Film Studies: Man, you're the purdiest cowpoke I ever did see!
Sunday 11 December 2005
Brokeback Mountain was a short story first, 35 pages, by Annie Proulx. It ran in the New Yorker and then in 1999 it was the final story, the signature piece, in her collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. And it is a story drawn from the beautiful yet harsh landscape of that state - as it stretches out before the eye, and as it fills the minds of the people who live there.
It is a story about two cowpokes, Ennis and Jack, who get the job one summer up on Brokeback Mountain to protect the sheep against predators. They become lovers there in the solitude, not quite like characters in a gay movie, but the way it might creep up on bored, horny cowpokes who reckon to be pals and who share a bedroll on cold nights: "Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he'd touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he'd done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack's choked 'gun's goin off'. Then out, down, and asleep."
Waiting for the movie of Brokeback Mountain (out 6 January) the abiding question was whether two very hot young actors - Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal - were actually going to be doing it in the matter-of-fact way described by Annie Proulx. Well, yes and no. There is a love scene, but it's sheltered by the dark and discretion - love scenes with naked women, we realise, always acquire some magical light from somewhere or other. These guys are doing their best for director Ang Lee, and don't think that they didn't have a lot of well-meaning career advisors telling them not to do the picture.
I have to say that they look like handsome, smart actors going camping. In part that's because the film doesn't really insist on seeing them work, and because it allows the characters to become that much more pretty - it's the only word - than Proulx intended. Actors as good as these look more alert, more open, more sensitive than cowpokes in Wyoming. They look like people whose whole burden of life is to be appealing and interesting. Whereas the true thing about Ennis and Jack on the page is that they are dumb-ass ordinary, and still brought into a strange affection that nothing in their world has prepared them for.
It's not just because this is so novel and brave a view of cowboys, nor even that it is essentially well directed (by Ang Lee) and adapted (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) with deep care and respect for Proulx. In a way, it's a great, spectacular movie. In the first views of Wyoming, the lustrous clouds sit on the blue veldt of sky as noble as lions. The two guys do an earnest job - they may get Oscar nominations, just as courage and style could win great reviews for the film.
It doesn't matter. Nothing works. In the love-making scene, there isn't the silence, the bursts of breath and that great line "gun's goin off" . Instead, the actual details of action (no instruction manual needed) are veiled within what we can't quite see. And worst of all, we do not inhabit the dull, blunt minds of these guys. We are riding on the courage of adventurous acting. And they and those extraordinary clouds are all things the tourist sees. We never grasp the rigid, frosted conservatism of Wyoming. We never understand the dangers these happy chumps are risking. We don't get to see the tyre-ironing revenge of shocked convention. So we have to make do with the affronted face
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