost his way, he has found his faith in nature and is fuelled by the elements and not by a book in a soulless mission house. The underlying passion (in the sensitivity of the writing, and feelings portrayed by the principal actors) which runs through this most affecting, and rewarding finale can be compared directly with the romantic masterpieces Jane Eyre, Rebecca and Brokeback Mountain. R J, (like Jane) in his hope to be permanently reunited with Chris, is patience and altruism personified. Chris has a tortured soul and mind, akin to that of Max De Winter and Ennis Del Mar: his guilt, like theirs, manifests as masochistic, self-indulgent pleasure by denying himself the one thing he craves the most, namely R J.
We are presented with another time lapse; this time of only one year, during which, Chris, has been on an ocean voyage of self discovery and is tying up the loose ends of his recent divorce from Emily. But, he is no closer to committing to R J because he has made a commitment, first and foremost, to the welfare and future of his daughter, Kaylee.
R J has moved to live and work in Portland Oregon. He has a small group of supportive friends who afford him some comfort, but he can not rest because his present link with Chris is delicate and R J has no way of knowing if they will interact comfortably after their year of separation. In the opening voice-over R J states, that both him and Chris have decided to put past differences behind them and begin anew. But, like the heroes and heroines of classic and modern classic romantic fiction, the past will not let them alone.
If R J and Chris are to come together and exist happily ever after, they will both need to make some drastic but realistic compromises: Chris more-so because he is the one who is less open to change; therefore the Chris we are presented with here, elicits far less sympathy from the viewer than in the previous two films. The overriding question throughout ‘Covenant Of Grace’ is: Is Chris capable of overcoming his fierce loyalty to the church and his personal stubbornness in the matter of moving to some middle ground with R J, where he can escape the strong holds the church and his father have over him, rid himself of guilt and shed some of his austere nature: loosen up and discover his ‘real’ self and ‘real life’?
R J and Chris are both damaged by past events, but R J is the freer of the two since his break with the church. Chris may be free of his marriage to Emily, but he is still very embedded in the church; very set in his ways and has the added responsibility of being there for his daughter, who is paramount (rightly so) in his life at this point. He will have lessons to learn and battles to win and concede in his personal growth as an ‘out’ gay man, before he can reach the place R J is now at. Unfortunately, Chris lacks the will to stand up to his father. And his stubborn refusal to compromise brings him into conflict with R J, which results in the deterioration of R J’s mental and physical health to such an extreme, that R J nearly gives up on Chris completely, and for good.
R J, has been living for one whole year in a state of limbo. Considering the lack of physical and emotional contact between him and Chris during that time, it is realistic that their telephone conversations are tense, formal and matter-of-fact. They are disconnected not only by the distance in road miles but by the separate and quite different lives they now lead. R J has reached a point where he can’t even say “I love you” over the phone. When R J forgets to hang up, Chris hears R J muttering to himself, stating “Why can’t I say, I love you, like any normal person?” R J voiced his frustration in ignorance and Chris is made insecure by it.
There are brief (maybe too few) shots of the airport terminal buildings seen from R J’s point of view while driving his car to pick up Chris. Matt Alber’s love song fades in again at this point and the words about flying and falling, juxtaposed with the shots of the overhead structures filmed by a moving camera at a strange angle, invoke in us, the very sensations of anticipation and excitement that R J is feeling, prior to seeing Chris again, in the flesh. Once more, I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘VERTIGO’, by those off kilter shots. And, like Scottie in ‘VERTIGO’, R J is obsessed by Chris in his belief that they are meant for one-another. Scottie’s obsession was unhealthy and ultimately destructive, whereas R J wants to change Chris in the most positive sense; to win him back and liberate Chris from himself in the process. R J is determined to persevere with their unstable relationship and try to change this artificial, cold and distant version of (his muse) Chris, back to the sensual and real version he successfully and lovingly resurrected during their intense, soul-searching conversations and love-making at the motel in ‘Testament Of Love’.
R J’s home is simply furnished. The interior is definitely cosier and more inviting compared with the plainer, minimalist style that is typical of a Mormon house. A beautiful oil painting of an Archangel dominates the living room; an indication that religion still has a place in R J’s life.
There is something pathetic, yet endearing, in the way that R J prepares a simple snack of cheese and crackers for Chris after his long journey, instead of a big meal. It’s obvious that R J shops for one and perhaps hasn’t much imagination where food is concerned. R J’s previous partner, Paul, was a good cook and practised what he thought was the way to a man’s heart, by preparing proper ‘welcome home’ meals for R J, but Paul’s expertise as a cook has not influenced R J to do the same where Chris is concerned.
There’s a lovely moment when, after ‘loosening up’ with a few drinks, R J and Chris reveal their sexual encounters with others during their year apart.
They open up without shame or anger or self reproach. This is such a positive scene and very poignant in the spoken content about how (1) each of them understand their need for sex and the need for the relief it brings, and (2) there’s no reason for them both to feel like they’re bad people because of this. Then, there’s lightweight comedy, with R J counting down from five to zero before they remove their clothes and get their bodies ‘out in the open’. They resemble teenage youths on a camping trip having fun in the tent, but there is also a definite element of their younger selves, (bad Mormons) as they were in ‘The Falls’, experiencing sex for the first time. The moonlight filtering through the curtains creates a blue haze in the bedroom. Blue is the colour connected with their intimate scenes in ‘Covenant Of Grace’.
The following morning, the sight of Chris praying at the foot of the bed comes as a surprise to R J, who may have lapsed from his daily ritual of prayer. We, like R J, momentarily feel like intruders.
R J’s best friend, Edina, arrives like a great gust of fresh mountain air. She is a beautifully written character. Forthright, liberal, honest, loving: a ‘lip kisser’ who Chris warms to immediately due to her naturalness and lack of inhibitions. She’s also (setting aside she’s a lesbian) a very different kind of woman to those introverted and conservative types Chris is used to associating with.
There are eggs for breakfast but little else. Edina criticises R J, while Chris is present, for serving up such a mean breakfast for “the love of your (his) life”. In an effort to cover up his ineptitude, R J remarks, “that’s all I had”. The lacklustre meal is not the real issue here. The emphasis on how very much R J loves Chris, is the important message in Edina’s statement. This is not just a compliment on her part, but a gift, to give Chris reassurance, when he gets to meet his ‘rival’, Ryan.
Ryan is as unwelcome to Chris as a silent and deadly fart let loose in a room of people who are too polite to react and have no other choice but to tolerate it and keep on breathing. Like Elder Harris in ‘The Falls’, Ryan is conniving and mean spirited. The loneliness he feels after being forced to separate from the mission companion he loves, has made him gravitate towards R J. The similarity in R J and Ryan’s mission experiences and their disgrace has moved R J to act as Ryan’s protector. Ryan has attached himself to R J like a limpet to a rock, but his love for R J is misguided love on the rebound. Ryan is irked now that his bond with R J is threatened by the appearance of Chris on the scene: two was company; three’s a crowd and he wants Chris gone! Insecurity makes him behave unsociably towards Chris. Ryan’s attraction, is that of a shallow youth who revels in the attention given by the mature and handsome R J; in fact, he belongs to a younger generation and his crush, or hero-worship of R J leaves him with little conscience regarding his intervention (albeit small) between R J and Chris. R J may be a father figure and friend to Ryan but ultimately Ryan is vying for far more, and that is something R J is reluctant to surrender to.
Ryan is a newly qualified masseur with only one client; R J. His malicious innuendos about his hands-on experience fuels Chris’s jealousy of R J, and his dislike of Ryan. R J is sincere when he tells Ryan, within earshot of Chris, that he loves him, but it’s the love of a good and supportive friend or a responsible parent, and nothing more. However, this, “I love you”, is a slight, but deliberate, manipulation on R J’s part to anger Chris and get him to act, take control, stake his claim on R J and in doing so, reveal to R J just how strong his love for him still is: which is exactly what Chris does, expertly and timely.
There is beautifully written, sparse dialogue and action leading up to Chris taking the initiative to prove to R J that he does indeed love him. The love scene, which happens on R J’s sofa, is masterfully realised and the passivity and dominance is equalised in the way the act is filmed. We are shown just enough for us to know and imagine what R J and Chris are actually doing. Here is positive proof that the indication of a sexual act by minimising the viewpoint is far more effective and sensual an experience for an audience, than showing all. I think the visuals and dialogue within the love scenes in The Falls Trilogy would appeal not only to a completely L G B T Q audience but would sit comfortably with more mainstream audiences also. Men on the greyscale between 1 and 3 might find them challenging, but I don’t think they would be repelled by them. It is one of the most erotic and believable sex scenes I have ever watched on film. The connection between the men is nothing short of reality. The overall colour palette here is the blue of night-time, not neon red, as it was during their love-making in the motel in ‘Testament Of Love’.
We’re soaring skywards with them at this point, but … the next day, while hiking, their conversation turns into a heated argument about (1) R J’s reluctance to accompany Chris to mass at R J’s local church, and (2) the displacement of the children of same sex couples within the church. Suddenly, they are at odds with one-another. When Chris harshly states, that, maybe he’s with R J just because he feels obligated to him, R J collapses to the ground with asthma, induced by an anxiety attack. It seems like all hope for them is lost and we are left feeling like we’ve had the breath knocked out of us. Chris comforts R J while he recovers from his attack, but it seems clear that he hasn’t apologised to R J because, before they part at the airport, there is still tension between them.
Chris’s inane comment, “Well, back to real life”, is countered by R J’s reply that, “This is real life”. They’re both living their own separate versions of what they perceive to be real life and leaving us none the wiser as to whether the twain will ever meet. There is great timing in the cutting back and forth between R J and Chris holding back, until the very last second, the words that should be said, but by then, it’s too late. We want them to kiss and make up but, they’re lost for words.
When news of the death of Chris’s mother reaches R J, he is loyalty personified as he makes haste to be with Chris in Salt Lake City for the funeral: accompanied by his father, Elder Smith. Elder Smith knows that R J will be walking into a den of lions by himself, so his insistence that he attends, and his presence at the funeral, is all the more touching and reassuring to us that he has his son’s best interest and protection at heart. Elder Smith truly deserves the sincere hug of welcome, which Chris gives to him.
Deborah Merrill was a beautifully realised character and I missed her presence in ‘Covenant Of Grace’. Her death was necessary to the plot thereafter, but a shame nevertheless, that she had to be written out of the film. Chris was right in saying that she would have loved R J, and we know, given her supportive monologue to Chris at the conclusion of ‘Testament Of Love’, that she would have embraced R J into the family. But, with Deborah out of the scenario, Noah Merrill is made vulnerable without his wife at hand, and he now needs Chris as much as Chris needs his father. Where homosexuality is concerned, even the most broad-minded of fathers will struggle at first with the coming out of an offspring. Elder Merrill is intelligent and is not likely to reject Chris, whom he loves dearly, but, it will take time for him to become a role model father like Elder Smith.
R J’s second panic attack – with Chris to the rescue – is crucial to the conclusion of the story because, for the first time, Elder Merrill observes the genuine love and concern which Chris has for R J. So, at the all male family debate about the future of Chris and R J, Elder Merrill is made aware of the stalemate which Chris and R J now find themselves at, which brings about a shift in his perspective on same sex couples versus the church, and he begins to soften in their favour. There are no objections when Chris and R J hold each other in a long, loving embrace before parting. Elder Harris, surprisingly respectful and tolerant, leads Elder Smith away to give their sons some moments alone together and this is a sure indication that Elder Merrill has begun his journey of acceptance. Now that his accepting wife, Deborah, is departed, Noah Merrill must support Chris alone, and, since he stated to Chris at the conclusion of ‘Testament Of Love’, “I just want you to be happy”, he must learn from, and be influenced by, the bond he’s observed between R J and his father, and act accordingly.
Jon Garcia is an expert when it comes to creating an atmosphere which is tangible to an audience: one that they can feel, and R J and Elder Smith’s conversation in the hotel bedroom before they depart Salt Lake, is a fine example. The love, connection and understanding between father and son, is an emotional highlight, acted with quiet dignity. Elder Smith no longer hints at, but reveals that he is referring to himself when he, for the second time, tells R J of ‘someone’ he once knew, who struggled, in very much the same way that R J once did, but the ‘someone’ didn’t have the courage to come out. When R J realises that his father is actually coming out to him, he humbly asks, “Is he okay?” Elder Smith’s answer is in the affirmative. R J responds by kissing his father’s forehead, as though he is bestowing a blessing and we know that one day soon, they will both discuss this openly.
It is easy to understand why Ryan is so miserable and on a second downward spiral of drinking and partying, but, it doesn’t excuse him from trying to seduce R J, when R J is intoxicated. After the funeral, R J has left Chris in Salt Lake City and returned to Portland. His morale is low and so is his resistance to Ryan’s overtly sexual advance on him after a drunken night out at a gay club. It is right, and for the best, that R J diffuses the erotic (and potentially damaging for them both) moment and turns the situation around. He’s back to being the supportive friend whom Ryan needs to eventually steer him in the right direction: that of Ryan’s own true love, his disgraced mission companion, Jacob.
From here on, the question is, can R J and Chris find some middle ground; a positive compromise where they are in accord with each other and Elder Merrill. The viewer is being balanced on the same knife edge as R J, as to what the outcome will be.
The plotting is well structured. Noah Merrill engages with the televised gay pride march and begins to sympathise with Chris. The words of Owen Duff’s ‘Ukulele Song’ in this scene, reflect how ‘left out’ Chris feels, now that Ryan is in R J’s life. Upstairs; naked in the bath, Chris is caught in a state of limbo, with the church and family honour on one side and R J on the other. He looks lost, almost invisible: his skin nearly as white as the enamel tub and the clinical décor.
During an interview with the president of the quorum, Noah Merrill speaks openly, and honestly, about the change in his stance on gay rights. Noah’s speech is concisely written by Jon Garcia and gets right to the heart of the matter. Aimed at all religious leaders and all parents, regardless of whether they’re church-going or not, that discrimination of gays within the family, the church, or in general, must end. Noah has stopped trying to change Chris because he’s realised that Chris is, “fine the way he is”, and that making one of the faithful, like Chris, choose between the church or eternal damnation, is a contradiction of church doctrine, that we love one-another, whomsoever that ‘other’ might be.
While instructing Kaylee in the afterlife, Chris finds comfort and courage in the child’s matter-of-fact enquiry, “Will R J be there too?” By including R J in the heavenly family group, she is acknowledging R J, without question, as her parent, which in turn reminds Chris that his church wants to exclude the children of same sex parents from baptism and therefore, a place in heaven. His daughter’s innocent question motivates him to make a crucial and firm decision. He will not resist R J any longer. Chris wants the whole thing: R J, Kaylee and the church, but, if the church won’t recognise his daughter, Chris is prepared to go against the church and his father, if need be. My personal feeling is, at this point in the story, Chris decides he will ask for Elder Smith’s permission to marry R J.
Chris will definitely be rooted in Salt Lake for a further three years, having accepted an invitation to study law at a university there. In a heart-to-heart conversation with his father, Chris speaks openly of his ordeal in corrective therapy (between ‘The Falls’ and ‘Testament Of Love’) where he was told he would have to choose either God or (homosexual) love. He is appalled that the church damns him and his daughter. Noah admires Chris’s courage, and, furthermore, he admits that the love he witnessed between Chris and R J at Deborah’s funeral was equal to the love he and Deborah had shared. He is now on Chris’s side. Instead of admonishing Chris for his outburst, Noah Merrill vows to speak to the committee of elders, to see if he can sway them in favour of accepting same sex couples within his very conservative church.
R J is trying to reconnect with his faith by attending service.
Another pastoral scene: R J is running back from his lookout point. He arrives home to find Chris waiting for him. R J enters the house, ignoring Chris. Has R J had enough of Chris and deliberately blanking him? On entering the house himself, Chris is seized by R J, in what is a most unexpected and delightful kissing scene. R J, who is genuinely pleased to see Chris, and to have learned that Chris has been accepted into law school in Salt Lake City, drags him to the bedroom and onto the bed. The love scene is splendidly acted and edited. In a shimmering blue light, their lingering kisses are ‘meant’. It appears that they are so relaxed together for the first time in ages that they are as one. They completely adore one-another. There is no need for dialogue here: they speak volumes through their eyes, their kisses and their smiles. It is very uplifting and sad at the same time. Plaintive notes on a piano lend a feeling of complete calm to the atmosphere of the scene and also a sense of yearning. A manifestation perhaps of their internalised need for one-another. We feel their sense of release, and relief, and comfort …
The harmony and the pain that R J and Chris have experienced through the years is comparable with the same sex romance in the novel ‘Maurice’ by E M Forster.
Maurice, and his lover Clive, are continually kept apart by family obligations and Clive feels he’s unable to commit fully to Maurice from fear of discovery. Maurice is not afraid to take risks but Clive is, and he is constantly keeping Maurice at an arms length. Maurice becomes very ill because of his alienation, very much like R J does. Maurice needs to be with Clive all the time and he’s miserable, lonely and depressed in his isolation, in the same way R J is, when he’s without Chris. But, the times that Maurice and Clive do spend together as lovers, although brief, are idyllic, and they are in perfect harmony with one-another. There is the same sense of unimaginable bliss between R J and Chris.
… a cut to post sex; the scene is sombre, the bedroom darkly lit, a deep, night-time blue. The lovers are opposites in temperament as well as appearance. R J is consoling and open compared with Chris who has bottled his grief to bursting point. The black facial hair of R J next to the pale copper of Chris and the pale glow of their almost translucent skin, lends the lovers a supernatural quality. The mood becomes serious again. Chris finds catharsis in R J’s arms, finally weeping for the loss of his mother. His face resembles an ancient Greek theatrical mask of tragedy.
Noah Merrill is dressing meticulously, as if he were going to his own execution. The image of him entering the quorum chamber and looking down from the gallery before descending, is identical to the way in which King Charles I of England approached his place of execution. King Charles I descended a staircase in Whitehall where his enemies, the puritan members of parliament waited, to witness his execution. The garb of the puritan is severe, black and white, and conservative, like the suited quorum members waiting for Noah Merrill (who is to undergo a bitter disappointment at the hands of his puritanical brothers) to descend. It is a fait accompli. They’ve already made up their minds about where they stand on the subject of gays and same sex marriage within the Mormon church. By altering his stance, Noah Merrill is hardly a traitor to the church, but his support of Chris may be looked upon suspiciously, even with derision, and he will be perceived as the weak link in the quorum chamber, where unity and solidarity is paramount.
The camera follows a youth, belly-riding his a roller board. We are led by him through a crowd of people at the street market, towards Chris and R J. Personally, they are in a stronger and more positive place. They are, for the very first time, ‘out’ in public, holding hands for all the world to see. This is the first sign of Chris’s personal gay liberation and he’s moving towards R J now, and not away from him. They walk, unafraid, amongst a friendly crowd. There may well be other gay couples there, but Chris and R J stand out as the most obvious and they are enjoying every second of being an out and proud gay couple.
Chris has a pleasant surprise in store. His father has had his proposal rejected by the quorum, but, heedless of their decision, he bestows his personal blessing on Chris and gives him permission to pursue a happy life with R J.
R J and Chris are in the bedroom. R J is seated, nervously watching as Chris packs his bags prior to leaving for the airport. Chris is anxious about getting to the airport on time. R J is anxious because Chris is leaving him again and he doesn’t know when he will next see Chris. The mood is blue and the room is lit with the blue of sadness. These moments before the lovers say goodbye until the next time, are devastating. Nick Ferrucci expertly conveys R J’s struggle to keep his emotions under control, but his pain is too great. He can not tolerate living apart from Chris any longer. His honest declaration of how he has prayed for strength to let Chris go for good, is heartbreaking. R J doesn’t really want that to happen, neither do we; and we become afraid at this point, that Chris is quite possibly going to lose R J forever; but, there are two surprises in store for us, comprising as one for each of them.
The first surprise solution is: R J admits that, in spite of how the church stands regarding same sex relationships, he can’t live without the church when Chris is so involved in it. It’s a small compromise on the part of R J because although he has, at times, doubted his faith, he has never totally given up on it. The larger compromise is that he will have to leave Portland, a city which he has felt at one with, and move to Salt Lake City, but, these are worthwhile compromises because he wants it all. To embrace his religion completely, at the hopeful, new beginning, of a lifelong journey with Chris and Kaylee.
The second surprise is uplifting: like the conclusion of one of Douglas Sirk’s romantic melodramas. Though there is nothing melodramatic, in the sincere and humble way in which Chris asks for R J’s hand in marriage. The proposal is a healing balm from Chris to an ailing R J, which will restore R J’s good health and bring equilibrium back to the relationship. There was a similar scene in ‘The Falls’, only this time, Chris is metaphorically applying the soothing ice-pack to R J’s bruised hand when (on one knee, as in ‘The Falls’) he takes R J’s hand in his own and proposes.
Chris is no longer stuck in the mire. He reveals to an unsuspecting R J that he has been proactive and asked Elder Smith for his permission to marry his son. They express, through tears, their innermost feelings of love for one another and Chris’s vow never to leave R J again is the rewarding finale we’ve all been waiting for. The inclusion of a touch of light comedy relief, when Chris says he has a plane to catch, and R J replies that Chris has just promised he would never leave him again, is well placed, and enough to have us smiling through tears of joy. The R J dead-pan sense of humour we loved in ‘The Falls’ is re-emerging: the comedian will soon bring the fun and laughter they so desperately need, back into their lives. This one last parting is okay because we know that Chris has made his commitment to R J, and R J will soon be following on to join Chris in their new home.
Chris and R J’s wedding might seem like a pastiche of fantasy and reality and have been added just to please the audience, if it weren’t for the fact that, structurally, the exterior of the church building doesn’t resemble a typical Mormon church. The sealer then, may very well be a ‘rebel’ Mormon preacher, or an apostate, who has been engaged to conduct the service in a non-Mormon church that is not in opposition to same sex marriage. A Mormon wedding service with all the trappings of an official Mormon wedding, except that in the eyes of the church, the marriage of R J and Chris will not be legally recognised, but frankly … we don’t give a damn!
The reality, for the present, is a compromise. In a mock Mormon marriage ceremony they become united as husbands, in a civil partnership only. This will have to suffice for Chris and R J until the temple leaders are swayed to legalise gay marriage within the Mormon church.
There is a cunningly placed scene inserted in the end credits, of Ryan, on the road to see Jacob. History is repeating itself! The postcards from Jacob to Ryan, occupying the passenger seat are a pleasant reminder of the ending of ‘The Falls’ and a sure message to other gay Mormons watching, to do likewise: get out there, follow your heart and natural instincts, find love and enjoy a happy life, be that with or without the church. The Falls Trilogy contains such positive powerful imagery; fine believable acting and solid writing with strong, well aimed messages. (I can not find the words to adequately express the overall effect the films have had on me, personally.) The collaborative effort of everyone involved, and the result is astounding. The films radiate Jon Garcia’s passion for the subject matter and the characters he has created. They speak plainly and powerfully on the subject of love, commitment and equality. They have had, and will continue to have universal appeal and hopefully lead to a better understanding, within the non L G B T Q community, of the basic human rights of L G B T Q people. This is one of the greatest romances written for the silver screen, so far. Whether viewed independently or as a trilogy, they can not fail to become the leading films of their kind to touch the lives of countless millions that have already made the journey, and give courage and be a guiding light to those that have the same journey to make, regardless of age, race, gender, or faith.
Copyright © Russell Liney 2019
Directed by Robert Altman.
Robert Altman’s live action film, is based on the lovable cartoon sailor and his madcap antics, doubly engaged in the search for his long lost Pappy and in the protection of his goofy, gangly, girlfriend Olive Oyl and their adopted son Sweepea from the blustering villain of the piece, Bluto. Viewing the film for the very first time (the initial release was in 1981) I felt pleasantly entertained and confused in equal measure.
At first, I expected a musical film in the traditional sense with big, rousing production numbers and a storyline that exceeded the limitations of a five minutes duration, short animated cartoon. In fact, the story, for what it basically comprises could quite easily have fit into the span of a Popeye cartoon, but the surprise was that the musical aspects of the film are actually very subtly placed and nuanced so that they almost become a part of the inner dialogue of the piece as a whole and do not dominate.
The handful of songs were composed by Harry Nilsson, whose music was generally categorised as popular or ‘middle of the road’ even, but very off kilter compositions for all of that. His number one hit single ‘Without You’ is the exception; a pop song performed in the style of the big production with a full orchestra and the one we most associate with Nilsson. The subtlety of the songs in Popeye, expressing very simply the inner feelings of the individual characters – whether they be love or conflict – are nicely offset by the manic cartoon like scenes involving the central characters and the occupants of the sprawling seaside fishing village.
The live action is nicely choreographed to mirror the rubbery quality of the original cartoon drawings, adding the touch of authenticity required so that the viewing audience has no need to work at discerning between the two mediums. It is exactly that: a live action film devoid of major special effects that looks like a piece of basic animation.
Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall invest in the characters of Popeye and Olive Oyl all of the quirky and loveable aspects that had us rooting for these comical heroes when we were young. It is our nostalgia for these characters and Robert Altman’s vision that is so endearing to us, now that we have grown up.
Another aspect of the film which threw me at first was, why and how the Disney company and Altman collaborated in the first place. Chalk and cheese was the over-used cliché that came to mind. Then I began to compare films. In Robert Altman’s Popeye, there are scenes of complete confusion and calamity that are in keeping with the animated Popeye but which also reminded me of the crazy antics of the seven dwarfs throughout Disney’s Snow White and Honest John the fox and his companion in crime the mute tomcat Gideon in Disney’s Pinocchio. All have a similar elastic quality that I think Altman had noticed and taken into account.
Popeye can be traced back to some of Robert Altman’s earlier films. Most notably, it is no coincidence here that Popeye is the stranger who arrives in a strange place searching for someone and intending to become a part of that community in the same way that Warren Beatty does in McCabe and Mrs Miller. Altmans’ realistic approach to film dialogue (conversation taking second place to the action, but in general terms at odds with other conversations taking place, causing a cacophony of sound) is there throughout his whole body of work (MASH, Nashville, The Long Goodbye) leading up to (and including) Popeye and beyond (Short Cuts, Pret a porter and A Prairie Home Companion). He doesn’t compromise his style with Popeye and pander to a commercial audience of mainly parents and children. The audience is expected to work along with Popeye as with all his films.
In the cartoons, Popeye is all too keen to thrown back his head and down a can of spinach in one, prior to a bust-up. Robin Williams portrays Popeye as a sensitive man with a purpose and tenacious will, but surprisingly, he hates spinach, which is the very thing that he has to overcome if he is to gain the strength to overthrow his enemy, Bluto.
Ultimately, Robert Altman’s Popeye is a film full of the fun and the drama we expect from a Popeye cartoon, filled with endearing characters and some exceptionally apt songs (the best being “He needs me”, sung by Olive Oyl when she’s musing over her attraction to Popeye). And where (in the inventive and whacky climax) the kooky Olive, confined inside a ships funnel, is saved by Popeye from the tentacles of a gigantic octopus and where true love wins the day and the villainous brute Bluto literally turns a cowardly yellow at the end.
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