If you haven't seen Brokeback Mountainyet, and you're wondering whether to go based on my review, please stop reading at the end of this paragraph. Then go and see the movie. Then come back and read my column. Following this paragraph, I will be mentioning plot points, the knowledge of which may diminish your enjoyment of the film if you haven't seen it yet. So, here's my capsule review: Brokeback Mountainis inarguably the best-filmed love story since Titanic and arguably one of the greatest ever, alongside Casablanca, West Side Story and Annie Hall. Adapted from Annie Proulx's short story by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the movie is vastly better than its original material, which has been expanded and deepened by the writers' tempered and bracing script. But Ang Lee's direction, which gives the film its atmosphere, pace and scene structure, is the main reason Brokeback Mountain succeeds in enveloping the viewer in-and leaving them enraptured by-the story of the love between two cowboys, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. The other reason is the calibre of performance by the actors who portray Ennis (Heath Ledger), Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), and their wives (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathway, respectively). The combination of their innate skills, Lee's direction and a great script has brought the actors to artistic heights and emotional depths they have never before reached. Ledger's performance is especially haunting. I can see how some more pedestrian viewers might find the movie "slow," but the pacing is part of the experience, if not part of the point. It mostly takes place in Wyoming, where the sky is big; it takes a long time to get places and people talk rather slowly. As for the gay romance aspect, well, only the worst bigot would avoid, or hate, this film for its subject matter. You must see Brokeback Mountain.
Okay. You're back? You've seen it? If not, consider this your spoiler alert.
I'm particularly concerned about spoilers because I, myself, found out that one of the men was going to die. A couple months ago, while I was reading about the buzz surrounding the movie, my husband mentioned that "one of them dies."
"Oh, great. Thanks," I said, hurt and annoyed. I haven't awaited a film so eagerly in my life-not even Batman when I was 15-and I didn't want it ruined. "I haven't read the story, you know."
"Oh, um, well, I could be wrong," Rob stammered. "It could be another one of the stories. Um, I thought you'd read it."
Not much of a save, especially considering how much I dislike Proulx's writing, and how vocal I am about my dislike. I even used my loathing of Proulx in a job interview. When I was applying to be a literary agent, my future boss asked me what writer I loved and why, and what writer I hated and why. For the latter I said Proulx, who had earned my ire for purely stylistic reasons. Her writing can be deliberately opaque, as if she doesn't want the reader to know what she's trying to say. Some people call her elliptical and call her grammatically suspect sentences "art," but usually those people think anything they don't understand is art. In The Shipping News, which was her most famous work until recently, she almost never used an "and" after her commas and favoured short sentence fragments like some favour their good knee:
"The harbormaster tapped again and a printer hummed, the paper rolled out into a plastic bin. He tore off pages, handed them to Quoyle. The shipping news."
Some call that "style." I call it run-on sentences. So, I didn't read "Brokeback Mountain" until after I saw the film-and it's just okay. But I couldn't wait to see the movie, just as many in the gay community-my community-couldn't wait to see it. One reporter likened us to a herd, made fun of us all going to see the movie the weekend it opened, snarked about gay.com's countdown on its homepage and claimed that the reason for our excitement was our famous, stereotypical lust: "Tight Levi's galore! The homoerotic Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue writ large! A mainstream, romantic, holi gay cowboy movie!"
Homophobia aside, our excitement was treated just like kids camping out to see the next Harry Potter movie or geeks in Jedi costumes lined up at Grauman Chinese Theater two months before Revenge of the Sith opened. As if being gay was like being a Dungeons & Dragons nut. It's not. Being gay means having your life depicted on film as if it was trivial, pathetic, diseased or a joke. What are the films we can call our own? Philadelphiais a film about AIDS where the gay couple never kisses. The Birdcage is about the horror of femininity. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is about cross-dressers. In & Outis a satire about the most painful moment of our lives-coming out. There has never been a filmed gay love story directed by a major auteur, starring important actors, that was the favourite to win the Oscar for Best Picture. In fact, there has never been a filmed gay love story that could even be called good. When you have never seen your emotions depicted on screen other than as dirty or tangential or cause for a joke, anticipating something like Brokeback Mountain, in which your emotions are promised to be treated with respect and truth-well, that kind of anticipation is palpable. It can lead to countdowns on gay.com.
Rob and I saw it a few days after it opened in San Diego on four screens at a single cinema in the city's gay neighborhood, Hillcrest. On a Tuesday evening, the theatre was full (as it was when I saw it again three weeks later, at a Sunday 10:45 a.m. matinee in straight suburban Del Mar). As you know from the first paragraph, I was in awe-but for the last thirty minutes, I was also in tears. I didn't stop until the move had been over for another half-hour. These were not the tears of sentimentality that I wrote about a few months ago, but rather gut-wrenching sadness. Jack Twist dies-the victim, it seems, of a gay bashing-and Ennis finds out awkwardly. Their last words, tragically, had been in anger. He visits Jack's parents to retrieve Jack's ashes so that Ennis can scatter them at Brokeback Mountain where they had fallen in love twenty years earlier and had gone back, secretly, several times a year. Jack's father refuses to give up the ashes. But Jack's mother seems to know and understand what he meant to Jack and allows him to take Jack's shirt, which had been hanging in the closet and which enveloped another shirt that Ennis had thought he had lost.
I have never cried at a love story before because I have never seen myself, or my love, on screen before. Not that I am a cowboy with a wife and kids and a secret male lover, but I love men; I love a man. As lovely as it is that sympathetic straight critics have called this movie "just" a love story rather than a "gay" love story, it's not really true: Brokeback Mountain is a gay love story. The love between two men is different than between a man and a woman or between two women. Men speak to each other differently; their lovemaking is different; and their lust, anger and sorrow are different.
Perhaps what is most amazing about Brokeback Mountain is how perfectly Lee, Ledger and Gyllenhaal, all of whom are straight, were able to depict the specific way that men love. I have seen this love on stage and I have read it-there have long been great gay novels and gay plays-but I have never seen it on film. Film is strikingly different-a shockingly more powerful medium. Identifying with Ennis, I felt his loss of Jack, and I felt as if I was losing Rob. I felt the fear of losing him, of never being with the man I love. My heart broke. As horrible as it felt, it was cathartic. That, I could not have anticipated.
Ted Gideonse lives in San Diego and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Read more columns by Ted Gideonse.