I saw Brokeback Mountain a couple of days ago, because it finally made it to New Hampshire (although only a few theatres), but I didn't want to write about it immediately, because though I thought it was excellent for a bunch of different reasons, I didn't entirely trust my reaction. Did I only like it for predictable political and social reasons? Did I only like it because I was in the mood for a tragic story of repressed love (but then, when am I not in the mood for a tragic story of repressed love)? Did the fact that a couple of my closest friends are moving to Montana this week have anything to do with my enjoyment of the film? Or that Heath Ledger mumbled exactly like at least three people I've known? Et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.
Oddly, I found myself comparing Brokeback Mountain to Munich, which I saw the week before. The comparison began because both films were at the top of a lot of mainstream reviewers' lists of the best movies of 2005 (though less so the alternative reviewers), and I couldn't quite figure out how anybody would put Munich above Brokeback Mountain, because though neither film is perfect, Munich is, despite an opening sequence of brilliance, a mess, while Brokeback Mountain could have been far more of a disaster than it is. I continued to think about the films together, because each tries to challenge its audiences to think about the world beyond the film -- each is, to some extent or another, a Statement as well as a movie. Munich is a bundle of forced moments, stereotyped characters, and spy-movie cliches, along with some subtle acting and a few really excellent scenes (whoever hired Tony Kushner to work on the script deserves accolades, because some of the dialogue is magnificent. I just hope he's not the one who came up with the inexcusable, ridiculous, tasteless, grotesque idea of juxtaposing an angst-ridden sex scene with the executions of the athletes on the airfield, as if everyone's sins could be atoned for with a good orgasm). There are Hollywooded coincidences and questionable scenes in Brokeback Mountain, too, but not with the frequency of such scenes in Munich, and the worst of Brokeback Mountain isn't remotely as bad as the worst of Munich.
Brokeback Mountain could have been ridiculous. It could have been sappy and so earnest as to ooze good intentions all over the audience. It is, instead, remarkably restrained in tone. The only thing not repressed in the film is the landscape, which is vast and almost pornographic in its loveliness. The open world of the mountains and forests contrasts well with the closed, closeted, claustrophobic interiors. (The production design of Brokeback Mountain is particularly fine, with the decades passing in small changes of decor, though the furnishings remain cloying and even ghastly, regardless of the decade, regardless of the characters' income bracket. The only beauty is in the mountains, the place of freedom and contentment.)
When I first heard that Brokeback Mountain was being directed by a straight director from a script by straight writers and starring straight actors, I had a kneejerk moment of annoyance -- what could such a gaggle of heteros really know about the basic situation of these characters? It was a stupid, fleeting thought, but it nagged at me nonetheless. Good artists can imagine their way into all sorts of experiences beyond their own, and I've long thought gender and sexuality shouldn't limit artists of real worth. Indeed, I wish more straight writers would write about gay characters, at the very least because most of the straight writers I know have some gay friends or acquaintances, and yet the world in their fiction is entirely, and even obsessively, heterosexual.
What I didn't realize before seeing it, and perhaps should have, is that many of Brokeback Mountain's strengths may derive from the effort of heterosexuals to imagine their way into the situation they sought to dramatize. I'm not entirely comfortable with this idea, because after all the job of writers and actors and directors is to imagine things well. I find it frustrating whenever straight actors are praised for their "courage" and "bravery" for taking on gay roles, as if it isn't the point of their job to behave realistically in imaginary circumstances, or as if actors don't ever have to be in romantic scenes with people they don't feel the least bit romantic toward, and might, indeed, in reality even loathe; or as if gay actors don't give convincing portrayals of straight people all the time. And yet there are pragmatic reasons why for these particular roles, it made good sense to cast straight actors. Film shoots are short, and they have to be efficient. From a director's point of view, it's useful to have actors plays these roles who do not have any experience being romantic with other men, because the characters are struggling against their own desires, against the strangeness of the situation for them, against their own views of what is acceptable and appropriate. Brokeback Mountain is less a "gay movie" than it is a movie about people in a vehemently heterosexual culture, a culture of clear gender roles and traditional masculine/feminine values, where the fate of any love that strays beyond those rigid borders is tragic. The film may benefit, then, from the imaginative efforts of people who have the option of taking that culture and those values for granted. Which is not to say that other sorts of people couldn't have done just as well, but that Brokeback Mountain is a fine example of artists using their own knowledge and experience of the world to think beyond that knowledge and experience, to use the tension that naturally comes from such thinking and acting to great effect.
There are, of course, people who don't like Brokeback Mountain, and they're not all homophobes, by any means. Some people don't like it because it isn't subversive enough, because the characters don't fight against their culture and show how the queer masses can rise beyond oppression, because it fortifies the idea that homosexuality is tragic, because there are lots of stories of queer people that don't get this sort of attention, because it's just another Hollywood love story. These criticisms deserve to be listened to, but I think they're misguided.
Maybe such criticisms are not misguided if you live in a place where two men can hold hands in public without being attacked. Maybe they're not misguided if you're the sort of person who has lots of gay friends and your gay friends have good jobs and good lives and lots of disposable income, the sorts of gay people who subscribe to Out and pay close attention to the fashion articles. But when you live in a place like rural New Hampshire, where even your most open-minded friends are still amazed that gay people can care as much about each other as straight people, and where you can drive into a Dunkin Donuts parking lot and see a truck with a bumpersticker reading "AIDS kills fags", and where you're nervous just going to see a movie like Brokeback Mountain because you hesitated to tell a few acquaintances what movie you were driving 50 miles to see, and you know somebody in the audience is going to groan or make some remark when the two men kiss ... well, then this is a movie you tend to be grateful for, and amazed that it's better than you ever dared hope it would be. I wish I could thank everyone who worked on this film, because even though, yes, some of the audience was audibly uncomfortable with the first intimate scene, by the second half of the film the audience was utterly silent. The man behind me who, as the lights went down, said to his wife, "I'm really very nervous about this, I'm not sure about this, I don't know, but the reviews have been so good, and, well..." said to her afterward, "The reviews were right," and he sounded both moved and relieved. That simple moment gave me more hope, joy, and even comfort than I would have gotten from a more confrontational, less traditional film. Someone who had seemingly never thought about how painful, how destructive it is to have the way you love branded as disgusting, repulsive, unnatural, to have the person you love seen as an abomination -- now he had glimpsed that. A less tragic story might have made us all feel better about our ability to be accepting of each other, but it wouldn't have communicated why such acceptance is important with the same force and clarity. The sensitivity, commitment, and skill of the filmmakers created a work of art that opened a space for everyone in that theatre to think about how they live their lives, the choices they make, the sacrifices, the prejudices. It opened a space for at least a moment of communication between ways of living that do not often get a chance to truly communicate, and to feel their way away from destruction.