O Mary, Where Art Thou?

Once more, dear friends, into the britches.

“Big love, in stories about men, tends to be a cheat, a lost cause, or a chimera.”

Well maybe for somebody who hasn’t read Proust, Genet, Irving Rosenthal or Samuel R. Delaney. But hey, to quote my favorite line from one of the greatest gay films ever made , “Here come those tired old tits again.” It’s David Leavitt, erstwhile “new gay novelist” whose greatest claim to fame is being on the losing end of a plagiarism lawsuit filed by Stephen Spender.

“In Brokeback Mountain—Ang Lee’s moving, operatic film adaptation of Annie Proulx’s story—it’s exactly what the tag line for the film says: a force of nature.”

Yadda, yadda, yadda. And yes, I’ve discussed this “deep dish” special before as has my Significant Cowpoke (who supplied the title of this FaBlog entry)

But Leavett’s impossible to resist, especially when he’s churning up drivel about a pluperfect example of gay movie that’s like they say on South Park, “Cowboys eatin ‘ puddin.”

Wait, scotch that. There’s no puddin’ on Brokeback Mountain. Just sheep.

“Herding sheep just above the tree line on a Wyoming mountain, two dirt-poor cowboys find themselves suddenly caught up in a passion for each other that they have no idea how to name, much less cope with.”

And neither do we. The swift sudden bit of ass-fucking that brings our two otherwise hetero sheepherders together comes quite literally out of nowhere. No foreply. No “Boston rub.” No oral. No puddin’

Nothing.

“Neither thinks of himself as ‘queer.’ On the contrary, the mountain itself gets both the credit and the blame for the affair that over the next 20 years will endow their lives with an intermittent grandeur, even as in other ways it drags them to the ground.”

In other words it’s the “Boy was I drunk last night!” syndrome that Mart Crowley parodied what seems like eons ago in The Boys in the Band, write large.

“Is Brokeback Mountain, as it’s been touted, Hollywood’s first gay love story?”

No. That would be Test Pilot with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy.

“The answer—in a very positive sense, I think—is yes to the love story, no to the gay.”

And that’s precisely what’s wrong with it. It’s worse than Hamlet without the Prince. It’s. . .nothing.

“Make no mistake: The film is as frank in its portrayal of sex between men as in its use of old-fashioned romance movie conventions. Its stars are unabashedly glamorous. The big-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal is a far cry from Proulx’s small, bucktoothed Jack Twist, just as the blond, square-jawed Heath Ledger is nothing like her Ennis Del Mar, “scruffy and a little cave-chested.” Yet, even if, in their tailored jeans and ironed plaid shirts, Gyllenhaal and Ledger sometimes look more like Wrangler models than teenagers too poor to buy a new pair of boots, the film neither feels synthetic (in the manner of the abysmal Making Love) nor silly (in the manner of gay porn). On the contrary, his stars’ outsize screen presence provides Lee with a means of bringing to vivid cinematic life what is in essence a paean to masculinity.”

Give me gay porn — parrticularly Joe Gage’s latest. And while Making Love was no classic, it was tons more honest than this thing.

“And masculine the film is. Ledger’s astonishing performance reveals an unsuspected vein of tenderness in a character more likely to express emotion through violence than words.”

Right. You almost expect him to launch into a chorus of Monty Python’s immortal “I’m a lumberjack and I’m O.K.”

“His Ennis Del Mar is as monolithic as the mountainscape in which—with the same swiftness, brutality, and precision that he exhibits in shooting an elk—he fucks Jack Twist for the first time. (“Gun’s goin’ off,” Jack grunts in response—in the story, not the movie.) Ennis’ surprise at the affair—at its inconvenience as much as at its intensity—reflects a fundamental humbleness that keeps butting up against Jack’s willingness to take risks. It’s Jack who proposes, over and over, that they start up a ranch together, a plan Ennis counters with pragmatism (not to mention fear), even after his wife, Alma, divorces him. Instead Ennis limits the relationship to fishing and hunting trips two or three times a year. It’s as if he believes they don’t deserve better.”

Ah yes, “Come on back to mountain, Ennis honey!” That distant groan you hear is Leslie Fiedler turning over in his grave.

“As for Jack, the same cockiness that makes him dream of a “sweet life” with Ennis also leads him to pursue sex with other men, despite his own marriage—something Ennis never contemplates.”

Which like so much in this film makes no sense whatsoever.

“In a key scene, Jack, disappointed at learning that, even after his divorce, Ennis has no intention of making a life with him, drives to a louche simulacrum of Juarez, where he picks up a hustler and disappears with him into the literal darkness of a back alley. The scene is unsettling because it presents such a stark contrast to Jack and Ennis’ heady, exalted mountaintop lovemaking. For just a few seconds, we get a glimpse of the urban nightscape that was the locus of the very gay movies that might have been playing, in big cities, at the moment when the scene takes place—movies like Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo, in which sexual profligacy is at once celebrated as a form of liberation and mourned as a pallid substitute for meaningful connection.”

Oh it’s louche, alright. Would that Ang Lee have left Anne E. Proulx’s tastefully PG “slash” fiction behind and gone down that Mexican back alley instead.

“It goes without saying that Brokeback Mountain is an entirely different kind of film. Perhaps it takes a woman to create a tale in which two men experience sex and love as a single thunderbolt, welding them together for life; certainly Proulx’s story is a far cry from such canonical gay novels as Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony or Allan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, which poeticize urban promiscuity and sexual adventuring. Proulx, by contrast, exalts coupledom by linking it to nature.”

Which is precisely why White and Hollinghurst are writers of substance and Anne E.Proulx is a fag-hag dilletante

“Her narration, with its echoes of Western genre fiction, is knobby and elliptical, driven by an engine as unpredictable as the one that runs Jack Twist’s troublesome truck, with the result that it often backs into scenes that a more conventional writer would place front and center.”

Oh it’s very predicatable. What we’ve got here is a ‘tragic love story” right out of Fannie Hurst, by way of Gordon Merrick.

“Though Brokeback Mountain may have the sheen of a Hollywood romance, it is anything but conventional. True, screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have ironed out Proulx’s kinks, but they haven’t eliminated her eccentricities; instead, they’ve found a cinematic parallel in their appropriation of Hollywood conventions of masculinity. This is particularly the case in the last half of the film, which alternates scenes of quotidian domestic grief (and the rare emotional triumph) with the trips that Jack and Ennis make together into the mountains—trips during which, as they age, sex takes a back seat to bickering and what might best be described as a kind of conjugal ease. What both men want, it becomes clear, is what Ennis is afraid to let them have: the steadiness of each other’s companionship.”

The sine qua non of a “Chick Flick.”

“By the end, Ledger’s Ennis has crow’s feet, while Gyllenhaal’s Jack has sprouted a prosthetic paunch and a heavy mustache. The result is a defense of gay marriage made all the more eloquent by its evasion of the banalities implied in the word ‘gay’. “

There’s nothing more banal than gay marriage.

It has fallen to us (not by choice) to reinvent the world. And we have. Why not continue to do so then? Why look to straight hand-me-downs for guidance?

“Indeed, with the one exception of the scene in Juarez, nothing in Brokeback Mountain cries ‘gay.’ Neither of the heroes eschews sex with women; instead, they simply assert that they prefer sex with each other.”

Hence a “preference” rather than an orientation. Just the way the Heterosexual Dictatorship likes it.

“At one point in the story, Ennis asks Jack, “This happen a other people?” and Jack answers, “It don’t happen in Wyomin and if it does I don’t know what they do, maybe go to Denver.” Interestingly, McMurtry and Ossana leave this lone mention of possible urban refuge out of the movie, the point of which seems to be less to subvert the conventions of male bonding than to extend them. “Lover” isn’t a word Ennis and Jack ever utter.”

Well who does these days? Isn’t “partner” the preferred term? What an ugly weasel-word,
more appropriately applied to law firms and Martin and Lewis –whose last picture, come to think of it, was something of a gay western

“Instead they call each other ‘friend.’ When they kiss, their teeth hit. Respect for some burdensome ideal of masculine struggle underlies and at the same time undercuts their ability to love each other: an idea that Ledger in particular brings home by investing his performance with the deadpan, reticent tenderness of Hollywood Western stars from the 1950s. His stoicism drives the movie, and nowhere more movingly than when he utters its signature line: ‘If you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it’.”

So Randolph Scott!

‘Does the fact that none of the principals involved in Brokeback Mountain is openly gay have anything to do with the film’s happy resistance to the stale clichés of gay cinema? ‘

What “stale cliches” are there in Mysterious Skin ? Mala Noche? Big Eden ? My Beautiful Laundrette ? Querelle ? Velvet Goldmine? Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train?

Maybe you were thinking of The Lost Language of Cranes

“Perhaps. In any case, McMurtry, Ossana, and Lee deserve as much credit for their tenacity (it took them seven years to get the movie made)”

Scarcely an eternity in today’s Hollywood.

“as for the skill with which they’ve translated Proulx’s spare, bleak story into a film with an epic sweep that nonetheless manages to be affectingly idiosyncratic in its portrayal of two men in love. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is less the story of a love that dares not speak its name than of one that doesn’t know how to speak its name, and is somehow more eloquent for its lack of vocabulary.”

Hunh?

Wanna run that one past us again?

Naw, I didn’t think you did.

“Ascending from plains where they lead lives of drudgery and routine humiliation, Ennis and Jack become the unwitting heroes of a story they haven’t a clue how to tell. The world breaks their backs, but in this brave film, they’re as iconic as the mountain.”

Iconic? Sure Like the Paramount mountain or the Matterhorn at Disneyland?

As as for those who “haven’t a clue” they would be those in the glbt community forever longing after straight approval for that which they can’t quite muster enough enthusiasm — themselves.

Yes Ennis and Jack are “heroes” to them, but not the “unwitting” kind. They’ve been expressly designed to fit into a closet as big as all outdoors.

It’s an ideal place for those queens of the oxymoron, Gay Republicans, to build their Log Cabins. Dress warm, boys — the summers up there are colder than Idlewild.

As for the rest of us, we’ve come down from that mountain a long, long time ago.

And we’re not going back.

28 Comments

  1. chris December 10, 2005 4:56 pm 

    comment midway through reading Ehrenstein on Lee/Leavitt:

    Wasn’t the first male/male love story — or, at any rate, an early one — Hawks’ “A Girl In Every Port”?

    I wouldn’t be surprised, either, if Harry Carey Sr. or William S. Hart had some relevent material …

  2. Philip December 11, 2005 2:19 am 

    Thank you for your review David! Until I read it, I almost felt guilty about not being blown away by “Brokeback Mountain” even before seeing it, (which by the way, I’ll wait till it’s out on DVD). I can’t wait for your review of Lynne Cheney’s “Sisters.” Do you know if there’s truth to the rumor that Mel Gibson has been attached to the project?

  3. David E December 11, 2005 9:10 am 

    You hit it right on the head, Philip. Everyone’s supposed to be blown away by Brokeback Mountain before even seeing it. And apparently a huge number of people have been — to judge by the internet “buzz.” Whether they’ll “hate themselves in the morning” remains to be seen, but I suspect many will.

    A Mel Gibson rendition of Lynne Cheney’s lesbian bodice-ripper? Talk about “High Concept”!
    Alas, Mel’s busy rewriting the history of the Holocaust.

    Harry Carey Sr. and William S. Hart tended to work very much alone on the lone prairie. As for A Girl in Every Port while it has always spoken of by Hawks scholars as a male/male love story, the film itself shows that while its male protagonists are “closer than that” (as Edward G. Robinson says in Double Indemnity) it instantaneously evaporates in the face of that most enchanting of screen sirens, Louise Brooks. Hawks best “love story between men” was undoubtedly The Big Sky, starring the strapping Kirk Douglas and the ineffably babe-a-licious Dewey Martin.

  4. David N. Scott December 12, 2005 2:21 pm 

    Yeah, this movie sounded pretty darn cliched, I must say. Issues of groundbreaking to the side, o’ course.

  5. solomongrundy December 12, 2005 4:25 pm 

    They’re bi shepherds, not gay cowboys.

    As a former bi cowboy, I like to be precise about this.

    bi cowboys

    I blogged about it there.

    That David Leavitt article is silly, though. Good response.

  6. David E December 12, 2005 7:50 pm 

    Your right. Technically they’re shepherds. But iconographically they’re cowboys.

    Cool blog you’ve got there.

  7. grishaxxx December 14, 2005 9:09 am 

    I fear we are gonna be burdened with Breakthrough Mountain bullshit from now until the end of March – was there ever a banner-boy less worthy? And what is Leavitt’s gripe with Hollinghurst (other than David himself having been ignored for a Booker)? I am only just in the middle of The Line of Beauty (blame it on my job), but I have long been an advocate of The Folding Star as a superb “crossover” novel. If that’s what one needs.
    David – what do you think about the proposition that Ang Lee is recapping, for example, very late, very tired George Cukor? Not quite this, not quite that, great veneer? And what’s the bullshit about (otherwise) str8 actors playing gay characters after Dennis Quaid in Far from Heaven? Where have the flacks been for the last – oh – 40-50 years?
    I guess you’re right – technically, they were shepherds. Tending their flocks. By night.
    Happy Holidays!

  8. David E December 14, 2005 10:24 am 

    In his dreams doth Ang Lee touch the hem of Mr. Cukor’s trouser cuffs! The flacks have been fast asleep for the past 40-50 years. That’s why they were so easily hoodwinked into believing something so retro constitutes a “breakthrough.”

  9. David N. Scott December 16, 2005 2:28 am 

    Hahaha… someone else noticed the bi shepherds thing, eh? That had been bothering me, but everyone loved the movie so much that I didn’t want to be a stickler…

  10. chris December 17, 2005 1:39 am 

    I was just going to say, as far as Cukor is concerned, that there’s a good case to be made for the Great Gay western’s already having been made: “the Cukor-directed “Heller In Pink Tights.” Oh, that scene of the Indian raid! Loved Loren showing off here photos, too. All this plus Eileen Heckart …

  11. chris December 17, 2005 1:40 am 

    Ahem! “Her” photos, that is. The woes of proof-reading …

  12. n69n December 18, 2005 2:31 pm 

    what i thought was so confusing is: i thought the whole point is that the characters AREN”T gay.
    “gay” isnt just about who yer stickin it in….

  13. Belga December 20, 2005 7:39 pm 

    ‘Everyone is supposed to be blown away by ‘Brokeback Mountain’ before even seeing it’ – that is indeed the problem, and not just with this film, David E. and Philip! The exact same notion is supposed to apply to ‘King Kong’, but much as I admire Naomi Watts’ acting and found some of the scenes between King Kong and Ms Watts moving and tender, I still prefer the 1933 version with Fay Wray. Sorry, Peter and, quite possibly (after watching Ang Lee’s latest which will only be released in Australia on 26 January), Ang!

  14. FJB January 3, 2006 4:18 am 

    I can’t be as “chic” and “slick” as you are girl. While I respect your opinion, ……you ain’t come down off that mountain honey, you have just created a brand new closet to hide in. My hope is the real message of BrokeBack will impact the lives of the future generations of homosexual men and women.
    Those of us who believe our “gayness” is not reliant on being a vicious queen like you who call a brilliant writer like Annie Proloux a fag-hag dilettante, because “she don’t write them words likes you wants to hear them” and who think everyone needs to live YOUR definition of gayness to be valid? Isn’t that what you are complaing about, you know what those mean “straight” people want us fags to do!!!!!
    Girl, what you don’t realize is you bought their definition of YOU hook line and sinker, and anytime something comes along and knocks on your new gay closet door, you get out out that tiara, and snap those fingers, in an attempt to broadly demonize anyone who thinks differently about their homosexuality than you do? How hypocritical!

  15. David E January 3, 2006 11:25 am 

    Who ate your lunch and ran, dear?

    Shade-throwing is not your specialty.

  16. FJB January 3, 2006 11:27 am 

    Writing reviews isn’t yours, GIRL? Maybe it is time to put away the maybelline and see how the world looks!

  17. David E January 3, 2006 11:33 am 

    I’ve seen the world — and the trash in it like you — for 59 years.

  18. FJB January 3, 2006 11:40 am 

    OHHHHHHHHHhhhhhhhhhh, So I am the trash?, not you ,who trashes over 80% of the gay population for having contrary opinions to yours. The only world you have seen is the world created by a self hating homosexual……….who only thinks about their opinions and how it relates to THEIR biases….like I said you are as bad as the hatahs….my hope is the next generation of gay men and women will see that being tolerated, and only going to “gay friendly” areas to live etc…etc…isn’t good enough….and will finally JUST BE THEMSELVES….and with that I bid you FAREWELL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  19. David E January 3, 2006 11:56 am 

    Don’t slam the door on your fat useless as on the way out!

  20. rebecca January 4, 2006 3:38 pm 

    I read your piece in the LAWeekly this morning and came by to see if you had put something more in depth here, and wasn’t disappointed. First of all, I completely agree with you when you compare Brokeback (the story) to slash fanfiction. I’ve been involved in the slash world for a number of years, and when I read the story that was my absolute reaction to it. Being a (gay) woman, and a romantic, I also cried my eyes out by the end of it. However, I’ve had a number of gay male readers comment to me that they enjoy well written slash, so I’ve always assumed that there are men out there who are romantics (silly and otherwise) in the lgbt community, and that just because the fiction is written by women that doesn’t mean it won’t resonate with men.

    I’ve also cried while watching Maurice, and Urbania, and Parting Glances, and even Big Eden (the scene with his grandfather, when he finally more or less comes out to him), among other gay and lesbian themed movies. It’s the human condition of love denied, or love lost, or self-hatred, that gets to me. I’ve always assumed it was because I’m gay that I could relate to it, not because I’m a woman and therefore an emotional handkerchief wringer.

    I understand, I think, your point about the hype over Brokeback, and your anger about gay actors staying in the closet, and the dismissive nature of proclaiming Brokeback as the breakthrough movie when so many good movies have come before. I understand your anger over the hype that this is a love story, and not necessarily a *gay* love story. I’ve tried to explain to the het women in slash, any number of times, how sick I am of hearing reviews of movies, books, tv, etc, which proclaim that the most fantastic quality of a lgbt story is that “this is the story of anyone, and has nothing to do with the characters being gay (lesbian, etc).” It’s infuriating. It’s assimilation run amok, imvho.

    All that said, I guess I hope that viewers of Brokeback will feel the pain of the men, and accept that denying who you are (as they do) and living a life that’s not true to yourself (as they do), is a horrific existence. That maybe the viewers will get it, viscerally, and that perhaps that experience might make them confront their own homophobia.

    It’s not that there are no issues to be discussed about Brokeback, and assimilation, and how palatable (or not) gay and lesbian themes and stories are, or can be, for mass consumption. But I think you might be selling people a little short if you assume that nobody will see that the bi-sheepherders *are* gay, and are living a lie which has damaged them beyond their own comprehension. At least, that was my interpretation of the story, even if it veered a little too close to a standard slash fanfiction convention of “I’m not gay, I’m just in love with you,” which is so inherently homophobic. Proulx, imo, managed to keep just far enough away from there, at least for this reader.

    Thank you for the columns. Good things to think about.

  21. David E January 4, 2006 3:53 pm 

    Thanks..

    “I’m not gay, I’m just in love with you,” springs from the darkest recess of the closet. There is no avoiding the world. There is no avoiding history. That these characters refuse to confront either is pathetic — not tragic at all. The trouble is the film encourages us to regard it as both tragedy and “the way things are” and therefore unalterable. THIS is where the homophobia comes in.

  22. papatonyinsd January 21, 2006 2:21 am 

    Well, it all makes sense to me now. I had to hark back thirty years in my memories, but I finally made the connection in my head. I couldn’t figure out WHERE I had heard talk like this before, but now I get it:

    Picture an ancient, bitter drag queen in a piano bar, talking to an idealistic, young man. No matter what I said that was life-affirming and sweet-natured, the old hag had a really smart, snappy and hateful thing to say in response. I thought that it was funny and cool to have such a quick wit. I even tried imitating it, until I realized how truly off-putting it was. I couldn’t keep any friends around for long, so I gave it up and found mentors that showed me a better way. Later on, I grew to learn the name for this time-honored style of verbal tennis:

    Toilet-Talk.

    It means that nothing is worth believing in, relationsips don’t last, nobody can be trusted, and we’re all fucked-up until we die alone. David E, you are carrying on a proud tradition of bar-fags throughout the ages. The style of your post is crystal-clear – take any positive, clearly-stated and friendly comment and find a way to TWIST it until it’s just as gnarled as your own world-view. Bring everything down, down down to YOUR level, and paste a crooked smile on it to label it “humor”.

    Bleagh. I don’t know how old you are, or how you got to be so bitter, but baby, it’s a shame. This world was not made for the likes of you. I choose every day to be kind, generous, honorable and a mentor for values that matter. I don’t know what happened to make your dreams die, but attempting to kill everybody else’s dreams is a loser’s game. It’s too late to get through to somebody so deeply cynical, but hopefully somebody, somewhere will recognize what I saw here and learn something from it.

    I’m going to go wash off the smell.

  23. David E January 22, 2006 9:30 am 

    “Who is she? Who was she? Who does she hope to be? “

  24. tmohk January 25, 2006 1:58 am 

    I feel I should say something. I know relatively little about actual working gay culture, so I hope not to offend. I am a relatively young gay man and I was profoundly touched by the movie. Perhaps it is a reflection of my personal limitations that I find the depiction of gay relationships as shattering the heterosexual paradigm profoundly alienating, although I suspect that one of the yet unsettled topics of my generation is the degree of essentialism we are willing accept, whether we are gay people or people who are gay. I recognize that Brokeback Mountain, like most romantic movies, is a romantic fantasy, but it is a comforting fantasy in an oblique way, a love affair stripped of the complexities which accompany modern relationships, which endures. Perhaps it is true that it lacks artistic merit, I lack the competencies to evaluate it on those grounds, particularly in regards to older movies and other texts. Perhaps it is unrealistic and filled with cliches. At this time, in this place however it seems that it is a necessary fiction, a nourishing one which helps me negotiate the long dark tea-time of the soul.

  25. David E January 25, 2006 9:21 am 

    But you’ve still got the long dark tea room of the soul to contend with. I’m quite aware of the fact that there may be any number of gay people who won’t agree with me, and will find the film moving. All I can do is state my case – and point them in the direction of superior works of truly gay cinema. Necessary fictions don’t always expunge reality in the process of their construction.

  26. Tomm January 26, 2006 4:52 am 

    The first gay love story in the movies was Wings, the 1929 William Wellman epic of WWI pilots. It won the first Academy Award for Best Picture and received the category’s only Oscar awarded to a silent film. Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen are rivals for the same girl, but their deepest bond is with each other, culminating in an agonized death scene that still packs a punch.

  27. Tomm January 26, 2006 4:56 am 

    As for Brokeback, seems to me Vito Russo would have recognized it immediately as having the same plotline as the movies he analyzed in The Celluloid Closet– “the faggot dies.” I don’t think that’s what Proulx’s story is about, but that’s what her literary exercise became when reduced for the silver screen.

  28. David E January 26, 2006 8:57 am 

    I thought about “Wings.” But as I’m sure you know the same “historians” who claim npothing whatsoever when on between Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed would rush right in and claim that men (REAL men doncha know) were far more demonstrative about their emotions in those days. “Test Pilot” is a tad more current. Moverover Parker Tyler cites it.

    And yes you’re absolutely right about “Brokeback” lining up with Vito’s keeneyed observation.

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