Thursday, January 19, 2006

Brokeback Mountain, love and oppression

Occasionally, something unexpected and remarkable happens which permanently changes the landscape. I’m not referring to an unpleasant physical reality such as terrorist bombings, nor natural disasters. No, I’m instead referring to a delightfully refreshing seismic upheaval in the cultural landscape regarding homosexuality, at least in the UK and America so far.

For those of you more remote from direct influence by the constant output of Hollywood, the cultural phenomenon I am referring to is Brokeback Mountain. If you don’t know about it yet, type ‘brokeback mountain’ into the ‘exact phrase’ field in Google’s ‘advanced search’ and you’ll get (as of the day I wrote this) over 13 million hits, astonishing for a film that is so recent (Correction: Just two days later, the number of hits has gone up to 16 million. How long will it be before it overtakes Titanic?). The film has become a monster, but a benign one. This is not so much a review of the film, but a review of its likely cultural impact both now and in years to come.

Although it has been rather simplistically dubbed ‘The gay cowboy’ movie, it is so much more than that. So much more. For a start, by suggesting that there ever were gay cowboys, it is messing with many people’s idealised and romantically sanitised perception of a tough, ‘real man’, representation of an icon of American history – what one supposedly Christian commentator called ‘the raping of the Marlboro man’. That phrase itself is an insidious demonstration of how the marketing of such a blatantly harmful product has become interwoven with many people’s notion of American heritage. But given that Brokeback Mountain was directed by Tawainese director Ang Lee, I guess that for some people it is almost equivalent to some chinky foreigner setting fire to the American flag.

Aside from the hysterical screamings of those whose noses deserve to be put out of joint anyway, essentially it is a story about two people’s attempts to find a way of fulfilling their expression of forbidden love, without getting killed. At one level it can apply to almost any situation where love between two people is forbidden by their shared or separate cultures. The film is relevant whether the artificial and man-made boundary that makes love difficult manifests as being religious, ethnic, tribal, age-gap, social-standing, language, wealth, or any other of a multitude of ways some societies manage to find of dividing people that inevitably makes life difficult for true love and compassion to flourish.

Warnings from Christians
But probably the area where the greatest impact will be felt and is hoped for is around the acceptance of people’s sexuality, whether attracted to the same or opposite sex. Those of us that know the greatest love of our life, the love that comes from the deepest place, will be, was, or is presently for someone of the same gender as ourselves. Most gay or gay-friendly commentators are hoping that it will change the minds of those who aren’t as accepting of us as we’d like. Some allegedly Christian commentators, while warming to many aspects of the film, are warning their readers that it might just change their minds and so they should not go to see it.

Astonishingly, given the Pope’s rantings about homosexuality, the US conference of Catholic Bishops originally gave it a rating that suggested it could be seen by mature adults whose Catholic-based morality was strongly rooted and who could thus enjoy the film without being swayed by it’s underlying message. However, frothing-at-the-mouth extremists forced them to ‘upgrade’ the rating to one equivalent to ‘morally offensive’.

In the film, both cowboys at one time discuss their upbringing in different branches of Christianity and what it meant for them. It is understated, and they are just sharing experiences, and recognising the effect it had on their quality of life. The church is mostly in the background, and neither portrayed as benign nor oppressive, but something that is an inherent influence and presence in people’s lives, sometimes for good and sometimes not so, which it was. No-one has questioned the accuracy of portrayal of the American way of life at that time. An implication I took from the film was that its portrayal of the church is that it almost inevitably contributes to the ongoing oppression through mass ignorance and unquestioning faith. Oppression of a group who are believed to be inferior can become a self-sustaining belief system. We only have to look at the way black Caribbean people tend to be racist among themselves, favouring paler skin and more caucausion features to recognise that this is only a cultural hangover from slavery which officially ended centuries ago.

It is probably true though that many people who are the ones who would be most likely to be politically active against us – for example, most likely to campaign against recognition of gay relationships – are also likely to be the ones least likely to see it at the cinema, the ones most likely to avoid it on principle. Their knee-jerk reaction to it is to attempt to prevent some people from showing it. Two cinemas, one in Utah (home of the Mormons) and one in Washington, decided not to show it even after many bookings, based on half-baked, notionally Christian justification. But the astonishing ticket sales for a low budget, ‘art house’ film, achieving particularly high revenues-per-screening, shows that a large number of people are going to see it. It isn’t just lesbians and gay men, it is many apparently straight couples too. And it is commercially successful in ‘the American heartland’ too, where some commentators expected it would bomb commercially because they imagined people would feel their heritage was being torn apart and corrupted.

Heterosexual sex
I think most people will be surprised there seems to be more heterosexual sex in it than gay sex, and more female breast than what is only the briefest glimpse of close-up male bum (and no visible male genitals either) as the two main protagonists struggle to maintain a socially acceptable lifestyle. Perhaps the straight blokes who see it, scared by the thought of seeing men having sex on the big screen in a place where it is hard to escape the visuals, are only there because they’ve been dragged there by their girlfriends, who want to see two hunks having sex like jungle cats fighting. Maybe some guys are secretly glad their girlfriends are providing them an excuse to see it and only put up token resistance – enough to reassure people of their heterosexuality but not enough to successfully divert to another film, perhaps. And perhaps some are sufficiently cool enough in themselves that they’re willing to go see it because they’ve heard it’s an outstanding movie, they haven’t seen a cowboy film for years and they’re not worried about guys making out, and don’t care what other people may think of them for having seen it.

The Christian right-wing, apart from some quiet frothing at the mouth, are doing their best to avoid bringing it to people’s attention, it having finally dawned on them that bad publicity is good publicity. They seem to have realised that it isn’t so evil that people should actually be prevented from watching it, but they shouldn’t be persuaded to either. Given that populations in many places are increasingly gay tolerant, they’ve realised that that the publicity that direct opposition brings to something, tends to guarantee greater success partly because what sends some people over the threshold of deciding to go and see it is specifically because right wing Christian groups disapprove of it.

Audience reaction to the gay sex scene
One thing I was keen to witness in advance was the audience’s reaction to the affection between the two main cowboys. The reason is that some years ago I went to a test screening of ‘Jackal’ starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, the remake of ‘The Jackal’. Bruce Willis at the time was of course the all-American action hero, and therefore one can predict that there was a certain bias to the values and beliefs of the audience in comparison with the general population. At one point in the film, The Jackal (Bruce Willis) goes to a gay club to make friends with someone, purely so that he can use their house as a base for carrying out the assassination at a later date. In the test screening, as a parting shot, The Jackal gives the guy a kiss – with tongues – to firm up the potential relationship. It probably was an unexpected shock to most of the audience, but I wasn’t expecting that so many would have reacted with verbal indications of disgust. My heart sank.

When I saw the finished versionn, the kiss (if I remember correctly) was disappointingly reduced to a peck on the cheek. I wasn’t disappointed because seeing Bruce Willis kissing someone with tongues didn’t set me on fire, but because it meant that enough audiences had reacted badly to it that they felt they had to tone it down. So, during the sex scene between Jack and Ennis in Brokeback Mountain, I was watching the audience as much as the film. Obviously, most people watching the film knew what was coming up, but to my pleasant surprise there were no apparent adverse reactions to it at all. In fact, there was no reaction to it at all in the screening I went to – people just seemed to accept it as natural. I was greatly heartened by this.

Social change
In the short term, while it is still at the box office, it is mostly those who are more moderate than the extremists who may be influenced. People who may not be particularly tolerant of homosexuality but will see it because it has (with the Oscars yet to come at the time of writing) won four golden globes, may begin to understand the experience of those they are oppressing. Those that may have previously been merely tolerant of homosexuality as long as it is hidden away may feel more supportive of the idea of recognising relationships. The official website for the movie taking the unusual step of providing a facility for people to record their feelings about it, and the intensity of those feelings even of those who said they have been anxiously waiting for the movie to come out, is surprising. It feels like a gigantic boulder that has started rolling and is slowly gathering speed, ready to cut a swathe through the cultural landscape of public opinion with repercussions from the shockwave spreading far and wide.

In the longer term we may find that those who publicly object to the movie at its release may quietly rent it on video when most of the hullabaloo has died down, or in future years watch it on TV when no-one else can see them watching it, as people have a natural tendency to want to see that which is forbidden, and especially that which is highly praised but forbidden according to their moral code. Some people may only then begin to quietly change their attitudes, having recognised some universal truths in the movie. Already the term ‘brokeback mountain’ seems to be entering the culture as a generic term to describe a deep, yearning love that was unable to be fulfilled.

Probably the most profound direct effects of this movie are on us though – those of us who grew up without a single favourable representation in culture or in real life of any same-gender loving relationships between regular people; Those of us who felt different and alone at times. As one Nigerian Pastor told me, “I thought I was the only one”; Those of us who have experienced the paralysing, religiously-induced terror of unthinkable consequences, were we to physically manifest our lust or love for someone of the same sex; Those of us whose self-esteem was crushed by the belief that we were the spawn of the devil for even having thoughts of lust and affection for each other.

Those of us who have cried at the departure of someone we loved when we were not sure when or even if we would ever see them again; Those of us who have been in relationships that ended because the effects of cultural disapproval made the relationship unsustainable; Those of us who have experienced the hurt of trying and failing to let go of our feelings for someone with whom a relationship wasn't going to work; Those of us who have had to live a lie or ended up hurting others because of the fear of being our true selves; Those of us who have experienced the withering depression of realising that denying our true feelings would ultimately destroy us; Those of us who have had to snatch moments of anonymous affection and sexual expression with people we may never see again because of the impossibility of sustaining a recognisable relationship; Those of us who have recognised that oppression by others eventually becomes self-oppression, as Nelson Mandela eloquently observed in “A Long Walk To Freedom”;

Those of us who have grieved at the premature loss of someone with whom we have been as intimate and loving as it is possible to be, especially when a factor in that loss is the cultural oppression of the public’s stupid categorisation of our love as being unworthy; It is for those of us who witnessed the only gay characters that our culture would allow as being tragic and miserable loners, losers, weirdos or just plain evil that scared the hell out of us, or else were witty and amusingly camp but asexual and unloved stereotypes - all versions that many of us just could not identify with; Those of us who have been desperately crying out for commercially successful, mainstream cultural recognition of same-gender attraction between regular people, regular guys doing a tough, manly job, so that at last we see popular representation of regular guys feeling the same feelings.

For many people, Brokeback Mountain will be the first time they have witnessed cultural recognition of them and their feelings in people they could also identify with. It is not surprising that there have been tales of guys weeping in the washrooms in the cinema afterwards. There were many reasonances in the movie for me, and times when I either had tears in my eyes or a lump in my throat, when I could relate things to myself or people I’ve been close to. Ang Lee said himself that the original story by Annie Proulx made him cry when he read it, and that the members of the film crew were crying on the last day of shooting.

How deeply this film grabs you
The film starts very slowly, almost surprisingly boringly, given people’s expectations of it, yet it is entirely appropriate in the event. There are no explosions, and superficially not a great deal happens compared with almost any other film on release, but it grabs you. To be picky, there are a couple of minor points in the film I would have done very slightly differently, but really, it is a staggering credit to a straight director and two straight actors that they have captured our feelings so well – but then perhaps that does after all demonstrate the universality of love.

Afterwards the emotional impact of the film rumbles round and round inside your head, like thunder repeatedly rolling round the mountains. And then some scene will pop up inside your head again like a new flash of lightning and the rolling thunder continues. This is one of those films that has such an impact the first time round that people even want to see it again at the cinema, as I intend to. I suspect that we’ll subsequently find that it will achieve astonishing sales on DVD because people buy it and clutch it almost as if it was a much-loved childhood cuddly toy, because of the reassurance the movie provides that our feelings are valid and we are lovable, for people who have witnessed such little evidence of that before in their lives.

Cultural impact
The repercussions will not end there. Martin Luther King said, “Oppressors never offer freedom. The oppressed must claim it for themselves”. But what he didn’t say was that to be in a position to claim your freedom, you must first believe your rights to that freedom are as valid as anybody else’s and that you deserve it. For some this film will help people realise their desire to love whom they need to love is as valid and justified as anyone’s and that will give them more strength in the fight for tolerance, acceptance, justice and freedom to be who you are.

Though so gentle and understated, its effect is so profound on many who watch it that it may be banned in some countries. Perhaps people who fear it may never reach their country should start demanding it be shown in their local cinema now. The movie will become a rallying point for those fighting for freedom to love, and in places where the movie itself would not publicly be shown, underground screenings may be the starting point for many joining that struggle. Whereas many big Hollywood films explode loudly and then quickly burn out, Brokeback Mountain is more like a cultural incendiary device that will burn and burn and be responsible for fuelling many fires of social change.