Frank Rich takes a brief return trip into culture columns, and this one is almost as good as the one he wrote for Angels in America
two years ago. But not quite. Because, you know what? We're beating a dead horse by now.
And the biggest X Factor related to Brokeback Mountain
is, as far as I'm concerned, whether or not I should drive all the way to Monclair to see it before Christmas or if I should wait until after Christmas on the bet that, given all those Golden Globe nominations, that it'll finally show up in a theater near me. See, now, that's the question.
Oh, and I'm STILL waiting for a cowboy movie that effectively addresses the ways in which the whitest of macho archetypes was actually appropriated from Mexico. (Or, while I'm on a roll, how we wouldn't have had the Enlightenment or American democracy if it weren't for the Native Americans.)
Two Gay Cowboys Hit a Home Run
By FRANK RICH
New York Times
December 18, 2005
WHAT if they held a culture war and no one fired a shot? That's the compelling tale of "Brokeback Mountain." Here is a heavily promoted American movie depicting two men having sex - the precise sex act that was still a crime in some states until the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws just two and a half years ago - but there is no controversy, no Fox News tar and feathering, no roar from the religious right. "Brokeback Mountain" has instead become the unlikely Oscar favorite, propelled by its bicoastal sweep of critics' awards, by its unexpected dominance of the far less highfalutin Golden Globes and, perhaps most of all, by the lure of a gold rush. Last weekend it opened to the highest per-screen average of any movie this year.
Those screens were in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco - hardly national bellwethers. But I'll rashly predict that the big Hollywood question posed on the front page of The Los Angeles Times after those stunning weekend grosses - "Can 'Brokeback Mountain' Move the Heartland?" - will be answered with a resounding yes. All the signs of a runaway phenomenon are present, from an instant parody on "Saturday Night Live" to the report that a multiplex in Plano, Tex., sold more advance tickets for the so-called "gay cowboy picture" than for "King Kong." "The culture is finding us," James Schamus, the "Brokeback Mountain" producer, told USA Today. "Grown-up movies have never had that kind of per-screen average. You only get those numbers when you're vacuuming up enormous interest from all walks of life."
In the packed theater where I caught "Brokeback Mountain," the trailers included a National Guard recruitment spiel, and the audience was demographically all over the map. The culture is seeking out this movie not just because it is a powerful, four-hankie account of a doomed love affair and is beautifully acted by everyone, starting with the riveting Heath Ledger. The X factor is that the film delivers a story previously untold by A-list Hollywood. It's a story America may be more than ready to hear a year after its president cynically flogged a legally superfluous (and unpassable) constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage for the sole purpose of whipping up the basest hostilities of his electoral base.
By coincidence, "Brokeback Mountain," a movie that is all the more subversive for having no overt politics, is a rebuke and antidote to that sordid episode. Whether it proves a movie for the ages or as transient as "Love Story," it is a landmark in the troubled history of America's relationship to homosexuality. It brings something different to the pop culture marketplace at just the pivotal moment to catch a wave.
Heaven knows there has been no shortage of gay-themed entertainment in recent years. To the tedious point of ubiquity, gay characters, many of them updated reincarnations of the stereotypical fops and fussbudgets of 1930's studio comedies, are at least as well represented as other minorities in prime-time television. Entertainment Weekly has tallied nine movies, including "Capote" and "Rent," with major gay characters this year. But "Brokeback Mountain," besides being more sexually candid than the norm, is not set in urban America, is not comic or camp, and, unlike the breakout dramas "Philadelphia" and "Angels in America," is pre-AIDS.
Its heroes are neither midnight cowboys, drugstore cowboys nor Village People cowboys. As Annie Proulx writes in the brilliant short story from which the movie has been adapted, the two ranch hands, Ennis Del Mar (Mr. Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), are instead simply "high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life."
They meet and fall in love while tending sheep in the Wyoming wilderness in 1963. That was the year of Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington and Betty Friedan's "Feminine Mystique," but gay Americans, and not just in Wyoming, were stranded, still waiting for the world to start spinning forward. Over the next two decades of sporadic reunions and long separations, both Ennis and Jack get married and have children; it barely occurs to them to do otherwise. In their place and time, there is no vocabulary to articulate their internal conflicts, no path to steer their story to a happily-ever-after Hollywood ending. Before they know it, they are, in Ms. Proulx's words, "no longer young men with all of it before them."
Ennis's and Jack's acute emotions - yearning, loneliness, disappointment, loss, love and, yes, lust - are affecting because they are universal. But while the screenplay, by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, adheres closely to the Proulx original, it even more vividly roots the movie in the rural all-American milieu, with its forlorn honky-tonks and small-town Fourth of July picnics, familiar from elegiac McMurtry works like "The Last Picture Show." More crucially, the script adds detail to Ennis's and Jack's wives (as do Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, who play them) so that we can implicitly, and without any on-screen moralizing, see the cost inflicted on entire families, not just on Ennis and Jack, when gay people must live a lie.
Though "Brokeback Mountain" is not a western, it's been directed by Ang Lee with the austerity and languorous gait of a John Ford epic. These aesthetics couldn't be more country miles removed from "The Birdcage" or "Will & Grace." The audience is forced to recognize that gay people were fixtures in the red state of Wyoming (and every other corner of the country, too) long before Matthew Shepard and Mary Cheney were born. Without a single polemical speech, this laconic film dramatizes homosexuality as an inherent and immutable identity, rather than some aberrant and elective "agenda" concocted by conspiratorial "elites" in Chelsea, the Castro and South Beach, as anti-gay proselytizers would have it. Ennis and Jack long for a life together, not for what gay baiters pejoratively label a "lifestyle."
But in truth the audience doesn't have to be coerced to get it. This is where the country has been steadily moving of late. "Brokeback Mountain," a Hollywood product after all, is not leading a revolution but ratifying one, fleshing out - quite literally - what most Americans now believe. It's not for nothing that the proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage vanished as soon as the election was over. Polls show that a large American majority support equal rights for gay couples as long as the unions aren't labeled "marriage" - and given the current swift pace of change, that reservation, too, will probably fade in the next 5 to 10 years.
The history of "Brokeback Mountain" as a film project in itself crystallizes how fast the climate has shifted. Mr. McMurtry and Ms. Ossana bought the screen rights to the Proulx story after it was published in The New Yorker in 1997. That was the same year the religious right declared a fatwa on Disney because Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet in her ABC prime-time sitcom. In the eight years it took "Brokeback Mountain" to overcome Hollywood's shilly-shallying and at last be made, the Disney boycott collapsed and Ms. DeGeneres's star rose. She's now a mainstream daytime talk-show host competing with Oprah. No one has forgotten she's a lesbian. No one cares.
ANOTHER startling snapshot of this progress can be found in a culture-war skirmish that unfolded just as "Brokeback Mountain" was arriving at the multiplex. The American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., a leader in the 1997 anti-"Ellen" crusade, claimed this month that its threat of a boycott had led Ford to stop advertising its Jaguar and Land Rover lines in glossy gay magazines. Last week Ford, under fire from gay civil-rights organizations and no doubt many other mainstream customers, essentially told the would-be boycotters to get lost by publicly announcing that it would not only resume its Jaguar and Land Rover ads in gay publications, but advertise other brands in them as well.
As far as I can tell, the only blowhard in the country to turn up on television to declare culture war on "Brokeback Mountain" also has an affiliation with the American Family Association. By contrast, as Salon reported last week, other family-values ayatollahs have made a conscious decision to ignore the movie, lest they drum up ticket sales by turning it into a SpongeBob SquarePants cause célèbre. Robert Knight of Concerned Women for America imagined that the film might just go away if he and his peers stayed mum. Audiences "don't want to see two guys going at it," he told Salon. "It's that simple."
So he might wish. The truth is that the millions of moviegoers soon to swoon over the star-crossed gay cowboys of "Brokeback Mountain" can probably put up with the sight of "two guys going at it." It's the all too American tragedy of what happens to these men afterward that neither our hearts nor consciences can so easily shake.
And then we have Maureen Dowd, who uses the film (and King Kong
as well) to great effect--as yet another vehicle with which to verbally humiliate the current president.
I almost died laughing.
Hot Monkey Love
By MAUREEN DOWD
New York Times
December 17, 2005
As President Bush tries to shake off his dazed look and regain his swagger, he will no doubt dust off his cowboy routine: his gunslinger pose, his squinty-eyed gaze, his dead-or-alive one-liners, his Crawford brush clearing.
But this time, he may want to think twice before strapping on a Texas-shaped belt buckle. W. might inadvertently conjure up images of Bushback Mountain.
The High Plains, one of the few remaining arenas where men were men, may now evoke something more ambiguous, like men with men. After "Brokeback Mountain," pitching that pup tent on the prairie will never seem the same.
Can a culture built on laconic cowboys like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood survive one rough-hewn cowboy crooning to another, as Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist tells Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, "Sometimes I miss you so much, I can hardly stand it," and, "I wish I knew how to quit you"?
The Duke's tough "Pilgrim, you could've gotten somebody killed today and somebody oughta belt you in the mouth" has a different ring than Jake's vulnerable entreaty, "It could be like this, just like this, always."
Hmm. Maybe it's time to take another look at that sway in John Wayne's stride.
Everything will have to be re-evaluated. "High Plains Drifter" now sounds like a guy who might get arrested in a bus station bathroom. And audiences may be ready for "The Good, the Bad and the Bad Hair Day."
For decades, Republicans have had electoral success exploiting the simplistic frontier myth. Ronald Reagan galloped in from the West to rescue Washington. Dick Cheney's aides cast him as the stoic rancher who would blast a shotgun at rustlers if they messed with his cattle.
In 2004, the G.O.P. convention was staged like "The Magnificent Seven," with a gunslinging posse - including Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain - riding in with W. and Vice to save the town from the black hats. Poor John Kerry had to fall back on sailor imagery, skippering a boat into Boston and saluting the crowd with "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty." At least he managed not to use the Village People's "In the Navy" as his theme song.
A president who hates dissonance, who prefers a world in black and white, is now confronted by confusing gray shades everywhere he looks.
Hollywood is busy sensitizing - and emotionally layering - archetypal macho guys, including our most famous alpha male. He's still strong and decisive. His back's as hairy as ever. But it's just not the same Kong.
This lovable overgrown monkey is more like the brooding, wounded and steadfast romantic heroes Heathcliff and Rick Blaine. Like Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy, Peter Jackson's big ape goes for gals with spunk. He likes babes who juggle more than jiggle.
This gorilla doesn't go around tossing "gorilla dust," as Ross Perot used to call it, just to get into another alpha's space. He doesn't look for a T. rex simply to rip its jaws apart - he only protects his loved ones. He'd rather hang out on his mountain, enjoying the sunset and watching his gal juggle and do pratfalls.
In a way, the new images of alpha archetypes are subversive precisely because the cowboys and the king of the jungle remain macho even as they become more nuanced.
The latest Kong waits for the blonde to come to him. "This time, he really seems to have the qualities of a hero in a woman's romance - he's distant, he's suffering, he's aloof," says Cynthia Erb, a professor and the author of "Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture."
As the hairy antihero grows more sensitive with each remake, the Ann Darrow character gets more sexual and aggressive. "She goes from a naïve, innocent, screaming, virginal character in the 30's to a sexually free, liberated feminist woman in the 70's," Ms. Erb notes. "In this one, she has the benefits of feminism and is the one who in some ways initiates the courtship. She actually works to earn his interest." And tries to save him.
For all its dazzling digital spectacle, "King Kong" is not as daring as it could be. Peter Jackson could have made Kong a woman. Or, while he was borrowing "Titanic" imagery for the lovers' parting on the Empire State Building, he could have gone all the way and made "Brokeback Island."
Just picture it: Leonardo DiCaprio, blond, doe-eyed and smitten, curled in the ape's epicene yet hairy grip. Kong, swinging both ways.