Saturday, February 17, 2007


Dear Tom,

...thank you for your Brokeback piece. I have been meaning to write one myself, and never seem to get around to it — though that may have more to do with my leeriness at taking yet another position that irritates people than with anything else. My cross at the moment, and it is sure to change with time, is that I feel at home neither "here" nor "there" and so the great gray area that included Jack and Ennis was what spoke to me. The film blew me away; I was in the middle of trying to decide what I could and could not do, myself, as all the careful categories I had maintained for so many years had crumbled to dust in my hands. As it sometimes seems just about everything does these days.

At first blush, I would say that the tragedy and devastation in Brokeback and in Romeo and Juliet are fundamentally different. Romeo and Juliet are separated by external circumstances but remain true to each other. In Brokeback, it is Ennis’ rejection of Jack that is the tragedy, and which comes back to haunt him, realizing as he does that was where happiness lay for him, once it is too late. Jack’s death is almost incidental in comparison [I said "almost"] and surely has something to do with that rejection. In the mode of Julius Caesar really wanting to be titled Brutus, Brokeback could well be titled The Tragedy of Ennis, Prince of Montana, because it is within Ennis that the struggle, defeat and regret take place. Ennis chose not to take the risk that Jack took, and he is left alive but without what he then realizes gave his life ultimate meaning — it had cost him his family long before.

I suppose there is counter-argument in that he is willing to do for his daughter’s wedding what he was not willing to do for Jack, but I’m not sure that it’s really witness for the defense. Life going on does not mean that tragedy has not taken place. Ennis going to the wedding is a lot like the Montagues and Capulets foreswearing violence... It’s a way of holding onto what remains, of not letting the tragedy have the final say. So maybe Ennis speaks for the realities of the world; they are bound to set tragedy in motion, though Jack was certainly a train-wreck looking for a place to happen, all on his own. Even their marriages seem fundamentally different, to me. Ennis’ wife is also one of the main players, to my mind, and also a great performance. So the DelMars are the Capulets, in comparison to whom the Texans hardly register, except to show how Jack eventually hits the slippery slope.

Well, maybe I just identify with Ennis’ character, or wish I were Heath Ledger [who wouldn’t?], or fell for Jake Gyllenhall myself. When I was young and stupid, as opposed to old and stupid, and last did Romeo and Juliet — spear carrying at one of my last acting gigs — the guy who played Capulet took me to task for a drawing of Capulet with Juliet dead in his arms. [He was my lover that summer, which is probably the real reason I drew it, but that, as they say, is a different story.] But it probably as clear to the community of scholars as it is to me that the Montagues play no role at all in the story beyond convenience: it’s the story of Juliet, the Tragedy of Juliet, Princess of Verona, caught like so many opera heroines between her father and her lover. [One of the few things I loved about Miss Saigon was the authors’ recognition that the conflict could be between the heroine’s lover and her child.] Why do fathers never realize that the conflict can only be decided against them, one way or the other?

Let me remember this when push comes to shove...

I think it is dangerous to make too much of how "nothing has changed." Much has changed. The screenplay certainly wants us to make that connection and hold it, or we would not be given such an indelible impression of what Ennis saw as a boy that makes him unable to go with Jack. He is shown to be right, in the short run, which we are meant to transpose to our time. Now I admit I’m living in the Northeast, and in the Bay State, no less, so the world I see, the worlds I have left and entered are not everyone’s, are not the whole story. But I think things have changed, have changed fundamentally.

A serious if slim majority of Americans are for giving gay couples at least the rights of marriage if not the name, and even W has gone on record somewhere as being for the civil rights of couples as recognized in civil unions. Surely federal recognition of rights and privileges is the REAL issue; but then, I wish the marriage equality activists would choose a battle they have a hope of winning, and just fight to get all states to have to recognize those rights. There is a battle they/we could win. As it is, I feel like I am watching someone insist on driving off a cliff. I hope that doesn’t offend you; I have watched federal set-asides for women and minorities make racists of close relatives in the building trades, and I would hate to see the demand for what Andrew Sullivan calls "the M word" create any more. But maybe I am just showing my age. And my indecision. A friend at my 25th college reunion, to whom I had turned for advice on coming out, remarked ruefully that bi men are a minority wherever they turn; in retrospect the remark seems prescient.

Brokeback was beautiful and beautifully made. The script was good — incredible, really, when you realize how short the story is and how much it had been expanded — and the acting, as I think we agree, phenomenal. But there was that little voice in the back of my head nattering away with questions and comments like: Proulx goes to such lengths to make the two men unattractive physically, and then they cast Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger, who can contend for Mr. Most Terminally Cute without even trying?

Well, at least for once Hollywood was being even-handed. When was the last time you saw an unattractive actress as the love interest? [I remember seeing Crimes of the Heart on Broadway years ago, and being struck by the beauty of Mary Beth Hurt’s legs — and then realizing that all three women, including the actress who was playing the supposedly unattractive sister, did in fact have phenomenal bodies. I had internalized those standards to the point where I no longer noticed them; I was shocked years later to hear in concert a large chorus which had been selected for voice alone and to see that looks did in fact have nothing to do with it... well, I am showing a little too much leg here myself.]

...It was great to hear from you, and thank you so much for putting me in touch with D. It is amusing to realize to realize how gaydar works even when you don’t know what it is — I have a number of friends to whom I gravitated without thinking why, whom I now know to be gay, one of them a grandfather many times over. It’s amazing what you find out once people feel it’s safe to talk to you — which generally means: once your own spit has hit the fan.


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