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Crosstalk: Brokeback Mountain

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Reviews are monologues, but plenty of dialogues take place around them. Here's one about Ang Lee's new film Brokeback Mountain as conducted via e-mail by Scott Tobias and Keith Phipps.
Keith Phipps: If nothing else, you have to give Ang Lee credit for the courage to make a gay cowboy movie after the Sundance-themed episode of South Park that characterized all indie movies as being about gay cowboys eating pudding. There's no pudding here, but Brokeback Mountain is very much about being gay and being a cowboy, isn't it? Particularly about the similarities of the iconic lonesome cowboy and the isolation of being gay in a time and place that wants nothing to do with gay people.

Scott Tobias: Much as I'd love to see Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal sharing a tin of pudding together–such intimacies are still too much for mainstream audiences to bear, I would guess–Brokeback Mountain doesn't strike me as the naked plea for tolerance you'd expect from a Sundance-ready film. (Now playing: Loggerheads and Transamerica.) For me, the film calls to mind other heartbreakers like The Age Of Innocence, In The Mood For Love, and Far From Heaven, all tales of unrequited love that rigorously detail the social circumstances that keep its lead characters from finding happiness with each other. Though Brokeback takes place over several decades, it could not be called a period piece like those other films: Wyoming is the land of Matthew Shepard, after all, so it's clear that other such courtships face dangerous obstacles that are contemporary. In fact, Shepard's ghost lingers unmistakably over one beautifully staged scene in a bar, where one look at the wrong cowboy suggest potentially devastating consequences.
The big question hovering over this film is whether or not it will find mainstream acceptance. In a terrific Esquire piece this month, my friend Mike D'Angelo comes to an interesting conclusion on this front: He argues that American audiences will accept gay love only when it's extinguished, e.g. Philadelphia. What they can't abide is happiness. To quote D'Angelo: "What would truly fuck with America's head would be a gay Pretty Woman or Jerry Maguire–a big-budget romantic comedy in which George Clooney and Will Smith wind up happily ever after, kissing on the pier in the final shot as hundreds of extras gaily applaud." Brokeback Mountain could soften some of the homophobic sentiment that has calcified with the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives, and I appreciate the film's candor in capturing the raw physicality of the heroes' sexual couplings, which are bound up in desire and shame and powerful masculinity. It isn't giving much away to reveal that happiness isn't forthcoming–this movie isn't called Fixedback Mountain, after all–but then again, the most moving love stories are the ones that never fully materialize.

KP: Plea for tolerance… heartbreaking love story about the emotional destruction of social circumstances… chocolate… peanut butter… so many things can go well together. To me, Brokeback works best as the kind of [SPOILER WARNING] heartbreaking tale of impossible love you describe. But it's also a direct, and fairly conservative, plea for tolerance. There are a lot of complicated themes at work in this movie. The love scenes you describe capture a lot of them wordlessly and wonderfully. In their first embraces there's a kind of I'm-angry-because-I-want-to-fuck-you-but-I-can't-stop-wanting-to-fuck-you vibe.
But there's no escaping that there's a simple argument at the heart of the film: If it weren't for society's hang-ups, these guys could have settled down and had a wonderful life together. Mike might be on to something in that piece. A really radical film would be one about just that and I'm honestly not sure we're that many years away from it. Or am I being ridiculously optimistic? Maybe after the next election…

How about a minute to salute the women of Brokeback, too? One review suggested that Michelle Williams gives the best performance in the film. I wouldn't go that far, but she's pretty terrific, as is Anne Hathaway, despite all those unfortunate wigs. And my hat's off to Linda Cardellini and especially Anna Farris, who shows up for a Lost In Translation-style motormouth cameo. As far as I'm concerned, she can interrupt more movies that way.

But before we get carried away with praise, did you have any problems with the film? I know it's currently your number one for the year. It's not there for me, as much as I like it. The first hour is unimpeachable. Lee makes it easy get lost in the isolation and romance of their lives. It's the closest thing I've seen on film to one of the Edens-on-earth created by pastoral poetry. (I don't think it's an accident that they're tending sheep.) The rest of the film feels a little less shaped. It's excellent, but it doesn't always move like it should. Or am I just being churlish? Maybe if the Hulk had made a cameo I would have felt differently.
ST: First off, I think it should be emphasized that any plea for tolerance in the film is purely incidental. There are plenty of movies–mainstream ones like In & Out and Philadelphia, and any number of independents–that have a tolerance "message" at their center, but Brokeback Mountain doesn't need one. As you say, it's just implied that these men would have a chance at happiness if society allowed it, though it should be said that this repression comes as much from within as without, particularly in Ledger's case. Because it's such a powerful love story, Brokeback may change a few minds as it makes its way out into the world, but I feel like I want to protect it from this kind of politicization, because it's too delicate and sophisticated to be reduced to something so crude as a moral. I'd prefer it to be appreciated as a movie, not as grist for the Drudge Report. (Or grist for Oscar talk, for that matter. Nathan's recent blog post about the Oscars and box office gets at my problem with these obsessions, which is that these discussions have nothing to do with the films themselves. Granted, movies can't be considered in a vacuum; they have a social and economic impact that also warrants some commentary. But the conversation too often gets steered away from aesthetic substance, much like it is on political talk shows, where pundits tout political victories rather than the policies that result from them.)

Now to bring this conversation back to the film: No, I didn't have any real problems with it, save maybe for the awkwardness of trying to age apple-cheeked young actors well beyond their years. (Reminds me of a fake TV preview from an Albert Brooks SNL short: "Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman, performed entirely by children!") I wouldn't call the film shapeless, exactly, but it's loosely structured and a little episodic and I can see how that could wear you down over the long haul. For me, the second half just deepens the devastation, because what finally suffocates this relationship is the passing of time–the guys get married, have children, labor at dead-end jobs, explore the occasional affair or one-night-stand, and, of course, get together for those "fishing trips" that promise no more than a temporary passion that's slowly diminishing. In the second half, I was mainly gripped by the sensation of time passing–one cut, two years; another cut, five years; etc. To paraphrase Randy Quaid, these guys sure know how to pass the time, but time sure knows how to pass them, too, and the rapid accumulation of years just hits you in the gut. This is where I think the film's expansion on Annie Proulx's great short story transcends its source. Proulx's account of these ranch-hands felt like a moment out of time that could not be recaptured once they came down from the mountain; in the film, the sprawl of years that follow the initial encounter are made more vivid.

KP: I think that The Squid And The Whale has spoiled me. Now I want every scene of every film to be edited down to its essence. I had the same problem at the screening of that big, controversial movie that we're not allowed to talk about yet that you and I went to yesterday. Maybe I'm losing my attention span. Still, don't get me wrong: We agree that this is a great movie.
But "any plea for tolerance in the film is completely incidental"? How's that work again? Is that kind of like how all the 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds were completely incidental? Or the commentary on race in Do The Right Thing? I'm a big fan of the if-you-want-to-send-a-message-use-Western-Union school of thinking but I don't see how you can say that the politics of a movie like Brokeback are completely incidental. It's just that the art overshadows the politics, as it should.

ST: The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The "plea for tolerance" in Brokeback Mountai n comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it's raison d'être. Of course, this film takes place in a contemporary world, the same state where Matthew Shepard met his horrible end, but it's not a film that sends you home with a message about tolerance, because it's so much more evocative than that. Besides, I hate message movies, so how could I like this one?