Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Not exactly cowboys, not exactly gay

*** WARNING #1 ***
Long post

*** WARNING #2 ***

In Laura's great Australia Day post from Sills Bend, she reflected that on the afternoon of what might be some people's last paid public holiday, many would opt to get out of the heat and into an air-conditioned cinema in order to see one of three movies: Munich, Walk the Line or Brokeback Mountain. We went for the third of these, to a nearly-full late-afternoon session in the blessed aircon. Sure, Eric Bana is Australian, but so is Heath Ledger, after all.

And as the opening wide-angle landscape shot loomed and a single plangent drawn-out Wyoming-sounding guitar-string note rippled through the cinema, I had a flashback to the beginning of Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, whose opening guitar moment, courtesy of the legend that is Neil Young, was so very similar that this one may have been an act of hommage. The music-to-landscape is a perfect match all through, and enriches the effects of both.

And if you think the music at the beginning is good, wait till you get to the music at the end, where Rufus Wainwright is sounding if not in pitch and timbre then sure as hell in vocal and musical inflection an awful lot like his mom and his Aunt Anna. And Rufus singing 'Git along, little dogies' is quite something, even though the animals in the movie are actually sheep.

Which brings me to my title. These blokes are not 'cowboys' in the way we understand that term. If they are to be defined by the critters they tend, then strictly speaking they are shepherds. The story, and the movie, call them ranch hands. Don't be confused by the hats. The Jake Gyllenhaal character, Jack Twist, is a rodeo cowboy but that is a different and particular beast. The hats and horses may make it all look like the Wild West of the 19th century, but this story begins in 1963 and when the characters discuss the possibility of getting 'caught by the army', they are talking about Vietnam.

The first part of the movie sets it up as pastoral idyll: figures in a landscape, in harmony with nature and its peaceful summer rhythms. Part of this setup is a series of shots indicating, wordlessly, both characters' skill, empathy and pragmatic tenderness with other living creatures: sheep and lambs, dogs, horses, even Jack's rodeo bulls. When it comes time for the clinch in the tent, you almost expect it, because you've already seen their life-affirming behaviour with other fellow-creatures.

Add to this their youth and isolation, and the sex seems almost inevitable: something that occurs along a couple of continuums, one of explosive young-man energy and the other of non-specific, unfocused tenderness for harmless fellow-creatures. Not polymorphous perversity so much as polymorphous physicality, a seamless transition rather than any kind of transgression.

Director Ang Lee, screenwriter Larry McMurtry and Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar do a wonderful job among them of bringing into plain view the fairly deeply buried subtext of Annie Proulx's spare and heartbreaking story: this character is badly damaged and the damage was deep and early. Ennis Del Mar is so closed-off and defended a character that he can barely open his mouth to speak, and the depth of emotional release is what turns an almost accidental drunken fuck in a tent on a cold night into a lifelong love affair, the defining relationship of both their lives.

One of the truly great achievements of this movie is to explore the overlaps and the disconnects between physical passion and enduring love, while remaining simultaneously aware not only of the separate dimensions of these two things but also of the realities of how human beings manage -- or fail to manage -- endless love and/or affectionate tenderness and/or really raw, detached, cut-off sex, often with more than one person at a time.

And as for 'gay' -- well, this word has a long history of denoting sexual 'irregularity' of any kind; in Victorian England, if you were 'gay' it meant you were a female prostitute. As used in contemporary parlance it's mainly about either identity politics or so-called lifestyle, where practice and preference are much less at variance than, of necessity, they used to be. But the word doesn't really fit either of these characters, or their time, or their place.

Jack Twist is closer to what we understand as 'gay': the initiator, apparently experienced, possessed of some self-knowledge. His scenes indicating what was available in the way of a gay scene to a rodeo cowboy in that time and place are among the most desolate in the movie.

And Ennis is utterly outside any possible classification of sexual identity -- and here as elsewhere the movie is making quite a statement, if always only implicit, about its fluidity -- and for Ennis, there is only ever Jack; the rest of his sexual life, such as it is, is a complex and compromised set of responses to his wife, and the rest of his emotional life invested mainly in his elder daughter.

And the story is at least as much about class as it is about sex. One of the things that can stop any kind of love affair in its tracks is money, or a lack of money: a lack of options, a lack of mobility, a grinding, closed-down life. One scene makes it painfully clear how a gay man in that milieu might marry for the comfort of a guaranteed income as well as the comforts of social acceptance and openly expressed affection. The staggering poverty of Jack's parents, revealed very late in the piece, comes as an almost physical shock.

And while some terrible things happen in this movie, for me its saddest line comes early on, a line straight out of Proulx's story, when Ennis tells Jack that he had to drop out of high school after only a year, because he couldn't get there any more after the transmission went on the pickup and there was no money to fix it.

I read the Proulx story first and went into the movie knowing exactly what would happen, which enhanced rather than diminished the experience. I love adaptations; there's always a whole extra dimension of pleasure in thinking about how it's been done, whether you think it works, what sorts of technical problems have been solved. Given what happens to Jack in both the story and the movie (it's a very faithful adaptation), Proulx's writing of it could easily have been another act of homage, this time to the influential black American writer Richard Wright and his iconic short story 'Bright and Morning Star'.

The audience that I was part of had a very strange reaction to the first half of the movie: they seemed to think it was a comedy. The shattering scene in which Ennis's wife looks out the window and catches sight of her husband and Jack in a passionate and unambiguous embrace is an absolutely wrenching one in both story and movie, but for reasons quite beyond me, at least half of the cinema audience laughed. It made me wonder how many of them had experienced sexual betrayal themselves, and whether the laughter had its roots in ignorance or in denial.

One thing that really did make me laugh was a memory of a story about director Ang Lee. Emma Thompson kept a diary, through the spring of 1995, of the shoot of Sense and Sensibility, and at one point she describes the problem they were having with the picturesque English sheep. They were, says Thompson, 'very bolshie "period" sheep with horns and perms and too much wool. If they fall over, they can't get up. Someone has to help them. ... Ang, after a particularly trying time with our flock: "No more sheeps. Never again sheeps."'

But as those who have seen Brokeback Mountain will already know, there is a veritable torrent of sheeps in it. One particularly graphic scene demonstrates one of the story's rueful mini-morals, which is that if you spend your time sexing on with your incredibly dishy workmate while you're supposed to be looking after the sheep, the coyotes will sneak in and rip their guts out, and Ang Lee seemed to take special delight in a close-up of one of the victims. Maybe it was his long-delayed revenge.


elsewhere said...

Which Annie P volume is the brokeback story in?

Jake Twist is a great name!

Stephen Crittenden did a faskinating gayboy crit of BM on his last day on RN breakfast you might find interesting...

Pavlov's Cat said...

I read it in the online archives of the New Yorker (where it was originally published), following a link from their music critic Alex Ross's blog, but it was only there for a week or so, late last year. Which is a long-winded way of saying I don't know. But I think it's currently everywhere in bookshops as a movie tie-in -- what's the Alice Springs bookshop situation?

R H said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
elsewhere said...

There's 'booktown', the discount bookshop and Dymocks. Actually, they're both pretty good at ordering things for you promptly (Dymocks isn't bad at all) but I buy a lot of stuff (pre-loved) over the net.

RH, PC is one of those people who would deal masterfully (or mistressfully) with any such situation.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thank you for those kind words, Elsewhere. Let us hope they will never be put to the test.

comicstriphero said...


Your talents are wasted here (I mean that in a nice way). I hope that in some form or another, you are able to get paid for writing.

I read on despite the spoiler warning and I am well glad I did.

On the back of your engaging review seeing the dang movie shall now be my number 1 recreational priority.

Lucy Tartan said...

I wish I were able to gather my thoughts as well as this instead of merely blubbering.

The nervous laughter thing is pretty interesting, isn't it. Many people laughed in the same spot in the session I went to. I thought the film was ready for this and let the kissing go on long enough for that first surprised reaction to wear off and the full situation to sink in. The same experience the three people in the film are having, in a way. Everyone's on a jagged learning curve.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh, don't worry, I blubbered as well.

In fact I've never understood those people who think knowing anything about technique or 'theory' somehow spoils one's pleasure, or whatever other emotional/instinctual responses, in movies or any other kind of art/entertainment/spectacle etc. My experience has always been that they enrich each other.

Thank you, comicstriphero -- yep, I do various literary and para-literary and mock-literary things for a (precarious and very modest) living, including actual writing. You'd think I'd want a rest from it, wouldn't you.

Brownie said...

was the coyote tearing the guts out of the sheep symbolic of what Jack was doing to Ennis?
I second ComicStripHero: and hope you are getting the $ your writing is worth.
I read the story online somewhere.
Very sad (and that was my opinion before the sheep incident) and very beautiful, like your review.

Brownie said...

here is a link to the story online

I hope. Get a hankie first.

Kate said...

Lovely post, PC. I'm off to see it this weekend.

Ampersand Duck said...

Fantastic review, even better for having seen the movie before I read this.
Thank you!

franzy said...

I'm coming to this about a year late, but directed by your second Blogday post.
The laughing in the cinema bit reminded me of seeing Schindler's List when this one woman kept laughing all the way through. Particularly at the part where the Jews are hiding the house and one accidentally steps on the piano, causing the soldiers to jump. She thought this was hysterical for some reason.
Then, of course, there's my experience of seeing BM itself. During the sex in the tent, I heard at least two people groan and tut. I don't know why they didn't actually just stand up in the middle of the theatre and shout "I am NOT enjoying this erotic scene! I find NOTHING sexy about two young men kissing in the dark because I AM NOT GAY! I'M STRAIGHT! STRAIGHT STRAIGHT STRAIGHT! So there!"