I know I had to stop reading all the reviews for Brokeback Mountain because it was just so much praise I didn’t want to have high expectations and then be disappointed.
Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed by any means. While not perfect, the movie is basically as good as everyone makes it out to be. It tells the tale of two cowboys, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), who fall in love but can’t admit it to themselves or anyone else. (They knew men who were killed because of rumored homosexual tendencies). They go on to marry, have children, and see each other for “fishing trips” once or twice a year.
Over the course of twenty years, you witness two poor, hard-working, virile, lonely guys become desperate, angry, repressed, lonely men who make the only choices their/our culture offers. And you witness how those choices, or lack thereof, slowly rip apart from the inside out these two exemplars of masculinity and everyone around them.
It was strange to watch this after having just seen Breakfast On Pluto, a new film on the other end of the spectrum from Brokeback. Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later, Batman Begins, Red Eye) stars as Irish transvestite Patrick/”Kitten” who moves to London to find the mother who abandoned him as a baby. Directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With a Vampire), the film is a colorful, rollicking, sometimes playful, sometimes disturbing account of one man’s gender-bending adventures from wearing dresses as a nine-year-old to joining a punk band to being accused of a terrorist bombing attack to performing at a peep show.
Watching Kitten’s travails through 1970s war-stricken Ireland and London – always looking fabulous in colorful thrift store coats and glittering blouses, always so determined to apply a sunny, optimistic attitude to every situation to the point of dillusion – I was struck with how much more successful this transvestite is at navigating through his threatening world of oppressive Catholicism and homophobic media and militia than the cowboys of Brokeback are at making their way through a world dominated by masculinity and rigid gender rules.
Granted, Kitten falls down a lot (not literally…girl knows how to work the heels) – she gets beaten up and arrested, dumped by her rock star boyfriend, exploited by her magician boyfriend, and almost killed by a client while hustling the streets – but somehow, through it all, she uses her vivid imagination and almost obsessive need for optimism to finally settle down. When asked about her disciplined cheeriness, Kitten admits that if she acknowledged her real feelings she “might cry and never stop.” It reminds me of the Doves’ “Catch the Song,” in which they sing, “Catch the sun/before it’s gone.” Even though her world isn’t very sunny, Kitten is going to catch as much of it as she can. You can’t help but root for her.
Conversely, watching the slower, quieter, heartbreaking Brokeback Mountain, I didn’t think of any pop song metaphors. I didn’t chuckle to myself at the thought of some light-hearted moment. I didn’t walk away with a sense that the protagonists were going to succeed despite their obstacles. I could barely speak, because what I walked away with was sadness, longing and, most importantly, anger.
It made me angry to watch these two otherwise decent men screw up their lives and the lives of the women who loved them.
It made me angry that they were barely even making these choices but doing what they were basically forced to do to survive in an unforgiving environment.
It made me angry that they weren’t given the ability to know what they were feeling, and even angier to know that deep down inside they knew exactly what they were feeling but couldn’t put it into words because that meant abandonment, shame and even death.
It made me angry that we watched this movie over Christmas break in a theater filled with loud cell phones and giggling teenagers who laughed at all the wrong places and swooned over Jake Gyllenhaal as if the movie were a two-hour Tiger Beat ad.
And it made me angry to know that despite all the PR claiming this movie will “change minds” that, despite how great the movie really is, if you made a bunch of extremely conservative, homophobic assholes watch it, the final scene would fade to black and they would say out loud, “Well, they got what they deserve,” because even though we’d like to think that we’re so different than the narrow-minded mentality of the conservative, rural 1960s, most of this country isn’t so different at all, even as we near 2006.