Sunday, March 6, 2011
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2006)
And now we come to the most acclaimed of current films, and the almost certain Oscar winner, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.
The film starts in 1963, when two young men take on a summer ranching job, tending sheep high up on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain. One (Heath Ledger) is bottled-up, often barely coherent in his mumbling; the other (Jake Gyllenhaal) more voluble. During a cold night, after much whisky, they share a tent, and make love. The next day they both stamp it as a one-shot thing, but then it happens again, and the pattern is set for the summer. They come down off the mountain, four years pass, and each gets married and has children. Then they meet again, and the explosiveness of that meeting confirms the lack of what they’ve been living in between. From then on they share years of snatched getaways, under the guise of fishing trips out in the wild, while one marriage collapses and the other becomes a self-parody.
Following The Hulk
Ang Lee is renowned for his versatility and sensitivity, the high point being the sublime Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After that he made The Hulk, which didn’t please much of anyone. I was just looking back at my review of that film, and some of what I wrote now seems almost like a thesis for which Brokeback Mountain forms the necessary, cleansing rejoinder. Among other things: “Lee obviously understands the Hulk’s potential as metaphor – how could you not? – but seems to have no specific strategy for unlocking it, other than to have his camera stare somewhat plaintively at the characters.”
And: “The (action) scenes seem under-populated and stark – echoing the film’s lack of substantial people. It’s as if the film was a microscope, stripping away the usual action movie diversions to illuminate its central psychodrama.” I concluded: “He’s in the same spot now as Martin Scorsese after Gangs of New York – someone for whom going back to smaller movies wouldn’t be a limitation, but a liberation.”
Brokeback Mountain, his first film since then (based on a novella by Annie Proulx; screenplay co-written by Larry McMurtry), is that liberating smaller film. Again, the film has a plaintive, under-populated quality. It sticks close to the two men, barely sketching the social changes around them – although it clearly indicates that tolerance is a much sparser commodity in the rural West and mid-West than it may be elsewhere. It’s a film of minute observation and reflection, so much so that it might be considered rather parched. Certainly, Lee’s films seldom yield the great intuitive observations that one finds in Altman (who would have done a better job at filling in a sense of the communities) or many others.
I'm not the best-placed person to assess the movie’s relative courage as a contribution to gay cinema, or even to cinema about gays (which I don’t think is at all the same thing) but an essay by Adam Mars-Jones in the British Observer seemed persuasive to me in this regard. I'll quote from this at some length:
“The film has been acclaimed for shattering stereotypes. Men who have sex with men need not have a funny walk; they can form deep attachments; they can fix cars and ride steers. All this is news to Hollywood, and good to see on the screen.
“On the other hand, much of the fear of homosexuality is fear of the feminine. From this point of view there's something reassuring about men who hook up with each other without benefit of radical drag, gay pride marches…And perhaps just as important as the stereotypes shattered is the stereotype left unrevised: that gay men are isolated, trapped and doomed.
“Not that the men in the film are allowed any consciousness of themselves as gay. They clearly aren't 'queer', and have no difficulty marrying and fathering children. Again, mainstream culture prefers its homosexuals to be in the dark about their strange urges. It makes it easier to feel sorry for them…
“But then gay viewers have to close their eyes to a lot of things, and avoid asking awkward questions. Such as, what exactly is the gay input on Brokeback Mountain? …If there is anyone on the project, in front of the camera or behind it, for whom the subject matter is more than abstractly worthy, they're keeping quiet about it. And yes, it's time at last for the obligatory racial analogy - how would Jews or blacks feel about a film that addressed their historical sufferings but regarded their actual testimony as optional?”
I think it’s difficult wholly to reject anything Mars-Jones says there. On the other hand, his comments aren’t necessarily very useful as specific criticism of Brokeback Mountain; he could be saying that the film would be entirely acceptable and good, if it weren’t the only recent high-profile film about a gay relationship, if it were surrounded by other films cumulatively conveying more of the disapora of gay experience. In this regard, Lee’s film falters a little when (as if realizing the tightness of its physical and emotional parameters) it gingerly seeks to sketch a broader social context. Most of this attempt focuses on the Gyllenhaal character, more sure of himself and able to contemplate a measure of emancipation. The flip side is that, in the highly programmed Texas environs, this only leads to external signs of compromised masculinity, most explicitly depicted in a family dinner scene with his contemptuous father in law. But that scene feels rather forced to me.
The film’s greatest strength is Heath Ledger, embodying a simple man who nevertheless resists any easy dissection. At times it seems he’s buried so deep within himself that nothing can escape; at others he barely seems defined at all. He loses himself in the rancher’s life, in the rhythm of small pleasures snatched from a hard, unrelenting existence. By 1963 the lone horseman was already a cliché, and in the early scene where the two men meet, we see Gyllenhaal striking a knowing pose – already more campy than rugged – alongside his pick-up truck. Ledger, to whom such myth making is alien, just stands there.
The film suggests that a notion of gay identity – as opposed to just taking it as it comes – is as much cultural as personal, and although Ledger’s inability to pursue that course is his great tragedy, given his circumstances there’s a measure of nobility in it. In The Hulk, Lee jumped into the heart of the myth and found himself floundering, but here he functions as much by exclusion. In some ways, as Mars-Jones points out, this renders the film’s effect rather neutral, but at times it’s unique, unclassifiable, and utterly gripping. Overall, the film didn't quite make my top ten list for the year, but the Oscar will be far from undeserved.
(2011 postscript - ...but of course, Crash actually won)