Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Brokeback Mountain Review: Truth and Beauty Make a Comeback

By way of movies like Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and now Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee has quietly coaxed the c-listed celebrities, beauty and truth back into American consciousness.

Lee's latest was not the movie I expected. Instead of being a story about Ennis and Jack, two Wyoming ranch hands who fall in love, it turned out to be an epic poem that stumbles around a long-lived truism: for love to exist it must battle fear. Brokeback Mountain is more like The Chronicles of Narnia and a LOT more like the Lord of the Ring series than the Christian right might ever admit.

Many more non-gay people will see this movie, not because they need or want to be enlightened, but because they already are, at least when it comes to the love/fear scuffle. They will respond to the movie's honesty. What person, gay or straight, has not, at some point in their life, wondered if they are loved the way they need to be? Nearly every person in this movie seems to silently ask this question, except one--Ennis. Love literally racks his body in pain. But he can't delve deep inside enough to figure out how to respond because the fears he carries are so bewildering . He limps between and sometimes embraces glimpses of unconditional love. He is nearly struck dumb by his inability to direct devotion anywhere but in Jack's direction.

In between revelations and until he is jarred deeper into life, Ennis unflinchingly settles in with a deep absence. In my opinion, the part of our culture who fears, misunderstands, and feels the need to keep their thumbs on gay folks was not mirrored in the suspicious villagers (though I did on one occasion expect someone to make a grab for pitchforks and torches) or even in the guys' tragically disappointed wives. I recognized our culture in the stymied, loving, and violent Ennis. Someday his grief will be our own.

While the fear/love battle is common to the majority of us, some of the specific fears portrayed are as well; like the fear that you are simultaneously too much and not enough like your peers to ever fit comfortably. For gay people who “pass” for straight, this fear can take on a uniquely powerful dimension. If a gay person's behavior or appearance doesn't happen to mirror the social cues assigned to the concept of “gay”, as is the case with Ennis, he may be presented with the Faustian choice to remain invisibly isolated in a world that would otherwise dismiss him, figuratively at best, physically at worst. That is, he can stay until the “sins of omission” start to stack up: doesn't date girls, doesn't get excited about the idea of dating girls. When the extended diet of shame, the byproduct of a long stay in such a tenuous position, bumps against the suspicious stares and gossip of his community an avalanche of dangerous events can break loose. In the non-movie world, such disasters lead to truth, or to death, sometimes both.

In Brokeback Mountain, truth and beauty lope alongside beat-up trucks, loaded guns, and threadbare trailer homes. Tricky digs for love of any kind, but don't let all the fear talk above fool you. Love holds its own in this film. But as the movie ends like a stone quietly sinking below the water's surface, an ever widening ripple of an idea takes its place: within some of us fear and love are evenly matched.


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