Gay Cowboy Regrets
'Brokeback Mountain' Sidles Up to 'Midnight Cowboy'
After seeing the film twice, and reading several reviews and voluminous blog-based discourse on the subject, I have only one question about Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain: Umm, how is it not a gay cowboy movie? Or rather, umm, how is it anything but?
As was detailed in Annie Wagner's review of the film in these pages, some critics are moistly proclaiming that Brokeback Mountain is merely a tale about Love Itself, as opposed to love between two men specifically, or that the characterization "gay" (or "cowboy" for that matter) somehow demeans the film, missing the larger, presumably universal dimension of its central relationship. But let's be clear: Those are just the kinds of things people say when they don't want to be called gay themselves. Pretending Brokeback Mountain isn't about a couple of taciturn, cowboy-hat-wearing, horse-riding, sheep-herd-driving, wife-ignoring, buttfucking men whose forbidden love costs them everything that matters—and hence, a gay cowboy movie—is like saying that King Kong isn't a movie about a giant gorilla who falls in love with a white woman. The fact that Ang Lee frames his film like a classical romantic agony doesn't mean that it is one, or that it could have been as sad and effective—as tragic—had either of the main characters been female.
It's no secret that Brokeback Mountain is the most significant Hollywood film about homosexuality in recent years. First off, what are the other contenders? Philadelphia? Jeffrey? Top Gun? More importantly, though, Brokeback Mountain's claim to importance is dictated by more than the number of column inches its controversy has generated. The cultural influence actually seems to grow from the emotional power of its narrative, and from the primacy of the icons it seeks to invert. The controversy isn't surprising; it's de rigueur. The surprising part is that Brokeback Mountain isn't reminding more people of the other great gay cowboy movie, John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, in which a naive, would-be stud comes to New York to live off his looks and finds that his only friend is a crippled gay hustler.
It's crucial that Brokeback Mountain takes place in the world of Marlboro men, trucks, line dances, rodeos, etc., because a major facet of the filmmakers' agenda—and yes, they absolutely have one—is to communicate that homosexuality happens to normal people, too. This noble goal remains Brokeback Mountain's gravest failure as art: It can't help but smack of advocacy. Likewise, Midnight Cowboy is all about its late '60s New York setting. Where Lee lets mountains and clouds mirror his characters' emotions, Schlesinger went the other way, turning his flashing strobe on a lurid gay subculture that forced queerness into cheap hotels and all-night movie theaters, and in which all light was artificial and sickly. In 1969 America, just admitting the existence of such a subculture was enough to earn the film an X rating. And in allowing its protagonists, wide-eyed Joe Buck and slimy Ratso Rizzo, a modicum of humanity despite their immersion in that subculture, Midnight Cowboy was revolutionary (and won the Best Picture Oscar).
Brokeback Mountain's lovers, Ennis and Jack, don't belong to any subculture, except perhaps that of the vanishing West. Mainly they are misfits hiding in real-man drag. Part of their tragedy is that real-man drag, with its code of inexpressiveness and its macho colors, proves a perfect place to hide. Their camouflage is the same as Joe Buck's, though their contexts couldn't be more different. Joe's suede fringe and cowboy hat were a signal that the codes of Americana had evolved into more complex, multilayered forms of communication. "That cowboy stuff is strictly for fags," Ratso warns a baffled Joe, who hasn't yet noticed that "every Jackie on 42nd Street" dresses just like him. Not until he escapes New York does he remove his hat. Conversely, Ennis's cowboy pose is all about receding into a sea of cowboys, the better not to be murdered for feeling like he does. As years pass, he recedes ever deeper, until he all but disappears.
Together, these two movies, each powerful and mawkish in its own way, bookend nearly 40 years of cinematic attempts to communicate the existence of homosexuality to mainstream audiences. Not the righteousness, not the beauty, but the fact. Not homosexuality as normative; homosexuality as possible. That's the conversation we're still having. As a culture, and indeed as a species, we're still squandering the greatest and most expansive art form ever invented to argue the essential humanity of human beings.
Talk about a regret.