I finally saw the Oscar front-runner “Brokeback Mountain” Saturday night. Nina, Chrissie and I (and a crowd of about 20) decided to take it in and see what all the fuss was about. And, what a fuss! I’ve had guys of all ages say flat out “I’m not going to see that.” And, not just the usual homophobes, but guys I always thought were pretty progressive. They all seem to reflect Larry David’s tongue-in-cheek (I think) announcement as to why he wasn’t going to see the film. Just the mention “Gay Love Story” sends the squeamish meter off the charts.
Where’s the Love?
A big surprise was that, despite the hype, it was far from a “Gay Love Story.” It was a relationships story and the two main characters happened to be married bi-sexual dads who get together over the years in spectacular settings under the pretense of fishing trips. Sure, there’s a lot of angst. Sure, they pay a price, not just for the “forbidden” love aspects, but for their secrecy – Michelle Williams is brilliant as Alma, wife of Ennis (Heath Ledger). The Thanksgiving Day scene where she informs her former husband of her years-old knowledge of his gay affair alone should win her Best Supporting Actress. (And what’s up with that anyway? She knew cuz they never brought back any fish. Gays don’t fish?)
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that it was hardly a gay-positive/bi-positive movie at all. Not only does it all end badly, it never appears to have any passion and joy about it in the first place. Nada. Ennis and Jack’s affection for each other fails to translate into anything approaching happiness.
It’s a pretty damn gloomy take on it all. It’s set in Wyoming from 1963–to the late 70s. A lot of research went into getting a lot of stuff right–from the Western clothes, the run-down pick-em-ups, the rodeo scene, the hard-scrabble towns and “ranches”; the hard life choices facing the children of rural white laborers (boy, did they get that right—to the elk with accurate velvet antlers that the fellas poach out of season. (I sure hope that scene was animatronic.)
For a movie with Larry McMurtry as co-screenwriter, it mysteriously falls flat on the culture. (Though McMurtry’s Oscar winner Terms of Endearment seemed equally clichéd to me. How many times can Jack play Jack?) The all-the-time wise-cracking and good-natured ribbing and the ever-present gay joking of the Bubbas is non-existent. Randy Quaid is far too humorless as the sheep boss at the beginning. And given the plethora of actual, colorful cowboy colloquialisms for masturbation and gay sex, it’s odd when Quaid (Aguirre) spouts off what has to be a phrase invented by the author E. Annie Proulx when he informs Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) that his services as a sheep herder are no longer needed. “Twist, you guys wasn’t getting’ paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose.”
“Stemmed the rose?” Who the hell ever called it that? Though, I’m sure it’ll be in wide use from now on. As will wives’ suspicions of their husbands’ fishing and hunting trips with the fellas.
Another sexual term used was when Ennis described his sexual relationship with a local waitress as “putting the blocks to her—” I lived in NE Washington in a rural ranching area during the period covered in the film, in an area decidedly similar to the Riverton of the movie; and I never heard either of these phrases before. And, as I noted, non-stop jocularity around sex is a hallmark of the ranchers, miners and sawmill workers I know; even the gay ones.
All you squeamish hetero guys like Larry David, take it from me; you won’t have to cover your eyes–there’s damn little flesh in the movie. Not even any tongue-kissing. A couple tit shots as the hetero sex scenes equal the homosexual ones. It’s those very scenes where the movie falls down most. Tenderness is a gender-neutral no show. Regardless of the gender of the participants, every sex scene in the movie is a hasty tumult that’s over in seconds. (Seems to me there’d be plenty of time left over for fishing.) I’ve never seen nor heard of so much absolutely-no-foreplay sex. (Come on, rushed anal sex with no lube? Even Marlon used butter.) Some of the worst sex ever presented in the movies for sure. Not at all life-affirming. Pretty anti-gay, anti-love, if not anti-life when you think about it. I doubt there’ll be many Ginger or Maryanne/Ennis or Jack debates raging out there in the Gay community.
I imagine it’ll win Best Movie. That may say more about the quality of the field, than of this picture itself. Williams should win Best Supporting Actress. But, in its way, it’ll be as overrated a Best Movie as The Greatest Show on Earth, Chariots of Fire, Gladiator or some of the other top movies that fail to stand the test of time (does anyone really think that Chariots was a better film than Reds, On Golden Pond or Raiders of the Lost Ark and Outland even? Or my favorite from that great class of 1981 – Cutter’s Way?).
Never mind. See Brokeback for its impact on the zeitgeist. See it for the over-whelming scenic beauty; it’s partly filmed in the Alberta Rockies. See it for the fine acting. But, if you’re looking for — “Gay Love Story?” Nope, it’s more of a story of one powerful relationship among others for a couple of star-crossed buddies and how it (and terrified secrecy about it) heavily impacts all the others. If you a want full-on, 3D portrait of happy gay love; look elsewhere. It’s not even that political though it obviously gets people talking and writing about it; a worthy success in itself. Another movie, Rocky, won Best Picture as a political statement. Much as I don’t like the statement, it was a part of its times (1976). Perhaps, Brokeback, though not at all celebratory, wins for a similar reason today.
As we left the theater and immediately started discussing, I said, “None of the cowboys I know is that pretty.” Chrissie started to differ. A guy dressed like a cowboy from the Village People came up behind us and said, “Know what we call the movie in Wyoming?”
Answer: “A documentary.”
Only good ol’ boy guffaw of the night.
MICHAEL DONNELLY didn’t avert his eyes, but admits he was a little nervous. He awaits the gay-themed movie where it works out for the protagonists; where Jack and Ennis get the ranch and become accepted, contributing members of their community; living relatively happily ever after.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org