Friday, January 05, 2007

History Boys

I haven't seen the film version of The History Boys, but apparently the ending is changed slightly for one of the characters.

The writer Andrew Sullivan has an interesting discussion of Bennett's film and play going on at his blog, the Daily Dish. He posted his reactions to the film and that has been followed by a couple of reader reactions here and here.

I agree with the readers's sentiments; I found Bennett's coda to his play, (which portrays the gay student as almost condemned to a life of reclusive isolation and possible mental illness,) extremely bleak, if not slightly confusing.

Sullivan's reaction to History Boys reminded of something I thought of the play:

So, my primary thought after reading The History Boys? Exactly
what is "the Test" to which we are or are not teaching? Is it life? Career? The character of Irwin, in his life seems genuinely asking those questions, all the way through. The ending codas of the students are what drive home these feelings.

Interestingly, Sullivan includes the following sentence when discussing how much of himself he saw in the play:

Except, of course, my life was beginning to be torn apart by the issue of my homosexuality, which is, in another exquisite touch, the central plot of the play. The mixture of being totally accepted and yet not accepted, the peculiar experience of homosexual displacement, is hard to convey to outsiders, but Bennett does it brilliantly and funnily. It's strange to see one's own life filtered through another lens, scrambled and reimagined by the genius of Bennett's empathy and wit, and thrown at the screen with such scary precision and insight.

Sullivan's identification of the central theme as the closeted life kind of reminded me of Daniel Mendelsohn's review of Brokeback Mountain in the New York Review of Books(Subscriber Only, sorry.) in which he basically said, "People, this is not simply a love story. It is about the cruelty, self destruction, and hurt relationships that are the fallout of life in the closet."

Mendelsohn's thesis included the charge that the film's marketing campaign, which sought to downplay the gay aspects of the film, actually hurt the film.

The review lead to testy letter exchange (not firewalled and definitely worth a read,) between Mendelsohn and one of the producers of the film. Here is Mendelsohn's response to the producer's charge that the film's story is universal:

Because I am a critic (not an activist) the emphasis on the film's
homosexual themes seemed necessary; as I wrote, it is impossible to appreciate the film's aesthetic attainments—a superior performance by an actor playing a closeted gay man, the elaborate and carefully considered details that underscore the theme of the closet—without acknowledging the specificity of its gay subject matter. That the film can appeal to a universal audience—rather a different point—is something that I not only don't deny, but stated quite flatly in my
piece. ("Any feeling person can be moved by it.") Simply because a narrative has universal appeal, however, doesn't mean that the story it tells is universal—a distinction that sorely needs to be made in the current cultural climate, one in which everyone wants to lay claim to everyone else's pain. To say that the story of Brokeback Mountain is universal because in some general way it concerns "love" is to say nothing at all; it's like saying Schindler's List is a universal story because we all know what it's like to lose a family member. (And
imagine the response if critics were to claim that the Holocaust were incidental to that movie, or slavery to Beloved.)

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