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January 25, 2006

Who would have thought you could make a boring, trite and clichéd Queer Western? Brokeback Mountain - Ang Lee

Posted by Richard D. North

Brokeback Mountain
Directed by Ang Lee
certificate 15, 2005

There's nothing gay about these cowboys and they're shepherds anyway. Quite early on one wishes the lads had taken the Welsh option and found comfort in the sheep.

I say there's nothing gay about them. Actually, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) does grow a moustache and goes on to cruise alleys in Mexico. In that sense, he becomes one sort of full-on married homosexual, or bi-sexual, or whatever it is that he's posited to be. He's the bugger-ee, so far as one can judge on the evidence of the one, their first, act of penetrative sex which we are sort of shown.

I'm no expert, but hazard a guess that our two glum 1960s young cow-pokes – sorry – would have played a good deal of tag and indulged in various manly rough-housings before coyly essaying an embrace, preparatory to mutual masturbation, blow-jobs and so on.

(Health Warning: If you are exceptionally PC, or squeamish, move on to the next paragraph now.) Even the mechanics of their first encounter were eye-watering: what price KY, goose-fat - or saddle wax? Was it quite right that we should have spent so long on the boys' pre-coital discussion of excess baked bean-eating? Weren't we teetering all along on the edge of the uncomfortable and thus – inevitably – the comic?

Perhaps Ang Lee gave us the precipitousness of the arse-action in an attempt to avoid cliché. If so, it's one of the few he decided to skirt. Or was it a quirk of Annie Proulx's? (She wrote the short story which has so outgrown itself in this movie.) Perhaps Lee wanted to get the sex over with quickly, the better to concentrate our minds on the romance.

Jack is the more overtly sensitive of the pair. Ennis (Heath Ledger), on the other hand, is the strong silent one. He's been neglected by his family and was as a child made to witness what happens to queers in these parts, as one such is towed to his death by his cock. No wonder Ennis wants to stay in the closet. Which doesn't explain why after years of abstinence and absence, the two fall on one another in full view of the young drudge Ennis has turned his wife into.

We are supposed to believe that this odd couple are obsessively and exclusively in love with one another for twenty years, sustained by occasional weekends back in the high country. This is a slightly potty proposition, sent up well by James Spader and William Shatner in David E Kelley's Boston Legal (Living TV).

It is not particularly improbable that love of their sort might have survived: but this film did not begin to make us believe it ever really started in the case in hand. Our lovers' love did not develop, nor was it ever explained. Sure, we were given a dangerously accurate sense of how inarticulate Ennis was (much of what he said was impenetrable). We weren't let in on their secret. But what was really galling was the sheer laziness of the idea that mountains are redemptive. All improbability was supposed to fall away because we could see a jagged horizon. Its role was as unchanging as their love and their appearances.

Oddly, the film very nearly sparks into life about three-quarters through, when we find Ennis beginning to be touching as he descends into a weary loneliness. But even this is wrecked by being over-played, and we lapse back into irritation.

Brokeback Mountain is a Western. There was one classic modern Western moment: when a battered GMC pick-up pawed the ground with its back wheel, as though it understood that it was a cowboy's mechanised horse. But it is above all a queer Western: that's to say, it takes Western tropes and applies them to same-sex romance. In Westerns, a cowboy is the authentic American: he enshrines the pioneer nobility which the poor old farmer can only domesticate and civilise. In the Western, women are a nurturing snare. We, the audience, have been tamed, and long to be wild. Brokeback Mountain posits that we western men all have penis-envy.

In our gay Western, our couple can only pursue their noble romance when there's a horse within range. Down the hill, there are tractors to sell and tarmac to spread – the equivalent of the old ideas of land ownership and fence-laying. The whole apparatus of the commercial nexus snares both our heroes (though Ennis holds out for a makeshift cowboyhood, in one of the few subtleties of the piece). And then there are the women: ravening, stifling. Marriage makes the wives into harridans, and only partly because they are wasting their love on these two. This is American Beauty (1999) when it addresses employment and marriage, and Far From Heaven (2002) when it deals with homosexuality, or bi-sexuality, and marriage.

The only exceptions to the dreariness of its womenfolk are Jack's mother, a careworn prairie madonna who (unlike her taciturn husband of course) gets the queer thing. (This is Wyeth country.) If only she'd been able to nurture Ennis the way she once nurtured Jack, we are made to feel: then they could have been well-met. And the other woman who is OK is Ennis's daughter, who empathises with him. Perhaps being around homosexuality from babyhood has made her sweet.

Who knows or cares? This is a boring and trite film which does the reverse of what might have been intended. If it had gone on another half hour, I would have become homophobic.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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i wonder if this review did indeed make me homophobic. anyway i am doubly indebted: it saved me the price of a cinema ticket, which is at least a tenner in my neck of the woods; and it saved me from perhaps the additional disgust of findiing myself seated next to that unspeakable ass David Cameron.

Posted by: s masty at January 25, 2006 05:44 PM
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