The sermon on the mountain

spiked-film: Artistically, Brokeback Mountain is quite a good film. Socially, it sucks.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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I know, spiked has already reviewed Brokeback Mountain, the film about two cowboys who fall for each other while herding sheep in Wyoming in the 1960s. Nancy McDermott gave it the thumbs-up in an article published here. But since then, and in the run-up to Sunday’s Oscars – where it is nominated for Best Actor, Supporting Actor, Director and Film – we have been told again and again that Brokeback Mountain is as much a social comment as it is a piece of art. Picking up his BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor last month, Jake Gyllenhaal (who plays Jack Twist) declared that the film ‘means more to me socially than it does artistically’ (1). So here’s a follow-up review, of Brokeback’s social rather than artistic qualities. And on this front, it gets a thumbs-down.

What do Gyllenhaal and others mean when they say the film is important socially? They’re not talking about its depiction of US society in the 60s and 70s, which is fleeting and narrow. Most of the action takes place in the Mid-West and the love affair unfolds in isolation on and around the desolate Brokeback Mountain; in many ways, the film is set outside of society. Rather, they are talking about its social impact now, and their hopes that the movie will change ‘social attitudes’ among the apparently gay-unfriendly or even homophobic masses. Singing the praises of Brokeback Mountain has become a shortcut to demonstrating your superiority over a certain class of people. What they really mean is that this film means more to them as an effort in social engineering than it does as an artistic endeavour.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, one columnist has started using the phrase ‘Brokeback phobia’, rather than homophobia, to describe straight men who are refusing to see the film. He says many of America’s straight men, even the ‘progressive’ ones who ‘support same-sex marriage and invite their gay co-workers to parties’, cannot seem to ‘get over their insecurities and take those last few steps to see this landmark film’. Apparently they are ‘under a spell, reinforced by years of conflicting televised gay stereotypes and manly cowboy imagery’ (although, ‘considering that most of us were brought up in an era of intolerance [and] fearmongering, it’s miraculous that you guys aren’t even more screwed up in the head’, he says, generously). He reckons that seeing Brokeback Mountain might sort the straights out. ‘Your skittishness over this movie has a lot to do with the degree to which society has failed you. But there is still some good in your heart…. [S]eeing a movie about two gay men could make you feel like an even bigger man.’ (2)

Notice how an individual’s ‘progressiveness’ is judged by his attitudes to gay marriage and gay co-workers, and how his unwillingness to see Brokeback Mountain is put down to some kind of brainwashing. This captures an inherent snobbery in much of the discussion about Brokeback Mountain: if you’re a good, nice, sensitive liberal you will see the movie (as Sunday Times columnist Andrew Sullivan says, ‘Blue state liberals felt it some kind of social duty to see the film’); if you’re a bad, insensitive, probably Bush-supporting conservative you will fail to see the movie. Brokeback-philes are depicted as open-minded and possessed of free will; Brokeback-phobes are said to be regimented in their thought processes (‘under a spell’) and unwilling to try new experiences.

This echoes the snobbish discussion about Bush-supporters during and after the Presidential elections in 2004, when one well-known Democrat-leaning commentator declared that ‘thanks to the Bush campaign’s unremitting fear-mongering, millions of voters are reacting not with their linear and logical left brain but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain…’ (3). Now, some of these same liberals seem to hope that Brokeback Mountain will snap these lizards out of their narrow thought patterns. I don’t know what is more sad: their depiction of their fellow Americans as animal-like automatons, or their current reliance on what is essentially a date movie to do their dirty work for them. Probably the latter.

It was widely assumed – by both liberal and conservative commentators – that Brokeback Mountain would bomb in America’s generally Republican ‘red states’. A couple of months ago Charles Krauthammer, a columnist with the Washington Post, predicted that, come Oscar night, ‘Brokeback Mountain will have been seen in the theatres by 18 people – but the right 18 – and will win the Academy Award’ (4). A journalist on one liberal website said: ‘I’m highly sceptical that a movie about gay cowboys, however good, will find a large mainstream audience. I’ll go see it….’ (5) So even before it was properly released there were predictions that the film would expose the fault lines between America’s progressives and backwards – ie, between those who are gay-friendly and those who are less so.

In fact, the film has been a box-office success, including in those apparently homophobic red states. Of all the Oscar nominees for Best Film it has made the biggest domestic grosses (partly because, as has been widely commented on, the five nominees this year are all small ‘issues’-based movies), and according to Variety magazine some of Brokeback’s strongest audiences have been in Tulsa, Oklahoma, El Paso, Texas, Des Moines, Iowa and Lubbock, Texas (6).

Having had their predictions of failure down South confounded, some now hope that Brokeback will get inside the brains of those red state-dwellers and alter them for the better. A columnist for the online magazine Slate writes about the ‘Brokeback breakout meme’ – the idea that the film is breaking through in southern states and actually affecting the ‘meme’ and changing how people think and behave (7). As one writer points out, ‘“Meme” refers to a cultural copying unit that hops from brain to brain without much thought or any at all’ (8) – in short, it’s hoped that Brokeback’s message will spread, virus-like, through the red states. Writing under the headline ‘Why I believe in the Brokeback breakout meme’, a New York writer living in a rural red state, where he watched Brokeback Mountain, described how he was ‘overcome with pride as I looked around at those Red State strangers who are now my neighbours and friends and realised the audience had been won over’ (9). Inhabitants of the red states are discussed as if they are from another planet, slowly but surely being tuned into to ‘our’ (ie, Democrat-supporting liberal’s) way of thinking courtesy of the power of Brokeback Mountain.

Other commentators see the success of the film, both at the box office and in terms of awards nominations, as some kind of sweet revenge on the Bush administration and those who voted for it. In the Guardian, Bush critic and film writer John Patterson said: ‘After the most homophobic Presidential elections in US history, it warms the heart to note that we’re about to get the Gayest Oscars Ever.’ Bush might have won the White House, but at least liberal cinema-goers can watch as Brokeback Mountain wins (perhaps) the Best Film Oscar. ‘What’s most amusing’, says Patterson, ‘is that the gay-themed movie actually [takes] homosexuality directly into the red states….’ (10)

The discussion of Brokeback Mountain, its social rather than artistic impact, shows how accusations of homophobia are used to bash the masses these days for what are presumed to be their incorrect attitudes. The movie is praised by liberal commentators as some kind of public education film that can change minds and behaviour, kind of like those old black-and-white films about sexual intercourse that showed in US movie-houses in the 1940s and 50s. Get a grip. It’s only a film, and not even a great one (a good one, yes, but not Ang Lee’s finest). If Brokeback Mountain wins Best Film on Sunday, it is likely to be for its presumed social impact (the fact that it made Bush-battered liberals feel good about themselves) more than for its artistic merit.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:
In spiked-film last week: Graham Barnfield on Le Temps Qui Reste.

(1) ‘Brokeback’ wins BAFTA best picture, CNN, 20 February 2006

(2) Tips for getting over ‘Brokeback’ hump, San Francisco Chronicle, 5 February 2006

(3) Appealing to our lizard brains, Arianna Online, 13 October 2004

(4) Gay cowboys embraced by redneck country, Sunday Times, 26 February 2006

(5) Gay cowboys embraced by redneck country, Sunday Times, 26 February 2006

(6) Gay cowboys embraced by redneck country, Sunday Times, 26 February 2006

(7) Why I believe in the Brokeback breakout meme, A Typical Joe, 13 February 2006

(8) Attack of the memes,, 20 February 2006

(9) Why I believe in the Brokeback breakout meme, A Typical Joe, 13 February 2006

(10) The pink vote, Guardian, 24 February 2006

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