The Hours and Times (1991, Christopher Münch)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Recently restored by the Sundance Institute and Oscilloscope Labs, The Hours and Times is a model of absolutely uncompromising DIY independent film production the likes of which would be rare until the late 2000s and the retreat of film itself as a physical medium. It had essentially no budget, no cinematographer and no art director; shot quickly around Barcelona by calling in lots of favors, it only really aimed higher, aesthetically, in terms of its casting, and even then, there were few roles to cast in what amounted to a chamber piece. Once it was filmed — in the summer of 1988 — writer-director Christopher Münch spent three years in postproduction, only able to begin editing once he convinced a lab to develop the cans of film, themselves a cut-rate purchase from another production, on credit. But thanks to the delay, the movie then rode the wave of the new queer cinema and the independent film movement, both of which it prefigured in conception and production, and became broadly and deservedly acclaimed by critics. One wonders, however, if the film — which never played widely thanks to its niche appeal, black & white photography and modest length of 55 minutes — would even have achieved the notoriety it did if not for its central subject matter; in other words, would this yearning, personal and tiny-scaled film be a known commodity, worth festival screenings and a high-profile restoration, at all if it didn’t have something to do with the most famous pop culture story of the 20th century?

That would be, of course, the story of the Beatles. Münch was a big enough fan to fall, as many of those of us who’ve passed over into pure obsession with the band have, into frenzied speculation about certain events in their career. The one he builds his debut from is a storied and hotly debated weekend in the spring of 1963, at a moment when the Beatles’ success in England was just reaching its height, when John Lennon went on holiday to Spain with the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein, a gay man — at a time when being such in Great Britain amounted to constantly living at risk of your life and freedom — who has been speculated by some to have held a romantic torch for Lennon. Intrigue over whether or not any sexual encounter took place goes back literally decades, and in fact prompted one of the most infamous of the violent episodes that littered Lennon’s life, when he beat Cavern DJ Bob Wooler to a pulp after Wooler made a homophobic joke about the pair’s getaway. As to the reality of what happened, Lennon himself told Jann Wenner that it was a romance without consummation, and talked about being driven by curiosity; but according to his lifelong friend Pete Shotton, who’s generally a reliable narrator of the parts of the Beatles’ history he witnessed, Lennon said privately that some sort of physical contact did take place.

The matter is regarded at various lengths in every major biography of Lennon and most books about the Beatles (Münch named Philip Norman and Peter Brown’s books, Shout! and The Love You Make respectively as influences; for the record, these are two of the most contentious and salacious of the major Beatles books), sometimes dismissively, but there is enough dramatic potential in the story, not just for the unknowable elements of it but for the curious position it occupies chronologically within the band’s and Lennon’s lore, to generate the backdrop for a fascinating and emotionally rich screenplay, which is precisely what Münch has written. It would be very easy to spin the Lennon-Epstein story into something exploitative or lurid, or to harness it for some variety of “fan service.” But in the bizarre subgenre of Movies About the Beatles, the films that attempt to make grand statements about the vitality of the band’s music (Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe most notably, but also the Bee Gees vehicle Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the dreadful stock footage collage All This and World War II) tend to fail miserably, and to accidentally minimize the Beatles as personalities and as musicians as so much tired kitsch. Conversely, movies that approach small pieces of the Beatles’ legend and attempt to make some collectively rewarding sense of them have often proven much more engrossing — for instance: Robert Zemeckis’ I Wanna Hold Your Hand, about one momentous weekend not long after this one; and Iain Softley’s Backbeat, about the band’s time in Hamburg and their ill-fated bassist Stuart Sutcliffe — because, divorced of the larger social implications of the Beatles’ music or the sheer magnitude of their sonic and cultural footprint, we’re left with the much less limited possibilities of chipping away at the outskirts: taking a little cross-section of it all and exhausting its dramatic (or comedic) possibilities.

Therefore, what makes The Hours and Times so hard-hitting and effective is its unapologetic smallness. That’s “unapologetic” only in the sense that its logistical limitations scarcely prevent it from fulfilling the entire potential of its idea. It is true that there is not a note of Beatles music in the piece, that the film operates on the assumption that the viewer is aware of who both Lennon and Epstein are, yet this also manages to become largely incidental as the drama grows ever more compelling. As Ian Hart, the actor who plays Lennon, later pointed out, the movie works even just as the story of two men who have a close if unorthodox friendship and are on the cusp of something momentous that goes far beyond their mortal imaginations. The characterizations are sufficiently well-defined that the neophyte can quickly get a respectably complete view of who these men are: Epstein the terrified and dignified child of a family of refinement and “quality,” who’s alarmed them first via his sexuality and then by resting his fate upon the destiny of a rock & roll band, at a time when such diversions didn’t tend to be seen as the least bit legitimate; and in the other corner, Lennon, a troubled and tempestuous personality completely blindsided by the uncontrollable largeness of the world he’s entering, as contrasted by the tiny new family he has left behind in doing so — terribly young, terribly frustrated, terribly confused, but unmistakably brilliant and passionate. To this lifelong acolyte of the Beatles who has spent years reading about them, Münch captures both men with impressive perspicacity; and instead of doing so in service of some winking nostalgia piece, he does it in a way that captures their obviously unknowable inner lives as believably as could conceivably happen.

Münch gets considerable help in this capacity from the actors at the core of this two-hander; David Angus’ performance as Brian Epstein is shattering in its vividness and sensitivity, which seems to incorporate not just his known history as a pop manager but his classical shyness, his air of practiced dignity (visible in the interviews and candid footage that survive of him, such as the haunting clip of him riding in a taxi in New York in Albert and David Maysles’ documentary The First U.S. Visit). There’s a moment late in the film when he recounts the true story of Epstein’s potentially life-ruining blackmail episode, wherein he propositioned a stranger outside a restroom and was beaten and robbed then taunted remotely, which his parents encouraged him to pursue legally, and does so with the self-deprecating flavor of someone who’s ruminated on the incident for years now — the dialogue is flowery but, coming from a figure like Epstein, entirely believable. As for Hart, a great actor saddled in the unenviable position of portraying a real-life character with whom everyone is familiar, he sometimes falters into aping the vocal mannerisms of Lennon’s public speech; this comes off like an impression of the John we see in Richard Lester’s films, but from Lennon’s more unguarded moments on Beatles bootlegs, home tapes and even in certain press conferences, we sense that this practiced and deadpan way of speaking was not likely representative of his private communications. This, however, is the only flaw in a riveting performance that’s otherwise often uncanny; there is such palpable soul in his unpredictability and restlessness, and there is the constant sense of something those who knew Lennon have continually reported: the visibility of the cogs turning, the constant decision-making of whom to regard and how. It feels electric, and you can sense why and how he so torments the Brian we come to know here, and why his charisma would eventually set the world on its head.

Hart plays well opposite not just Angus but also Stephanie Pack as a stewardess who visits John in his hotel room for a possible tryst, only to find him in an unexpectedly ornery state (just after he kisses Brian and then walks away disgusted); she is compassionate but unsentimental and quickly sizes up the nature of the situation, which leads to some scintillating repartee between them that has a certain despair at its center; one senses that Pack’s character Marianne, more than any other, gleans the entirety of the destiny of these two men, which is something the film only fleetingly glances at. He immediately recognizes that he’s met his match, no effusive or submissive groupie here, and their exchanges to follow resemble nothing so much as the wondrous first meeting between Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate. John is confounding, unsettled, playful but cruel and incisive; and she meets him at every last turn, in fact outpaces him. They talk past one another, saying everything except what they directly mean, and somehow size up one another and the situation perfectly. She walks away with every bit of her dignity, and he with the knowledge of the counterintuitively small world he has let himself inhabit. (One provocative scene earlier on has John in a lengthy discussion with another woman, his wife Cynthia, portrayed with grave accuracy by an uncredited voice actress; it’s a difficult scene to watch, and one that feels uncomfortably true to life and well-researched, especially in terms of their relatively abrupt segue into discussion of art. Cyn hangs like a shadow over the entire film, as does Julian; and the meaning of their presence remains as distressingly unresolved as it does for 22 year-old John himself.)

The only remaining major cast member is Robin McDonald as a traveling Spaniard named Quinones whom John attempts to “recruit” for Brian’s benefit, prompting an argument between them back at the hotel. Arguments and conversations of various intensities comprise, essentially, the whole of The Hours and Times, which in some ways is a very theatrical film — setting these heated discussions and liaisons in a tiny handful of locations: planes, rooms, bars, a park bench — but nevertheless it achieves a distinctly cinematic intimacy with the camera, with the faces of the actors drawn far from one another and close to the camera, and with the secrets that come from these close interactions that couldn’t be evident in another medium. Münch’s visual reference point is one of the Beatles’ own films, Lester’s masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night that captures the band’s original design and attitude in stone for eternity; but this film is A Hard Day’s Night as though reimagined by Kelly Reichardt — its chronicle of showbiz torn asunder from within, its barrage of youth and promise and its fleeting suggestion of impermanence funneled into a display of insurmountable loneliness.

That loneliness is the greatest fringe benefit of the picture’s modesty; like the work of another of the film’s explicit reference points, Ingmar Bergman (a screening of whose Silence is attended by Brian and John in the course of the film), it forges a vision of psychological unease as though physically manifested; no matter how beautiful Barcelona is, the world to which these two men are confined feels dismayingly limited. And in reality, this was a grave lesson of the middle ’60s for both Lennon and Epstein, both of whom found that success and its attendant comforts did little to settle the lingering questions and dissatisfactions that haunted them. In the case of Lennon, who by 1965 would be contending with a serious state of despondency and emptiness that he attempted to exorcise in songs like “Help!” and “Nowhere Man,” it was a matter of searching for a degree of stimulation and purpose he would only find upon meeting the Japanese avant garde artist and writer Yoko Ono in 1966. Though Lennon like Epstein died young, the former at least achieved some degree of contentment for a time; Epstein never had the opportunity, dying of an overdose in the same year that homosexual activity was decriminalized in the United Kingdom. Perhaps the riskiest of Münch’s “fan fiction” ponderings here places the two men in a park, where Epstein insists that Lennon agree to meet him in this very spot ten years hence, in April 1973; it’s a heartbreaking moment with the recognition of where Epstein would be by that year, to say nothing of the thought of where Lennon would be in a mere twenty.

Some viewers may find it odd to label that successfully touching scene the film’s most potentially wrongheaded stroke of speculation (only because it could easily come across as emotionally manipulative in a way that most of this film isn’t), given that this is indeed a film that depicts Epstein and Lennon making out nude in a bathtub and later implies that they spend the night in bed together and presumably have sex. But this is depicted so gracefully and believably that it’s hard to imagine anyone actually objecting to it, at least today; in fact it could probably have gone much farther without seeming crass or untoward, but of course times were different — Ray Coleman’s biography of Lennon is one of a number of books that takes considerable pains to reassure readers that John was not gay or bisexual, as though this would have been some sort of horrid insult to not just the man but his fans. Norman’s book is a very different matter, hinting around liberally about John’s ambiguous sexuality. (Neither here nor there, but: in a rather moving interview that accompanies the paperback edition, Ono soon after her husband’s death remembers teasing John over how often he complimented her for looking androgynous.) We will likely come closest to knowing everything we could know about the Barcelona episode in a few years when Mark Lewisohn, the most even-handed and ruthlessly accurate historian ever to write about the Beatles, publishes the second volume in his history of the band.

But to me, what did or didn’t happen seems hardly the point — the emotional essence of Münch’s film lines up perfectly with what we do, or can, know; and the halting awkwardness of the initial encounter depicted here seems entirely true to life to anyone who’s familiar with the experiences of people taking their first steps toward questioning or asserting their sexuality. And, perhaps more importantly, it feels like the lived-in reality of a temporary step into romantic or sexual expression between friends. These moments of connection — which, again, could and maybe even should be more explicit — are crescendos in a film that feels often like a piece of music, one with many blank spaces into which it’s easy to insert oneself, one’s own state of mind, one’s own sense of loss.

As noted, we never hear any Beatles songs in the picture — the production could not possibly had afforded them and, in the 1990s, actual Beatles performances were generally not made available to film producers for any price anyway — but there are two fascinating aural substitutes: there is a moment when Brian stands off alone after waking up next to John in bed and we hear, on the soundtrack, the vague hiss of an audience of screaming teenagers and an emcee, in muffled tones, announcing the names of four men, an eruption of high-pitched cheers after each. The chaos is too pronounced to be the memory of anything that had happened that spring or even would happen that fall, when the Beatles would mount their triumphant national tour that would remain etched in the cultural memory of Great Britain for generations; no, we know that he is thinking about America, about a future of incalculable fame and mastery. The look on his face speaks volumes: if he cannot have what he wants on a personal level, this is where his fulfillment will come, at least for a while.

Yet the film’s most spiritually transcendent and powerful moment comes a bit earlier, and it’s the one sequence in which we somewhat glean “what it’s really all about” in the abstract. Marianne, the woman from the plane, enters John’s room with a 7″ record smuggled over from the States; it’s a new Little Richard — credited, in fact, to the Upsetters, a bouncing and gleeful cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m in Love Again.” John recalls (accurately) opening for Richard the previous year and also (inaccurately) describes how the first-generation rocker would only really speak to Brian, a not-so-covert reference to their shared sexuality. (In point of fact, it was Ringo Starr, then new to the band, with whom the notoriously promiscuous Richard was sexually intrigued, but he was convivial with all of them and later praised them to the skies as a white band with a “Negro sound,” the rare unambiguously positive interaction they had with one of their influences: Elvis met them in a stiff and awkward state afflicted by mutual suspicion, Gene Vincent terrified them with his penchant for weaponry and joyriding, and Carole King was such a hero to John that he, fully starstruck, stiffened up and was unable to speak when they met.) Suddenly the teenager excited and obsessive over rock & roll comes roaring back; just like when he and Paul would haunt the NEMS record store for the latest sounds, he takes the 45 to the turntable and begins widely grinning as soon as the intro starts — then he and Marianne, alone in this room, share a silent and joyous dance, an expression of every buried feeling of oblivious ecstasy that rock & roll can bring out, a reminder of what — at bottom — the mission of the Beatles and every other great pop musician was destined to be: to express the inexpressible, the things that fill the space between people in these rooms.

The Hours and Times is a compelling drama in and of itself, but it’s also a profound piece of reactive art to the Beatles and their following because it takes seriously their importance as a cultural phenomenon and suggests that theirs is such a large story that this miniscule slice of it can tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that would be the endless hours of wonder we might engage in about whether most of us in the world could maintain our mental health upon receiving that level of international adoration so suddenly, at such a young age, before even having the time to process the loss of one parent and abandonment of another; perhaps it is through the narrative it brings us of the injustice, shame and secrecy of being gay in England in those times, or the continued microaggressions or worse one might still face virtually anywhere if one isn’t straight. To graft the universal feelings explored by these characters upon such a famous and well-trodden story is a strong suggestion of the love and devotion that story has inspired; a tale like the Beatles’ could provoke an infinite number of such speculative pieces of small drama. But Münch brings us his particular interpretation with such impeccable judgment, subtlety and tough-minded honesty despite the complete lack of real means at his disposal, that it’s difficult to imagine anyone bettering his remarkable achievement in this hauntingly minimalist film.

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