Lasso Me Tender
Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain and a season of gay cinema.
In dubbing Brokeback Mountain (Focus Features) "Marlboro men in love," I'm not being flip. OK, I'm not only being flip. Ang Lee's films often focus on the tension between people's formal roles—those ritualized, culturally mandated poses they feel compelled to strike—and the passions under the surface that struggle to express themselves. Even manners as elaborate as the ones in the martial-artsy (a reader's phrase) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were destabilized by the characters' unruly ardor and volcanic sex drives.
So, in Brokeback Mountain—adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from a plain but evocative story by Annie Proulx—you have two guys with slim hips and dungarees and cowboy hats pulled low. They lean against pickups, smoke cigarettes, and trade monosyllables (if that). They're suitable for framing. But in the course of an early 1960s summer herding sheep on an isolated Wyoming mountain, they find themselves growing closer and closer and … yes, on Brokeback Mountain they make the beast with two broken backs.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play the men. Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist is the more extroverted one, the rodeo rider, the cowboy who makes cow eyes. Ledger's Ennis Del Mar is the quintessential Westerner of few words, and the words he says are not always audible: He speaks with a Wild West lockjaw that's sometimes annoying but also weirdly hypnotic. Ledger's performance is prime Oscar bait: He's ostentatiously immobile, with uncanny low tones—his voice is 50 fathoms deep. The whole performance is subtextual.
What does Brokeback Mountain (the place) symbolize? It's the natural world in which society's strictures fall away and these men can be true to their own natures—where dinners of canned beans yield to elk-hunting, shirtless romps, and hungry coupling. Lee and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, mirror the forces in play with vast mountain backdrops full of mysterious planes, huge cumulous clouds, slashes of lightning in the far distance, and hailstones the size of apples. When Jake and Ennis return, as they must, to civilization, they live amid squat, faceless, pre-fab buildings set far apart from one another, and the flat landscapes once again mirror their emotions—now flat-lined.
They take wives—Michelle Williams as Ennis' high-school sweetheart, Alma, and Anne Hathaway as Lureen, a kind of Texas rodeo queen with a wealthy daddy who's the perfect trophy for an up-and-comer like Jake. But these are passionless unions, and Ennis' drift into unemployment and alcoholism is relentless. Despite the physical distance between them (Ennis is in Wyoming, Jake in Texas), they come together again and again and head back to the wild—aware that if they're caught, they could be lynched by all their neighbors, those less-than-liberal "real" men who wouldn't know a real man if he fucked them in the ass. (Or maybe that's the only way they would know a real man.) The lovers wonder: Can you build on Brokeback Mountain?
Cartman on South Park famously dismissed independent movies as "gay cowboys eating pudding." I have no idea where the pudding image came from, but I'm bound to say that Brokeback Mountain could use a little more of it—by which I mean more sweat and other bodily fluids. Ang Lee's formalism is so extreme that it's often laughable, and the sex is depicted as a holy union: Gay love has never been so sacred. On the other hand, Lee treats the wives as either sexless drudges (Williams) or lacquered mannequins (Hathaway). Williams gives a fine performance (more Oscar bait) as the kind of wife who inevitably gets labeled "long-suffering," but she seems to exist only in relation to her husband, and only then to drag him down.
As distant as I felt from the movie, there were people around me weeping uncontrollably at the end—gay men, some of them, and a few women who were moved by the spectacle of cowboys in tears. (This is actually something of a chick flick.) And I did find Brokeback Mountain more powerful in retrospect, when its tone and images and emotions lingered beyond all its elevated Oscar-worthiness. There were also moments in which Lee deconstructed the cowboy persona so completely that he made me wonder: Are a lot of cowboys, like, totally gay?
There's certainly a lot of breaking free for the holidays: 'Tis the season to be gay—transvestite, transsexual, or prone to burst into song to express the anguish of AIDS.
You'll be singing along to the soundtrack of Neil Jordan's enchanting Breakfast on Pluto (Sony Pictures Classics), which boasts the most felicitous use of wall-to-wall pop songs I've ever heard. T. Rex's "Children of the Revolution" is a special treat, and while I hoped never to hear Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey" again in this lifetime, in context it's extraordinarily winsome. The tone throughout is an improbably cheerful plaintiveness.
Jordan adapted the movie with Patrick McCabe from McCabe's novel. (They also made The Butcher Boy together.) Their small-town Irish hero/heroine—as the title would suggest, a farther-out Holly Golightly—is Patrick "Kitten" Braden (Cillian Murphy). In chapters with superimposed titles he tells the story of his life, beginning with being dumped by his mother on the steps of a church, where the priest, Father Bernard (Liam Neeson), squeamishly hands him off to a brusque foster mother. She's none too happy when she finds the 10-year-old Patrick (played by Conor McEvoy) modeling her dresses: She warns him that the next time she'll make him parade through the street dressed like that, and he says, "Promise?"
Subtitled birds comment wryly on this turn—an example of Jordan's playful technique, the gaiety juxtaposed against acts of shocking brutality. (The Irish Republican Army looms large in the mid-'70s.) Patrick/Kitten grows up obsessed with his absent mom, who's said to resemble Mitzi Gaynor, and flits off to London to track her down.
Patrick's poverty and homelessness in the big city is the stuff of nightmares, but you never catch him brooding on it. There's a bubble around him. In truth, he seems slightly bonkers—on Pluto. And while bad people do bad things to him, others treat him kindly: Among his contacts are Brendan Gleeson's surprisingly tender drunken laborer and Stephen Rea's sad-sack, Stan Laurel-esque magician. (There's a touching, semiparodic reenactment of Jordan's The Crying Game.) Even a police investigator (Ian Hart) who roughs him up ultimately carts him to a welcoming house of ill repute to earn a "decent" living.
With his unearthly face—high, razor-sharp cheekbones that frame irradiated blue eyes—Cillian Murphy makes a mysterious and transfixing object. A more down-to-earth actor would sentimentalize Breakfast on Pluto and make for an awkward fit with its peculiar mix of tones. Murphy's strangeness—his chill estrangement—makes his campy "Kitten" persona more poignant. Transvestitism is the only way that such a damaged soul can find beauty and harmony in a cold and colorless world.
Felicity Huffman's face is what holds you in Duncan Tucker's delightful Transamerica (The Weinstein Company), too, but her semi-transsexual Bree (nee Stanley) Osbourne is the antithesis of a camp drag queen. A mismatched buddy road-trip picture in which the Los Angelino Bree, shortly before her final operation, discovers she's the father of a teenage son, a homeless-in-Manhattan delinquent named Toby (soulful newcomer Kevin Zegers), Transamerica skirts sitcom terrain. But Huffman has purged all extravagant artifice from her manner. She's smart enough to know that Bree would never risk calling attention to that artifice. A prim social conservative, she doesn't believe that she is artificial. Despite a brief teenage experiment with a woman (it yielded Toby), she has no doubt that her male organ was a genetic screw-up.
Huffman's performance is a thrill-a-minute—and a thrill-a-motion. An actress playing a man playing a woman is a mind- as well as gender-bender, but Huffman's face is made up to look as if she's right on the male-female border, and her ladylike movements are studied, with the timing always slightly off: Before our eyes, she deconstructs a woman and then puts her back together. When, in Texas, a Native American (Graham Greene) in a cowboy hat takes Bree for a born female and admires her form, she shivers with pleasure, and I felt sad that he would ever have to know the (rather misleading) truth. Toby opines that it's weird to see an "Indian in a cowboy hat." He has a greater job of reorienting himself ahead of him: He doesn't know that this uptight woman who bailed him out of juvenile detention (posing as a Christian do-gooder) is his sperm-donor.
Transamerica has a couple of melodramatic turns and the paternity revelation is delayed unconscionably. But the movie builds to a marvelously over-the-top sequence in Bree's upper-middle-class home, in which her horrified Christian mother (a hilarious Fionnula Flanagan) lavishes attention on her new grandson (who doesn't know he's her grandson); her hapless Jewish father (Burt Young!) fumbles to explain the family position on their son's transsexuality ("We love you, but we don't respect you"); her cynical, recovering-drug-addict sister (Carrie Preston) struggles to reconcile the trippy discontinuum between her brother and Bree; and Toby decides he wouldn't mind becoming Bree's lover. Farce born of sadly irreconcilable impulses: Bravo!
In a rare burst of discretion, I've put off writing about Rent (Columbia), in part because I don't want to seem unsympathetic to the emotions that gave birth to Jonathan Larson's musical and its subsequent—posthumous—enshrinement in Broadway culture. I don't share the view of some critics that this souped-up La Bohème is faux bohemianism, no more authentic than a Gap ad. It's real—and, on screen, it's really cringe-worthy. Not quite Phantom of the Opera cringe-worthy, but not as much fun to blow raspberries at, either.
Rent is set in 1989, when too many people had already died from AIDS and too many were about to—before the current cocktail of meds brought the virus under control (somewhat). Most of the major characters are sick, and when they open their mouths to sing—it's undistinguished Lite Rock in the promiscuously emotive style of the numbers on American Idol—they're quickly joined by other members of the large ensemble. I can see how comforting and inspiring this instant communal oneness might seem to some people, but I found it tiresomely undramatic, even saccharine. Not to mention monotonous. Chris Columbus directs fluidly (for him), but in a family-movie style that makes the musical seem even more homogenized than it probably is. It's like a ride at Disney World: the Urban AIDS-Victim Jamboree.
Click here to read David Leavitt's essay on whether Brokeback Mountain is a gay film.
Still from Brokeback Mountain © Focus Features. Still from Breakfast on Pluto by Patrick Redmond, courtesy Sony Pictures Classics, all rights reserved. Still from Transamerica © The Weinstein Company. Still from Rent by Phil Bray © Sony Pictures Entertainment.