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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Brokeback backwash

Say what you want about Brokeback Mountain (and most people seem to), you can’t argue that it has firmly ensconced itself in the popular culture. Indeed, I think it is safe to say that Ang Lee’s much-honored movie has had a more significant cultural impact than political impact. In fact, what is amazing about the political reaction to the film is how little outright political reaction there has been. Those who were bracing for a right-wing backlash against the movie had to scramble to find one. Oh, sure, there were the usual conservative commentators denouncing it, but not nearly as heatedly (as far as I could tell anyway) as they did last year’s Million Dollar Baby over its euthanasia plot angle. I think they finally figured out the best way to deny a movie free publicity was to avoid talking about it. The mainstream media did its best by playing up a single cinema in Utah that refused to show Brokeback Mountain, but, like, who really cares about that?

To appreciate just how much Brokeback has permeated the pop culture, let’s take a quick tour of the American media landscape:

Best late-night comedian quip: I pick a line that Conan O’Brien had on the eve of the film’s release. Said O’Brien in his standard high-pitched drone, “It’s about two gay cowboys. We know they’re gay because they’re dressed like cowboys!” This line is funny on its face, but it also takes on an unexpected resonance because it tells us so much more about New Yorkers than it does about the movie.

Best cable news talking-head pundit quip: In an end-of-the-year segment where commentators were asked to make predictions for 2006, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer opined, “Brokeback Mountain will be seen by 18 people. But they will be the right 18 people, and it will sweep the Oscars.” As above, this line is funny on its face, but it also takes on an unexpected resonance because it tells us more about Krauthammer’s view of Hollywood than about his math skills.

Best internet parody: This has to be the mock trailer called Brokeback to the Future hosted by, in which scenes from Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future trilogy (mainly the third one, in which the heroes go back to the old west) are skillfully pieced together to make the relationship between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd seem much more, uh, intense than we remembered. This video is hilarious on its face, but it also demonstrates, and in less than one-twentieth the time, what Michael Moore showed us in Fahrenheit 9/11: that you can edit any film footage to say virtually anything you want.

Most unexpectedly reasonable commentary in print: Last week I came across an opinion piece written Mark Davis, who writes a column for the Dallas Morning News and has a nationwide radio show. Davis begins by identifying himself politically, listing a raft of personal positions that can best be summed up in succinct mediaspeak as “gay unfriendly,” i.e. against same-sex marriage, not in favor of forcing companies to give benefits to domestic partners, skeptical of adoption by gay couples. But then Davis proclaims that he liked Brokeback Mountain. He accurately praises the movie for being well made and for not being preachy about a political agenda. He reconciles getting emotionally involved in a love story about two men and his own asserted lack of interest in the gay lifestyle by saying that he was a big fan of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but it didn’t make him change his opinion about robbing banks. In his most sensible line, Davis writes: “Repeat after me: It’s … a … movie.”

Most unexpectedly self-parodying review in a major liberal newspaper: I vote for The New York Times’s review, which was written by Stephen Holden and published on December 9. The Times’s film critics generally do a good job overall, but this is one of those annoying reviews that spends most of its time merely outlining the plot, in this case in surprising detail, presumably for the benefit of those filmgoers who don’t like surprises. But what makes us realize that this review is being written by someone in New York (see Conan O’Brien comment above) is when the piece diverts itself from detailing plot points long enough to drag in a 1948 essay by Leslie Fiedler and how Brokeback Mountain “is the first Hollywood movie to unmask the homoerotic strain in American culture” that Fiedler described. Holden goes on to explain how much of American literature is about coded homosexual relationships, giving examples that include Huckleberry Finn, The Lone Ranger, Red River, Midnight Cowboy and the aforementioned Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (Somehow he managed to omit Batman & Robin.) That’s right, The New York Times has hit us with the news flash that all straight men are really gay men who are merely in denial. The old gray lady has made herself satire-proof by publishing self-satire.

We have been here before. The very well done documentary The Celluloid Closet, drawn from an exhaustive book by the late Vito Russo, picked out a number of close male relationships in movies over the year and posited that they were actually coded gay relationships. In some cases this was demonstrably true, as in Ben Hur, in which Gore Vidal, who was a screenwriter on the film, told Tony Curtis to play his character with the backstory that he and Charlton Heston’s character had been lovers as young men. (He didn’t give this information to Heston.) But in other cases, there is no evidence to believe that a homosexual subtext was intended. And even if one was intended by the author, if he or she didn’t put it on the page, can it really be said to be there? I know that a movie about two men who go by the names “Butch” and “Sundance” and spend a lot of time together may sound like something kinky might be going on, but I saw that movie and take my word for it. They both had the hots for Katharine Ross. And rightly so. End of story.

While people who don’t get out much can be forgiven for thinking that Brokeback Mountain is the first movie ever to deal with gay people, as The Celluloid Closet makes clear, gay people have been in the movies since the beginning, although not always in obvious or true-to-life or flattering ways. But this has been changing somewhat over the past decade or so, with such mainstream Hollywood movies as Philadelphia, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar and In & Out. Moreover, there is a sizeable body of film work out there dealing frankly and forthrightly with gay characters in the independent film world. Collectively, these low-budget flicks which show up in art house cinemas and at film festivals and on DVD are sometimes referred to as “queer cinema.” They cover the entire spectrum of movie genres from comedy to drama to tragedy to drag queen musicals. And their quality runs the gamut as well.

There are a couple of recurring themes in these movies that show up from time to time and which are relevant to Brokeback Mountain and to Holden’s review of it. One can be summed up as Being In The Closet Is Bad For You And Everybody Else. In such movies as The Delta, Defying Gravity and A Queer Story (all from 1997), terrible and horrific things happen, supposedly as a direct result of somebody refusing to come to terms with their sexual orientation and live an openly gay lifestyle. Interestingly, we see an echo of this in Brokeback Mountain. One view of that film’s story is that the main characters’ lives are wasted by the fear one of them has of living his preferred lifestyle openly. Another view is that their lives are wasted because of an intolerant society. To Ang Lee’s credit, he doesn’t hit you over the head with The Right Interpretation, and that is a key reason why his film is superior to those 1997 ones.

Another recurring theme in so-called queer cinema can be termed Straight People Just Don’t Know They’re Gay Yet. This is usually a feature of comedies, like 1996’s very amusing It’s in the Water, in which conservative characters have a sudden epiphany and realize that they are really gay. Often in these movies, the bigger the homophobe, the bigger the closet case. Personally, I lay this gay cinema convention totally at the feet of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. But, despite the humor this gambit is usually laced with, there seems to be a sincere undercurrent positing the notion that all male friendships are really about sexual longing. This is the canard that Holden recycles in his movie review. Obviously, some male friendships are about sexual longing, at least on the part of one, if not both, of the parties involved. I may not be Sigmund Freud, but I am here to tell you that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes good buddies are just good buddies. And in most cases where men take off and leave their wives and kids at home every chance they get to go fishing with a buddy, they really are out there catching, or trying to catch, fish.

These days we are learning fascinating things from scientists who are studying how biology may affect sexual orientation. One of the effects of this new information may be to establish once and for all that a certain portion of the population is really born gay and that this is as much a part of their innate physiological makeup as height and skin color. This may prove to everyone (except perhaps the intelligent design crowd) that being gay is not a choice. A positive side effect might be that it will also prove that everyone else was born straight.

-S.L., 9 February 2006

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