Thursday, December 29, 2005

Broken-back Mountain

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, all!

Peter and I just returned from a wonderful trip to San Francisco where I was able to see the city and we spent the holidays with his adorable family. During our tour of the city, we were able to see Brokeback Mountain.

In anticipation of watching the movie, I read the short story by Annie Proulx on which the movie is based and follows incredibly closely. Many are heralding this movie as the great gay hope - a gay romance movie that will be seen in fairly mainstream circulation and appeal all sorts of people who would never otherwise be exposed to such a story. Many are claiming that people will be intensely moved and reconsider their ideas about gay people. Many call it a tender, loving look at two men in love and how accurate Ms. Proulx portrays this dynamic. All of these assertions are dead wrong.

WARNING - following are major SPOILERS. If you don't want to know the ending or any other details, don't read this post until you read the story or see the movie. Also, I'm not giving a synopsis of the movie, so some of my comments may be lost on you until then.

First, let me say that this movie is well done and worth your time and money to see. Heath Ledger's and Jake Gyllenthal performances are top notch, as are all of the supporting cast. The cinematography is gorgeous. The movie adds logical and appropriate story material that the short story only suggests or omits. You are definitely moved and touched by this movie; it's hard not to be.

However, this story (and here I refer to the source material) suffers from problems found in many gay romance stories. Despite reviews I have seen asserting otherwise, I do not believe Proulx truly understands same-sex male intimacy. The story she wrote is a straight person's perspective (and a woman's perspective in addition) on and, ultimately, shows that bias, albeit unintentionally.

There are few tender moments between these men; indeed, Jack Twist (the character Gyllenthal plays and the member of the couple most attuned to his sexuality) specifically recalls his favorite moment between them as a time (very brief in the film) when Ennis Del Mar (Ledger and the character who suppresses his sexuality) holds him, wanting nothing. The rest of their time is marked by sex, often rough, and sometimes violent. Their first sexual encounter is particularly forceful, painful, and animalistic. Yes, these men are ranchers in the mid 1960's, and supposed to be rough and ragged. This doesn't mean that their sexual interactions must always reflect this, or even mean that sex between them should reflect this. Proulx has unwittingly bought into the stereotype that sex between men is violent.

These two gay men are shiftless, submissive, and substandard. They lack ambition, direction, or any real authority or power. Twist is something of a con-man. He's also emasculated by his capable and seemingly uninterested wife and his overbearing father-in-law (the "stud duck" as Proulx calls him). Twist and Del Mar are constant failures. Twist loses the sheep herding job, is a pitiful rodeo contestant, and his plans for himself and Ennis (and possibly another man) are thwarted. Jack's father mentions how Jack's often planned big ideas, but none ever came to fruition. Ennis wanders aimlessly. His marriage fails and in the movie, his second relationship with a woman fails. Obviously, his relationship with Twist fails to be fully realized and meaningful. He also never finds success. In the short story and the movie, it's clear that he is left late in life with only a memory of love and happiness, and certainly no bright future prospects. Even Jack's last wishes are denied; he is thwarted beyond the end. Ennis and Jack possess character flaws frequently associated with gay men.

One cliche that I'm glad the movie omits is an encounter that Jack has with his father. Jack recounts a time when he was very young and accidentally wet himself. His father, in a rage, takes out his penis and pisses all over Jack and the bathroom. This story is brought up in the context of an interesting juxtaposition: the emotional separation between Jack and his father as represented by Jack's circumcised penis and his father's uncircumcised one (again, though, Jack, the queer, is "missing" a piece of himself - a piece of male-ness). Although Proulx never tries to make the assertion, it's far to easy to see the all too common misconception that child abuse leads to homosexuality (and the emotionally unavailable father as another possible factor).

Another tiresome cliche that remains, however, is the death of Jack. Jack, who clearly accepts and acknowledges his sexuality, is the one who is disposed of - silently almost - in the film, quickly and brutally. It's a tired theme in literature that gay people must pay for their forbidden love, that death is the fitting penalty for opposing God (or the gods) and nature. Ennis, who struggles with his identity and tries to live a straight life, is spared. Once again, a gay couple is denied a happy ending; they taste what could have been but are forever denied it.

It's clear from both the movie and the book that life could have turned out better for Ennis and Jack, had Ennis only accepted his identity. However, it's not so clear that the casual movie-goer will come to that conclusion. Only a handful of people who like to analyze and discuss themes and motifs in films will likely arrive at that conclusion; more likely your typical moviewatcher will simply see an example of a gay relationship that was doomed to fail from the start. Another notch in the belt of bigots who claim that gays can't have successful or meaningful relationships. More support for the stereotype that male-male relationships are simply about sex (and violent sex at that). It's far too easy for people who already possess negative stereotypes to see those ideas reinforced: gay people are deceitful; we get into marriages and cheat on our spouses; gay people are sex fiends; gay people are weak and purposeless. This movie is unlikely to change peoples' minds, even if they are open to a different perspective. Brokeback Mountain simply doesn't offer one.

Like many adaptations of literature, this one misses some important nuances available only through a reading of the original material. The story begins where the movie ends - I would have preferred that the movie follow this layout as it added a slightly brighter sheen on the events. The events of Jack's death are more dubious in the story. The movie asserts a violent death for Jack. The story is much less clear on this issue. Ennis clearly believes that Jack was beaten to death, but we never know for certain. I'd prefer to think this was Ennis's own fears creeping into his interpretation of events and that Jack wasn't killed. The movie leaves very little room to doubt the cause of Jack's demise.

The film does retain a structural problem from the story that could have been easily corrected. The first sexual encounter between Jack and Ennis is sudden and mostly unprescidented. There are some cues that a mutual interest might be brewing, and the movie makes these slightly more clear, but given Ennis's self-repression, their initial sexual encounters seem unlikely, given the lack of build-up to them.

The question that remains is why was Brokeback Mountain chosen to make into a film and why are so many gay people happy about it? Other books covering the same territory (gay cowboys in the midwest) exist and have much happier endings (not to mention a gay male persepctive). The likely answer is that this story appeared in the New Yorker and that the interested parties didn't think to research similar stories or didn't see the appeal of less prestigious publications. Also, pathos is often seen as being artful, while happy endings are capriciously seen as being much less so.

And why are we so happy about it? Yes, it's a film worth seeing, but it's not the best gay film ever made. And despite a more mainstream distribtution, it's not likely to draw in a lot of people who don't want to see queers on screen. It's a good film based on a flawed story and will do little to generate compassion or acceptance that didn't already exist.


David Lari said...

I have to agree with you Michael. I really think the reason this movie has made such a splash is all because you have two popular and very attractive leads. That's the only thing I can figure. Perhaps this one will open doors for some better gay romances though.

Michael said...

David! So wonderful to see you here. I forget that my email (and flyers) have my web sites listed on them, so I never think of anybody I know reading my stuff. LOL!

Yeah, the gay community is really all abuzz about BB Mtn, but I definitely think some peoples' vision is clouded regarding this movie because the leads are, well, real purty.

See you soon - thanks for posting.