I went to see Brokeback Mountain this evening with a lovely group of people, and I think it made an impact on all of us. It really is what the hype says it is – an intelligent and sensitive film about a love that dominates the lives of two people but is frustrated by circumstance, baggage and by a raft of general human failings (some innate and some imposed). It’s beautiful and it’s melacholic and it feels true.
As a film, it caters to a gay sensibility only in accepting that love between two men is as possible and as real as love between a man and a woman. It’s not a cartoon film, it’s not a polemic. There’s a sense of danger around the relationship, but it’s not a dehumanised threat from outside – straight people aren’t evil, nor is the church or the uneducated or the parents. It’s a much more sophisticated film than that. The leads are not saints – there’s deceit and there’s prostitution and seediness and infidelities. And no character is a cypher – Ennis and Jack are complex, different and conflicted (you’d expect that), but so are their wives and the other women they come into contact with. No one gets a particularly easy time, but each has an opportunity to reveal how the situation they find themselves in has affected them, each has their fragilities exposed, each reveals strengths and insight. The wives are real, and as tragic as the leads. Their children are as plucky and remarkable as their parents. Sometimes more so. It’s a narrative in which every character is treated with respect by the film makers, even if they do not treat each other with respect in the film. As a piece of characterwork, as a piece of craftsmanship and as a piece of art, I genuinely think it’s exceptional.
I find it harder to present a personal perspective on it. One of my favourite reviews of the film by Roger Ebert said:
“the filmmakers have focused so intently and with such feeling on Jack and Ennis that the movie is as observant as work by Bergman. Strange but true: The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone. I can imagine someone weeping at this film, identifying with it, because he always wanted to stay in the Marines, or be an artist or a cabinetmaker.”
I think he’s right, but I think there has to be a special resonance for gay people in watching a film in which same-sex love and its complexities are so well represented. It’s a rare occurence at all, let alone at this quality. I’m sure many people believe that gay people are as equal as everyone else and as free to operate in the world and do as they please as straight couples. But it’s not true – while watching the fear on Heath Ledger’s face about being exposed and revealed, I could see the anxiety on the face of an ex-boyfriend about any display of affection in public. He lived in fear of public hassle or approbrium – a fear that I’d like to say was unjustified, but cannot. My own lack of fear is probably more an artifact of years of anger and frustration than it is because I experience no threat. There’s something here that’s still more resonant today than many people understand.
But of course the other side of the personal experience is about remembering the relationships that got away, about the personal Brokebacks. It’s hard to resist recasting one’s failed romances under the influence of the film. It’s too tempting to find a familiar pattern in these epic narratives that stretch across a life, and to wallow in your own tragic arc. But if there’s one thing that Brokeback illustrates, it’s the danger of embracing neither the inevitable nor the desirable, about the paralysis of fear and of ceasing to fight because it’s the simplest short-term option. In our darkest moments and our most difficult relationships, or when it seems like unrequited or frustrated feelings will drag us down and segregate us off from the rest of humanity, it’s worth remembering this point. Because I for one want to resist the tragic conclusion. I want to fight against it and win. So if you’re feeling Brokeback too deeply – as I think maybe I did tonight – then maybe recognise that the ending was not inevitable, and however beautiful it was, there was still somewhere in all the pain a deeply missed and wonderful opportunity.