The culture is seeking out this movie not just because it is a powerful, four-hankie account of a doomed love affair and is beautifully acted by everyone, starting with the riveting Heath Ledger. The X factor is that the film delivers a story previously untold by A-list Hollywood. It's a story America may be more than ready to hear a year after its president cynically flogged a legally superfluous (and unpassable) constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage for the sole purpose of whipping up the basest hostilities of his electoral base.Got that? We're sick of this damned President, so we want to see cowboys make love. I don't like the constitutional amendment and related political pandering, but I can't imagine how being tired of all that would make me more likely to go see a big outdoorsy melodrama with the selling point that the lovers are both men. In fact, the notion that to go to this movie is a political statement makes me less likely to go see it. The movie purports to be high art, not some tedious demonstration of good politics.
A serious movie about a gay love relationship may very well make a more effective political argument than a movie that presents itself as political argument. But writers must write, and they will spell out the political argument that the movie only implies, thus making it harder for the film's unarticulated, inherent argument to influence people. But the political baggage is not accumulating as fast as it might have. Rich notes:
As far as I can tell, the only blowhard in the country to turn up on television to declare culture war on "Brokeback Mountain" also has an affiliation with the American Family Association. By contrast, as Salon reported last week, other family-values ayatollahs have made a conscious decision to ignore the movie, lest they drum up ticket sales by turning it into a SpongeBob SquarePants cause célèbre. Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America imagined that the film might just go away if he and his peers stayed mum. Audiences "don't want to see two guys going at it," he told Salon. "It's that simple."
Oh, no! Those social conservatives are supposed to be backward louts! Have they learned the elite technique of restraint? Damn! They were supposed to be ayatollahs. How am I going to crank out these columns now?
Only now am I realizing that I'm writing about a TimesSelect article. Too bad it will be hard for you to read the whole thing. Well, elsewhere in the freely accessible parts of today's NYT there are other insights into the "gay cowboy movie." (Really, the guys are shepherds, but there's no shepherd movie genre, no iconic character The Shepherd to play off of by changing some key element.)
First, there's Manola Darhgas:
Less than two weeks after its release, "Brokeback Mountain" is already on the verge of being embalmed in importance. A lightning rod for attention even before it opened, the film has earned plaudits from critics' groups along with predictable sneers, and provoked argument over its gay bona fides. That "Brokeback" is a landmark is a matter of empiricism; its merits as a work of art are a matter of taste. What has gone missing is that this is also that rare American film that seamlessly breaches the divide between the political and the personal, the past and the present. Here, against the backdrop of the great American West, that mythic territory of rugged individualism and the Marlboro Man, is a quietly devastating look at masculinity and its discontents.
Then, there's this piece by Guy Trebay in the Styles section:
But to gay men trying to forge lives in a world where the shape of masculinity is narrow, and where the "liberated" antics of the homosexual minstrels so often depicted on television can seem far off, the emotional privation and brutal violence of "Brokeback Mountain" seems like documentary.This is really the most interesting of the three articles I'm linking in this post. Trebay goes to Wyoming, where the story in the movie takes place and where Matthew Shepard was murdered in 1998, and interviews some gay men about what life is like for them:
"That could have been my life," Derrick Glover said one bitter cold afternoon last week, referring to the film, which he had seen at a special screening a week before in Jackson, Wyo. A 33-year-old rancher, Mr. Glover comes from a family that has worked the land around Lusk for generations. His father still runs 300 head of cattle....
"They always define it as coming out of the closet, but I don't consider myself to be out of the closet," Mr. Glover explained. There is a reason for that, he said. "Where I live, you can't really go out and be yourself. You couldn't go out together, two guys, as a couple and ever be accepted. It wasn't accepted in the past, it's still not, and I don't think it ever will be."
The experience was "extremely, extremely lonely," [rancher Ben] Clark said, leaving him feeling so isolated that he more than once contemplated suicide. "I could not accept being gay because of the stereotypes that were drilled into me," he explained. "Gay men are emotionally weak. They are not real men. They are like women."
Like Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in the film, Mr. Clark dated women for a time, bowing to the pressure to be "normal" although, unlike them, he never married and led a double life. There's a joke out here about how one goes about finding a gay man on the frontier. The punch line is deadpan: "Look for the wife and kids."
Fortunately, Mr. Clark said, "I never did get married, because I never wanted to hurt a woman like that."
I've made fun of the Oscar ads for the movie, because of the way they emphasize the relationship between the men and their wives. This ad campaign is laughable for intentionally hiding the nature of the central love story. Nevertheless, the story of the wives interests me greatly. And the political argument inherent in this part of the story is, I think, especially strong. Those who would try to prevent or inhibit men from forming lifetime bonds with each other ought to give more thought to what happens to the women they marry. Those who think a man should struggle against his sexual orientation and find a way to form the classic marriage relationship with a woman ought to think about what they are advocating for the woman: a lifetime relationship with a man who has only feigned sexual attraction to her.
IN THE COMMENTS: Lots of interesting discussion. I especially like the part where Palladian says: "Geez, all you straight people can think about is sex, sex, sex. Here we are having a conversation about love and art and all you can think to add is some base, puerile and off-putting remarks about genitalia 'fitting' together, as if it were some sort of dirty Lego set."