Stories about the human heart and emotion
By Teresa Malcolm, NCR staff writer
Chatting in the kitchen on the third floor of NCR, my coworker, Tara Harris, said the most interesting article she had read about the movie Brokeback Mountain appeared in The New York Review of Books, in which the writer took issue with the chorus of voices calling it universal. It was not universal, the writer evidently contended: It was about two homosexual men.
I immediately started to argue with her -- or rather, with the writer of this article that I myself had not read.
But good art has to be universal, I insisted. Because it says something true about what it is to be human.
Before I got too vehement about it, I admitted that it was not really fair to be disputing the writers point when I didnt know the reasoning behind it, and Tara promised to dig out the article for me.
It was in the Feb. 23 issue, titled An Affair to Remember, by Daniel Mendelsohn. I could readily recognize -- and had, in fact, predicted -- his valid point about the way in which the films marketing played down the gay aspect of the story. I myself had laughed at a TV ad filled with scenes of the leading men with their wives: The movie was so well known by then, I asked, who exactly did the marketing folks think they were fooling?
Critics all over the country, meanwhile, emphasized how the movie was a universal love story, a tragedy of star-crossed lovers -- some even going so far as to question whether the characters could be called homosexuals (a point that strikes me, as it does Mendelsohn, as an absurd stretch to make them more acceptable).
However, Mendelsohn writes that a romantic tragedy of heterosexual lovers from different religious or ethnic groups is social tragedy, but those lovers, however star-crossed, never despise themselves. He says the story of Jack and Ennis in Brokeback Mountain is primarily a psychological tragedy, in which from a young age they were taught to hate their own desires. The movie, he concludes, is not a universal love story, but a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the closet.
It was an interesting analysis of what made their story different from other tragic love stories, but I still balked when I read: To see Brokeback Mountain as a love story, or even as a film about universal human emotions, is to misconstrue it very seriously -- and in so doing inevitably to diminish its real achievement. Because it is about the closet, it cannot be called universal.
My disagreement with Mendelsohn arises from the way I think he takes a rather narrow view of universality. Romeo and Juliet may not have despised themselves. But are closeted gays the only humans who ever experience self-hatred? Surely not -- many people do, whether in fleeting moments or in lifelong, psychologically debilitating ways, for a wide variety of reasons. Thats where the universality comes from: After all, not many of us will be tragic, star-crossed lovers of any kind, but the core emotions of such stories are shared by all human beings.
Roger Eberts was the only review cited by Mendelsohn that I had read, and he quotes Ebert as one of those who had misguidedly placed Ennis and Jacks story among other kinds of forbidden love. But Mendelsohn does not cite the passage in that review that had struck a chord with me -- one that both acknowledges the particularity of Brokeback Mountain and draws out its human themes beyond only a love story:
Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands the individual characters, the more it applies to everyone, Ebert writes. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.
In other words, regret over the life you could have lived is another shared human emotion, one that was given more resonance at the end of Brokeback Mountain by the subtle, slight, but moving hope that those regrets could be a basis for growth. The ending was sad, but not, to me, one of despair.
Mendelsohns summary of critical reaction did expose what seemed a bit of overkill on reminding everyone that a movie about two gay men could be universal. Most other films we would not have been incessantly told this. If a movie is good, then its understood that theres something universal about it, that it reflects something true about the human condition.
Still, it bears remembering that this is what art should be about. Its why stories touch us despite our differences, and across cultures and through centuries.
I was mulling over this column while watching the Academy Awards, where Brokeback Mountain won Oscars for best director, best adapted screenplay and best original score. Then Gavin Hood, director of Tsotsi, the South African film that won the best foreign language Oscar, beautifully summed up what I had been thinking as he accepted his award.
Our stories are the same as your stories, he said. They are about the human heart and emotion.
Teresa Malcolm is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.