Monday, January 16, 2006

Books & Film - Thank you Annie Proulx


I read Annie Proulx's short story Brokeback Mountain yesterday.
I got teary at the end - this is highly unusual. Sad endings in books generally just make me sad. They don't normally make me cry.
There are lots of sad gay novels & short stories written by gay folks (generic plot 1 guy gets AIDS; generic plot 2 guy gets gay-bashed; generic plot 3 guy is disowned by his uptight family; generic plot 4 guy can't accept his sexuality and throws away what would have been the love of his life etc etc). I've read them all! So it was quite surprising to read a story which (though still sad and with a basic plot which isn't anything new) was both as moving and emotionally believable as this one. And it wasn't even written by a gay guy. Go Annie!
Read the comments to this post for discussion on whether the film is HOT or simply luke warm (but not until after you've seen the picture).

9 comments:

Adam said...

But didn't Ms Proulx just serve us another dish of generic plot 2, 3 and 4? And you forgot generic plot 5 - the gay guy ends up lonely and aching for his lost youth. Generic plot 6 could of course be journalists falling over each other to say he wasn't really gay, this is not a gay story, and don't you forget all the cast and crew are really truly straight! Yes it's a well written story - but am I the only one who has serious problems with it?

Matthew said...

What I really meant to say in my original post is that Annie has taken the cliched ideas behind most gay tragic tales and twisted them into aiding something new and original and powerful.
When straight reviewers say that it's not really a gay story (which is bleedingly incorrect to anyone who spends more than 5 seconds thinking about it), aren't they just acknowledging their surprise at the fact that they responded to it emotionally? What most straight viewers expect from a gay story is to be lectured on why gay people's lives are so tough and why they're different to everyone else. But Brokeback's sorrows can be felt in a way they can relate to personally. Silent suffering, the 'U Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone' factor, love torn apart by circumstances beyond your control... Romeo and Juliet isn't about a family feud, it's about a love between two people that nobody else can understand or accept. Brokeback at first appears to be a straightforward sob-story about gays in the closet, but really it's about the strength of their love and the sadness at it's pointless loss. This is the first mainstream story I know which can make straight audiences desperately wish the gay guys could have lived happily ever after. And haven't gay writers always wanted to write a gay love story where the audience forgets the sexuality of the characters? So when people say they don't see it as a gay story, you could actually see this as a great compliment to the story's power.

I actually started writing something much longer than this, but I'd have to discuss the movie in greater detail (and give away the whole plot to anyone who reads this before seeing the movie), and most likely bore everyone in the meantime. So any further negative comments about the film should be worded carefully - or a major essay will follow!

Adam said...

Before you threaten me with an essay (which I would welcome, anyway), I was simply pointing out I had problems with the narrative and can't see what's so original about it. It strikes me as more of the same. And the fact that people are connecting with it emotionally concerns me - did middle America never realise gay men fell in love and suffered the same 'you don't know what you've got till it's gone' syndrome? I also disagree with you on several points. You're right that Romeo and Juliet isn't just about a family feud. But R&J were not apart because they hate themselves - as was the case with Jack and Ennis. Secondly, it is a sob story about gays in the closet - the film has more visual metaphors of the closet than any move I can recall - and it ends with the shirts, the postcard, and his memories firmly stuck there. Thirdly, when you say "What most straight viewers expect from a gay story is to be lectured on why gay people's lives are so tough and why they're different to everyone else" - I can't help but think audiences were. The ending in particular refutes any idea of this being a universal love story and presents a cliche gay ending - with a 'situation' that generally only happens to gay men. Finally, "haven't gay writers always wanted to write a gay love story where the audience forgets the sexuality of the characters?" No, I don't think so; in fact why do that? Why diminish their sexuality? This is a story of two gay men who are not together due to their own self-loathing and the culture in which they live. If they weren't gay, the film wouldn't have existed, and I would hate audiences to forget that. Mainstream audiences should acknowledge the fact that Jack and Ennis’ doomed love is the result of homophobia. I liked aspects of the film and am glad it's doing well. But I would hate to see generic plot 7 where gay men should all be unquestioningly grateful for whatever representation we get.

Matthew said...

Firstly, thank you Adam for honouring my blog with it's first fillum debate. Coo-el.
You seem very unkeen on the self-loathing element in the film. I remember responding that way to James Baldwin's book Giovanni's Room, which is supposedly a minor gay classic. But I had no time for the main character, who only had himself to blame for his unhappy life. I couldn't stand the guy. For me, Brokeback didn't have such a problem, since I could accept that for someone of Ennis' reserved and conformist character, and in his constrained environment, the possibility of a happy and open gay relationship would seem like a unachievable fantasy. But he never denied his feelings for Jack or wished for them to go away, and for me that was the important thing.
Regarding the closet. The story is sympathetic towards those inside, while also damning it's existence. Society's attitudes keep Ennis from living his life openly, which is sad enough, but his acceptance of this comes back to haunt him at the film's conclusion. He made a bargain with society that society doesn't keep. He's spent his life agreeing to be silent, and when the worst happens the world demands silence even more ruthlessly. His grief can't be acknowledged or sympathised with. The wound is left to bleed.
And no, I don't think middle america (or middle anywhere) ever did truly realise (deep down inside) that gay men fell in love. Yes, the possibility had occured to them, but if they saw two guys holding hands on a park bench, do you think their first thought would be 'oh, how sweet'. Nup, I don't think so. If two guys walked through Wollongong holding hands (or god forbid - passionately kissed in public!), maybe on a good day they might be lucky enough to receive a few positive responses, but mostly they'd face plenty of people pretending very hard not to notice, or much worse.
Back to Brokeback... Everything terrible that happens in the last 15 minutes is directly due to this little society's homophobia, something that virtually nobody in this time and place is free from (and this is a society that represents all the 'best' things america used to like to think of itself - the virile & wholesome cowboyland of old Hollywood movies). No thinking person would miss this.
I think it's vitally important that the ending stirs people's emotions as it does. You can open a newspaper and find whole piles of people to feel sorry for, for all of a few moments. It's quite difficult to get people to feel more than that momentary sympathy. Audiences don't just acknowledge that Ennis has it tough and have sympathy for him, they actually feel his grief and have something closer to empathy. And isn't it a legitimate aim of politically-inspired art do this? Okay, maybe it's not Schindler's List or Picasso's Guernica (I just threw that in because I'm reading about it at the moment), but this film gets to people on the inside.
This movie won't move everyone, but I've spoken to a number of people who found themselves in tears both during it and afterwards, their responses often stronger if they've had to struggle with relationships at some stage in their lives. And the film's website has many stories (most sad, some happy) from men & women, mostly gay but sometimes straight, who've had various difficulties with relationships which were hidden in some way or other.
Cade and I will get over this film eventually, but for the last two weeks we've hardly been able to talk about it without one of us getting choked up. I can't think of any other fiction which valued a romantic gay relationship so strongly and effectively (there might be others but I haven't seen them).
And heck, it's late, so I better stop blathering.
Cheers.

Matthew said...

Oh, I just had a thought.
Adam, since you don't like cliched sad gay movies, maybe we should insist Hollywood finally make that gay James Bond-style film that Rupert Everett has talked about - though personally I think we could do better than Rupert for the Bond role, as the memory of Sean Connery is a lot to compete with. The gay hero would need a gay villian to fight - that would probably suit old Rupert best.

Adam said...

I don’t think I’m going to discuss this film anymore – it’s almost as if you either have to love it or hate it and there doesn’t appear to be much room in the middle. I want to emphasise, though, that I certainly don’t think it’s rot. I also don’t like the idea that there should be a checklist for whether a film is gay positive or gay negative; gay character swears – cross, dies at the end - cross, hates themselves – cross, has a good job – tick, lives happily ever after – tick. Some of my favourite films with les / gay characters include Trash, Swoon, Grief, and Basic Instinct – all of which present LGBTs as either junkies, killers, or victims. My problem with Brokeback owes more to the way it has been held up as some kind of cinematic breakthrough. Yes, it’s a good film, but according to your initial generic conventions – it pretty much conforms to every one. Does that make it a bad film? No. Should a film have to challenge conventions? Not necessarily. I’ve never believed cinema, or any art form, should have a primarily pedagogical purpose. But when a film is touted as brilliant, at the very least I want it to open up some interesting discussion. The only discussions I’m getting into and hearing about Brokeback are the same ones we've always had, and that blacks, women, and religious minorities have also had to deal with in terms of their cinematic representation: e.g. is it better if [insert minority] is presented as the good guy or the victim? Should X get to live happily ever after? Even though this film is about X is it universal? Is it ok for Ys to play X roles? Should the sex be more graphic or less? Are Ys getting freaked out? If X walks, talks and acts like a Y is that good, bad, or simply educational? I’ve certainly engaged in these debates with you, but these are the only questions the film seems to raise for me. Reducing Brokeback only to whether it’s good or bad for ‘the cause’ seems horribly reductive, but other than the hilarious make-up, I can’t think of any other interesting points of discussion.

Matthew said...

Yep, you're right that almost everyone either loves this film, or thinks its okay but unworthy of all the fuss.
After reading your last comment and re-reading my last one, I thought I should clear up that I never meant to imply you thought all gay characters in films should be represented positively and that you would automatically reject any that weren't. You'd made it clear that your gripe was with seeing the same old sad tale told over again and then the film being praised as something new and revolutionary.

You mentioned some films you've enjoyed with not so loveable gay characters in them. Which reminds me of something I only realised a few months ago - that a decent number of Hitchcock's thrillers feature creepy baddies who the films suggest are gay (though you could never say it explicitly in those days) - Rebecca, North By Northwest, Rope, Strangers on a Train, and Saboteur. Not to mention Norman, the (presumably straight) transvestite. Curious.
Anyway, thanks for all your thoughts on BM. I've really enjoyed our discussion.

Adam said...

Absolutely to everything you said - glad we've sorted that one! And I'm still hoping BBM wins a truck load of awards. In the meantime, you might enjoy Theodore Price's 'Hitchcock and Homosexuality: His 50-Year Obsession With Jack the Ripper and the Superbitch Prostitute : A Psychoanalytic View'. I remember having to read it for Uni but never got past the fantastic title.

Cade said...

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN TO WIN THE BEST PICTURE OSCARRRRRRRRRRRRRR!! WOO!!