BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN REVISITED

Written by  on May 6, 2013 

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Director Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” provides a mesmerising watershed in the world of mainstream Hollywood cinema. It bravely debunks that great American myth – the machismo of the cowboy West, and more to the point it does so on home territory, amidst the panoramic beauty of Wyoming’s mountains, forests, and lakes.The notion of homosexual love complete with a lariat is nothing new; one only has to refer to “Red River”, “Midnight Cowboy”, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”, not to mention “The Lone Ranger” and “Tonto”; but whilst these movies and characters did not explore their “shadowy” side, “Brokeback Mountain” most certainly does – and then some. Based on Annie Proulx’s short story in The New Yorker, “Brokeback Mountain” exposes the complexities of human nature, and runs the gamut of emotions from unbridled passion and love, through heartache and bigotry, repression and betrayal. Ang Lee’s insightful direction affects deeply, whilst evoking a fragile melancholy that cutslike a knife.

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Jake Gyllenhaal as he appears in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, 2005.

“Brokeback Mountain” spans a period of twenty years in the telling.It recounts the story of casual ranch hand Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose paths cross when both are hired for a seasonal job as sheep-herders by Montana rancher Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid) on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain, in the summer of 1963. What ensues is a tale of forbidden love, set amongst a barren wilderness that provides the perfect canvas for the rawness and intensity of human desire that develops between them. The bond they forge together on an isolated ridge starts normally enough; boozy sessions around the campfire lead Ennis to divulge his lonely upbringing, raised by his brother and sister after his parents died in a car crash. Jack talls of his lifelong estrangement from his bull riding Father. However, the daily grind of herding sheep followed by eating canned beans and slugging back whiskey is soon forsaken for something more risqué. One night on Brokeback, the extreme cold brings the two together in the same tent.Jack makes the first move; Ennis initially recoils, but soon succumbs. Afterwards, he tries to reject any suggestion of homosexuality or romance by muttering “It’s a one shot thing we got going here…I ain’t queer”.When the two get ready to leave Brokeback at the end of the season, Ennis’ parting line to Jack is the almost throwaway “see you around”.Ironically, the “one shot thing” he referred to earlier is anything but, and will ultimately consume both men.In the meantime, they go their separate ways – Ennis marrying his childhood sweetheart and adoring house drudge Alma (Michelle Williams), and Jack marrying Texan rodeo queen Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway).In due course both couples have children, (Ennis two girls, and Jack a boy) and appear to settle down; but in spite of their efforts to conform, a persistant restlessness underlines both marriages, and the men are reunited four years later by a powerful yearning that refuses to go away. Theirs is a love that will not die – even if it dare not speak its name.As Annie Proulx writes: “What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand was the time that distant summer on Brokeback when Ennis had come up behind him and pulled him close, the silent embrace satisfying some shared and sexless hunger.”

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Eventually Jack sends a general delivery postcard to Ennis in Wyoming, telling him that he will be passing through the area, and suggesting that they meet up.Once they set eyes on each other, their suspended feelings explode in a wave of unrestrained passion and desire.(Alma spies their clinch in horror and disbelief; from now on her life becomes one of abject misery.) Overcome by the moment, the two lovers retire to a motel; thus begins a long and tormented affair, as guilt ridden and complex as it is sporadic. Ostensibly to the outside world they are fishing buddies who get together a few times each year.The reunions always take place on Brokeback Mountain, which represents their personal nirvana. Over the years the secret bond between the two is never broken, but whilst their lives are now inextricably linked, they are never fulfilled, and sadly, conflicted.Ennis feels compromised by their situation, whilst a frustrated Jack attempts to move things on; suggesting that they leave their wives and set up a ranch together. In the second half of the film, the relationships between the two men and their families disintegrates before our very eyes.Alma, torn apart by the pain and rejection she felt when her secure world was overturned by Ennis and Jack’s betrayal, has moved on to find solace in the arms of another man.Meanwhile, Jack and Lureen have become increasingly estranged to the point that their marriage is conducted by telephone.Ironically, at the same time, Ennis and Jack’s attempt at recreating their youthful eden on Brokeback Mountain has collapsed.The liberating environment that once fuelled their love affair (whilst at the same time providing a safe haven where it could flourish) has now become suffocating and desperate.

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The film has attracted a large degree of attention, mostly (it has to be said) due to the homosexual subject matter. However, it would be dissapointing if one were to view “Brokeback Mountain” merely as a “gay cowboy movie”, as its basic message has a far broader appeal.In any case, if one were to be pedantic (as some have), it should be noted that Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are wranglers, not cowboys.Wranglers herd sheep; cowboys herd cattle, and ne’er the twain shall meet, according to traditional western folklore. Homosexuality aside, this is a story of true love; its strength and fragility, its meaningfulness, and how it survives in the face of adversity. Both of the lead characters are struggling with their own demons, and for social acceptance in an environment and era that upheld repressive moral standards. At the film’s beginning, the notion of two men loving one another is an alien concept – particularly for Heath Ledger’s character, Ennis.From the outset, he is the reluctant participant; his lack of a formal education and conservative upbringing has chained him to stifling views of love, sex, and commitment.Moreover, an incident from his childhood has come back to haunt him with devastating results; his father had taken him to see the mutilated body of a rancher, beaten to death with a tyre iron for living with another man. The memory has sparked within him fear and shame, and as a consequence, he relentlessly subjects himself to agonising self doubt throughout the affair. Jack on the other hand, wears his heart very much on his sleeve, and is more accepting of his sexuality; he intuitively knows what’s right for him, and is prepared to act on his feelings, although this does leave him horribly exposed and vulnerable; ultimately with the most tragic of consequences.

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Annie Proulx’s story works on every level; written in a gritty, down to earth style, it culminates in a totally believable ending which should melt the coldest heart. Apart from refusing to be political, her characters cleverly avoid any stereotyping. Proulx’s men are not fey imitations – they walk the walk, smoke the marlboro’s, and cuss up a blue streak, as good as the next wrangler. Her tale is a universal fable of a beautiful but tragic love affair between two ordinary people in an unforgiving society. The fact that they happen to be of the same gender is a coincidence, although there can be no denying that the theme of homosexual love is the story’s driving force. Likewise, Ang Lee’s masterful direction is one of the film’s greatest strengths. He neatly avoids the trap of turning the proceedings into a “queer movie”, by avoiding any overt references to political correctness, or titillation. His restrained (some have commented frigid) handling of the subject only serves to make it more accessible to a broader audience, whilst generating a stronger empathy, and connection. This is a director who has a consummate grasp of the material he is working with; his delicate and respectful touch brings a heartfelt realism to the piece.

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Heath Ledger turns in a tour de force performance and career best to date; he brings an incredible physicality to the role of Ennis, whilst his gruff demeanour and inarticulate mumblings serve to highlight the fact that his character is an emotional retard. Ennis’ naturally quiet temperament and inability to communicate what is really going on in his head brings pain to not only himself, but to everyone around him. Whilst he is a man who doesn’t deny his feelings, ultimately he finds it impossible to accept them, and as a result who he is, or what he really wants. Heath Ledger manages to convey these aspects of Ennis to perfection, and most impressively, often with his tone and looks alone; instantly saying more than words ever could. To the outside world, the laconic Ennis may appear a simpleton, but clearly, the audience knows otherwise; for this is a man of complexity and depth, whose vulnerability is excruciating to watch. The truly sad part is that his inability to accept the danger of a homosexual romance also deprives him of fulfilling his true love with Jack.

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Jake Gyllenhaal acts up a storm as the rodeo cowboy Jack Twist. His drooping silver dollar eyes, natural warmth, and talkative manner is the perfect ying to Ennis’ Yang. His love provides Ennis with his strongest anchor to emotional truth.Jack’s reckless optimism is perhaps his most endearing quality, whilst the frustration and pain he endures makes it easy for the audience to connect and empathise with him.Jake Gyllenhaal quite effortlessly makes Jack Twist likable.At the same time, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway add considerable polish to the proceedings, neatly conveying the frustration of western women, and the misery of their lot. In the original short story their characters are more or less sidelined, but for the film they were developed, with excellent results.Their contribution adds great substance to the dynamics of the plot.Michelle Williams is quite superb as Alma; the simmering fire of knowledge about her husband’s indiscretion may be eating away at her beneath the surface, but it’s all too visible to the naked eye – whilst Anne Hathaway’s feisty Lureen disintegrates into a zombie like shell of her former self as Jack increasingly gives himself over to Ennis.

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Argentine musician Gustavo Santaolalla provided the soundtrack to “Brokeback Mountain”. Noted for his remarkable atmospheric pieces on “The Motorcycle Diaries”, his sparse, yet resonant guitar-based compositions add a sublimely poignant mood to the film’s score.Elsewhere, Willie Nelson’s beautifully minimal version of Bob Dylan’s “He Was A Friend Of Mine” tugs at the heartstrings more effectively than any violin, whilst Emmylou Harris imbues “A Love That Will Never Grow Old” with her unmistakable style. The musical soundtrack, along with all other elements of this film, come together as one to create the most perfect of harmonies.

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“Brokeback Mountain” won a “Golden Lion” at the Venice film festival in 2005. It cleared up at the BAFTA’s, with Ang Lee collecting “Best Director”, and Jake Gyllenhaal “Best Supporting Actor”. It received a disappointing reception at the Oscars, with only three awards: “Best Director” going once again to Ang Lee, “Best Adapted Screenplay” to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, and “Best Original Score” to Gustavo Santaolalla. Sadly, Heath Ledger’s outstanding performance was overlooked.” Brokeback’s” failure to sweep the boards at the Oscars forced screenwriter Larry McMurtry to tell reporters backstage that he believed “Crash” won “Best Picture” due to the fact that it was set in Los Angeles, where many of the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences live. “Americans don’t want cowboys to be gay,” McMurtry said. Ang Lee thanked the normal list of agents, managers and other Hollywood handlers, then added the comment that the fictional characters in his movie had taught audiences “the greatness of love, itself.” Whatever the Academy’s reasons for voting as it did, nobody can deny that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is quite remarkable in “Capote”, just as nobody can deny that Heath Ledger is magnificent in “Brokeback Mountain”.All of those involved in the “Brokeback Mountain” production can be justifiably proud, regardless of whether they won a statuette or not. The film adaption of “Brokeback Mountain”, proved better than the book it was based on. It is an old fashioned, romantic film, made with great care and loving affection; one which asks the audience to walk several hundred miles in its characters shoes before passing any judgements. Its story of forbidden fruit and those who sample it also rewards the viewer with a sumptuous taste, and a rich and rewarding experience that will last long after the final credit has rolled.At the same time, it serves as a stark reminder to us all that we should grab and grasp true love whenever and wherever it rears its head; life is too short, and the world is a big, lonesome prairie.

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BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN

Directed by Ang Lee; written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, based on the short story by Annie Proulx
Director of photography: Rodrigo Prieto
Edited by Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor
Music by Gustavo Santaolalla
Production designer: Judy Becker
Produced by Ms. Ossana and James Schamus
Released by Focus Features, running time: 134 minutes.

WITH: Heath Ledger (Ennis Del Mar)
Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack Twist)
Linda Cardellini (Cassie)
Anna Faris (Lashawn Malone)
Anne Hathaway (Lureen Newsome)
Michelle Williams (Alma)
Randy Quaid (Joe Aguirre)
Kate Mara (Alma Jr.)

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Jake Gyllenhaal press conference for "Love & Other Drugs". The Waldorf Astoria, New York City, New York. November 6, 2010.

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HE WAS A FRIEND OF MINE

He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I think about him now
Lord I just can’t keep from cryin’
‘Cause he was a friend of mine

He died on the road
He died on the road
He never had enough money
To pay his room or board
And he was a friend of mine

I stole away and cried
I stole away and cried
‘Cause I never had too much money
And I never been quite satisfied
And he was a friend of mine

He never done no wrong
He never done no wrong
A thousand miles from home
And he never harmed no one
And he was a friend of mine

He was a friend of mine
He was a friend of mine
Every time I hear his name
Lord I just can’t keep from cryin’
‘Cause he was a friend of mine.

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Words & Music Bob Dylan

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‘Brokeback Mountain’  ARTICLE ©copyright Gary Alston 2013.
May not be reproduced in any form without prior permission.