Written by: Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana Directed by: Ang Lee
There are various reasons I take films off the the shelf at the video store or library. Sometimes I systematically try to watch certain works. Other times I go for the oddball covers. In the case of finally seeing Brokeback Mountain, I suppose I was chasing a memory. 2006 was the first year in which I was broadly aware of what films were nominated for the Oscars, even though I was too young to have seen any of them. While my interest was admittedly peaked because a movie about one of my favourite singers (Johnny Cash/Walk the Line) was part of the conversation, I nonetheless retained memories of the names of actors and movies that were not necessarily atop the tabloid world: actors including Brokeback Stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gylenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway,
So what did I think of Brokeback Mountain? I enjoyed it, though perhaps I felt it did not live up to the mystical stature it held as the first “great” (modern) movie to have slipped into my consciousness. In drama classes, a common piece of advice is “show not tell.” Clearly, I think this is good advice, as I regularly find myself using “subtlety” as a near synonym for quality when discussing film. When storytellers, “show and not tell,” they make more powerful statements about the issues they are dealing with, than if they name the issue head on: they allow the issue to emerge in a raw, more natural form.
Brokeback Mountain, literally speaking, is a subtle film. Its protagonist, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) doesn’t say much, and his silence certainly plays a role in shaping the film’s trajectory. Upon deeper examination, however, Brokeback Mountain is not a subtle work. It’s quite plainly “the gay cowboy” story, even if the word “gay” is never used in the script. Brokeback Mountain straddles the line between “mainstream” and “alternative”: it is realist and lacks (with one brief, but significant exception) action, yet at the same time is dramatic and unambiguous in its messaging.
An obvious way to think about Brokeback Mountain is as a piece of gay (or queer) cinema, a lens which for me evokes, the memory of recent releases Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight. Moonlight is a story that takes place in this modern era, one in which “gay rights” enjoy broad support (even as homophobia can clearly still take a violent toll on society). Call Me By Your Name is slightly pre-modern as far as the gay-rights conversations goes, however, since it is set in a small world populated by liberal intellectuals the significance of this time difference is somewhat negated. Brokeback Mountain thus, in a way, feels different than those two works. It opens in rural America in the 60s: a world which we can assume is predominantly homophobic. What is interesting about the film,, again, that “gayness” is rarely explicitly mentioned. As such, the degree to which it influences the plot’s dramatic tension is left at least somewhat ambiguous. Yes, we can assume that a gay couple probably couldn’t be out and proud in the world of Brokeback Mountain, but does this homophobia go so far as to prevent its characters from being out in the small world of their family and social groups? This second question is left unanswered. We never get to know whether the film’s protagonists are entirely victims of homophobia, or whether it is their internal fears and self-hate that prevent them from finding happiness.
I suppose it can be said that this ambiguity is the feature that gives Brokeback Mountain its reputation. It’s this feature that allows the film to run on, even where dramatic events are few and far between. Ennis may not have enemies, but he does have his own personality to conquer: a personality that silences him no matter who the listener is.
The film is also a joy aesthetically. It’s score is simple, but interesting. It consists of acoustic guitar riffs: plucked strings breaking out with the Brokeback mountain sunrise over the fresh morning dew. To anyone who ever over-generalizes and says they hate country music, I dare them to see this movie, and take in country as it emerges from its natural habitat.
Unfortunately it is not 2006 and I cannot appreciate how Brokeback Mountain would have come across when it first came out. Perhaps at the times its politics were more revolutionary, making its theme feel richer or at least more original than it does today. This vague gripe aside, I thoroughly appreciated the modern classic. Just remember to put on the subtitles: That Heath Ledger sure can mumble.