Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ang Lee | Brokeback Mountain / Susan Stroman | The Producers / Richard Shepard | The Matador

by Douglas Messerli

Larry McMurtry and Dana Ossana (writers), based on a novella by E. Annie Proulx, Ang Lee(director) Brokeback Mountain / 2005
Thomas Meedhan and Mel Brooks (writers), Susan Stroman (director) The Producers / 2005
Mel Brooks (writer and director) Blazing Saddles / 1974
Richard Shepard (writer and director) The Matador / 2005

As I recently watched the Academy Awards, I was struck again by just how weak were the nominees of 2005. While it was true that this time around there were no elephantine clunkers like Titantic, the movies all appeared a bit pallid. I found George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, for example, a very likeable film with some very important ideas behind it, but it was hardly a great masterwork of filmmaking. Capote is a well-crafted film, again presenting some interesting concepts, but despite its excellent actors, it is too long and a bit precious in its conceits. And the movie which was the favorite to win the Oscar, Brokeback Mountain, was in some ways the most problematic of all the movies I saw.

Let me begin by laying my proverbial cards on the equally proverbial table. As a gay male, who perceives that film often traffics in larger-than-life images of desire, I like to see films with handsome men, and it is fulfilling to occasionally see these beautiful men enjoying the company of and, perhaps, even enjoying the sexual pleasure of one another. I think most moviegoers recognize that—as “honest” and “real” as we might like our movies to be—one of the greatest joys in watching them is to see people behaving as we might in our romanticized dreams. As playwright Mac Wellman once said to me, “I want my plays to be performed by beautiful people; that’s one of the great things about art. It isn’t everyday life.”

On the other hand, I’ve never really cared much whether a movie is “gay” or not. Indeed, I feel the same way about literature in general. I certainly wish more films dealt with homosexual figures who lived lives closer to the ordinary world my companion and I experience. But I also realize that that may not make for very interesting viewing. Moreover, living primarily in a century in which many of the most important writers include Proust, Mann, Barnes, Tennessee Williams, Jane Bowles, Stein, Pasolini, Ashbery, Cage—the list could go on for pages—I don’t feel desperate for gay-themed film or theater with which I might identify. Casablanca is just as sexy to me as the bedroom scene with Terence Stamp and the young man of the house in Teorema—well, nearly as sexy. I attended Brokeback Mountain, accordingly, with some caution.

Perhaps it also rubbed me wrong that this film had been so touted as a “gay” movie, and was represented as “groundbreaking” for dealing with cowboys. Where had these publicists and critics been all these years? I thought it was common knowledge that in several westerns (even John Ford movies) cowboys were often busy with something other than cows, sheep, Indians, and guns. It isn’t accidental; after all, that among the gay icons of desired manhood—right up there with policemen, sailors, and fresh-faced frats—is the cowboy.

What also struck me about this “gay-themed” movie was that hardly anyone involved with it was gay. I do not know the sexuality of the director, Ang Lee (his second film, The Wedding Banquet, had gay themes as well, and for reasons I won’t go into here, I disliked the smug behavior of the gay couple in that film). The author, E. Annie Proulx, on whose novella Brokeback Mountain had been based, was clearly not a gay male. The screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana are not gay; I took a course at American University in script writing with McMurtry, and I can tell you that he’s so straight that he might not even be allowed in a gay bar! The actors, Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger, made sure that, despite what I read in a fan magazine, that “they faced the issue head on by actually sharing a trailer during the filming and eating meals together,” their fans knew they were not homosexuals. Of course, that doesn’t mean that these individuals could not imagine what a gay cowboy in 1963, when the movie is supposed to take place, might have felt. But I think it is perhaps indicative of some of the problems inherent in the film I finally saw.

The first part of the film, a long laconic testimony to the lonely life of the sheep-herding cowboys and an evocation of the beauty of the landscape in which they work, was perfectly reasonable. And I think it is not at all illogical or even out of the ordinary that these two lonely men, both of whom had come from dysfunctional families, would develop a kind of unspoken bond, even be attracted to one another, and, upon that lonely mountain, find themselves having sex. I don’t care how loud the Christian coalitions yell, men—even straight men which both of these cowboys proclaimed themselves to be—sometimes have sex in situations where they exist for long periods of time without women. So their rather violent sexual outing—although we later suspect that it is not the first time for the Jake Gyllenhall character, Jack Twist—is quite believable; and I think most open-minded viewers would even comprehend why they might have wanted to repeat their sexual release on other occasions. This was, after all, just sex.

However, the movie’s premise is more complex, as it goes on to require one to believe that even after their separation, and marriage and family for both of them, that a deep love relationship had magically occurred on that mountain—a relationship that demanded that they see one another again and again over the years. If anything, the extreme promiscuity of the gay life at the same period of the early and mid-sixties—the period in which, soon after, I became sexually active—might indicate that in the closeted world of the day, gay sex was one thing, long term relationships quite another.

Other than their shared difficulties with family life, we have little evidence of any personal relationship that might have determined their sustained love—love that, despite Ennis’s fears of being discovered, is made apparent enough that his former boss and maltreated wife are witnesses. Perhaps the director and writers simply felt that projecting two attractive male actors entwined in a kiss upon the screen would proclaim their life-long love. However gay men, like heterosexual couples, have to have something deeper between them than bodies and the urge. In Casablanca, for example, the love between Elsa and Rick may have begun as sexual desire between two beautiful individuals, but the viewer also understands that—even if it is only vaguely portrayed—they have had an intellectual and experiential relationship, they have had to undergo the shared experiences—if nothing else—of being frightened, living in Paris as the Nazis take over the countryside and march toward the city. They have had Paris—not just a sexual moment in time.

Perhaps if the original writer and screenwriters had been less satisfied with the smoldering and silent suffering of their character-types and dealt more clearly with what might have drawn them together, the audience would have more fully understood just why they couldn’t “quit” one another and the characters themselves—through the writers’ more full development—might have found a way out of their predicaments. Even if living together on a ranch were impossible, in 1963 they might have found numerous other areas where their life would have been easier. Ennis may have wanted to remain near his daughters, but there is little evidence that he did much for them, other than planning to attend one of their weddings, by staying on. But, obviously, that is another movie, one that Brokeback Mountain is not. Unfortunately, as it stands, the portrayal of gay life in this movie is almost as stereotypical, if less painful, as the hundreds of fag-joke-laden, queer-baiting, winking movies we’ve had to encounter from Hollywood over the century.

Let me add that I am not trying to make light of the difficulties of rural gay life revealed in this novella and film. We have only to think of the murder of Matthew Sheppard (an event that occurred years later in 1998) to know that it was—and perhaps still is—dangerous living as a gay man or lesbian for that matter in the “rugged” West. Jack’s death hints at the continued violence against homosexuals who too openly reveal themselves. Perhaps what the movie more succinctly portrays is the fact that, like the cultures from which they had come, these men were too taciturn and passive to escape their inevitable loneliness. Accordingly, Brokeback Mountain seems less a movie about gay cowboys to me than a film about two very isolated men. And the movie, although it means well, stands less as a film about gay cowboys than serving as an iconic image of them.

At least in Brokeback Mountain the traditional Hollywood stereotypes of gay life were kept in abeyance. In Mel Brooks’s film version of his hit musical The Producers we witness an almost loving restoration of fag-bashing raucousness. From the fag-in-drag character of Robert DeBris, to his hissing companion, Carmen Ghia—as well as a whole household of dancing fairies, fruity chorus boys and a diesel dyke—Brooks manages to recreate every nasty type of homosexual ever portrayed. To be fair, he treats young women, older women, Jews, Germans and any other grouping that strikes his fancy in the same way. That is, after all, his schtick. Early in Brokeback Mountain the cowboys complain of their daily diet of beans; one should recall that in Brooks’s 1974 comic western, Blazing Saddles, he spends what might seem to anyone beyond the third grade level as a long hour of cowboys farting on account of that same diet.

I know some readers will now accuse me of having no sense of humor! Well, I did laugh. I was even a bit touched—perhaps I should say tetched in the head—by Will Ferrell’s sweetly-sung after-the-credits Nazi Musak tune. If The Producers, however, has anything to do with a “gay” movie, I want to resign immediately.

When I first suggested to friend Deborah Meadows what I was going to explore in this short essay, she wondered if perhaps I had lost my mind. For I am now going to argue that the most truly “gay” movie I saw this year was The Matador, which does not outwardly portray any gay characters or even talk of them. Yet once I take up the role of a gay detective—a role any gay man of my generation was often forced to play—I cannot but think that this is story of a homoerotic relationship. Richard Shepard’s comedic crime-drama about a burned-out hit man and an every-day, family-loving salesman spins out a tale that reveals far more than what it says on its surface.

Danny Wright (played by Greg Kinnear) dearly loves his wife, obviously enjoys sex with her, but something has gone amiss in their relationship; their child has recently died, and his wife, Carolyn “Bean,” has a difficult time getting over it. Their home life is perhaps best represented by the events of the morning upon which her husband is about to embark on a sales trip to Mexico, as a tree comes crashing through their ceiling. If they have hinted to each other about their “bad luck,” the viewer now sees that something is rotten in Eden.

Julian Noble (brilliantly played by Pierce Brosnan) has just blown up a car and its owner, and is about to kill a business woman on the streets of Mexico City. Along the way he visits a brothel and has various other encounters; but it is quite clear that, despite his necessarily selfish and unfeeling life, he is lonely and desperate to find some way out.

In the hotel bar where both Danny and Julian are staying, Julian strikes up a conversation:

Julian: Margaritas always taste better in Mexico.
Danny: Yes they do.
Julian: Margaritas and cock.

Danny is slightly offended, asking his drinking companion if he’s serious, to which Julian quips, “I’m as serious as an erection problem.” As Danny turns to leave, Julian apologizes “Sorry about the cock thing, it’s kind of a conversation stopper.”

So the two meet. Even had the male anatomy not been the subject of their conversation, one would still have to question what attracts Danny to Julian so quickly that he agrees to join him the next day at a bull fight. Anyone with even a smidgeon of understanding about male bonding would recognize that this is one of the most traditional of man-to-man pastimes—a trial of friendship Hemingway made quite famous. Julian’s announcement at the fight, moreover, that he is a hit-man is almost the same as revealing to someone you’ve just met that you’re queer—a dangerous admission. Danny’s insistence that he “prove it” takes us into a symbolical sexual spin, which ends—as any gay detective knows it must—with a drunken Julian pounding upon Danny’s door late one night, begging to be let in like an apologizing lover. The film discreetly evades any opening of the door: we see Danny simply sitting alone on the hotel balcony in avoidance of the assault.

After a large chunk of necessary plot, revealing the devolution of Julian in his murderous avocation, the viewer is awarded the inevitable continuation and conclusion of their homoerotic relationship, as Julian suddenly shows up at the door of the couple’s Denver home, again begging to gain entrance: “Danny, Danny with the large white fanny!” Julian is determined to stay the night, and Danny’s wife—as any intuitive woman might—recognizes there is something strange going on. Although Danny has shared almost everything with her, there is one incident he has not: what happened when he opened his bedroom door. Writer Shepard has Bean do what any woman would do in order to save her marriage: she flirts with the intruder. The dialogue is a hilarious concatenation of Freudian inferences:

Bean: Did you bring your gun?
Julian: Yes, as a matter of fact.
Bean: May I see it?
Julian: Really?
Bean: Yes, please.

The two end up in a slow midnight dance, and a later whispered conversation with her husband reveals her understanding of the situation: “Aren’t we fucking cosmopolitan? Having a trained assassin stay overnight. Letting heartbreaking lies roll over us like a summer breeze.”

Julian demands that Danny join him in a hit or he will reveal what really happened between them that evening back in the hotel. Danny, it appears, has no choice but to join in. The good gay detective can only tell you that for a man of Danny’s moral fiber to join another man in a murder demands a deeper relationship between them than a simple encounter at the bar and a visit to a bull fight. But the movie takes the situation even further, suggesting that Danny not only helps in the murder that will free his friend from certain death, but actually commits the act. The fact that we learn what happened in that room was not a sexual act but a lapse of Danny’s moral commitment, a request that his friend make a “hit” on the buyer who’d refused his company the contract, hardly matters within the context in which I am writing. Danny’s temporary immorality is greeted by Julian’s refusal, “If I did it, you’d regret it instantly,” which we all know is what the gallant says to the eager woman willing to engage in illicit sex. Moreover, Julian’s statement creates a relationship between them that is perhaps every bit as strong as homosexual love: as Danny later admits to Julian, “You became my friend. You became my lifelong friend.” Meeting Mr. “Right,” Julian has displayed that he is truly “Noble.”

In short, Shepard has created a stunning parable about what it means to be gay without literally engaging in the subject. I can well imagine that in most audiences those that have not had training in gay detection might not suspect a thing. For me, The Matador reveals more of gay life, portraying what attracts two men to form a relationship with one another, than Brokeback Mountain’s broodingly nervous cowboys.

Los Angeles, March 13, 2006
Reprinted from The New Review of Literature, Vol. 4, no. 1 (October 2006).

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