Monday, February 20, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: A Story of Addiction

I finally went to see Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, last year's sleeper hit that has been the talk of every group from coffee shop pseudo-intellectuals to film critics (are they really two separate groups? You decide).

Note: The following text may spoil some aspects of the movie for you whether you've seen it or not.

Ang Lee has directed a mixed bag of films. I loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but couldn't believe I sat through the entire reel of The Hulk. In general I like Lee's direction style, and he certainly can't be expected to fix a bad script like The Hulk. And the writer, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove brought an edginess to the romantic notion of the cowboy that we hadn't seen before, with an epic length was very engaging. So, with all the hype over Brokeback Mountain, I was expecting a good film.

As it turns out, Lee delivered excellent direction that, paired with the acting talents of Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall (the latter of whom, for all the movies he's made, is unrecognizeable to me), had the makings of an excellent film. This is in the same way that a good chef can take a couple of primary ingredients and make a five star meal. Of course, primary ingredients aren't all that go into a dish, and two good actors and a director can't make a film palatable.

The film is a series of vignettes spread out over twenty years of Ledger and Gyllenhall's torrid and illicit love affair. The idea that two run-of-the-mill cowboys stuck on a mountainside for a summer in 1963 could find passion in each other's arms isn't an unreasonable leap, and many a Hollywood film is based on flimsier circumstance. The rest of the film takes that premise and runs it through a wringer, asking the viewer to accept sample after sample of two decades worth of lies, both to each other and those around them, while their relationship and their humanity degrades to a bleak ending. It's a perfect parable about the effects of addiction on the lives of addicts and those around them.

Somewhere in the middle of the film, I found myself nodding off. Not a good sign. At least all the footage of the Wyoming mountains is beautiful.

One thing that seriously bothered me about the film was a shot made famous by the trailers, that of Ledger standing in a field with a sky lit by fireworks behind him, the perfect portrait of the all-American cowboy. Oh, it's a great shot, and would be perfect in a lot of other films, just not this one. Ledger's character is anything but someone we would hold up as a fine example of our society; indeed, we would be embarassed to admit he was one of ours.

I bet I know what you're thinking, and you're probably wrong. For me, it has nothing to do with Ennis Del Mar's latent homosexuality. People are people, and they find love and attraction wherever they find it; it makes no matter to me. It's unfortunate that society in 1963 Wyoming wasn't accepting of people, but it doesn't change the basic facts of the choices these two made.

In the firework-laden scene, Del Mar (Ledger) had just finished beating the crap out of two drunk bikers in front of his wife and two daughters whose honor he was evidently defending. This much was fine enough, and within the one small vignette of the Fourth of July celebration, warranted the proud stance. But Del Mar, by this point in the movie, is a barely-employed drunk who has been cheating on his wife for several years. Indeed, at his first opportunity to say anything about his relationship with Jack Twist (Gyllenhall), when his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) asks if they'd cowboyed together, he lies and says they were old fishing buddies. From there, it's one lie after another, built on the same premise, to a woman he supposedly loves.

I may be in some sort of minority, but after I had been with my wife for four years (the amount of time between Del Mar and Twist's parting on Brokeback Mountain and their next meeting), I didn't want anything to do with any past lovers, and none of them had been anyone I was embarassed to tell her about. My point is that I chose to be with her, leaving my single life behind. After four years of no contact, Del Mar and Twist can't keep their hands off of each other, and Del Mar immediately turns to treating his wife Alma like some random piece of furniture, like some junkie back on the needle after a long repast. It takes years for Ennis and Alma to get to divorce, but the marriage is unhappy going forward right from there.

In general, I don't like tragedy as entertainment, but worse than that to me is infidelity. Brokeback Mountain is just another film that pretties up the antics of a couple of people who wreck their own marriages because they can't or don't want to keep their hands off of each other.

I know it goes against the basic model of the progressive male that I'm supposed to have become after the enlightenment of the 90's, which is held up by the ongoing popularity of "political correctness," but it's just against my nature to enjoy something like this. I'm supposed to understand that some people are so overcome by their emotions that they just can't control what they do; that we should understand their plight and feel empathy for their unrequieted love. I don't buy it. Good people are ones that stick to their convictions and honor their committments. People who lie and cheat, who are destructive to those around them, are not honorable and shouldn't be honored. Understanding that people have failings is one thing; holding them up as great people who are in a bad situaton is quite another. Please, Mr. Lee, don't feed this to me as part of the archetype of American life, it's one I can't appreciate.