Brokeback Mountain received one of the most enthusiastic receptions of any film released this past year. The pony had scarcely left the barn before reviewers filled its saddlebags with potential Oscars. They seemed almost afraid to corral their enthusiasm. Why should such a competent but really quite ordinary film set off a stampede of accolades? Indulge the historian in me for a moment. Let’s go back to 1954 and a landmark essay by the French critic and director François Truffaut. In “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” he attacked what he called the “Tradition of Quality,” which for him was a scathing indictment of the critical establishment. He felt that the French critics of the time stood in awe of prestigious literary adaptations and lofty themes. As a result few gave much attention to the honesty, originality and craftsmanship of the films themselves. Truffaut the critic had his own agenda. He was striving to legitimize the gritty personal statements of the Italian neorealist movement and at the same time lay the foundations for the French New Wave, which he and Jean-Luc Godard would spearhead as filmmakers in the coming decade and a half. He tried to situate the art of film in its execution rather than its content or aspirations.
Although Truffaut does not delve into the matter in his brief essay, he might have amplified his notion of a “Tradition of Quality” a bit by alluding to the artistic transitions from the 18th to the 19th century. In the earlier period, painters, musicians and poets seemed fixated on classical themes, which were the rage among the newly literate aristocracy. To be considered “serious” by their patrons, artists went with the social fashion and mined mythologies and histories of Greece and Rome, as though lofty content somehow guaranteed the importance of their work. As the calendar rolled on, Romantic poets, musicians and impressionist painters traded in their Gibbon and their Plutarch. They turned inward by placing priority on their own personal expression. The content might be little more than a bowl of fruit, a pair of shoes or one’s feelings about looking at a Grecian urn, but if the expression was authentic, the nobility of the subject matter became irrelevant. Originality rather than a restatement of classical themes became the criterion of excellence. The subject matter did not make the art noble, but in fact the reverse is true: the art made the subject matter noble.
As for the critical reception of “Brokeback Mountain,” I cannot help wondering if its content and lofty intentions might have created an illusion of more “quality” than director Ang Lee and writers Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana actually put up on the screen. The story, as everyone must know by this time, centers around a romantic entanglement between two cowboys. It is an undoubtedly sensitive presentation of two men who struggle with their own sexuality in a culture that has very clear ideas about manhood. In those circumstances, their relationship, as enduring as it is, generates waves of tragedy for both men and for everyone around them as well. Both characters, one a part-time ranch-hand and the other a rodeo rider and farm equipment salesman, truly love each other. The presentation of their relationship breaks down many of the cruel stereotypes that, ironically, the movies have helped to create. This is a film of noble aspiration and refreshing revisionism in its content. In the present cultural climate, in which thoughtful people are trying to reassess gender identity and cultural biases, “Brokeback Mountain” can predictably be mistaken for a great film when it is only a good one. To suggest anything less than excellence would raise the suspicion of unfashionable and unacceptable bias.
The film, however, does have its flaws. Its creators have made a two-hour-and-15-minute film from a relatively brief work of fiction by Annie Proulx, originally published in The New Yorker and winner of the O. Henry Prize as the best short story of 1997. This presents a challenge that the script never quite meets. The two cowboys, desperate for a few dollars in a country where work is hard to come by, hire on to take a flock of sheep to summer pasture in the mountains. The weeks drag on and on, and the film’s slow pace leaves the audience no less than the herders growing impatient for something to break the monotony. Boredom as much as anything else eventually brings the men together. When a premature cold snap forces the men to share a tent, the close confinement breaks down their restraint, and their moment of passion brings relief to the tedium for the audience as well.
Beginning in 1963, the story follows the two lovers through the next 20 years in a series of jumps marked by the maturing of the children in the conventional families both men head. The compression of time precludes much character development. What happens in the intervening years that allows them to lead double lives: one as family men and the other as lovers harboring an unquenchable longing for each other? Their fidelity lacks a plausible foundation. Aside from the fact that this story involves two men, film and literature abound in stories of star-crossed lovers, trapped in circumstances that preclude fulfillment. Ask Celia Johnson in “Brief Encounter” (1945) or Emma Bovary what it is like to be kept from a romantic fling because of social restraints. Or ask Juliet herself. The beauty in retelling the old, old story of unattainable love lies in the changing psychological tensions experienced by the lovers as time passes. In “Brokeback Mountain” the lovers seem to develop their own independent lives and then, as the years pass by, return as if by blind compulsion to their sporadic love affair.
Despite my reservations with the script, the film has much to commend it. Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director best known for his comic book action films, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and “Hulk” (2003) has also shown great sensitivity in dealing with actors in “The Ice Storm” (1997), a fine, underappreciated film that follows the disintegration of family life in the affluent American suburbs.
In “Brokeback Mountain” Lee and the cast provide uniformly excellent performances. Heath Ledger, as the burly, inarticulate rancher Ennis Del Mar, struggles to get out a complete sentence. (Incidentally, allowing for a mix of Gaelic and Romance languages, the name means Island of the Sea, a clear reference to his total isolation.) When he marries, he can no more communicate with his wife and daughters than with his lover. No one can know what he thinks and feels, because he probably does not know himself. A man of little education and few prospects, he keeps his terror hidden deep within himself as his marriage to Alma (Michelle Williams) slowly evaporates. A dull but dedicated wife and mother, Alma asks for little in life, save for an apartment over a Laundromat in town to replace their cabin out in the country. But she knows she cannot hold Ennis, even before she discovers his dark secret. They cannot talk about their problems, since neither has the words to identify their feelings.
Jake Gyllenhaal makes Jack Twist, Ennis’s partner, a bit more edgy. Jack drifts north after a spotty career on the rodeo tour in his native Texas. After his summer with Ennis, he returns to Texas and the circuit and marries a spunky rodeo rider, Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway). Her father takes him into his business, but tries to run their family as though it were his own. Jack sees his father-in-law’s overbearing ways as an attack on his manhood. After prolonged separations from Ennis, he feels the need to seek companionship elsewhere. Lureen seems too preoccupied with her own teased platinum hair and multicolored nails to worry much about Jack.
Two key scenes, among others, showcase these fine actors particularly well. In one, Ennis visits Jack’s family, not quite sure how much his parents know about them. They sit at a kitchen table, stalking one another, while Ennis tries desperately to express his emotions. He fails. Finally, he sits alone in Jack’s bedroom trying to sort through his memories. In a much more intense scene, Jack spars with his father-in-law during the family Thanksgiving dinner. The angry exchange operates on one level for the older man, but Jake Gyllenhaal shows that much more is going on with Jack than the words would indicate.
The mountains and the towns could be characters as well. Photographed in deep shadow by Rodrigo Prieto, the images on the screen create a dark mood that colors the action. Even in the vast open spaces of Wyoming, the people suffer from chronic claustrophobia, as though trapped in the air they breathe.
If we are looking for a “tradition of quality” in “Brokeback Mountain,” let’s enjoy the qualities it has rather than the grandiose ones some would impose upon it.