In December, Zachary Woolfe ’06 wrote a very personal review of “Rent,” the movie adapted from the hit Broadway musical, in these pages. When I read Woolfe’s review, I was struck by his honesty about his sexuality insofar as it influenced his critique of the film. Woolfe’s central argument regarding the movie was that it was anachronistic; the original 1996 Broadway version was the more inspiring of the two because it spoke to the issues that mattered most to the gay community at that time, particularly AIDS. In a similar vein, Woolfe contended that the film’s underlying message about the gay community – gay people do “crazy gay things!” – was tired and uninteresting. “Rent,” he concluded, does not have “any kind of enlightened perspective on what it means to be gay.” Woolfe wanted more than just a description of what gayness was. He wanted the debate to evolve. He wanted the film to address the next question: how should gays live?
I missed “Rent,” and perhaps that is why I missed Woolfe’s point. But I knew I would it would be returned to when Hollywood’s next “gay” film, “Brokeback Mountain,” opened in theatres.
When “Brokeback” came to Princeton about a month ago, I wasn’t even sure if I would see it. I’m straight, you see, and I’m not alone in my self-consciousness about seeing a “gay” film in public. Better wait for the rental, I thought.
But then the buzz picked up. Critics collectively acclaimedAng Lee’s film as not really a “gay” story at all. It was, rather, a universal love story. Anyone – gay, straight, bi, whatever – could relate.
I’m easily persuaded. After reading several glittering reviews, I edged closer and closer to walking across Nassau Street, buying a ticket, and sheepishly sitting through a presumably ill-attended weekday matinee.
But in lieu of going it alone, I decided to ask if anyone wanted to accompany me and, to my surprise, the first straight male on my list was all for it. By this time it was early January, the buzz had grown to a deafening level, and I was sure many straight males still felt the way Larry David did, as he put it in a January Op-Ed in the Times: “Cowboys would have to lasso me, drag me into the theatre and tie me to the seat [to go see the movie]…And I love gay people…I’m for gay marriage, gay divorce, gay this and gay that. I just don’t want to watch two straight men [the actors are straight], alone on the prairie, fall in love and kiss and hug and hold hands and whatnot.”
Granted, I was more willing to go to see the film than David, but I at least identified.
So why did my friend say yes? He didn’t know what the movie was about. Again, I was shocked. “What’s it about?” he asked as we walked to the theatre. “A cowboy love story,” I responded. If the reviews had been correct, I wouldn’t have been lying.
But they weren’t. At least not entirely. “Brokeback Mountain” is not just a love story. It is a very gay love story. Despite what the critics would have you believe, and despite perhaps the best of intentions, this film is political, it is about gay love, and there is, for my taste, enough of gay sex.
It may be easy to mistake the film’s period for an argument against its political message. The story, after all, takes place in 1963, in acutely homophobic towns of the American West. Two cowboys find a job herding sheep across the idyllic landscape of Brokeback Mountain, a fictitious peak in Wyoming. After nearly a month together, the tight-lipped, mumbling Ennis Del Mar, played by Heath Ledger, and the giddy extrovert Jack Twist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, discover that their feelings for each other are more than the fraternal love of two lonely men temporarily removed from society. If it were not, they wouldn’t be having their rough and tumble sex, which Lee captures so tastefully.
But make no mistake, this is sex; they are two men, and Lee wants you to know it. If the director were not making a political statement, then he would not have included the film’s most wrenching scenes. In a flashback, Del Mar details a moment when his father took him to see what happens to “queer” men – they have their penises ripped off.
Nor would Lee continue to show the societal homophobia that persists through the decades of Del Mar and Twist’s love. After both men have succumbed to the pressures to live “normal” lives – marry women, have children, hold steady jobs – Lee takes us through the torment that these men must accept, and mete out, as closeted homosexuals regardless of locale or time.
Lee is making a statement, albeit one that sounds – as Zach would have it – a little stale. Not all gay men are stereotypically flamboyant, weak, and effeminate. Some, in fact many, are just the opposite.
A similar argument can be made about the love. What makes the film unique is not that Del Mar and Twist’s love is universal, but that it is unique to gays who are forced to closet their emotions. To be sure, the love they feel differs little from the romantic affection shared between a man and a woman. The two fight, hurt one another, make up, have sex, confide in each other, trust one another, and all the rest of it. Yet the film wouldn’t be so buzzworthy if that were the whole story. The film is so successful – Oscar-destined – because it focuses on the love in gay relationships, not all the other “crazy gay things” that were suggested about gays in “Rent” – the whimsy, nonchalance, promiscuity.
In this weeks issue of The New York Review of Books, the author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn get this point right, and is one of the few critics in the mainstream press to do so. “To see Brokeback Mountain as a love story, or even as a film about universal human emotions, is to misconstrue it very seriously—and in so doing inevitably to diminish its real achievement,” Mendelsohn writes. He argues that the film is about the uniquely gay phenomenon of “the closet,” which, it must be pointed out, is prominently featured in a few of the movie’s most symbolic scenes. When Ennis returns to Twist’s home near the end of the film, he finds an old shirt of his hidden in the closet he had thought he’d lost on Brokeback when the two lovers first met. Again, in the final scene, when Del Mar is left emotionally drained, he finds refuge by taking his and Twist’s two shirts back, and hanging it prominently on his closet door, swung wide open. What these scenes, and Mendelsohn, are getting at are the “disastrous emotional and moral consequences” of having to live one’s life in secret. This repression is what makes the film’s emotional impact so visceral – not just the love, but the love that must be suppressed.
The consequences of missing this point are not insubstantial either. By universalizing Ennis and Jack’s love, by refusing to see it as the distinctively gay phenomenon that it really is, we are in effect pushing gays back into the closet. We are suggesting that their love is acceptable so long as it is like our love, our straight love. Is this really what Lee wants? I’d hope not.
When the film was over, I wondered what all my worries had been about. Straight men could see this film with no problems, maybe even be moved by it. And then I thought about why I was moved, and realized that it was not because it was a love story well-told. No, it was a gay love story, well-told. That made all the difference.