Saturday, 21 November 2009

Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee, USA 2006

The recent release of Ang Lee's latest, Taking Woodstock (USA 2009), inspired me to rewatch some of his earlier films, notably Brokeback Mountain. While this particular film can never be considered underrated, it did, however, lose out on Oscar night, and, moreover, sparked quite a few heated debates upon its initial release. Brokeback Mountain quickly became a favourite with talk-shows, made headlines around the globe and nabbed a number of prestigious awards, including the Copa Volpi at the Venice Film Festival. And that although Brokeback Mountain is simply a love story between two cowboys, who, I might add, are played by actors -Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger- who both made it abundantly clear that they are not gay.
So why all the fuss?

It is true that on the surface Brokeback Mountain could indeed be written off as just that: a love story between two cowboys; and like so many times before, the love between the two men is not to be, the physical side of their love is merely hinted at, and one of the leading characters inevitably dies at the end.
So what else is new?


For a start, the film’s pacing is extraordinary, with a slow-moving camera that allows the viewer to size up its two protagonists. Furthermore, the anticipation, until Jack and Ennis relationship turns physical, makes their love, their desire and their hunger for each other almost palpable. Although the word love is never actually mentioned throughout the film, Jack’s and Ennis’ love for each other is nevertheless flagrant and tangible, suffusing the film from beginning to end. I can’t think of a single film where the love between two men has been portrayed with such passion, honesty and integrity. What’s more, it is just refreshing to watch two men falling in love without them meeting in some dingy club and without having them look like clones. That Jack’s and Ennis’ meeting is entirely accidental makes the love between them all the more real, all the more truthful. That their love is not just sexual, but that their physical as well as mental need to be with each other is brought to the fore, elevates Brokeback Mountain to one of greatest love stories of all time – gay or straight.

To anyone who’s about to suggest that the story lacks credibility or reeks too much like a gay fantasy, I’d like to remind them that the story is set in rural Wyoming of the 1960s and 70s – a world far removed from Greenwich Village or Castro Street; and even there wasn’t much going on in terms of gay life back in 1963, which is the year Jack and Ennis meet for the first time. But apart from that, I do believe that even in our day you won’t have to go very far to come across a gay man pretending to be straight, who has wife and kids. Thinking that with the rising tolerance level of society these things don’t happen anymore is, unfortunately, a delusion.

To me, however, Brokeback Mountain is above all a character study. A character study of Ennis DelMar and the effect his inability to free himself from the shackles of society and his own background has had on his life. For those of us, like me, who were born in the 1960s, and have always lived in a big city, it is easy to forget the repression by society gays had to endure until well into the 1980s. Although homosexuality was legalised in much across Europe by the beginning of the early 1970s, it would take another twenty years until the subject of homosexuality was openly talked about outside the gay community and another thirty years until gay marriage would finally become legal -to various degrees- in a handful of countries around the globe. And yet, in the majority of countries around the world homosexuality is still a punishable offence, and even to this day, there are several US states that have anti-sodomy laws. It is thus no surprise that when Jack suggests settling down together, buying a spread, Ennis won’t have any of it. By all his physical strength and intrepidity, courage is not Ennis’ strong suit. But can we blame him? Can we blame a man for his lack of courage, knowing that when he was nine years old, he was shown the mutilated body of a neighbour who was slaughtered -probably by Ennis’ father!- because he was openly gay? To say nothing of the fact that in 1952 - which must have been the year Ennis was nine years old - homosexuality wasn’t just simply anathema globally, it was also liable to be punished pretty much everywhere. Sneered at, laughed at, if you were lucky. The not so lucky ones ended up in the irrigation ditch, like Earl, whose dead body Ennis was forced to look at by his father. The concept of living with a man simply is something that absolutely petrifies Ennis, for so deeply ingrained is his fear of society’s backlash, the likely consequences of this bold move, that he doesn’t even dare to acknowledge that he’s gay. Seemingly strong, inwardly Ennis is a very weak man, a victim of his time and a casualty of his upbringing.

I also reject the suggestion that Ennis and Jack are pathetic for, as has been suggested in some reviews, they simply should have gone to California once Sexual Liberation had started to make its mark. Well, I rather doubt that men with Jack’s and Ennis’ upbringing and their lack of education, would even have heard of the relatively carefree life a move to California may have afforded them, let alone of Sexual Liberation. And even if they had – I believe that Ennis, given his background and traumatic childhood, still would not have stood for it. Jack maybe, but on the other hand, they’re both men of the soil, grounded, with the love for cattle being as much part of them as their love of each other. Nonetheless, Jack is serious about his offer of settling down with Ennis, however naïve or far-fetched we consider that to be. He is willing to give it a shot, against all odds. Ennis on the other hand, is so full of fear, so scarred by his upbringing, that he prefers to “stand it rather than fix it”. And stand it he must, for when Jack is dead at the end of the film we realize (we are not sure he does, too) that he missed his chance, he passed up a one-off opportunity to live a potentially happy and fulfilling life at the side of the one person he truly loved and cared about. It is up to the viewer to interpret the ending of the film. In my opinion, Jack did indeed die as a result of a homophobic assault, simply because the reaction of Laureen and Jack’s father are such that no other reading is possible. But even if you decide that the assault was nothing but a product of Ennis’ imagination (as suggested in the film) - in both cases it is society at large that has to take the blame for, either killing Jack or, for instilling Ennis with such fear that he is consumed by it to an extent that he flatly rules out the possibility of an accident. And it is there, of course, where Brokeback Mountain differs from its predecessors: Jack did not commit suicide, he was not killed accidentally, nor was he killed in a lover’s quarrel. The film leaves no doubt that it is society who has him on its collective conscience.

However, a correction is called for: Brokeback Mountain has no predecessors as such.
Not only is it virtually the first film to come out of mainstream Hollywood that has at its centre a gay love story, but it is also one of the very rare films that tackles the actual love between two grown up men and treats its subject(s) adequately, credibly and with respect – no comedy; no card-board characters; no shrill or flamboyant supporting characters here. Never does the film or, for that matter, the screenplay, betray its two protagonists as it avoids drifting into caricature, or worse still, into a maudlin melodrama. In terms of mainstream gay cinema Brokeback is certainly without equal. But even as far as independent gay cinema goes, a story like this, which is to say, one that focuses solely on the relationship between two men, has never been told; the bulk of gay films - independent as well as studio productions - if there is a love story at all, tend to revolve around other topics such as politics (Another Country; Yossi & Jagger; Walk On Water; Faustrecht der Freiheit, which, although having gay love at its centre, is ultimately a film more about the corruptness of society than it is about gay love), AIDS (Jeremy; Blue; Drole de Felix; Long Time Companion; Philadelphia; Before Night Falls; Les nuits fauves), coming-out (Sommersturm; Get Real; Beautiful Thing; Ma vraie vie à Rouen;), bisexuality (Der bewegte Mann; Le fate ignorante; Crustacés et coquillages; Sunday, Bloody Sunday), crime (Victim; Cruising), or are hapless tales of soul-searching and identity crises (Death In Venice; Love And Death On Long Island; Gods And Monsters; Carrington), or else are outright fantasies with little or no bearing on reality (Querelle; Maurice). Thus, it can be said that Brokeback Mountain for all its ostensibly run of the mill story, is indeed a departure from what we came to expect from a gay film. And although it is true that there are certainly films that may be more (homo-)sexually explicit, I consider that what’s lacking in actual sex scenes is more than made up by beautiful scenes of extreme tenderness and love between Jack and Ennis. Again, I take my hat off to Gyllenhall and Ledger for making the high voltage between the two men seem so real, so tangible and so understandable. But, I suppose, that’s why they’re actors. And good ones at that!

I also reject the reproach that Ang Lee should have used gay actors for the film. First of all, openly gay actors are few and far between anywhere, but in the US even more so. And the few there are, such as Rupert Everett, for instance, I sure would not want to see in such a role. By all due respect, but Mr. Everett, with his killer looks and muscles to burn, is exactly the kind of actor that Ang Lee did well to avoid. Steering clear of stereotypes and clichés are a prerequisite if Brokeback wasn’t to turn into a parody, comic strip or soft-core porn flick, something Ang Less must have been aware of for the casting to me seems exceedingly careful and clever: two actors, not too handsome, not too plain, not too famous, with a just above average body, but who have it in them to pull off roles so demanding and challenging (particularly Ennis’!) that the credibility, the relevance, of the story is never questioned. In any case, casting Brokeback is a no-win situation: had he used gay actors, the film not only would have almost certainly turned into a travesty, but also (straight) actors would have been accused of not daring to star in a film with a gay topic. Using straight actors, he got chided for not daring to use gay actors or else, gay actors not daring to star in the film.

The irony, that it took a Hollywood studio to come up with what is without a doubt one of the best gay films ever made, is probably lost on very few. Hollywood, whose fear of homosexuality is notorious, has, at a crucial moment in history, come up with a film that could ease the way for gay marriage finally to become legal throughout the US. I hear that the film has now been dubbed Bareback Mountain by various members of the gay community. That statement alone speaks volumes about the current state of the gay community, its publications, its films, and its members – whoever they are. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why it took a straight woman to write the excellent short story on which Brokeback is based, why it took a straight director to put it on film, and straight actors to star in it - and a Hollywood studio to boot!

Brokeback Mountain is available on DVD.