Monday, May 22, 2006

In Which The Author Entertains Various Notions

Well, if I was disappointed by Good Night, and Good Luck (which I most definitely was), my faith in modern American cinema was restored by Brokeback Mountain. While nowhere near a "perfect" film, it is perhaps as close as I've seen to be produced in this country for quite some time. Given the extravagant praise I was prepared to be underwhelmed, but I was pleasantly surprised to find a movie that, for once, matched if not exceeded the hype which preceded it.

What faults there were were, it seemed, faults of the source material which could not readily be laid at the filmmakers' feet. For instance, movies that take place over the course of many years have a tendency to feel flabby and aimless in the second and third acts despite what may very well be bravura filmmaking. It's much easier to tell a more expansive story in the context of a novel or a short story. Probably the best example of this is Scorcese's Goodfellas, quite possibly one of the most accomplished examples of mainstream American filmmaking in the last thirty years, but still an imperfect movie that seems to lose a great deal of steam in the second half (about the time Ray Liotta's character goes to prison and the glamour of the organized crime lifestyle begins to recede into something rank and spoiled, so to does a great deal of the momentum built by Scorcese's lusciously controlled camera work fade). But still even given the awkwardness of telling such an expansive story, Brokeback never falls off the rails. Thankfully, they eschewed the use of any kind of captioning to indicate the passage of time -- the "One Year Late" or "May 1974" labels instantly instill a kind of choppy, episodic feel to even the most tightly-coiled narrative. I've also got to give credit to all the filmmakers for using a modicum of subtlety in their storytelling decisions. They choose not to hammer the viewer over the head with repetitive signifiers for selected plot points, choosing instead to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions at many critical junctures. This freedom is not usually a sensation I associate with domestic films, accustomed as they are to the extremely blatant storytelling rhythms of films like Good Night, and Good Luck and, most egregiously, Crash, wherein every single element of plot, character construction and theme is painstakingly laid out with the assumption that every member of the audience is developmentally disabled, and won't understand anything unless it's repeated at least five times. Storytelling (in most instances) is not primarily about plot construction and the establishment of theme, both of these considerations are secondary to characterization: if plot and theme do not arise organically out of characterization, the results are painful to behold. I'm hardly the first person to point this out but it's amazing how many people ostensibly in the business of telling stories (on any given day roughly 95% of the screenwriters working in Hollywood) forget the most essential rules of their craft.

But in any event, one of the questions that stuck in my mind after Brokeback finished was the question of authenticity. Although Brokeback Mountain was very explicitly a movie about gay men and the "gay experience" (whatever that is), it was also made by a primarily non-gay group of filmmakers and actors and intended for a (relatively) mainstream audience, of which it must be assumed by dint of statistics that a majority of the audience is, like myself, decidedly heterosexual. So despite the film's unquestioned quality, I've also come across complaints from the gay community -- muted but still significant -- about the relative authenticity of a so-called "gay movie" produced outside the auspices of the actual gay community (such as that is). Not being a member of said community, I can't comment one way or another on such a conflict, but it is interesting to me, nonetheless.

Obviously, a white actor cannot impersonate a black character (Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain notwithstanding -- and boy, wasn't that a disappointing adaptation?). Since this is no longer the sixteenth century, a man cannot play a woman with a straight face (Dame Edna doesn't count). And although ethnic boundaries are still somewhat elastic in Hollywood, we're mostly past the days when Native Americans and Mexicans were played by anglos in makeup and dark wigs. But being gay is a much more interior aspect of identity than gender (a solid biological distinction in most instances) and race (a flimsy, biologically superfluous concept that is nevertheless quite explicitly labeled for most individuals). However, any actor can pretend to be gay simply by acting. Is it wrong for a straight actor to pretend to be gay? I'm specifically asking the sizable proportion of gay comics fans who I know frequent this blog: in another fifty years, are we going to look back at the gay performances in movies like Brokeback Mountain with the same mixture of disgust and bafflement that we regard white performers from the turn of the previous century who wore blackface?

All of this crosses into the dicey area of "mainstreaming". I've seen many articulate and reasoned complaints on the part of gay figures over the mainstream acceptance of gay culture that we've had in the last few years -- the objections (to my unquestionably limited understanding) being twofold, that programs like Will & Grace and Queer Eye For The Straight Guy will be regarded in the future on the same par as minstrel shows and Amos & Andy; and that any mainstream acceptance of gay culture comes with the cost of diluting or discarding the most important and exclusive attributes of gay culture. Both of these are, I think, perfectly reasonable objections, because to a greater or lesser degree you can see the same forces at work in the history of black and feminist assimilations.

The great strides made in both the black and feminist movements of the twentieth centuries came as a result of far-sighted and courageous pioneers who risked life and limb to embrace notions of social and intellectual equality. But then after a series of initial gains over the course of decades, both movements slowed down and were eventually marginalized by the same culture in which they had more or less successfully assimilated. And, it goes without saying, neither racism or sexism have disappeared from America. True, some of the most egregious examples of prejudice were destroyed, and the greater culture learned to accommodate a great many things that would have seemed unthinkable just a hundred years ago. But at what cost? Martin Luther King Jr. gave way to Louis Farrakhan, Betty Frieden was replaced by Andrea Dworkin -- the ideological core of the movements were polarized after a certain level of societal success, and the political potency of said movements were essentially negated. There are more black faces on television and professional women are no longer completely ostracized, but then you've got gangsta rappers on BET reaffirming white America's worst prejudices about aggressively ignorant urban youth and women of all colors routinely and enthusiastically reduced to the status of meat in the popular culture. Educated, articulate black youths are often stigmatized by the black mainstream (as Chris Rock said, "a book is like kryptonite to a nigga"), and feminists are still caricatured as man-hating militant dykes on network television, the same network television that somehow passes off Sex In The City and the Spice Girls as "feminist statements".

Now, obviously, I'm neither gay nor black nor a woman. (There's a special place in hell reserved for those obnoxiously obsequious men who label themselves "feminists" -- like a white dude giving daps and wearing a kofia, it just doesn't work like that.) My observations on these issues are merely that -- observations -- made by an interested outsider. But it's fascinating to me, because while I do not for a moment adopt the foolish liberal pretense of inclusion in regards to cultural movements in which I cannot by definition participate, I do try to understand that which is mysterious to me. So I'd like to ask -- what's the deal with Brokeback Mountain? Should I feel guilty for liking it? Is it just another product of white-liberal-heterosexual guilt (directed by an Asian expatriate, no less), trying to modify and massage an authentically alien experience into something bowdlerized and non-threatening? In trying to break down social barriers, are we just erecting a new, subtler but no less noxious status quo in regards to the treatment of a supposedly assimilated minority group? And, most delicately, can the desire on the part of some members of said minority group to remain a separate entity create a self-fulfilling prophecy of continued persecution and prejudice -- the desire to retain the unique elements of gay culture contributing to the perpetuation of a "separate but unequal" ghettoization?

These are questions to which I have not the answers.

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