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Fall 2006

Such a Queer Romance: Lee's Martyrs vs. Young's Lovers

Brian Dauth

As Brokeback Mountain reaches its conclusion, Ennis Del Mar, one of the film's two gay shepherds, is shown leading a marginal existence in an isolated trailer, pining for the object of his affection/affliction, Jack Twist, who is dead (whether because of a highway accident or a gay-bashing incident is left unclear - Ang Lee's film reprehensibly invokes the real-life murder of Matthew Shepard without committing itself one way or the other).

On its release Brokeback Mountain was first positioned as a gay movie, then, as its wellspring of homophobia became apparent, it morphed into a not-gay movie that tells a universal story of enduring, yet thwarted love (that societal oppression of queers and the subsequent internalized homophobia are major contributors to this thwarting is ignored). In this way, heterosexuals are free to watch Brokeback Mountain and show their compassion for the plight of queers while at the same time exulting in how lucky they are not to be gay. This potent combo of sympathy outlet/privilege reinforcer has proven irresistible: Brokeback Mountain cleaned up with the various critics' circles and stands to reap further accolades as the awards season rolls on.

But of all the encomiums I encountered, the most bizarre issued from Marcus Hu, the openly gay Co-President of Strand Releasing. On the indieWIRE website, Hu calls Brokeback Mountain both "a uniquely gay American love story" and "an intelligent, smart piece of cinema that happens to have at its core a gay love story." Ignoring for now the question of how one makes a film "that happens to have at its core a gay love story," I wonder why one of the people most responsible for queer films being distributed in the Untied States would heap praise on a disaster such as Brokeback Mountain , especially when his own company released not only the best gay film of the year, but one of the year's best films in any category or genre: John G. Young's The Reception .

The Reception is Young's intense and intelligent meditation on gender, race and sexual orientation in the 21 st century. The film chronicles the birth and growth of a gay romance without any of the pathological trappings that Ang Lee adorns his film with. Invoking the aesthetic of Ingmar Bergman, Young closely observes the behavior and interactions of four people over the course of several days: Jeanette, a middle-aged French woman who lives in an isolated country house with Martin, a gay African American painter who plays the role of her companion and major domo. They are joined one winter day by Jeanette's daughter Sierra and her new husband Andrew, who is also African American.

Young stages Sierra and Andrew's arrival and reception not in the coziness and warmth of the house's interior, but on the snow-covered yard where Jeanette and Martin toast them with wine. But instead of coming across as a winter wonderland, this expanse is a visual corollary for the unchanging, frozen world inhabited by Jeanette and Martin -- a carefully composed and maintained retreat from the wreckage of their individual lives. Entering this frosty universe, Sierra will turn out to be merely posing as a newlywed so she can access trust fund money that has been left to her, while Andrew (who is gay and playing Sierra's husband for cash) will make sexual and romantic advances toward Martin. This barren landscape will also find echoes in the empty white canvases in Martin's studio: he is blocked in terms of both his art and his sexuality.

In his handling of Martin and Andrew's growing involvement, Young demonstrates the understanding and compassion that elude Lee. Andrew's seduction of Martin is gradual, and when the two men make love at last, Young films it with affection. For his part, Lee films Ennis and Jack's sexual encounter so elliptically that a viewer can legitimately wonder if it even happens. Lee takes the love that dare not speak its name a step further and transforms it into the love that dare not show its face either.

But most damning of all, Lee portrays Jack and Ennis's suffering as an inherent condition of being gay. In scenes of intimacy between Jack and Ennis, Lee makes sure to include a requisite agony: queerness is a violation of nature that must be atoned for. After their first sexual encounter, one of the shepherds discovers that while he was engaged in carnal pleasure and neglecting his duty to protect the flock, a sheep was killed by a coyote. Both Jack and Ennis will pay a great price for their love - one dies (or is murdered by gay bashers) while the other is consigned to living out his life in loneliness and despair. For Lee, no good can come of being gay - during their last meeting, Ennis breaks down and speaks of his love for Jack as if it were a disease Jack infected him with and which he desperately wishes to be cured of (Lee once again invokes a tragic reality of gay life - the scourge of AIDS in this case - to score easy ideological points with his target audience).

All this dread and sorrow is mother's milk to Lee and his middlebrow viewers. He confirms what they have suspected all along: being gay is a violation of nature that can never be reconciled with a happy, productive existence: to be gay is to suffer.

In contrast, Young shows that obstacles to gay love are not inherent within queerness itself, but consequences of the heteronormative standards/pressures pervading society. By challenging these norms and daring to love (and possibly commit), Martin and Andrew have the chance to succeed that Lee denies to Ennis and Jack. In a stunning finale (a reworking of Douglas Sirk's last shot in Imitation of Life [1959]), Young posits an affirming same-sex, same-race touch that heals rather than destroys. Lee ends his film with Ennis in the closet - the closet in this case being a dilapidated trailer. Ennis even keeps the mementoes of his love for Jack in a closet within this trailer/closet. The outside world is glimpsed only through a window - Ennis is cut off from the natural world as punishment for his unnatural love of Jack Twist.

At the end of The Reception , Young's lovers are in motion, driving away from the white, wintry prison where they discovered each other and moving toward civilization (the city) and life. Instead of being confined to the closet, Martin and Andrew are free to make of their lives and love what they choose. While Lee scripts a no-exit scenario for gays in love (as well as gays in life), Young affirms the potential inherent in queer life and love for freedom and fulfillment.