By the time I sat down for a studio screening of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, I was braced by all the advance hype from Venice and Toronto, as well as the local showbiz columns and media outlets, for the supposed shock of two men in cowboy hats acting out the old underground jokes about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Playwright and screenwriter Matt Crowley even had a line, in William Friedkin’s 1970 screen version of The Boys in the Band, about the alleged typecasting of the late Leo Carrillo as the Gay Caballero. Mr. Crowley may have been thinking of Rouben Mamoulian’s The Gay Desperado (1936), which featured Nino Martini in the singing lead role opposite a young, ingénue-ish Ida Lupino and Carrillo overacting (as always) in a supporting part. The widely reported carryings-on in Brokeback Mountain also reminded some reviewers of the supposedly subtextual implications of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), with John Wayne and the posthumously “outed” Montgomery Clift, as well as George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), with Paul Newman and Robert Redford—the latter lacking even the gossipy whispers of Clift’s sexual orientation to sustain the subtextual suppositions.
If I choose to digress from what started out as a review of Brokeback Mountain, it is because, for whatever reason, I was never moved or even overly excited by what I finally witnessed on the screen, though I have no quarrel with the superlatives heaped upon the film by most of my colleagues. For example, Heath Ledger as the comparatively quiet and guilt-torn Ennis Del Mar gives as remarkably nuanced and detailed a performance as I had been led to expect, and the always dependable Jake Gyllenhaal as the unrestrained, more emotionally dependent and almost allegorically named Jack Twist isn’t far behind.
The rest of the cast performs above and beyond the call of duty, particularly Michelle Williams as Alma, whom Ennis marries immediately after his tryst with Jack, and Anne Hathaway as Lureen, whom Jack later marries. These are two thankless roles of victimization by disillusion, sexual rejection and abandonment, all in the name of the greater love between Ennis and Jack. Alma’s heartbreak is more palpable than that of the self-sufficient Lureen, but we are apparently not asked to weep for either woman, and certainly not for Alma’s two daughters or Lureen’s son. Still, Ennis turns out to be a more dedicated family man than Jack, who has the foresight to marry the rich daughter of a farm-equipment tycoon, one who is quite happy to take his grandson off Jack’s faltering hands.
Lureen, a rodeo rider, is shown aggressively pursuing Jack in a rodeo bar with the one witty pickup line in the movie: “What’s the matter, cowboy? You waiting for a mating call?” No matter—Jack’s heart is elsewhere. Lureen is quickly caricatured as a ditzy, bleached-blond, chattering busybody. Alma is another story entirely after she catches Ennis in a passionate embrace with his quadrennial “fishing buddy,” and she never lets on that she has seen anything, even when Ennis keeps returning from his alleged fishing trips without any fish. Alma just suffers and suffers and suffers without even being given the compensation of a juicy renunciation scene. All she gets, in fact, is a divorce agreement in which Ennis agrees to provide child support.
What surprised me most about the film was how much larger and more sympathetic Mr. Ledger’s part was than Mr. Gyllenhaal’s. I was surprised also by how gratuitously overextended the narrative was, based as it is on a 1997 short story by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx. Her story was adapted (and perhaps inflated) to feature-film length by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana.
There have been reports that both men and women at earlier screenings were seen fighting away tears after the sad ending. It’s been a long time since I cried outright over a movie. Indeed, the only time lately that I even came close to tears was at a screening for the students in my Columbia course on musicals of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), whose release I had celebrated in The Village Voice 41 years earlier by describing the phenomenon as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies”—a then-startling blurb that ended up being used in the board game Trivial Pursuit.
Why then, after all that time, was I so close to tears? It was coming up on the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s murder in the courtyard of the Dakota by a deranged fan. As I watched Lennon on the screen in all his joyously smooth-faced youth, belting out his group’s numbers with a comically insolent expression that I didn’t quite appreciate at the time, I mourned the vagaries of time, luck and accident that bedevil our shaky existence.
But again I digress, which is the only way I can manage to get through this unpleasant task. This is to say that I must let my mind wander until I find the ultimate source of my minority (negative) opinion of the film. Perhaps by tracing some of the key scenes through the strands of the narrative, I can isolate my bothersome concerns. Yet first I must ask and answer the question of why I was expected to cry, as if I were watching one of the classic “women’s pictures” of Hollywood’s golden age that were advertised at the time as surefire tearjerkers. These included Irene Dunne’s other-woman travails with a married man (played by John Boles) in John Stahl’s Back Street (1932), and Margaret Sullavan’s travails with Charles Boyer in Robert Stevenson’s 1941 remake. Then, more decorously, there were the non-adulterous, pathos-ridden romantic complications of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939), with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, and his own 1957 remake of the film with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, retitled An Affair to Remember. And let us not forget Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (1945), of which Oscar Levant may have been thinking when he memorably defined a “women’s picture” as one in which a woman cheats on her husband all through the movie, and in the end he asks her for forgiveness.
This imputation of self-pity isn’t completely inapplicable to Brokeback Mountain, despite all its breathtaking western mountainscapes. And why not? Both Mr. Lee and Mr. McMurtry are no strangers to lachrymose sentiment, although Mr. Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) and Mr. McMurtry’s screenplay for Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), which was based on one of his novels, left me singularly dry-eyed—perhaps because both films tried too hard to make me cry.
The very first scene of Brokeback Mountain takes on an excessively suspenseful tension because of the aforementioned advance hype, as two men in cowboy hats—who have not been introduced to us or to each other—steal glances at each other while waiting for their prospective boss to open the small shed used as a ranch office. It’s as if they are furtively cruising each other, but when the surly boss, Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid), finally appears, he demystifies them somewhat by greeting them rudely and explaining their duties with a contemptuous tone of voice, as if he didn’t expect them to be capable of keeping coyotes and bears away from the thousand or so sheep they are expected to herd until winter comes.
So here we have two men, more or less on their own, in an idyllic setting that Mr. Lee and his cinematographer, Gustavo Santaolalla, have rendered in all its sky-angled splendor. Eventually, Ennis and Jack begin exchanging their young life stories at the meals they share after a day spent apart in different parts of the mountain. As they bathe more than I have ever seen Wild West characters do, I suddenly realized that these allegedly hard-boiled ranch hands had unusually delicate nostrils for the genre.
And this was the thing with all the cowboys I have ever seen before on the screen: They just never worried about how they smelled, nor how other cowboys smelled. They were occasionally shown shaving, and Eli Wallach had a memorable bathtub scene in Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—but offhand, I can’t remember any western character shooting another because of the way he smelled. It’s a small point, granted, but it involves a degree of genre-destroying realism that paves the way for a strenuously aggressive surge of desire in both men resembling a form of rape-wrestling at night, and continuing as rambunctiously physical horseplay in the daytime. From a distance on horseback, Mr. Quaid’s field boss stares disapprovingly at this uninhibited behavior through his binoculars. The outside world has already started crashing in on Ennis and Jack’s mountain paradise.
The syndicated comic strip The Boondocks recently had two older black characters watching Brokeback Mountain in a movie house and complaining that the heroes aren’t at all “manly” after the first big sex scene. But not to worry—both Ennis and Jack insist afterward to each other, and perhaps to themselves, that neither is “queer.”
Stephen Holden’s perceptively erudite review in The Times notes that the word “gay” was not in common usage in 1963, when the events in the movie begin. Mr. Holden makes an insightfully appropriate reference to Leslie Fiedler’s notorious essay in a 1948 issue of Partisan Review, provocatively titled “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey.” For decades afterward, people around me were arguing about the essay and its claim that a persistently homoerotic strain manifested itself in serious American literature, with an accompanying diminution of the role of women. (After all, didn’t Rip Van Winkle go to sleep for 20 years to escape his shrewish wife, who conveniently died in the interim?) Yet the subtexts of this phenomenon remain more interesting and stimulating then the textual specificities, at least for me.
Hence, I suppose that my ultimate objection to Brokeback Mountain lies in its stretching out what originally begins as a physical relationship between two young men to, after 20 years, Ennis and Jack quarreling like an old married couple about the forced infrequency of their reunions. Yet what are the odds that they would have managed to stay together if they had been together all that time? The current odds on married heterosexual couples staying the course are no better than 50-50, and that is as true in the red states as it is in the blue.
Besides, the problem of the economic disparity between lower-middle-class Ennis and upper-middle-class Jack isn’t sufficiently addressed in Brokeback Mountain, even though Ennis is rendered virtually immobile by his pressing need to keep his job to support his kids. By contrast, Jack has the means and the time to hop down to Mexico to sleep with male prostitutes. In this, he follows a pattern of promiscuity that raises doubts about the stability of any more lasting day-to-day relationship between him and Ennis.
And just for the record, none of the classic women’s pictures that I mentioned actually made me cry. They were too good for that. All they did was create an aching feeling of loss in the pit of my stomach. I never felt that ache in Brokeback Mountain, despite all the artful acting, writing and direction devoted to that end.
The Last Merchant
James Ivory’s The White Countess, from a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, turns out to be the final production of the team of James Ivory and the late Ismail Merchant (1936-2005). As such, it is a stylistically venturesome exploration of the chaotic world of 1936 and 1937, as seen from the maelstrom of Shanghai’s international community on the eve of the Japanese invasion. Mr. Ishiguro, whose novel The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen for Merchant-Ivory by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for their successful 1993 film version, seems fixated on the period just before World War II, a time when no one, East or West, seemed to anticipate the horrors that were to come.
I must confess at this point that I am much more familiar with the historical situation in England at this time taken up in The Remains of the Day than I am with the situation in Shanghai dealt with in The White Countess. I mention my limiting Eurocentrism so that my readers may be alerted to the comparative inaccessibility of some of Mr. Ishiguro’s subtleties in sketching out the political forces at work in this time and place.
The story is centered on a curiously chaste romance between a former American diplomat, Todd Jackson (Ralph Fiennes), and an expatriate Russian countess, Sofia Belinsky (Natasha Richardson). The deeply disillusioned Jackson has actually abandoned diplomacy after the ominous collapse of the League of Nations, which spells the end to the last hopes for world peace. As for the countess, she supports her daughter, Katya (Madeleine Daly), and the rest of her extended family as a taxi dancer and prostitute in a Shanghai nightclub. Though Sofia is sustained by the love of her daughter and her aging aunt Sara (Vanessa Redgrave), she is openly and ungratefully despised for her “dishonorable” activities by her embittered sister-in-law, Greshenka (Madeleine Potter), and her officious mother-in-law, Olga (Lynn Redgrave)—even though they would all be out on the street if it weren’t for Sofia’s ill-gotten gains. For her part, Sofia seems unusually resigned to their contempt in order to keep the family together for Katya’s sake.
The most fascinating fact about Jackson is that he is blind because of some unspecified accident, the traumatic circumstances of which are not revealed until the film’s later stages. The important thing is that Mr. Ivory takes his directorial cue from Jackson’s blindness, and with the assistance of Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer for the much-esteemed Wong Kar Wai, he creates a swirling expression of Jackson’s mental universe that impels me to use the word “phantasmagoric”—an adjective that I never expected to use for a work of James Ivory’s.
Mr. Fiennes performs prodigies of understatement in functioning confidently in all the action despite his handicap. In the end, he helps Sofia rescue Katya from the clutches of her evil family, who conspire to steal the child from her mother and flee to Hong Kong. In the course of opening a nightclub in Shanghai called the White Countess, with Sofia as its centerpiece, Jackson befriends a sinister but outwardly affable Japanese agent named Matsuda (Hiroyuki Sanada), though the irrevocable forces of history finally drive the two friends apart. The film is well worth seeing for its performances, and for the aptness of Mr. Ivory’s Sternbergian mise-en-scène.
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