How movies help us to see ourselves

Thursday, February 9, 2006

What I love about movies is that the best of them hold up a mirror to us. They help us see and understand ourselves, our human condition, often in penetrating ways.

I comprehended this when I first saw "The Graduate." We all remember the graduate Benjamin who wasn't sure plastics was the answer to his future; and the unforgettable Mrs. Robinson, "the most attractive of all my parents' friends."

The year I first saw "The Graduate" coincided with my own graduation from college. And like Benjamin, I floated around in my parents' backyard pool for days on end, confused about my future. Medicine was the "plastics" in my family, and, like my cinematic counterpart, I wanted my future to be "different."

My parents had seen the movie and goodheartedly made jokes about their own graduate and the languorous summer he was taking for himself. They even seemed to be suggesting I find my own Mrs. Robinson, anything to get me out of the womb of that pool and on the path to righteous manhood. It became a vital part of our dialogue in that pivotal time, even though I am sure that we had different takes on that movie.

The interesting thing about truly great films is that the same screen will reflect differently to the person watching it, depending on where they sit in their lives.

Nowhere is that more evident currently than with this year's Oscar frontrunner, "Brokeback Mountain."

This film, known most widely as the "gay cowboy" movie, has quickly crossed over into its own cultural zeitgeist.

Those sitting on the far right of the aisle may see this film as an abominable depiction of a God-forbidden love. Those in the gay section may likely respond to it as a moving reflection of their struggles in the outbacks of love. And then there are all of those in the middle, open in various degrees to the film's complex themes about love and its demons.

Some women don't buy the love story; more women find plenty of resonance in the "Brokeback" themes (loving men who can't love). Straight men are known to be teary-eyed coming out of the theater, many more refuse to see it or are uncomfortable with seeing two iconic cowboys unable to "quit" each other. (These cowboys are no John Wayne.)

If we view this film through our heterosexual filters, our homosexual filters, our political or religious filters, we are missing the majesty of this truly human story.

"Brokeback Mountain" is the story of two cowboys who spend a memorable summer on top of Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain herding sheep. Jack Twist, a rodeo roughneck, is the more free-spirited of the two, able to more fully acknowledge the inarticulate passion that erupts between them. But it is the character of Ennis Delmar, brilliantly realized by Heath Ledger, that is the tortured soul of the story. Just like the meaning of his name ("island in the sea"), this was a man stranded in his own almost autistic world, separated by an ocean of fear. The irrepressible Jack Twist offered him a love "that would never grow old." Tortured by a childhood memory of a brutal gay bashing, he could not take that love with him down the mountain, back into a society that defined love and masculinity differently.

The rest of the film exposes the awful power of fear and how -- when it is used for the basis of our personal choices -- it not only cripples us but tragically impales those around us.

Like "The Graduate," this is a timely film. In our current political landscape, fear is being used as a potent way of shaping our hearts and minds. Anyone who disagrees with a particular political agenda is branded as "wimps, "traitors," "girly men." What's next, "Gay Cowboys"?

Just like "The Graduate" did for my parents and me back in the '60s, good films can help us bring greater understanding to the human condition we all share despite our differences. I am hopeful that "Brokeback Mountain" will do the same for us in this era.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at

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