January 12, 2006

Film Review: Brokeback Mountain

God, I hate writing about films like this. This sort of movie, with its politically charged topic and suffocating pre-release promotion, is the type of offering that is almost impossible to be objective about (although that has never stopped me before). The truth is, anyone of liberal bent is loathe to say anything negative about a mainstream, gay-themed film regardless of whether they actually like it. This movie, particularly, carries so much baggage laden with hope and frustration that I felt the need for a second opinion.

At the local gas station, my Korean attendant, whom I was pretty sure is gay (but not absolutely certain), and whom I’ll call Kim, is a major movie freak and a man of strong opinion. He saw “Brokeback” the same day I did and had some strikingly different impressions than my own.

“I’m not exactly sure what all the fuss is about,” he told me the other day. “It’s got a gay theme, but really it’s just another formulaic Hollywood story of love lost, or love denied. That’s the way I see it anyway. And I’m not gay, y’know? I just love movies ... Oh, and the photography is beautiful.”

That’s the way I see it, too, but with a few caveats. The Love That Dare Not Speaketh Its Name is an old and well-traveled tale, and Ang Lee’s take on it is moving, well crafted and heartfelt. But there’s something troublesome about it that I will try to describe.

By now most people know the story. Ennis DelMar and the unfortunately named Jack Twist (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) are two windblown cowpokes hired for a lonely tour of duty guarding a flock of sheep on Brokeback Mountain. They fall in love in a physical and forbidden way. They come down the mountain and marry their girlfriends (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway), but their manly passions refuse to fade. Thus, their taboo-breaking love makes them tragic heroes.

Or merely poster boys for a new, denuded, acceptable face of 21st century middle-class homosexuality? It seems as if this fine piece of acting, writing and photography is doomed to remain forever a symbol of a political movement rather than storytelling. Still, it’s hard to find fault when Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have written such a fine script and when the acting is so good. I guess I just feel like I’m being preached at, as if the film is propaganda. Whether coming from Michael Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Mel Gibson, Al Franken or George W. Bush, we’ve had more than enough propaganda lately.

Timing is everything in show business, and this adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story is all but hard-wired to the contentious issue of gay marriage. It might be more fun to enjoy this movie outside of that context, but that is not possible, not today. I don’t want to offend the gay community — if anything, I could offend Asian Americans by transcribing what Kim actually said: “Me no gay, meestah Paul. Me just love moovee!” — the film just didn’t move me the way it was meant to. My ambivalence is such that the judgment here is split evenly between Kim’s assessment and my own. All bets here are hedged.