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“Anyone who has been following the news at film festivals over the past few months knows, by now, that 1992 has become a watershed year for independent gay and lesbian film and video.” This was the opening of B. Ruby Rich’s foundational essay on what would be known as New Queer Cinema. A year removed from Todd Haynes’s Poison and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning becoming sensations and sources of controversy, even more films arrived on the festival circuit which brought their own new, distinctly queer energies to cinema.
Gregg Araki’s angry punk debut feature The Living End portrayed an HIV-positive gay couple turning to a life of crime, eschewing respectability politics. Tom Kalin came out of the AIDS activist group ACT UP to make Swoon, which casts a revisionist queer lens on the Leopold & Loeb “perfect murder” case. And then there was Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times, which received a Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 1992 but, being less salacious or anarchic than its contemporaries, has faded from memory. But the film, recently restored and now available to stream, is a dynamic and frank depiction of friendship and same-sex attraction that’s well worth revisiting.
The film is a speculative look at a real vacation John Lennon and Brian Epstein took together to Barcelona in 1963. Here The Beatles are closer to their roots as a traveling band, playing in German strip clubs rather than stirring girls into a frenzy on The Ed Sullivan Show. Only 23, Lennon (Ian Hart) is married and entering fatherhood while he himself is still quite childlike, particularly in his curiosity when traveling to new places. Epstein (David Angus), from a wealthy Jewish family, is older, more cultured and sophisticated, dressing in ascots and Fred Perry.
At first their relationship reads like that of a child and his chaperone, with Epstein getting ruffled by Lennon’s profanity, but it becomes clear that he’s emotionally conflicted over the musician. The power dynamics between them are in constant negotiation. Lennon is on the precipice of having the world as his oyster. Epstein knows this, but cannot help but be deeply attracted to his enigmatic magnetism. Lennon was never classically handsome, and Hart interprets him as owlish, what with his thick glasses and floppy mop top, but still embodies that charm and arrogance that made Lennon both polarizing and an inspiration around the world. His Lennon is not naive about the signals he puts out, or how Epstein may feel about him.
Predating Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, this film is a similar two-hander about people in conversation. As they unwind in their hotel room, Lennon and Epstein each try to get a read on the other without threatening their mutually beneficial professional relationship. Epstein often has to keep up the appearance of heteronormativity, while his friend/opponent engages partly as a provocateur and partly out of genuine curiosity about exploring a taboo side of his sexuality. Epstein, whose homosexuality was an “open secret,” and who had taken many risks by participating in cruising (in at least one instance resulting in his arrest), goes through a wide spectrum of emotions. He finally has a respite to express his feelings to Lennon during an intimate moment, and also has reason to believe Lennon might reciprocate.
Only 57 minutes long, the film compacts a lot about these two men of different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, who are drawn to each other but unsure about what level they can meet at. The Hours and Times is a film of conviction in what it hypothesizes, inverting the expected framing of queer stories. The viewer is positioned more with the point of view of Epstein, who’s trying to figure out Lennon’s deal, as opposed to seeing Epstein from the outside, as a man with a secret to be revealed. In this, the film is still refreshing. While lacking the more profane, experimental qualities of other entries in the New Queer Cinema canon, it should not be considered circumspect, but instead an incredibly precise work.