Brokeback Mountain is far more than a gay western.
I first read "Brokeback Mountain", the short story on which Ang Lee's new film is based, when I was wacthing judging a short story award in 1998. It's by Annie Proulx, but I didn't know that then. The names of the writers were stripped from the works for the purposes of the competition. The early pages of this unknown western narrative did not interest me, because I thought at that time, and think still, that the myth of the Old West, with its gunslingers and traditional masculine bravado, was stifling, repellent, and misguided. And yet I remember calling out to my wife, midway through this particular story, saying, "I'm reading this cowboy story that I thought I was going to hate. I thought the only way I was going to like it was if these cowboys had sex! And then they did!"
It is hard, therefore, not to think of Brokeback Mountain as an incredibly salient political statement for troubled times. I'm sure that there are many public relations professionals right now trying to pretend that this is not the case, that this film is not an affront to certain senators from Wyoming and Texas and Utah and Colorado and Montana and Idaho, and perhaps an affront to the president of the United States himself, who comes from the state often burlesqued in Ang Lee's film. The president, I presume, will not be screening it at the White House.
In truth, many things act against the prospect of success for this ambitious project. The script was kicking around for almost seven years and even a director as accomplished as Gus van Sant could not find actors who were willing to undertake it. It was budgeted at a level so thrifty that it's a miracle it looks as stylish and painterly as it does. This was likely to be a famously unproduced movie. And yet here it is.
In the United States, where it opened recently, Brokeback Mountain is being marketed as "a great American love story". However, just as it was impossible to know that the same director's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was subtitled, until the lights dimmed and the projectionists rolled the film, you will find this beautiful, still, melancholy cowboy movie - which concerns a fervent and furtive romance between two men in the rural American west - a bit, uh, surprising if, like many in the US, you harbour the prejudice that a great love story takes place between a man and a woman. Yes, there's no doubt that the studio that released Brokeback Mountain is keen to stay on message. And yet calling Lee's film a "gay cowboy movie", as I've heard it described, would not exactly be a way into the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of, arguably, the most homophobic nation on earth. Of course, whether it is a "gay" movie or a "love story" is one of the interesting questions about Brokeback Mountain.
By and large, the narrative of Brokeback Mountain follows the outline of Proulx's justly celebrated short story, which first appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1997. A young ranch hand in Wyoming, Ennis Del Mar, signs on to do some sheep herding in the Rocky Mountains one summer, in the process meeting another such young man, Jack Twist. The two become fast friends, and there the matter seems to rest until a night when the temperature has plummeted and they elect to share a tent. As in the helter-skelter of Nature, which seems to unfurl limitlessly just beyond their tiny provisional shelter, one thing leads to another, after which the two spend the rest of their allotted time on Brokeback Mountain, the summer range for their flock of sheep, like lovers do.
The rest of the story is told through crosscutting, as the men try to go back to their respective lives as before, unperturbed by this unbidden, unsought, yet life-changing experience in the mountains. Ennis marries the lovely Alma, and almost immediately he begins to make a botch of their union, though he manages to help raise a pair of adorable daughters. Jack, meanwhile, meets and haphazardly courts a somewhat loose rodeo girl from Texas, Lureen. He finds prosperity as a salesman of farm equipment in her father's business. Still, Jack, of the two men, is the more willing to try to pursue his secret life. The results are not only bad, but potentially dangerous, as Ennis warns him, during one of their later semi-annual assignations: "This thing grabs on to us again in the wrong place, we'll be dead."
Proulx's story is largely told in a laconic third-person voice from the perspective of Ennis Del Mar. The accounts of Jack are mainly available to the reader through dialogue between Ennis and Jack. But in Lee's adaptation, a number of Texas-based scenes are invented for Jack and his rodeo-girl wife, Lureen. While the Wyoming scenery of Ennis Del Mar seems sand-blasted, woebegone, and desperate, as if cribbed from the dust bowl photos of Walker Evans, the Texas scenes are hyperbolic. Lureen has four or five different hairstyles in the film, each of them excessive, and on the basis of this film it appears that no man can live in Texas without a bola tie. It's as if Larry McMurtry, unable to match the wry but stoic tone of Proulx's story, has bulked out the screenplay with additional material from his own early work.
Brokeback Mountain is a luminous, startling and sorrowful portrait of a love that truly can't be spoken of by its nearly wordless participants. As such, it is almost as affecting and classically sound as Romeo and Juliet. Therefore, it's not only important to see this film. To wrestle with its successes and mild imperfections is practically a civic duty of thinking persons, lest we should give in, the way Ennis Del Mar nearly does when he says ruefully to his beloved Jack: "If you can't fix it, you gotta stand it."