Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Importance of Brokeback

A lot has been said already about this movie that no one, it seems, doubts any more will win the Oscars. You may agree with David Poland that this is a retrograde gay film, showing essentially a closeted relationship that can't progress, even in the film's ending in the '80's. Or you may believe as others do that it is a perfect love story. Or maybe you think it just needs to be suffered through.

So what is it about this movie that's made it an Oscar front-runner? What is it that's made it a cinematic phenomena amongst gays and their friends and families? Why is it that I find this film so much more affecting than another movie about the closet that I loved, Todd Hayne's "Far From Heaven"? Or most of the "out" gay movies I rent at the video store? Is it simply that Lee is a better director than all these others? Is it simply the performances? Is it Annie Proulx's remarkable short story, on which the film is based?

I think the answer is all of that. What has gotten overlooked in all the discussion about "gay movie" and retrograde stories is the talent that went into making this movie. Proulx, McMurty and Ossana, Lee, the actors - everyone who contributed to this story brought their "A" game. That's rare enough for any movie. It's unheard of for a movie with a gay theme, even if that theme is about repression and gay bashing.

Lee, it turns out, is one of the few 'major' directors who has done gay material as well as blockbusters (let's not forget that it was the "Wedding Banquet" that started his career). Bryan Singer has the talent, but has yet to tackle the subject. Todd Haynes has developed into a confident story-teller, but has yet to create a film with Brokeback's simplicity and power. Akari's Mysterious Skin has a sexy confidence but trades in all the old tired gay-indie standbys: child abuse, turning tricks, and rough trade. Dan Futterman surprises and amazes with Capote; but this still feels like an "independent" film, one that fails to pull its ending together into an "A"-level emotional punch. Of all of these, only Lee has given us a film with gay characters that also has all of the qualities of a Major Hollywood Picture: major stars giving inspired performances; gorgeous cinematography; an instantly iconic soundtrack; a story with simplicity, grace, and perfect emotional pitch.

But notably, on that list of directors who might reach such an achievement with gay subject matter, Lee is the only heterosexual. As is Proulx, McMurty, Ossana, Ledger, and everyone else who made this film. Oddly, Brokeback is set to be the first gay-themed movie to win the Best-Picture Oscar, and yet, everyone associated with this movie is heterosexual.

Could this be what explains the phenomena? Could it be that it takes heterosexuals to tell a story about gay people that heterosexuals would be interested in? I hesitate to think so...but it could be. It could be that when we talk about ourselves, we are just too insular and...dare I say...esoteric...for everyone else to get it.

I don't want to call Brokeback a crossover film - every gay man I know has seen it repeatedly and called it deeply affecting, certainly in ways I never heard expressed about any other gay-themed movie. And yet, Poland is right in that the film is retrograde: Ennis is so deeply closeted that even the death of his one true love, it seems, is not enough to get him off the farm to live his life - the great journey of awakening that all people who can label themselves "gay" must go through. So how is it that all these wonderful, sensitive straight people are able to write a movie about gay people that both straight people and gay people can relate to? Or is it that straight people and gay people are seeing different things in this movie?

I think perhaps the latter is true, to some extent. When I read reviews in the press that talk about how straight people can "relate" to an "impossible" wonders whether they get the point that in this story, for this protagonist, this impossibility is completely ironic. That though the social taboo is real, the impossibility of breaking it exists solely in Ennis's mind. And only because Ennis is so deeply emotionally disturbed. That most "normal" people would fight their fears and jump at the chance to start a farm with the ebulliant and inspiring Jack Twist. For the gays who see this movie, the tragedy is not in Ennis's stars, but in himself; while for others...I'm not so sure.

But this may explain why gay people are so emotionally rivetted by this movie, dispite it's retrograde characters and lack of, for a better word, gay esoterica. The characters may not progress into the 'real' gay world...and many straight people in the audience may not understand that Ennis - not Jack - is the tragic figure. But for those of us who walk in Ennis's and Jack's shoes, the closet is something all of us lived with - whether for a few awkward teen years or well into adulthood. Proulx has well understood the psychology of the closet, and Lee and his team have brought this visually to the screen and mixed it with the romance and sweep of a Western epic. Even if it fails to grasp that the essence of gay culture, so notably absent in every way from this film, is the very life that Ennis is denying himself, how could we still not fall in love with this movie that forcefully and humanely tells the story of our most painful heartbreak...and makes it so quintessentially American in the process?