Monday, January 23, 2006

The 'Brokeback' effect

To get a true fix on the battleground where the culture wars are being played out today, you don’t have to go any further than your friendly neighborhood multiplex. Ang Lee’s deceptively understated but emotionally resonant “Brokeback Mountain” has taken point in what James Dobson, the two Pats (Robertson and Buchanan) and the other presumptive generals of what they would surely call “the culture wars.”

But Lee’s film has caught them off guard if not flat-out by surprise; there’s a sense that as “Brokeback” gathers momemtum in the drive toward the Oscars, more than a few of them the usual rock-ribbed conservatives now frantically leafing through their strategy playbooks looking for a way out of a dilemma of identity. Since its release, conservatives have gone out of their way to keep the film, a story of two cowboys and the romantic relationship developing between them – on the margins of respectability and acceptabililty. The right wing is in full cry right now, for at least two reasons:

The first is because of the film’s unexpected penetration into American life. The conservatives had no doubt already conceded some of the cultural high ground to the film’s reception in some quarters. They’d forgone the usual suspect audiences for “Brokeback Mountain,” the coastal cultural centers like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and other liberal enclaves the conservatives have already written off as the charnel houses of Satan.

What has to rankle the conservatives is the way in which “Brokeback Mountain” has broken through, trickled down and burrowed into the broader American consciousness, and done so with a deft touch and lightning speed. It’s broken out of the isolated audiences of the cognoscenti ¬– generally the film scholars and critics and fans on either coast – and burst into the American heartland, become something that people all over America are talking about, whether they’ve seen the film or not.

A host of critics from other publications across the country have come up with hosannahs of their own, independent of whatever the major papers thought. And “Brokeback” generated its popular attention by having the towering nerve to successfully assail the celebrated cowboy esthetic, the foundational Marlboro Man archetype that is one of the country’s most iconic and deeply-held self-images.

That’s buzz that no studio can buy, and no right-wing position paper or appearance on "Meet The Press" can counteract. “Brokeback Mountain” is the film this year with the kind of ineffable buzz that defies conventional marketing schemes (even as it thrives on them) and confounds the political strategy of division and accusation. “Brokeback Mountain” is the New – not just the new (as in that which is so-and-so’s new film or an old and recognizable gem just released on CD or paperback) but something that truly refracts the familiar light of our everyday assumptions, our national mythology, in a way that reveals us to ourselves – and the conservatives aren’t equipped right now to deal with the New.

This leads to the second way in which the conservatives have been effectively outflanked: Because of its relatively broad appeal at different levels, including the box office, “Brokeback’s” success undercuts any right-wing claim that such a film demonstrates fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the studios. The fact that such a successful film has been financed, marketed and distributed by a major studio whose parent is accountable to investors and shareholders is a plain indicator of the studios’ willingness to paint outside the usual comfortable creative lines – and to do it to great effect on the bottom line.

“Brokeback’s” success sends the clear signal that, contrary to many assumptions, the creative forces that made the film have a better sense of the public mood, a better more accurate track of the American psyche, than the conservatives who rail, profane and fight tooth & nail against both the expression of the life experiences in “Brokeback” and the real-life experiences themselves.

In this little pitched battle for public opinion, at least, the conservatives are thus denied the high grounds of American iconography, populist sentiment, and any hope of winning arguments about a company’s fiduciary responsibility by adhering to “American values.”

Truth is, “Brokeback Mountain” has blindsided the conservative politicians like it hit the rest of us. The way in which the film has witnessed its steadily increasing audience is problematic to those who would frustrate creation of a national community as indifferent to sexual orientation as it tries to be to race and gender.

Sometimes in the culture, a profound shift happens. And sometimes when that seismic shift happens, it’s not because of a Titanic Moment. Sometimes, it’s smaller. It’s often quieter, less big-sky bombastic than the advertisement campaign mounted to promote it.

It can be the kind of motion picture in which the actors are the best special effects, as great actors usually are. It can be a story of two lonely wounded people striving to survive and thrive in a brittle and indifferent world, people very like us in a world very like our own. And in its understatement, that story can shake the rafters of the national complacency, and rattle the walls of our understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Image credit: Focus Features


  1. Exceptionally written and extremely insightful!

  2. Well written and powerful review. Your optimism is infectious, despite my tendency to be the cup-half-empty type. Rock on.

    (And come visit my blog and let me know what you think of my review of the film.)


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