Monday, February 27, 2006


'Bound' And 'Brokeback Mountain': Critical Acceptance Of 'Gay Cinema'

Matt asked me to do a piece on why the Wachowski's went from 'Bound' to 'The Matrix.' I'm not going to, mostly because he has already written an immense, scholarly essay on 'The Matrix' that is far more useful than anything I could say. His conclusion;

'The Matrix is certainly not intelligible: it simply pretends to be. What it is is incoherent and using spectacular effects and filmic devices is the most significant way in which it pretends not to be.'

seems to me a fair summation of everything I dislike about 'The Matrix.' However, his request did give me a chance to dig out 'Bound' again, and I'm very thankful for that.

The reason it's worth re-visiting that piece is the forthcoming Oscars ceremony, in which 'Brokeback Mountain' is likely to win the Best Picture prize.

'Brokeback Mountain' was packaged to the press as a 'gay cowboy movie.' After a while, that tag became somewhat unpalatable, and everyone involved, from the director to the distributors, tried to step away from it. So, at the Bafta's last weekend, the producer James Schamus said:

"It's not a gay cowboy movie - it's a universal tale of gay shepherds!"

Is it? I don't understand this at all - both of the lead characters have on-screen sex with their wives, and if they are meant to be looking disgusted at this, as if they're being forced into it, then they aren't doing a very good job. So what we have is a bi-sexual shepherds-in-doomed-romance story.

The reason all this is important is this that Brokeback Mountain has been mostly viewed as a real break from traditional, heterosexual Hollywood narratives, as an essentially 'brave' endeavour. Yet a closer look at the film reveals it to be rather more conservative than most critics claim.

In the film, the two leads have sex and fall in love in what we are led to believe is a sort of perfect, magical season on top of the mountain. For the rest of their lives, they try to re-create that magic, forging a life apart from their main ones. However, at no point after that first time is their love for each other ever more than a burden. Not only, in fact, is it a burden to them, but to their wives and families too - in the film's most powerful scene, Jake Gyllenhaal's wife, played with discreet suffering by Michelle Williams, catches sight of the two fellas making out. It's the start of the process that sets about destroying the lives of everyone involved.

By the end of the film, the love affair has left nothing but a trail of destruction behind it. In this narrative, homosexuality goes hand in hand with emotional immaturity - Ennis and Jack reject the adult world constantly in a vain attempt to re-capture a lost youth. I should point out that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. In almost all cinematic love affairs, love blossoms in a fashion as innocent as possible. The participants almost never want to leave this stage - why should Jack and Ennis? Well, the problem is that it is hard to accept the narrative as particularly 'trangressive' if it shows its lads-in-love leads as incapable of emotional management of their situation.

Perhaps the best review of the film I've read comes from the conservative film critic Mark Steyn. He asks a rather pertinent question:

If it’s such a “bold” “courageous” “ground-breaking” film, isn’t it a little ridiculous that a gay male love story has Miss Williams and Miss Hathaway both baring their breasts with straight abandon while Messrs Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s penises remain discreetly tucked away?'

This is a surprisingly good point - we see here why the film actually conforms to some rather traditional Hollywood conventions. It's interesting that throughout the film we scarcely see any evidence of love between the two men. We see plenty of their dissatisfaction with the rest of their lives, for sure, but we don't really see too much evidence of a strong emotional, rather than sexual bond between them. So we have a doomed romance story, that plays for the ladies because of its strong-but-silent male leads and plays for the lads because of its willingness to cater to heterosexual desires for female nudity.

So is any of this a bad thing? Well, it depends on your perspective. Personally, I don't believe the film has to be transgressive at all - in fact, I shan't be upset if it does win Best Picture, because to be honest I enjoyed it very much. In truth, 'Brokeback Mountain' is a film damaged by its critical adoration far more than by anything specifically 'wrong' with it.

Ride 'im cowboy.

This brings us neatly to 'Bound.' 'Bound' was released a decade ago now, and it still remains the most widely accepted piece of outright lesbian cinema that has ever been made.

It's simple tale of a decorator who falls in love with a Mafia moll and their attempt to defraud the Mafia out of a large sum of money makes for an exciting thriller - never frightening, it's always tense. More importantly, it comes far closer to being actually radical. For a start, there are no positive male characters in the film. Of course, it's always easy to do this when you're dealing with criminals; if Violet and Corky, it's protagonists, were busy defrauding the corner shop, you might feel considerably less sympathy. 'The business' is far from being like any other business. Still, the position the viewer is put in, that of hoping for an escape for the lovers, with the real possibility that it could be realised, is a mile away from the certain doom that Jack and Ennis face. That's down to the way society works, and the changes that happened between the sixties and the nineties, but it's accompanied by an emotional maturity that is absent from the more recent work.

What really set 'Bound' apart at the time was its sex scene. That scene was choreographed by Susie Bright, who talks about it at length here and here. In the latter of those - in the former you can see the scene - she sets out some of the philosophy behind how the scene was shot, and it has a certain relevance to what I was talking about earlier:

'I don't know how many of you have seen the catalog of lesbian films over the years. Most of them, like 'Personal Best', or 'Desert Hearts', concern a tender soming-out story, shyly romantic, erotically timid. I'm known to be shy and sentimental myself, but lesbian life does not begin and end with baby powder foreplay.'

The result is that the relationship between the two lovers is far more certain, and far more dangerous to the traditional Hollywood role for homosexual relationships, than is ever seen in 'Brokeback Mountain.' One way that can be seen is in the different way the relevant sex scenes are shot. In 'Bound', it is shot with confidence, with a particular visual style - that is incidentally rather beautiful in its own right - whereas in 'Brokeback Mountain', the sex is something fumbling, something unsure, that starts suddenly and ends even more so. You could choose to lay the blame for this on culture - western societies are always happier to see lesbian sex than they are gay, to which there is often an adolescent 'ooh, that's icky' response. Still, if 'Brokeback Mountain' were to live up to the critical claims, it would challenge that more effectively by a more confident sexual display.

Look! Jennifer Tilly signed my blog!

Now, on to a slightly different matter. My DVD copy of 'Bound' states in big letters at the top 'The Full Uncut Version.' Yet it was never censored - this seems a rather shabby and desperate trick on behalf of the distributors to me. It's also worth noting the comparative paucity of DVD extras. The best deal I have had on any DVD recently is an offer in HMV for 'Black Hawk Down' at only £6.99. This is for a three disc special edition, with thirteen featurettes, two documentaries, three interviews, and three separate audio commentaries, amongst many other goodies. For DVD extra lovers like me, this is gold dust, and I'm sure it won't last for ever.

Now is as good a time as ever to catch those wacky Americans and their African misadventures.

Gay Cowboys eating Pudding....
Great post - many thanks for your comments about my essay too. (I did love writing it...)

I would agree in regards to the non-progressive nature of Brokeback - we've had gay characters in cinema for decades. Not sure why everyone seems to have forgotten that. And while they're not shown as 'freaks' - as gay-coded characters often were - they're shown as emotionally crippled, as you say. Aren't we over gay people as being cursed with a tragic desire they cannot fulfil? And the breasts were such a sop to the guys dragged there by their girlfriends.

Your comparison is espeically good because the Wachowski's tend to have a great control of their films aesthetics. I found Brokeback visually very underwhelming.

It was more about the spectacle of handsome heteros pretending to be gay. Wow!
Steve - apropos your plug for Black Hawk Down I have two questions: As one fellow DVD fetishist to another be honest - do you ever watch the special features?
Did you ever do the Amazon vocuher scam?
I try to watch as many as I can, certainly for the films I really like. I have to confess, I haven't sat through the Black Hawk Down ones yet, I'm just presuming that in all that lot there must be some gems.

I like director's commentaries the most, and my absolute favourite is Alexander Payne's for 'Election.' I can't even properly explain why - he just talks about the film in an entirely accessible and enjoyable way.

I have to confess to not knowing what the Amazon voucher scam is.
Don't know what the Amazon Scam is? Well, now you do.
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