I didn't like Brokeback Mountain
by Denise Sawicki on November 11, 2009
I know I'm a number of years too late to be talking about this, but I finally happened to see Brokeback Mountain and I have to say I didn't like it terribly much. Yes, I realize this is an extremely unpopular opinion to the point of being just plain wrong as an objective fact. Note, I do not have a problem with gay people or gay behavior. If you've read my little blog much you will probably realize I like gay dudes maybe a little *too* much. That might be part of the problem.
I just don't see why everyone describes it as such a wonderful love story when Ennis seems to show very little affection towards Jack. Yes, I comprehend that Ennis hates himself for being attracted to men and feels the need to prove his masculinity with displays of manly violence. I understand that he doesn't want to wind up dead for being gay like the guy whose mutilated body his father showed him as a kid. I still think he's kind of an asshole.
Also maybe I'm just a foolish idealist at heart and wish that a gay relationship could be portrayed the same as a straight relationship in a mainstream movie. I find it odd that the straight sex in the movie seems more graphic than the gay sex.
Anyhow, since I have such difficulty forming sentences I figure I will let someone else speak for me.
Amidst all the myriads of "10 out 10" reviews I finally managed to find this article here which essentially expresses the way I feel about the movie. Pasted for your convenience:
It's long overdue, but I think the Brokeback Mountain backlash is finally gearing up. Widely hailed as the best film of the pre-Oscar season, and fresh from winning the top award at the Venice Film Festival, Brokeback Mountain is the current must see movie. The critics, sheep that they are, herded onto the bandwagon over opening weekend, following the cues that this is the film you're required to like. Kudos to the marketing department at Focus Features — the buzz was perfectly spun. Brokeback was the one you don't question — the Sideways of 2005 — it carried the pedigree director and the pedigree subject matter, and was based on a pedigree short story from a pedigree short story author which first appeared in a pedigree magazine. It smelled of class, and so the zombie-fied reviewers gave it the stamp of approval, the sticker of USDA prime. But amongst people I know, the dissatisfaction and disappointment are beginning to grow. Promoted as the "groundbreaking" gay film meant to change the world, the audience is slowly realizing it has instead been sold a bill of goods.
There are many reasons to dislike Brokeback Mountain — the complete lack of chemistry between the male leads, the painful, groan-inducing dialogue, the energyless pacing — but all of this seems nitpicky in comparison to an outdated, out-of-touch theme. Marketed as the first (although it isn't, really) mainstream cross-over homosexual love story, it seems strange that liberal urbanites would open their arms to the story of two closeted dudes who can't deal with their sexuality, are made miserable by the secret, and die unhappy and alone. This is the stuff of progressive filmmaking? Some might argue that the film's implicit message is that staying in the closet is a mistake — that if these cowboys had "come out," they wouldn't have faced such a miserable end. But my guess is most blue-state straight people walked out of the theater thinking, "Gee — what a shame to be gay. Those poor people. Glad I'm not!" Can you disagree with them? What a depressing, miserable vision of the gay experience.
It wouldn't be so bad if there were dozens of films released a year featuring gay characters played by A-list movie stars, but it is Brokeback's unique position as being the only one that makes the film problematic. If you're going to use the critical mass that comes along with casting Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger to gain the attention across America, it's too bad the movie has to be about self-hatred, repression and despair. Perhaps this is an unfair burden to place on one movie, but they are also using that burden (again, it's "Groundbreaking," says the one-sheet) to sell tickets. Some film theorists are shouting from the rooftops that simply the casting of such prominent names represents progress. But this is a dunderheaded argument: So what if A-listers sign up to play gay roles, if the roles themselves portray gay men as weak, afraid, ashamed and end up getting bashed to death? (And by the way, straight actors have always played gay roles. It's gay actors who get pigeonholed.) Furthermore, at every single opportunity, both actors remind us they're straight in real life. (With hetero movies, the marketers encourage the idea that the stars were attracted to each other. But here, we're constantly reminded that these guys didn't actually like it. And the December release of Casanova, starring Ledger as the legendary seducer of women, is pretty convenient.) But all this trouble seems like much ado about nothing, because if anything, this casting was pretty conservative. The film's message is essentially safe from a right-wing point-of-view: Gay men are victims and are used to their victimization — it's something they "live with" silently.
Aaah, many will respond, but it's not really a gay movie. It's about "more than that." This is another argument I've heard repeated over the past few weeks — as if a film simply about "being gay" is somehow a bad thing.Furthermore, it's an unlikely comment considering the plot is completely motivated by the main characters' gay identity: they must hide their love because they're gay, they destroy their families because they're gay, they return to Brokeback every few months because they're gay, they suffer because they're gay — the movie's pretty much as gay as they come. (Except for the sex scenes, which read exactly like what they are: Two straight guys whipped into kissing each other because, well, they might win an award for it. More on that later.) But really, it's about "the myth of the western hero" or "the inability of men to express themselves because of the American macho code." But the reason the film can be about these subjects is because the characters are gay, it is their sexuality (and the gay identity in general) that is the counterforce to these conventions. These "larger themes" are inextricably tied to the sexuality of the characters, making it as much a gay movie as Red River is a movie about being a straight American male.
But even stranger, it is often gay people who declare the movie is "about more than being gay." Still reeling from the wake-up call that was the 2004 election, the financial success of Brokeback Mountain would represent that America might someday come around. And so, stating that the film is "about more than being gay" makes it less scary for the straight audience, and hopes to entice them to the theater. "Ignore the gay element," is the implication, "you'll still enjoy the shots of the pretty sheep." But in this, the gay audience shoots itself in the foot: Equality only comes when a film simply "about being gay" can draw an audience beyond its core demographic. Hedging the bet is selling yourself down the river: What's the point if everyone comes to the theater and takes away a vague "larger message" but ignores the politically hot topic of the rights and status of gay men in America? Riding with Brokeback Mountain is the hope for political change, but telling people it's OK to ignore the gayness of the movie is totally self-defeating: You may get the asses in the seats, but their brains are primed to ignore the hypothetically important message.
Of course, the filmmakers made this dodge easy, because what really bothers most Americans is not the idea that guys can fall in love, but rather the depiction of erotic behavior between men. In the only memorable sex scene in the film, we see a late night fumble between the two lead characters, shot with quick cuts in murky darkness, so as to obscure any images that might "freak out" the mainstream. It's implied penetrative sex, but the pants are barely off and it's more the sound than the pictures that tells the audience what's up. Interestingly, compare the framing of Ennis fucking Jack versus the shot of Ennis fucking his wife, Alma. When it's guy-on-guy, everything is close-up and confused. Things happen quickly and images are obscured. When it's guy-on-girl, we get a master shot — showing the act in its entirety. Had the choice of shots been reversed, it might've upset the mainstream: Seeing "too much" would've reminded the viewer what a "gay movie" this happens to be. Of course, Hollywood's standard M.O. is to give us quick shots of skin to keep the titillation factor going but not push the envelope too far. Afterall, they can't anger the church goers or the dreaded MPAA, which makes no bones about applying a different (and unfair) standard of censorship to male-on-male nudity or sex scenes compared to their heterosexual counterparts. But there's a new game being played here. The love scenes in Brokeback are so unerotic, they might easily be confused as violence — something Americans (and the MPAA) are quite comfortable watching. When Ennis kisses Jack for the first time after years of separation, it's again a fast, aggressive beating. It doesn't play like passion — it plays like roughhousing, and you realize that not by accident are scenes of conflict — Ennis punching Jack, Jack standing up to his father-in-law — the best, and most believable, ones in the film.
I suppose the idea is that these characters only know how to be violent — that this is their only way of having sex with each other. But somehow, it seems unlikely to me that over the 20 years they saw each other secretly, there wasn't one night of eroticism where all the clothes were all off and touches were exchanged delicately. But as Vito Russo once wrote in Film Comment, "mainstream films about homosexuals are not for homosexuals. They address themselves exclusively to the majority." Nowhere is this more apparent than in the portrayal of gay eroticism, which could've been the most frightening (and un-box office friendly) aspect of Brokeback Mountain. As unfair as this may be, you then can't help but imagine this scene in the hands of a director who knows what he's talking about. Is there anything stranger than the idea of Ang Lee (heterosexual) directing two straight actors on how to have gay sex? No wonder it turned violent — that's choreography Lee's familiar with.
It's hard to really hate Brokeback Mountain because its heart is in the right place, and I supposed there was some financial risk involved — although by Hollywood standards, the budget was low and the movie stars were big, so let's not go overboard on the courage of the studio. Over twenty years ago, Arthur Hiller made a film called Making Love that was similarly billed as "groundbreaking." Pretty much nobody mentions that film today, mostly because Hiller, like Ang Lee, is a vastly overrated and heavy-handed filmmaker. It's impossible to say, but I can imagine twenty years from now, a film class watching Brokeback Mountain and not being able to get what the big deal was. The idea that gay people exist and fall in love and have sex is not foreign in America — the middle has gotten used to that. The real challenge is the concept that gays should be treated with equal civil rights under the law, and that the stereotypes that are so pervasive throughout the mass culture are as unacceptable as stereotypes about any other ethnic group. Brokeback Mountain does little to change the status quo, and will probably be remembered as a popular, but ultimately ineffectual, entertainment.
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