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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

'Brokeback' backlash: Why so many gay men are luke warm about the movie

(Spoiler alert: If you don't want to hear about plot elements of "Brokeback Mountain" before you see the movie, don't read this.)

I really, really wanted to like Ang Lee's film version of "Brokeback Mountain." For the past two months, as that all important buzz began to build about the movie, I couldn't wait to see it. My heart leapt every time the film got a great review or was nominated for this or that recognition and I silently fumed as the movie opened on the coasts and I waited weeks for it to open here in the Midwest. Finally a local opening was set and I plunked down $25 bucks for a ticket to a special premier showing. I sat in the sold-out audience as the light faded and the screen came to life.

Once the lights came back up, the one word I could use to describe my feelings was "underwhelmed."

What went wrong? Did I miss something? Had I been led to have too high expectations from all the pre-release Hollywood hype? I obviously wasn't seeing the same films the critics were seeing. They were raving about it. I was giving it a shrug and an 'eh.'

I loved the Annie Proulx story it was based on and the film is exceptionally faithful to the short story. But while I had tears running down my face while reading the last 10 pages of the story, I walked out of the theater dry-eyed.

Thinking there must be something wrong with me, I kept my ambivalent fellings about "Brokeback Mountain" to myself. Then I began to notice something on message boards: I wasn't alone in feeling a "Brokeback" backlash. Gay men all over the country were coming out of the theaters where the movie is being shown with the same sort of mixed feelings about it. Most will concede that the film is beautifully shot and that the acting is definitely above average. But the faint praise stops there at the "but" point ... the point at which they say "but ..." and follow it with some version of "the movie just didn't touch me."

I've wrestled for over a week with trying to understand why I'm not moved by a film others are describing as "powerful." Then today it hit me: "Brokeback Mountain" is a gay mainstream movie. It's "gay" in that it's two lead characters are men with a powerful sexual and emotional attraction to each other and lots of obstacles to overcome in coming to terms with their attraction. That's something I can relate to as a gay man.

What I can't relate to is the "mainstream movie" part of it.

"Gay" and "mainstream movie" aren't necessarily mutually exclusive terms, but they are like two mismatched jigsaw puzzle pieces that don't fit together regardless of how hard you try to force them. "Brokeback Mountain" is as close as we've ever come to a gay mainstream movie, but even it falls short of the goal.

In expanding Proulx's short story, the screen writers expanded the roles of Ennis's and Jack's wives. In the story, Ennis' wife, Alma, has several brief scenes and Jack's wife, Lureen, only shows up in one scene near the end of the story. Their roles are greatly expanded in the film version and it becomes apparent their roles have more to do with attracting straight women to the theater than advancing the story of Jack and Ennis.

Meanwhile, except for the opening 30 minutes that focuses on the idyllic summer Jack and Ennis spent herding sheep and discovering their attraction to each other, the film seems to focus more on the men's relationships with their wives than their feelings for each other. Their sporadic "fishing trips" are mostly just alluded to, but every tic, raised eyebrow and questioning glance of their relationships with their wives fills the screen with ominous portent.

It's such as obvious ploy to attract straight women to the theaters that I'm almost surprised some angry queen didn't stand up halfway through the movie, "Get those bitches out of OUR movie!"

In a sense, the written version of "Brokeback Mountain" is our story. But when Ang Lee chose to try making a mainstream movie, he decided to emphasize elements of the story that would take away the feelings and emotions we "owned" when we read it. In the story, the wives and children and in-laws are background noise to the story of Ennis and Jack. In the film, they move to the forefront to give straight audiences something to hang onto that doesn't involve two men falling in love in the majestic wilderness.

The film also takes what was left ambiguous in the story - the fate of Jack - and makes it explicit on film. (This is your last chance to turn back if you don't like spoilers!) In the story, Ennis learns of Jack's death when he calls Lureen. She tells him Jack died when a tire he was changing exploded, causing the rim to hit him in the face. The film follows their conversation word-for-word just as it was in the book. But in the short story, Ennis wonders if Jack was instead killed by bigots brandishing tire irons. It takes exactly one sentence in the story to convey this and allow Ennis to wonder if Lureen is telling him the truth. The answer is left ambiguous. Instead of opting for ambiguity - which might confuse American movie audience, don't you know? - Lee makes explicit what Ennis wonders. While Lureer tells of Jack's death the audience glimpses Jack being chased by rednecks, knocked down and hit across the face with a tire iron.

Jack's death is actually the second gay bashing we see in the film. The first occurs in a flashback when Jack tries to intrest Ennis in getting a ranch together. Ennis rejects the idea and tells Jack of his father taking him to see the body of one of two "tough old birds" who set up house-keeping together. "Anyway they... they found Earl dead in an irrigation ditch. Took a tire iron to 'im. Spurred him up, drug him 'round by his dick 'till it pulled off," Ennis says, adding that for all he knew, his father was involved in the murder.

Call me jaded, but one brutal fag bashing was enough to get the point across. Lee's decision to make Jack's death explicit was unnecessary and goes way beyond the original story. It focuses on Jack's being a victim at the hands of murderous rednecks and completely looses sight of the fact that Ennis remains a victim of a homophobic culture so ingrained in him that he can't fully allow himself to love Jack. Consequently, the later scene of Ennis going to see Jack's parents and finding the shirt he thought he lost during the summer on Brokeback Mountain tucked inside one of Jack's shirts rings with far less poignancy than it does in the story.

Ang Lee may have wanted to make a gay-themed mainstream movie, but he fell short of the goal. Maybe that's because there really isn't such a thing as a gay mainstream movie. To be mainstream - at least now in the early years of the 21st century - is to dumb down and whitewash the "gay" part to attract the "mainstream" part. Hollywood knows it can't make a profit with a film that just appeals to gays. So it adds elements designed to attract straight audiences and the "gay" part becomes merely incidental to the "mainstream" part.

Other films over the past quarter century or so have tried to be the breakthrough movie for gay issues. "Making Love" dealt with a married man's discovery that he was gay after an affair with another man. But the characters were all so nice and polite and upper middle class that the movie was a colossal bore to gay audiences. Then came "Philadelphia" with Tony Hanks playing an AIDS-infected lawyer who supposedly contracted AIDS from a single one-night stand while hubby Antonio Banderas was out of town. Yeah, right!

Of all the serious "gay-themed" films, "Brokeback Mountain" comes as close as we've ever seen to a mainstream movie. But in doing so, it lost a lot of what made it relevant and moving to gay men along the way.

My advice: See the movie if you want to ... but do yourself a favor and read the story for a far more moving experience.