The iron horse, no country for old men, once upon a time in the west, take your pick…
The application of ‘necessary’ to a film’s existence almost always comes off as impulsive, excited criticism, which might actually be a welcome tonal shift. But criticism of criticism is cynical business, despite conceptually being an extension of the original work – a conversation. However, one can directly measure the necessity of Brokeback Mountain in 2005 by its performance at the 2006 Oscars. It’s now remembered as one of the great snubs of recent times, where there hasn’t been such a remarkable upset since (I can’t explain The Artist, but I also don’t remember its competition).
The film hit during mainstream America’s first appreciable step into a conversation that would persist, and ultimately wring progress out of a typically indifferent and self-interested culture. This process is always ugly in the early goings. The very term “Brokeback” became synonymous with gay panic. For ten-year-old me, the movie had this strange aura around it, as I witnessed the nation’s various reactions to it on television. I remember myself complaining about it, in middle school, saying “why does a movie like that get an R-rating? All I saw in the trailer was somebody being punched!” This was back when the R-rating meant prestige, because I couldn’t see those movies in the theatre. You can imagine the kind of language used by my equally middle school friend in explaining the film’s certification.
It was “the gay cowboy movie.” After its release and reception, there was the expected backlash from conservative media watchdogs, in tandem with anxiety on daytime television and print columns – people saying a lot of things they’ve come to regret. Finally, the trope of making fun of Oscar-bait dramas about gay men was parodied at least until 2008, with Tropic Thunder, a film barely remembered today, but a legitimate phenomenon back then – Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar, ironically enough.
Now over ten years old, it’s probably not necessary to reevaluate Brokeback Mountain, although in 2015, Academy members did just that, voting Brokeback for Best Picture in a redemption poll by THR. For the rest of us, and for some, the broader fight is over. Or rather, it’s transitioned. Just as we move from the chapter on civil rights to the chapter on women’s civil rights in the history textbook, we jump from gay rights to transgender rights in our modern day. Homosexuality passed the goal line, the one set years and years ago, those years of oppression and hate and violence. Works of media like Brokeback Mountain helped to open our minds and begin us down a road, through a talking cure meant to humanize the other. Spoiler: We are the other!
I revisit Brokeback Mountain because it’s a powerful drama, and one of my favorite films. And yet, the world around it has changed, recontextualizing the Ang Lee film as utterly a first step. It was the opening salvo in a cultural battle, and as a result, is not a delicate touch.
First is the story premise. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist and Heath Ledger’s Ennis Delmar are the stars of the show, great attention is paid to the wives of these men, Lureen and Alma, particularly Alma. Michelle Williams’s character is portrayed sympathetically, as a woman too deep into a marriage and lifestyle to walk away, despite the chance discovery it’s all founded on an incomprehensible lie.
At its core, Brokeback Mountain is a love story that never happened, the titular setting taking on increasingly symbolic meaning as the two romantic leads are torn further apart by social norms. The storytellers took a two-pronged approach to relaying this politically urgent tragedy, by characterizing Jack and Ennis as human and entirely recognizable, but also by expanding the scope of their devastation beyond them.
So much to say that if an audience can’t fully connect to the gay men, don’t worry about it: keeping gay men apart is bad for you straight people too.
Is this really how we must learn new things? We have to be the Substitute, the white proxy in the inner city, or the Avatar, the white savior in the double-alien world of eco-warriors and their eco-battlecries? It is realistic that these two men would be hitched up right and traditional, but one can just as easily imagine a story of similar heft without ambassadors from our world into theirs.
Then there’s the final scene of the film, where nineteen-year-old Alma Jr. visits her father Ennis to announce her engagement. Ennis’s first question is how long she’s known him: “About a year.” Jack and Ennis’s relationship has gone on for over ten, but this Curtis fellow is allowed to marry Alma simply because he loves her.
This I believe, is the point of the scene. It is not fair. On the other hand, how far do we have to stretch to imagine that Alma is a point of sympathy in the scene as well? Here’s Ennis’s daughter, whose growth we’ve witnessed in snippets throughout. She’s genuinely happy, and genuinely disappointed when Ennis initially demurs on showing up to the wedding. This is a person looking forward to her future, and yet who wouldn’t exist if Jack and Ennis were together.
Translation to film introduces a lingering on the part of the audience. Images stick better in our minds because of the added dimension of performance. The smile widening across Alma’s face in response to Ennis’s concession is a tough thing to read in a detached way, the way we might a summation of the scene in an outline. In such a detached form, the bounding box of interpretation is more precise, and we take away that yes, it is unfair how only one of these two can marry.
A scene with the potential for multiple interpretations is fine (by some people’s accord), but it isn’t fine when two interpretations directly contradict each other, and the politics of the scene are so delicate to begin with.
We all watch movies differently, but we all watch movies, when we do. And so, most movies are designed, working backward from the experience of the end user – for example, we know that people have emotions, so stir them. We can ignore that Kate Mara and Heath Ledger, despite playing daughter and father, are only three years apart in age, but our various suspensions have a limit.
So what’s the solution here? Well, Brokeback Mountain began life as a short story, by Annie Proulx. In this way, it should have remained a short story. The extra tools introduced by the film medium were not attended to with the same surety as an author’s hand, and this is because the literary adaptation is an institution in Hollywood. Adaptation is an art in itself, requiring an entirely separate discipline as filmmaking and screenwriting. However, it’s the default. Dangerously unquestioned, and at the same time, stupendously boring.
Brokeback Mountain is a flawed film, on purely sociopolitical grounds. Its humanitarian message is intact, and was so crucial at the time, when phrased as an ‘agenda,’ by disgusted onlookers. But to review it with 2016 eyes, possibly having seen the many films covering similar subjects in its wake, we see something pandering in concept, and confused in form.
As much as I’d like to, I can’t speak for Annie Proulx, but I know Ang Lee is better than this. Life of Pi is razzle-dazzle with heart, the rarest kind of blockbuster, and his erotic thriller Lust, Caution is a long but devastating drama, comparable with the works of Wong-kar Wai beyond the inclusion of Tony Leung as a coercive sex man.
And yet, Brokeback Mountain is my favorite film of his. The performances are indelible, and the cleverness of formulating set pieces out of life episodes is inspiring to the creative mind.
Adapted to film, Brokeback Mountain joins a world of genre. In literary fiction, there is no marketing distinction made between stories set in historical periods or the modern day, they simply exist for themselves. The movie Brokeback Mountain however, is a western. Not in the O.K. Corral sense, but that it takes place in a period American Midwest, and it does feature cowboys. The landscape plays a role, and the theme of men out of joint survives from older versions of the mythology.
You could always take it further and read homoeroticism into the old westerns, so concerned with the relations between men, and not at all concerned with those between men and women, but how long before those readings are played for laughs? More certain, a theme in these movies is the thundering iron horse of modernity, and following the era of Hollywood westerns, all entries in the genre worth a damn were post-modern (Unforgiven, The Proposition), or so unique as to be genres unto themselves (Django Unchained, and I think the genre was ‘bad idea’).
Unforgiven, in 1992, essentially repeats one of the few non-Clint Eastwood Italian westerns by Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in the West, released in 1968. The film which, despite its sexism, is hypnotic and beautiful, and in some circles a top contender for greatest film of all time. They both dramatize the death of the Old West, or at least, our romantic memory of gunslingers and honor. When the train rolls in, they’ll kill it off. Money can stop a bullet, and there’s no place for cowboys anymore.
When something passes out of use, when it’s no longer ‘necessary,’ we might say its use was exhaustively expended. Brokeback Mountain served its purpose, and helped create a world where we can now safely enjoy the film. Not as a last line of defense, but as an entertaining film.