The elderly are invisible. American culture, obsessed with the young and new, has a way of making senior citizens disappear. It’s a particular problem in the gay community. The emphasis on youthful physical ideal marginalizes anyone old enough to be headed in the general direction of infirmity. Then there is the legacy of tragedy, an entire generation decimated by the AIDS epidemic. Moreover, for many years the possibility of adopting children and building a family was inconceivable. Marginalized and isolated, aging gay men have been treated by both the media and society as ghosts.
Enter PJ Raval. His newest feature is Before You Know It, a warm portrait of three gay senior citizens. On the one hand, the film is an accomplishment simply in the way that it gives voice to this marginalized demographic. Yet Raval does more than highlight the common problems faced by these three men, crucially making sure to shed light on their differences as well. This is a documentary built with respect in the place of pity.
First is Robert, the owner and operator of a gay bar in Galveston, Texas, where he has lived since 1970. As such he’s at the center of the gay community in this small, coastal Southern city. He organizes what he proudly proclaims is the longest-running drag show in Galveston, and he occasionally performs. Halfway across the country is Ty, who lives in New York City with his partner. He’s the outreach director for SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Elders). Third is Dennis, a single man in his 70s splitting his time between a house in rural Florida, where he is still closeted, and a gay retirement home in Portland, Oregon.
Raval makes sure to include the wider experiences they share, histories of discrimination and loss and the universal difficulties of the aging process. Yet he is more interested in their unique stories. Ty and his partner watch the victory of same-sex marriage in New York State in the summer of 2011 and then must face the happy problem of deciding whether or not they want to be married themselves. Dennis’s arc is one of self-discovery. Since moving into the Rainbow Vista retirement home he begins to feel more comfortable wearing women’s clothes in public, and his newfound bravery takes him to a gay cruise line. Raval allows Dennis to define himself in front of the camera.
At its best, Before You Know It is a film about the presence of time. The opening and closing sequences employ portraits of the three men standing in the street. They stare silently into the camera, planted at intersections that seem to stop time and allow them to look back on their lives. The audience, by extension, is afforded the same opportunity. Raval also connects them through a recurring motif of pride parades, attended by all three subjects in their home cities. This annual celebration, a living testament to the triumphant history of the gay rights movement, becomes a celebratory symbol of continuity.
Raval’s occasional use of slow motion, however, is less affecting. Combined with a heavy-handed musical score, some moments in Before You Know It feel too self-consciously profound. It is as if the film is blankly telling the audience to feel, without the nuances that make such emotion stick. As for the passage of time, a long sequence reveling in the 2011 passage of same-sex marriage through the New York State Senate only dates the film. This civil rights story distracts from the portraiture around it, weighing it down with the inevitable burden of old news.
And that portraiture is the strength of Before You Know It. Raval has some ideas, certainly, but the film’s energy derives mostly from the inherently compelling nature of its three protagonists. These men have lived through a lot, and their continued vivacity is what makes the film around them a rich experience.