Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain

Crippen: Just returned from seeing (rather late in the game) Brokeback Mountain. I am deeply touched and moved by this film. I have always thought that humans are deeply hardwired for the passion of love, and not necessarily along traditional male-female lines although that subject has rarely been explored dispassionately in film. I am also coming to believe that there is such a thing as a “soul mate” that fully rounds out a person’s existence, and without that person you get what happens in Brokeback Mountain.

The photography is unbelievable, the sound track perfect, the characters come alive. Old couples in the back row were weeping unabashedly. This film will deservedly walk away with all the major film awards. It rates as in the top 5 films I have ever seen.

More review by Mike Darwin:

I saw the film in a virtually deserted theater so there was little audience reaction. I think it is a good film, a very good film, but not a great one, at least not in the iconic sense we associate with films like Casablanca or 2001.

This film is being billed as a love story, but it falls short of that in my estimation. Like all great stories (Annie Proux’s original) with an “obvious” message, Brokeback Mountain tells us an old story in a different context. When Jonathan Swift wanted to lob a volley about the politics of his time, he wrote about Gulliver, and his strange travels. Voltaire gave us the story of Candide. If you want people to take a common problem seriously you often have to tell them about it from an alien perspective. The other strong theme in the movie is the ancient Greek concept of high tragedy. In Greek tragedy the undoing is in the nature of the characters themselves. Their own character flaws doom them from the start. Brokeback Mountain owes much to the tradition of Greek tragedy.

To me, Brokeback Mountain deals with several big issues nowhere mentioned in the promotions or reviews for this film. Perhaps one of the biggest issues is that of adultery; deep, deceitful, intimate betrayal of those you love and who love you. Both cowboys, Jack Twist and Annis Del Ray, are homosexual, but they are very different from each other. I’ve know countless Annis Del Rays, straight or gay. These are men who feel profoundly, but are almost completely inarticulate. Something in their past, their character, or their genome, causes them to bottle up their feelings and their thoughts behind clipped, almost mumbled “conversation.” Something I’ve noticed about a lot of men like this is their habit of putting their hands up to their mouths when they speak — or when they seem to want to — and don’t. They are closed up inside.

When we meet Annis he is already on the trajectory to marriage and a very conventional life. It’s a fair bet he knows something is troublingly different about himself, but an equally fair bet that he hasn’t fully identified it, let alone admitted it to himself and started to deal with it. Jack Twist is a different matter. Jack “Nasty” has been around the block, and Jack knows who and what he is. He moves first on Annis because he knows a lot; he knows enough to trust his instincts that this emotional powder keg of a man will not kill him on this isolated mountain if he makes a sexual advance towards him. That’s more than Annis knows about himself. He knows not only the mechanics of gay sex in its roughest iterations, but also how to gauge a still, deep man like Annis, whose homosexuality seems seamlessly hidden and perhaps not consciously realized. That is knowing a great deal!

This creates two somewhat different moral planes. It is easier to understand why Annis marries and has a family; it is much harder to understand why Jack does this. Jack knows fully, and without reserve, who he is, and much more importantly, what he wants and how he might get it. And yet, he marries. This is a great betrayal not only of himself, but of his wife and eventually his son. Annis has had one earth shattering experience, and while he knows, as we see when he is pounding his fist into the building wall when Jack leaves that first time, he has no base of experience or wider world to look to gain understanding. It is easy, oh so easy, to deceive yourself in such a situation. Jack has no such excuse. We see him move on to other men, and do so with confidence, and at considerable risk.

The infidelity that rips these characters’ lives apart is ostensibly homosexual, but in reality it could be about any relationship, sexual or otherwise, that results in abandonment of emotional presence in a marriage. I’ve known both men and women, who left their marriages just as surely for a job, a golf course, a church, or an all consuming hobby. Infidelity comes in many forms and that is a recurring theme in this movie.

Is it a great love story? I don’t think we can know that. Love comes in two waves. The first is a fantastic surge of passion, bonding, and well-being. It is the acute stage of romance, but it is comparatively short lived: six months to two years at most. The second wave is, to me, the real thing. This is the time when trust, profound easiness with your partner, and mutual security built on real, hard life experience coalesce to form a bond that is so deep you would give your life for your partner — and do so even after long and careful reflection in the face of death. We can read into Jack’s and Annis’ affair whatever we like, but we can’t know how it would have worked out, because they never take that chance. There are plenty of people who are good at “being in love” but are lousy at loving. The acute is very different from the chronic.

So, that is the other great tragedy in this movie. These two men probably are soul mates (and I believe in such things too), but they will never really know and neither will we. Here the fates challenge character. As Jack Twist points out again and again, there *is* a possible future for them together as they were meant to be. But that future comes at a high price and at terrible risk. Ennis is haunted not only by the specter of social ostracism, but of violence and an unspeakable death imprinted onto him in his childhood. His almost autistic lack of social and emotional faculties makes it very hard to take the step off the cliff and leave every point of reference he has ever learned behind. Ang Lee makes us understand this — but he also lets us know that this a choice — a choice that will be paid for dearly — as is always the case in Greek tragedy.

In most films about homosexual men we are given the message that to whatever extent the identity is acted on, the characters are doomed to death or lifelong unhappiness. Here, Ang Lee tells us a great truth. If we deny the heart and soul of who we are, to the extent we are successful, we are just as surely doomed to death, or a life of sterile longing that is its equivalent.

Brokeback Mountain is a wretchedly sad and painful film at its core. It is a cautionary tale that has been told countless time before and will be told countless time again: Told at least as long humans are humans. A lot of gay men don’t like this film. I think one reason for that is that they do not experience the “remove” that heterosexuals do when watching it. Like Swift, Ang Lee has informed his audience of many great truths. but it has, perhaps, yet to dawn on them that Jack and Ennis are really just any two people with the same problems, straight, gay, or otherwise. We are all up there on the screen to the extent that we share these characters’ fates and flaws.

Mike Darwin

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