Saturday, April 09, 2011

"From "Brokeback Mountain" to "Beyond Brokeback" -- the long life of a short story

On Friday, as I drove the pass back to Cheyenne, I thought about the impact and mystery of the arts. I had just seen a staged reading of “Beyond Brokeback” at the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice at UW. “Beyond Brokeback” is another chapter in the story of “Brokeback Mountain,” a short story written by Wyoming writer Annie Proulx back in the last century. She wrote it in the mid-1990s and it made its debut in the The New Yorker magazine in 1997. It was in Proulx’s 1999 collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories. The first edition of the book featured illustrations by renowned Western artist William Matthews. A signed copy is worth a lot, I’m told by eBay.

That, as we say in the short story writing business, is that. The New Yorker copies get recycled and books are read and put up on the home library shelf. Its bookstore shelf life, especially in the dark ages of the 1990s, was probably a couple of months. The book was used in the Wyoming Humanities Council “Reading Wyoming” series. One of the stories, “Pair a Spurs,” was excerpted in Deep West: A Literary Tour of Wyoming by the Wyoming Center for the Book. I co-edited the book with Wyoming Poet Laureate David Romtvedt and then-director of the Center for the Book, Linn Rounds.

So the story's already had more visibility than is usual for the genre. Annie Proulx is a Pulitzer Prize winner, after all, for the The Shipping News, set in Newfoundland but written in Wyoming. The critics liked it, yet many Wyomingites did not. The stories featured (in no particular order) a crazy mother who tossed her infant into a creek, a half-skinned steer, wanton hussies, a smattering of drunks, a talking tractor, crazy old coots and violence a-plenty. I, for one, liked the talking tractor in “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World.” And I was proud of myself for tracking down and reading the Icelandic Saga that was the basis for “The Half-Skinned Steer.” 

I read some – but not all – of the stories in Close Range. I missed “Brokeback Mountain.” It wasn’t the subject matter of two young cowboys having a homosexual relationship. I just didn’t get around to it until I listened to the entire audiobook during a long drive across the state. The tale ended as I drove a secondary road in Fremont County. I pulled over to take a deep breath so that I wouldn’t cry on company time. The scene with the shirts in the closet was one of the most powerful endings of any American story. I sat there on the side of the road, contemplating this very touching love story between two men of the West.

As I mentioned, Close Range was not beloved here in The Equality State. The former state parks director, a Wyoming native and voracious reader, said that he liked the stories but wished that they had been written about Nebraska. During a drive to Cody with a colleague, I excitedly plugged in the Close Range audiobook. We listened to the first two stories. After the second concluded, my colleague asked if we could listen to something else. “The stories are depressing,” she said. We listened to an oldies station the rest of the way.

I’ve spoken with Annie Proulx several times. At an art museum opening in Casper, she told me that she was dismayed that people thought her stories about Wyoming cowboys and barmaids and oil patch workers were inaccurate and hard to believe. Proulx, a dogged researcher, said that the stories were based on real incidents dug from the archives. She changed the names and added details and gave it her own writerly touch. The author was already working on another collection of Wyoming stories – she did three in all.

We skip ahead to 2005. “Brokeback Mountain,” the film by Ang Lee starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the ill-fated Heath Ledger, opened with much fanfare. Theatres in some small towns refused to show the film. There was even a question whether it would be screened anywhere in Wyoming (it was).  The film made a lot of money and gets some Oscar nominations. At the Oscar ceremony in 2006, novelist Larry McMurtry and screenwriter Diana Ossana won the award for best adapted screenplay from Proulx’s story.

Meanwhile, thousands of people were leaving comments on the Ultimate Brokeback Forum web site. Their comments were angry, sad, sweet and funny. They arrived from all over the world and from all kinds of people young and old, gay and straight, rural and urban. Site founder Dave Cullen says that the site recorded 500,000 posts the first year. Another 50,000 to 100,000 lurkers came by to see what was going on.

A lot, as it turned out.

Cullen culled the commentary and poetry and song lyrics and came up with enough intriguing narrative to fill a book, Beyond Brokeback: Impact of a Film. On December 11, 2010, the fifth anniversary of the movie’s release, Gregory Hinton debuted his adaptation of “Beyond Brokeback” at the Autry Museum in L.A. The museum is named after its benefactor, cowboy crooner Gene Autry who died one of the richest men in America. The show was part of the museum’s “Out West” series, a clever bit of word play.

The Autry event comes with its own connection to Wyoming (funny how they keep on coming up). Gregory Hinton grew up in Cody where his father was editor of the newspaper. He acknowledges the sad fact that many LGBT kids in rural places depart rather than stay, believing (for many good reasons) that there is no place for them. They flee to cities where being gay is not an excuse for revulsion or name-calling or worse. As one commentator said on the Ultimate Brokeback Forum, there are three items from the film that every gay young man knows: the closet, a bloody shirt, and a tire iron.

Hinton was invited to present “Beyond Brokeback” at the Shepard Symposium. This symposium is named for Matthew Shepard, the young gay man from Casper who was severely beaten and left for dead on an October night in Laramie. The theme of this year’s Shepard Symposium was “CREATE: Activism Toward Social Justice.”

Friday’s “Beyond Brokeback” staged reading featured these talented people: James Bowyer, Lee Hodgson, John J. O’Hagan, Peter Parolin, Hannah Peterson, Katie Stearns and Katrina Zook. Bowyer also played the piano and sang along with Zook. Shawn Kirchner wrote the original songs. The reading was directed by O’Hagan and produced by Hinton and O’Hagan. It’s important to name the names.  Not only did they do a terrific job on stage, they breathed life into people they’d never met. We heard stories from a farmer who’d just tended to his 95 cows, a 57-year-old divorced woman who was making some big changes, and a gay Jackson, Wyo., resident who loved his natural surroundings but was mystified by the prejudice he received from humans. A “senior division” gay man regretted his lonely, anonymous suburban life – yet still was willing to give love another try. A married woman took her tough-guy husband to the movie and was shocked when he admitted crying at the sad ending. “He’s going to get lucky tonight,” she quipped.

These were the voices of real people shaped by the art of a writer and told by actors and teachers and singers. They transformed the work. And it lives on.

What can be made of this long history of this short story turned script turned movie turned web site turned book turned script turned stage performance? It’s miraculous how one creative work can beget so many other creative works. The movie received most of the attention. But the saga now is entering another phase.

As mentioned earlier, Greg Hinton knows what it’s like to grow up different in the rural West. His formative years go back a few decades. But when you survey the state now, you realize it hasn’t gotten much better. Witness the foofaraw over the “Erase the Hate” banner removed from the Wheatland schools last year. Witness the huge outpouring of anti-gay sentiment during Wyoming’s recent legislative session. Rural school continue to reject the state’s anti-bullying program because school boards, stacked with fundamentalists, fear that anti-bullying has an agenda to protect LGBT youth. It does, of course. No bullying means no bullying – period. No bullying of gays or lesbians or ethnic minorities (only 8 percent of the state’s population and less in rural areas) or those with physical or mental or psychological disabilities. All that these small-town school boards see is what they hear in their tight-knit circles and close-minded churches and (of course) Fox “News.” It’s no surprise that these rural areas send some of the most close-minded people to the state legislature.

Greg Hinton wants to take “Beyond Brokeback” to small towns and rural communities around the state that shaped him. His goal is to put scripts in the hands of teachers and ranchers and home-school moms and have them read the commentary from “Beyond Brokeback.” It would be entertaining and educational. It may open up a few minds. Audience members might even see themselves in there somewhere.  As Hinton said when he introduced the staged reading on Friday:

"I was born on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana, grew up in Cody, and went to school in Boulder, Colo. I experienced bias as a rural-born Western man.”

But he felt forced to leave the places that he loved. “But not everybody is leaving anymore. That’s what today is all about.”

I am a straight man (“senior division”) who was born in the West, grew up in the South, and returned to the West because I love it. I didn’t experience the same kind of bias that LGBT youth did in the West or the South. I saw it, though, and now know many who experienced it then -- and are experiencing it now. LGBT youth need to hear the voices of people like them. They are not alone. And "it gets better."

If you’re interested in hearing more about Greg Hinton’s project, or you have an interest in bringing a staged reading to your community, send me a comment here or look me up on Facebook.


DavidEhrenstein said...

My Two Cents

Linda Andrews said...

Thanks for the wonderful review, Michael. I am a member of The Ultimate Brokeback Forum since the beginning in 2005, and just one of those 500,000 posts that first year. I am still a member 5+ years later. I had the privilege of attending Gregory Hinton's first presentation at the Autry Museum last December and so wanted to attend this one. I know it was as moving as the first. I appreciate the history you wrote about here as well. Thank you. I am one of those real people shaped by the art of the short story, movie, and now by the adapted work of "Beyond Brokeback".

BayCityJohn said...

Wonderful review Michael.

The great thing about Brokeback Mountain is that it created dialougue where other great films failed.

The legacy of the film is still being written five years on, and Gregory Hinton is certinly a big part of that legacy.

John Laidler said...

Great review, Michael.

I met Gregory Hinton at the Autry in LA last December. He does wonderful work in staging readings from "Beyond Brokeback." I was there, so to speak, like Linda and John, longtime members of the Ultimate Brokeback Forum.

Thanks for your wonderful support!

ellenclaire said...

I love the idea of taking the show to rural towns. During the first year of the forum, we had a DVD campaign to place DVDs of the movie in rural libraries. And of course we always hoped the book "Beyond Brokeback" would be a way to keep our love of the story alive, and share it with others. Thanks so much to Greg Hinton for taking on this project.

Fritz said...

Thank you for the review, Michael. I was also at the reading in December. I do hope and look forward to more readings, especially in areas depicted by the story, so people will not feel like they are alone there.