Almost a Love Affair

The Hours and Times (1992)

Antarctic Pictures/Oscilloscope

I confess that my knowledge of the Beatles is limited—I can trace the general outline of their rise and fall and recall their most popular songs, but this is passively received cultural knowledge, the same baseline familiarity with the most popular band of the 20th century that anyone might have. In this sense, I’m an unlikely audience for Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times, the 1992 Sundance prize-winner and New Queer Cinema classic that dramatizes a 1963 Barcelona vacation taken by John Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Epstein was gay, and he and Lennon allegedly had an unusually intimate friendship (quote from Lennon: “It was almost a love affair, but not quite”), so this trip has caused speculation amongst Beatles fans and biographers about Lennon’s sexuality. With both men dead for years, Munch wrote a screenplay imagining what Lennon and Epstein may have done on this trip, what conversations they may have had, what sexual tension may have existed between them. 

Coming into the film with little preexisting knowledge or context, what I saw was an exploration of an intimate relationship between a guarded, lonely gay man and a guarded, lonely straight (?) man, navigating an alternately tense and flirtatious friendship on the cusp of the Beatles’ global ascendancy. The film’s straightforward aesthetics, while born out of necessity—Munch shot the film himself in eight days with extremely limited resources, and edited it himself over the next two years—rhyme with the content: the film’s visual language consists of long takes and close-ups, conducive to long, discursive conversations and to tracking subtle shifts in relationship dynamics. 

While fictionalized accounts of rock stars’ sex lives and personal relationships are common and often sensational, The Hours and Times distinguishes itself as a small-scale, conversational film, one that centralizes an ambiguous relationship. Resultantly, it subverts viewers’ expectations of what a gay John Lennon movie would be; rather than leaning toward the explicit or salacious, Munch productively holds back, while also guiding the viewer toward considering the lesser-known Epstein’s point of view. 

The narrative centering of Epstein is clear from his first appearance in the film. Depicting Brian (David Angus) and John (Ian Hart) on the flight to Barcelona, Munch frames Brian in the center of the shot, leaving a sleeping John out of focus in the background. When he wakes, he tells Brian about the dream he just had (“I was a circus clown, but the circus was underwater”), occasionally drifting completely out of frame. The scene, then, becomes about Brian listening and responding; he compares John’s dream to Matisse’s La Danse, noting that while the painting depicts a chain of people holding hands and dancing, two of the figures reach for each other yet “don’t connect.” His comment on the painting is a tangent—its connection to John’s dream is only that both include the colors red and blue—but it telegraphs his view of their friendship. Having already separated the two by states of consciousness and a frame that only accommodates one, Munch establishes the film’s point of view, and suggests that Brian will spend the film reaching for John, without ever being able to fully touch him. Munch carries this schema throughout the film: in most consequential moments between the two, the camera centers Brian. Maybe most tellingly, when the two men play cards, Munch shows us what’s in Brian’s hand, but not John’s.  

It may seem a counterintuitive choice for Munch to center the manager over the rock star, but it gives the film a distinct perspective and provides a historical intervention on behalf of queerness. On one level, the focus on Brian’s perspective keeps John at a remove, thereby maintaining him as an unknowable cultural icon. While the film’s portrayal is speculative, Munch resists grafting convenient narratives onto the character, ones designed to make the viewer feel they know him on an intimate level. Rather, by keeping his point of view remote, he allows John to hold a level of mystery that more closely reflects the public’s actual relationship with celebrities: his inner life, his unspoken desires, are fundamentally inscrutable, but he gives just enough information for a spectator to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. 

On another level, Munch’s centering of Brian leads the viewer to consider Brian’s subjectivity more deeply than they otherwise would. In a review for Cinéaste, Justin Wyatt noted that the decision to elevate Brian’s point of view “privileges the marginalized position”; as a gay man who operated behind the scenes of the Beatles’ success, Epstein would probably be relegated to a minor role in a more conventional film depicting Lennon. But by centering Epstein’s perspective, Munch makes a historical intervention by directing the viewer toward the less famous, sexually othered man who was, in fact, central to the Beatles’ early success, and whose life contains equal fascinations and opportunities for speculation as Lennon’s. By ‘privileging’ Brian and distancing John, Munch plays against the prurient impulses often associated with speculation of celebrities’ private lives. He elevates the intricacies of gay subjectivity and desire, and the in-between space of existing on the edge of fame, rather than making provocative statements about a rock star’s sex life. 

John, instead of the subject of the film, is portrayed as both Brian’s object of desire and an obstacle preventing him from fulfilling these same desires. At the time of the trip, Lennon was recently married and had a newborn son; the film portrays him as ambivalent and anxious about his new family, and using the trip as a brief reprieve from the combination of domestic pressures and an escalating career. His attitude in much of the film, then, is noncommittal and flirtatious; in the first scene, he gives his flight attendant (Stephanie Pack) his hotel’s phone number. His flirtations extend to Brian, whom he treats with alternating affection (“I only came here to get away with you”), curiosity (“I enjoy hearing about your conquests”), and mockery (“dandies love to pose”). The cumulative effect of John’s ambivalence, toward Brian specifically and toward queerness as a whole, is a litany of statements and behaviors that lack consistency and seem designed to tantalize and torment Brian—and Munch ensures that we see the emotional weight Brian carries after each of these interactions. 

Brian, whose attraction to John is obvious from his first appearance on the airplane, eagerly responds to any indications of interest on John’s part, and is frustrated with himself when John withdraws them. One key scene sees Brian and John discussing the merits and difficulties of anal sex—John thinks that it would hurt, Brian playfully notes that “it’s a question of relaxation.” John stands above a seated Brian, and plays the harmonica. This is a flirtatious, verging-on-seductive gesture, and the camera is trained on Brian’s face for much of it: Angus, an emotive, wide-eyed actor, shifts to a state of openness and attention, and Munch shows us a minute later that he has been looking in a mirror, watching John linger over his shoulder. 

John promptly changes the topic and the mood dies, leading Brian to suggest a card game that he then interrupts with frustrated musings on their relationship, eventually concluding that it’s “hopeless” to expect any kind of consummation. John, digging the knife in deep, replies that Brian is an “engaging and remarkable man” that he doesn’t “want to have it off with,” and mentions how angry it makes him that their friends think they’re “humping the weekend away.” When John concludes that it’s time to “call it a night,” Munch cuts the camera back to Brian, looking up at John and then casting his eyes down, while letting out a posture-deflating sigh. 

We see in this scene how Brian functions as a sounding board for John’s curiosities and frustrations; with Brian loyal to a fault, John is able to prod him for details about gay life and sexuality, then pull back completely whenever he becomes uncomfortable. Brian’s professional and erotic devotion to John leaves him vulnerable to John’s whims—drawn in by his flirtations and disheartened by his rejections. Isolated by a then-illegal sexual identity and the professional imperative to funnel his energy into the success of his clients, Brian’s emotional and sexual needs have become increasingly, visibly tied up in John’s wavering willingness to meet them. 

A later scene intensifies this repetitive, mutually disappointing dynamic: John leaves the door open while taking a bath, and then, like before, plays the harmonica, which Brian takes as an invitation to join. He asks Brian to scrub his back, which Brian does without hesitation and with care; Munch shows this action in close-up, an exceptionally tactile interaction between two people whose relationship is overwhelmingly verbal. John gazes up at Brian, and leans in for a quickly reciprocated kiss, which both men perform with vigor and visible hunger (John’s mouth is wide open). Brian undresses and gets in the tub and the two grab each other, Brian running his hands up and down John’s back, and John kissing up and down Brian’s neck and arm with  suctioning force. After leaning in for another kiss, John abruptly pulls back, gets out of the tub, and leaves the room. Brian watches him leave, then takes a drink from John’s water glass. Munch cuts to a wider shot, showing Brian, crestfallen, sitting in John’s used bathwater with his half-drank glass in hand. He raises his voice to ask, “Are you alright, John?”

If the prior scene of implicit flirtation and rejection created a series of subtle emotional shifts in Brian, from enticement to disappointment, the bathtub one ratchets up the stakes, taking him from ecstasy to humiliation. John’s expression of full-bodied desire is unprecedented in the film, and his sudden, ravenous initiation of sex sweeps Brian away until John’s equally abrupt exit. Munch leaves Brian alone in the frame, submerged in John’s detritus, left to wonder if the latter’s desire was genuine and his rejection an anxious impulse, or if he decided to test his curiosity and left repulsed. The Hours and Times subverts expectations of how a celebrity biopic presents its subject’s sexual and romantic relationships, and this is no more clear than in this brief, pivotal scene. Rather than indicating a pleasurable, indulgent display of lust that may reap equally dramatic consequences later, the film’s only explicit sexual encounter is small-scale and pointedly unsatisfying. It may also be much more recognizable to a viewer: Angus, on a commentary track, noted that a gay friend of his singled the scene out as particularly effective, because he’d had similar sexual encounters with straight men. The price of John’s wavering is Brian’s alienation, a consequence exacerbated by the isolation of fame, but recognizable by many whose sexuality exists on the margins of the dominant culture. 

If Munch’s depiction of a sexually frustrating friendship between a gay man and a straight man rings true, his choice to include key historical context of homosexuality’s illegailty adds depth to the depiction. After their botched encounter, Marianne the flight attendant comes to visit John, and Brian decamps to the lobby for a drink. When John joins him, both having cooled down, they make small talk and John asks about the first time Brian was in Barcelona. To this, Brian casually gives a detailed answer including sensitive personal history. While cruising for sex at a public toilet in Liverpool, he was assaulted and robbed, after which his assailant blackmailed him. His family intervened through their lawyer, and while his assailant was sent to prison, Brian was ordered to see a psychiatrist. His family sent him to Barcelona to, allegedly, clear his head. Soon after he returned to England, he says, he saw John perform for the first time. 

For a film primarily concerned with moment-to-moment emotional shifts, one that does not over-explain its characters’ lives, Munch’s choice to reveal key backstory for Brian stands apart. (The particular anecdote that Brian shares seems to be an amalgamation of actual experiences Epstein had, including enduring physical assault while cruising public bathrooms). This does not provide a simple explanation for Brian’s attraction to Lennon, nor even of Brian’s general attitude toward queer sexuality. But it does explicitly establish the costs that a gay man would incur for his desires in mid-20th century U.K., where homosexuality was illegal, providing grounds for furtiveness, fear, and isolation. For all the film’s focus on the small-scale twists and turns between a pair of friends, Munch’s inclusion of this monologue asserts the broad political and societal oppression underlying Brian’s experience. If Munch shows the value of recentering a marginalized individual by making Brian the protagonist of The Hours and Times, he also shows the value of interrogating the socio-political roots of marginalization by giving voice to the precarity and punishment experienced by sexual minorities that Epstein himself navigated. 

If The Hours and Times didn’t necessarily teach me about the Beatles, or even really about the life of John Lennon, it did provide me with new frameworks for thinking about how film can engage with celebrities’ sexual and romantic lives. Other films I’ve seen that approach this topic—ranging from the highly speculative glam-rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine to the fairly by-the-book Elton John biopic Rocketman—foreground ilicitude, extravagance, and operatic conflict in their subjects’ sex lives, and present the specter of fame as inextricable from how they experience and express sexuality. The Hours and Times zigs where other rock-star biopics zag, choosing to explore the experience of a man who orbits fame instead of standing in its spotlight, and whose sexual encounters with his iconic object of desire veer on anticlimactic. Even a potential fulfillment of Brian’s desire is left ambiguous and unstressed: late in the film, Brian rises from a bed that he’s apparently shared with John, who remains asleep, leaving the viewer unsure as to whether the two have had sex. Even if they had, it marks a return to the first scene on the plane; with Brian awake and John asleep, the two are fundamentally separate from one another, no matter how close they may get.

Watching this subtle film had an appropriately subtle effect on me: I was intrigued on my first watch and moved on my second, as the delicate contours of the central relationship revealed new colors, and as Brian’s unfulfilled desire and melancholy burrowed their way into me. The film’s speculation on the life of a rock star, instead of serving as an end in and of itself, is a jumping-off point to explore the inner life of a gay man, who, while living closer to the center of mass culture than most of us ever approach, is unsteady in his personal relationships and persecuted in the eyes of the law. The inspiration for the film’s title, Shakespeare’s 57th sonnet, suggests the emotional core of the film: 

Being your slave, what should I do but tend

Upon the hours and times of your desire?

I have no precious time at all to spend,

Nor services to do, till you require.

Using the highly specific milieu of burgeoning rock stardom, in the even more specific realm of an actual vacation taken by Brian Epstein and John Lennon, Munch leads the viewer to reflect on what we want from others, what we’ll do to obtain it, and what stops us from seeing these desires realized. Munch’s speculation becomes, rather than a window with which to view a particular interpretation of cultural events and individuals, a cracked-open door with which we can examine our own desires and the unspoken desires of others.