West of Eden

Daring to be different, Ang Lee's epic gay romance goes looking for love in the heartland

You could infer from the production notes that Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain would be useful if it came in a spray can: Spritz a little on a fundamentalist and change him into a liberal, or neutralize a whole church basement of rednecks with a full blast.

This film is inflected to instill something akin to high moral dudgeon. Its depiction of ordinary Americans trapped in loveless marriages and dead-end jobs, its laconic naturalism, and the . . . well, natural way its two male protagonists find themselves, one drunken night on the mountain, riding bareback in a sleeping bag, build an industrial-strength case for breaking the mold, following your heart, and Daring To Be Different. How can anyone find happiness otherwise? On the other hand, the film makes the explicit point that deviating just a tad from the norm will probably lead you to a brutally violent end at the hands of your neighbors. But maybe if they saw this movie . . . ?

The "problem film" often equates sexual excitement with "love," and often ends with the reconciled lovers implicitly living happily ever after—not the case here, but probably never the case when sex is the only real adhesive between two people, anyway. Even so, Brokeback Mountain (opening December 9) suggests that the opposite could be true, if only other people could respect all kinds of love, not just the kind they imagine they themselves enjoy.

This thing called love: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger
photo: Kimberly French
This thing called love: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger


See also:

  • The Scripting News Brokeback writers on the road from page to screen
    by Jessica Winter

  • Blazing Saddles Stable relationship: Gay frontier weepie is Hollywood's straightest love story in years
    by J. Hoberman
  • One summer of love leaves cowpokes Ennis and Jack in an insoluble quandary. Seasonal workers, they're soon divided by a lot of wide-open space, marriages, families, and in Ennis's case, guilt and ambivalence. Probably the best thing about Brokeback Mountain is its portraiture of grim, idiotic family gatherings where brewing antagonisms explode into open hostility, and shit-kicker country barrooms full of squat, ugly men with stringy beards itching for a brawl: the whole nine yards of ghoulish Americana, for which the film rather perversely demands an overgenerous degree of sympathy. It's important, as actors like to tell us in interviews, for even the nastiest or most vapid characters to have something "human" about them, something—why not say it?—lovable. Because let's face it, in the end, you've really got to love everybody.

    Four years after the first taste of carnal knowledge, Jack's reappearance rekindles Ennis's kundalini into a veritable bonfire, followed by 20 years of sporadic "fishing trips" where they restage that ever receding time up on Brokeback Mountain. Ennis divorces. Jack, the less inhibited and more insatiable of the two, makes furtive excursions to Mexico when his Uranian urges overpower him in Ennis's absence.

    What Ennis and Jack both refer to as "this thing," established early, is more or less the same thing that glued Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman together in Magnificent Obsession, yet separated them in All That Heaven Allows—a socially inappropriate love, rendered acceptable in the former movie by Rock Hudson's dedication and skills as an eye surgeon, but made impossible in the latter by his low station as a gardener. Needless to say, "this thing" activates Neanderthal reactions in the rowdy cultural backwaters of the film, necessitating a tragic conclusion with calculated echoes of the Matthew Shepard murder.

    The case has already been made by some critics that Ang Lee's is the first "mainstream" movie with "A-list stars" to deal with a gay male relationship—a weird assertion, given how narrowly "mainstream" would have to be defined for this to be true, and how small the theater audience for mainstream films, however you define them, has become, and how wholly dependent on DVD sales and rentals this putative mainstream currently is. (As far as that goes, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, remarkable as they are as Jack and Ennis, respectively, have been "A-list" stars for about six months, which isn't the same thing as being Barbra Streisand or Warren Beatty.)

    I'm not sure what this type of claim is supposed to signify—that Hollywood is on the cutting edge of social progress? That every other movie on this subject has been merely a "festival film" or in some other way unimportant compared to one with saturation booking in a thousand multiplexes? Or could it mean that we prefer to think we're making progress when the clock is running backwards?

    Consider Brokeback Mountain's overt pandering to Rousseauian notions of the American West and its insularity, the toughness and self-sufficiency of its tight-lipped, xenophobic denizens, its rituals of faith and patriotism. You could say that simply depicting this hillbilly heaven accurately is itself an unsettling criticism, yet the effect, again, is to make it seem, in many ways, admirable—its unflagging work ethic, its quasi-mystical connection to harvest, soil, livestock, and weather.

    Just as Capote's eastern Kansans referred to western Kansas as "out there," Brokeback Mountain's characters seem to shun the wider world as "out there." No one ever refers to the large events of the day, or to places outside his or her immediate ken. Between 1963 and somewhere in the early 1980s, the only evidence of a realm beyond the rodeo circuit and the ranch is the cathode eye in the living room, the slowly mutating look of motor vehicles and supermarket wares, and an occasional reference to the state of the economy.

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