Friday, July 14, 2006

MAKE A WISH. Finally saw Brokeback Mountain. It was good to wait to see it, I think; during its theatrical run I was too incensed by the many,many, imbecile ravings about it to keep myself from siding with it. Now it's barely even a Leno punchline anymore, and I have more space to appreciate it calmly.

All I know of Ang Lee besides this is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which I like with reservations, though with no reservations at all about the elegaic final movement. Early on, I was convinced Brokeback's slow pace was a device to keep us from busting out laughing at the sharp deviation from traditional form -- you know, two cowboys bond on the open range, then, presto, ass-fucking. But like most slow-paced movies, Brokeback is very concerned with and serious about time. Ennis and Jack's early days are a cherished memory, so of course they are made long enough to stay in the mind through the rest of the film.

I was surprised and impressed by the absence of villains. A few horrible people pop up (like Randy Quaid with his bullet head), emissaries from the rottenness that keeps the boys apart, but for the most part Ennis and Jack are surrounded by decent people, doing the best they know how, and for the most part these folks are more hurt by Ennis and Jack's frustrated love than they are inclined to hurt them for it. ("Girls don't fall in love with fun.") The cowtowns of Brokeback are not cesspools of ignorant hatred, but small, simple communities where enmities as old as time have never been questioned, and it would take more than most of us have in us to question them under those circumstances. The boys might almost have been a Hatfield and a McCoy.

In fact, for (I think) straight viewers at least, the gay angle actually illuminates rather than limits the love story, because the taboo on their love is so ingrained in us that we don't need to have it explained in artificial "two houses, both alike in dignity" terms -- terms we know are a writer's invention, and which our minds will automatically try to get around throughout the story, devising alternate, happier endings. Not that we won't root for Ennis and Jack -- of course we will -- but nobody goes into a love story between two men in 1963 rural America with any hope that things will work out.

Lee's use of beautiful landscapes reminded me of Kubrick's in Barry Lyndon. They have very different strategies, of course, but they're equally canny. In Barry Lyndon, the natural world is an ironic counterpoint to the artifice-obsessed machinations of the characters. In Brokeback, where the skies are most exhilirating when the boys are together, it's a way of showing the richness of the romance that might have been, especially when the characters are most tormented by it. The final frame, with its little lush photo-card and window views set off by Ennis' single-wide sarcophagus, is only the most sublime example.

Time slows back down for the end of the movie. I thought of Crouching Tiger again, with the daughter (there spiritual, here actual) heading off into the unknown to plumb those mysteries that had betrayed our heroes. I got the feeling Ennis' girl knew something about Jack, though not enough to connect her destiny in any way with her father's -- but youth is ever optimistic. For all the heartbreak, it was good to be left with even a provisional note of hope.

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