Thursday, December 15, 2005

Wanted: New Worry Stone

Caution: Mild spoilers ahead, though no endings are given away.

Once more into the breach!

Since there's a darn good chance I will never voluntarily see the film of Brokeback Mountain, which just got was awarded best film by Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle in what looks like another The Hours kinda critical clusterfandango, I took the opportunity to read the original short story by Annie Proulx when provided a link to it (which is now broken, so I reposted it on my vanity site). I'm willing to commit half an hour to something I'm probably going to dislike (fairly or not) in the comfort of my living room, as opposed to two squirming hours in a darkened theatre.

Well, it left me ambivalent.

I thought the language/style was replete with somewhat forced, reheated Hemingway/Ring Lardner/Larry McMurtry cowpoke cliches, though ultimately it almost achieves the cowboy story tone it's aiming for. Still, the inflections and the clipped sentences are troweled on a little thick. I've met these guys - Wyoming and generally Midwestern cowboys - and their brogue just ain't that thick, and neither are they. It really smacked of someone who was raised and educated on the East Coast and relocated to Wyoming, which accurately describes Ms. Proulx (pronounced "Proo").

The sheer obtuseness of the characters is a common trope of people outside the Midwest trying to depict Midwesterners. She says years of observation informed the story, and I don't doubt that, but ask any astronomer about accurate observation and they'll tell you that it's crucial that first and foremost you're looking at the right part of the sky. These kind of guys aren't the type to gas on about their feelings, even after a few whiskies, but that shouldn't be confused with stupidity or a lack of self-awareness. Closer to the truth is this observation by Kathleen Norris in Dakota: A Spiritual Geography: "On the plains ... we also treasure our world-champion slow talkers, people who speak as if God has given them only so many words to use in a lifetime, and having said them they will die."

The story itself attempts to be what the press packages for the movie claim it is: Just a sweeping romance. And, y'know, it gets close after the initial shock, I'll admit. You do get a sense of the yearning and loss these two guys feel, so on that level, the story succeeds.

The problem I have with the story, besides the implied IQ of the characters, is that the two seem surprised by their sexuality. I don't know a single gay person who wasn't aware they were gay from at least the onset of puberty on. To be SURPRISED! by that fact strikes me as specious. They aren't aware of this until, as it's phrased in the story, "Jack seized [Ennis'] left hand and brought it to his erect cock."

This abrupt left-hand turn with no signal from the boredom of sheep herding into a "Penthouse" letter is jarring in a way I'm not sure the author intended. In this way she misses the lessons of McMurtry (who wrote the screenplay for the movie, btw), Irving, and the like who can segue straight into a carnal scene and not make you feel as though a homeless person suddenly opened his trenchcoat to expose his nakedness in your general direction during a casual walk through the park.

The final aftertaste was that it felt contrived. And I couldn't put my finger on it until I read this quote in the interview on the story on Proulx's site:
Where did the story come from?
I write almost exclusively about rural North America and rural social situations. Brokeback began as an examination of country homophobia in the land of the Great Pure Noble Cowboy. Years of accumulated observation went into the story.

So, Lileks was right: This is literary spinach. (Not to disparage spinach, a fine and noble vegetable.)

Gosh, every single piece of fiction I've ever read where the author had an agenda, a lesson, a moral, it just falls flat and leaves an aftertaste that's akin to skunked beer.

This is just a sloppy second-guess, but perhaps the misfire is that Proulx teed-off with the sex and not the love. Her agenda was primarily to bitch-slap the reader with homophobia, and only secondarily to tell a love story.

Why didn't they at least display affection before this moment? One of the themes of the story is these guys aren't very articulate, so they wouldn't be shouting sonnets at one another across the valleys. But they could have touched, or sat closely to each other, or leaned in and whispered - you know, basic flirting. A love story typically emphasizes that, but this goes from sheep, to a shot of porn - doggie-style no less (or would that be sheep-style given the context?) - and them caroms into the supposed love. (And here I'm breaking Ebert's rule, or is it Siskel's?, where I'm not critiquing the story as written, but offering how I think it could have been better. My bad. Apologies to Ms. Proulx.)

So the main engine of the story is not really about a deep, abiding love. The deep, abiding love is tacked on somewhat after the fact to get past the fact that the author used a tactic much like the late, great Buddy Hackett's dirtiest joke where he would pretend to offer a little old lady in the audience a joke she could tell at the bridge club, and then say, (and I quote): "These two fags was fucking a dead alligator..." (And the use of the word "fags" was intentionally self-aware critique of using it as a slur and ahead of its time, like most of Hackett's stuff). It killed in the clubs (and usually nearly killed the poor little blue-haired victim), and it works as a joke, but not the beginning of a love story.

So stylistically Brokeback Mountain is close enough that we'll call it horseshoes and say Proulx pulled off (har har) the writing side of it, but she spliffed in making the characters as dumb as sheep, and then trotted them out for a cheapened morality play, denying them any respect as people because she made them too stupid, and as lovers because they were blindsided by boners before any sense of mutual affection was apparent (to us at least).

On a final note about the story, and please forgive me as I temporarily lapse into an egregious postmodern/deconstructionist analysis of the names Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar, but "Ennis" is awful close to "penis." Babelfish says that "del Mar" is Spanish for "of the sea," like a sailor. Is this yet another "40 men go down but 20 couples come back up" Navy joke? "Penis of the sea." Hmmm. Thanks to instructions found on the lid of every disposable drink container, the words "twist off" are forever linked in word association for anyone who understands English, and you don't really need that Freudian game to replace Jack's last name with "off." Was Proulx playing word games with their names, again sorta at their expense? <loony toons voice>Mmmmmmm could be<loony toons voice>.

While doing research for this post, I came across Roger Ebert's recent interview with Ang Lee. This quote of Mr. Lee's took me aback:
"This story is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove in everything but its sexuality. I discussed this with McMurtry, who wrote the screenplay. Lonesome Dove was ripe for a homosexual love story. It took a foreigner like me or a woman like Annie to tip that over and spill it out and get rid of the metaphor and just see it. It's just there."

Uh ... no it's not. <Quavering Dan Quail Voice>I know Lonesome Dove, and sir, you are no Lonesome Dove</Quavering Dan Quail Voice>

One of the issues that seems to be confusing to some gays is that straight men (and women) can have deep love for each other without it ever being remotely sexual. I've seen a LOT of the gay friends have trouble grasping that, and it makes sense. As Billy Crystal's character maintains in When Harry Met Sally, men and women can't be friends without the issue of sex coming up eventually, which I agree is more or less true. In my entire life, I've had ONE female friend where I had no passing interest in her sexually, and she was a hottie, too. I suspect it's the same for some gays, and perhaps they can't fathom that heterosexuals can love someone of their own gender deeply and not have any eros attached to it. I think Lee is making that same mistaken assumption.

Finally, before accusing me of yet another anti-gay rant, I wrote up my views on the topic, which you can read here, if you're interested. I'll invoke the typical Lileks warning in that if such things are going to upset you, bore you, or otherwise cramp your happy, I suggest that you skip it altogether.

Apparently the movie does a better job at portraying the relationship as a universal love story. Which, you might be surprised to learn after reading my posts on the topic, I think is great. That was my primary criticism of the short story. If I were to hazard a guess, I'd bet McMurtry's involvement helped a lot.


Sya said...

I didn't think very much of the story either when I first read it a couple years ago. It was very, I don't know, blah. No "ah" moments, no enlightenment, nada. And when I read rumors that they were going to make it into a movie--well, what point is there except the supposed shock value?

And didn't The New Yorker recently reprint the story as well? I found the story on Google cache so you didn't have to go through all the trouble of putting it on your own site...

Anonymous said...

Yahm wrote: "Uh ... no it's not. *Quavering Dan Quail Voice*I know Lonesome Dove, and sir, you are no Lonesome Dove*/Quavering Dan Quail Voice*"

Actually, that was Lloyd Bentsen taking down Dan Quayle, who had attempted to compare himself with JFK.

OK, I just dated myself . . . .

Yahmdallah said...

Sya: Yeah, I snagged it from the cache. How long does that stay around though? And I found it hard to hunt down, so I just wanted to make it a click rather than a search.

Anon: In addition to that, I thought Gore even said that during a debate. Oh well, at least the reference did its job.

flushgard said...

"...Her agenda was primarily to bitch-slap the reader with homophobia..." Well, what's wrong with that? Sounds good to me. LOL