DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Brokeback Mountain, (book), Lust, Caution, Don’t Tell Anyone , Total Eclipse, Wilde , Casanova, Regarding Billy

 

Title: Brokeback Mountain

Release Date: 2005

Nationality and Language: Focus

Running time: 124 min

MPAA Rating: R

Distributor and Production Company: Focus/River Road

Director; Writer: Ang Lee, based on short story by Annie Proulx (The New Yorker, 1997)

Producer: Diana Ossana

Cast:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Technical: shot flat

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site: long term relationships

 

I drove out through the Big Horn Mountains, a preview of the Rockies but well east of the Continental Divide, in northern Wyoming Memorial Day weekend of 1998, after some important encounters and events in my life. This film was actually shot in the similar-looking Canadian Rockies and in New Mexico, as surrogates for Wyoming and Texas. The spectacular scenery seems to call for full wide screen, which Ang Lee did not use. He wanted to focus on the close-ups of the small number of characters in this tragic story.

 

And it is a very natural love story. Two nineteen year-old sheep herders go to work with their bedrolls on Brokeback Mountain, apparently in these Big Horns near Sheridan and the Gillette strip mines near I-90. The climate seems cold, as they show it snowing one morning in August (not really likely even at 8000 feet). They get to know each other "socially" in the outdoors for the first twenty minutes of the film, as they backpack in the sheep grazing country, set up tents and use their bedrolls (that's what this kind of work is really like; it's very physical). One cold high altitude night Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) invites Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) into his tent. Jack takes his hand, and soon they cut loose with passion. They will spend the summer together, and arrange to meet each other over the years, while both get married and have kids. Jack goes back to Texas to live. On an early visit, Alma (Michelle Williams) oversees the two men kissing passionately, and realizes her husband is gay. Eventually they divorce, and Ennis is stuck with child support and bitterness. And, oh yes, they never bring home any fish from their summer fishing trips in Wyoming. 

 

The two men age slightly, with Jack showing some gray hair and mush in the middle. At the end, Jack will say, “I wish I knew how to quit you.” Then Jack will meet a tragic end, at the hand of gaybashers. Jack seems to need the relationship more than Ennis, as Jack often talks about their buying a ranch together some day. In Paul Rosenfels “polarity” terms, Jack seems to be psychologically feminine, and Ennis is psychologically masculine.

 

But this is a real lifelong love story. The two men stayed more dedicated psychologically to one another than they did to their wives. They have their intermittent twenty-year relationship for the benefit of their own happiness, not to meet the external expectations or demands of others or of society, and definitely not for social supports. Marriage and procreation was an obligation because the world in 1963 did not offer realistic opportunities for personal autonomy. The physical scenes do not communicate the notion of “ritual deflowering” that some other gay-oriented films (like Trick and Edge of 17) do.  However, note the resigned, submissive but smug expression on Jack's clean-cut face in a scene late in the film where Ennis embraces him (they are both fully clothed in cowboy dress) from behind. 

 

Stephen Hunter wrote an essay for The Washington Post about the movie, Feb. 2, 2006: “Lost Horizon: A Picture of the Mountain Between Two Americas.”   This reviewer maintains that Ang Lee has portrayed a visual paradigm of an emerging cultural schism. “Homosexual America” is the psychological Shangri-La (as the Ninth Street Center maintained in the 1970s, “Civilization’s Secret”), where as heterosexual family America is adaptive and impoverished. The river is the metaphor for paradise, as “the river runs through it.”  Hunter starts his analysis with an observation about what Jack’s father wanted to do with Jack’s cremated ashes: keep them on the dustbowl family plot in Texas as an homage to familial decency rather than spread them in the freedom of the high snow-capped mountains. Hunter maintains that the film is a bit cruel to family (especially to kids) and ignores the joys of parenting as off its radar screen. Jack and Ennis have failed as “providers” and therefore as men. Yet, both Jack and Ennis tried, and for a time each put some passion into heterosexual marriage. Each fathered kids. Each had good intentions. The viewpoint of the film may be that the poverty is social and explained by larger capitalistic forces beyond the moral control of the characters. This starts, after all, in 1963. The liberals seem to be ahead on this one. But then, get back to the personal responsibility issue. Heterosexual commitment (as can homosexual commitment, understood in an expanded Rosenfels sense) stems from a willingness to care about people as people, and to give priority to taking care of people as part of one’s domain in life or one’s mission of service. Maybe “masculine” personalities (here Ennis) relate to that more easily. Hunter writes that Jack and Ennis made a "contract with the heterosexual world" and broke it, but in fact one may have that contract whether one wants it or not. Persons who do not have their own children or who do not marry are sometimes pressured to take a back seat to those who do, for the "common good." It’s easy in a meritocratic society for someone like me to say, I won’t even try to have a family. I will take care of myself, but I may leave others behind in the process when they thought that they had a lien to count on me. That leads to a somewhat different moral parable. 

 

Ennis’s muteness is rather remarkable, as gay characters in the movies typically are more articulate, as is Jack. Ennis, instead, seems more organic and earthy and seems to see himself as a vehicle of fate, or forces that grab hold of him and that are beyond his domain. He does need dominion and he doesn’t know how to find it.

 

For me, despite all of the hullabaloo, the movie is non-judgmental. It makes its observations about society, men, women, relationships, families, and the economic and social institutions that set up the relationship between Ennis and Jack. It is more about society than it is about the two characters as being so unusual, because they really are not. They are to be understood, but neither condemned nor praised. But, as other reviewers note, different people will see Jack and Ennis very differently, and they perceive them as having walked out on life. But they really did not. In fact, their love of one another, however intermittently expressed, could have generated psychic energy to transfer to their marriages. That runs up against the conventional idea that monogamous marital love is absolute and demands 100% fidelity and loyalty, for the sake of the children. Here, other outside factors drove the marriages down, like the men's meager backgrounds. The film is not incriminating.

 

The simple music score (Gustavo Santaolalla, Marcelo Zarvos) seemed a but repetitious and trite. It could have used some more work.

 

One question: why do the Academy Awards people regard Heath Ledger as a lead actor and Jake Gyllenhaal as a supporting actor? I think that both roles are equivalent.

 

This film has done very well during the Christmas season in large cities. See the AP story on box office results (by Sandy Cohen) at Link:

 

John Leland wrote a piece, “New Cultural Approach for Conservative Christians: Reviews, Not Protests,” in the Dec. 30, 2005 The New York Times, in which many “Christian” reviewers called the movie well done artistically but “offensive.”  The word “offensive” has legal significance in some contexts (workplace behavior, off duty speech for some people, even obscenity and harmful to minors laws), and reviewers are maintaining that non-pornographic material (and this film is NOT pornographic) can still be offensive to the collective needs of family life or religious faith. This is a trend to watch. Link: (you need an online subscription and may have to pay a small fee).

 

Joel Siegel of ABC “Good Morning America” gave this film her personal 2005 “Best Picture” award. http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/JoelSiegel/story?id=1453365

 

The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has protested Gene Shalit’s review that considers Jack Twist’s behavior “predatory”, at link:

Gene Shalit’s video review may be watched on MSNBC at http://video.msn.com/v/us/v.htm?g=7fba34e7-dcab-4bf5-9756-c621b7ffa517&f=rss05

 

ABC World News Tonight, on 2/1/2006, reported on the Christian backlash against nomination of gay-themed films (including Capote) for best picture. “Christian Conservatives serve up “Brokeback” backlash; Religious groups say gay-themed movies show Hollywood out of touch with America.” http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=1566879&WNTad=true

 

WINS BEST DRAMATIC FILM FOR 2005 AT GOLDEN GLOBES 1/16/2006.  NOMINATED FOR BEST PICTURE AND FOR BEST DIRECTOR for Oscars.

 

Won: Best Director, Best adapted screenplay, Best original music score

 

Book: Annie Proulx, "Brokeback Mountain" published by Scribner (New York), ISBN 0-7432-7132-7; isbn-13  978-0-7432-7132-5, 55 pages, paper, will cover illustration from the film. Copyright date 1997, from original publication in The New Yorker. The story is definitely an example of literary short fiction, and reproduces the common gutter language of the characters. It is really an expanded character study over twenty years, and shows how a well-accepted literary form can present previously controversial or less accepted materials. Their initial intimacy, however spontaneous, is portrayed with active writing and common words ("spit").  Some of the famous lines in the film are in the story, like "But if you can't fix it you got a stand it" (Ennis).   

 

Lust, Caution ("Se, jie", 2007, Focus, dir. Ang Lee,  short story by Eileen Chang,158 min, NC-17, China) shows that this director can translate his basic paradigm of the social use of personal sexual and expressive aims (whatever sexual orientation) into a totally different world, this time one closer to his, in fact, Shanghai, China (and Hong Kong) from 1938-1942 during Japanese occupation. Here, a young girl, Wang Jiazhi (Wei Tang) is drawn into acting, for revolutionary causes (itself a psychologically edgy proposition) and will befriend the wife (Joan Chen) of the Japanese honcho Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) so that the group can assassinate him. Four years later, the plot continues as she impersonates the wife. She is still "acting" when in the most exposed and vulnerable positions, and the sex scenes are to be taken as a fable about the extremes an actor or actress might go to in order to achieve her "professional" aims. The film has attracted controversy for its explicit sexuality and ratings issues, but the explicit scenes do not start until the second hour of the film, and become quite brutal for a few brief moments toward the end. The director has insisted that the scenes are absolutely essential to the artistic integrity of the film. The title of the film indeed conveys a certain moral message, that one's deepest desires can be manipulated over time by others for nefarious purposes, with a great deal of moral relativism.\

 

 The film story is told as a film noir (not so much as a conventional espionage thriller, as some reviewers say), with a dreamlike style (and considerable use of flashback storytelling  -- the opening mahjong game recalls a scene from "Joy Luck Club" -- and shifting identities) that recalls Hitchcock (much more so here than in Brokeback).  There are some parables involving the movies as an art form: Mr. Yee does not like the darkness of theaters, and in one scene a 40s film ("Suspicion") is interrupted with Japanese propaganda.

 

Don’t Tell Anyone (“No se lo digas a nodie”, 1998, Parade/Lolafest, dir. Francisco J. Lombardi, 120 min, R, Spain/Peru) has a structural similarity to Brokeback. Two bisexual men fall in the middle of the film. One is a law student Joaquin Camino (Santiago Magill), a character based on the autobiography of talk show host Jaime Bailey. He has been raised by a macho father (Giovanni Ciccia), and first falls in love with Alejandra (Lucia Jimenez) through whom he meets Gonzalo (Christian Meier) who is dating another girl. At one point they are sitting astride in a theater and have to reach over the dates. Joaquin’s life sinks into cocaine addiction and he winds up in Miami. The early scenes in Peru are compelling, as the father teaches him to shoot and the ways of “manly” behavior. Visually, some of it appears to have been shot (like a South American “western”) on the Peruvian Altiplano, as the scene where his father does a hit and run on a cyclist. Later, when the love quadrangle develops, the gay characters have to deal with the closet, that no one can afford to “tell” in Lima and offend the mores of patriarchal upper class South American Catholic society.

 

There was an Italian film “Don’t Tell” nominated for best foreign film for 2005, and I have no information about it other than that it is from Cattleya/Rai. There is a small film called “Don’t Tell” from Isaac Eaton and Quantum pictures in 2005, and I will try to see it when there is a DVD.  

 

Total Eclipse (1995, Fine Line, dir. Agniezka Holland, 100 min, R). "The world is old and there is nothing new." Leonardo di Caprio as gay poet Arthur Rimbaud in 19th Century France alternates between charisma and nilhism in his stormy relationship with more ordinary writer Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) while the later is married to a woman with child. Rimbaud, even at 16, creates a lot of talk about integrity in relationships: he feels that heterosexual marriage is more about meeting the necessary expectations of society than about nurturing the self. So he sounds to me like a Rosenfels type masculine. There is plenty of tempestoso; Arthur stabs David in the hand in a dare, and David later shoots Arthur in the same place. Finally David is convicted of sodomy in Belgium (the doctor actually looks at his rectum) and he spends two years in prison. The reunite and then split, and Arthur roams the world, and has some heterosexual episodes, illness, and a religious conversion, and finally marriage. In one scene, Di Caprio is shown with his leg amputated. The story is somewhat parallel to that of Brokeback. In the end, the poet must pass, and his works must be selected to be published.  

 

Wilde (1997, Sony Pictures Classics, dir. Brian Gilbert, book by Richard Ellmann, 116 min, R) is a biography of the life of playwright and poet Oscar Wilde (Stephen Fry).  The film starts with a curious sequence in a mine near Leadville, CO where he addresses shirtless young miner, then goes back to Victorian England. Yes, he was married (his wifeLady Speranza is played by Vanessa Redgrave) with kids, and he had a least two younger male lovers, first Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen) and then Lord Alfred Douglas, "Bosie" (Jude Law). His career moves along with the play The Important of Being Earnest as his relationship with Bosie grows. It is quite tender at times, while women have Victorian conversations to the effect that appearances are more important than truth--that's what the uppers classes are for. Wilde says that his younger male friends are like disciples of a great teacher, and, yes, Wilde is a feminine. He angers Bosie's father the Marquess of Queensberry (Tom Wilkinson). The judicial showdown starts when Wilde sues the Marquess for libel, and suddenly changes course and incriminates himself in the trial by saying that he would rather talk to a boy and invite him home than to a man his own age. Would he commit improprieties with a boy? Of course not. But the damage is done. He is presumed to have a "propensity" toward indecency, and is presumed to be soliciting young men for sex. Scotland Yard arrests him and he is tried and convicted and sent to prison for two years. "An man kills the thing he loves," yes. Jude Law is quite vigorous and male-pretty, is a young manly way, all right, as the prissy Bosie.

 

Casanova (2005, Touchstone, dir. Lasse Hallstrom, wr. Jeffrey Hatcher and Kimberly Simi, 108 min, R) was Heath Ledger's other big end-of-2005 release. It seems odd to place it on this page, but there is more commonality than you think. Casanova was a famous playwright and poet, apparently, and womanizer to boot, and this story takes a lot of liberty with the facts in 18th Century Venice to bring out a lot of the issues. And he was capable of cross-dressing, transvestism and role changing--heedting the Rosenfels truth that most transvestites are straight. The main "change of plans" in the story occur when the clergy threaten to have Casanova (Heath Ledger) locked up by the Inquisition, but he can make himself safe by marrying a virgin from a good family, who will be Victoria (Natalie Dormer). This is the "marriage is mandatory" problem, which actually infects the story of "Brokeback Mountain" above, for all practical purposes.  Now Victoria is already paired off with Giovanni (a young, handsome and virile Charlie Cox) But he falls for feminist and cross-dresser herself Francesca Bruni (Sienna Miller). In the meantime he has used an illiterate's name Guardi (Philip Davis) as a pseudonym for his writing, and "gets caught" and is almost terminated by the Inquisition. But Francesca will get him off. 

 

Regarding Billy (2005, Guardian, dir. and wr. Jeff London, 75 min, NR but would be PG-13) encapsulates all of the moral debates about sexual preference and the capacity to carry out family responsibility and share other sacrifices, in a drama with just three male characters. This DVD-only (so far as I know) film was made for $20K, but it makes a good intellectual counterweight for Brokeback Mountain above. The movies seems a bit like a stage play with closeups, and it has the narrative simplicity of The Bicycle Thief.  In fact, the most elaborate scenes are military combat video (Iraq perhaps) in the opening credits.

 

Billy (Ronnie Kerr), an unmarried young working adult, has returned to his parents' home to take care of his mentally impaired brother Johnny (Jack Sway) when the parents die. Their death was apparently a tragic accident, and the parents are never shown. That could be due to budget limitations, but leaving them out allows the viewer to focus on the three young men, as all of the drama concerns them. Perhaps Billy is required to do so by probate (the "dead hand" known from English novels), but that is never said. The underlying point is that filial responsibility is not chosen, but is a risk born by all. It doesn't get said very often in political debate, and as the film develops we get more of an idea why.  We see that Billy bonds with Johnny and can talk to Johnny in endearing terms, the way a parent should. The cause of Johnny's impairment is never specified, and perhaps does not matter. It seems to have him at the mental age of a grade school kid, and he seems to be socially extremely vulnerable and needs to be protected by a more mature adult. In the mean time, Billy misses his high school best friend Dean (Jason Van Eman). In fact, the opening scene of the movie shows them camping in a tent, when Dean tells Billy that Dean will join the military. Billy dreams about Dean in a Navy uniform. We suspect that Billy is gay by now, but this is certainly no reason for Billy to walk out on the responsibility to "act like a man" and, with manipulative masculine skills, protect a vulnerable sibling.

 

Dean returns from Iraq prematurely, in dress uniform -- he has been in the Air Force -- but he is apparently being discharged. We can suspect a reason and be wrong. Dean has been wounded, and is having serious headaches, which will lead to a grave disability of his own. Out of mere hospitality, Billy invites Dean to move in. Gradually, the three men build a family with Johnny as the "child." Then there will be a confrontation, where Billy and Dean both face that they are in love. They will have a family Christmas (apparently on the California coast) with three red stockings. Johnny is still like a little boy, who looks forward (out of simple religious faith) to seeing Mom and Dad some day and believes that Dean has the same loss. The two men approach increasing physical intimacy, which is strongly suggested in the final scene while Johnny is in the room. But it seems that Johnny would not even be able to question or understand the social disapproval of their relationship.

 

We see the argument. Dean does discuss the fact that he would have been discharged if he told or was outed, and he tells the story of another gay serviceman. It is important to Dean and to gay servicemembers that they are equally able to "serve my country" (as so directly put in Joe Steffan's Honor Bound). The fear, only barely suggested by the video clips at the beginning, is that the military demands forced intimacy and group bonding to make men into warriors (an idea so well shown in the recent The Ground Truth). This idea opens up the idea that so much of life is about meeting obligations to others, to accepting the socialization that is needed to pay others back if for no other reason. So we come back to filial responsibility. We all know that Maggie Gallagher and other social conservatives (fending off gay marriage) are running around connecting marriage to babies (or speaking in abstract about the "sanctity of marriage"), and this film cuts open the circle of that kind of argument and leaves it agape. The obvious inference is that this family should have the legal and social benefits of marriage (for Billy and Dean).

 

Billy accepts the idea that he needs to connect with and protect his brother before he is has an intimate relationship with an "equal" of his own choosing. This seems to comport with the whole "Parable of the Talents" problem in the New Testament. His actions react to the needs of others and are not just self-expressive. 

 

The film forces me to carry on a soliloquy about my own ability to connect to people when they have special needs. That was a real problem in some substitute teaching assignments. I need to have my "art" and works public and a generic accomplishment so that I can select the people that I want to connect to. But like does not always support that level of choice as a moral guarantee. Billy selects Dean and will care for Dean if indeed his injury worsens, but he would not select his siblings. Loyalty to flesh and blood seems to live apart from chosen actions of right and wrong. In fact, Billy never perceives Johnny's (or Dean's) impairments as having moral significance.

 

This little film definitely should have a platform release for arthouse distribution. Maybe Focus can pick this up as a complement to Brokeback.  (It does distribute Ground Truth.) 

    

 

Related reviews:. GLBT films Trick, Edge of 17   Rosenfels (book)  Capote  The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada  The Mexican   Why We Fight ("Blowback Mountain")  Gay Sex in the 70s, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee) , An Unfinished Life   Trans-Generation  The Merchant of Venice   The Ground Truth

 

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