Thursday, August 9, 2012

Saddle Up

Film: Brokeback Mountain
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are films that everyone knows even if they haven’t seen them. Some of these films fade out of mass public consciousness while others stick around, forever a part of the culture. There are a few of these every decade, maybe one every year or two. In 2005, that movie was Brokeback Mountain. Everyone knew at least the basic story of this film, and I’d guess that that’s still true today. Someone says “Brokeback,” and everyone thinks of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in a clinch and the line “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

What’s interesting from the point of view of someone who hadn’t seen the film until tonight is that this love story between two cowboys in the 1960s and beyond is about far more than that clinch that everyone (including me) thinks of when this film is mentioned. Oh, it’s there alright, but there’s quite a bit more here.

The film starts with two young men, Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) get a job tending sheep out on the eponymous Brokeback Mountain. The conditions are difficult and pretty primitive—one of them lives at a base camp while the other sleeps (illegally) in a pup tent up with the sheep. Food comes in on muleback every week. Things go along like this for awhile until it becomes evident that there is an attraction between them, and eventually the two of them consummate their relationship. The summer ends, too many sheep have gone missing, and it’s evident that they won’t be hired back the next year. Part of that is that their boss Aguirre (Randy Quaid) is pretty sure that his two employees are more interested in each other than in the sheep.

Life takes over for the two men, who are forced to go in separate directions. Ennis marries his sweetheart Alma (Michelle Williams) and they have a couple of daughters. Jack works the rodeo circuit and falls for a rider named Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Ennis’s family struggles while Jack marries Lureen and finds himself wealthy thanks to her father’s business. But through all of this, the two of them find time to meet up again and renew their relationship. Alma sees the two of them together and figures out what is going on between the two of them. This eventually proves to be a wedge that breaks up his marriage.

Through all of this, Jack tries to get Ennis to leave his life and come with him so the two of them can be together. Jack wants this desperately, but Ennis is too tied to his life, and too afraid of the reality of being in a same-sex relationship in places where such things are like to get a man killed. It’s this fear that keeps them apart and the need they have for each other that continues to bring them back to each other and to Brokeback Mountain.

This is a film that could have gone wrong in a lot of different ways, but it never does. A large part of this is Ang Lee’s capable direction. Part of it also is the fantastic cinematography and beautiful scenery. This film is a standout in that category, with huge, open landscapes in almost every exterior shot. The main reason, though, is fantastic performances from not just the principal actors in Gyllenhaal and Ledger, but the supporting cast, particularly Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway.

There are a number of astonishing things about this film, though, things that speak to our culture and speak to who we are as a species. I am remarkably encouraged by just how widely accepted this film was in 2005 and still today. That it is a sensitive, well-made film is a part of this, but that’s not everything. This film couldn’t have been made or wouldn’t have been accepted 20 years ago. While certainly films about homosexual love existed then, to find a film that achieved true mainstream status and not a sort of cult following on this topic is noteworthy. That Ang Lee was congratulated by China (where homosexuality is illegal) is equally noteworthy.

At the same time, it’s surprising that this film wasn’t made earlier. The American film industry has a long history of marginalizing entire populations before coming to the stunning realization that those marginalized people are, in fact, people deserving of having their stories told. Brokeback Mountain succeeds in many ways because it breaks away from the stereotypes of what we assume these characters should be in a Hollywood film. Rather than being prancing queens, these are men caught up in something far bigger than they can handle and something of which they cannot speak in the worlds in which they live. Turn Jack Twist into Jane Twist, and this is a film that has been made for decades.

Ultimately, though, Brokeback Mountain is a successful and tremendous film because it plays it straight (no pun intended). Everyone in the film buys into it. For Jack and Ennis, this is not about sex or lust, but love. It’s a love they are forced to hide and to deny, but it is real and encompassing, and directs the course of their lives and their decisions. These are characters we are bound to like, men we come to know and respect—and that might be the greatest victory of all. We respect them not because of their situation or because of their suffering, but because they are real people worthy of our respect.

I’m damn glad I saw this.

Why to watch Brokeback Mountain: It’s a story of true love beyond all expectations.
Why not to watch: Homophobes need not apply.

19 comments:

  1. This film underwhelmed me completely. I respect it for what it is, but I just found it dull and uninteresting--and this is coming from somebody who typically enjoys same-sex romances. But then again, I've never been able to get into Ang Lee in general.

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    1. Interesting. I was taken by the performances. I can sort of see that with Ang Lee, though. If he misses (Hulk), he really misses.

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    2. I was even underwhelmed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And I *love* kung fu movies.

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    3. Then there is no hope for you.

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    4. Ironically, I don't really like period pieces and/or Jane Austen... and I *really* liked Sense and Sensibility. I know, I'm an enigma.

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  2. I also loved Brokeback Mountain - which is something that is often said in hushed tones to those who don't know any better. I also agree that you have to go into the film with a certain amount of open-mindedness.

    Ed - Empire's 5-star 500

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  3. I really enjoyed Brokeback Mountain and its a damn shame it never won Best Picture. It's not a trashy love story like you mention, but there's a lot of emotional force throughout the picture. Even without the award I still consider it a timeless classic.

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  4. What I think is impressive about this film is that it is a love story. Period. It doesn't overemphasize, if that's the word I want, the fact that it is two men in love. It's just two people in love. And the ending had me weeping like a baby.

    Where are the other LGBT films like this, though? Why did we make this, then stop?

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    1. There's a ton of them, but most of them are indie flicks. So yeah, mainstream Hollywood did kind of just do this one and stop, unfortunately.

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  5. Yeah, I think Nick's going to be in the minority on this one. The fact that the script, Ang Lee, and the actors made this film essentially as a romance that happens to be between two men is one of the film's major strengths. There's nothing in their love story (aside from social convention) that would be out of place in a traditional romance.

    Jake Gyllenhaal is really good in this, but Heath Ledger is a damn revelation.

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    1. For the record, I'm not saying the acting isn't good, or even that the film isn't good. And perhaps it was an expectations thing. I went into this (and Crouching Tiger) expecting them to be fantastic and ended up being mostly bored.

      Great acting, very respectable premise... dull movie.

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    2. That's fair. I agree that it's not an action-packed romp, but I was completely taken with the characters and the situation.

      Different tastes, after all. If we all thought the same, it would be a dull world.

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  6. I'm with Nick on this one (though I do like Crouching Tiger). Brokeback did absolutely nothing for me, either. There's something kind of self-congratulatory lurking at back of it, it's aware of its own progressiveness and wants you to be aware of it too. It irritated the hell out of me.

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    1. I don't see it. I don't see it as being self-aware at all.

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    2. Yeah, I didn't get any self-aware stuff from it. It had great acting, but there wasn't remotely enough story for it's 2+ hour length, so I just felt it dragged a lot. So yeah, in this case, I'm with Steve. I didn't see any self-aware qualities to it.

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  7. I loved the movie but I read the short story first.

    Still, the movie was wonderful and I too thought Ledger was great in it. I might even go so far as to say that I thought the movie was beautiful--as a love story.

    Too bad there are still so many people who haven't seen it.

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    1. I think the most appealing thing about this film is that it does work as a love story, regardless of the gender of our protagonists.

      So to ask the question sio did above, where are the other films like this?

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  8. I worked with a man, who while not hiding that he was gay, didn't make a big deal over it, and neither did anyone else. I had actually introduced him to what became a movie crush of his - Jake Gyllenhall - when I loaned him my copy of Donnie Darko. A few years later when I told him that Gyllenhall was going to be in a movie about a gay romance he got a look on his face that probably mirrored mine when I found out Katie Holmes was going to throw off the good girl image in a big way in The Gift.

    He went to see it opening night, and a few times after that. I waited for it to come out on DVD. When I had seen it he asked me what I thought of it. He seemed a little anxious, and I realized I was probably the first straight guy he was discussing it with. I told him that I felt it was a very good movie. I also said that this may be an unexpected thing for a straight guy to say, but I didn't think they showed enough intimacy between the two. I never really got a feeling that the two were connected until the scene with the two shirts in the closet. After the first kiss, every time they met over the years they would hug. It just didn't feel like they were that together to me.

    Again, though, I felt it was a very good movie. You asked where other movies were like this. If you mean, male/male and mainstream, then you are right; there aren't really any others. If you meant girl/girl and/or independent, then there have been quite a few. A few months ago I did a whole category of "girl meets girl" movies.

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    1. It's a truth, though, that girl/girl romance is far more accepted in the mainstream. The reason is simply that the mainstream seems to be 15-year-old boys, who think gay men are gross and lesbians are hot.

      It was refreshing to see this relationship treated as an adult romance, albeit one with problems.

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