Sunday, December 18, 2005

Still crazy after all these years

Brokeback Mountain

Return to their natural courses
To resume old acquaintances
Step out occasionally
And speculate who had been damaged the most
Easy time will determine if these consolations
Will be their reward
The arc of a love affair
Waiting to be restored
You take two bodies and you twirl them into one
Their hearts and their bones
And they won't come undone

- Paul Simon 'Hearts and Bones'

Every now and then, Hollywood gets it right. Every now and then someone manages to make a movie that actually lives up to its hype, a movie that manages, despite your worst intentions, to get past your defenses and touch you, move you. The kind of movie where you're grateful when the lights don't go on at the end of the screening so no one can see the tears in your eyes.

Brokeback Mountain is one of those movies. Okay, so it's a little too long, a little too protracted and there are parts in the middle where you're not sure Ang Lee knows what he's doing. And yes, it's obvious and simplistic and possibly, just possibly, a little overdone in bits - which is all to say it's Hollywood. But it's also an achingly beautiful love story, an exploration of desire and loss, of passion and duty like nothing I've seen made this decade.

The first thing you notice about the movie, ironically enough, is the landscapes, the stunning clarity of Ang Lee's vision as he creates a world of breathless stills. Frame after frame of this movie looks like it could come out of an art collection - Lee captures the timelessness of Americana here - recalling (and brilliantly subverting) both the Marlboro commercials and the urban portraits of American photographers like William Eggleston and William Christenberry. If it were nothing else, Brokeback Mountain would still be a thrilling visual treat, a joy to watch simply for its cinematography.

Except, of course, that there's much, much more to this film. As everyone presumably knows by now, Brokeback Mountain is the story of two young men who spend a summer tending sheep up in the mountains of Wyoming and end up falling in love with each other. Unable to accept or even acknowledge the depth of their feelings for each other, the two separate once their brief interlude is over, and go back to living their 'normal' lives in the world. Or try to. The central theme of much of the movie is that love is not a beast so easily tamed. These two are necessary to each other, as only lovers can be, and the secret compromise of a relationship that they finally arrive at - an occassional week of vacation stolen away from home and family, wandering the great Wyoming outdoors which is the only land where they are safe, the only place they dare call home - becomes both their most lasting sorrow and the only meaningful thing they have left to live for.

Written out in words this way the story seems trite, even farcical. It is anything but. Brokeback Mountain is a compelling and honest portrait of two people struggling to invent themselves, struggling to recognise the truth of their own feelings, struggling to wrest a little breathing space from a too crowded world. It is a movie about men trapped in the bodies of cowboys, about two people struggling to break free of the social stereotypes that define what it means to be a 'man'. At the heart of the violence with which these lovers collide, at the core of the trembling mix of savagery and tenderness that is the closest thing they have to intimacy, lies the soul's struggle to be free of its own self image. These are men wrestling with angels.

They are also, in the truest and most glorious sense of the word, lovers. In the early parts of the film, Lee captures with glowing delicacy the joy, the helplessness, the very silliness of falling in love, so that the spartan Wyoming landscape is transformed into a second Eden, to which the knowledge of the world comes like a serpent, poisoning the love that these two feel for each other, forcing it into a pretend nonchalance. Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film is where the two men, their summer job done, part. The wordlessness of that moment is so poignant, so manifestly unfair, that it makes you want to cry out with the certain knowledge of everything these two have left unsaid.

What follows is a long and tortured denouement that is like a slow, sad adagio, a tone perfect movement of memory and loss. This could easily have slipped into bathos - that it does not is due largely to the talents of Heath Ledger, who delivers an intense and towering performance as a quiet, conflicted Ennis Del Mar, a man who, unable to trust his feelings, takes sides against them, falling back onto the very conventions that stifle him, hold him hostage. Ledger is the very incarnation of unspoken longing - to watch him act is to see the dumb pain that love can be, is to see a man punish himself for his own happiness. Shakespeare writes: "A blank, my lord. She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, / Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought, / And with a green and yellow melancholy / She sat like patience on a monument, / Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?" To see Ledger in Brokeback Mountain is to see these words brought passionately to life.

In the end, Brokeback mountain itself represents many things. On the one hand it is the landscape of human emotions, its empty, stretching vistas eloquent with the infinite possibilities of love, with the myriad different ways in which we connect to each other, find ecstacy and consolation in each other's souls and bodies. In this sense it is also represents freedom - as the movie shifts back and forth between the dismal, cramped realities of the two men's everyday lives and the soaring natural beauty of the land that lies around them, so small a distance away from the cities they live in - the land around Brokeback mountain comes to represent the secret wildnernesses where we are all free to be ourselves, away from society's judgements. But Brokeback mountain is also a metaphor for loneliness, for the hard, shelterless land that those of us who leave society behind in search of love must choose to ride. This is a harsh and unremitting land, a land where even mountains can get their backs broken, a land that few of the emotions that go by the name of love among us could hope to survive in for very long. This movie is a tribute to precisely the kind of weather-beaten taciturn love that can survive being out in the cold, a tribute to the brave, soft-spoken men who will risk everything, leave all that they have behind, just to ride the heart's high countries for as long as they possibly can.

I would sum up my thoughts on the movie if I could, but I don't have the words. Best to use Ginsberg then:

The weight of the world
is love.
Under the burden
of solitude,
under the burden
of dissatisfaction

the weight,
the weight we carry
is love.

Who can deny?
In dreams
it touches
the body,
in thought
constructs
a miracle,
in imagination
anguishes
till born
in human--
looks out of the heart
burning with purity--
for the burden of life
is love,

but we carry the weight
wearily,
and so must rest
in the arms of love
at last,
must rest in the arms
of love.

No rest
without love,
no sleep
without dreams
of love--
be mad or chill
obsessed with angels
or machines,
the final wish
is love--
cannot be bitter,
cannot deny,
cannot withhold
if denied:

the weight is too heavy--

must give
for no return
as thought
is given
in solitude
in all the excellence
of its excess.

The warm bodies
shine together
in the darkness,
the hand moves
to the center
of the flesh,
the skin trembles
in happiness
and the soul comes
joyful to the eye--

yes, yes,
that's whatI wanted,
I always wanted,
I always wanted,
to return
to the body
where I was born.

- Allen Ginsberg 'Song'

10 Comments:

Blogger Neela said...

yes wasn't it a good movie? annie proulx seems to be an interesting sort of creature. jake gyllenhaal was cute, all long paintbrushy spiky-lashed and all that (just the sort ot play a deeply in love tormented gay cowboy, I thought) but he didn't age well at all - seemed to me like those kids in school who have to play old people and put talcum powder in their hair. and what beautiful cinematography - though I am told they shot the movie in alberta.

n!

1:00 AM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Neela: Personally I'll take Heath Ledger any day - and yes, the aging seemed really artificial. It's a testament to how good the movie was that I didn't really care though.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Cheshire Cat said...

What's with you and Heath Ledger?! Is there something you're not telling us?

As for me, I'll always be true to Johnny Depp. No Aussie upstarts for me.

4:55 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Cat: No, no - Ledger is just a passing fancy, Depp is true love (what other force on earth could make me actually long for the sequel to Pirates of the Carribean?). The thing with Ledger is just recency - and the fact that I'd never heard of him before Brokeback Mountain came out. Plus Neela's ridiculous insistence that Jake Gyllenhaal is more desirable.

6:47 PM  
Blogger Neela said...

Falstaff: You mean you didn't watch A Knight's Tale?

Ledger is too All -American, too blond, too wholesome (even when he is playing a cowboy who hasn't seen the inside of a shower in months) for me. In fact, I'm surprised at your choice of HL over JG, given your quite understandable fixation with Johnny Depp. What nxt? Admitting a fondness for Brad pitt? And as we all know from there its a short step to dreaming about Britney Spears. After that I dare not speculate.

n!

12:44 PM  
Blogger Falstaff said...

Okay, that's it. I just want you to know that there's nothing going on between Heath and me. That we're just good friends. And that we'd appreciate it if you people would stop all these enquiries / speculations about us so we could get a little privacy.

10:54 AM  
Blogger Inkblot said...

Hey,you considered writing film reviews full time? Might put some others out of business. Thanks for a great one-and yes, the Ginsberg.

2:56 AM  
Blogger Arthur Quiller Couch said...

Lovely piece of writing. I would have said, "Too many quotes and allusions", but you started with one of my favourite song-poems. Only I think it should read "returned to their natural abodes.
Must see the film if it's anywhere near as good as this review. Or is it just your plug for your "good friend"?

12:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read 'the bridges of madison county' and for me it epitomizes love. never watched the movie as never 'felt like' watching like. Watched 'brokeback mountain' today. got released in india. much has been said and written and expressed already. just wish to say- the movie 'brokeback mountain' carries the same essence and meaning what 'the bridges...' did. period.

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Babitha said...

Re-read your review after watching the movie. And thank you. I really could not have imagined a better review for this gem of a movie. I was emotionally overcome (something I though I was long past) with the movie. The scene where they break down in one of their last few meetings and Jack says- "I wish I knew how to quit you" along with the one you mentioned of the parting almost brought tears to my eyes (again something I was not familiar with for long). Your review was soulful and heartfelt, just like the movie. And after reading Rashmi Bansal's recent review and some of the comments, I was thankful for yours.

7:32 AM  

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