Sunday, January 29, 2006

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a much-talked-about recent film on the subject of doomed, forbidden love. It follows the story of two lead characters who are immediately attracted to each other when they meet, but know that society expects them to pretend otherwise. They soon consummate their smoldering passion in a beautiful rural setting, but part ways shortly thereafter, expecting never to meet again.

Yet they do meet again, and immediately embark on a protracted sequence of steamy trysts. The complications are daunting--duty to a loving wife at home, a family of wealthy in-laws to be placated, job schedules to be juggled, and of course the whole problem of extreme social disapproval of their illicit passion. But despite the obstacles, they simply can't keep their hands off each other, and continue to meet in secret.

The film, of course, is Woody Allen's Match Point, about an ambitious lower-class tennis pro who strikes up a friendship with a rich pupil, and ends up dating and marrying the pupil's sister--while carrying on a torrid affair with the pupil's sexpot current-then-ex-fiancee. But you might have been forgiven for thinking I was describing Brokeback Mountain. Much has been made of the latter film's achievement in bringing gay romance into the film mainstream. But surprisingly little notice has been taken of its distinctly unflattering portrayal of a long-term gay relationship. For while the characters themselves are portrayed as highly sympathetic, their relationship is disturbingly similar to the sleazy affair between the duplicitous creep and the flighty siren at the center of Match Point.

To this straight male viewer, the protagonists' passion in Brokeback could at best be compared with an adolescent first love, rather than a mature partnership. Never, during the entire film, did the couple display any hint of emotional bonding, tenderness, protectiveness, mutual self-sacrifice, or any of the other characteristics of romantic love, other than intense, focused lust, and perhaps relief at finding an outlet for it. In fact, apart from their "fishing weekends" together--which, it is strongly hinted, were devoted solely to nonstop sex--they had no interaction of any kind, let alone mutual care, support or even kindness. In one case, when one was kept away from the other for longer than expected, the other simply headed south to seek his solace with male prostitutes in Mexico.

Fans of Brokeback offer various defenses of its leads' tawdry, unsentimental partnership, but none of them really holds water. Certainly, homosexual love provoked widespread, venomous hatred in the time and place of the film's setting, and therefore needed to be kept completely secret. But then, the same could be said for extramarital love, then and now. Yet one of the most famous on-screen romances of all time, between Rick and Ilsa in Casablanca, was extramarital--and still, it was a paragon of mature, self-sacrificing, and (despite Rick's protestations) noble passion that stands in striking contrast to both the lurid affair in Match Point and the strangely celebrated one in Brokeback.

Likewise, the tenderness and unselfishness of Humphrey Bogart's hardbitten, hard-drinking Rick towards his forbidden lover in Casablanca puts the lie to the claim that the lovers in Brokeback were plausibly deprived by their taciturn, homophobic cowboy upbringing of the opportunity to learn the finer points of love. In fact, one of Brokeback's protagonists is shown actually managing for four years to maintain a reasonably sturdy, affectionate and respectful marriage, and displaying every sign of understanding, accepting and fulfilling his duties as a husband and father. Had he only treated his supposed lifelong love interest as sweetly as he initially treated his wife, his affair would no doubt have come across as much more compelling and sympathetic.

Now, I know better than to assume that a single fictional film like Brokeback Mountain is a fair portrayal of gay relationships in general, any more than, say, The Bridges of Madison County--which celebrates a married woman's four-day fling with a handsome itinerant photographer as if it were the perfect romance--is a fair portrayal of straight relationships in general. Nevertheless, the gay community's and its supporters' unanimous, unqualified idealization of the relationship presented in Brokeback Mountain raises the question of what advocates of gay equality--proponents of gay marriage, for instance--really have in mind, both for gay men and for society at large. If Brokeback Mountain is to be our new model of romance, after all, then why not, say, Match Point?

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dan,

An alternative explanation here is that they're just so glad to see a gay relationship--any gay relationship--on the big screen, that they're willing to overlook the issue you raise.

-Ekr

Dan Simon said...

I've not heard anyone suggest that Brokeback is an important film simply because it focuses on a gay relationship. (If you're under the impression that "a gay relationship--any gay relationship--on the big screen" is some sort of remarkable, previously-unheard-of phenomenon, you might want to check out this list.) Rather, my impression is that Brokeback is being celebrated for being a gay-themed film that otherwise follows the pattern of traditional, mainstream Hollywood romances, and thus marks the "normalization" of gay relationships in film. My claim is that in fact it does no such thing.

Anonymous said...

Dan,

I think there's a pretty big difference between *containing* a gay relationship (or in the case of many on this list such as Dogma and Spartacus, hints of that at best) and being a gay-focused romance, which is what Brokeback is supposed to be. It doesn't have to be a perfect romance to be a lot better than the alternatives.

Dan Simon said...

Yes, many of the films on the list are only peripherally or implicitly about gay romances. But many others place gay male romance front and center. Some of them have received quite wide distribution (The Crying Game, La Cage aux Folles/The Birdcage, Gods and Monsters, Longtime Companion, Love! Valor! Compassion!, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, My Beautiful Laundrette, My Own Private Idaho, The Opposite of Sex, Prick Up Your Ears,Torch Song Trilogy, The Wedding Banquet, Wilde).

However, in all of these, the gay romance was accompanied by at least some kind of distancing mechanism--comedy, historical perspective, or a quirky twist. Brokeback's breakthrough--I thought--was supposed to be its celebration of gay male romance in the same mainstream, audience-winning spirit that Hollywood romances have always lent to straight romance. That's why I was surprised to find Brokeback's romance to be, at its core, so empty and seedy.

Anonymous said...

Dan,

I think you are way off in your analyses both of the movie's message as well as how gay folks are receiving it. I'm a gay man. I'm certainly not pretending to speak for all gay people, but from the perspective of how my circle of friends and I saw the movie, I don't really understand what you're saying here.

First of all, with regard to the movie's message about gay relationships, I think you are leaving out a few critical points to your analysis. Firstly, you need to remember that the events in the movie take place in the 60's and 70's, and in Wyoming. Maybe you disagree with this, but I think it's fair to say that the story came along with an underlying assumption that all the characters (including the straight ones) had few choices in life. The gay characters, of course, had even fewer choices, both as a matter of fact (in the sense they risked being victims of violence) and in their own minds (given they way they were raised). Therefore, I don't think the movie was trying to make the point that this was a beautiful, perfect romance. I think it was rather making the point that this somewhat empty, seedy romance was the best thing they could achieve, given the circumstances.

Now, keeping in mind the understated depiction of emotion which, I believe, was the style of the story's author as well as of the movie's director, I actually think that the depth of the two men's feelings for each other did come through. Perhaps you felt that the expression of emotion was too subtle, or perhaps it's something a gay viewer is more likely pick up than a straight viewer. I don't know. But the scene where Heath Ledger's character was waiting for Jake Gyllenhall's character to show up after not having seen him for 4 years..the anticipation on Heath Ledger's face...maybe you interpreted that as seedy/lustful, but my friends and I saw it as an all too familiar buildup of love, yearning, passion, etc. of a closeted man. And the final few scenes...well, I didn't get the sense that Heath Ledger was mourning an empty and seedy affair. But again, perhaps that's just me.

As far as the behavior of the two men during the length of their "relationship," again I think the point to be taken from the movie is that, in the time and place depicted, the divergent coping methods of the two men represent, in perhaps stark form, the two basic ways that closeted men in this country have behaved. In other words, lose yourself by retreating within yourself and shutting yourself off from the world (Heath's character's path), or lose yourself by reaching out for human contact any way you can get it, i.e. anonymous sex (Jake's character's path).

In any event, I think the comparison with Match Point, while interesting, is not as close as you want to make it. Essentially, the big difference has to do with the amount of choices available to the protagonists. I think it's fair to say that the choices available to well-to-do society folks are greater than ranch hands/cowboys 30-40 years ago. I think that gay people watching the movie understood this. Far from saying that this is the kind of romance gay people should be having, gay people are saying rather that given the feelings these two men had for each other, it is tragic (and, sadly, even today all too common) that a gay relationship may end up playing itself out this way.

Dan Simon said...

Thanks for your response. I agree that one of the themes of Brokeback was romance doomed by circumstances. But traditional straight romances are hardly strangers to that theme--think Lancelot and Guenevere, Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde. In film, we have examples like Casablanca, Titanic, The English Patient and many others.

The main characteristic of these stories is that the doomed or forbidden love is expressed as dedicated self-sacrifice for the sake of the beloved. Even hard-boiled, unexpressive characters--like Rick in Casablanca, or Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, or, to choose an unorthodox-but-topical example, King Kong--can nevertheless express their doomed love this way. This spirit of selfless devotion is, I claim, a key ingredient of traditional romance. It's what separates a romantic couple from two people who merely have the hots for each other--Casablanca from Match Point. And it's entirely absent from Brokeback.

Now, perhaps my original premise was wrong, and Brokeback was never even trying to bring a gay romance to the screen. Perhaps, as you've suggested, it's simply trying to portray through two examples the painful yearnings of closeted gay men. But films about the unfulfilled lives of closeted gay men are hardly new or rare--all the way from The Boys in the Band to Far from Heaven. If that's what Brokeback was attempting, it was hardly any kind of breakthrough.

By the way, a gay male acquaintance has views of the film that concur to some extent with mine. (He also found the portrayal of the romance highly unrealistic, for a number of reasons.) I will try to add a comment later describing his precise impressions in detail.