Brokeback Mountain is a great movie, but a pretty lousy monument. Yeah, there's never been anything like it, but more importantly, there will never be anything like it (save bareback-porn tributes and the unlikely direct rip-off). Like the romance it sets in the gorgeous middle of nowhere, it is inherently isolated -- were it not for the long, sustained shots of the Alberta countryside that double as a neon sign blinking "EPIC" at us viewers, it could play as the little, one-off, quirky (albeit tragic, no matter how you shoot it) love story that it is.
But setting takes up so much of the story, as it should -- it's an indispensable device. This is Hollywood we're talking about, and it seems that the safest (perhaps, at this point, only) way to tell a story, in which a gay romance informs everything, is to divorce it from present gay culture. Brokeback Mountain strips away all external forces from homosexuality to meditate on a simple tale of forbidden love. All, that is, except homophobia. Ennis (Heath Ledger), Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and all of us cope with de facto homophobia. Some of us even feel that we have to be as closeted as these two characters. But even being closeted today provides more open options than back then -- Ennis and Jack don't have the luxury of being able to watch Brokeback Mountain on their SUV DVD player during one of their camping excursions.
Brokeback Mountain depicts a much simpler time, one in which men were men were men. I'm not sure if that will work for or against the movie's mainstream appeal. More importantly, I don't know how helpful it will be in helping nonbelievers understand that gays are people, too (since pop culture is the one school that's never out of session for the masses). I don't know if straight guys will be more or less threatened by watching passion rage between two masculine men. On one hand, subverting the masculine icon of the cowboy serves to untangle homophobia from its fuck buddy, femmephobia -- the lack of limp wrists and lisps surely will confront some people with a representation of homosexuality different than the one they are comfortably uncomfortable with. On the other, Ennis and Jack's wrestling that easily glides into foreplay might assault the senses of the straight guy who takes pride in his sissy jokes -- depending on to what degree non-sexual, all-male physical contact hits home, Mr. Straight Man might be outraged that the concept of the rough-and-tumble buddy is being turned in its head. There's nothing ignorance hates to do more than having to rethink.
What I can say for sure is that Jake Gyllenhaal is a dream bottom and that two impossibly beautiful, not-too-young men rolling around together is a celebration of masculinity that gays fetishize. Here are two amateur straight guys humping hard while effortlessly maintaining swagger and stoicism ("fishing" effectively becomes a euphemism for fucking, as that's what Ennis and Jack tell their wives they're doing during their weekend romps, and really, how straight-boy can you get?). The fully clothed sex scene is hotter than any fully nude mainstream sex that I've seen, and it's more convincing than a lot of porn. There's a palpable urgency to the sex that makes getting off the clear objective. That's the expression of love. Boys will be boys.
While I embrace the movie's depiction of gay sex (clearly!), that aspect of the film is mostly cartoon fantasy -- even if it confronts viewers with the notion that not all fags are sissies, Ennis and Jack don't exactly have the option of exhibiting femininity, anyway. They live in a galaxy far, far away. It's as impossible to get to as it is to be in -- the story is set up so that its lovers cannot be together, so that it's virtually impossible for things to end well, so that the tragedy of their situation is a binding tie. This is, simply, melodrama that's totally complicated by the brilliant directing and acting all around. I was able to tuck away whatever contempt I'd have for watching a story played so many times before (this time with two penises!) because these characters are inhabited down to the mannerism, silences and grunts and all.
Brokeback Mountain's contradiction is that it presents its well-worn territory off the beaten path. It takes universal concepts of impossible love and traditional masculinity, and it turns them inside out. It's not the tool for understanding today's gays that would make it THE GAY MOVIE for the mainstream, but I can't even really imagine what that movie would look like and how unsubtle it would have to be. Despite the broad strokes at its base, Brokeback Mountain is graceful and respectful -- it presents relationship of Ennis and Jack for the unique phenomenon that it is. It is, at the very least, an invaluable entry in the dilapidated hall of queer cinema. This is not a monument, but that's to its credit -- it's instead a great place to sit and ponder.