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Brokeback Again

Just read Ross Douthat's old review:

But of course it is a gay movie, too, in the sense that it's a movie that doesn't just tell the story of two men in love, but advances certain ideas about the nature of that love. There isn't a political agenda in Brokeback Mountain, exactly - it isn't a brief for hate crimes laws or domestic partnerships, except by implication - but there's unquestionably a moral and philosophical agenda, and one that's more radical, I think, than most critics are likely to acknowledge. The film is a study in the contrast between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the former is - almost without exception - presented as preferable to the latter, as purer and more beautiful, and ultimately as more authentically masculine. Critics have noted, rightly, how Ang Lee portrays his heroes' wives sympathetically - particularly Michelle Williams's Alma - and this is true, so far as it goes. But while the film invites the audience to like them and pity their plight, it also trades in the darkest stereotypes of domestic life - the squalling babies, the tiny apartments and the mounting bills, the domineering in-laws and the general claustrophobia that almost any man feels, at one point or another, in his married life, but that Brokeback Mountain portrays as being the whole of it.
But that follows, doesn't it? There are some typical discontents that a man would have with married life. And if the man in question were a gay man and he was married to a woman then those discontents really would be more-or-less the whole of married life. That's sort of what makes gay men so . . . gay, no? If being married to a woman had tons of appeal and offered a lot of emotional satisfaction to a man, that man wouldn't be very gay. Well, so it seems to me. It's not that much of a slam on heterosexual marriage to say that a gay man wouldn't enjoy it very much. Conversely, I imagine I wouldn't really dig being married to a gay dude, but that's a fact about me not a fact about gay marriage.

March 11, 2006 | Permalink

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» Hugely Dumb from Minipundit
Via Matt Yglesias, I can't believe that Ross Douthat wrote something this stupid: There isn't a political agenda in Brokeback Mountain, exactly - it isn't a brief for hate crimes laws or domestic partnerships, except by implication - but there's [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 11, 2006 6:01:46 PM

Comments

Your assessment of Douhat's review is quite correct, but I'd phrase things a bit differently.

Douhat's complaint is that Brokeback is that it isn't fair and balanced about heterosexuality. But a movie tends to view things through the lens of its protagonists' perceptions.

If Brokeback's heroes see domesticity as a trap, then good filmmaking will portray domesticity as a trap. Douhat writes:

"The film is a study in the contrast between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the former is - almost without exception - presented as preferable to the latter, as purer and more beautiful, and ultimately as more authentically masculine."

But, of course, the film wouldn't be doing its job if it didn't present things that way, as that's how the world looks through the protagonists' eyes.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 11, 2006 1:43:58 PM

I don't know how closely you want to tie emotional and sexual satisfaction. It's not as if it's unknown for a gay man to have close female friends from whom he gets emotional benefits.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | Mar 11, 2006 1:47:09 PM

Yeah, the movie isn't a comprehensive look at heterosexual marriage. We only see two marriages in the whole movie, both involving gay men. One wasn't even planned, and the other seemed to be the result of social programming that said he had to marry to have a fulfilling life. Under those conditions, no wonder they didn't work out well.

But there's another part of it. The potential life between Ennis and Jack is unrealized, and therefore, it's allowed to remain idyllic. Certainly, if the two had been able to be together, it wouldn't have all been sexy romps on Brokeback Mountain. Long term relationships always involve some drudgery, but we put up with it because we're, you know, in love. Personally, I wondered how long the main characters would have lasted together had they been free of social obstacles.

Posted by: Royko | Mar 11, 2006 2:01:17 PM

"Personally, I wondered how long the main characters would have lasted together had they been free of social obstacles."

A "Romance of the West" on several levels? Probably useful not to take the characters as seriously as they take themselves. I am re-examining Ang Lee's other movies in the light of the characters having too much invested in their myths and dreams.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 11, 2006 2:12:56 PM

"Personally, I wondered how long the main characters would have lasted together had they been free of social obstacles."

I've always loved the spooky final scene of The Graduate on the bus, as it attempts to make that eternal question of 'improbable couple falls in love' movies explicit.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 11, 2006 2:15:15 PM

One might even take every word of this post as thuddingly obvious, and thus wonder WTF Douhat could possibly be talking about.

Fiction is, when it is good, specific. It's about specific people, who like some things and don't like others. Are we to take the preferences of every fictional character as a broad indictment of all those things the character doesn't prefer?

Conservatives, if I may hazard a generalization, are truly thick-headed when it comes to art.

Posted by: Realish | Mar 11, 2006 4:40:02 PM

The film is a study in the contrast between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the former is - almost without exception - presented as preferable to the latter, as purer and more beautiful, and ultimately as more authentically masculine.

Pathetic.

You know, someone should really write a book about how Harvard churns out future members of a smug ruling class without giving them a rigorous education or critical thinking skills; Douthat would make a perfect case study.

Posted by: Barbar | Mar 11, 2006 9:51:32 PM

What Realish and Barbar said. Would anyone mistake Douthat for a serious, thoughtful, bright fellow if his degree was from Florida State? Of course, then he couldn't have written Harvard book in which he eloquently performs his thesis.

Posted by: djw | Mar 11, 2006 10:33:32 PM

I know we're getting far afield here, but it's an interesting aside. . .

I attended a good high school, a "great" undergrad (sometimes ranked above Harvard), and a "great" Law School.

As far as improving my thinking & understanding, I would rank their respective importance: (1) high school; (2) Law School; (3) elementary School; (4) undergrad. Now, that's partially a story about my failure to take advantage of undergrad, but it's also a story about these institutions, their failure as educational institutions, and their increasing existence primarily as "signaling" institutions.

This article isn't really evidence of this problem (the mental failure to perceive this major counter-argument and the failure to address it are basically not horrible), but there is a lot of evidence of this problem elsewhere.

Posted by: EducationGuy | Mar 11, 2006 11:51:59 PM

Douhat's education apparently forget to include Plato's Symposium. It's the Greeks all over again.

Posted by: jeffrey smith | Mar 12, 2006 12:47:51 AM

The notion that the ultra-masculine Heath Ledger character, who is out with John Wayne on the far right edge of the masculinity bell curve, would be gay is just a gay sex fantasy.

The notion that if he were that masculine _and_ gay, that he would be devoted lifelong to just one man and never have eyes for any other men, is just a liberal political fantasy.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Mar 12, 2006 1:21:28 AM

"The notion that the ultra-masculine Heath Ledger character, who is out with John Wayne on the far right edge of the masculinity bell curve, would be gay is just a gay sex fantasy."

Ah, to wake up and read the ever sleazy and slimy contributions of Steve Sailor.

Perhaps them homos just have too much junk DNA in their genetics, eh, Steve?

But on the plus side, Steve always reinforces my belief in Darwinism, as he seems to be a modern incarnation of the Missing Link.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 12, 2006 11:23:39 AM

On Defending Douhat

Douhat's "movie review" is quite obviously non-sense as a "movie review" for reasons ably brought out upthread.

But what if we are looking at Douhat's piece not as an ordinary movie review, but instead as a review for a possible Academy Awards Winning movie?

If so, he's on much more defensible ground.

------

I think that Triumph of the Will is an incredibly good movie. But if I were voting for the Best Picture of 1937, I'd have second thoughts of voting for that movie, even though I thought it was the best picture.

The winners of the Oscars™ are intentionally picked to serve a political purpose, whether grand or small. Brokeback and Crash are two movies that are only mildly interesting at very best. They competed for Best Picture Oscar™ because the Academy was trying to make a political point about what the Academy stood for.

If Douhat intended his review to not really be about the movie itself, and instead about the movie's relationship to the Academy Awards, I have much more sympathy for Douhat, as then he's talking about something valid, at least.

------

Sidebar

The French do it better. By doing the Cannes awards with a small jury of filmmakers rather than a mass popularity contest, a huge amount of the politics get drained out of the process, and the winning movies tend to actually be really good movies, which only very rarely happens with the Academy.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 12, 2006 11:37:02 AM

Steve Sailer has apparently never been to some of the grittier gay bars, or the docks in a real port city. Sailer also has apparently never been with or hung out with certain gay marines or gay veterans or cops. Sailer also doesn't seem to understand that masculinity and mal-adjustment (Ledger displays both) are not synonymous. And Sailer doesn't seem to understand that one reason Ledge doesn't show interest in other men is clearly fear, not solely some happy Liberal fantasy of the romantic homosexual.

Ledger is the more "masculine" character, and he had the harder life. But anyone who thinks he's the braver or more courageous or more adventurous character has a different understanding of those words than I do. Twist is the real brave MAN of the movie, and Ledger would never have had a fulfilling moment in his life if Twist hadn't made it happen. Of course, this discomforts people because Twist is not the "manliest" or "most masculine" character (also, he's (gasp!) the bottom (as least in the sole sex scene) - the bottom could never be the real man - because toughness and perseverence have nothing to do with masculinity). Those people refuse to understand that conforming to masculine stereotypes is not exactly the ultimate sign of bravery and courage.

Personally, I'm more attracted to men like Heath than drag queens, but I also appreciate that drag queens are in many ways braver and more courageous. I can separate my aesthetic sense from my analysis of bravery, etc. Many critics of homosexuals are clearly incapable of doing this.

Note - this response assume that courageous, brave, and adventurous are all "masculine" characteristics. Feel free to dispute it. It does appear that the right is busy redefining masculinity to mean conformity, fear of change, boringness, and an inability communicate and thinl. Personally, that's no part of masculinity I want.

Posted by: MDtoMN | Mar 12, 2006 11:46:45 AM


1. On Steve Sailer's contribution: For a biological determinist, people simply play out the DNA programmed into them. Conflicting data doesn't exist or the playing out was 'prevented' somehow. A shallow way to approach human diversity IMHO.

2. On sexual identity of BBM leads: Haven't seen the movie yet, but read the story. Ennis is clearly the more messed up emotionally. He's an undisputed failure at heterosexual intimacy, but he doesn't pursue other men out of fear and denial and gets by with trists with Jack and emotionally void short term relations with women. Jack also fails at heterosexual intimacy but not as bound by fear and shame as Ennis does make those trips to Mexico.

Posted by: michael farris | Mar 12, 2006 12:57:39 PM

This is a bizarre post that actually strengthens (surprisingly, to me) Douthat's point. Um, surely you recognize thaty what one gets out of a marriage is rather more than the sex, no? I mean, the sex is great and all but I really like my marriage, and the occasionally squalling kid and all is part of that. Given that I found that single life offers up a lot of sex, if I agreed with the sentiments you voiced above then indeed marriage would be a terrible deal even for straights. Your implication is that everything but the sexual part of the marriage is part of the "discontents." I think Douthat essentially called you.

Mind you I think there is a more --- God save us --- _nuanced_ way to make your point: the issue isn't that the marriage is dead because he's gay, it's that it's dead because there's somebody _else_. And so all the other stuff gets underappreciated. So the same thing could be seen if the guy were straight but pining for a childhood lover or something like that. You're making it gay-specific actually goes a long way toward convincing me (and I wasn't before) that Douthat's point is right.

Posted by: Sanjay Krishnaswamy | Mar 12, 2006 3:39:01 PM

I think Matthew's point is that Douthat's a fool who mistakes the discontent of the BBM mens' marriages as a criticism of heterosexual marriage in general, when it's just a wrong (terribly, horribly wrong) choice for those two men.
Another reason that Douthat's a fool is that BBM is a movie about two men who love each other but spend most of their lives unhappily apart (hurting others in the process). There's no reason for it to present anything like a comphrehensive view of the rewards of heterosexual marriage since the men aren't, you know, heterosexual.

Posted by: michael farris | Mar 12, 2006 3:58:05 PM

Ach, it's the same old same old. This is an old narrrative based on reality in severe male dominated cultures.

Anywhere the society/culture tries to "segregate" the females exclusively for kinder kuche kirche duties, the keeper of the hearth, home, family (relatives/in-laws), this man/man higher love thing comes in. The women do not make interesting or intellectually challenging or good romantic partners, being child-rearing and homekeeping drudges, keep that way by lack of education or by strong segregation. It often manifests itself as man/boy, mentor/acolyte because there are a lot of bisexuals or even hetereosexuals partaking of the system, and a smooth young male body is a better substitute for female. It does have the benefit of giving the more strictly homosexual a chance to have a higher status and more options in society.

As well as any frontier area where women are the homemakers and there are few single females out and about, see ancient Greece and Rome, any prison, the rigidly male only world of English "public" schools (especially during the Empire), Taliban Afghanistan (couple of good New Yorker pieces on this, I recall) and Saudi Arabia present and recent past (if you dig, you will find the articles on male/male love culture there, virtually the same as with English public schools, affording a sexual outlet and a challenging romantic partner until the drudgery of marriage with a women and raising family takes over.)

Actually it's a common condition as the romantic love of a women is a relatively recent thing coming mostly out of Renaissance "courtly love" in the West, though you do have some instances of it in other cultures (Romeo and Juliet type stuff) mostly also ruling class tales. For everyone else, marriage is not "soul mate" stuff, it's about getting yourself one of those women and settling down to the creature comforts of domesticity and reproducing.

If you dare, I betcha a visit to the NAMBLA website will give you all the historic examples, I am sure, though probably quite embellished.

Posted by: artappraiser | Mar 12, 2006 5:03:04 PM

First of all, Douthat's review is MUCH better than Matt makes it out to be, and he addresses Matt's point as well as a lot of the points in this comment thread. Douthat specifically makes the Greek comparison, and he also expands on artappraiser's point above, which he is well aware of. He is also not criticizing the movie as such, he thinks it's a good piece of art (one obviously doesn't fault a work of art by saying it is too reminiscent of classical Greece!).

I was prepared to dislike Douthat too, as a kind of apprentice George Will stuffed-shirt-in-training. But he's an interesting guy, with a lot more depth and thoughtfulness than the run of right-wing "intellectuals".

Posted by: MQ | Mar 12, 2006 8:18:52 PM

"I was prepared to dislike Douthat too, as a kind of apprentice George Will stuffed-shirt-in-training. But he's an interesting guy, with a lot more depth and thoughtfulness than the run of right-wing "intellectuals"

This review aside, I actually think Douthat is a bit dim and a bit of a dweeb. But he's intellectually honest, which makes him readable.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 12, 2006 8:48:27 PM

I imagine I wouldn't really dig being married to a gay dude...

Perhaps you haven't given it enough thought.

Posted by: Dan | Mar 13, 2006 1:51:36 PM

"brokeback" is in the American literary tradition, most clearly seen in the first, early movement of the American Renaissance, which addresses male homosocial desire as a type of freedom unavailable in the quotidian domestic/ civilized world.

The two men in brokeback are simply natty bummpo and chingachook, ishmael and queequeg, emerson and thoreau (!), huck and jim, jake and elwood, etc etc, brought into the modern day. Name some other pairs if you like; but this homosocial theme ran through early american lit as an example of a life of freedom and companionship outside of the boundaries of a constricting and restrictive society.

Posted by: jose | Mar 14, 2006 10:26:25 AM

In the original story, the main character was hispanic, which changes the entire nature of the story. Changes everything...Sorry, but BM isn't about being 'gay', it's about being "horny".

Posted by: David | Apr 13, 2006 10:02:12 AM

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