Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and the Queer Prestige Film

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Men of Honor
Matt Connolly on Brokeback Mountain, Milk, and the Queer Prestige Film

Like many others in the crowded Manhattan theater where I saw Gus Van Sant’s Milk, I was teary-eyed during the film’s emotional finale. Yet I still could not help but feel a certain ambivalence creeping inside me. The images were powerful: both staged reenactment and documentary footage of the thousands who marched, candles in hand, down Castro Street in memory of the slain Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly-gay public official. As a gay man who, like others, has found a certain amount of inspiration in the gumption, tenacity, and genuinely big-hearted spirit that Milk brought to his public life and service, the endless stream of flickering candles—conveying both the tragic delicacy of human life and the breadth of public solidarity of the deceased—struck a deeper chord in me than similar images in similar biopics have in the past. And yet this sense of familiarity never quite escaped me. I have seen images like these before in other movies about inspirational politicians or leaders or social rabble rousers who were slain while serving their cause. Such movies often end with a rousing speech given before a large crowd, or simply a parting shot of the thousands of anonymous faces whose lives were forever changed by the life and work of the film’s subject. By ending on this note of sober uplift, the film both enshrines its subject and comforts the viewer with community, ensuring that the tears shed within the movie theater are matched by those wept on screen.

And this kind of bothered me, for reasons that graft personal experience onto aesthetic quality. As the out-and-proud queer in me swooned at the experience of watching the story of a smart, funny, and lovable gay man achieve success and historical significance, told without apology or hand-wringing, the (queer) film lover in me naturally assumed that such a difference in content would be accompanied by rule-breaking choices in form. This expectation would seem partially justified by the involvement of Van Sant, a man who has proven he knows a thing or two about wedding queer experience with daring aesthetic strategies. When this didn’t happen—when Milk merely turned out to be a brilliantly acted, emotionally absorbing, and genuinely inspiring traditional biopic, and one of my favorite films of 2008—the problems of mixing one’s identity politics and cinematic evaluation inevitably crept in. Was I less skeptical of Milk’s relatively standard biopic tactics because of its message of hope and queer empowerment, or was I more skeptical because I wanted those messages to be delivered in a manner that matches their particular contours and rough edges? Well, yes and yes.

Mostly, though, it made me think about what happens when specifically queer stories are refracted through the conventions of mainstream cinematic Hollywood genres. You know the type: biopics of historically important individuals; adaptations of prize-winning novels; historic romances set somewhere between 1650 and 1950; any film that mentions the Holocaust. Traditionally, films that fall into these categories (and they certainly overlap depending upon the film) connote importance and respect through their sobriety of tone, tasteful consideration of period detail, and use of heterosexual romance to provide a point of emotional engagement within an alien milieu. What happens, then, when this central romance ceases to become the safe quality in these films—the element that allows viewer comprehension and connection after they’ve grown accustomed to the ornate dresses or grave speeches that pop up at predictable intervals—and becomes the wild card itself, the unknown quality to all but (apparently) 10% of the viewing audience? And even when romance is not the issue at hand, how does a film explicitly inserting queer issues into established genre contexts speak effectively and honestly to queer audiences while also inviting the interest (and admission fees) of straight viewers?

In some respects, it appears that a certain amount of headway has already been made on this issue. Films like Milk and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain fit established prestige categories (the historical biopic, the tragic historical romance) and have received significant acclaim and accolades for their efforts, most notably from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Yet they place queer issues—the complications of homosexual desire within the masculine codes of the American west, the political and social movements behind the gay right struggles of the 1970s—at the forefront of their narrative and thematic concerns. This seems to place them apart from queer-centered biopics like Capote and Gods and Monsters, two masterful films that always remembered and respected their protagonists’ sexuality but whose chief focuses seemed to ultimately lie elsewhere. It also moves them away from early-1990s films like Philadelphia and Longtime Companion that framed gay experience for mainstream audiences primarily in terms of AIDS, and the suffering, self-sacrifice, and premature death that accompanies it. For straight viewers, the queer prestige film provides a window to a minority culture (as well as the self-congratulation that accompanies feeling broad-minded enough to look through that window) and potentially humanizes issues that otherwise are defined by polarizing political diatribes and trite catchphrases. For queer audiences, it offers the chance to see recognizable life experiences on screen, in films that may actually come to theaters outside of New York and Los Angeles. And in a post–New Queer Cinema era, these films help to fill a gap left by openly gay filmmakers who seem less and less interested in cinematically expressing queer issues and experiences through mainstream, independent, or underground methods.

Still, one cannot help but cringe at the seemingly more compromised aspects of films that walk this line. As evidenced by both Brokeback and Milk, it’s certainly easier to sell a film about gay men when they’re closeted and apart for much of the film, or the protagonist is a workaholic political leader whose chief personal flaw is the lack of time he spends with his male partner. There’s less time for audiences to linger on the notion of the film’s homosexual characters being all, ya know, intimate. It’s a bit of a disingenuous point: both films deal with gay male sexuality more openly and (in Milk) more casually than just about any other mainstream film has. Still, we’ve yet to see a prestige romance that primarily focuses upon what happens when two men—or, gasp, two women!—get together at film’s beginning and struggle and live as a couple. Perhaps this hints at the appeal of the historic time frame of both these films. If you frame queerness as a public struggle fought on the streets or as a shame-infused secret to be whispered in the shadows, you never have to deal with the realities of modern queer existence: still political, still public, but cross-cut with the currents of private desires and interpersonal complexities.

And when Hollywood tries to do history—particularly the history of minority rights—it often inevitably comes back to the same tired tropes: the individualistic social leader scrubbed clean of any but the most socially acceptable flaws (you work too much!); the authenticity-upping montages interspersing recreated events with documentary footage; the rejection of more ambivalent considerations of past events for a positive, linear narrative of upward historical progression. These elements creep into even the best films about the Civil Rights Movement or the women’s suffrage movement, and I can’t help but worry that the gay rights movement will be understood by the viewing public in the same easy, guilt-soothing manner. You can only watch so many scenes of fiery young radicals holding up signs and yelling out protest songs before they all start to feel like the same damn march.

What elevates Brokeback and Milk is the level of understanding that both Lee and Van Sant have for the respective genres they’ve chosen to work in: how they operate, how they might change with queer material thrown into the equation; and how they might not change. For Lee, choosing a Western-set tragic gay romance allows him to adopt the basic tenants of the genre—repression, guilt, secrecy—while subverting iconic images of Western masculinity to give his story more emotional and symbolic punch. Brokeback undoubtedly falls into the somewhat wearisome tradition of queer love stories as seen through the frame of the closet. Still, by placing two gay men within the context of a heartrending Hollywood romance, the film elevates the thwarted affair of Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) to the same cultural level as other boundary-defying screen couples. Furthermore, placing the emphasis upon Ennis and Jack as products of the roughneck ethos of the West allows for new shadings within the decades-old images of the strong, silent American cowboy. Lee’s austere yet empathetic fascination with emotionally reticent outsiders suffocated by restrictive social codes has rarely been put to better use. By keeping his distance, he allows the viewer to both contemplate the layers of bottled-up desire and shame surging inside both men and complicating out understanding of earlier, seemingly less complicated visages of the American cowboy, with his distant gaze and straight-backed posture. And when the characters simply cannot articulate their own inchoate wants and fears, Lee imbues the Western landscape itself with everything joyous and numbing about the men’s decades-long affair—the serenity of a mountain range; the drab claustrophobia of a dingy apartment; the desolation of a single, lonely trailer. The longing built into the closeted romance becomes manifested in the imagery of the West itself.

Van Sant, on the other hand, doesn’t seem particularly interested in recalibrating the biopic to the story of Harvey Milk. Indeed, his principal goals here are not to challenge the viewer formally, but to engage the viewer’s heart and mind. As A.O. Scott astutely put it, “it is therefore entirely fitting that Milk should cleave to the aesthetics of popular filmmaking. Its emotions are accessible, its message clear and powerful, its political implications overt and unabashed.” However, Van Sant honors the sprightly wit and shrewd intelligence of Milk himself by investing even the creakiest of genre tropes with a loose, zingy vibe. For a film about an assassinated politician, Milk often buzzes with excitement and joy. Much of this has to do with Sean Penn, who gives a performance of almost otherworldly grace. Still, Van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black’s niftiest trick may be the way in which they definitively place Harvey at the center of a defined and distinct community. Milk takes place in an unabashedly gay world as well as a surprisingly wonky and political one, in which queerness acts not only a personal bond but as a catalyst for large-scale organization and legislative action. Whole scenes are devoted to little more than discussions on how to get a bill passed or a rally planned, but because these conversations take place within an established group of distinct (and distinctly queer) personalities, Van Sant allows the audience to see how Milk inspired a generation to view their sexuality as a tool for organizing and asserting political power. The scenes themselves rarely stray from the biopic path, and one wishes that Van Sant didn’t sandpaper down some of the rougher edges that Penn hints at throughout the film. Still, Van Sant’s ability to invest the historical moment and figure he’s presenting with such thrillingly specific energy reminds you why the biopic can be an exhilarating vessel when someone bothers to blow the dust off.

And it gives me hope for the queer prestige films rolling towards us this year, among them the Jim Carrey-Ewan McGregor prison romance I Love You, Phillip Morris and Taking Woodstock, a lavender-hued look at the sixties directed by Ang Lee (just can’t get enough!). If filmmakers give some serious thought to what happens when you place queer stories and issues are placed at the center of conventional genres, it can provide an opportunity not only to tell stories and showcase characters that have rarely held such a spotlight but also to reinvigorate modes of storytelling long grown clammy from too much use and too little imagination. Sure, my heart aches and stomach heaves to think that queerness may become little more than fodder for the prestige mill, which has produced a handful of masterpieces and a whole lot of bland, mealy-mouthed crap. But, to paraphrase Harvey Milk, you gotta have hope.