Brokeback Mountain, the U.S. Bishops, and Natural Law

So, why haven't you written a post about Brokeback Mountain, BP? Well, I've been trying to find the right angle.

First off, I'm an easy cry, so when I saw the movie on Christmas night with the bf, it turned into a tissue-fest. But that was to be expected. Now, some people have been criticizing the movie for being too superficial. I tend to agree that this is not one of the most brilliant films of the early 21st century. It's a good story, it's well-acted, it has some twists at the end that make you start choking up (ok, that made me start choking up at least), but timeless film? Not so much. I think the excitement of seeing a true-to-life gay tragic romance might have clouded some reviewers opinions; then again, given the usual quality of many gay films, that might explain the appreciation...but that's a rant for another posting.

Two items to bring this into conversation with Catholic theology (you knew that I was going to do that, that's why you check this blog out, ya big silly....).

1) There's an interesting metadiscussion happening with regard to the movie reviews of the Office for Film and Broadcasting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the organizational wing of the bishops in the U.S. Yes, Virginia, the U.S. Bishops' office reviews movies and television shows to evaluate their content and appropriateness for Catholic audiences. Remember the "A-I", "A-IV", and "O" ratings of the Legion of Decency? Well, they still exist, and now have their own 800 number (1-800-311-4222). You can check out reviews of upcoming movies, released videos, and television programs online. Now, as hokey as this might sound to some ears, I think this would be a good resource to some parents, and, I must confess, I often find the reviews quite good. Not as snarky as the Times or New Yorker, but willing to make some snide remarks, in defense sometimes of church teaching, but also against bad filmaking. For example, the review of "Chicken Little":

Disappointing computer-animated comedy adventure based on the classic nursery rhyme about a little chick (voiced by Zach Braff) who, after humiliating himself by sounding the alarm that the sky is falling, gets a chance to save face -- and his hometown -- when his apocalyptic announcement later proves true. Directed by Mark Dindal, the movie's vibrant, through unremarkable, animation goes for a more 3-D look, but the flat story and characterizations lack much emotion, charm or wit, undercutting the film's warm themes of family bonds and believing in oneself. A-I -- general patronage.

So what's interesting is that Brokeback Mountain receives quite a positive review. So positive, apparently, that some people were/are upset. Originally given an "L" for "limited adult audience" ("A-IV" for those of you who survived the League of Decency's best efforts to protect you...), the office eventually changed the rating to an "O" after protests, but kept the review itself intact. There's a good review of some of the issues involved over at Right Wing Film Geek, and, for your enjoyment, a comparison of the USCCB review of Brokeback with the Passion of the Christ, with numerous sodomy-related comments, over at Seattle Catholic. Just another helpful reminder of the multiplicity of Catholic viewpoints. If the old tag "unus christianus, nullus christianus" is true, then part of being one of those christiani involves learning how to have these discussions, rather than shutting ourselves off into hermetically sealed boxes. And learning to agree that "Chicken Little" is drivel.

2) I haven't seen this in print anywhere yet, so here goes my take on Brokeback's theological anthropology: Brokeback Mountain, besides being a romantic tragedy set in a beautiful landscape, is also a natural law argument for the acceptance of homosexuality. The not-so-subtle entree into this position is the slogan at the bottom of the ads: "Love is a Force of Nature". One can notice that all of the bad things that happen in the film -- the adultery, the alcohol abuse, the materialism, the dishonesty, the hurt that comes not only to these two men but to those in their lives -- comes about not because they're in a same-sex relationship, but because they're in a same-sex relationship but trying their dardnest not to be. If, as many gay people, particularly gay men, describe their experience, their homosexuality is something discovered as a part of them, rather than a choice or a deviation from heterosexuality, then a good Thomist, if (and this is a big "if"), if she were open to hearing that first premise and accepted it as probable, then it makes sense to follow one's nature where it leads into human flourishing.

Now, an argument of this type still concerned to be in agreement with church teaching on sexual acts might see this simply as a caveat not to become involved in heterosexual relationships, since that would be against one's nature, but would also remain hesistant to endorse same-sex relations - but due not a natural law argument rooted in gay persons' experiences, but an a priori dismissal of same-sex acts as inherently sinful. Another natural law argument can be made that, like all sexuality, same-sex desire can be fruitful or can be harmful; open discussion of what constitutes fruitfulness or harmfulness, and, for the Christian, of how Christ's grace can begin to heal that desire and bring it into the Gospel's light of fidelity to God. Readers of James Alison will find this idea familiar.

I tend to think this latter argument has merit, and while submitting it to review and criticism by a wider public and by my church, I have also found it helpful in guiding my own relationship and helping me to begin to imagine and attend to how Christ is acting in my life to heal my ability to relate with others and with him in part by healing my ability to relate authentically and in holiness with my partner. Whether you find that convincing or not, it's sociologically interesting that the idea of same-sex desire as a "force of nature" and the danger inherent in trying to suppress that desire is so much a part of the zeitgeist at this point that that aspect of the film has received relatively little attention in the public sphere; people are more nervous about Heath and Jake "doin' it" than they are about the idea that same-sex desire is something natural.


Michael said...

Thanks for the link to the USCC review. I had been waiting to see one on some of the Catholic news sites I monitor, but it was amazingly absent. Of course, now I know why. A remotely positive review would have been "offensive to pious ears/eyes." I suppose some people think that a rating system is not sufficient. They seem to be censoring the rating system.

Or maybe I just missed it. Always a real possibility, especially with the holidays and all.

Anonymous said...

'Brokeback'- stereotypical and sexist

I was expecting a lot more when I went to see this film. Not only do I find it superficial but deeply sexist. Is that how we do things in America - making a film about love between two men means we have to slam the women and make them pitiful or ugly characters?

I adored 'Brother to Brother'. I prefer to watch well-made films where you really get to know and can relate to the characters. I don't care for much that comes out of Hollywood, and my B.S. radar is always 'on'. That's why this movie did nothing for me - and made me angry in the way it exploited women. But that's nothing new for Hollywood or for the U.S.A.

BaptizedPagan said...

Superficial...there I might agree with you more. I think it's a romantic tragedy, and romantic tragedies released in the United States are not known for their emotional depth.

But sexist? I agree that the women got treated like crap, but was that because the movie had an anti-women agenda (which is what I understand by sexist)? Pitiful, yes, in a certain sense -- they suffered even more than the men, who at least got their playdates up on the mountain. But I didn't view that as being anti-women, but as being another aspect of the tragedy, that the stifling of the love between these two guys not only ruins much of their lives, but spreads outward and ruins the lives of those around them.