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Quitting Brokeback 

Jane Kansas can’t fix it so she’ll have to stand it.

The talk’s all wrong. Everybody’s saying that Brokeback Mountain is a brave movie—the brave gay cowboys, the chances the brave actors take by playing brave gay cowboys, the sheer nerve of the brave gay cowboy film to be showing on 1,600 screens across the continent (compared with 158 for Transamerica). The brave gay cowboy movie has won dozens of awards and is up for eight Oscars.

What about High Art or Desert Hearts? How come there’s never brave talk about these films? It might be wrong, but every time Brokeback is compared to High Art, Brokeback will win.

High Art: women with cigarettes against artist’s block.

Brokeback: men with sheep and horses against beans and bears.

High Art: Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell as braless bone-thin artsy heroin addicts.

Brokeback: strong corn-fed Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall as god-fearin’ cowboys in good old blue jeans.

High Art: seedy squat apartments of New York City in the 1990s, AKA America the Decayed.

Brokeback: wide skies and mountains of Wyoming (filmed in Alberta, but never mind that now) in 1963, AKA America the Good.

High Art: sex for the camera between dykes who have no cocks so it’s not so brave.

Brokeback: grunting, grappling and kissing between he-men with their clothes on (but presumably abusing the magnificent godhead) so it’s very brave.

The risks both actors take in being in Brokeback aren’t career-breaking. Jake Gyllenhaal first came to notice in the 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko, followed by The Good Girl and The Day After Tomorrow. Heath Ledger’s resume was highlighted by A Knight’s Tale, The Brothers Grimm and The Lords of Dogtown. Haven’t heard of many of these movies? There’s a reason. Director Ang Lee might have had more to lose. He was hailed for The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but his last film was that colossal loser of 2003, The Hulk. All three could easily gamble on the risk. It’s not like it was Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Steven Speilberg.

If you insist on comparing it to a gay movie (thereby making yourself another one trick pony victim of the short-hand description of Brokeback as The Gay Cowboy Movie), you might pick Desert Hearts, also based on prose—Jane Rule’s novel Desert of the Heart.

Like Brokeback, it takes place before Stonewall (in 1959). As in Brokeback, the relationship in Desert Hearts is doomed. As in Brokeback, one lover is more brash and the seducer, and one is more reserved and the seduced. Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) is an English professor holed up at a ranch outside Reno, Nevada, for six weeks while her divorce goes through. Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneu) lives on the ranch. She’s a young goer dressed sexy. Vivian’s journey to the arms of Cay involves a journey into Cay’s world—her bisexual friends (Andra Akers as the charming Silver), the casinos, the desert. The women’s first kiss, as does the men’s, comes in bad weather. Desert also takes place in the west. Unlike Brokeback, Desert Hearts has some graphic sex; against Brokeback (and High Art) in the sex bravery department, Desert Hearts win hands down. The Brokeback men don’t have sex for us. They don’t arch towards the camera. They don’t take their clothes off. Which is lovely and much more realistic than most movie sex, but Desert Hearts has enhanced, barenaked, tit-to-tit sex. Gasping bodies heave for us. Vivian gets on top and orgasms. Desert Hearts was made 21 years ago.

Those avoiding Brokeback because they can’t imagine themselves seeing cowboys having sex are in dreamland; there is next to no sex in Brokeback. The guys are in a tent in the mountains, freezing their arses off. They never even take off their pants. The man sex of TV’s Queer as Folk is much more graphic.

Brokeback might be better matched against Thelma & Louise. All four of the characters, Jake, Ennis, Thelma and Louise, escape from the real world via horses, two for Ennis and Jack (plus a mule); 428 under the hood of a ’66 T-bird convertible for Thelma and Louise. They’re all in the wide open American West; men in the north, the women in the south. Both relationships are beyond control but only Thelma and Louise are truly released.

Brokeback again loses the brave contest. The bravery of Louise Sawyer and Thelma Dickinson is that once they get together, unlike Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, they do not give up each other for anyone else. Like Jack and Ennis, they can go brave or go home. The women go brave. The men go home. The men never give themselves up completely to each other, instead returning again and again to their unfulfilling lives and crappy marriages. The women never do that. Not only do Thelma and Louise not marry other people, they never part at all. They choose to drive into the Grand Canyon. Holding hands, no less.

It has been widely suggested that Brokeback is, and has been marketed as, a chick flick. You bet. The idea of a great love unable to survive in the real world is total chick flick territory. This doesn’t mean men don’t feel the pain of a Love That Cannot Be, but it’s not a movie genre. Guys drown their sorrows at movies about cops or war or outer space. Women go to tearjerkers. Brokeback is certainly a heartbreaker.

Michelle Williams plays Alma, Ennis Del Mar’s wife (in real life, she’s Heath Ledger’s fiancee), who always looks like she’s been rode hard and put away wet. Alma sums up what Brokeback is really about, under the scrutiny of one long shot. She has just realized that “fishing buddy”—Ennis’s description of Jack—means “fuck buddy.” The camera is very close on her. It’s in her face. We watch her pain blossom in excruciating slowness. Her muscles don’t twitch. The only thing that tells us the film isn’t freeze-framed is the deepening glisten in her eyes and in just that tiny change we see Alma being saddled with the heartache that will sully her coming years, see her slowly, slowly beginning to bow to the terrible pain of knowing she has never possessed the man she loves, the father of her children, and never, ever will.

Susan Sarandon is in a similar shot in Thelma & Louise. On the third night of their flight to Mexico from Arkansas (around Texas, but don’t ask), Louise drives all night. Thelma falls asleep. As Louise listens to Marianne Faithful singing “The Eyes of Lucy Jordan” on the car radio, she looks straight ahead, weary, leaning on her arm, her face holding all the regrets of her past and acceptance of her future.

In film (and in life, if we’re lucky) trouble gives birth to the chance for bravery and someone takes that chance. Something hits the fan: a child goes missing, a soldier goes to war or aliens invade and characters get to be brave. In spite of profound fear, they act, and we admire them for it.

Do we admire the men of Brokeback? Do we want to be in the boots of the hollowed-out Ennis Del Mar? In the boots of the gone Jack Twist? We do not. Ennis and Jack are not heroes. The devastating body blow Brokeback delivers is not courtesy of anybody’s bravery. It’s in the fraility of its characters. It’s about how we think we would never say no to passion, nor ever give it up for any reason and then in terrible sadness, find that we can and do. It’s about how the agony of heartbreak is that it occurs slowly, minute by minute adding up to year by year, how it’s not a catastrophic injury but a dull ache that pulsates for a lifetime.

Thelma and Louise drive through breathtaking scenery seen from their car and that was all good in 1991 but in 2006 we want to forsake the motels and go camping, off-road, to a place like Brokeback Mountain, with no roads, no gas stations, no phones, nobody else and see ourselves—regrets, mistakes, passion, potential, in the terrifying clarity of crisp mountain air, thinking we won’t let Ennis swear in vain; thinking we’ll see our own Brokeback coming and when it finally does, we believe we’ll know better. We won’t. We’ll just know its name.

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