General 3-9-2006

Letters from a Writer: Admit That You Have a Problem, Part 2

Jean Sramek asks why certain movies get under our skin.

Jean Sramek

In our last episode, I bared my weak, twisted Brokeback Mountain-loving soul to the world. Read all about it here. This excellent film took over my brain. I could not stop thinking about it and I saw it so many times that I lost count (that’s a lie; I kept count but kept it a secret, another lie—it’s an addict thing, you wouldn’t understand). What finally got me off it was reading Annie Proulx’s novel That Old Ace in the Hole; I figured it was methadone for Brokeback addicts. I read the first few chapters like I was swallowing sand, angry that the characters were not Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. But finally a chapter—a throwaway subplot, no less—charmed me out of my misery. Proulx’s a genius, after all. Reading this novel worked—mostly. So did seeing I Heart Huckabees, another near-perfect film with which I allowed myself to be a little obsessed. And Capote. I sort of had to teach myself to enjoy films and literature again, films and literature that were not Brokeback. “Good stuff,” I’d say, “but it’s no Brokeback Mountain.”

Why on earth would a 40-something, college educated, semi-urban, middle class, married Minnesota heterosexual woman be so dreamy and obsessively sad over a story about a pair of poor, rural gay Wyoming cowboys?

I remembered Sarah Vowell’s essay “Take the Cannoli,” about her addiction to The Godfather during her junior year of college at Montana State (click here). So deep and secret was her habit that she imagined herself in the movie’s scenes, with Don Corleone patting her hand; she would watch scenes from the movie as a reward for finishing term papers; she lied to her boyfriend and housemates lest they “eject the tape from the VCR with a flourish and flush it down the toilet like so much cocaine. Then my parents would ship me off to some treatment center where I’d be put in group therapy with a bunch of Trekkies.” (Kind of like me and my Brokeback.) Desperate to find the root of her addiction, Vowell eventually went to Sicily and ate a damned cannoli and figured out that The Godfather had something to say to her—something important—about her life and identity and happiness.

Well, I’ve been to small-town Wyoming, and it was all truck stops, full ashtrays, filthy restrooms, and pie for breakfast. Plus, they filmed Brokeback in Canada. A spiritual road trip is not the answer. But I know the film has something to say to me—something important. Either that or I’m just the same as the fantasy-role-playing Trekkies and Star Wars geeks. I have asked for advice.

My list of answers so far:

1. It’s the greatest movie ever made. The writing, the adaptation, the putting-together of this beautiful story. I’m in awe and depressed about my own level of talent as compared to these giants of storytelling on page and film. (True, but not a very intellectually chewy answer.)

2. I am so very sad for the gay people I know, and seeing Ennis and Jack’s story makes me ooze empathy. (Also true. But that’s not it.)

3. I can’t get enough of the white-hot sexiness of Jake Gylenhaal and Heath Ledger. (Well, yeah. But that’s not it either, and frankly I think they were a tad too good looking for such an earthy story.)

4. I’m secretly a lesbian and this is my story only with penii. (Naw—not even close.)

5. My friend Aaron’s assessment, via email, “Hey, on the LOTR/Star Wars/Trek geek thing – those people jerk off to those movies because they’re all casting themselves as handsome studly world-savers with great big penis-swords and fantastic cheekbones who get to bang the medieval green elf whore at the end, the one with the hot ass and deep cleavage. Plus, their life sucks, and that mental re-image is far better than their pathetic existence of comic books, Cheetos, and late-night D & D sessions because they’re secretly afraid of rejection due to their overwhelming facial acne and fear of weight machines. I don’t know how this applies to you and your situation with Brokeback, however. Do you secretly want to nail a gay cowboy, Sramek?” (Oh, that Aaron.)

6. Maybe I secretly want to be a gay cowboy. Do I long for the repressed, fearful life of a rural gay male? Do I yearn to find something or someone about which I am truly passionate, then spend my life denying it, numbing the pain with cheap whiskey and cigarettes, only to end up dead or, worse, living in a trailer park? (Quite obviously: no.)

7. It’s yet another symptom of peri-menopause. (So far this seems like the most reasonable explanation.)

So I’m back where I started: in love.

But let’s take a look at #6 again. Not the “yearning for repression and cigarettes” part—the “yearning for true passion” part. Who gets that kind of passion, ever? Most people, including me, careen like a blasé billiard ball between dutiful apathy, barely disguised irritability, and mild enthusiasm. Rage? Ecstasy? Grief? Passion? If we’re lucky. Most peoples’ feelings for something good or towards someone they love is probably just re-packaged fear of something bad coming along, and being glad to have the buffer between what’s good enough and what could be worse.

Most of the time, I can barely manage to pay attention, let alone keep any kind of One True Thing burning in my soul. I’d probably sell my own family for the right price. Maybe I’m jealous of Jack’s mercurial sexuality and recklessness, of Ennis’ stoic sense of loyalty. I want what these men had, which is real feeling. For something—anything.

Digging for the important thing the movie is trying to say to me has become more work than it was to be depressed about being obsessed about the movie. But it beats dutiful apathy hands down.