Thursday, December 29, 2005

Brokeback Mountain Reconsidered

I have watched and read with some interest the hype in recent weeks surrounding the release of the movie, Brokeback Mountain. I don't have a decided opinion one way or the other about it--haven't seen it and I really doubt it will ever show in my little burg. Both proponents and opponents of the film have been staking out their expected, and predictable positions.

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.

Rod Dreher:
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 (, 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.


G Sanchez said...

I sympathize with the alternative reading of Brokeback Mountain, but ultimately that is not how the movie is going to be either understood or remembered. The poster tagline, "Love is a force of nature" is pregnant with pro-homosexualist meaning.

There is plenty of modern cinema, music, and fiction that can be approached from the perspective of demonstrating the flaws of the human condition, but rarely that is the explicit message the works are trying to convey. (Though it is a testament to our fallen nature that such works are incapable of transcending such interpretations.) I'm a big proponent of Ingmar Bergman's movies for the simple fact they are artisitically beautiful and intellectual sound portrayals of the atheist-existentialist outlook in modernity; however, the regrettable message I draw from them is understandably opposed to the more laudable or, at least, self-identifying appraisal many give them.

Steve Robinson said...

I haven't seen the movie either but I told someone I bet it is a "gay" version of Bridges of Madison County.
At that level it is indeed merely about our fallen humanity and how desperately we flail and flop with just about anything and anyone who makes us feel "alive" and desired. I'm working on an article on homosexuality for an Orthodox publication right now...this is a timely topic for me.

Terry (John) said...

gabriel, I agree. The hype surrounding the film is not hard to read. But not having seen the movie, I can't speak to its real message. Yet I have no doubt how it will be portrayed and perceived in our popular culture.

s-p, yep, I know all about that flailing and flopping :)

Luke said...

I get a huge kick that we all have comments about a movie that no one has seen, and the urgency with which we are ready to speak about the issue. Homosexuality is a 5,000 pound elephant in the room. Many (including myself) believe that homosexuality is not according to God's plan, and the acts and lifestyle accompanying homosexuality constitute a sinful life. This opinion is politically incorrect. Therefore, it is hard to find the opportunity to have an intelligent discussion on the issue without appearing to be hateful to a sect of society. Now enter Brokeback Mountain, opportunity granted. I have no opinion on the movie (I haven't seen it), I hate that they messed with one of my favorite movie genres, but I am thankful for movies that open a discussion. (Even if I don't like the message).

Terry (John) said...

I agree with much of what you say. It seems we can't discuss the issue these days without being either labeled homophobic on the one hand, or being sucked in to the entire gay rights agenda on the other. Propagandizing runs ramput. Civil discourse is hard to find.

I might note, however, that homosexual behavior is just one of a broad list of activities that mankind engages in that doesn't exactly fall into "God's plan." Shoot, we've all been screwing that up since the get-go. And as for the "sinful life" bit, lust knows no sexual preference.

Now as for messing up one of your favorite movie genres, well, what exactly was it with John Wayne and all those pink shirts? ")