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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

When I finally saw Brokeback Mountain this week at the Essex Cinemas the first thing I thought of was Up with People. Now I realize this is not the most obvious connection, but while most teenagers were spending their adolescence trying to have fun I was avoiding it as a member of the squeaky clean, flag-waving, quasi-Christian singing group. Yes, I know; it still haunts me. My therapist says only a few more years of electroshock… but one thing I do vividly recall from my time on the road with UWP is our musical director and singing coach telling us over and over that a performance is as much about the pauses, the breaths, between the notes as it is about those that are sung. For me, that is the beauty and the simplicity that makes Brokeback Mountain such an incredible film. It is much more about what is not said or shown than what is.

Unfortunately by the time Brokeback Mountain gained national release and made its’ way to our neighborhood theater it had already been so thoroughly dissected by critics, honored with boatloads of awards, and featured on the covers of almost every magazine in the country. Everybody had weighed in; from President Bush to Pat Robertson, from Jay Leno to Oprah Winfrey, and the movie itself was practically lost in the shuffle of jokes, ridicule, political rhetoric, and praise. What is it about this little movie that has stirred the passions and hearts of millions? Yes, it is (drum roll please) THAT GAY COWBOY MOVIE, but it is also so such more than that, and it is a disservice to dismiss Brokeback Mountain with such a feeble misnomer.

Those who are debating about seeing Brokeback Mountain because they find the homosexual theme uncomfortable can be assured that this is not the singular focus of the film. Instead, it is a gut-wrenching story about one man, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger, Casanova; The Patriot), who lost both his parents in a car accident when he was a teenager and who has drifted since then, his emotions shut down and his spark for life extinguished. He lives in the dry and dreary flatlands of Wyoming and is more comfortable herding sheep than dealing with people. It is while he comes looking for just such a job that he meets Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jarhead; Donnie Darko) who coincidentally is looking for the same. A less than honest rancher (Randy Quaid) hires them both and instructs them to herd the flock up the mountains past the government-regulated feeding grounds. One of the men will stay with the sheep at night to protect them from predators while the other is to remain below, at the "official" camp in case the law comes nosing around.

At this point Brokeback Mountain sheds its' dustbowl imagery and Ennis and Jack are swept up in the majestic beauty of the Rockies (the valleys near Banff, Alberta, Canada standing in for the Wyoming high ground.) The cinematography of each scene sparkles with energy and the truly breath-taking scenery. Even the sheep, filmed from above, move as white trickling water through the crevices of the mountainsides. The score, by Gustavo Santaolalla, swells, and the hardships of that world in the flatlands are left behind.

Since the two men are spending several months together it becomes the demonstrative Jack who makes it his goal to learn more about the tight-lipped Ennis. His barrage of questions and willingness to turn to Ennis as leader and decision-maker of the expedition eventually wins over Ennis' trust and the loner seems to open up and befriend Jack in an awkward way.

By mid-August, the flock is so far up the mountain that it unexpectedly is caught in an early snow storm. By now the boys have more or less sloughed off on the plan to stay in separate locations and Ennis finds himself freezing outside in the cold. It is at this point that Jack encourages Ennis to join in him his tent and they suddenly and passionately become physical. Although the scene itself is brief and both actors are clothed, the mere thought of two men having sex may be enough to send shivers up and down the spine of a select few in the audience. To them I would say this is the perfect time to rush to the concession stand and get some Milk Duds or popcorn, but don't be long, for the earth-shattering fuss that has elevated this little indy picture to political potboiler status lasts less than a minute.

From here, the movie wrestles with both Ennis and Jack's reactions to what transpired. For Ennis, who was raised, in his words, a "Bible-thumpin' Baptist" the episode is best never spoken of again. His shame and nausea resulting from the encounter eat away at him long after the summer and the job has ended. Jack, on the other hand, seems less bothered by what happened and accepts it as something more natural.

Years pass before the men meet up again and their lives change as all do. Ennis marries and becomes a father of two girls. He is still as emotionally distant as ever, and it is clear that as much as he has settled into the role of family man he is still vacant inside. Jack, too, eventually marries and starts a family, but he has never stopped his longings for Ennis and is the one who keeps their ties alive through occasional post cards and trips back up to the mountain to "go fishing."

What goes on up on Brokeback Mountain is not so much about sexual gratification, but about a lost man finding his soul. Only during these brief encounters with Jack is Ennis able to truly be himself, able to share his thoughts and feelings without fear of ridicule or contempt. He comes back home and basically lives in a state of numbness until he sees Jack again.

To me the tragedy of Brokeback Mountain is not that Ennis or Jack are gay (or more accurately, bisexual), but that both are forced by their surroundings and the prevalent attitudes of their neighbors to hide their authentic selves. The “pauses” between the notes are never taken, or taken only briefly and furtively, and effectively this life in the closet is suffocating Ennis and all those around him.

I confess I need a twelve step program to get over my addiction to Jake Gyllenhaal, who, at 25, has never scored less than a perfect bull’s eye in any role, but this is Ledger’s movie all the way. His transformation from Aussie pretty-boy to hardened American sheepherder is remarkable, especially considering his less-than-stellar performances in the past. Perhaps that is why so many critics and audiences alike are sitting up in their seats in surprise. Who knew the kid could actually act?

Brokeback Mountain is definitely a thinking person’s film. It lacks the usual car chases, gun fights, and explosions (other than emotional) that permeate most of cinema today. The pacing is slow, but thoughtful, and, like a good meal should be savored and appreciated. If you are tired of fast food and want a gourmet movie-going experience head on over to the Essex Cinemas and be prepared for a remarkable feast.

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