Wednesday, January 04, 2006

#35: On BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN * Nancy Keefe Rhodes Broadcast 12/29/05 * Screenwriter Diana Ossana first encountered Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain,” in a middle-of-the-night fit of insomnia in 1997. It was printed in the “The New Yorker” magazine, and right away she wanted to adapt it for the screen with her writing partner, the Western novelist Larry McMurtry. Last week, “Brokeback Mountain” was named Best Film of 2005 by a US critics group for the seventh time. Ironically on the same day, the press reported on pop star Elton John’s wedding and celebrity-studded celebration in England, where a new law now provides same-sex couples with civil unions. I saw “Brokeback Mountain,” directed by Ang Lee, two Sundays ago at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, just north of New York City, during a Christmas family weekend. I can report that after this haunting film, my sister has now forgiven me for dragging her to see “Open Water” two summers ago. But we privately decided it was best that we hadn’t taken along my brother-in-law, although “The Birdcage” is one of his favorite movies. “Brokeback” spans two decades, from the 1963 summer that Ennis Del Mar (played by Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) spend tending sheep on an isolated Wyoming mountain-side, where they become lovers, through their marriages, reunion and affair, Jack’s perhaps questionable death, and Ennis’ trip to Jack’s parents. The short story is structured as a flashback through Ennis Del Mar’s eyes one bitterly cold, desolate morning. The principal changes the film makes are to begin with that first summer and to flesh out the women characters – each man’s wife, Jack’s mother, and Ennis’ daughters. Annie Proulx has nothing but good things to say about the screen version. And “Brokeback” is nothing like “The Birdcage” at all – that is, it’s not a worldly, comfortable, post-Stonewall urban gay farce that we can feel satisfied about. No. Elton John’s wedding is not thinkable in this film. Curiously, this puts us as viewers on roughly the same footing as its two subjects. They embark upon their life-changing love affair without any social context for this possibility, despite Jack’s persistent dream that they could somehow ranch together. This means they have to figure it out as they go along. While they don’t do very well in the execution, it means we get to figure it out along with them. It’s a pretty bruising ride. And it makes Ennis and Jack two remarkably accessible male characters for women viewers, because the movie’s success, like the story, hinges on making them human. Indeed the key moment in both story and film is one that Ennis recalls as “sexless,” when he held Jack and rocked him, really more like a mother, during their first summer. This takes us back – insofar as it’s possible – to the discovery that love can be new and brave. This might help account for the extreme power of gay stories that are set in the West and play off the conventions, violence and myths of the Western genre. “Boys Don’t Cry,” made in 1999, was set in Nebraska, and of course there’s “The Laramie Project,” the play adapted to film in 2002 by HBO – both fact-based. Like them, “Brokeback” has outbursts of merciless violence. Like them, “Brokeback” also has scenes of barely-restrained threat after which you’ll never see the classically tongue-tied cowboy quite the same again – notably when Jack carefully backs out of the office of a boss who’s found him out, when Ennis faces Jack’s father over a kitchen table, and even the varieties of silence each man’s wife keeps. Annie Proulx says “Brokeback” isn’t a Western per se, but about two confused kids who fall pretty short of the cowboy persona each aspires to, and who get into “deeper water” than they can handle. This occurs against a breath-taking rural landscape where people’s lives are immensely harsh & hard. Co-screenwriter Larry McMurtry has reflected that this mythical Western landscape is something that seduces us into over-looking the difficult lives of its people. But Ang Lee’s direction zooms in to show this hard, harsh life unflinchingly and in visually stunning detail. Significantly, Ennis’ fear about making ends meet helps drive him and Jack apart because he finally won’t risk losing a job to meet Jack. In the end, it’s his sudden decision to quit a job so he can go to his daughter’s wedding that holds out the thinnest sliver of hope for him. You know, “Brokeback Mountain” isn’t even scheduled to play in Syracuse. It does open for a run at The Little Film Society in Rochester next week. Maybe a few Golden Globes and Oscars later, it’ll come here. I encourage you to get on the phone to Nat Tobin, who runs the Westcott & Manlius Cinemas, and to Michael Heagerty at The Palace in Eastwood, and see if one of them can’t get this gem here. In 2006, let’s get Syracuse back on the movie map. * (823)