Friday, March 31, 2006

Review of Brokeback Mountain

Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal
134 Minutes

Class Struggle #65 February/March 2006

Brokeback Mountain has been getting a lot of press in the US and elsewhere as a breakthrough movie from Hollywood that’s deals openly with gay issues. The Hollywood movie moguls have not been known for their willingness to embrace these issues and very few mainstream movies have dealt with them in a positive manner. Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet said:

"In a hundred years of movies, homosexuality has only rarely been depicted on the screen. When it did appear, it was there as something to laugh at—or something to pity—or even something to fear. These were fleeting images, but they were unforgettable, and they left a lasting legacy. Hollywood, that great maker of myths, taught straight people what to think about gay people … and gay people what to think about themselves."

Most of the intelligent films on these issues have tended to come out of the Independent film movement in the US or British, European and even New Zealand cinema.

The movie is a departure for director Ang Lee as well. His last movie was Hulk and action-adventure movie and even his highly acclaimed Crouching Tiger, hidden dragon while being a fantastic film is still a far cry from an intense drama about a love between two cowboys that spans many years.

While some of the reviews about this film talk about the way in which Hollywood is finally coming to terms with gay and lesbian issues other reviewers have said it is not really a gay movie as such, more a love story. There are problems with both of these views.

It seems to me that the reviewers who take the “love story” angle have missed the whole point of the film.

The fact the two characters, Ennis (played by Heath Ledger) and Jack (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) cannot be together as they want to be is completely a result of the incredible homophobia they face in society and have internalized themselves (particularly in the character of Ennis).

The story starts in 1963 when the two young cowboys are sent out on the range to look after the sheep of a local rancher, Joe Aguirre (played by Randy Quaid). Once the initial shyness of Ennis wears off he begins to warm to Jack and the two become good buddies. Once it goes further (initiated by Jack) the two develop a secretive relationship which is broken up when they are espied by Aguirre, although he uses other excuses to get rid of them.

The film then follows them through the following decades as they both marry, settle down and have families. The relationship is re-initiated and the two men are only able to share intimacy a couple of times a year.

This is a constant frustration for the more dominant and self-accepting Jack, who wants Ennis to leave his wife and has a dream that the two of them can have a ranch together. For Ennis this is out of the question. In one particular scene he recounts how as a nine year old boy his father had taken him and his brother to look at the corpse of a man who had his been dragged around by his penis until it was ripped from his body, all because he was in a gay relationship.

The film reminds us of what it must have been like growing up and being gay in the 60s and even beyond. The difficulty was compounded by the fact that these two men were in a very macho environment. As time goes on and takes us into the seventies, it is worth noting that the gay liberation movement was well established (beginning in the late 60s). But that liberation movement was not alluded to in the movie, and nor should it have been.

The movement for gay and lesbian rights was largely an urban based movement and centered around cities such as New York and San Francisco. For Jack and Ennis, that movement and those sorts of people might as well have been on another planet. Though it seems that the movie is a hit with prospective tourists elsewhere on the planet earth. A representative of the Wyoming Travel and Tourism Division says many people in other countries are expressing interest in visiting Wyoming because of the film:

“It's gotten rave reviews from the international community,” she said. “I don't know if they're more tolerant or something, but they're viewing it as a great Western movie.”

This is a good point. The film takes the ‘western’ as the stock statement of all the virtues of European settlement of patriarchal farm families and the tough heterosexual male stereotype, and turns it on its head. Although things have improved for gays and lesbians in the rural states, it is worth noting that the movement to ban “gay marriages” and anti-gay initiatives still largely come from the South and rural states. These places still have a long way to go before gays and lesbians feel safe in this environment. One reaction from a Wyoming woman playwright who had “never encountered a gay cowboy” was: “Don't try and take what we had, which was wonderful -- the cowboys that settled the state and made it what it was -- don't ruin that image... There's nothing better than plain old cowboys and the plain old history without embellishing it to suit everyone."

The film is very believable. You can well imagine the dilemma facing two men who met and felt this way about each other. They clearly wanted to be together but couldn’t due to the attitudes in the ‘western’ farming community.

Ang Lee has made an intensely political movie which when you look below the surface has some interesting class elements as well.

These two men are both poor working class cowboys, who didn’t have a dime to spare. Jack marries into money (his father in law owns a farm machinery business) but is still trapped. He is in a stronger position to break his connections but the money aside, he still has to contend with society’s attitudes. Ennis, meanwhile continues to struggle from one ranch-hand job to another and certainly has very little economic independence. If these two men had been wealthy enough, they probably could have ridden the storm and maintained a relationship. They may still have had a lead a double life but it would have been easier for them.

In taking on the subject of two working class cowboys who love each other but who can’t maintain their relationship, Lee has made a bold statement about how society could deny love to two such people purely on the basis that they were the same sex.

But if its not a simple love story, does that mean that Hollywood is redeeming its shameful past in dealing with gay issues? Actors such as Rock Hudson and Anthony Perkins both went to enormous lengths to hide the fact they were gay as did many others. Not just in failing to present them objectively in movies but also in it’s black-listing of actors who were left wing and gay (such as Will Gear). If there was anything McCarthy hated more than communists it was pinko-communists.

What is the state of play today? Michael Bronski writing In Zmag thinks that gay films have yet to make a serious breakthrough to the mainstream:

“Nearly a decade ago it looked as though we were about to enter a Renaissance of gay and lesbian filmmaking. Unable to have access to mainstream movie making, independent filmmakers, writers, and producers began turning out a remarkable body of work. Todd Haynes’s brilliant The Karen Carpenter Story and Poison that moved a gay sensibility to new levels of cultural critique and intelligence, were revelations as was Tom Kalin’s queer re-telling of the Leopold and Loeb story in Swoon. Rose Troche’s Go Fish and Isaac Julian’s Looking for Langston broke new territory and Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning expanded the parameters of what a queer documentary might do.

But since then it has been down hill; particularly in the past three years. The enormous possibilities opened by the success of independent queer cinema have become a dumping ground for third-rate and unimaginative comedies and feel-good movies. In 1997 we had Kiss Me Guido, I Never Met Picasso, Love and Death on Long Island, and I Think I Do followed the next year by Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss, Late Bloomers, Leather Jacket Love Story, and (slightly better) The Opposite of Sex. Not that there weren’t some fine films as well—Cheryl Dunye’s Watermelon Woman was imperfect, but ambitious; John Greyson’s Lilies was a triumph of style and intelligence; Lisa Cholodenka’s sharp and pungent High Art and Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters were about as perfect as movies get.

While it was nice to see homos in mainstream Hollywood movies, films like The Object of My Affection, In and Out, and My Best Friend’s Wedding, they lacked edge, intelligence, and any semblance of queer wit. Of course, mainstream films also presented us with the most stereotypical of gay “types”—Bruce Willis’s gay victim in The Jackal, Kevin Spacey’s wealthy queen in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Lauren Joey’s least-believable lesbian in Chasing Amy, and Ian McKellen’s repressed gay Nazi war criminal in Apt Pupil. While Edge of 17 had a few bright moments, it felt like a 20-minute short that had been blown out of proportion.

The British Get Real was sweet, but came nowhere close to the perceptiveness and potency of 1997’s Beautiful Thing. Relax...It’s Just Sex had some interesting moments, including a plot twist that dealt with sexualized murderous rage that followed a queer-bashing, but the film had no consistent center. Trick, with its cute boys, pre-packaged ghetto humor and edgy-but-sentimental sex was homogenized, formulaic, and empty. Beefcake, a faux documentary about Bob Mizer and Physique Pictorial, had flashes of humor, but ultimately had little point. Even Rose Troche, whose Go Fish showed so much promise, failed with Bedrooms and Hallways, a light, sprightly look at love, friendships, and sex in London that never rose above standard sit-com quality. The Canadian Better Than Chocolate offered little more than a lesbian version of its gay male independent counterparts, with pretty girls, the prerequisite political stances, and a happy ending that made no thematic or organic sense.”

Hollywood has never been known for campaigning for minority rights. It’s following the money. So does that mean that the huge popularity of Brokeback Mountain signals the ‘breakthrough’? Marxists, would gloss this ‘popularity’ to mean that as the traditional standards of the ‘western’ crumble under the impact of globalisation, there is more money in cropping the multi-millioned film audience and world adventure tourism than in the family plot. The economic interests of small town petty capitalism are blown away by large-scale capitalist agriculture, wage labour replaces family labour, Wal-Mart replaces the local store, and gays become part of the production line. When there is a profit to be made gays are no longer pariahs but ‘pretty men’.

As for the Hollywood machine and all the talk about Oscars, the film richly deserves them, not just for the fine acting and great script but for the breath-taking photography as well. If, as widely tipped, it does get Oscars and walk away with the Best film award, it will unfortunately be more because of a gilt-trip by members of the Academy than because of the artistic merit of the film.

Regardless of the motives, it will be a good day at the Oscars if this film gets the recognition it deserves for being such a fine and well-crafted film. Not just because it is a fine film but because such a movie in the mainstream will maybe give some of those homophobes (of whom there are still plenty) something to think about.

But more important than this, is my hope that the movie reaches out and touches the people who need it most. Somewhere in Wyoming (or maybe even rural New Zealand) there is a 16 year old boy or girl who when they see this movie will get some positive affirmation from it and realize that is ok to be gay and that it is better to be with the person you love than to spend your whole life leading a lie.

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