The growing presence of unabashed queerness in contemporary culture makes the past seem comparatively drained of it. But it was always there. There’s often a queer history that lies beneath our accepted mainstream hetero narratives. When excavated, these histories can be mistakenly tagged as “alternative,” yet it’s more apt to say that they’ve been sidelined or eradicated. Even a pop phenomenon as all-encompassing as the Beatles was fueled by the expertise and aesthetic savvy of a gay man who remains considerably less known than John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Sometimes referred to as “the Fifth Beatle,” Brian Epstein was the band’s manager and the one who discovered them, gave them their look and style, and introduced them to the world; gay and Jewish—thus doubly othered in swinging sixties London—and content to be a behind-the-curtain figure, Epstein is an unassuming sort to be called, by Warren Ellis, “one of the great unsung architects of twentieth-century culture.” Furthering the mystique around Epstein for intrigued queer historians is the fact that Epstein’s gayness was well known by the Fab Four and was allegedly treated by them in a matter-of-fact manner, despite the rampantly homophobic culture of a time in UK history when consensual sexual acts between men were still outlawed.
The closest bond is said to
have existed between Epstein and John Lennon, whose generally open attitudes
toward sexuality have been well recorded and published. The central event
between the two men that has persisted even to this day as a source of fascination, and which has fueled
decades of speculation, occurred in late April and early May in 1963, when the two men
vacationed alone together for twelve days in Barcelona, at the same time that Paul,
George, and Ringo took a trip to Santa Cruz; Lennon’s first child, Julian, with
his first wife, Cynthia, had been born just two weeks prior. Wondering what, if
anything, went on between Epstein and Lennon is more than the pastime of slash
fan-fiction writers. By way of semi-denial, Lennon said to Jan Wenner in Rolling Stone in 1971, “I just went on
holiday. I watched Brian picking up the boys. I like playing a bit faggy, all
that. It was enjoyable, but there were big rumors in Liverpool, it was terrible.”
Thanks to interviews and oral
histories over the years—and one unsubstantiated, quite detailed report from
Lennon’s childhood friend Pete Shotton in his book In My Life relating that Lennon told him sexual activity did indeed
take place—thirst for the truth around the Barcelona trip has never been
quenched. Both men have long been dead, so whatever happened there is
lost forever, yet this little sojourn
remains one of the great gay maybes, a void on which to project desire and
possibility, a sliver of time that nevertheless stands in for an entire suppressed history.
In his 1991 film The Hours and Times, American director Christopher Munch fictionalizes this mysterious historical gap. A pleasurably internalized portrait, Munch’s debut film is an aesthetic inquiry into a much puzzled-over queer space, and as such it provides an effective working definition of what the filmmakers of the New Queer Cinema movement of the early nineties were up to: reclaiming emotional and physical terrain too long held as the provenance of so-called straight mainstream culture. As a portrait of a rock superstar whom most western viewers would claim to know intimately, The Hours and Times is willfully foggy; as a potentially salacious, behind-the-scenes drama about the private lives of men with hidden desires, it’s just as perversely obfuscating. Munch’s film isn’t out to “correct the record,” nor does it seem interested in satisfying the needs of celebrity obsessives. Instead, Munch, in fifty-eight grainy black-and-white minutes, simply and evocatively reminds us how the ineffable mechanics of desire inform everything we do.
As embodied by David Angus and Ian Hart, Liverpudlians Brian and John are tauntingly arch creations: the upstanding, London-educated suit we’ve always imagined and the teasing, flirtatious “Scouser” we’ve seen so many times on-screen, especially in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night—which would be shot one year after the Barcelona trip, chronicling and forever cementing the band as superstars. The two are never seen followed by paparazzi; there are no Beatles tunes. Instead, Brian and John inhabit closed spaces that vibrate with sexual tension: an airplane cabin, a shared hotel room, a nightclub lounge. Though it likely was in part due to the tiny film’s budgetary restrictions, the men are rarely seen interacting with Barcelona, with images of the external city relegated to an opening montage of exquisite Gaudí architecture, largely drained of tourists and set, counterintuitively perhaps for a film about a rock star, to a passage from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. But it’s also reflective of the film’s main aesthetic approach, making it more about isolation than fame, the function of the heart rather than the ins and outs of navigating notoriety, which is the subject of so many biopics.
The film is no doubt
dealing with the allure of celebrity—in a way, this is its entire reason for
being—but even from their first scene together, side by side on the plane, the
status of these figures as myths feels somehow both essential and beside the
point. Their first conversation already turns to the existential, with John
asking, “What do you want people to say about you when you’ve gone?” “That I
gave my all for what I believed in,” replies Brian. “That I never let the
Beatles down. That I came to know myself.” Tellingly, as he says this, the two-shot
has quietly become a single, taking in only Brian as John’s head mostly moves
out of frame. Munch’s film will be from the perspective of the desirous manager
rather than the object of his desire. Framing the film as Brian’s journey
toward knowing himself adds a poignant, if not tragic, edge to the film: Epstein
would be found dead of a drug overdose just four years later, the same summer
that homosexual acts between men were decriminalized in the UK.
Very few outside figures penetrate their interior world, but those who do bring their own whiff of sexual energy: a stewardess fancied by John, a bellboy who intrigues Brian, and a married but sexually ambiguous Spanish gentleman John invites back to their room. At one point, during room-service dinner, the men’s conversation briefly turns to anal sex, a topic ferreted out by the fascinated John, who always seems to want to get a rise out of Brian, figuratively and in the end literally. The film’s version of John Lennon is genuinely curious about sex between men: “You can’t tell me it’s not painful,” he says, to which Brian responds, “It’s a question of relaxation.” In the film’s most direct meta-cinematic moment, the two men attend a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 The Silence, another portrait of simmering, taboo, same-sex attraction and claustrophobia amidst travel in close quarters. The inherent tension of the situation builds as the talk-heavy, stripped-down narrative continues, with John and Brian trading barbs like lovers in wait. They share a bath—initiated by John, who asks Brian to scrub his back—a passionate experimental kiss, and, finally, a bed.
Locating queer appeal in the mythology of the Beatles is not as idiosyncratic a choice as some may think. The anarchic attitude and easy intimacy of the band, especially as depicted in A Hard Day’s Night, has long offered a twinge of promise for the queer viewer. In that film, the four handsome mop-tops are themselves the queering agents, running roughshod over proper society (“Give us a kiss,” John says at one point to a straight in a suit). Meanwhile, followers of gay British culture might find Lester’s casting of Wilfrid Brambell, who plays Paul’s omnipresent, disconcertingly libidinous “grandfather,” of interest—the gay Brambell had been arrested in a public restroom in 1962 for “indecent acts.” (Queer cinephiles may also know that Brambell would later play Terence Davies’s elderly surrogate in his wrenching 1983 short Death and Transfiguration.) In fact, The Hours and Times, which uses the bathroom as a place of sexual initiation, seems to consciously evoke the playful homoeroticism of A Hard Day’s Night, in which a presumably naked John plays with submarine toys in the bubble bath, while George shaves in the mirror mere feet away.
Playing off such well-known imagery, Munch reminds us that movie love affairs have always been fantasies anyway. For the gay viewer, this reliance on fantasy is perhaps even more acute. For most of film’s existence, gay sexuality has not been merely invisible, it’s been buried. We’ll never know what happened between Brian and John that apocryphal week in Barcelona, but cinema, as Munch well knew, is the only medium that can show us what might have been, imagining a queer space that heretofore had existed only in our dreams.
The Hours and Times and A Hard Day’s Night are available to stream on the Criterion Channel. The former expires on November 30, 2019.