Saturday, September 10, 2011

Those Who Remember History Are Doomed to Bang Their Heads Against the Wall -- Forever

I've begun reading The Brokeback Book, a collection of articles on Brokeback Mountain edited by William R. Handley and published this year by the University of Nebraska Press. Some of the articles are new, but others appeared before. One of these is David Leavitt's 2005 review of the film, which originally appeared at Slate. Leavitt is a novelist himself, but that doesn't really qualify him to write about either gay fiction or gay film. He showed himself to be quite ignorant on both subjects, in fact.

Of Jack Twist's pickup of a male hustler in Juarez, Mexico, Leavitt wrote:
For just a few seconds, we get a glimpse of the urban nightscape that was the locus of the very gay movies that might have been playing, in big cities, at the moment when the scene takes place—movies like Nighthawks and Taxi zum Klo, in which sexual profligacy is at once celebrated as a form of liberation and mourned as a pallid substitute for meaningful connection.
(Nighthawks is a British film, directed by Paul Hallam, that was released in 1978; the German Taxi zum Klo, directed by Frank Ripploh, was released in 1980.) Whatever else can be said about it, Jack's connection in Ciudad Juárez is something he could have found in most smaller cities in the US, and even many small towns, and he might not even have had to pay for the sex he found there. There's nothing specifically "urban" about that "nightscape." Juárez, lying just across the border, is simply convenient for a closeted Texan whose distant boyfriend wasn't available.

Leavitt went on:
It goes without saying that Brokeback Mountain is an entirely different kind of film. Perhaps it takes a woman to create a tale in which two men experience sex and love as a single thunderbolt, welding them together for life; certainly Proulx's story is a far cry from such canonical gay novels as Edmund White's The Farewell Symphony or Allan Hollinghurst's The Swimming Pool Library, which poeticize urban promiscuity and sexual adventuring. Proulx, by contrast, exalts coupledom by linking it to nature.
I suppose that The Swimming Pool Library (1988) and The Farewell Symphony (1997) are "canonical," but they're not the only canonical gay male novels. I presume Leavitt chose these two to make Brokeback Mountain look as utterly different from "canonical gay novels" as possible. He could just as well have cited his own novel, The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), which also depicted "urban promiscuity and sexual adventuring." But he chose to ignore any number of other canonical gay male novels built around coupledom, from Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man (1964) to Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner (1973) to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (1976-2010) to most of Christopher Bram's novels, starting with Surprising Myself (1987), and so on down to the present.

The same is true of films. I liked Brokeback Mountain when it was first released, but I think I was less impressed by it than many people were, including many gay men, because I knew what had gone before it; it didn't feel unique and unprecedented to me. When I think of gay male films, most of the best and most interesting were made independently of Hollywood, which preferred to use gay men and lesbians as symbols of dehumanized evil or mockery. From A Very Natural Thing (1974) to Parting Glances (1986) to Torch Song Trilogy (1988) to Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993), independent cinema about gay men can't be reduced to a celebration of urban sexual adventuring opposed to coupledom in a state of nature. For that matter, Richard Amory's 1966 pulp Song of the Loon and its sequels depicted sexual adventuring and romantic coupledom in the nineteenth-century Pacific Northwest. Song of the Loon was even made into a 1970 softcore film.

Remember that, except for The Swimming Pool Library, we're just talking about films and books produced in the United States. Look to traditions of homosexual literature in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, and Leavitt's account stands exposed more nakedly as the narrow and simplistic copout it is. It doesn't help that in the 1990s Leavitt co-edited an anthology of "homosexual literature in English from 1748 to 1914", and another of international gay writing. Of course, they may be as inadequate as this review; I haven't seen them. But it's hard to believe he's really as ignorant as he comes across in his review of Brokeback Mountain.

And of course, I've done a lot of complaining about the reductive and inaccurate accounts of gay history and literature produced by academics. Or about the distorted picture of gay history promulgated by self-serving hacks like Andrew Sullivan. (Leavitt has a history of the same sort of distortion, most notably a baffling essay on how Andrew Holleran's Dancer from the Dance freaked him out as a young fagling. Everyone's entitled to his own opinion, of course, but Leavitt seriously misread the book. Lev Raphael wrote a critical response to Leavitt for the Lambda Book Review in 1995, which unfortunately isn't available online.) This is a problem that extends beyond GLBTQ history, but I feel it acutely in that domain. Handley no doubt included Leavitt's review as a historical curiosity; I hope that other pieces in The Brokeback Book are better.