Thursday, February 16, 2006

What Broke Brokeback? 

It is with a certain measure of trepidation that I even admit to having seen Brokeback Mountain at all, let alone pass on a few thoughts. More shocking, even, is that I didn't hate it as much as I expected. The scenery alone redeemed the aesthetics of the film, since even the most heinous of films cannot mask the majestic, larger than life, beauty of the American West. Heath Ledger is stoic to a fault as Ennis Del Mar, skillfully painting a picture of a man who has never come to grips with his own emotions and demon, and doing it in a most convincing fashion. Jake Gyllenhaal was sufficiently angst ridden, although at times he came off as contrived. I found Michelle Williams(Alma, Ledger's wife) by far the most sympathetic of the characters, if only for consistency of her emotional pull on the audience, while Anne Hathaway was frankly uninteresting. The plot revolves around Ledger and Gyllenhaal, who meet one summer while tending sheep on a mountain in Wyoming, and throughout their life cannot escape the pull they hold on each other, to the detriment of their jobs, marriages, and lives. Overall, it was an intriguing story, with well cast actors and a breathtaking background on which to create a masterful film. So why did I leave the theater feeling disappointed and somehow unfulfilled?

I'm sure I'm not the first one to point out that the concept of male bonding in the wilderness is not new to Brokeback. From my own scouting days, I can vividly recall the feeling of camaraderie and closeness that grows between those who share in a certain circumstance, a shared experience so personal and defining, that trying to describe it later to those who weren't there produces only stuttering and half-hearted accounts. What's more, we've seen in recent years the way love between men can be portrayed, powerfully and successfully, in films like The Lord of The Rings. And that's why the single most frustrating aspect of Brokeback wasn't that they were gay: it was that they didn't have to be. It felt as if every time I began to identify and feel for the characters, there was a graphic reminder that this wasn't just love between two men, it was love between two gay men. And so often, it seemed like the characters themselves felt a certain remorse that the powerful, fraternal bond they shared was somehow "tainted." The film is indeed riveting at times, and emotionally gripping, but those are the times when the characters are the least overt about their sometimes-homosexuality. And that doesn't say much. It became increasingly clear that the motive of the film was not to portray the relationship itself, which was in many ways fascinating and easily sympathized with, but with portraying this relationship as a gay one. The politics of the film were not so covert as one would hope, with multiple scenes of bigotry and assault, and ignorant "intolerance." But contrary to the perceived motives of the film, it actually strengthened the sad stereotypes that pervade our society as it is: that such closeness among men, once a staple of great heroes and legends of old that mused of oaths of fealty and brotherhood, is in fact something inherently homosexual, and that the two are someone inseparable. That, I think, is the most tragic ending of all.

"But contrary to the perceived motives of the film, it actually strengthened the sad stereotypes that pervade our society as it is: that such closeness among men, once a staple of great heroes and legends of old that mused of oaths of fealty and brotherhood, is in fact something inherently homosexual, and that the two are someone inseparable."

A very insightful post here on the main stream views of homosexuality. Hollywood really just doesn't get it usually.
This is a point of view regarding this film that I hadn't encountered before. Quite insightful...well written too. :)
Good post, but I wonder if the point of the film is the converse of your statement; that is, that since we are constantly deluged with heterosexual male bonding (Band of Brothers, sporting events, etc etc) we should also realize that heterosexuality and male bonding are not inseperable.
Of course, I'm probably just respouting the mainstream press' interpretation.
I agree with the character sumups, but I can't help but think that this review generally offers a moot. I think had this film been about a heterosexual couple, it likely would not have been so lovingly embraced, so I agree that it’s “novel” approach to the star-crossed romance or the western is generally at the core of the movie’s support. That being said... you cannot amend this film's subject matter. It certainly has its own agenda, but I specifically take issue with the idea they, err, were unsubtle politically by presenting the prejudice homosexuals feel they face either literally or psychologically. Not being a gay man who has lived in a less flexible age and place, I cannot merely assume *spoiler* that Ennis' apprehension or his recounts of gaybashing (note: both scenes of gaybashing are viewed solely through Ennis' perspective, so they can’t be taken as literal representations) have a distinct political taste to them. And again, I believe your statement that BBM strengths stereotypes is off mark, as well. I believe the power of Brokeback Mountain comes from its ability to humanize the struggle of being gay and NOT being the typical lust of flamboyance. In fact, if Ang Lee wants a "political" message to be extracted at all from this story, it comes from this ability. I have spoken recently with a person who was compelled to finally admit to himself that he was gay, in part, due to seeing this film. That’s the sort of impact this film is having on individuals, which I find personally empowering to the true power and positive influence film can have. I cannot imagine living a life where the merits of a person's character are based on, not even gender or race, or something overt, but a private preference that seemingly "appears" at random. Brokeback Mountain gives voice to that kind of silent minority in a way previous gay-themed films haven't. It’s the "plight" of being different in society and finding the courage in that; it is here you have a universal message that does not undermine the intentions of the filmmakers or sabotage the true essence of the picture. I do not see a contradiction in relating to the camaraderie of Ennis and Jack just because their relationship is homosexual. The connection you made with the characters is a legitimate one regardless of their homosexuality. And dare I suggest… are other films about brotherhood tainted in your view because, say, the characters have “graphic” (a term loosely used, I guess… seemed like the lack of truly carnivorous gay sex was pandering to a mainstream hetero audience) naked heterosexual sex, or do other dastardly deeds outside their tight bond of friendship? Were Butch Cassidy and his Sundance Kid any less gleeful and charming because they stole and killed? Or, departing from the mano e mano angle, consider how audiences adoringly think of Clarice Starling and her “sweet” relationship to that fava bean eating psychopath Hannibal Lector? To what extent do actions define one character’s relationship to another? I’m ranting, but just thinking about stories without the existence of anti-heroes sends a flavorful chill down my spin. If you want a really good film about male bonding that REALLY pushes the line of sexual mores, check out Y Tu Mama Tambien. Regardless, as your reference to LOTR demonstrates, and recent Frank Darabont films also support, the “purity” of male friendships in film are very much alive and, lucky for us, thriving in the high school locker room. There’s an audience for it, just as there is for Brokeback Mountain and just because BBM challenges and blurs the line between preconceived notions of friendship, love or what have you, I do not see that in any way being a negative. -AH
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