As The Dark Knight opens and I contemplate the prospect of seeing a great performance marred by the sadness that accompanies that age old saying “the darlings of the gods die young”. I look back to the performance that received the great praise, if not the Oscar, that everyone thought he would have time to win. When Brokeback Mountain came out a I wrote a review of it for my students to analyse and criticise, which they did. I quite liked it, so, since I don’t get to do early reviews any more – here’s a reminder of the maturity of a performance now only an echo of the life.
Dir. Ang Lee
“Oh surely that’s not an issue any more!” cry the ranks of middle class, reconstructed sophisticates who have long since decided that they lack prejudice, for them the issue of homophobia is done and dusted – problem solved. Or is it?
Interesting then, that the location for the much hyped movie Brokeback Mountain was not in fact Wyoming, but Alberta, local town, Calgary where (and I have this from a very reliable source) men drive three to a truck for fear of their relationship being misunderstood if they go in pairs, and that’s in 2006, problem not solved.
Whilst recent audiences might remember Ang Lee’s directorial prowess in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon those of us of a certain age remember The Ice Storm, the story of a dysfunctional middle class American family. Ang Lee can not only direct actors and CGI in the use of chi high up in the bamboo, but he is able to portray the infinitesimal nuances of the conflicted mind. Even so it’s still set against scenery of magnificent power and I don’t just mean Heath Ledger!
Brokeback Mountain is the story of doomed love. In another age it would have been the story of Jew and Gentile, Capulet and Montagu, of black and white. But now it is a story about love in the 60s, the time of free love, it is about homosexuality at a time when that was most definitely not free, it was illegal.
The writer E Annie Proulx presumably took the semiotics of Marlboro country, the ultimately macho cowboy smoking himself to death (which they both do in the film) and juxtaposed it with the idea of homosexual love, a concept that in the darkest corner of any outback has been covered with ideas of male bonding and needing to be close in order to combat and protect men from the vagaries of nature.
The film takes the semiotics of those cowboys and sets them against the cinematic scenery of mountains, dominated by unpredictable weather, populated by the occasional predator and the ubiquitous bear, and isolation. Ang Lee’s eye for nature is as keen as is his understanding of the human face and the two cowboys (actually they’re shepherds) Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are clearly guests on the mountain.
When they come down from the mountain and they have known each other (I use both terms Biblically). They are trapped by their love for each other and the dangers of a society that does not consent to it, into deceiving their wives, their friends and all who love them, by setting up assignations on the pretext of fishing trips.
Heath Ledger’s performance has been much praised and it is much merited. His monosyllabic performance typical of the outbacker, no doubt draws on his Aussie experience of the Australian equivalent, the outback stockman. And the rodeo riding Jake Gyllenhaal puts in a strong performance as someone who literally is a temptress. The men’s love scenes mix need and violence, desire and denial with huge authenticity. The women too, temper their performances between portrayals of prejudice and desperation, love and hate with skill and sympathy. The outback attitude reaches its, inevitable, tragic, climax effectively.
As for me, it took me back to the days of Circle T rodeo in Darwin, in the 1970s where men rode bulls, the women cooked them and being gay either meant being happy or being dead.