Thomas Sutcliffe: Hollywood's tainted love

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The Independent Online

E Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" is a masterpiece of understatement, its subterranean fire fuelled by "years of things unsaid and now unsayable", as Proulx puts it in the story's most heartbreaking line. Ang Lee's film Brokeback Mountain, by contrast, is an object lesson in tactical muteness - a work that is sometimes silent when it should speak and at other times chatters nervously when it should be silent. And it's only when you compare their silences closely that you can see how wildly overpraised the film has been as an act of liberal courage.

I wouldn't want to argue that Brokeback Mountain is a bad film. There are so few Hollywood films that are as good, that it would be foolishly indulgent to dismiss this one casually. It seemed a little self-righteous to me - and solemnly over-protracted when the very core of the thing is brevity and speed ("the brilliant charge of their couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough") but it undoubtedly achieves something of the story's deep ache in its final scene, when the grieving Ennis finds his dead lover's shirt hanging on a rail, nested touchingly inside his own.

It's only fair as well to concede that a film director (and screenwriter) has some problems that a writer does not. In one sense, for instance, Proulx's story contains no awkward silences at all. It's composed of words, and they never stop until the story does. In any case we're used to the fact that the voice of the writer occasionally replaces the voice of characters, so we don't fret when the latter fall silent. On screen, on the other hand, a long silence makes itself felt with particular force. When Jack and Ennis first meet, waiting outside the office of the man who hires them, their wordlessness acquires a tension simply because we expect actors to talk when they share a screen with each other.

Similarly, Proulx is able to insinuate in ways that a film-maker cannot. She writes: "He looked away from Jack's jaw, bruised blue from the hard punch Ennis had thrown him on the last day", and leaves us to ponder what the punch was about. Ang Lee, on the other hand, has to show the punch being thrown and craft some dialogue to lead up to it, or risk us mistaking this unexplained contusion as some kind of continuity error. Where Proulx can hint in passing at the consolations Jack found for his long separations from Ennis ("He had some money now and found ways to spend it on his buying trips"), Lee must interpolate a scene in which Jack cruises rent boys in Mexico, so that what was marginal becomes central.

But, that said, there are differences between the story and the film that point to another kind of problem. The most pointed of them concerns two excisions from the story's quoted dialogue - rather odd when you consider that virtually every line spoken in Proulx's story finds its way on to screen in some form or other. The first occurs when Jack and Ennis first have sex. The act takes place without any verbal preliminaries but at the critical moment Jack mutters "Gun's goin' off", which is the sort of thing that might put any first-time sexual partner off their stroke. But it's funny too, which is, I take it, why you won't hear it in the film. Because whatever else gay sex is in Hollywood, it isn't fun or lighthearted, and it must never, never be bathetic. Jack and Ennis are presented here as suffering their passion, not enjoying it - and although there is some sanction for this in the story, the sense of being seized and slammed into intimacy is even stronger on screen.

The other cut - one might almost go so far as to call it an expurgation - occurs when Jack and Ennis meet again after a four-year break. After a kiss that draws blood (that is in Proulx) Ennis says "Little darlin'", using an all-purpose endearment he also employs for horses and his daughters. Why no "Little darlin'" on screen? Because, I'm guessing, the makers of the film felt that audiences still aren't ready for man-to-man tenderness - rather than the customised man-to-man combat which is the film's main model for gay sex.

Indeed, the film-makers are so nervous that their leads might be seen as emasculated that they invent two new scenes, in which both Jack and Ennis demonstrate that they haven't turned cissy just because they like kissing each other. Jack faces down his bullying father-in-law, and Ennis beats up a foul-mouthed biker. And at these points it isn't the characters that protest too much but the film itself, spilling into explicit statement when the brave and the true thing to do would have been to leave the thing unsaid.

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