|BELIEVE THE HYPE? BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.|
Before the general population even had a chance to see it, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (through no fault of its own) was in danger of becoming a noble message movie. The festival audiences and critics had let us know that this was The Gay Cowboy Movie, and
immediately that four-word simplification became its unofficial title for curious film patrons. In that regard, the film's real title sounded like something better suited to a cheap porn release -- you have to wonder how soon it will be until one of the hip characters on The O.C. refers to a friend's coming out of the closet as "going Brokeback" or "heading to Brokeback Mountain."
Before I went to see it opening night, I tired very hard to know nothing about the film. I ignored the commentaries about whether Brokeback was "gay" enough or whether the Heartland would accept such a film or how Ang
Lee had redefined the Western or what the film meant for this country's debate over gay marriage. A film has enough obstacles to face -- asking it to live up to a media-ordained "holy mission" of definitively advocating the validity of homosexual love was perhaps a little too much to expect from a roll of celluloid.
Now that I have seen it, I can only advise you to shield yourself as well from all that editorial hand-wringing. To appreciate Brokeback Mountain fully, you need to forget what you think the film is about -- and also what you think the film will say about the thing it's supposed to be about. You must forget that it's The Gay Cowboy Movie and all the baggage that moniker entails.
As the film opens, Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack and Heath Ledger's Ennis are two ordinary-enough knockabouts hired to herd sheep in Wyoming in the summer of 1963. Despite a tittering excitement among some of my fellow audience members concerning when-are-they-gonna-get-it-on, Lee presents the first act as a low-key series of slow-building bonding moments between the two men -- casual and natural.
If you didn't know this was TGCM, you'd just enjoy Gyllenhaal and Ledger's easy humor and warm camaraderie in these first scenes, which is Lee's intention -- there's no silly subversive/campy streak running through the opening. Gradually and inevitably, Jack and Ennis hook up -- again, causally and naturally, and without a lot of explanation to what it all means. And once the brief love scene ends -- Lee cuts away from it tactfully but not as if he's embarrassed by it -- there is no expositional dialogue about the nature of homosexuality or forced significant to the hookup. As with the best Westerns, Brokeback Mountain has a calm permanence to its characters and situations -- things just are. Men tend not to explain themselves too articulately in these kinds of films, and Jack and Ennis are no exception.
Ennis is the man in this relationship -- inexpressive, moody, and witheringly practical -- and he tells Jack that their summer together is a one-time thing. And so they go their own ways, and the rest of the film is a study of how the two men try to fill the gap created by their separation through obligatory marriages and children. But those distractions aren't even barely sufficient, and the two men keeping finding excuses to reunite on Brokeback Mountain over the years as an antidote to their "real" lives. And there you have a textbook unrequited-love narrative, the sort that Remains of the Day and The Age of Innocence and even The Bridges of Madison County made popular in the mid-'90s. That conventionality has ticked off some people who are reacting to Brokeback's hype, complaining that the movie is hardly groundbreaking -- isn't Lee's film just the same old same old, but with dudes kissing? What's the bid deal?
That faulty thinking misses what Ang Lee is trying to say as opposed to what Focus Features is trying to sell. The largely gay audience I was with at first seemed to expect (or hope) that Brokeback Mountain would parody the rugged machismo of the Western genre by exposing the buried homoeroticism underneath. (It was as if some patrons saw Brokeback as a means to get revenge on that most manly -- and straight -- of genres.) But Lee doesn't see his homosexual lovers as revolutionaries or gay-right liberators or anything so grandiose, and he isn't here to reinvent genre clichés. In truth, Brokeback Mountain returns to the same thematic terrain as The Ice Storm -- the complete and utter unhappiness that is the modern world. And with that as your agenda, there's no reason to be postmodern -- the way things transpire normally are painful and dramatic enough that they need no embellishment. And in Lee's hands, they don't require much sermonizing, either.
I think the subtlety of Lee's intended message -- the inability to maintain love, the stupidity of following your head instead of your heart -- will frustrate audience blocs who want Brokeback Mountain to speak to national crises the way Good Night, and Good Luck or Syriana does. But that's exactly why Lee's film is more dramatically powerful than either of those other two movies -- there's no sense that the narrative is being squeezed or compromised because of a desire to add a ripped-from-the-headlines urgency. In fact, I probably respect Brokeback Mountain the most for deciding that a simple love story has no place telling all of us (gay or straight) what it's like to be homosexual. (Just as well, actually, since the emotionally cut-off Ennis would insist he's not queer -- he just likes foolin' around with Jack is all.) While some advocates while consider that a failure of nerve, Brokeback's nonchalance toward its characters' sexuality makes it less preachy and more everyday -- to use the word some hardcore Christian groups will no doubt apply to the film, it normalizes homosexuality, rendering it as effortlessly as the vast Wyoming skies and Texas rodeos that form Brokeback's background.
This subtlety may incur a backlash -- from liberal audiences who want the film to speak out more forcibly in defense of homosexuals, from conservative audiences who think Hollywood once again is trying to mess with social values. But just as Brokeback Mountain has immense empathy for all of its characters -- even the lovers' wives, who are never treated as less than human beings -- so too do I admire and sympathize with Ang Lee's situation. This is a quiet, sad little film set amidst the grandness of some of the most beautiful wide-open spaces in America, which makes Jack and Ennis feel even more isolated -- from themselves and the environment around them. They're such simple, reserved guys that I think they'd be wholly embarrassed to know they're in a film that's causing so much fuss among certain groups across the political landscape. Because of the potentially controversial material, Ang Lee must have known while making Brokeback Mountain that he'd have to struggle to focus audiences' attention on the melancholy love story, and now that the film is in theaters, too many folks expect the movie and its director to have the answers to lingering questions the nation itself can't even resolve. But Brokeback is not an editorial, just like The Ice Storm was not a history lesson about the 1970s. Lee has sidestepped the saber-rattling, not out of fear but out of design -- Jack and Ennis just are. How can you ask Brokeback Mountain to settle a national debate when its main characters can barely fathom their own hearts?
Believe the Hype Rating: 8 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.