Monday, February 27, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: "flying in the euphoric, bitter air"

...but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, "I'm not no queer," and Jack jumped in with, "Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody's business but ours." There were only the two of them on the mountain, flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk's back and crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below...

- from "Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx, The New Yorker, Oct. 13, 1997, p. 76.
Ennis and Jack would be uncomfortable seeing their lives portrayed in a film, and even more dismayed by those who call it a "gay cowboy movie." Still, Brokeback Mountain is one of the most successful and moving films I've seen in a long time, and its great strength is that it makes you forget all the labels of genre and sexuality, and focus instead on a very universal story of love and loss.

The story unfolds as a series of revealing moments, exchanges, and encounters, beginning when Jack and Ennis meet and then following them over the course of 20 or so years. They are not talkative men, but Proulx finds an incredibly expressive language of gestures and terse phrases for them. The reader is left to interpret all that's left unsaid and untold. Here's a bit from a radio interview between author Annie Proulx and host Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm:

MS: The story is written in somewhat of the stoic way of these men. It's not insisting that you feel anything in particular – and as a result my emotions just leaped out through me unawares. It came as a real startlement to me.

AP: Right, I'm very happy to hear that because it means that the thing works the way I had hoped it would work. That for the reader what's inside is necessary to complete the story and fill it out, and put the meaning in it.

The movie's director and screenwriters did a beautiful job of keeping the story's understated tone, and its minimalist style. The movie does have more episodes, and characters briefly mentioned in the story are fully realized, but none of it felt contrived or untrue to the original material. I suppose adapting this material into a full-length film presented a great challenge - the story has such a profound emotional and dramatic arc, but the events themselves are small and subtle. The conflicts and tensions are all hidden, appearing only in brief explosions of rage or grief.

In a way it's like interpreting a piece of music, reading this story or watching the film - we're given only a sketch, an outline, but it contains all kinds of possibilities and layers of meaning. We add our own emotional experiences, and as a result the story relates to much more than just these characters or this time. Jack and Ennis say so little, but they draw the reader into their story, and we find ourselves reading our own stories through them.
AP: There's a universality there and I don't know where it came from – it just came, it just happened.

MS: For me it's the longing for love that the story captures. There's this huge sense that these men, whatever lies they tell and refusals that they make, this love seems hard-wired into them and is unmitigatible, unavoidable, unignorable...

AP: And inexpressible.

MS: And inexpressible.

AP: The other thing that I wanted to mess with in this story is to get some idea of the complex plurality of human sexuality – the unclear lines, the drifts from one pasture to another. The back and forth and interplay, instead of this very rigid construct of him/her, he/she. It was interesting to me to put a lot of gray into the story and, again, count on readers to pull from their own lives and experience and thoughts what they knew about life and sex that contradicted the clearcut pattern that is given to us, you know, the coloring book of life that we get when we're little kids.

I haven't seen enough of the Oscar-nominated films to make any authoritative predictions. Still, I found this film so effective, in its conception and its performances, that I would not be surprised to see Ang Lee and Heath Ledger making acceptance speeches next Sunday. The film's great accomplishment, I think, is not so much that it has broken new ground in the portrayal of homosexual relationships; but that it has made audiences see that these characters are not "queer" at all, in the sense of odd and unsympathetic. It has shown us an Ennis and Jack who, gay cowboys or not, are perfectly and tragically human just like us.

AP: I was surprised, I'd never even thought this story would get published. It was just the thing I was going to write and it was going to be written and then it was going to be there, but I didn't think of it as being published.

MS: Now tell me, because almost everyone would be angry with me if I didn't ask – but it's completely not a literary question: when you saw these actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, were they your characters?

AP: Fifty percent. Jake Gillenhaal made his own Jack Twist, and a very excellent Jack Twist it is too, a complex, quicksilver, beautiful, hungry, bitterly disappointed again and again character, who still manages to express considerable love and electricity.

On the other hand I found Heath Ledger's performance totally frightening because he got right inside my head. He got stuff that I did not know about Ennis and he got it right, and I was just blown away, I really was, by that performance. I thought it was indescribably excellent. I don't know how he did it, but he got that character to an impossible depth. He understood him incredibly well – I don't know how!

MS: That performance is one of the stunning things that there is to see in movies right now and for a long time too.

AP: I couldn't agree more.

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