Thursday, February 02, 2006

Two cases of symbolic violence

One. The NewsHour carried a report on mine safety tonight. One of the coal miners who was interviewed, Joe Reynolds, said:

You should be able to put a man in a coal mine every day and bring him out again. There's no reason for men to die on the job.

It's this coal mine mentality from years ago that it's like going into combat, and so many miners will die, that's an acceptable loss. That's been ingrained in people for decades here; a mindset like that is totally ignorant.

Reynold's rejection of the mindset internalized among members of his community has profound implications for the way we understand culture, freedom and justice. Is it legitimate to regard mining fatalaties as an acceptable loss, as a cost of doing business? The question never truly arises until, in a moment of crisis perhaps, the possibility of refusal is made explicit. The rejection of the premise is not like ordinary logic. An entire symbolic universe is at stake, a world of heroes and tragedies, grit, struggle, family, life.

Two. I have to take issue with Annie Proulx when she says that sentimentality didn't creep in to Ang Lee's adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, but it's a rather restrained sentimentality, even by Lee's standards, so I won't press the point. Before seeing the film, Proulx "feared the landscape on which the story rests would be lost," and was delighted to find that it wasn't. I agree with Proulx that the film is huge and powerful, and one element of that is the landscape, which is never merely scenic. The dramatic tension of the story builds around a conflict between Ennis's internalization of an extreme homophobia typical of rural communities in the mountain West, and the possibility of freedom that his lover Jack represents. The landscape, principally Brokeback Mountain, where this conflict plays out, has a mediating function, or a double-sided symbolism, representing exile and ecstacy, freedom and constraints, desires and traumas.

If Brokeback Mountain were just any movie about the freedom to love and the tragic consequences of homophobia, it might be worthwhile, another important move to represent gay love in cinema outside the prism of camp, but it would not be huge and powerful. It is made huge by the wholeness of the characters, and in particular, by the thoroughness of Ennis's internalization of the forces of social domination. It is not just homophobia, but also class and regional identity that serve to keep Ennis in his place. Ennis is not allowed the comfort of taking his worldview for granted. He is made aware that his mindset could be otherwise, that he could change his cowboy ways, lead a less miserable life. But he also recognizes that the violence of his world is no mere fantasy, that the need for shelter is real. The prospect of trying to adapt to a more urban cosmopolitan lifestyle may or may not be realistic, but it simply does not appeal to him. Whether Ennis's attachment to his world is foolish or wise, it's understandable. It's a world he knows how to live in, tragic consequences and all.

Lee's visual language powerfully represents the predicament of living in a world dominated by brutal repression, driven by the hope of liberation. Neither interiors nor exteriors are complete unto themselves, and even in standing still, there is a trajectory. (Leaning is a constant figurative motif in Brokeback Mountain, and the picnic scene, which may go down as a classic in American cinema, can be seen as its explosive climax--though hardly the end of it.) Brokeback Mountain is a huge and powerful film, a not too sentimental gay cowboy movie, and a smart critique of symbolic violence.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:05 AM.


Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Well, luv, baby, you don't know what you're talking about, and you're obnoxious as sin, but that's not why I'm going to delete your post. You are in fact welcome to criticize me and the intellectual high horse I rode in on. You are not welcome to say or imply disparaging things about classes of people that I make no claim to represent, but who just might happen by. If that distinction is unclear to you, or if you feel that a double standard is being applied, I suggest that you think about it some, and either take stock of your words before posting, or just move along.

February 07, 2006 9:58 AM  

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