Feb. 3, 2006

waiting for brokeback mountain

spoilers galore, but believe me i'd watch it again - and again, and again...

Jack Twist
Tell you what, we coulda had a good life together! Fuckin' real good life! Had us a place of our own. But you didn't want it, Ennis! So what we got now is Brokeback Mountain! Everything's built on that! That's all we got, boy, fuckin' all. So I hope you know that, even if you don't never know the rest! You count the damn few times we have been together in nearly twenty years and you measure the short fucking leash you keep me on - and then you ask me about Mexico and tell me you'll kill me for needing somethin' I don't hardly never get. You have no idea how bad it gets! I'm not you... I can't make it on a coupla high-altitude fucks once or twice a year! You are too much for me Ennis, you sonofawhoreson bitch! I wish I knew how to quit you.

Ennis Del Mar
Well, why don't you?

* * *

Much has been said about Ang Lee's award-winning melodrama involving two cowboys (played by Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist and Heath Ledger as Ennis del Mar) who find love on a mountain called Brokeback in the summer of 1963 -- and for a number of good reasons. Actually, it's not at all much of a surprise that the movie's reputation precedes itself -- after winning the top award at the Venice Film Festival last year and taking four Golden Globes, including Best Dramatic Picture and Best Director for Lee, everybody's looking to see if the movie will eventually win big at the Oscars as well. Currently, it already has 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Ledger, Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams, Best Director for Lee, as well as nominations for Best Original Score, Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography.

High-altitude, gay kind of love
Of course, it is always quite impossible to ignore controversial films like this one, especially since it has an overtly gay love story for plot -- thanks to a short story of the same title by Anne Proulx.

Director Lee and lead actors Ledger and Gyllenhaal combine their talents in bringing to life a complicated story about a different kind of love and the ways in which it endures despite the passage of time (among and other obstacles) against the majestic backdrop of Brokeback mountain -- the only place where their characters Jack and Ennis can consummate their relationship in the years following that fateful summer of 1963, the year they first met in the mountain as two casual ranch hands. Tasked to herd sheep across the mountain, they find themselves one particularly chilly night crossing the line where friendship ended and something else began, forging an affair which would last for more than two decades – despite marriage, children, work and other social norms – in the form of annual fishing trips and mountain trysts on weekends they have stolen from each other’s wives.

Ledger as quiet and taciturn Ennis del Mar is probably one of the (if not the) most notable portrayals in the film. The restraint he showed as a man of few words torn between trying his best to tame a feeling he knew he wasn’t supposed to feel (“I ain’t no queer”) and wanting to show it is easy to relate to; you practically suffocate from all that holding back. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal’s Jack Twist is endowed with such expressive eyes that one can practically read pages of emotion off of. Together, they play two halves of a forbidden relationship, the nature of which I never really thought I would understand – until this movie came along.

Violent affection
Perhaps it’s primarily because the type of male/male relationships I’ve been exposed to (via media) usually involved a macho one and a femme one, whose differences both in appearance and gender role have been emphasized as polar opposites in the male/female dichotomy – gay, yes, but still well within the boundaries of what should be in a relationship: a male element and a female element, or semblances of each not necessarily biological. So it’s all effeminate gay men with rouge in drag and their vain but macho partners in muscle-hugging sandos on TV. (Of course, it may be argued that this is oversimplification, but somebody please tell me s/he gets my drift? Hehe.)

And so when Jack enters the trailer after Ennis, each man with a distinct swagger I’d readily associate with either former president Estrada or the late Fernando Poe Jr. – I was completely thrown. I thought this was a movie about gay cowboys! I almost thought I had read the reviews wrong.

But it is about two men who fall in love, that summer of 1963 (much to my relief). The characters have a way of loving that struck me: all this violence entwined with affection is both touching and confusing – perhaps largely because I have only been so far (heavily) exposed to the generally soft and tender way with which women love other women. I mean, shoving against walls and lassos around ankles and half-naked wrestling on coarse mountain grounds, not to mention all that forceful grabbing and fistfights after kisses? I remember Jake saying once in an early interview about the movie that he sustained bruises from rehearsals of the kissing sequences with Heath. Talk about cariño brutal in action.

Before Brokeback, I thought the only way to make male/male relationships work was for one of the parties to be willingly uber-feminine. Looking back, I wonder how I could have thought that was the only way, when I’ve always disputed the argument that lesbian relationships always require a(n) (uber-)butch and a(n) (uber-) femme.

Brokeback Mountain, for what it’s worth, is one of the first widely circulated, well-publicized and duly recognized movies of controversial content that breaks gender stereotypes by relying on something more tangible than mere subtext. Jack and Ennis may be polar opposites in certain aspects – for example, Jack is openly expressive of his feelings, while Ennis can barely find the words to string together – but their differences are not easily determinable just by looking at them.

That Jack and Ennis’ individual characteristics are scattered all over the general scale of characteristics, attitudes, dispositions between masculinity and femininity, that neither of them is easily classifiable as generally more feminine or more masculine, makes their relationship more human, real and (I hope) sympathetic. The approach is refreshing – rather than being a hard-sell, politically heavy movie about homophobia and hate crimes against gays, Lee instead shows us the other side of the “why” in the issue of acceptance: that part everybody who has ever loved can easily relate with.

The Brokeback Mountains of our lives
But for me, Brokeback Mountain is more than just a film about a love shared by two men. Personally, the movie seemed to come up to me, tap me on the shoulder and say, "Hmm, doesn't that mountain metaphor look a bit too familiar?" (Not really come up and tap -- more like, approach me from the front, reach into my rib cage and twist my heart right out)

I remember commenting sometime in the middle of the film that it was all so tragic: they are both extremely unhappy with their lives as married men with work, wives and children, and the only time they are really, genuinely happy is when they go back up to Brokeback Mountain together once, twice a year. They can’t be together for long; putting up a ranch run by two men is suspicious and generally frowned upon. They have wives and children, and that’s enough reason to stop whatever they were doing.

But it cannot be denied that their cycle keeps them alive – Jack only lives for the day he can be with Ennis again, and though Ennis never really says anything, the force and urgency of his kisses upon their reunion shows just how much he lives for that moment just as well.

And that’s all they have. They live the other 360 days of the year in misery, looking forward to that one weekend every year that they are together in Brokeback mountain, drinking whiskey, staring at the stars and sharing a tent once it got cold. And it’s like that for 20 long years.

The movie is about two people who found something they could not take with them as they moved along; two people who always had to come back. Really, it’s a movie about two people who can’t let go.

I’ve cried at the movies on other times, but I cried over this one for a number of special reasons – the most blatant of which is the way the whole theme of going back, time and again, to that one place/thing/person you’ve always felt uniquely strong and passionate about, resonated and struck several (still-sensitive) chords.

The possibility that a relationship like this could thrive even after marriage and children on both ends kind of scared me. But really, it was the possibility of some things being stuck in a perpetual maddening cycle of stolen getaways once or twice a year and having to live through everything because there wasn’t really anything that could be done for both parties to be happy and together – that was what sent the tears coming.

* * *

It can be a room we’d always felt we owned; a group of friends who’d always made us feel like we belonged; a cause we had put our time and effort in; a former lover we had given everything to. We each have Brokeback Mountains in our lives – places, things, people we continually go back to for strength, sanity, all the things we couldn’t get from the current flow of our daily lives.

My ‘summer of 1963’ is college; my Brokeback Mountain, a curious collage of Mass Comm, friends, and memories with a certain girl spent mostly in a second-floor room from not so long ago. That’s where I continuously go back to, time and again, because it keeps me sane.

In the words of Jack Twist: "To be honest, sometimes, I miss you so much I can barely stand it."

Where’s your Brokeback Mountain and who do you climb it with?