(I wrote two paragraphs about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in my
GAY CITY NEWS piece on the Toronto Film Festiva
l and don't have much left to say about the film as such. Nevertheless, I
find the backlash worth commenting on.)
Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN may be this year’s most heavily hyped Indiewood
movie. As a result, I fear that it’s turning into this year’s equivalent to
SIDEWAYS: a very good film that’s so over-praised one practically has to
apologize for liking it or look like a shill. Lee’s always been a middlebrow
director, but he’s undeniably a skillful one, whether bringing wu xia
to the American masses or trying to show them that gay cowboys have always
been among us. It’s no surprise that a BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN backlash is coming,
but the form it’s taking is odd: straight male critics
that it’s not gay enough.
There were better, more transgressive queer films released earlier in 2005:
Gregg Araki’s MYSTERIOUS SKIN and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s TROPICAL MALADY.
However, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN makes no pretense of being hip and/or radical.
For many of its critics, that’s exactly the problem with it. As with straight
readers who don’t bother with any gay writers to the right of Genet or Burroughs,
some straight critics think a gay film has to prove - or at least aspire
to - its outlaw authenticity.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was obviously intended as an intervention into the American
mainstream's present polarized state. In a few decades, it may look horribly
dated, although I think Heath Ledger’s performance will always stand up. At
present, that mainstream accepts gay men only if they’re de-sexualized. Next
to MYSTERIOUS SKIN and its facial cumshots, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN may look fairly
compromised and conventional. But what Hollywood - or even recent high-profile
Indiewood - film has shown 2 men having consensual anal sex? (The Truman
Capote of CAPOTE has a boyfriend, but he still seems like an essentially asexual
cartoon.) Strangely, TV is in advance of the film industry on this point,
judging from last week’s NIP/TUCK episode. There's very little real
subversion in making queer films for 2-week runs at the Quad, which
will be attended exclusively by gay men.
The only thing challenging about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its position as
the hyped movie of the moment. Not since Jonathan Demme's far tamer
PHILADELPHIA has an American film with a gay protagonist received this much
publicity. The criticism that it would be more subversive if it had a happy
ending may be true (certainly, I'd love to see a gay Hollywood rom-com someday);
nevertheless, it’s not just another story of tragic, helpless victims. Repression,
especially the internalized variety, is the clear villain here. It comes
in many forms: straight people claiming the authority to determine queer
legitimacy and then fetishizing it is one.