[Marxism] John Scagliotti on "Brokeback Mountain"
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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
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
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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