Apologia pro Ang Lee
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ang Lee, USA, 9
On Dave Kehr’s blog last week, a commentator named Joe Baltake noted that Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a film that “will be both liked and disliked for the wrong reasons.”
The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in the romantic tragedy of a couple of gay cowboys who eat beans rather than pudding. It’s already received seven Golden Globe nominations, won several critic circles’ “year’s best” nods, and nabbed the top prize at probably the world second-most-prestigious juried film festival (Venice). In the coming weeks, it will be garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations and will probably get some wins. But a mere perusal of Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent “Fresh”) and the right Google search terms tells you that at least part of the stated reason for some of this is seeing the film as a commercial for gay “marriage,” “tolerance” and all the rest of it. Quick examples from Newsweek …
Brokeback feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships.
… and from Entertainment Weekly:
In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?
YEAH!! That’s the kind of praise I want to hear about a movie — “this is the blood of the lamb, which washes away the sins of the homophobes. Have mercy on them.”
And I like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A lot. But I don’t say that because I’m a priori impressed with gay subject matter, though I admit to not being absolutely turned-off by it either. I really don’t want to hear that sort of praise for it, since it turns the movie into a Cause. With some predictable (and equally wrong-headed) response from the other side of The Cause (the side to which I very emphatically belong).
There was a kerfuffle last week over the review by Harry Forbes, head of the Office of Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such conservative Catholics as apologist Jimmy Akin, journalist and expectant father (and friend, at least for now) Dom Bettinelli and the LifeSiteNews (here and here) went to town on the review, calling it in various ways an amoral whitewash that downplayed the Church teaching on homosexuality. As the editor’s note explains, the film was initially rated “L” — for “limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling” and is short of the “O” rating for “morally offensive.” That L-rating was quickly changed to “O,” but the review remained the same, to the chagrin of Dom, Mr. Akin and others, who began (or reiterated) calls for Mr. Forbes’s head.
Thing is, neither man nor the writers at LifeSite (ditto most of the people in their comment fields) have seen the film and so they are taking Mr. Forbes’s descriptions at face value. I agree that the review is lacking severely and that may account for the negative reaction (I’ll get back to that and some related issues after making my own case for the film as at least not O-offensive), but I have actually seen the movie.
Like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST last year, I’d like a first-rate film to be seen as something other than a Kulturkampf football and a measurement of one’s bona fides therein, much less as their Judgment Day Sheepness or Goatness. And I’ll say the following: reducing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to “homosexual propaganda,” as Lifesite does, and saying that “It is BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that this one is morally offensive,” as Mr. Akin does, is meaningless and ridiculously overstated coming from people who have not seen the movie.
Now … I’m not, not, NOT saying that one cannot say anything about a movie without having seen it, including (1) reasonable expectations about what it might be like, (2) judgments of the public discourse surrounding it, and (3) one’s decision whether to see it himself (which is, always and by definition, a decision made sight-unseen). But there are limits. And labeling something “propaganda” and insisting in ALL CAPS that something is “blindingly obvious” and calling others’ points “mere spin” are … to use Mr. Akin’s phrase … not borderline cases. Those are opinions to which the writers are not entitled, though in fairness Dom doesn’t “fisk” the review sight-unseen as Mr. Akin does (not to his credit) and is a bit more careful to say only what he can.
I had dinner at David Morrison’s house earlier this fall. His roommate “Dan” had read the Annie Proulx short story, but not seen the film. I had done the reverse. So Dan and I have this odd conversation, trying to figure out between ourselves what the adaptation was like, while trying to be spoiler-vague in front of David, who had neither seen nor read it. Dan was fairly emphatic that the story didn’t make the affair attractive, but rather was portrayed as a destructive force of nature. David was listening to us and (metaphorically) threw up his hands in frustration, saying something like “you guys are kidding yourselves. You both know perfectly well how this film will be spun. ‘How awful is it that the homophobic society and the constraints of the nuclear family got in the way of the happiness of these two nice well-meaning gay men by repressing their natural desires to marry each other.’ It’ll be taken as a commercial for gay marriage and that’s what all the Oscar night speeches will be about.”
I had to admit that the film doesn’t exclude that “read,” though I insisted (and insist) that this reduces and flattens the film and rides roughshod over some of its psychology. But I think David’s reaction is typical of the general Catholic suspicion of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The above-noted hosannahs (or as I put it elsewhere above, “the public discourse surrounding it”) — “I’m here. I’m queer, it was fabulous” — deserves suspicion. And they are indistinguishable from the outside from what would be said if BROKEBACK were in fact homosexual propaganda. But the film deserves better than to be reacted to, positively OR negatively, as an exercise in gay-lifestyle validation. It isn’t.
On the basis of his past work, I think Ang Lee is entitled to at least some consideration that he’s not making libertine propaganda. You’ll read very often, and sometimes from the horse’s mouth, that Lee’s movies are about “repression.” This is obviously true, but *how* are they about repression? As often as not, they’re about the destructive effects on the individual and society of willful characters and their destructive effects on the social and themselves — CROUCHING TIGER, where Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent pique and social-climbing bring ruin; the contrast between the two sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (remember Kate Winslet sobbing on the bed); and THE ICE STORM, where the sex is about as unrepressed as it gets — and ugly and destructive and (frankly) joyless.
The most important thing I have not seen noted elsewhere is what happens on the night of Jack and Ennis’s first sexual encounter. They were supposed to be keeping watch over a flock of sheep, protecting them from the wolves. When they wake up the morning after, they find out one of the sheep has been killed during the night. Their passion killed. You don’t have to be Harold Bloom to see the archetypes here — homosexuality as death force, as a passive destroyer of the soul, of innocence. In addition, the film certainly doesn’t portray the affair as viable as an alternative lifestyle, though each man thinks it might may be, for a time, after a fashion (Jack is the only one with the Massachusetts “marriage” dream). The relationship only “works” when it’s set apart from the social world — and this is the classic “homophobic” construction of homosexuality as outlawry.
Jack and Ennis’s not getting together has as much to do with the particulars of who they are as for social disapproval. Jack has a penchant for dangerous risk-taking; Ennis is a-romantic, period (if the second love had been a woman, the story would not have played out differently). As the movie went on, Jack and Ennis’s relationship became less sexual and more of an increasingly elusive “if only,” often tinged with jealousy and anger at each other. There’s even one scene where Ennis explicitly turns away Jack with the same “I gotta work” line that some woman hears from some overworked and unavailable man every second of every day of the year.
Nor does the film, contrary to Mr. Akin’s sight-unseen assertions and dismissal of noting this as “mere spin,” skimp on the affair’s destructive effects on others, with neither cowboy being a good husband or father, at least in part because the other is always a possibility. Jack marries for money and lives unhappily castrated. Before his divorce, Ennis even turns his wife into a man in bed one night. He becomes estranged from his children and even turns down a chance for custody of his daughter. And, most obviously — the film ends tragically and unhappily.
Now … I’m not going to oversell BROKEBACK on these grounds. It’s definitely not a Christian work, and one should approach it with caution. But if this story were about an illegitimate lisison between a married man and a married woman, maybe it would be far easier to see how comfortably BROKEBACK fits into the traditions and templates of romantic tragedy, and so (and this is what I care about here) not leap to conclusions about what the film is supposedly “endorsing.” It’d be easier, in some quarters, to see that its low-key elegiac tone and its bittersweet ambivalence about an impossible love come straight out of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But the essence of tragedy is that every option be costly. Nobody seriously maintains that David Lean or Martin Scorsese have constructed screeds against marriage or the breeder lifestyle — merely acknowledging that marriage involves some dying to self. (The most underappreciated film of this topic, though it’s not a tragedy, was 2003’s THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.) But all three of the tragic movies I’ve named are about people who choose family over eros, and from a mix of motives, not excluding shame and social disapproval. To acknowledge that such choices, even the right ones, have costs, and that some might not prefer those costs at certain moments or with a certain part of their soul, is simple truth-telling.
It’s also thoroughly Catholic apropos of homosexuality. Catechism 2358 says as follows:
(M)en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Now what “difficulties” might the Church be talking about? And what could be united to the Cross other than suffering? And a suffering that, because it is based on something “deep-seated,” may not end or be “cured” on this side of paradise. Sure, the right path is clear (and 2359 does offer hope for homosexual persons, albeit of a kind they tend to hold in contempt), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or painless, or, to steal a line I’ve heard, that it’s the broadest path.
Thus, potentially and in principle at least, the pain of homosexual repression (whether from without or within) can be the stuff of romantic tragedy without implying that homosexual acting-out is a preferable option. Only an Americanist pragmatism, an insistence on moral happy endings, or a willful desire to draw unsubstantiated pro-gay conclusions could say otherwise. And the USCCB guide goes astray in stating that the film includes “tacit approval of same-sex relationships.” Or rather, that’s true only if every stance other than explicit condemnation constitutes “tacit approval.” Under that understanding, yes, since BROKEBACK isn’t interested in approval or disapproval, it does indeed give tacit approval to homosexual sex. But that’s a crabbed, unidimensional and ultimately boring understanding of art, thought and discourse in the first place, one that owes more to Puritanism and other forms of religious purism than Catholicism. Surely reason and secular plurality offer some space to representation other than the 60s totalitarian-radical stance: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Now this “take” may very well not be Ang Lee’s or Annie Proulx’s. But there’s plenty in the film to support it and, more importantly, nothing in the film that excludes it. One of the things that needs to be made clearer about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its open-endedness and disinterestedness. Part of the reason the film’s widely-praised last image (a closet, a uniform, a window, a child walking away, and Heath Ledger’s face and body language all create a spine-tingling memento mori) is so brilliant is that it isn’t an overdetermined “moral” — it keeps open both BROKEBACK’s sources of loss. The film does nothing to “force” its audience into a conclusion about homosexuality, other than simply presupposing “homos is people too,” which is hardly heresy. The fact that secular film critics are cheerleading this film on (some of) the grounds they are is not surprising, but what is surprising is Christians taking their word for it. The film-critic community is one where theological illiteracy reigns (see 90 percent of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST criticism) and where opposition to gay marriage is understood only or primarily as “hate,” like when Scott Tobias at The Onion AV Club blog refers to “the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives” as evidence of “homophobic sentiment.” (And believe me, Scott is a friend who wouldn’t even enter my mind if I were asked to name the Top 40 Leftist Wack-Jobs in the Field of Film Criticism.)
But Scott makes a much more important point at the end of the conversation:
The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The “plea for tolerance” in Brokeback Mountain comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it’s raison d’être.
Even though I think (as Scott does not) that homosexual behavior is sinful and identifying oneself as “a homosexual” is dubious — in more than one sense of “dubious” — this is still a basic fact about how a work of art “works.” Scott distinguishes films that are propaganda, both implicitly and explicitly, from works that are not, but which may have effects that lead it to be understood in a certain way. But it is purely and simply not the case that people reacting to a text (by, say, calling it a great boon for gay marriage, yadda-yadda, etc.) has anything to do with the text. Though my meter is probably not St. Blogs’ most sensitive on such matters, I see a handful of “gay propaganda” movies every year and I can say definitely that BROKEBACK ain’t one, though it is certainly consumable (and is being consumed) as validation by gay-lifestyle propagandists, just as last year’s even better VERA DRAKE was equally bluntly and oversimplifiedly pushed into service as pro-abortion propaganda.
It is true that, like all movies, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does require of the viewer at least some provisional acceptance of its terms of reference. No thing can be about everything. Homosexuality as a public issue doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and homosexuality as a moral issue hardly does, though adultery and infidelity as moral issues very definitely do. What you simply have to accept provisionally is that some people have an erotic desire for the same sex, and (and this is the hard part) that this might not be the most important thing to say about their sexual behavior or their moral character. This shouldn’t be too hard for Catholics, since Catechism 2359 above says homosexual persons are called, like all, to sainthood.
That these two men have, at least somewhat, released the homosexual genie to destructive ends does not (a priori, at least) answer the question of whether the genie should have been let out the bottle in the first place or whether we should encourage everyone to rub as many bottles as they find, and call it good. Indeed I think, in a strange way, the liberal lovers and the conservative haters of the film are arguing from the same template — that a movie that treats homosexual persons as persons first (with the particulars of their sinful weaknesses being a secondary detail) is somehow implying something about either about the morality of homosexuality or about the public issues surrounding it. It doesn’t. The Entertainment Weekly reviewer (Owen Glieberman) immediately before the passage cited above, writes explicitly:
It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design.
Leaving aside the direction of the terms of approval and disapproval, this is essentially the same as Dom:
Is that all that the official reviewer for the US bishops can say about a movie that attempts to normalize homosexuality as just another lifestyle? From the beginning you detect an enthusiasm for the movie that seems a bit untoward.
As I’ve said, I think the Catholic reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has more to do with the Forbes review, which is freely available and appearing in the context of secular hosannahs, than to the film, which has not been widely released yet. And that review was, in fact, fairly pitiful and deserving of scorn.
As Mr. Akin points out, there are just a few sentences of “slight caveats thrown in as sops to those who would find the film objectionable.” Those sentences aside, the review was pretty indistinguishable from what one might read from a daily newspaper. Also, and take this from an editor, those sentences read like “afterthought” — that is, if an editor were of a mind to, they would have been cuttable instantly without making yourself as a result do any further rearranging or major editing. You wouldn’t get any sense from reading almost all of this review that the writer was writing for the US bishops office or for Catholic publications. When you look at what the USCCB did (eventually, and apparently after some kicking and screaming) and what Christianity Today’s movies page did, they look similar. That is, discuss and rate the film as a work of art, with a disclaimer about the subject matter.
But … CT’s review was much better and meatier, and had its moral concerns better integrated throughout. I don’t think Forbes did nearly enough of that, didn’t approach the film from a specifically and identifiably Catholic view from beginning to end, and the result was an oil-and-water effect.
When I wrote my reviews of IRREVERSIBLE and THE ARISTOCRATS, I knew I was writing about two movies I loved, but which had subject matter guaranteed to turn off most religious viewers.¹ I made damn sure that I communicated my knowledge of that fact from the start, leading with a volley of vulgarities in one case and some graphic descriptions in the other. I would do the same if I were to write about EYES WIDE SHUT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS — the questionable moral status of the film’s images and surface content would suffuse and be central to my claims about the films (i.e., that they’re masterpieces, and highly moral to boot). This is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to do real film criticism — according to a sensibility from a specific POV.
But then, this blog is the product of one man and wholly about what interests him. Nobody would (I hope) take anything I say as “The Church” in an official or even semi-official capacity. One reason I did not include “Catholic” in my site name was never even to hint at such, and so leave me freer to write according to my sensibility, which you either share (at least somewhat) or don’t. But surely, the only reason the US bishops, as opposed to one layman in Washington, should be writing about film is because they speak from *their* specific perspective (for those of you in Rio Linda, that would be “being successors to the Apostles,” not “adding a sentence of reservation to the NY Times’ stance”). Despite the Vatican list of “Some (45) Significant Films” (which is as good a “canon list” as any of its length), film criticism is simply not in the episcopal charism.
Which also speaks somewhat, if via a very different route, to part of what Dom and Mr. Akin wonder aloud about the value of this USCCB office. In Dom’s words: “Methinks that there is a corruption in the film office of the USCCBureaucracy and in the USCCBureaucracy itself.” Mr. Akin says “the quality of the reviews and ratings has declined — to the point that I no longer consult them as they are of little use.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have rarely consulted the bishops’ reviews (and never for critical input per se), as I’m confident enough in my own judgment on this matter. I did and do occasionally look up reviews from curiosity over the ratings. When I read in a diocesan paper that they rated PULP FICTION “O” and KIDS “A-IV” (the predecessor to “L”), I wrote a letter that I couldn’t bring myself to send. But my esteem could not be won back.²
¹ To be fair, compared to those two movies, BROKEBACK is much tamer in style and actual content. It has one fairly graphic sex scene; but only its being between two men makes it particularly noteworthy in this day and age. And a couple of other nude or half-nude bits and pieces. Granted, my subject-matter Sensit-O-Meter is perhaps St. Blogs’ least acute, but considering the subject matter and contemporary standards, BROKEBACK is a pretty restrained film (one cause for complaint by the “insufficiently radical” crowd, BTW). And thanks, Ryan and Scott, for noting that David Ehrenstein is … well, follow the link and to the comment field.
² Can it be any more obvious that Larry Clark is a nihilist perv getting off on drooling through the camera at half-naked teens, while Quentin Tarantino is telling a tale of a providential religious conversion, albeit one heavily salted with surroundings of rough language, violence, and pomo irony?