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Brokeback Mountain’: An Exchange

In response to:

An Affair to Remember from the February 23, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Daniel Mendelsohn, in his finely observed review of Brokeback Mountain [“An Affair to Remember,” NYR, February 23], sets up a false dichotomy between the essentially “gay” nature of the film and the erasure of this gay identity through the marketing and reception of the film as a “universal” love story. As one of the film’s producers, I am grateful for his understanding of the unapologetic and unvarnished treatment of the specifically gay story we set out to tell; but as the co-president of Focus Features, the studio that is marketing and distributing the film, I take umbrage at some of the rhetorical shortcuts Mendelsohn takes in his depiction of our work.

Mendelsohn is rightly nervous about what happens when a gay text is so widely and enthusiastically embraced by mainstream hetero-dominated culture; and it is true that many reviewers contextualize their investment in the gay aspects of the romance by claiming that the characters’ homosexuality is incidental to the film’s achievements. Many reviewers indeed have gone out of their way to denounce the “gay cowboy movie” label (although, to be fair, they are mainly objecting to the fact that the label was used as a derogatory joke, a point I wish Mendelsohn had more fully considered). And it is true that we have marketed the film primarily as an epic, sweeping romance between two men, and do not append the words “gay” or “homosexual” to our marketing blurbs for the movie (although you never saw a poster or ad telling you that either Titanic or The Bridges of Madison County was the “greatest straight love story of all time”). Mendelsohn selectively quotes the film’s director, Ang Lee, ignoring the mountain of press utterances he’s made about what he thinks of the film’s specifically gay content (“Brokeback Mountain is more gay to me. It’s a romantic love story, and sexuality is at the center. I got extra juice from the gay love story…. They [Jack and Ennis] are both gay, but Jack is more knowing and less denying.” Etc., etc.).*

Mendelsohn also unfortunately mischaracterizes other aspects of our marketing too. One example: he points out that “the words ‘gay’ and ‘homosexual’ are never used of the film’s main two characters in the forty-nine-page press kit distributed by the filmmakers to critics.” That sounds pretty damning, as if we were trying to hide the centrality of the film’s gay content. Regardless of the fact that thirty pages of the forty-nine-page kit are taken up with the list of credits and biographies of the filmmakers, I note that the press kit features the voices of two of the film’s wranglers, out gay men clearly identified as such, who are active on the gay rodeo circuit. Their words are quoted at greater length and prominence than those of Heath Ledger, as it was important to us that critics understand the film directly in the context of real gay lives. And while Mendelsohn can find a couple of awards show clips or advertising images that don’t highlight the two male leads’ relationship, let’s be serious: no mainstream film in history has been promoted with as open, proud, and insistent a celebration of the love between two men.

But Mendelsohn is correct to call our attention to a telling and disturbing logic that underlies and legitimizes a great deal of the public discourse surrounding the film, summed up in the oft-heard assertion that “it’s a love story, not a gay story.”

It is the “not” in that sentence, the idea of two mutually exclusive paradigmatic categories, the one replacing the other, that rightly gives pause. But I wish it were as easy as Mendelsohn appears to think it is to resolve that false dichotomy by simply asserting the gay identity of the text. To begin with, there is a very real sense in which the film is, or at least aspires to be, “universal,” in just the way Mendelsohn describes it, as a “distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it.”

One thing this means is that we solicit every audience member’s identification withthe film’s central gay characters; the film succeeds if it, albeit initially within the realm of the aesthetic, queers its audience. But in so doing, it paradoxically figures its gayness not just as a concretely situated identity, but also as a profound and emotionally expansive experience, understandable by all.

The power of a cultural moment such as that signaled by the reception of Brokeback is that in shattering the “epistemology of the closet” we run the risk of destroying the nonuniversal, specifically gay knowledge previously hidden inside it. Think of it this way: if the phrase “You wouldn’t understand—it’s a gay thing” is now met with the retort “But I think I do understand!,” what, we need to ask, becomes of “the gay thing” itself? You see the problem: it is not that, with Brokeback Mountain, we made a great gay movie and then spent the next year insistently trying to stuff it back into the closet, as Mendelsohn argues. It is that, in the process of removing gayness from the closet and “mainstreaming” it, we disturb the given sites—some closeted, some not—from which gay identities struggle for recognition. Brokeback appears in the midst of new, and confusing, displacements of the sites of gay and, more broadly, GLBT identities—in the vast and disorienting space between the closet and the wedding altar.

So while I do feel Mendelsohn has been unfair to us, and while I believe the simple “gay versus universal” dichotomy should be nuanced, I am nonetheless grateful to Mendelsohn for raising what is indeed a thorny issue, one I hope he will continue to interrogate. Brokeback‘s legacy will be, I believe, a profoundly positive one; but to ignore Mendelsohn’s disquiet at important aspects of its reception would be foolish.

James Schamus

Columbia University

New York City

Daniel Mendelsohn replies:

Understandably discomfited by my argument that the often muddleheaded response to Brokeback Mountain derives in large part from the way it’s being marketed by its makers, James Schamus tries to distract us with a display of theoretical wizardry. But his letter, like his marketing campaign, smacks everywhere of wanting to have his ideological cake and eat it, too—of wanting simultaneously to benefit from the mainstream even as he waves the banner of queerness. Talk about cutting rhetorical corners.

He begins by taking exception to a “false dichotomy” which, he claims, I made in my review: between the specifically gay element in the film and its potential reception as a “universal” story—between, as he puts it, the film as a gay story and the film as a love story. I did no such thing. My piece was a response, as he rightly notes, to those who denied that it was a gay story at all—who saw the film’s homosexual themes as incidental to its artistic achievement. (“The lovers just happen to be two men,” etc.) Because I am a critic (not an activist) the emphasis on the film’s homosexual themes seemed necessary; as I wrote, it is impossible to appreciate the film’s aesthetic attainments—a superior performance by an actor playing a closeted gay man, the elaborate and carefully considered details that underscore the theme of the closet—without acknowledging the specificity of its gay subject matter. That the film can appeal to a universal audience—rather a different point—is something that I not only don’t deny, but stated quite flatly in my piece. (“Any feeling person can be moved by it.”) Simply because a narrative has universal appeal, however, doesn’t mean that the story it tells is universal—a distinction that sorely needs to be made in the current cultural climate, one in which everyone wants to lay claim to everyone else’s pain. To say that the story of Brokeback Mountain is universal because in some general way it concerns “love” is to say nothing at all; it’s like saying Schindler’s List is a universal story because we all know what it’s like to lose a family member. (And imagine the response if critics were to claim that the Holocaust were incidental to that movie, or slavery to Beloved.)

Mr. Schamus, who clearly wants to cast himself as friendly to “queer” ideological concerns, seems at once embarrassed by, and defensive about, the strenuous mainstreaming of the movie by its producers, who, as I pointed out, have cut rather a few rhetorical corners of their own in so aggressively marketing this gay story to the “heart of America.” But in response to my arguments he offers little more than bluster. Brushing aside the evidence I cited—the evasive rhetoric at the Golden Globes, the print ads, the TV ads, none of which even mention (let alone “highlight,” as Mr. Schamus rather hopefully puts it) the film’s central gay theme—he merely asserts that his company’s promotion of the film is the most open, proud, and insistent “celebration” of a love between men in mainstream Hollywood history. Here I must scratch my head and wonder where the insistence, pride, and celebratory openness are: in the TV commercial showing the male characters falling into the arms of their wives? In the print ads showing a lanky young cowboy grinning, or two young men with their backs to each other?

Mr. Schamus accuses me of selectively citing this and other evidence, but in adducing such examples in my original review (including the remarks by its director, who in his acceptance speech at the Oscars on March 5 declared that Ennis and Jack “taught all of us who made Brokeback Mountain so much about not just all the gay men and women whose love is denied by society, but just as important, the greatness of love itself”), all I did was to do what presumably millions of people did, which was to open the newspaper or turn on the TV. Try as Mr. Schamus might to camouflage what we found there with obfuscatory sophistries about “sites” of gay identity and Eve Sedgwick’s “epistemology of the closet,” the truth is plain: in order to get as many bodies into as many theater seats possible—a wholly understandable goal for movie producers, if not perhaps for subversive queer ideologues—the producers and promoters of the film toned down gay elements likely to be off-putting to mass audiences, to the point, as the ads I cited indicate, of actually falsifying its content.

With breathtaking disingenuousness, given his ostensible commitment to queer theory, Mr. Schamus suggests that Brokeback shouldn’t advertise the sexuality of its characters any more than straight mainstream films do. But of course, those films do advertise, relentlessly, the heterosexuality of their characters—as even a quick glance at the posters used to advertise, say, Titanic and The Bridges of Madison County will confirm. There, one can see what is, after all, the standard visual representation of erotic love between two people, which is a clear image of two yearning lovers embracing. One wonders why, if Focus Features is so open, proud, and celebratory of its film’s homosexual love story, such an image is utterly absent from its print and TV ads for the movie—just as the open, unashamed, and insistent use of the word “gay” is absent from the producers’ promotional rhetoric, starting with the pages—any and all of them—of the press kit.

But then, Mr. Schamus’s proffering of that same press kit as evidence of his company’s celebration of gay identity clearly indicates that there are many things we understand differently—not least, the meaning of the word “clearly,” a word of no small importance when the subject is lying and half-truths to which the closet condemns people. “I note,” he writes, “that the press kit features the voices of two of the film’s wranglers, out gay men clearly identified as such….” I can only assume that this refers to Tim Cyr and Shane Madden, who, in the introductory list of “Voices of Broke Mountain” on page 3 of the press kit, are “clearly identified” thus: “rodeo rider/technical advisor to film”: only later do you realize the men are gay, and belong to a gay rodeo association. The evasive coyness typified by that tellingly blank description characterizes the entire document—and, as now seems obvious, so much else about the promotion of the film. Brokeback Mountain, like so many stories of the closet, is ultimately about living with the agonizing consequences of the compromises some men feel they have to make; to judge from James Schamus’s heated but ultimately self-destructing protestations, it would appear that he is less than comfortable with the ones he had to make to get the movie seen.

To the Editors:

Gay cowboy movie” is an inapt description for Brokeback Mountain since its furtive lovers are not, in fact, cowboys. They are, however, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out in his luminously sensible corrective essay [“An Affair to Remember,” NYR, February 23], gay, something a surprising number of critics are unwilling to admit. Mr. Mendelsohn emphasizes that the young men are afflicted with the sort of self-loathing experienced by virtually all homosexuals, whether in Wyoming or Westchester, conditioned to think of themselves, even as recently as thirty years ago, as perverted.

Homophobia, of course, remains rampant (think “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”), but society’s acceptance of gay men and lesbians has recently progressed with such lightning speed that younger moviegoers apparently have trouble imagining a time when one’s personal safety and professional well-being preordained a life of erotic self-repression.

Mr. Mendelsohn suggests that those who insist on seeing the film (and the fiction on which it is based) as a “universal love story” rather than as a distinctly gay tragedy are shoving the characters back in the suffocating closet so powerfully exposed by Annie Proulx, Ang Lee, and the film’s screenwriters. This is an especially trenchant observation in an altogether brilliant essay.

Joel Conarroe

President emeritus, John Simon Guggenheim Foundation

Former president, PEN American Center

New York City

  1. *

    www.gay.com/entertainment/news/?coll =pno_entertainment&sernum=1139&page=2. To be fair, the cast and crew do not speak with one voice—nor should they—about these issues. Some think Ennis is gay, some think he’s bi, etc.

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