Fighting off the Dark Side

How I spent this week

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.

American Splendor

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.

a recent photo of myself

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.

Script Potion #9

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.”

The pen definitely is mightier

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.


9 thoughts on “Fighting off the Dark Side

  1. Superlative advice here, Steve. Thank you!

  2. I agree that the panelist might have a limited view on the subject of the success of Brokeback Mountain but what concerns me is this: “finest gay films ever made.” Does labeling Brokeback Mountain a “gay film” undercut its status as a great film in general. I never really thought of the film as a gay film, but a tragic film about love that can never be fully consummated. So in my opinion it’s crossover success was the film featured classic film traits (tragedy, unrequited love, the western genre) but presented them in a fresh way. I guess what I’m asking is if we put the “gay” modifier on films such as Brokeback Mountain are we inadvertently reenforcing the “otherness” of homosexuality? Can’t Brokeback just be good because it is good?

    • You’re absolutely right, Josh and are obviously far more forward-thinking on this than any of us are. I think that because the panel had to do with getting niche films made, we were discussing the films overall in terms of their “otherness” because financiers, etc. tend to lump the films that way whether you as the filmmaker want them to lump them in that way or not. But I agree with you wholeheartedly – why can’t it just be a tragic love story – which it is. That is what I’m hoping happens when all of you take control of the industry 🙂

    • Welcome back! It’s been too long so long, in fact, that you’re definitely going to have to pick up the bngloigg pace if that book deal will ever be yours. I suggest (and feel free, as ever, to ignore my suggestions; what do I know about securing a book deal?) a series of short articles each focusing on a different gay TV character, starting with Jack McPhee and the phenomenon of outing-through-creative-writing-exercise.What I felt the Guardian article overlooked in their emphasis on Kurt’s wholesome goodness’ and innate happiness’ (actually not so much overlooked as got wrong) was the fact that much of what makes Kurt a richer character than most on Glee (*love* Rachel still) is that he undergoes all the uncertainties, elation and anguish of a typical’ teen: his emotional development is messy and painful; he can be vindictive to his friends, he can be gracious; he doesn’t get everything right, and yet he doesn’t always realise when he’s getting something wrong. That feels true and familiar to me; I like that.

  3. A beautiful essay, Steven. Wonderful. Thank you.

  4. Steven I can always count on you to make me think. My teaching job doesn’t always allow for that in the same way- thanks. And beautifully written.

  5. That writer’s an idiot for all kinds of reasons but I don’t think even a super straight audience PARTICULARLY ENJOYS seeing a gay relationship end tragically. If that were true and BM allowed studios to discover a new moneymaking structure there would have been a rash of films cashing in on unhappy tragic gay couples. (didn’t happen.) The good thing Brokeback Mountain demonstrated was that an audience can have empathy for any poor frustrated soul stuck in a tragic romance.

    Even so — I did not think Brokeback Mountain was as great a film as some claim though it’s inarguably a fresh take for a studio romance. There is a fuss made over it because it took one of the most stalwart American movie icons — the cowboy — and showed him kissing another cowboy which is something you never saw Ronald Reagan do in one of his cowboy movies. This shocked some and drew a lot of attention.

    But greatness depends what lens you are evaluating the film though. Yes, as a romance it’s original. As a Western, it just uses setting but barely explores the traditional forms of the Western and is light on story — it’s no UNFORGIVEN.

    I do think calling it a “gay” movie is way too simplistic and possibly even claiming something that is not truly there. There’s been a lot of talk about just what the sexual position of the film is and I’ll just quote wikipedia because it’s complicated. I don’t know if BM is a gay movie but it is a complicated romance:
    “There was also disagreement among reviewers, critics, and even the cast and crew as to whether the film’s two protagonists were actually homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, or under no sexual label at all. Most often the film was referred to in the media as the “gay cowboy movie,” but a number of reviewers wrote that Jack and Ennis were bisexual.[33][34][35] Sex researcher Fritz Klein also asserted his opinion that the film was “a nice film with two main characters who were bisexual”, and further analyzed that Jack is more “toward the gay side of bisexuality” and Ennis is “a bit more toward the straight side of being bisexual”.[36] In an article in American Sexuality Magazine, bisexuality-focused sex educator Amy Andre critiqued the media’s avoidance of the use of the term bisexual in association with Brokeback Mountain:
    “Brokeback Mountain is a not a movie about gay people, and there are no gay people in it. There. I said it. Despite what you may have read in the many reviews that have come out about this new cowboy feature film, Brokeback Mountain is a bisexual picture. Why can’t film reviewers say the word ‘bisexual’ when they see lead characters with sexual and romantic relationships with both men and women? I am unaware of a single review of Brokeback calling the leads what they are—a sad statement on the invisibility of bisexual experience and the level of biphobia in both the mainstream and gay media.[37] ”

    Gyllenhaal himself took the opinion that Ennis and Jack were heterosexual men who “develop this love, this bond,” also saying in a Details interview: “I approached the story believing that these are actually two straight guys who fall in love.”[36] Still others stated that they felt the characters’ sexuality to be simply ambiguous. Clarence Patton and Christopher Murray said in New York’s Gay City News that Ennis and Jack’s experiences were metaphors for “many men who do not identify as gay or even queer, but who nevertheless have sex with other men”.[38] A reviewer at wrote, “We later see Jack eagerly engage Lureen sexually, with no explanation as to whether he is bisexual, so in need of physical intimacy that anyone, regardless of gender, will do, or merely very adept at faking it.”[39] Ledger was quoted as stating in TIME: “I don’t think Ennis could be labeled as gay. Without Jack Twist, I don’t know that he ever would have come out…. I think the whole point was that it was two souls that fell in love with each other.” Conversely, others stated that the characters were undoubtedly gay, including GLBT non-fiction author Eric Marcus, who dismissed “talk of Ennis and Jack being anything but gay as box office-influenced political correctness intended to steer straight audiences to the film”. Roger Ebert also agrees that both characters are gay, although in doubt of it: “Jack is able to accept a little more willingly that he is inescapably gay,”[40] and the film’s producer James Schamus said, “I suppose movies can be Rorschach tests for all of us, but damn if these characters aren’t gay to me.”[36] Annie Proulx herself opined “how different readers take the story is a reflection of their own personal values, attitudes, hang-ups.”[41][42]
    When Ledger and Gyllenhaal were asked about any fear of being cast in such controversial roles, Ledger responded that he was not afraid of the role, but rather he was concerned that he would not be mature enough as an actor to do the story justice. Gyllenhaal has stated that he is extremely proud of the film and his role, regardless of what the reactions would be. He regards rumors of him being bisexual as flattering, stating, “I’m open to whatever people want to call me. I’ve never really been attracted to men sexually, but I don’t think I would be afraid of it if it happened.”[43] Both have stated that the sex scenes in the beginning were difficult to do. Lee found the first scene difficult to film and has stated he has great respect for the two main actors for their “courage”. Ledger’s performance was described by Luke Davies as a difficult and empowering portrayal given the environment of the film, stating: “In Brokeback Mountain the vulnerability, the potential for danger, is so great – a world so masculine it might destroy you for any aberration – that [Ledger’s] real brilliance was to bring to the screen a character, Ennis Del Mar, so fundamentally shut down that he is like a bible of unrequited desires, stifled yearnings, lost potential.”[44]

  6. Walter! Love this mini-essay! Here’s my thought around “gay film” and why those guys are usually deemed gay. The panel I refer to, which I should have mentioned above, was more about the state of “gay films” and it was actually discussed why everything with gay characters have to be a “gay film,” concluding with it’s just what films ABOUT niche groups are categorized aS. More to the point – as to gay vs bisexual issue – I mean, who truly knows if a person is gay except the individual person. I guess it’s where one sits on the Kinsey scale. But in the reading of “Brokeback,” I think there are clues. The guys are pretty unhappy in their married lives but agree that they have to “make the best of it.” The Heath character can’t really look at his wife when they’re having sex and has to mostly do things with her we’re she’s turned the opposite way. The Jack character has consistent and almost gay urges that he has to satisfy (often putting himself in dangerous situations for that time) and he even tells Ennis that he can’t forget and repress, he’s not like him. Ennis at one point notes that they have to “bear it” because there is no other way. The fact that both got married and had kids is positioned as a compromise at best for them in the movie and in the writing. Neither has a truly happy marriage over the long term. Doesn’t bisexuality imply they are equally attracted to men and women and it’s a matter of well, the person or the moment? This doesn’t seem to be the case with either cowboy.

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