Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 13, 2005 4:15 pm 
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[Published on Cinescene and also in The Baltimore Chronicle.]


Powerful adaptation with great acting is the year's best American film

"Brokeback Mountain," published nine years ago, is one of E. Annie Proulx's most admired stories. Quietly, understatedly, it describes the tragic epic love affair of a cowboy and a ranch hand who lived in Wyoming and Texas in the Sixties and Seventies. It's very much about an American time and place where such a love cannot be spoken, barely even lived, but in this case is so intense it comes to dominate the two men's lives. These "two deuces, going nowhere" meet working one summer on the named mountain tending sheep. One cold night their latent sexual desire for each other grabs them while they're snuggling to keep warm in a tent. It doesn't stop there. In fact it never stops.

After the job ends and they part, there's a huge longing that clings to both of them even though they don't see each other for four years and both get married. They wind up meeting every few months for twenty years, whenever they can, pretending to go on fishing trips.

The dirt poor ranch hand, Ennis Del Mar-- the Heath Ledger character in the new Ang Lee film -- continually tries to deny the intense desire for the other man and fight it, but Jack Twist (the Jake Gyllenhaal character) nonetheless is the love of his life. If we learn nothing else we learn that. Ultimately the story hits you with a wallop of emotion that's all the more powerful because of all the self denial, the barren terrain, you might say, on which this one big bright flower of forbidden and denied love still insistently and powerfully and painfully grew.

Annie Proulx's story touched me when I first read it. It spoke to something deep inside of me that I can't explain. I'm no cowboy. I didn't grow up in the rural West. But in some strange way it seemed my story. The repression, the hiding, the passion, the sadness, fit experiences of mine. I knew the feeling of hiding and not being able to talk about experiences that were more important to me than anything, while trying to feign conventional feelings and tastes. This is a story that gay men from other times and places have lived and that unfortunately many still live: the self denial, the repression, the fear of others' opinions and danger of being found out; the living of conventional "straight" lives that in the end don't really work and may even go very bad. Gay men who have lived this story know its sadness but also its hidden beauties and excitements. Much of Proulx's story isn't pretty, but it contains in it secrets of forbidden love you don't find many places.

The movie has to add stuff, to flesh out the details of the men's lives when they're apart that you may not remember from the story, but it hits you with the same wallop. The screenplay Larry McMurtry (of The Last Picture Show) and Diana Ossana have written expands Proulx's dry, terse tale without changing its essential pain, though it's a tough job -- and a tribute to the writing -- that it doesn't, because Ang Lee has made things so pretty, and clear, that you have to look for moments when the original spareness comes back.

It's in the way Heath Ledger talks. Ledger develops such a rich range of mumbles and coughs and grunts it's like a symphony built out of three notes. The movie has several performances in it that are peerless, but the standout is Heath Ledger, who has emerged in 2005 as the serious actor he wanted to be. Ledger's Ennis Del Mar is a wonderful character, tough, laconic, lonely, passionate, repressed. This performance of Ledger's alone is a joy, and it will endure.* Most every scene between Jack and Ennis evokes the tension and force of Proulx's tightlipped style.

The story's original spareness is there in the way the men make love, or mix kissing and fighting. It's especially there too in the way the film's bookended: the opening sequence of Ennis and Jack waiting for the boss (Randy Quaid) to show up so they can get hired. They're standing wordless, seemingly for hours, hiding under their hats, but as Anthony Lane suggests, even then they're probably already falling in love. At the end when Ennis visits Jack's parents, this is one of the best places. Their spaces and their faces are as lean as Proulx's sentences. It might have been nice to feel more of that leanness in between, but the wives and families had to be fleshed out; that was part of the game the filmmakers took on.

The Ang Lee version, with its beautiful photography and surprising actors, brought out in this viewer a sense of cumulative awakening of all the repressed awarenesses the story had first aroused nine years back. I remain so shaken it's hard even to write about it objectively, but clearly for me to find fault with something that's so right as a filming of Annie Proulx's tale would be a personal betrayal, and I must consider it the American movie of the year. Brokeback Mountain may or may not be a great movie (it's already well on the way to becoming a celebrated one), but it's a great cinematic realization of an outstanding piece of writing. There's nobody in it who isn't good; you'd have to simply list the whole cast. Suffice it to say that Jake Gyllenhaal, who's had quite a good year in movies himself, is just right for the other main role: he has the sweetness, the strength, and the sincerity to balance Ledger's sad aching self-repression.

*Stephen Holden in the New York Times: "Mr. Ledger magically and mysteriously disappears beneath the skin of his lean, sinewy character. It is a great screen performance, as good as the best of Marlon Brando and Sean Penn."



Daniel Mendelsohn in his review of the movie in The New York Review of Books has powerfully stated what the movie's real subject is and why it's important to anyone: "The real achievement of Brokeback Mountain is not that it tells a universal love story that happens to have gay characters in it, but that it tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it. If you insist, as so many have, that the story of Jack and Ennis is OK to watch and sympathize with because they're not really homosexual—that they're more like the heart of America than like 'gay people'—you're pushing them back into the closet whose narrow and suffocating confines Ang Lee and his collaborators have so beautifully and harrowingly exposed."

And Nathan Lee in Film Comment (January-February 2006) has eloquently summed up why even the hippest of young gay men still has just got to see this movie as a milestone: "On the one hand Brokeback Mountain isn't very queer. In his mania to be tasteful, Ang Lee drains much of the flavor to be found in Annie Proulx's source story. The filmmaking is flat as a postcard, enervated in the editing, with a score that couldn't be cornier. On the other hand, the one that's lubed up with saliva, could Brokeback Mountain by any queerer? Sure, we don't actually see Ennis Del Mar bareback Jack Twist, and those hair-raising kisses are much too brief. Critics of all orientations have complained that the movie isn't gay enough, doesn't show enough sex. Okay, then name me a movie on this scale, with comparable pedigree, that is and does. Brokeback rebukes the tradition of sexless homos in mainstream culture. And that matters--up to a point. The larger point is love, and we haven't seen anything this tenderly bent since the campfire scene in My Own Private Idaho. And by "we" I mean the many millions of 'mos on the planet who've just been given, in no uncertain terms, the epic romantic tragedy straight people have taken for granted all their lives."

Lee made his points more pungently earlier on a Dave Kehr website discussion on Brokeback Mountain. He wrote: "Why is it that all the straight critics think BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN isn’t gay, or at least gay enough? Spit-lubed buttsex and onscreen kissing and, gee, two men falling desperately, tragically in love with each other? Sounds pretty gay to me, but then I don’t take for granted a corny Hollywood romance that reflects my sexuality since, uh, they don’t exist. I’ll concede that BROKEBACK is, with the exception of Ledger’s performance, mediocre filmmaking, but I wish all you hip, with-it heteros would stop running to the defense of us ill-served gays. Three cheers for middle-brow man-on-man masochistic romanticism, says I. I’ve been watching you straights wallow in it long enough."

He also wrote (still on the Dave Kehr website): "How many mainstream movies have we seen this year in which a male star kisses a female star in plain view? Fifty? A hundred? Now how many have shown two major male stars sticking their tongues down each other’s throats? One. Let’s take a step back. How many movies IN THE HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD CINEMA have presented such images? Edgy Hollywood gay = Hanks and Banderas slow dancing in PHILADELPHIA.
BROKEBACK rebukes the tradition of sexless mainstream movie homos. In an ideal world, I’d side with Armond White when he attacks BROKEBACK vis-a-vis marginalized films that treat gay sexuality and love with greater daring, subtlety, nuance. But we don’t live in an ideal world. We live in a world in which this 'compromised, conventional take on gay life' - I agree! - is nevertheless radical in terms of representation. BROKEBACK’s conventionality is, in fact, an asset. This movie is not opening at the Quad.
Straight people simply can’t understand how epochal such images are to gay viewers fed up with the celluloid closet, hetero homogeneity, and neutered film fags (cf. CAPOTE, PLUTO, etc). Straight crix should stop congratulating themselves on breaking down what BROKEBACK isn’t, and try to see how very much it is.
Defending this tame, corny movie breaks my heart, as it reminds me how ill-served gay people are by mainstream culture. I get Dave’s beef with the film, I really do, and I respect his objections to the film on any and all stylistic/dramatic grounds. But I think his disappointment with the sexual politics holds the movie up to an imaginary standard, one that only straight privilege could think applicable."

The syndicated columnist Delroy Murdock had some interesting practical observations relevant to conservatives about what the movie implies concerning marriage, gay vs. straight. "The Real Lessons of Brokeback Mountain": ""Brokeback Mountain" should prompt social conservatives to ponder whether it is good family policy to encourage gay men to live lives that are traditional yet untrue. Would honest gay marriages be less destructive than deceitful straight ones? I think so."

Dave Cullen's Ultimate Brokeback Guide is an online gathering place for information and references on the movie. [As of April 2015 this site was still maintained.]

There is also the 2007 Reading Brokeback Mountain: Essays on the Story and the Film
edited by Jim Stacy. And the 2011 The Brokeback Book: From Story to Cultural Phenomenon edited by William R. Handley, and I guess the list goes on.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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