My wife and I never get a chance to see movies anymore with our three little ones under the age of five. But I’ve made a concerted effort to get babysitting recently and we had our first night out in several months. Unlike our last outing, which was filled with tension and worry over how the kids would do on their first evening without mom, this night was relaxing and enjoyable.
We had to choose between some wonderful films which are now out. Finally, with some prompting from Janis we elected for Brokeback Mountain. While the glowing reviews it received in the NY Times and elsewhere convinced me of the film’s greatness, I always shy away from tragic films since I find so much tragedy in the world already. But I’m glad I relaxed this preference to see this remarkable film.
A word of warning, if you haven’t seen the film I recommend reading until the last several paragraphs of this post. If you read the entire post I give away a significant plot point which may spoil the film’s dramatic impact for you.
It is the tale of two young, uneducated Wyoming “cowboys,” circa 1963, who meet one summer while tending a Forest Service campsite and a thousand head of sheep high up the Wyoming Rockies. Directed by [Ang Lee->http://movies.yahoo.com/shop?d=hc&id=1800025608&cf=biog&intl=us] from a [short story->http://220.127.116.11/search?q=cache:rrPRBhXdvasJ:www.newyorker.com/archive/content/articles/051212fr_archive01+site:www.newyorker.com+brokeback+mountain&hl=en] by [Annie Proulx->http://www.annieproulx.com/bio.html] and a pitch-perfect screenplay by [Larry McMurtry->http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_McMurtry] and Diana Osanna, the script describes the Jack Twist character played by Jake Gyllenhaal as a carefree happy go lucky cowboy with a touch for the women (and men) and a carefree lifestyle. Heath Ledger, plays Ennis Delmar as a deeply conflicted and twisted soul often on the borderline between overt violence and deep repression. Both roles are played in a beautifully modulated way by Ledger and Gyllenhaal, but the former’s performance is absolutely riveting. Here’s what [Annie Proulx->http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/living/13434883.htm] had to say about these performances:
I thought they were magnificent, both of them. Jake Gyllenhall’s Jack Twist . . . wasn’t the Jack Twist that I had in mind when I wrote this story. The Jack that I saw was jumpier, homely. But Gyllenhall’s sensitivity and subtleness in this role is just huge. The scenes he’s in have a kind of quicksilver feel to them.
Heath Ledger is just almost really beyond description as far as I’m concerned. He got inside the story more deeply than I did. All that thinking about the character of Ennis that was so hard for me to get, Ledger just was there. He did indeed move inside the skin of the character, not just in the shirt but inside the person.
For me, a hidden part of the essence of Ledger’s character is his hard chin always pushed forward as if in defiance of whatever life was going to throw at him next. I almost thought he’d lifted Marlon Brando’s little trick of stuffing his mouth with cotton to affect a mumbling, idiosyncratic speaking style.
[Frank Rich->http://select.nytimes.com/2005/12/18/opinion/18rich.html?n=Top%2fOpinion%2fEditorials%20and%20Op%2dEd%2fOp%2dEd%2fColumnists%2fFrank%20Rich] (must be TimesSelect subscriber to access link), writing in the Sunday Times says that McMurtry succeeded in adding an essential element to the screenplay by creating an authentic western society (circa 1960s) in which these tragic figures act out their secret lives. As viewer, we come to realize that while there is an American myth of the wild, open West, when it comes to human relations the West remains perhaps even more stultified than other regions of the country.
The gorgeous mountainscape that is Brokeback Mountain (actually filmed in the Calgary Rockies) almost becomes an actor in the film. It is only here in the high country, far away from the hatred and mistrust of society that Jack and Ennis can break free of their tragic, repressed lives to embrace, if for a brief moment, a different destiny. But if the mountains play a role in the film, it is an ambivalent one. For it is only in the mountains that these men can become themselves, or at least closer to what they’d like to be. When one of the two rejects the opportunity to live a possibly freer, truer life with his companion in the outside world, then Brokeback with its awesome open vistas seems to make a cruel mockery of these longings.
While Brokeback is a film about men grappling with their homosexuality, it is a film about the human condition. It reminds me of some of the best tragic films of the past five years or so including The Hours and Far from Heaven, films about characters trapped in stultifying marriages and their doomed efforts to gain some sense of liberation from the shackles imposed on them by society. These films are also largely set in roughly the same period from the late 50s to early 60s just before the civil rights movement and sexual revolution which would lead to a relaxation of suffocating attitudes toward sex, marriage and gender roles.
There are several scenes which stand out for their ineffable beauty both of acting and screenwriting. One involves a scene between Heath Ledger and Linda Cardellini (‘Sam’ in ER) in which the ever-repressed Ennis says to her resignedly: “I guess I was never much fun anyway.” To which she returns a tearful reply: “Girls don’t fall in love with fun…” Her unspoken words hang in the air as if to say: “Girls fall in love a man in full including whatever tragedy he carries.” It is but another lost chance at happiness for Ennis.
The last two concluding scenes are the most moving. In the first, Delmar visits Jack’s parents on a poor Wyoming farmstead to ask them to part with his ashes so he can disperse them on Brokeback Mountain according to his express wishes. When Jack’s mother asks him if he’d like to see Jack’s childhood bedroom, Delmar assents. As he goes through Jack’s belongings, he finds the shirt and jacket Jack wore during their idyll on Brokeback. Delmar picks up the shirt on its hangar and embraces it with all the longing forbidden to him (by him) while Jack lived. Delmar collapses into the deepest showing of emotion he’s allowed himself in the entire film and it brings tears to one’s eyes.
In the final scene, Delmar’s daughter visits his mobile home to tell him of her impending marriage. As he decides to attend her wedding, he offers a whiskey toast to her happiness. After she leaves, he goes to his closet and opens the door to reveal two important artifacts, Jack’s shirt and a postcard of Brokeback Mountain (see image). As he again reaches for the shirt with longing, the camera pans slightly away to focus on the postcard’s image. As it zooms toward the beautiful mountain scene you half believe you will be transported once again back to their love idyll. Instead, the next image is of the barren terrain just outside Ennis’ trailer. It brings you up short making you realize that the spell of Brokeback is broken. While his daughter may find happiness in her impending marriage, Ennis never will. His only chance for happiness died when Jack did.
Finally, Brokeback Mountain depicts with an icy directness the unbearable costs imposed on homosexuals, their lovers and their families by the forced repression of their urges. These characters are frozen into immobility by their forbidden impulses. They cannot love the one they want, they cannot love the one they’re with, they cannot love anyone who loves them. It is tragedy beyond human endurance. While our society has a long way to go before we can say that gays live free and unfettered lives in this nation today, we can safely say that these characters today would at least have a halting chance at finding happiness.
Personal note: Ang Lee’s partner and producer in his film ventures is [James Schamus->http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800207933/bio], now co-president of [Focus Features->http://www.focusfeatures.com/home.php]. When I first saw The Ice Storm, as is often my custom with films which move me, I stayed to watch all the credits and think about the troubling movie I’d just seen. That was the first time I realized that I knew James Schamus.
Back around 1982, he and I were grad students at UC Berkeley, he in English and I in Comp Lit. He was the editor of a graduate student literary journal. I once read the journal was having a short story competition with the prize being publication in the journal. That was when I started writing The Death of Alterman. James was the editor who chose it for publication. He was also responsible for getting my translation of Dahlia Ravikovitch’s [Like Rachel->https://www.richardsilverstein.com//2003/07/dahlia-rabikovi/] published in the Berkeley Poetry Review.
Even then, James was an intense, enthusiastic, fast-talking literary entrepreneur (though on a much smaller scale than what he would later become). He was thoroughly likable. But perhaps my diffidence and his volubility might’ve prevented us becoming closer to each other than we did. He is also one of those few remarkable people you knew in college who, twenty-plus years after the fact, still look pretty much as you remember them (though perhaps a shade grayer around the temple).
I’ve been trying to discover an e mail address to say hello for a few years without success. Perhaps, I’ll succeed in reaching him this time around. I admire him for championing so many remarkable films. It’s a record to be proud of.