One of the most thoughtful insights I've read, however, comes from Rod Dreher, a conservative Catholic commentator. He concludes that the real message of the film is not so much about tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality--as many lauding the movie would have you believe--but rather, the tragedy of the human condition, and the mess we humans invariably make of things. I appreciate Dreher's quoting from Flannery O'Connor in his article, as she is one of my favorites. To paraphrase O'Connor: once you realize that we are made out of dust, you shouldn't be surprised if things get a little dusty from time to time. Dreher's column, below, is from last Thursday's Dallas Morning News.
The real message in Brokeback
The movie is so much more than a story about two gay cowboys
05:52 AM CST on Thursday, December 29, 2005
Seen the gay cowboy movie yet? I have, though I hadn't planned to because the rapturous reviews made Brokeback Mountain sound like a film that delivered yet another fierce left hook across the jaw of homophobic America. Ho hum.
I'm not interested in propaganda, whether pro-gay or anti-gay, and I get tired of the way the news and entertainment media find it difficult to discuss homosexuality without propagandizing. And some of the loudest conservative voices on gay issues are just about as bad.
What gets lost in the culture-war blitzkrieg over homosexuality are the complex and ambiguous truths that real people live and struggle with. Art that reduces messy humanity to slogans and arguments is not art at all, but sentimentality, kitsch, anti-art – in a word, propaganda.
My friend Victor Morton turned me around. On his "Right-Wing Film Geek" blog (www.cinecon.blogspot.com), Victor wrote a long, impassioned post that said, in effect, Don't believe the 'Brokeback' hype, from either side! The film is good, not great, Victor argued, but what makes it worthwhile is its fidelity to the tragic truth of its characters, not its usefulness to anybody's cause.
Intrigued, I found on the Internet a link to the Annie Proulx short story on which the movie is based and was shocked by how good it was, especially at embodying the "concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position here on earth" – Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor's description of what true artistry does. Though director Ang Lee's tranquil style fails to capture the daemonic wildness of Ms. Proulx's version, I came away from the film thinking, this is not for everybody, but it really is a work of art.
Brokeback Mountain is the story of two young cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who meet in a 1960s summer job tending sheep on the mountain. They fall in love, then upon returning to the world, go their separate ways, marry and start families. A few years later, they resume their intensely sexual affair – visually, this is a rather chaste film – but with terrible consequences for themselves and the wives and children they deceive. The film climaxes violently and tragically, and it's this that has the critics lauding it as a cinematic cri du coeur for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.
But Brokeback is not nearly that tidy. True, the men begin their doomed affair in a time and place where homosexuality was viciously suppressed, and so they suffer from social constrictions that make it difficult to master their own fates. But it is also true that both men are overgrown boys who waste their lives searching for something they've lost, and which might be irrecoverable. They are boys who refuse to become men, or to be more precise, do not, for various reasons, have the wherewithal to understand how to become men in their bleak situation.
It is impossible to watch this movie and think that all would be well with Jack and Ennis if only we'd legalize gay marriage. It is also impossible to watch this movie and not grieve for them in their suffering, even while raging over the suffering that these poor country kids who grew up unloved cause for their families. As the film grapples with Ennis' pain, confusion and cruelty, different levels of meaning unspool – social, moral, spiritual and erotic. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is not about the need to normalize homosexuality, or "about" anything other than the tragic human condition.
Ms. O'Connor once wrote that you don't have to have an educated mind to understand good fiction, but you do have to have "at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." The mystery of the human personality can never be fully plumbed, only explored. To the frustration of ideologues, artists like Annie Proulx and Ang Lee undertake a journey to those depths and return to tell the truth about what they've seen – which is not necessarily what any of us wants to hear.
As Ms. O'Connor taught, "Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction."
Or read it. Or watch it.