Brokeback Mountain, Hamilton, Art
I know we’re all Hamiltoned out, but please, allow me another word about Hamilton and the power of art to open our eyes to things we would not otherwise have seen. Back in 2005, I was a columnist at The Dallas Morning News. Then as now, when I wrote about same-sex marriage, I defended and advocated for tradition. Brokeback Mountain was then in theaters, and I didn’t want to see it for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t think it would interest me, given the subject matter, and two, the nonstop cheerleading in the media for the movie, and for homosexuality, irritated me.
But I was a columnist who wrote often about cultural politics, and the movie occasioned an important cultural moment, whether I liked it or not. So I felt compelled to see it.
Here is what I wrote about the film in the newspaper, on December 29, 2005:
Seen the gay cowboy movie yet? I have, though I hadn’t planned to because the rapturous reviews made Brokeback Mountain sound like a film that delivered yet another fierce left hook across the jaw of homophobic America. Ho hum.
I’m not interested in propaganda, whether pro-gay or anti-gay, and I get tired of the way the news and entertainment media find it difficult to discuss homosexuality without propagandizing. And some of the loudest conservative voices on gay issues are just about as bad.
What gets lost in the culture-war blitzkrieg over homosexuality are the complex and ambiguous truths that real people live and struggle with. Art that reduces messy humanity to slogans and arguments is not art at all, but sentimentality, kitsch, anti-art – in a word, propaganda.
My friend Victor Morton turned me around. On his “Right-Wing Film Geek” blog, Victor wrote a long, impassioned post that said, in effect, Don’t believe the ‘Brokeback’ hype, from either side! The film is good, not great, Victor argued, but what makes it worthwhile is its fidelity to the tragic truth of its characters, not its usefulness to anybody’s cause.
Intrigued, I found on the Internet a link to the Annie Proulx short story on which the movie is based and was shocked by how good it was, especially at embodying the “concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position here on earth” – Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor’s description of what true artistry does. Though director Ang Lee’s tranquil style fails to capture the daemonic wildness of Ms. Proulx’s version, I came away from the film thinking, this is not for everybody, but it really is a work of art.
Brokeback Mountain is the story of two young cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, who meet in a 1960s summer job tending sheep on the mountain. They fall in love, then upon returning to the world, go their separate ways, marry and start families. A few years later, they resume their intensely sexual affair – visually, this is a rather chaste film – but with terrible consequences for themselves and the wives and children they deceive. The film climaxes violently and tragically, and it’s this that has the critics lauding it as a cinematic cri du coeur for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality.
But Brokeback is not nearly that tidy. True, the men begin their doomed affair in a time and place where homosexuality was viciously suppressed, and so they suffer from social constrictions that make it difficult to master their own fates. But it is also true that both men are overgrown boys who waste their lives searching for something they’ve lost, and which might be irrecoverable. They are boys who refuse to become men, or to be more precise, do not, for various reasons, have the wherewithal to understand how to become men in their bleak situation.
It is impossible to watch this movie and think that all would be well with Jack and Ennis if only we’d legalize gay marriage. It is also impossible to watch this movie and not grieve for them in their suffering, even while raging over the suffering that these poor country kids who grew up unloved cause for their families. As the film grapples with Ennis’ pain, confusion and cruelty, different levels of meaning unspool – social, moral, spiritual and erotic. In the end, Brokeback Mountain is not about the need to normalize homosexuality, or “about” anything other than the tragic human condition.
O’Connor once wrote that you don’t have to have an educated mind to understand good fiction, but you do have to have “at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.” The mystery of the human personality can never be fully plumbed, only explored. To the frustration of ideologues, artists like Annie Proulx and Ang Lee undertake a journey to those depths and return to tell the truth about what they’ve seen – which is not necessarily what any of us wants to hear.
As Ms. O’Connor taught, “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.”
Or read it. Or watch it.
I think that column holds up pretty well. Brokeback Mountain did not change my mind one bit about same-sex marriage, because my views are not based on emotion. What it did was to give me more empathy, to help me to grasp that these things we argue about abstractly are rooted in real lives, and real suffering. (This is something I wish folks on the other side of the debate would consider too.) The movie helped me to understand the cruelty of the closet, and the damage that secrets and lies did to the people who chose or felt compelled to tell them live by them — as well as the damage done to innocent people caught up in the drama (in the movie’s case, the wives of Ennis and Jack). The closet is all but gone, and I’m glad of that, even though I’m an orthodox Christian who holds orthodox Christian convictions about human sexuality, and ideally would like to see them reflected in family law and custom. Brokeback Mountain illuminates better than any polemical argument or piece of sappy agitprop why we are all better off — not just gays and lesbians, but the common good — with the closet consigned to history.
Now, I do not say that to start an argument or even a discussion thread about sexuality (and if you post a comment attempting to do that, I will spike it). I say it to make a point about how serious art challenges us to go deeper into the human experience, and to imagine things that likely never would have occurred to us — including the commonality of our humanity. I almost didn’t see this film because I hated the way the media portrayed it as sentimental and propagandistic. I don’t waste time at movies like that, even if the sentiment and propaganda are designed to appeal to my own beliefs and prejudices. I don’t care to see Brokeback Mountain again, but I came out of that movie changed in ways I didn’t expect, and I’m glad for it. If I had had any reason to think that I was going to get booed in the theater, or be singled out there and lectured, however politely, about my backwards, homophobic views — well, I would never have bothered to go see the thing, because really, who the hell needs that?
I wonder if Hamilton will now be regarded in the same politicized light by people because of the events in the theater on Friday night. If so, and if the musical is as good as critics (including critics on the political and cultural right) have said, that would be a real loss. Art should be allowed to speak for itself, and we should all be given a chance to hear what it says, without anybody yelling in our ear.
UPDATE: This, from the actor, rock musician, and (anti-Trump) liberal activist Steve Van Zandt:
>Completely inappropriate. Theater should be a safe haven for Art to speak. Not the actors. He needs to apologize to Mike Pence @Lin_Manuel
— Stevie Van Zandt (@StevieVanZandt) November 19, 2016
His whole Twitter feed on this subject is well worth reading.