Brokeback Mountain was, as expected, a winner. And, like it or not, it’s been the source of a lot of discussion. After I wrote an NRO piece on it recently, I received some interesting responses. A few thoughtful readers concurred with Rod Dreher’s Corner-posted criticism, namely, that the naivete of the desire between the two men is a fault of the characters, not the film. I’d like to think Ang Lee didn’t fall for the superficial romanticism that I have attributed to the film, but I don’t see how that conclusion can be avoided.
The false allure of their longing is embodied in the alluring natural beauty of the mountains. But Lee romanticizes nature even more than the romantics; the poet William Blake at least paired “The Lamb” (Songs of Innocence) with “The Tiger” (Songs of Experience). Lee does nothing to communicate the real danger of the natural world, a danger that was, by the way, central to the old westerns. In fact, every opportunity Lee has to emphasize the harshness of nature, he deliberately diminishes its menacing aspects. Jack does have an encounter with a bear, but the threat disappears very quickly and the two men end up laughing about it. There are storms, but the snow from one of the storms is gone as quickly as it arrives. (Rod may be right that this is more a feature of the film than the original short story, which I have not read.)
A number of readers objected to the use of the term “gay cowboy,” which was not my way of describing the film but that of the popular media. One reader offered a pithy counter-description: “They ain’t cowboys. They are sheep herding, blue state, pretty boy, foreign jean wearing adulterous Californians.” I’m not sure about the blue state part but there’s enough truth in that statement to undermine the claim of some mainstream critics that the film deconstructs or subverts the traditional western. Brokeback doesn’t have enough of the traditional western in it even to begin to engage it, let alone subvert it. In a sense this goes back to the first point, the fake wildness of Brokeback Mountain.
As for Rod’s point that the film’s punch line, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” is a moral truth to which we ought to subscribe, I’d agree with that in general but add two qualifying comments about its use in this film. The first is that the character who comes closest to “standing it” is neither of the two men, but Ennis’s wife, Alma (Michelle Williams), who struggles mightily to stick to the promises she’s made and to fulfill the debts she’s incurred, especially toward her children. The second is that the film depicts human relations as almost universally degrading and thus borders on a nihilism that would undercut even the mildly noble moralism contained in the phrase “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.” That’s why–despite the stunning scenery, some compelling characters, and a number of memorable scenes–all the sound and fury about thwarted, frustrated passion gets tiresome and even risks turning comic.