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    Johnny makes me / Feel strangely good about myself

    Am I the only one who finds the attention being lavished on Brokeback Mountain just a little unpalatable? I have no objection to excitement by gays that there’s a movie that addresses gay themes–especially the sort of desperate, unspoken attraction that a lot of us can remember from before coming out and that is at the heart of a lot of straight romantic dramas also. Nor do I see how having it take place on the plains is inherently PC and exploitative; if Annie Proulx had set the original story anywhere outside the Castro or Christopher Street, someone somewhere would be bellyaching that the resulting screenplay was designed to falsely gay up the region in question. That’s just the way it goes with these things.

    What I’m unsettled at is the way gay commentators seem to be freighting a single art movie with more significance than it may be capable of bearing up under. Via Michael, here‘s Steve Miller at IGF on two reviews. And on the blog at the Washington Blade, Matt Hennie and Ken Sain sum up what appear to be the main nay and yea arguments, respectively.

    The whole is-it-an-authentically-gay-movie? thing is the sort of discussion that bores me to tears. What interests me more is how distinct its gayness actually makes it from other sorts of movies about minorities. I mean, I can see why the potential success of Brokeback Mountain means something to people. I can’t see why it means that much. Hennie makes an excellent general point…

    Most people go to the movies for escape and relaxation, not to be challenged by a movie that’s on the cutting edge.

    …and then unfortunately develops it only from the gay angle, as if there weren’t plenty of other groups of people who only tend to show up in major movies if depicted stereotypically.

    For a timely example, just look at Memoirs of a Geisha , based on Arthur Golden’s repellant novel, which reaffirms the Hollywood truisms that (1) anyone with slanted eyes can play an Asian of any old nationality well enough to be persuasive to audiences (and to critics, who affect to know better) and (2) it helps if the English spoken is Charlie Chan-ified enough to seem exotic. A movie that was unshowily and un-Mikado-ly adapted from, say, Mineko Iwasaki’s Geisha: A Life would probably flop. People would keep expecting its Orientalness to kick in and be disappointed when it didn’t.

    Gays, of course, have a bigger problem in that–get this through your heads, people–a lot of people think what we do in bed is frankly disgusting, which kind of makes it hard to get a romantic drama over. I’m not applauding that, but it’s a fact. Philadelphia, Sain oddly doesn’t seem to realize, was acceptable because the story fit preconceptions: Tom Hanks was unfaithful to his boyfriend and got AIDS, and the single sexual encounter treated by the film was guilt-shrouded and took place off-screen in a grubby porn theater. Those preconceptions doubtless are based, for many people, on the idea that being gay is somehow worthy of punishment; however, gay activism has to take some of the blame for having spent much of its energy since 1982 on depicting gay men as noble, suffering, and tragic.

    It would be nice if Americans were aware that gays come in as many personality and ideological types as everyone else, but these things take time, and we have decades of disastrously bad PR by gay advocacy groups to undo. Whatever the merits of Brokeback Mountain–and it’s based on an Annie Proulx product and stars Heath Ledger and Boy Gyllenhaal, which are three strikes against it right there as far as I’m concerned, though I promise to keep an open mind until I see the thing–there are too many variables involved in its potential success or failure to justify the current amount of gay arm-flailing. Its reception is certainly going to be an indicator of America’s attitudes toward gays, but I don’t think poring over every last box office receipt is going to tell us much that, frankly, we don’t already know. It would be nice if people just let a movie be a movie.

    2 Responses to “Johnny makes me / Feel strangely good about myself”

    1. Mary says:

      Yea for good Liz. Quite frankly, while I think Brokeback will certainly offer some “measure” as to gay acceptance in the U.S., the film seems to be more about masculinity than anything else. And offering a really non-stereotypical representation of the mythic “cowboy” isn’t going to win at the box office. Period. But who cares, it’s an art film!

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      “Yea for good Liz.”

      : )

      “But who cares, it’s an art film!”

      Right. The evidence that it’s going to be some sort of extra-special failure if the movie doesn’t perform like a mainstream blockbuster strikes me as tenuous at best. The writer is Annie Proulx, not Nora Ephron, for crying out loud.

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