Friday, 21 December 2012

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Dir. Ang Lee
Starring: Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Brokeback Mountain has become famed as ‘the gay cowboy love story’. I worry about this on several grounds. Firstly, the homosexual aspect of it might put off straight filmwatchers from viewing it, which would be a shame (I know whereof I speak: it was offered as an inflight movie on a trans-Atlantic flight I was on in 2006 and I opted to watch less, erm, challenging fare instead). Secondly, that description contains a number of inaccuracies. 

Firstly, I’m not sure quite how ‘cowboy’ the central pairing of Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (Heath Ledger and October Sky’s Jake Gyllenhaal) are. Sure, they wear cowboy hats and hang around in dusty Western towns, but this is not the 1880s Wyoming of Shane and Unforgiven. This is the West of the 1960s and ‘70s. Ennis and Jack are two hirelings employed to watch over the sheep flock of Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid from Hard Rain and Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach) while they pasture up on Brokeback Mountain for the summer. After that summer they do go into various cow-related professions, Ennis continuing as a ranch hand and Jack trying his luck as a rodeo rider before settling down selling farm machinery. 

Secondly, for fear of upsetting people, I must say that I’m not sure how ‘gay’ Ennis and Jack are. The story is that of their relationship and how they give in to passion sharing a tent up on Brokeback. Four years later they pick up their relationship and arrange to continue their affair in secret. But they are certainly not exclusively homosexual. Ennis produces two daughters with his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) and is seen participating eagerly in bed with her; after his divorce he has another relationship with a waitress. Jack responds to the forthright advances of rodeo rider Lurleen (Anne Hathaway) and has a son with her. He later tells Ennis that he has been seeing another woman behind her back. Yet it is implied that he is seeing that woman’s husband as well, and we see him cruising for gay sex in Mexico. Both characters engage eagerly with partners of both sexes. This, then, would make them bisexual. But in many ways it is pointless trying to label their relationship. The nuances of homosexuality or bisexuality are lost on Ennis and Jack – they just do not have the vocabulary. This is not a relationship with a background in any equality movement; it is two men answering a need within each other. 1960s Wyoming may as well be Victorian England. Men may carry on with each other is secret but the public face they must display is of a macho family man. When it all begins Ennis tells Jack “You know I ain’t queer.” “Me neither” Jack replies. Ennis has reason to fear, having seen a murdered gay man when he was a child. When Lurleen tells him of Jack’s death all he can think of is his lover being brutally assaulted by thugs. The truth of Jack’s death is never actually explained.

Thirdly, Brokeback Mountain hardly seems like your stereotypical love story. Sleepless in Seattle it is not. There are no grand romantic gestures – there is only need. There are no flowery expressions of love. Everything goes unspoken. The nearest they get is Jack’s heartfelt “I wish I knew how to quit you!” Their backgrounds condition them to know that two men could not possibly ever be in love with each other and so they don’t have that conversation. The nearest they get is the matter of their shirts. Following Jack’s death Ennis goes to see his parents. Secreted behind a wardrobe he finds the bloodstained shirts they wore up on Brokeback Mountain twenty years previously, one tucked inside the other. Ennis takes them and hangs them in his trailer, now with their positions reversed. This is the signal and sign of the depth of their attachment to each other. They can only find solace with each other.

He couldn't resist the stay-fresh
scent of new improved Lenor
I was going to write about how much of a genius Ang Lee is. For a man from Taiwan to direct a film like Brokeback Mountain full of dusty small towns, hardbitten ranchwork and gay romance is, I immediately thought, taking him way beyond his comfort zone. But why should a director have to personally know the scenarios he is bringing to the screen? Steven Spielberg never searched for sharks, Alfred Hitchcock was never pursued by spies, David Lean never rode with the Bedoiun. All a director needs is a good script which evokes the necessary atmosphere and an imagination to see the world through the eyes of his characters. But Lee has always pushed boundaries. Whil one might imagine that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was not too much of a stretch for him, he had directed Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility five years earlier. 19th century English manners must have been as alien to him as the smalltown West and yet that was a success. He has refused to be limited in what he chooses to direct, be it big budget Hollywood actioneers like Hulk or the current The Life of Pi. Kudos to him.

Brokeback Mountain is a beautifully shot and tender study of a forbidden romance. It does not provide any easy answers to the viewer. And yes, okay, the scene of Ennis and Jack’s first sexual encounter did make me feel uncomfortable in a way that I hadn’t felt since watching Priest many years ago. Really, the only negative is the scope of time the film covers. To be honest at the end of the film Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal do not look twenty years older than at the beginning. They look like kids playing dress-up (Michelle Williams' dowdy Alma is the exception to this). Sideburns get a little longer, shoulders sag a little more, but it was hard for me to understand quite how long their relationship had been going on without making reference to their children. I suppose the refusal to drown the main characters in makeup left greater scope for acting – and Ledger in particular as the closeted inarticulate Ennis is superb. Brokeback Mountain is more than the clich√© everyone knows it as and should be watched by people whether or not they like cowboys, gays or love stories. 

What have I learnt about Wyoming?
Well, for starters, Wyoming in the early ‘50s was pretty homophobic. Even as late as the 1970s gay individuals were scared of making their sexuality clear for fear that they would be murdered. I’m not sure how much of that came as a surprise to me. 

What was more surprising was the animals tended. Yes, Ennis later rounds up steers, but he starts out tending sheep with Jack. A Western form of transhumance was practiced, with sheep being driven up to the mountains to pasture over summer before being brought back down again for winter. But even during summer the weather is unpredictable, with cold nights, hailstones the size of marbles and sudden overnight snowfalls. Menacing wildlife includes coyotes and black bear. 

Can we go there?
Many of the locations mentioned in the film – and in the original short story by Annie Proulx – are entirely fictitious. There is no Brokeback Mountain, there is no Signal, and there is no Lightning Flats (where Jack hails from). The one town that really does exist is Riverton, in the centre of the state, where Ennis and Alma settle down.
However, like Unforgiven, Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Alberta, Canada, rather than Wyoming itself. Cowley was used for Signal. Fort Macleod stood in for the real Riverton – for instance during the 4th July sequence when Ennis fights two bikers and his family apartment above the laundrette. The bar in which Jack and Lurleen first hook up is actually Ranchman’s in Calgary. Brokeback Mountain itself was a composite of Mount Lougheed and Moose Mountain, both in Kananaskis Country to the west of Calgary. The campground scenes were shot at Canyon Creek (theit first campsite), Goat Creek (the second), Elbow Falls and Upper Kananaskis Lake (where Jack wished he could “quit” Ennis). 

The two intertwined shirts can be seen at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. 

Overall Rating: 3/5

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