Does being grossed out by gay men having sex make me a homophobe? Does it make me a bad person? Intellectually I have no problem with it. Homosexuality doesn’t offend me or anything. If you’re into that, fine by me. Pick out wallpaper, get married, adopt kids. I’m all for it guys. The world sucks and if you can find something that makes you happy, whatever it is, you should do it! But that doesn’t change the fact that watching two guys have sex on screen makes me feel a little grossed out. It’s like eating something that you don’t like the taste of. Maybe on an intellectual level you know it’s good for you, or you know it’s something you should like, but there’s no getting past the taste. Spinach is gross, I can force myself to eat it, even tell myself I need it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy it. Like most straight men, I don’t particularly enjoy looking at other naked, sexually aroused males. Whether he’s gay or straight, there’s nothing fun about watching a guy drop his drawers. It’s only worse when there’s two of them. It’s not a discrimination thing, it’s just a natural, straight guy thing.
I think that’s something Ang Lee’s gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain is going to have a hard time dealing with if it’s going to find an audience. The movie, while not exactly hardcore gay pornography, doesn’t shy away from its subject matter (nor should it). Oliver Stone tried dodging around the gay thing in his take on Alexander, and the result was disaster. Ang Lee has taken the right tact with Brokeback Mountain, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to want to see it. The amazing, brutally honest, highly controversial movie The Woodsman faced similar challenges last year, and though it received a glowing critical praise was otherwise utterly ignored. Brokeback Mountain may face a similar fate.
Of course it probably sounds a bit simplistic to keeping pigeonholing the film as a “gay cowboy movie” but that’s exactly what it is. Two cowboys for hire go up into the mountains to herd and sleep with sheep and discover they’d rather sleep with each other. Ennis (Heath Ledger) is at first reluctant. He’s a quiet, uneducated man’s man who has never done any “sinning”. But Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) is beguiling and persistent. “I’m not queer” insists Ennis. Jack agrees, neither is he. Ennis may actually at first believe it, but Jack is only trying to make him feel better. Jack from the beginning, seems to know what he is, though he’s not at peace with it. Ennis on the other hand is in constant denial. As a young boy his father showed him what happens to queers; it wasn’t pretty. Later he blames Jack for everything, “this is all because of you!” he screams. But Jack didn’t make him gay, that’s who Ennis is.
The setting for Jack and Ennis’s sexual exploration is beautiful, no thanks to Ang Lee. The locations on their own are gorgeous, and Ang doesn’t do much to make them even more stunning. Maybe that sounds weird, but a great director sometimes has a way of making a good setting look even more spectacular. Kevin Costner’s Open Range is flat out eye-popping to look at, and those rolling hills Costner is shooting in front of aren’t nearly as photogenic as the craggy peaks and fast flowing rivers of Brokeback Mountain should be. The movie looks good because of where the characters are standing, not because of anything Ang or his cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto are doing. If they’d shot this thing in West Texas, it would have looked like crap.
Eventually, the summer ends, they bring the sheep down from the mountain, and go their separate ways. That’s where the real story begins. Both men go home, get married, have kids. It’s the 60’s and homosexuality is off the world’s radar. Planet Earth is in the closet. Four years pass before Ennis and Jack see each other again. When they do, it all starts over. For twenty years they keep their relationship a secret, meeting up every few months for what they tell their wives is a fishing trip, living for those few days a year when they can be themselves and be together.
Most of the movie is spent this way, with their wives enduring their husbands’ trips and with Ennis and Jack in constant longing. The film moves slowly, crawling along, taking tiny steps forward in the development of their relationship. Eventually their secret destroys their lives, their families, and finally each other. “We could have been happy!” screams Jack, and though they find brief moments of joy together, neither man ever really is.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger are getting a lot of Oscar buzz for their work in Brokeback Mountain, but it’s hard to buy pasty, skinny Jake Gyllenhaal as a rough cowboy, even a gay one. Heath Leger affects a thick, halting, Southern-ish accent which is at first distracting and later arresting. Both seem uncomfortable in their own skin. That’s actually part of the brilliance of both performances. Decades of living a double life has left these characters damaged, uncertain, and uncomfortable with themselves. Ledger and Gyllenhaal do a fantastic job of capturing that hesitancy and awkwardness in their portrayal.
The big problem with Brokeback Mountain is its ending, or perhaps I should say endings. It drags on longer than it has any reason to, struggling to find a good place to stop. It finds several places, fades to black, and then moves on to the next good stop spot. When the film finally does settle on a conclusion, it’s not a satisfying one. The movie’s too long and once the boys come down out of the mountain, though it remains interesting, it never finds solid ground.
The film has its flaws, but maybe it deserves attention simply for approaching such a potentially explosive topic with determined openness. Ang Lee isn’t trying to avoid controversy, or pander to a heterosexual (possibly violently homophobic) audience by burying his characters sexuality under layers of innuendo. He’s stayed true to his material, and should be commended for it. Still, it’s a tough time in the United States to release a gay cowboy movie. The country is caught up in a crazed religious fervor and it’s never been more fashionable to hate and discriminate. In my home state of Texas, we just outlawed gay marriage… for the second time. Texans hate gay people so much they’ve made it double super-illegal for them to fall in love. It’s into this environment of sexual preference upheaval that Ang Lee’s honest, thoughtful, quiet exploration of boots and spurs homosexuality is being dropped. Fear the unpredictability of audience response.