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Watching a film is an empathy workout. Movies force their audience to invest in a character’s unique struggle or circumstance. The resulting question is whether or not this empathy workout can lead to real, physical change. From the book, Filming Difference: Actors, Directors, Producers, and Writers on Gender, Race, and Sexuality in Film, Daniel Bernardi claims the power of films is undeniable because they guide “our perceptions of each other and of difference.” Bernardi continues to discuss cinematic catharsis, and how it can cause viewers to think critically about themselves, others, culture, and society.
Similarly, Graeme Turner, author of Film as Social Practice, also believes in the power of film. He claims that active interpretation of film is “essential,” considering how complex movie production is. Also, Turner discusses how movies have a cultural function “beyond the pleasure of story.” When producing a movie, a social and cultural context is present. Audiences also experience and react to movies within their own social and cultural contexts (64).
There are many lenses to examine the relationship between film and society. Some theorists believe this connection is reflective, where film is a “reflection” of the beliefs and values of the culture. However, this concept has many exceptions. For example, classic musicals with utopian, starry-eyed narratives do not match the culture. Other perspectives use structural linguistics, structural anthropology, literary theory, and Marxian theories. Since it is difficult to simultaneously examine all aspects of how film relates to culture, Turner reasons that is why “most discussion has focused on the structure, or the theoretical composition, of the relationships” (131).
In the past few years, the number of inclusive TV shows, plays, and movies has surged. Representation of all races, genders, and sexualities in movies and television has dramatically improved. However, there is still progress to be made and prejudices to be tackled, and movies are an effective medium to do so.
In particular, one film that challenged public opinion is Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It was released in 2005 and quickly sparked a media frenzy. Since the subject of same-sex relationships remained taboo during this time, the love story of two men received a wide range of reactions. One New York Times review written in 2005 raved about the movie, calling it a “moving and majestic film” that is not about sex “but about love: love stumbled into, love thwarted, love held sorrowfully in the heart” (Holden). Though most championed the movie and its story, some protested. Especially, conservative Christians made homophobic arguments that Brokeback Mountain is an “obliteration of acceptable norms of social and sexual behavior” (Thomas). Usually, the negative reactions were regarding the sex scene depicted in Brokeback Mountain. Some thought the scene was too graphic or shocking, and some went so far to call it “disgusting.” Despite the controversy, it continued to become a multi award-winning film and pop culture phenomenon.
Within three months of its release into theaters, it had grossed $76 million at the box office. The film went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards. Since Brokeback Mountain was the public favorite for the Best Picture category, many of its supporters were upset when it did not win. However, the movie was highly praised and awarded by many other organizations, such as the Golden Globes, Venice Film Festival, The Screen Actors Guild, The New York Film Critics Circle, and the MTV Movie Awards.
Interestingly, Wyoming, which is the setting of Brokeback Mountain, experienced a major boost in tourism after the release. The beautiful cinematography of the landscape of Wyoming (in reality, Alberta, Canada) drew tourists in. As a result, Wyoming saw a 50% increase in tourism. Additionally, the International Gay Rodeo Association received more publicity due to Brokeback Mountain, resulting in an increase in attendance to their rodeos.
In general, Brokeback Mountain sparks discussion among queer theory and men’s studies. It is debated which genre of film it is: Queer, Gay, Western, Romance, or perhaps one of a kind. Most have come to the conclusion that it is “queer cinema.” Heath Ledger (Ennis Del Mar) addressed the genre of Brokeback Mountain at a press conference in 2006. He eloquently explained, “It’s obviously about two men in love, and it’s obviously gay-themed, and it’s very easily labeled. But unfortunately, people are very quick in life to label something that they’re uncomfortable with.”
Some gay men who watched the film appreciated how the characters, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, were not the “stereotypical” gay man usually portrayed in movies. Since the characters were considered more masculine, some straight males were intimidated, claiming the movie “ridicules Western by saying they’re gay.”
A scene at the end of the film can be interpreted as a reference to the fatal beating of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student, in Wyoming 1998. Once Ennis discovers that Jack is dead, he calls Lureen Twist, his wife, to investigate what happened. While it is said that his death was an accident because of a tire exploding in his face, Ennis imagines a different scenario in his head. The scene displays Jack being badly beat by three men. The movie never clarifies what actually happened, so it is up to the audience member to decide. The scene can be interpreted as a protest against hate crimes. At this time, there was no law protecting people who were victims of a hate crime based on sexual orientation. Although, Brokeback Mountain can be credited as a stepping stone to the passing of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009, which expanded the definition of a hate-crime to include violence motivated by disability, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Every audience member’s interpretation and reaction to a film is different. Movie-goers bring their unique beliefs, values, perspectives, and experiences with them to the theater. The power of films can spark strong reactions, positive and negative. Brokeback Mountain fell victim to passionate opinions of all kinds. Even though it received backlash, the vast media coverage brought the issue of gay rights to the surface and sparked conversation. These conversations forced people to think critically and evaluate their own beliefs. Social change does not happen without communication, which is exactly what Brokeback Mountain inspired.
“At least voice your opinions on how two people should hate, —and violence and anger— towards each other. Isn’t that more important?” – Heath Ledger
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