Thursday, December 31, 2009

Brokeback Mountain and the Homosexual Cowboy

Most people would agree that many in the movie industry are somewhat to the far left on the political spectrum -- a tradition that evolved over time as many in the industry became accustomed to using their talents and the industry as a vehicle to educate Americans to the perceived social, economic and political injustices in our country. This ideal goes back to the 1930s when many actor’s organizations like the Worker’s Laboratory Theatre, New Playwright’s Theatre and Roosevelt’s New Deal WPA Federal Theatre Project became a comfortable place for actors to hone their craft and practice what became known as agit-prop or social theatre. Over the last seventy years the ideologues in the entertainment industry have been a prominent force in helping Americans to accept such social taboos as racially mixed marriages, untraditional families, different sexual orientations, etc. With that said, it is interesting that today some criticize Hollywood for the uncontroversial nature of many presentations on tv and in the movies. To these critics, Hollywood is not doing enough to move the social agenda away from the “Father Knows Best” model of American life. But, a new western movie on the horizon might silence some of the critical voices.

Larry McMurtry in his new movie, Brokeback Mountain, adopted from the book by E. Annie Proulx, is taking the American Western and forging new ground by offering viewers a new western image; the homosexual cowboy. The soon to be released western will redefine the American cowboy of the modern twentieth century West. This certainly isn’t the first time, or the last time, Hollywood has tried to chip away at the western image loved by so many western fans. Gerald Kreyche in an USA Today article entitled, “Westerns Ride Off into the Sunset” states, “The revisionists and multiculturalists declared that they needed to kill (the western) and have almost completely done the job.” Brokeback Mountain could be one more nail in the western’s coffin.

Brokeback Mountain is a breakthrough film about two cowboys who meet and fall in love while working on a sheep ranch in Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountains in the summer of 1961. The cowboys are as hard drinking, cussing and rough-and- tumble as any cowboy in any western film. They are depicted as “real” men, as real as our image of John Wayne. Except unlike John Wayne and his cowboy screen companions, the two men fall in love with one another. After their summer encounter, both men move to opposites ends of the country, marry women and raise families. But, their relationship continues when they meet again four years later.

If there is a political agenda in Brokeback Mountain it is, perhaps, simply to raise our social consciousness, and at the same time continue to destroy our perceptions of the American West; perceptions that cherish the strong independent men and women who settled the West. It is not a Gay landscape.

What I find interesting is that the Western movie is the playground for the Hollywood political agenda. This evidently goes back as far as the 1950s. A case in point is Dorothy Johnson’s book and later movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” On the surface, the movie seems to be the struggle of the West to grow up in the late ninetieth century; conflict between Ransom Stoddard(Jimmy Stewart who represents law and order and a new West) and Tom Doniphan( John Wayne who represents the uncivilized West). The western theme is familiar and true to form for the western genre. However, it has been written that there is an underlying political theme as well. In his book, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age, Alan Nadel posits the idea that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence “negotiates a Cold War American crisis over the nation’s self-image…the film responds to the two American engagements with Cuba(the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.” The point, seems to be that Cuban Missile Crisis presented a challenge for the United States in how the country is represented to the rest of the world, much as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a film that in numerous separate ways examines the problem of representing the West.” Nadel concludes that the western film “interrogates the national security issues pertinent to the problem of representing the West.”

(Of course, even if we ignore the fact the Dorothy Johnson’s short story, which forms the basis for the movie was written in the 1940s, the fact that the movie was released in April 1962 while the Cuban Missile Crisis did not occur until October of that year might raise some question about this interpretation even for the intent of the movie apart from the underlying story.)

In Brokeback Mountain, we once again have an underlying theme of how Hollywood represents the West. I would imagine the gay theme in the story will open the flood gates for other movies that struggle with one of the West’s predominate images, that of masculinity. And what does masculinity represent. Richard Slotkin in Gunfighter Nation stated that the image of the Cowboy’s masculinity and rugged individualism was a rationale for American Expansionism. Ok, then, can we conclude that presenting a less masculine West during a time of American macho on the international scene is another way to take the bravado out of American Foreign policy?......just a thought.

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