Brokeback Mountain (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
The water-cooler talk about this movie has included a great deal of misunderstanding. It has become commonplace shorthand to refer to it as "that gay cowboy movie." That's a total mischaracterization.
You see, they aren't cowboys. They're sheepboys.
That's really a major difference, when you think about it. I mean it would be major news to find a gay cowboy, but shepherds? Gay as a blade! A gay shepherd is no news at all. Hell, back in olden times, shepherds invented gayness. Think back to those ancient Greeks, romping through their Hellenic meadows in their white dresses and Birkenstocks, loving only two things in life - their sheep, and young boys.
The top five most important points of difference between cowboys and sheepboys:
The first two minutes of Brokeback Mountain make it seem like a routine movie. The two stars don't talk much, but Randy Quaid delivers a bunch of expository dialogue, so the first scene probably consists of a few pages of written script. The next 28 minutes of the script, however, make it clear that the writers were not getting paid by the page. That portion of the screenplay probably consists of about three sentences like this: "The boys drive their sheep into some scenic, grassy valleys. The sheep graze. The boys watch silently and drink, accompanied by stirring 'wide open spaces' music."
Then we come to minute thirty when the boys actually become "homos on the range," and show us why folks call them cowpokes, or in this case, sheeppokes. I don't have any interest in watching two guys get it on, but that scene seemed like a relief after 28 minutes of sheep and valleys. At least something was happening, and I took it as a sign that the film would finally get on with the story.
Which it does. Eventually. After the lads spend another five minutes of screen time driving sheep through valleys while avoiding each other's gazes and making pithy cowboy remarks like "I ain't queer."
Once the story does finally get moving, it generates a lot of emotional power. The fact that the doomed lovers are gay, the fact that their love story starts in 1963, and the fact that they are "cowboys" are all absolutely essential components to develop the central theme, which is something that nearly everyone over the age of 30 will understand. These two guys found something good when they were very young and, for the rest of their lives, no matter what successes they achieved, or what happiness they found, nothing was ever as good as being together. Yet there was nothing they could do about it.
If you stop and think about it, the story had to be about gay cowboys because there are no other circumstances in which that theme could be developed with such emotional force. If they had any other romantic problem besides being a male/male couple, they could have worked it out somehow - moved to a small town and started a modest life where they still had each other, or something like that - but being gay in 1963 certainly took away that option. If they had at least been urbane and educated types, they could have moved to San Francisco or Boston or Greenwich Village or ... um ... Gay Paree, and they might have formed a life among the simpatico, but these are the type of guys who would never have heard of Greenwich Village. The one guy had never been out of his home state of Wyoming. Moreover, they were typical cowboys in every other respect except their sexual orientation. They didn't belong in Greenwich Village, not with straights or gays.
When the two men had their youthful winter together up on Brokeback Mountain, miles from the nearest other person, they were free to do whatever they wanted to do. There was nobody to see them or to judge them. Back in the real world, the only choice they really had in life was to pretend to live "normal" lives while holding on to a small portion of those youthful moments with occasional reunions on the mountain. There was obviously no way for them to start a life together as a gay cowboy couple, and even their reunions created the ever-present possibility that they might be caught. Indeed, one of their wives did figure it all out and turned her gay caballero (ovejero?) into a gay divorcee, but she seems to have loved her man enough to have kept his secret forever.
The one guy married a beautiful, smart, and rich woman, and became a highly successful salesman with Civil War sideburns and a porn star moustache. The other guy had two daughters with a woman who really loved him and stuck by him through tough times, at least until she found out that he was as gay as the Nineties. In short, they had what most men hoped for back in the seventies, especially the facial hair, yet they were not that kind of man. Nothing in their public lives could ever bring the lads the sense of ease and completeness that they found on the mountain with each other. So they did the best they could to hold on to their happiness together, until time did what it always does.
As a general rule, I find myself greatly disappointed by the second halves of movies. I find that movies build up my interest and charge energetically to a central point - after which they dissolve into trite formulaic resolutions, melodramatic twists, or events so improbable that they destroy the film's credibility. Brokeback Mountain moves in the opposite direction. To be honest, it is a real challenge to make it through the first 35 minutes, and I almost gave up on it, but it turns out that the script was just using Ali's old rope-a-dope strategy in the early rounds, and the late rounds finally deliver the emotional knockout.
Brokeback Mountain is the story of two cowboys who meet while summering sheep on Brokeback Mountain, and fall into an affair. They part at the end of the summer. Both marry women, but never get over their love for each other, and get together frequently. The story spans nearly 20 years, and is told in near real time ... at least that is how it felt to me. Since the film was based on a short story, the writers had to pad it to feature length, which they did by fleshing out the "normal" lives of the two men with their families. In both cases, the family relationships were not especially interesting. One was dirt poor, and his wife wanted more. Although she blamed his gay friendship, the real reason she divorced him was to find a better provider. The other managed to wed a rich girl, but she cared less about him than about counting money.
The central relationship was the unique aspect of this film, yet occupied a small percentage of the running time! Had the two cowboys not been gay, there would not be enough of a story here at all. As I honestly do not care in the slightest whom anyone wishes to rub their genitals against, the fact that this was a story of a gay romance was a matter of supreme indifference to me. That probably explains why the film wouldn't make my personal top 2,000 list, although IMDb readers deem it the 250th most popular film of all time. I suppose the world was finally ready for this theme, and Ang Lee knows exactly how to craft a film. The cinematography is wonderful, and the score won awards, although I often found it intrusive.
Tuna wrote, "Had the two cowboys not been gay, there would not be enough of a story here."
Quite true, but I don't think there was a single reviewer (including
me) who had the guts to point this out. If you locate this story in the
South in the 1930s, make one of the cowboys a black man and the other a
white cowgirl, and make their love culturally forbidden, then the exact
same story would have been moving, and an OK film, but would not have
been winning every award under the sun. In essence, the film societies
were awarding the THEME of the story and not the story itself. It was a
theme whose time had come.
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