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Same-Sex vs. Same-Old

Sapphic but not graphic: Piper Perabo and Lena Headey make tepid love "Imagine Me & You." © 2006 Minotaur Film Partnership No. 3 Limited. All Rights Reserved

A married protagonist falls head over heels in love with a same-sex buddy, and heartbreaking complications ensue. This sums up the plot not only of that famous gay-cowboy movie, but of the new Brit chick flick Imagine Me & You. What Brokeback Mountain approached as high Hollywood art, Imagine Me & You gloms onto as trendy not-so-high concept.

Like a nervous matron wading into a chilly pool, the culture industry is inching oh so carefully toward taking the plunge with full-on gayness—not as a way of life or a political cause, but as a highly marketable form of mass titillation.

Starting with its easy-listening title (yes, the old Turtles song makes an appearance), Imagine Me & You is gay lite, so lite it hardly makes a dent. The story begins as Rachel (played by Coyote Ugly’s Piper Perabo), climbs into a white dress and prepares to marry her long-time “best friend,” Heck (Matthew Goode, who also plays a sweet-natured cuckold in Woody Allen’s Match Point).

As Rachel floats down the aisle she momentarily exchanges a glance with the wedding’s beautiful, gay, and unattached florist, Luce (Lena Headey, last seen in The Brothers Grimm). Rachel has apparently never before had a homosexual thought, but now, thanks to a mysterious twist of fate or biochemistry, suddenly she recognizes her true life mate.

She goes through with the wedding anyway—we’re only a few minutes into the picture, after all—but she can’t get Luce out of her mind, and circumstances keep contriving to throw the two women together. Heck can tell his bride has suddenly cooled but doesn’t guess why. Rachel (whose tumid lips and heavy makeup make her look oddly like Macaulay Culkin doing his camp turn in Party Monster) seems mostly worried about hurting Heck’s feelings.

Perhaps she is picking up the movie’s subtext: that heterosexuality is for suckers. Her father’s brain seems to have turned to jelly from the abuse dished out by her castrating virago of a mother; Heck’s best friend is a compulsive womanizer; Luce’s mother is paralyzed by depression after being dumped by her husband; and Heck, that adorable wimp (with a full complement of Hugh Grant-ish shrugs and moues), clearly has rather less testosterone than his female rival.

However much this movie yearns for an aura of lesbian chic, it can’t help but timidly scuttle away from its own premise. Neither Rachel nor anyone else seems particularly surprised that her one true love has turned out to be another girl—indeed, Luce could have been played by a man with barely any script changes beyond switching the “c” in her name for a “k.” Moreover, everyone is quick to recognize the rightness of Rachel and Luce’s love, even Heck, who politely gets out of Luce’s way in an anger-free display of British phlegm that looks suspiciously like indifference—or perhaps Woody Allen was calling.

Let’s not hear any complaints about spoiling the ending, since movies of this sort follow a game plan as inexorable and as obvious as Scott McClellan’s talking points. After some tedious to-and-froing, Rachel and Luce of course get together. Yet nothing happens beyond a couple of kisses, fully clothed, and I mean fully, including coats and scarves. Really, what is the point of a lesbian love story with no lesbian lovin’? Worse, when Perabo and Headey do finally go at each other it’s with an “I’m only following orders” air: there’s not a calorie of heat between the two.

Soulless product like Imagine Me & You highlights the virtues of BrokebackMountain. Sure, Brokeback has a better script, better acting, better scenery, better everything—way better. But it also feels like it was motivated by something besides a focus group. And as a result, it’s a hell of a lot hotter.

The essence of romance is not fulfillment, but yearning, and that’s the problem with romance nowadays: it’s hard to believe anything really stands in the way of the kind of people we like to watch on screen. Once upon a time, things like class and poverty and being married to someone else were understood to be real impediments to passion. But now we live in an era when the only fantasy more powerful than the belief in endless possibilities for sexual pleasure is our faith in untrammeled social mobility. Today backing away from true love because of money or previous commitments can too easily look like cowardice rather than principle.

Thanks to the religious right, however, gay love remains genuinely romantic because it is just about the only kind of love that still possesses a genuine aura of sin.

That’s particularly true of love between two men. A little same-sex experimentation is becoming almost a requirement for the liberated gal, leading to the “lesbian until graduation” phenomenon so disdained by serious dykes, the mai-tai-fueled smooching in all those “Girls Gone Wild” videos, and the mainstreaming of Ellen DeGeneres. Back in the flower-power era a walk on the wild side wasn’t considered entirely beyond the pale for young men, either. But in the wake of AIDS and the nation’s drift into fundamentalism, sexual orientation in the culture at large is once again a line as uncrossable for men as the Berlin Wall, in terms of social identity, even if not in fact.

That’s not to say that lesbianism doesn’t still pack some heat. And if Imagine Me & You had taken itself even halfway seriously, it could have generated real amorous interest. But although first-time writer-director Ol Parker may have aspired to the cool of gayness, he chickened out of making his characters actually, you know, gay. He’s not alone: Pierce Brosnan’s aging hitman in The Matador is supposed to be bisexual, but after Brosnan pitched a hissy the gay side of his character was dialed down so far as to be invisible to most viewers.

By contrast, Brokeback Mountainexhibits genuine courage, no doubt bolstered by the clout of director Ang Lee, the cachet of screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, and two highly bankable stars. As a result, in Ennis and Jack we have a real love story and a truly, deeply romantic couple.

The anxiously homophobic males who honked that no one would want to watch two guys going at it turned out to be oh so wrong. Maybe a lot of straight men stayed home with the safely closeted homoeroticism of a game on TV. But women (along with gay men and all those sensitive metrosexuals we keep hearing about) went to Brokeback and liked what they saw. Men aren’t the only ones who enjoy watching the other team play.

There’s plenty of precedent for this. In Japan, widely popular yaoi and “boys love” manga depicting gay male romance, often with explicit sex, are created mainly by women for a mainly female audience. In this country there’s “slash fiction,” written mostly by straight women and describing nominally straight men—Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, members of the Backstreet Boys, various TV and film celebrities—having sex with each other.

Well, with Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger we’ve got yaoi zowie. Indeed, their characters are rendered even more romantic by the way the movie transformed the Annie Proulx story on which it’s based. In Proulx’s original New Yorker fiction, the two men are unattractive little losers (Ennis beaky and “cave-chested,” Jack bucktoothed and big-assed) who don’t realize that their connection is more than a sexual adventure until long after their summer on the mountain ends. (When Ennis gets sick to his stomach after parting ways with Jack, he thinks it’s food poisoning.) Although homophobia is a murderous fact of their world, we sense that Ennis, who clearly has intimacy issues, would have fought shy of moving in together if they both lived in San Francisco.

By turning the two into gorgeous movie stars, the movie can’t help but change everything. Now Ennis’s reluctance to run off to a ranch with his lover seems driven more by factors outside the charmed circle of their relationship than by his own flaws. How could a man as beautiful as Ledger not be fundamentally brave? How could anyone not commit to Gyllenhaal when he looks at you with those lustrous eyes? What in print is a story of two men wrestling with their own souls becomes, thanks to the inevitable glamness of a major motion picture, a tragic tale of lovers kept apart by evil rednecks.

Just imagine Brokeback Mountain with two short, ugly unknowns in the lead and think how much more powerful it would be—and how much less box-office it would get.

Perhaps what is most significant about Brokeback is the way it showed that man-on-man love can make real money if the men are the right kind of beautiful and the soft-focus sodomy is presented as part of a four-hankie plot.

To keep us watching, the entertainment industry must keep edging past the bounds of conventional decency, commodifying the forbidden, and using societal disapproval as a way of building the brand: “Jack and Ennis—not your parents’ Love Story.” Some theologians may insist that (in their words) “God hates fags,” but with every day it becomes clearer that the invisible hand of the market loves them. The question is how soon more filmmakers will have the horse sense to really take commercial advantage of the gay trope, in both its male and female variants, instead of—like Matador and Imagine Me & You—pussying out.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2006

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