Saturday, February 25, 2006

After Brokeback

I have seen Brokeback Mountain three times and wept each time. I have read the short story and the screenplay and wept at each. I guess that makes me a weeper.

Having seen the movie when it first came out, I wanted to write about it but found myself inarticulate in describing why the film is so powerful to me. A friend asked, isn’t that inability to speak about what is important one of the points of the film?

For me the story speaks about our American Puritan ethic of denial. Rather than allowing himself to deal with “this thing that takes ahold of us,” Ennis denies it, refuses to name it, hides it away from view, eventually mounting it as a shrine to what he has lost. For a love story, it’s amazing that love is never mentioned.

Annie Proulx in Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay says that the story is really about destructive rural homophobia. [130] Published first in The New Yorker in October 1997, the “gay cowboys” story includes the possible hate-murder of Jack, which in turn eeirily foreshadowed the brutal October 1998 murder of Wyoming student Matthew Shepherd, something Proulx talks about in her essay “Getting Movied.”

From 1997 to 2004, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana wrote the screenplay, fleshing out the characters of the wives and children, and spent almost seven years trying to get it into production.

It’s interesting to watch the “Brokeback” phenomena grow and take on a life of its own. According to LOGO, “Brokeback” has become synonymous to “gay” (as in “that’s so Brokeback”). One site,, has a series of videos either parodying the film—as in Brokeback to the Future—or ones using footage from the film. One of the most touching is one using footage but substituting Garth Brooks’ “Shameless.” It offers an interesting perspective of both.

sepia shirts

Last week the two shirts that were major symbols in the film were sold at auction for $101,100.51. The buyer referred to them as “the ruby slippers of our time.”

The shirts are perhaps one of the most potent symbols of the story/film and a friend who has seen the movie twice surprised me by not remembering them.

In the story, Annie Proulx allows Ennis to find the shirts, realizing first that it is Jack’s old shirt with Ennis’ blood on it, and then in the next paragraph that his own plaid shirt that he thought he’d lost is carefully worked down inside Jack’s sleeves.

…Stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Moutain on which nothing was left but what he held in his hands. [26]

Later, beside a postcard he gets of Brokeback Mountain, he drives a nail in a corner of his trailer and on it hangs the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. [27]

What I find fascinating is seeing how the symbol was reworked by the screenwriters:

And there, on the back of the closet door, WE SEE THE SHIRTS, on a wire hangar suspended from a nail, and next to them, a postcard of Brokeback Mountain, tacked onto the door. He has taken his shirt from inside of JACK’S, and has carefully tucked JACK’S shirt down inside his own.

He snaps the top button of one of the shirts. [97]

When Jack takes the shirt, he hides Ennis inside his shirt, just as he hides him inside himself… and in the film, we see that Ennis has finally understood and done the same. He says, “Jack, I swear,” but as Annie Proulx writes in the short story, “ though Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was himself not the swearing kind.”

Whether the film will win the Academy Award next Sunday as Best Picture, it has already won that title from the New York Film Critics Circle, British Academy Film Awards, and Directors Guild of American Awards. It has already etched itself into my life and my experience. For me, it was the best picture I saw last year.

Bright Lights Film Journal offers two contrasting articles on Brokeback Mountain:

John Scagliotti offers an interesting perspective from a gay man's viewpoint in Why There Are No Real Gay Men in "Brokeback Mountain."

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Reading List

The following is a partial list of some of the books I have read since last summer.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Appendicitis at 62

One friend writes, "You're soon going to run out of organs to be operated on just to miss school."

Tuesday night I started the hour-long drive from school to home feeling fine. About half-way home I began feeling sick to my stomach--which for me usually indicates abdomen pain. I've had a couple of bouts during this school year where I thought I'd been hit with food poisoning, spent a day in bed and finally felt better within two days. I asked the nurse at school if it could be appendicitis and she assured me if it was it wouldn't go away. Plus we all know that's something young people get--not old.

Well, back to Tuesday. I came home, went to bed and hoped that I could sleep off whatever I was feeling. About an hour later I was hit by a 10 pain in my lower right abdomen. I couldn't find a comfortable position and ended up lying face down on the bathroom floor tiles hoping it would pass. I wanted to vomit, but didn't feel like I had the energy to get up. After about 20 minutes I suddenly had this feeling that since I live alone, I didn't want people to find me on my bathroom floor. By that point the pain had gone to about 9 and I was able to get dressed and walk out to my car. I drove to my friends Vic and Janet and asked Janet to drive me to the hospital--I didn't want to be alone or would have taken myself there.

We sat in the emergency room waiting room and then the ER from 8:00 p.m. until 3:40 a.m. when they finally decided it was indeed appendicitis. The operation showed that the appendix had perforated. (Thoughts of people dying from peritonitis flashed through my head, but I decided to trust modern Science and God.)

Three days later I'm walking around, changing my own dressings and hoping that it all will heal quickly.

My reason for writing this is to remind you that if you have a pain in your lower right abdomen and it's nowhere else but there and it reaches a 10 in pain... you just may have appendicitis. I'm proof it can go away and come back, but if it had ruptured the other two times, I may not have been so lucky.

"The New World": just another world of lies

The picture at left is based on an engraving which had been made from a sketch taken from life in 1616 of the 19 year old Indian princess by Simon Van de Passe, published by Captain John Smith in 1624.

As I got up to leave the theatre showing The New World, an old man turned to his wife and said, "So whose story was that supposed to be?" "Pocahontas," explained the woman. "Really? Is that what really happened to her?" "I guess, but you know Hollywood."

In many ways the new film is as much fantasy as Disney's cartoon version. "Let's make a love story of these two people... Forget the facts--love stories sell," I can imagine some pitchman saying to the money men.

So change the facts they did. The first and most important one is that according to Camilla Townsend in Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004) , Pocahontas was only 10 years old (!!) when she was supposed to have saved the life of Captain John Smith. And that famous life saving moment may not have actually happened since it only appeared in Smith's reinvention and much later retelling of his own history in the Virginia colony of Jamestown--eight years after Pochantos' death.

The real story of Pocahontas is fairly simple. At around 10 she meets Captain Smith. They spent some time together and she helps him learn her language and she his. Later when he writes about her with erotic undertones, he changes her age to 15. Her name means "Mischief" and is a child's name--not what she considers her real name (Matoaka). She loves to do cartwheels and challenges the English boys to compete with her. She also becomes for two years a favorite of the Jamestown settlers.

Around the age of 15 Pocahontas marries for the first time an Indian warrior named Kokoom, who disappears from her life within a couple of years. She is taken prisoner by the English who plan to use her as a hostage against her father. She is converted to Christianity, baptized Rebecca, and marries an English widower named John Rolfe. [Rolfe had married an Englishwoman and together they were shipwrecked near Bermuda as they came to Virginia. Shakespeare uses that shipwreck as the basis for his The Tempest.] Together they become farmers of tobacco and have one son named Thomas. When Thomas is only around 1, the Rolfes go on a business trip to London, bringing along several of Pocahontas' people. There she is a social success, but she succumbs to the British germs and eventually dies as they start their journey home. John has to leave Thomas in England and never sees him again. John marries another Englishwoman and has a daughter. After his death, Thomas comes to America and inherits a great deal of property.

There is a meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith during the visit to London, but during it she berates him for having abandoned promises he had made to her father. Certainly it was not a bittersweet love farewell.

The filmmakers achieved very interesting historical mise-en-scene, but the story becomes a rather Roussean concept of "let's run in the forest with the naturals and find Paradise... but I'm not worth Paradise... etc." Colin Farrell has generally been an interesting actor (although he was absolutely awful in Stone's Alexander), but he progresses into his nature scenes, as he gives up the armor for beefcake tattoos, he attains the charisma needed for this sexual adventurer. (Block out of your mind that the girl he's seducing is only 10 in real life.)

The real knockout of the film, however, is Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pochantos. She is eloquent in her silences and speaks volumes with her eyes and gestures. Every scene with her takes life and succeeds. As a story of love lost, moving on, and letting the past go, she reminds me of Ennis in "Brokeback." She, for me, is worth the price of admission. The film itself is overlong and at times grates, but Kilcher redeems it.

So if a film successfully reproduces the look of the period but is essentially based on lies, how can one accept the veracity of any of it?