This week at an event at the Writer’s Guild a very successful writer sat on a panel and, when the subject of “Brokeback Mountain” came up, he attributed a good part of the film’s crossover success with not so much the quality of the film but the fact that the straight audiences were more comfortable with a gay romance ending in tragedy – the implication being this was not something he wanted to see onscreen.
“Oh, really,” I thought, resisting the urge to reach for a large sock with manure I keep hidden for occasions like these. Then I sort of answered back from my seat that his comment was “ridiculous” when a friend nearby piped in he agreed with said panelist. Feeling as if I were now surrounded by pod people in my own community and realizing I was not on the panel and therefore couldn’t get on my soapbox the way I would among friends, family or in my own classroom (or blog), I quieted down and let the panelists fight it out.
How you can take a film as fine as “Brokeback Mountain” and complain about it, especially if you’re a gay writer and are among gay writers as he was, is beyond me but hey – it’s a free country so far – knock yourself out.
The point is not whether you can or you should but that it’s a matter of opinion, of taste – of what you want to see. He’s entitled to not want to see one of the finest gay films ever made, just as I’m entitled not to want to see silly, stupid but award-nominated foolish films about gay people like “I love You, Phillip Morris” or dumb ones like “Eating Out with Naked Boys Who Cant Put More than Two Sentences Together” (Note: I’ve combined several titles). Taste comes in all shapes and sizes, which is the good and the bad news. If you have good taste like mine there are likely people who will share it. If you have bad taste like that panelist and the friend who agreed with him, well, you have an even better chance people will share it. I can say that since both fit much better into the commercial universe than I do. But that’s the subject of another blog.
For me, being a writing teacher and mentor is a bit like taking on the persona of Jiminy Cricket if he had the benefit of humanity and the Internet. Meaning – I try to be a bit of a ubiquitous conscience to my students and their work, urging them on in the direction that they (not I) truly want to go in while understanding both their issues and the real world writers must operate in. Oh sure, there’s structure, drama, storytelling and all that. But at some point most young writers “get it” and really just need someone to keep them on the path they’ve chosen for that particular story. At the point they are, it’s highly likely they can become derailed at one cross comment from any would-be panelist or one discouraging word from someone like myself who is in a position of authority and perhaps secretly enjoys abusing their power (which I don’t – I reserve that only for the blog).
What is seldom in question (for them) is what story to tell. That’s pretty easy. Most writers have an idea of what they want to say or they wouldn’t be writers to begin with. This is not to be confused with the notion that most writers have the courage to sit down and actually write the idea that they want to write. That is something else entirely and part of the reason that I do what I do.
I want to be the Jiminy Cricket for all the potential “Brokeback Mountain” writers out there. To urge people to tell the story they really want to tell – be it tragic, politically incorrect, totally “uncommercial” by Hollywood standards or, on the flipside, hopelessly commercial and potentially very sale-able.
Where a lot of writers and artists in general go wrong is looking for the secret formula, the magic answer of how to fit in via subject matter, execution of craft or style of dedication. It took me decades to learn that it really doesn’t matter if you write in the morning, evening, afternoon or all day, just as long as you do it. It is irrelevant whether your idea is “big and commercial” or “small and indie,” just as long as you have one and are actually working on honing it. And the road taken by five others of your friends and colleagues could very well say nothing about the path that you want to or even should be taking unless they inspire you or at least challenge you to do better.
What counts the most – the utmost – is choosing your subject AND your path and how you will walk it down your own road. I can’t imagine Ang Lee, Focus Features, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal imagined the tragic end of the “Brokeback” screenplay they were about to make would make it universally palatable and cause it to gain worldwide boxoffice attention and reviews any more than I can imagine that decades ago fiction writer E. Annie Prouix decided to write the short story it would be based on because she only felt comfortable with a gay story of tragic proportions. (In actuality, it came out of some real life guys she observed or heard about at the time). The story and the film came out of passion, and an idea and a resonant character as all really good films do. The critiques and sociological observations and/or rejections of it come out of the kind of analysis that can only be done on a panel of those of us in the entertainment industry.
Writers, or artists of any kind for that matter, need only take note of what moves them. And know that it could be more than likely that what moves you might not move anyone else. But, more likely than not, if it does move you, the chances exponentially increase that your telling of this story will move or entertain others. Because you’ll be bringing that much more of yourself and your passion to it. That’s the way this art stuff works.
Yes, you need to have craft. And certainly, you want an audience. And without a doubt, there are small tricks of the trade you can employ to attract audiences, readers and/or fans. But what is paramount, even universal (to name two studios), is what you’re bringing personally to the subject matter – not what you think or anticipate or fear or hope other people will bring to it. To be blunt, who gives a shit what anyone else thinks??? I mean, if you start there you become merely a people pleaser, and not even a particularly good one because it’s been my experience that when asked most people don’t really even know what they want.
Once when I was getting notes from a producer and felt very confused a more experienced writer friend of mine took pity on me and heard my endless story of details and notes and contradictions on this particular project. Finally, after a lot of venting on my part, she looked at me and said, “don’t you realize that if you even do two of the notes they’ve given you they’ll be thrilled? You have to understand that if you were to take all of their notes and do them, they would hate what you came up with. Part of your job is to take what they’re telling you, the moment or moments that are not there for them right now, and give it to them in the form that makes sense to you.”
This writer is sooooo smart. And so real. And guess what? She was passing on words of wisdom to me that she had gotten from a writer from the generation before her. And that guy was not only super smart, but he had an Oscar. Actually, he has two. Not that Oscars are the arbiters of anything but, well, it does give one some kind of cultural gravitas, as I can personally testify to since my mere attendance at the ceremonies this year got me a lot more attention and/or readers about it than I probably deserve. But that’s contemporary life in a nutshell, the subject of still yet another upcoming blog, I suppose.
In any event, I am now officially passing this advice on to anyone listening to people on the news, or others in authority and/or peers on an industry panel with whom they disagree. Feel free to disagree but don’t assume the other person is necessarily right about what they’re saying if in your heart of hearts you vehemently disagree with them. It is your right (and actually, obligation) as an artist to fully disagree in the execution of your art to perhaps prove them wrong.
That’s what I plan to do with Gay Writer Panelist who claims “I Don’t Happen to Like or Relate to Stories like ‘Brokeback Mountain” cause they’re, well, so retro.” Oh really? Well, wait until you see the next idea I’m working on. I can’t wait to piss you off some more. Because at the very least I know, at the same time, I’ll be more than pleasing myself. And that’s the only real hope I have of reaching beyond your grasp and to others who feel, or have yet to feel, exactly as I do. And, as an artist, that reach, and the achievement of it, is no small thing.
In fact, it’s another reason why we do what we do.