Despite its unexpectedly poor showing at the Oscars, Brokeback Mountain, “the gay cowboy film” which is actually about bisexual sheep herders, has become a cultural phenomenon on to which just about everybody can hang their own meaning.
During the past month, everybody – from born-again Christians in Middle America to builders from Bristol – has had something to say about it. It is the most searched-for film on the internet at the moment, it has sparked an incredible number of parodies, including a New Yorker cover showing Bush and Cheney as the Brokeback heroes. You can see some more send-ups (affectionate and not so friendly) at http://www.dailysixer.com.
Christians in the United States tried to get themselves worked up into the usual gay-hating frenzy over this film, but somehow they couldn’t manage it. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops gave it an “O” rating – which represents “morally offensive” – and a cinema chain in the Mormon state of Utah refused to show it. But beyond that, there were no calls for boycotts or accusations of corrupting the young, just a few isolated incidents of the kind of spite that the American evangelicals specialise in. For instance, the school that Michelle Williams, one of the Oscar-nominated stars of the film, had gone to told her that she was not welcome ever to return. The school’s headmaster, Jim Hopson, said that the Santa Fe Christian School in California “didn’t want to have anything to do with her in relation to that movie”. He said: “Michelle doesn’t represent the values of this institution. Brokeback Mountain basically promotes a lifestyle we don’t promote. It’s not the word of God.”
Back in the world of sanity, the critics were overwhelming admiring of the film, but gay activists in the States have complained about the tragic ending. Why do gay heroes always have to die?
In Newsday, Jospeh V. Amodio did a survey of Oscar nominees from the past 15 years, excluding this one, and he counted four actors who have been nominated for best actor while playing gay roles. These were Javier Bardem for Before Night Falls, Ian McKellen for Gods and Monsters, Stephen Rea for The Crying Game and Tom Hanks for Philadelphia. Mr Amodio notes that “they are all dead by the time the credits roll, save for one, who’s in prison.” He notes that the mortality rates for women is the same – Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, Nicole Kidman in The Hours and Charlize Theron in Monster and Salma Hayek in Frida all “wind up dead, dead, dead, dead.”
Mr Amodio also wonders what effect Brokeback Mountain will have on gay youngsters who are trying to come to terms with their feelings. He recounts Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, telling how he felt when he saw The Boys in the Band at the age of 17. “That film was praised for its daring depiction of gay men as thinking, feeling individuals with a sense of camaraderie. They were also bitchy, self-loathing and howlingly sad. Sitting alone in the theatre in 1970, I said to myself ‘I’ll do anything to escape this. I’ll learn to think different thoughts’.”
But what message would today’s 17-year old get from Brokeback? Would it be the one that the producers intended – “Live and Let Live”? asks Mr Amodio, or would it be “Follow your heart, sure – but be careful. Follow in some directions and things could get violent.”
John Scagliotti, another critic, writing in Counterpunch, wanted to know why the director, Ang Lee, had chosen straight actors to play the roles of Ennis and Jack. “These cowboys are straight, and there is no helping it even though they do all those nasty gay sex things right in front of the camera. What Ang and his straight scriptwriters and straight actors know is that sex between men happens. What they can’t know is that little, defining liberating moment after sex between gay men who see themselves for who they are for the first time. Gay men in the sixties who were forced to live a straight life knew how to wear the mask of heterosexuality, but once together the mask fell. They were in on each other’s secret… Straight actors, no matter how deeply they believe they can play a role, have no experience of that mask or how to let it drop. They certainly haven’t the slightest chance of understanding it in a creative team as robustly heterosexual as this one.”
Jan Stuart, also in Newsday, wanted to know if Brokeback Mountain could even be defined as a “gay movie” at all. He had been listening to a discussion of the film on a radio phone-in show. One caller opined that it couldn’t possibly be a gay movie because the main characters and the homophobia they were responding to existed within the heterosexual world. Another caller also dismissed the “gay movie” tag, saying that the sex between Jack and Ennis came across as loveless, “prisoner sex: an alternative to the sheep they were tending.”
But then a gay man called in who thought “it absolutely is a gay love story, but the film’s implications of sexual identity and sex roles, of men not being able to express their feelings, is much more profound than just whether it is gay or straight.”
Andrew Sullivan, the gay, Catholic Republican, wrote in his column in The Sunday Times: “Brokeback shows gay men in America have families and have always had families. It shows them among themselves and among women. It shows them, above all, as men. For the first time it shows that homosexuality and masculinity are not necessarily in conflict, and that masculinity, even the suppressed inarticulate masculinity of the American frontier, is not incompatible with love.”
Whatever straight people might get from the film, it is rapidly becoming deeply significant for many gay people. I was particularly moved by a blog I read from a gay man living in the mid-West of America. Back in 1984, he had gone to see a film called Falling in Love which was about a married man discovering his homosexual feelings. At the moment the two male protagonists kissed, a wave of revulsion passed through the audience, and the young blogger was traumatised to the extent that he became phobic about going to the cinema.
It was not until Brokeback Mountain arrived at his local flea pit that he felt compelled to give it another go. He described in detail the apprehension he felt at the prospect of experiencing a similar reaction to the gay sex scenes. He was frightened that it might prompt a return to the depression that had kept him away from films for so many years, and he was also afraid that he might attack anyone who made a disparaging remark.
Inside the cinema, however, and during the film, there was utter silence. Although the audience was made up of mainly straight people, they took the story on its own terms. There was no adverse comment, none of the retching noises he had anticipated. He came out of the cinema floating on a cloud of relief.
What real significance Brokeback Mountain has – if any – only time will tell. It has certainly prompted a quite extraordinary reaction for what is basically an art house film.
Or, as, Andrew Sullivan puts it in his column: “It provides a story to help people better understand the turbulent social change around them and the history they never previously recorded. That is what great art always does: it reveals the truth we are too scared to see and the future we already, beneath our denial, understand.”
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Satirical cartoons can prompt extreme reactions, as we have seen in relation to the Danish drawings of Mohammed that started a world-wide conflagration.
Newspaper cartoons can be vicious and satirical – the best ones are – to make a cutting or damning point in a few strokes of the artist’s pen.
We know that cartoonists sometimes have to resort to stereotypical images in order to make their point as economically as possible. But what are we to make of the series of cartoons that appeared in The Sun last month, which made no satirical point, but seemed to merely represent a crude insult to gay people. They were the work of Bill Caldwell, The Sun’s regular cartoonist. One appeared the day after the Bafta awards, at which Brokeback Mountain had triumphed. It showed the actors dropping one of their armful of awards and asking a male onlooker “Oops – would you pick that up for me?” and the onlooker retorting: “No way.” Funny? I don’t think so. Crudely insulting – undoubtedly.
Then Peter Mandelson was in the news for apparently wanting to put £15 extra tax on the price of shoes. Above the story was the Caldwell cartoon showing Mr Mandelson and his partner Reinaldo in a shoe shop, trying on women’s high heels. “I think these are worth the extra £15, don’t you Reinaldo?” says the Mandelson figure. Did that make a point about the tax, or was it simply an attack on homosexuality?
Then came the day that George Michael was found slumped in his car, reportedly out of his head on drugs. Mr Caldwell’s offering that showed George taking his dog for a walk at night on Hampstead Heath, dolled up in a leather thong, women’s high heeled boots and a gas mask. Two policemen are shining their torches on him, as he says: “What’s the matter? I’m just taking the dog for a walk, officer.”
One has to ask: where is the wit? Mr Caldwell should thank his lucky stars that gay people aren’t as volatile as some Islamists are, or there is a danger that we’d been down at Wapping calling for his head.
QUOTES OF THE MONTH
“Brokeback Mountain seems to have flipped a switch. We have had a six-fold surge in interest”. (Andrew Roberts, who operates a gay cowboy holiday firm in the USA).
“The film industry in California is very old-fashioned. It’s very distressing to me that that should be the case”. (Ian McKellen on the dearth of openly gay movie actors in Hollywood).
“We live in a culture that pretends to accept and understand, but which doesn’t want to deal with the finer details of gay life. Just because you have a few queers in Emmerdale, there is this myth that the world has become more tolerant. It doesn’t understand us at all.” (Boy George).