UP ON BROKEBACK

Well, Heath Ledger isn’t better than the best of Marlon Brando, and you can find things to dislike in it without being “an insecure idiot.” But it’s a very strong movie, one of the year’s best in a way – restrained, graceful, and moving, at once spacious and intensely personal. The initial summer on Brokeback Mountain, I thought, was the weakest section, perhaps because it’s extremely difficult for any filmmaker, lacking the luxury of interiority, to dramatize how two essentially uncommunicative people fall in love. But once you accept that Ledger’s Ennis and Gyllenhaal’s Twist are in love, the rest of the pieces of the story fall into place, and the long unhappiness of their post-Brokeback lives – and the lives of their wives – is one of the more effective stories of personal tragedy that I’ve seen onscreen of late. (Though with Capote and The Squid and the Whale, this has been a good year for the cinema of intimate tragedy.) In a sense, the people who say that this isn’t a “gay movie” are right – insofar as it’s a story of love found and then partially denied, and the human costs of that denial, its themes are universal. Indeed, it’s just a sign of how few impediments the modern world places in the way of romantic passion that this kind of story can basically only be told about homosexuals – and perhaps not even about them anymore.

But of course it is a gay movie, too, in the sense that it’s a movie that doesn’t just tell the story of two men in love, but advances certain ideas about the nature of that love. There isn’t a political agenda in Brokeback Mountain, exactly – it isn’t a brief for hate crimes laws or domestic partnerships, except by implication – but there’s unquestionably a moral and philosophical agenda, and one that’s more radical, I think, than most critics are likely to acknowledge. The film is a study in the contrast between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and the former is – almost without exception – presented as preferable to the latter, as purer and more beautiful, and ultimately as more authentically masculine. Critics have noted, rightly, how Ang Lee portrays his heroes’ wives sympathetically – particularly Michelle Williams’s Alma – and this is true, so far as it goes. But while the film invites the audience to like them and pity their plight, it also trades in the darkest stereotypes of domestic life – the squalling babies, the tiny apartments and the mounting bills, the domineering in-laws and the general claustrophobia that almost any man feels, at one point or another, in his married life, but that Brokeback Mountain portrays as being the whole of it.

To a certain extent, the drama of the movie necessitates this kind of contrast, but it’s significant, I think, that the film doesn’t offer any model of successful heterosexual masculinity, or of successful heterosexual relationships in general. The straight men are all either strutting oafs, bitter bigots like Jack Twist’s father, or “nice-guy” weaklings like Alma’s second husband, whose well-meaning effeminacy contrasts sharply with Ennis’s rugged manliness. Jack and Ennis are the only “real men” in the story, and their love is associated with the high country and the vision of paradise it offers – a world of natural beauty and perfect freedom, of wrestling matches and campfires and naked plunges into crystal rivers – and a world with no girls allowed. Civilization is women and babies and debts and fathers-in-law and bosses; freedom is the natural world, and the erotic company of men. It’s an old idea of the pre-Christian world come round again – not that gay men are real men too; but that real men are gay.

– posted by Ross

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