[Marxism] John Scagliotti on "Brokeback Mountain"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Mar 3 10:16:37 MST 2006


Counterpunch, March 3, 2006
After the Tears, the Questions...
Why Are There No Real Gays in "Brokeback Mountain"?

By JOHN SCAGLIOTTI

I've always enjoyed the moment in a dinner conversation when someone 
mentions an Ang Lee movie, and I can say, "You know, Ang Lee was my 
soundman at NYU." The line always gets a big laugh at my expense. After all 
he is at the pinnacle of Hollywood and I'm still the struggling documentary 
filmmaker. In 1982 when we were working on our master's thesis films we 
weren't close buddies, and if we did reunite after all these years I doubt 
anyone would want to film the moment. It would never be as hot as when Jack 
and Ennis clutch at each other with desperate, longing kisses after four 
years of separation since their Brokeback Mountain days. Now that's a 
Hollywood moment.

But I did feel an intense bond with Ang. I was an openly gay man and he a 
Chinese foreigner in the overwhelmingly straight white rich male 
environment that was the norm at the time at any premiere American film 
school. NYU's film equipment guy, Spike Lee, probably took the closest 
measure of the entitlement all around us, rudely handing out broken down 
cameras to spoiled suburban kids demanding their due, with a "screw you, 
honky" attitude that took me aback even as I recognized it. We knew we were 
different from the others.

So imagine my surprise that, two decades later, Ang would make a film that 
any of those straight white boys hooked on Hollywood conventions might have 
made if only they'd had more talent. I know the gay websites are drooling 
over Brokeback Mountain. Transported by beautiful Marlboro Man icons, by 
the tears and applause of straight people, a lot of gay men are having 
their Sally Field moment-"You like us, you really like us!"-somehow 
overlooking a story line that's so regressive and a cast so absurd that 
twenty years ago we would have been in the street protesting such a film.

I had a hunch that the movie might not be the gay epic it's cracked up to 
be before I saw it. At a dinner in New York an African-American gay man 
named Eric didn't laugh at my Ang Lee name-dropping but exploded, "How 
could he have cast straight actors to play gay men in a movie that is about 
the problem about being gay in the sixties?" I joked, "I guess if Ang were 
going to do a film about American anti-Japanese bigotry in the 1940s he 
would cast Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as the Nisei star-crossed lovers 
forced to navigate their romance in the internment camps," but Eric did not 
find it amusing, and there was something exciting, because rare, in his anger.

Later, while watching the movie, I realized he was so right. 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 cameras. What Ang, 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, and with that secret came language, gestures, a 
dry, knowing, sometimes gallows sense of humor-subtle things that say, 
"We're different," because we are. 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. 
It's maybe hard for people to fathom, but casting real straight men in 
roles that are so clearly in need of real gay men is no different from 
casting Jimmy Dean in the Sidney Poitier role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

And once Jack and Ennis finally reach a point of frankness and possibility, 
in a climactic scene after twenty years of fishing trips, what happens 
next? I could almost hear the echo of consciousness raising groups-past, 
where the subject was movies and literature and someone would ask, "Why 
does the homo always have to die?"

I know Annie Proulx, the heterosexual on whose short story the film is 
based, thinks she has captured a reality in her heroes' doom, but what she 
has tapped more powerfully is straight women's fantasies of primal 
sexuality and impossible love: "O, Heathcliff! O, Cathy!" A real Ennis and 
Jack might have said screw this place and moved to the Castro, opening an 
antique shop, or taken any number of paths to an authentic life, like 
thousands of Western gay boys did in the seventies and eighties. But that 
would upend the romantic convention, so Proulx, and the screenwriters after 
her, relied on what has been a running joke in the gay community since 
Lillian Helman killed off Martha Dobie in The Children's Hour. Hey, I cried 
too, but I cry at commercials. How is it that killing a homosexual to solve 
a dramatic problem is again a sign of acceptance?

Why Ang fell for such a stereotype after all those years of climbing out of 
one, I will never know. Upon hearing of Brokeback's eight Academy Award 
nominations, Ang told the Associated Press, "I didn't know there were so 
many gay people out there. Everywhere, they turn up." Everywhere but on his 
casting couch.

John Scagliotti won an Emmy Award for his 1986 documentary Before Stonewall 
and created In the Life for PBS. His latest film is Dangerous Living: 
Coming Out in the Developing World. He can be reached at: Stonewal at sover.net

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