December 30, 2005
Much more than a 'gay cowboy movie'
'Brokeback Mountain' is one of the best films ever made
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is quite simply a landmark cinematic masterpiece and one of the best and most heart-wrenching love stories ever told in celluloid. Gay or straight. Period.
The film has been surrounded by a lot of buzz and a lot of trepidation ever since it has been in development. It is based on a short story of the same name by E. Annie Proulx, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1997.
Much of the buzz had to do with whether Hollywood was mature enough to make it. Will two leading men stake their box office reputations to play queer? And if two stars committed to the project, would they take on the awesome responsibility of creating full-blooded, three-dimensional queer characters as opposed to flimsy stereotypes? And would these two heterosexual leading men be able to do justice to the kissing and the sex and the love and the passion, the gritty intimacy, that so drives Brokeback’s cowboys towards a torrid, albeit doomed, love affair?
Thanks to the amazing team of Ang Lee, Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway, the producers, writers and entire crew, the finished film is that rare thing in cinema these days--an instant masterpiece told with courage and conviction, one that speaks truth to troubled times, and a film that is so hauntingly real that only the most heartless and cruel will not be moved.
The story of Brokeback is at one level your typical love story of forbidden attractions. Think Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient.
Whereas in those stories, the love was taboo due to race, family, class and social standing, in Brokeback, the amorous lovers are of simply another “love that dare not speak its name”--same sex love.
At one level it may seem completely incompatible that a love story among queer cowboys seem plausible, seem universal. (In fact, there have been news reports that certain western, cowboy and rodeo communities are concerned that the film could unleash a movement of more openness that their communities have queer folk too, just like any other.) Yet, the mythology of the cowboy has always been about rugged individualism, men on the outskirts of society, isolated, big dreamers, struggling with the forces of nature. Then, there is the truth of gays in America who have also had to blaze their own paths of rugged individualism on the fringes of cultural norms and who have had to fight to be one with their God-given natures.
Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are two out-of-luck cowboys in Wyoming, looking for work to stay afloat.
Their nomadic existence, having left their families, leads them to an employment office where they are both assigned to herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain, keeping them from being devoured by coyotes.
(The real sheep here are Ennis and Jack; the coyotes, our society in which their love must be killed.)
Their summer alone in the mountains is stressful and isolating. One cold night, Jack insists that Ennis come in and share the tent, and the rest, as they say, is the history of one of the most moving and doomed love affairs in literature.
The morning after the two make love for the first time--a stumbling, awkward dance of grunts and grapples like a matador with his bull--Ennis mumbles to Jack, “You know, I am not queer.” Jack replies, “Neither am I.” This is not so much a denial of their love for each other as much as an acceptance of social norms--particularly in 1963, pre-Stonewall--that said being in love with someone of the same sex was an illness, a taboo, a blasphemy.
Lee beautifully captures this post-coital self-loathing when on the slopes of Brokeback the next morning, Ennis comes upon a bloody sheep that has been gutted and disemboweled by a coyote that lurks in the distance.
It is a masterful image that speaks volumes about social hatred for homosexuality, mostly out of fear of societal retribution, of cultural censorship.
The love affair actually begins as the two wait in the dusty lot outside the employment trailer. The subtle glances and checking each other out, while trying not to get caught doing so, are both funny and touching. But after that first stint on Brokeback, cut short by an impending storm of devastating proportions, the cowboys go their own ways, heartbroken and ruefully alone. The storm on the mountain seems transient, feels insignificant against the tsunami of loss and love raging within the men.
In the ensuing years, each man gets married, has kids, acquires the façade of normalcy. And yet, fate and their aching hearts cannot keep them apart. They begin to meet once or twice a year, fulfilling in a few brief moments years of longing, eons of love unrequited. Some critics have called this a Same Time Next Year for gay cowboys.
Proulx’s story and Lee’s film have not an iota of preachiness. Yet, it is impossible not to see in Ennis and Jack’s tragic love, the idea that society brutalizes human beings on the fringes by maligning who they are, by disallowing them to love deeply and respectfully, and by demonizing them for their God-given attributes.
There is in Brokeback Mountain a cautionary tale about gay bashing and its effects on the psyches and souls of queer people. Ennis recalls, in one of the few moments he actually speaks much at all, a time when he was young and his father took him to a ravine to see the corpse of a cowboy who had been beaten to death because he was queer. Ennis isn’t certain, but it may even have been his dad who did the killing.
Given this powerful lesson from childhood, that murder is less sinful than consenting love between two men, how indeed can Ennis buy into Jack’s idealism of the two riding off into the sunset to a ranch of their own under the vastness of the sheltering sky? The gay-bashing motif is echoed hauntingly in the tragic climax of the film, creating an ending that is life transforming, both for the characters and the audience. And we can’t forget that the film is set in Wyoming, Matthew Shepard country.
Much like the women in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, the women of Brokeback Mountain are collateral damage. Ennis’s wife Alma and Jack’s wife Lureen are pulled into a miasma of their own worlds of unrequited love precisely because Ennis and Jack have been socialized into believing that their love for each other is tainted, taboo and must, against all costs, remain unrequited. The crime is not the homosexuality, it is the cover-up.
Even though Proulx’s story is beautiful, intimate and ground-breaking in its own right, in the hands of lesser filmmakers and artists, Brokeback could have been a hokey and insignificant film at best and patronizing and stereotypical at worst.
Thank God that the time it took to get Brokeback out from development hell and onto the screen paid off with a group of people who have conjured up an inimitable celluloid feast that celebrates the ability of the human spirit to accomplish and endure, despite the worst within us that seeks to destroy and decimate the beauty that is the difference in each and every one of us.
Given that Proulx’s other fictional piece The Shipping News was so cinematically botched, she has been twice blessed with the celluloid transfer of Brokeback.
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s screenplay is well paced, moving, and creates characters that are full-blooded.
Rodrigo Prieto’s lush cinematography is a beauty to behold. His stunning work on films like Amores Perros, 21 Grams, 8 Mile and Frida is cemented here with a film that photographs not only the exterior beauty of the landscape of Brokeback Mountain, but picturizes the interior, metaphysical wonder of the love of Ennis and Jack so movingly, so hauntingly.
Ang Lee’s directing is simply masterful here. He has previously stunned audiences with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and having come to Hollywood notability with his Oscar-nominated Taiwanese comedy The Wedding Banquet about an international gay love affair.
Lee takes Proulx’s sparse prose and creates a film so minimalist in many ways that it floats by our consciousness like a reverie of memories, snapshots from a life filled with the most exalted love known between two people and split asunder by the pain of rejection and the unknown. Lee takes his time telling this story and not one minute of it rings false. The director’s spartan approach to the film speaks volumes not so much in what he chooses to show us, but rather through that which he seeks to keep hidden from us.
Lee is not interested in sensationalizing or moralizing. He knows the powerful, universal truth embedded in his material and he trusts the story and his team to simply tell the tale, for to falsely embellish it in any way would be to ruin it. Lee cements himself as a director of great maturity and vision and every accolade he receives this award season will be several too few.
The entire cast is noteworthy, creating an enviable ensemble. The standouts are the four leads. As the hurt wife of Ennis, Michelle Williams creates a bruised woman who, when she catches her husband passionately kissing Jack outside their home, chooses to stay silen. Years later, after they are divorced, her wellspring of hurt and pain gushes forth like a tormented Wyoming geyser.
Equally strong, yet diametrically different, is Anne Hathaway, who plays Jack’s wife of rich parentage. Hathaway’s Lureen hides her pain and betrayal behind sophisticated boredom, a housewife who patches her broken soul with material objects and the patina of well-worn Texas glamour.
Jake Gyllenhaal (whose two godfathers are gay men) plays the more demonstrative and idealistic Jack with amorous passion and painful persistence. Jack doesn’t understand why he and Ennis can’t just have their own place, away from the world, and love each other as they were meant to. The ways in which his eyes light up when he sees Ennis and the way in which his heart bleeds every time Ennis says no to spending the rest of their lives together are elevating and heartbreaking all at once.
But the real revelation here is Australian Heath Ledger (real-life partner of his screen wife Michelle Williams) who turns in so solid and nuanced a performance that it compares to the work of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro or Sean Penn.
As the stoic cowboy of few words and a surly drawl, Ledger has created a character so complex and so human that when he breaks down, you do so with him; when he loves, you love along with him; and when his heart dies, a little of your soul dies with him.
His is the performance to beat this year for the coveted Best Actor Oscar (even though Phillip Seymor Hoffman’s Capote was masterful as well).
Two scenes of Ledger’s stand out. After that first summer on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jack part ways in town, not knowing if and when they will see each other. Then Ennis stumbles into a gap between two buildings. In silhouette, we see him literally and metaphysically heaving his guts because the love has already cut so deep and the loss has already battered so hard.
The other shining moment of Ledger’s steady and skilled performance is at the end when the plot reaches its catastrophic conclusion. Ironically, the film ends in a closet and Lee and Ledger craft an image so personal, so tender that my eyes still tear up simply recalling it. There is so much love, so much loss in that one still and startling image that it recalls a grief of epic proportions, a tragedy of ancient Greek monumentality.
Brokeback Mountain will go down in history as one of the best films ever made, if there is any justice, and if industry homophobia doesn’t prevent it from doing so. It will also hopefully mark a change in tides within an industry where homosexuality has always been the accepted secret of many, but the outward pretense has been that of gayness being verboten.
A few side issues related to the film are worthy of discussion. While the film itself is a mature masterpiece, the society into which it is birthed is anything but grown up. The mainstream media insists on calling it the “gay cowboy movie,” which does the film a massive injustice. After all, no one in the mass media refers to King Kong as “that interspecies romance flick,” and no one has tagged Memoirs of a Geisha as “that Oriental pedophilic child prostitute fetish film.”
Critics and pundits from newspapers and magazines to blogs and television chatfests titter like prepubescent schoolkids about the male-on-male kissing and sex in the film, revealing their own discomfort but transferring it onto an audience they claim may not be ready for such a film.
Even the marketing for the film itself has been somewhat dishonest. In the press kit from the studio are plenty of photos to be used in newspapers and magazines. Not one of those features Ennis and Jack even remotely close to one another, let alone kissing or holding each other tenderly as they do in the film. Can you imagine a press kit for The English Patient without Ralph Feinnes and Kristin Scott Thomas, locked lips and all? Or a media package for Doctor Zhivago without lovelorn images of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie hanging onto each other for dear life? Maybe they didn’t include images of Gyllenhaal cradling Ledger because Time magazine or USA Today won’t run those photos. What about all the queer publications and media outlets covering the film?
Sadly, even though Brokeback Mountain is a breakthrough film in times that are slowly moving forward for GLBT folk, it would be dangerous to assume that this is a period film and we don’t have any more Jacks and Ennises. On the contrary, the constant barrage of gay-baiting, gay-bashing, and anti-gay legislation creates a new Ennis, a new Jack, a new crime against humanity every single second.
One personal story. David Letterman has been doing a series of running gags about the film. Most are in good taste, many in good humor. I was at a taping of the Letterman show on Monday, December 12, and after doing a rather funny joke about the film, Letterman asked who in the audience had seen it. Reacting like a good chat show audience member, I clapped loudly and woo-hoo-ed, having seen the film on opening day in New York in one of only five theatres nationally. (The film goes into wide distribution in early January.)
Of the 461 people in Letterman’s audience I was the only one who had seen Brokeback, or at least admitted to doing so. It was an isolating feeling as Letterman scanned the darkened audience to see who had clapped, as others craned their necks to see who had seen the “gay cowboy movie” and was willing to acknowledge it on national television. Letterman looked bewildered, grimaced in his hallmark manner, and moved onto his next punch line.
Since that audience was mostly tourist and largely Middle America, it will be interesting to see how the film plays on Main Street in Red State U.S.A. Brokeback had the highest per-screen gross of any film that has opened in 2005, but that was on five screens and in the highly liberal areas of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
For now, this much is true: The film should strike a chord within people from all backgrounds because of its profound honesty and its universal homage to unrequited love. Brokeback Mountain is not so much a physical, albeit fictional, place in Wyoming. Rather, it is the metaphysical geography that exists in each of our hearts and souls. That place within the deepest recesses where all the hurt and rejection, love and loss, pain and ecstasy reside. Brokeback is that existential mountain we walk around with each day, balanced weightily, precariously on our souls, reveling in its dazzling beauty and bountiful love, burdening under its profound sadness and howling heartbreak. Brokeback is our common home, our unifying ancestry, for those of us who have loved and lost, and tried to love again. Mostly for those among us who have dared to love even when all around us insisted we shouldn’t.
Brokeback Mountain has been our sheltering home. It has been our burdensome curse. It has served as our caring refuge. It has been our soul’s salvation. It has been our life. Ennis and Jack know that better than anybody else.
They have opened my eyes to it.