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Ang Lee's latest triumph, the heartwrenching Brokeback Mountain, might very well be the coming-out party that Hollywood's dreaded for so long. Or is it?
Ang Lee is a hopeless romantic. A dreamer. He's also someone who knows that it's not enough to simply tug at a heartstring; you have to first make sure it's in tune with the rest of the instrument. But when that instrument is so inconstant, so fickle that even the slightest tremble could set off a chain of false notes, well, let's just say you better have one helluva steady hand.
The instrument is, of course, the human imagination, and that steady hand belongs to none other than the only true Chinese-American auteur Ang Lee, who's made a healthy -- and profitable -- living out of staying the course, even when his subject matter would seem to dictate otherwise. There isn't a living filmmaker who appears to have more wanderlust than Lee, who when he isn't performing CPR on stodgy period pieces (Sense and Sensibility), can't resist the urge to turn one of our beloved comic book heroes (Hulk) into a metaphor for American disillusionment. There is, however, one constant: an indefatigable and inexhaustible understanding of the human condition. For that reason alone he might be contemporary cinema's ultimate paradox: the man who travels far and wide only to find that he's been sitting in his backyard all along.
Luckily, we're enjoying the view. Along with his interminable sense and sensibility, Lee possesses a near-obsessive attention to detail, which for some directors, might be greeted with a resounding death knell at the box office. For Lee though, it's about downsizing rather than downgrading; allowing the bigger picture to take shape while your eyes are still busy adjusting. This may explain why many see Lee's more recent Hollywood endeavors as "selling out" or pandering to Western standards -- his tender, nuanced ruminations on the working class long ago put out to pasture in favor of sweeping, highly stylized epics designed strictly for stimulation and arousal, rather than careful reflection. In fact, the opposite is true: Lee's films have always been on the cusp of sentimentality anyways; there isn't a domestic dispute born out of cultural friction that he won't mine for laughs and tears alike. But that's what happens when you play it as close to the hilt as Lee does; his films, regardless of artistic volubility always measure the murmurings of the heart with deadened precision. (See Hulk for what we mean by a noble failure.) His recent films -- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk and now, Brokeback Mountain -- illustrates that he's merely painting with a bigger brush on a bigger canvas, and that though the lines are less cleanly drawn, the final product packs a deeper and more lasting wallop.
About that wallop -- it comes, first and foremost, from the story of Brokeback Mountain, adapted from Anne Proulx's award-winning short, and guaranteed to turn your heart into mush. Our heroes are two fellas by the name of Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) who meet rather unspectacularly -- in the employment line. Eventually, they're hired by a humorless man (Randy Quaid, a million miles removed from Kingpin) to do humorless work up up and away at a place called Brokeback Mountain: shepherding cattle by day, eating baked beans by the campfire at night. Jack is the more gregarious of the two; he's a rodeo cowboy who's never achieved much success, but he still goes about his business with a smile half-cocked and all sorts of fully loaded barbs. Ennis, on the other hand, is every inch a lone ranger, down to the brooding mannerisms and bulge in his cheek that suggests someone who's rather tight-lipped. Gyllenhall manages to identify the sweetness in Jack without falling prey to the notion that gay men are too in touch with their emotions. But the film belongs to Ledger. The boyish gaiety seen in his earlier features (A Knight's Tale comes immediately to mind) is all but gone; his Ennis is a man trapped; first by society -- the film is set in 1960s Wyoming, which wasn't exactly known for its open stance on gay marriage -- then by his own inarticulate urges. And Ledger doesn't try to overplay his repressed sensitivity, instead drawing on the rough-and-tumble persona as a means of excavating deeper reserves of feeling.
Their friendship is less gradual and tender than you might think, and on a cold and lonely night, the two waste little time in, um, bunking up. From that point on, the wheels of a doomed romance are set in motion -- Ennis returns to his wife Alma (Michelle Williams) and two daughters while Jack woos a spunky cowgirl type (Anne Hathaway) whose family -- particularly her father -- is swimming knee-deep in old money and an even older brand of conservatism. But the siren's call of Brokeback Mountain haunts Jack and Ennis, and soon the two cowpokes are conducting yearly, then quarterly, then monthly "fishing trips," where, well, everything but fishing takes place. All the while, a brokenhearted Alma languishes at home, harboring Jack and Ennis' secret -- she stumbles on them in the throes of passion, but decides to keep mum -- as well as her own perceived inadequacies.
Home may be where the heart is, but for Jack and Ennis, that'll never add up to white picket fences and two-and-a-half kids. Theirs is a life of discretion and dissension; Jack wants to get it out in the open, Ennis can't bear the thought of being labeled a "queer." And then there's Brokeback Mountain, a sort of Garden of Eden for the sexually disenfranchised. Except instead of a serpent, it's the rest of society that can't wait to see them fall.
It's a timeless story requiring an ageless storyteller -- someone unafraid to flout rules about creed, race, or love. And Ang Lee is certainly up to the task. As always, his pacing is like clockwork -- no wasted frames or extended reels; his characters continually challenging the audience's expectations of them. Then again, if you're one of those who thinks that Lee's softened in his old age, then Brokeback might still be the straw that, um, broke the camel's back. Were the lush bamboo forests and towering vistas in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon too much glitter, not enough heart o' gold for you? Then there's a great, not good chance that ain't no mountain high, ain't no valley low enough to keep you from hightailin it out of the cineplex, away from Brokeback, which is surely a cinematographer's wet dream. Put off by the Oscar-mugging company of men and women who've been swarming Lee's films lately -- Sense and Sensibility 's Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet; Crouching Tiger's Chow Yun-Fat and Ziyi Zhang; Hulk's Jennifer Connelly? Then in the name of Sihung Lung (the old guy in his father-knows-best trilogy: Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman), run for the hills, where pretty boys -- and yes, Oscar aspirants -- like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall are certain not to roam. At least not pretty boys who also happen to be gay cowboys. Unless of course, they're not actually gay, just acting thusly.
Which brings us to a rather unwieldy point. You see, for all the open-minded cineastes who recognize the potential benefits of Lee's Brokeback, there exist any number of naysayers and skeptics prepared to dismiss it as another one of Lee's exercises in fluff. Early buzz on the film has been largely positive; in fact, most experts peg it as a legitimate Oscar frontrunner, with Heath Ledger's performance in particular considered a shoo-in for a Best Actor nod. Still, there's been much ado about the film's rather frivolous treatment of homosexual love. "Brokeback"'s even got the liberals in a tizzy; an authority no less than the Village Voice called it "Hollywood's straightest love story since Titantic." The restlessness, it seems, stems from not homophobia but heterophobia: is Hollywood's first unabashedly gay Western not gay enough?
I'm aware that this may be the least of Brokeback's worries. After all, whether it soars or flops commercially is still in the hands of the American populace, who whether liberal or not, straight or gay, will have to decide whether seeing cowboys in heat is their idea of a Sunday matinee feature. Whatever the case may be, I think most of us are missing the point. Brokeback may be about men who love one another very much. It may also be about self-sacrifice, isolation and cuckolded wives, as well as the fear and loathing of intolerance, bigotry, and a new world order. But I think what Lee's trying to do here is more subversive than any of that. As much fun as it is to scribble outside the lines (I don't care what anybody says: Westerns may be inherently and implicitly gay, but Brokeback is explicitly so, and that's a daring stroke for any commercial filmmaker), Lee must be aware that it's a far greater feat to achieve your vision while staying inside the lines. After all, he's still a cog in the Hollywood machine, and what Hollywood wants, Hollywood usually gets -- unless you somehow convince them that what they want and what you want is the same thing. Even if it's not. To undiscerning viewers, Brokeback Mountain may be so gay, it's straight, or vice versa. Lee could care less -- his Brokeback Mountain is a place where those bereft of representation or expression can feast on peaks and valleys, both literal and metaphorical, to their heart's delight.
Date Posted: 12/8/2005