This weekend at Outfest, I saw a screening of "The Adults in the Room", filmmaker Andy Blubaugh’s exploration of his relationship with a thirty year-old man when he was 16, a relationship that in many ways seems to continue to haunt and form him. Not surprising, then, that he made a film about it. Surprising though, that he chose to tackle this taboo subject and try as much as possible to reserve judgment about his past, his former love, or the issue of these kinds of relationships.
The film is told in simultaneous documentary/narrative style, with adult Andy reminiscing about his experiences, interviewing friends, teaching classes to young adults and trying to reach “Peter”, the man with whom he had the affair, while actors re-enact scenes from Andy’s past. It’s a challenging formal choice – I’ve always been intrigued by it, which is why I saw the film. I’m a fan of Agnès Varda, who uses herself as subject in her films, and of "I Am My Own Woman" by Rosa Von Praunheim, in which the subject of the doc comes into frame every now and again to correct the actors and coach them on how to play him.
Andy gets involved with a classmate’s uncle, who seemingly is a serial dater of younger men/boys: when Andy contacts him in the present, 13 years after their affair, he’s dating a twenty year-old. Andy himself must struggle through his need to protect Peter as well as please him, which it looks like from the film he’s been trying to do for most of his life – measuring himself against Peter’s view of Andy’s potential and coming up short. In the course of the film, Peter cuts off contact, and I said to myself “thank god”, since even though I don’t know the filmmaker, it seemed like a straining relationship and one he needed to escape from.
The nature of these older/younger relationships (and by that I mean when one partner is under the age of consent) is the sticky wicket of the film. Blubaugh interviews a few talking heads – one an administrator who is quite gentle, and shares with him how she would feel if he were her son (she was the soul of compassion); one a counselor who believes there is a definite line for when these behaviors are unacceptable; another (Dan Savage), who recounts his own experience of losing his virginity to a much older woman (a bit of a surprise as Savage is out and gay). Savage argues that it’s a gray area after a certain age and before the age of consent. Interwoven are Blubaugh’s conversations with his friends about their views, played against a backdrop of Portland’s mayor who was caught in a scandal of having an inappropriate relationship with an underage intern. Adding on to that is Blubaugh’s own job as a teacher, working with kids on creating film. Looking around at the kids in the room is probably the most effecting aspect of the film. I thought to myself how clear it was that these 15, 16 & 17 year-olds were kids, and it’s hard to have much sympathy for someone who would take advantage of that.
I have my own views, complex as anyone’s I suppose – Savage brings up an interesting point about some of these kids knowing what they’re doing and having a very pleasurable rite of passage experience. But I kind of feel like saying these kids know what they’re doing is like saying if am holding a machine gun I know how to work it. I don’t, and I could do serious damage. If a person in power, as this older man was clearly in Andy’s life, doesn’t respect the power and intensity of what’s going on the stage can be set for future troubles. And that’s not to say all adults don’t, but it’s clear in Andy’s case the adult didn’t – he’s serially involved with younger men, and there is clearly a hero worship/loss of youth/ Peter Pan thing going on with this guy (at least as written by Blubaugh). The relationship clearly has affected all Andy’s subsequent relationships.
I’m digressing here – it’s not my place to therapize, though tempting when the filmmaker puts himself forth as subject.
The movie felt a little long to me, even at 80 minutes, slowing most for me in the time Blubaugh spent in conversation with his friends – much about responsibility and growing up. The narrative sections were well done, and Calvin McCarthy, the young actor who played Andy, was fearless in his role. Some of the conversations were enlightening, but it can feel like navel-gazing a bit to explore that much of oneself on film. Even with Agnès Varda, who I mentioned above, in something like “The Gleaners and I” (which is brilliant – if you haven’t seen it, rent it, buy it, own it, love it) – it’s paradoxically her person and her curiosity which give the film its power, but when she begins exploring herself as sole subject the film loses some of it’s power. I feel the same with this film – when we are watching Andy in class, or seeing his curiosity in interviewing experts or trying to reach Peter, he’s more compelling to me than when he’s just sitting and chatting with his friends about himself. It’s the curiosity of the filmmaker that compels –the force and breadth of their investigation – collaterally we get to know them, but are still tantalized by what we don’t.
That said, that he even tackled this subject at all, knowing that even speaking of it could adversely affect his employment or his future is very brave. (It’s the paranoia I ascribe to even talking about certain things – if you say “America is a capitalism”, someone will yell “Love it or leave it” when the statement doesn’t imply any judgment whatsoever.) It’s a double standard, but that it was two men makes it even more complicated, with the history of “homosexuals preying on victims” rhetoric that stubbornly persists today. Savage’s experience being with a woman is interesting as that’s “Summer of 42” territory – I’m also thinking of the Garth Brooks song “Burning both ends of the Night” – both in which a straight man’s fantasy is to be initiated into sexuality by an older woman. Though this kind of older/younger relationship can certainly be part of the gay experience for many of us, it’s unique in the world at large in that both parties are subject to vilification – one for a relationship with a younger man, and one for being gay. There are no high-fives as there might have been in Dan’s case. Although Dan, being gay, may not have felt high-fivey. Who knows? I can not fathom having been sexual at that age, though a lot of my peers were (in relationships with someone older) and were not adversely affected in any way. Probably the best film I’ve seen on this male-male relationship (WWII as well, so Summer of ’42 again), narrative-wise, which I don’t think could have been made in this country, is the Dutch film For A Lost Soldier", in which a much older writer looks back on his relationship with an older soldier when he was a boy.
See? It’s complicated—I’ve already wishy-washed myself in trying to write about it – and even got sucked into writing about it when I didn’t really want to address it. It certainly starts a conversation, and I admire his fortitude in not taking a pro or con position, even with his own experience. That can’t be easy to do. I suppose, like everyone, he has a complicated relationship to his past. And I’m still thinking about it.
It’s an honor to have that shared with you since I don't think most would be that uncompromising without feeling exhibitionistic, and I thank him for it. I’m glad Outfest exists so we can see movies like this. And I’m interested to see what films he’s going to make next.