Wednesday, December 21, 2005

My Brokeback Mountain Review (and my rewrite of that awful sex scene)

A few days have passed and I'm ready to share some impressions of Brokeback Mountain. I needed this gap in time to put the movie into some perspective. Had I written about it on Friday night, I would have dwelt on the awkward first sexual encounter, the overzealous attempts to place the characters into the 1970s through exaggerated beehives, sideburns and the colors of the 70s Tupperware palette, or the failed attempt to age characters 20 years--Jake Gyllenhaal at 40 reminded me of a mustachioed Peter Brady trying to pass as an older guy to go on a double date with Greg.

I had high hopes. I expected to be torn to pieces. I was ready and willing to have my heart wrenched at the sad ending I knew was coming.

There were moments when I was touched, a couple of times when tears welled up, but for the most part, I couldn't relate to Ennis or Jack. Paradoxically, I think this movie is more for straight men than for openly gay men. And by "straight" men, I mean men who live their public lives as straight. This is a movie for those that took a different path than me, those that could not, for a variety of reasons, come to terms with their true love for someone of the same gender. For the vast, and I mean VAST numbers of men and women who make a decision in life to live a straight life despite homosexual passions, this movie is really hitting them in the gut. You can read many of their stories at the film's official website.

Take Wesley from West Chester, PA:

By the end of the film, I could not move. Soaked in tears, stomach tied in knots. I sat in the theater for as long as I could before the lights came on and I could make my way out with as few noticing the mess I was in as possible. I made it to the car across the way in Society Hill and then totally fell apart, until there were no more tears, and a numbness set in.

It was a close to my life story as it can get. Setting is different but the choices and the sacrifices and the pain -- the failed suicide attempts, the all-persavive loneliness worsened by the haunting memories of a failed marriage and the guilt. It has been rushing back onto me in the hours since leaving the theater. All my life I have tried to suppress all of this with every once of my being. In the name of normalcy.

What does it all mean? What would have been the better choice?
I hate this film. I love this film.

These are the men and women that the gay community often forgets, the throngs of closeted folks all around the world who live on the other side of liberation. Some, like this man from Denver, may never escape:
I am an ex -FL football player. I watched the premier of Brokeback Mountain last nite in a theater in Denver. I was drawn to this movie from the local press releases because I have longed for a male to male relationship for as long as I can remember. I came home aferward and wept for hours. What can it be like to be absolutely in love with another human being. I'm not talking just male to male... I'm talking about making that connection with ANY other human being. I probably will never act out my feelings and for that I am regretful. But, if you are young and am able to "come out" please do so, so hopefully the next generation will fell more comfortable with their true inner hopes and desires.
Upon further reflection, I began to remember that I could have been an Ennis or a Jack. For six months in college, I had an "Alma" and very well might have married her. And like Ennis and Jack, I would have been a lousy husband. Either I'd be cheating on the side, or I would have been a miserable, emotionally absent turd. Lucky for me (and for her), I came of age in an era and in an area where I could realize, before it was too late, that marrying a woman would be a selfish, destructive mistake. Unlike a 60s-era Wyoming cowboy, I had options.

As scenes from the movie kept playing back in my mind, I began to remember what it was like before I took the greatest leap of my life to come out and begin living an authentic life for the first time. I can relate to the heartache Ennis felt when Jack drove off after their first summer together ended. Ennis fell to the ground, puking at the side of the road. When my first love, John, walked out the door and moved away and I thought I'd never see him again, I bawled for days, listening to Barry Manilow records. That was 7th grade. I never told John how I really felt about him, but I know he knew. And I believe he loved me too. More than likely, John, a pastor's son, has chosen the other path. He's probably married with kids now, batting down his true desires.

I do not buy the idea that many teenagers go through an experimentation phase that they'll one day grow out of. The stories I read at convince me that those feelings never go away--they're just squelched.

Still, I don't think the movie was meant for me; the roughness, the wrestling, and the punching turn me off. One reviewer captured the mood: "In their first encounter in the tent, with all the spastic pushing, slap-punching, violent face-butting and pants-ripping, Ledger and Gyllenhaal display the intimacy of a pair of drunken paraplegics fighting over the last belt buckle at a Western Wear closing sale."

I prefer sweet, tender love, and I don't mean Ang Lee should have made them effeminate sissies. Even manly men have got to show their soft, affectionate side. There were flashes of tenderness such as when Jack recalled the summer at Brokeback when Ennis approached him from behind and cradled his chest. To really feel the love between the two, I longed to see more of that kind of affection.

Instead, Ennis and Jack, even after 20 years of fishing trips, often didn't seem to relate to each other as lovers. By then, they should be finishing each other's sentences. They should have cutesy voices they use only when they're alone together. In their last rendezvous, Ennis and Jack argued about the future of their relationship with the same tone and sentimentality one would expect in a dispute about what to do with a busted transmission.

People ought to stop calling it the "gay cowboy" movie and calling Ledger and Gyllenhaal brave for playing gay characters. Though gay actors have been convincingly playing straight characters since the early days of Hollywood, casting straight actors for these parts was really the only way to go. A Rupert Everett or a Sean Hayes would have been a disaster. These guys are more Clint Eastwood than Carson Kressley. There's nothing fabulous about them. As Ennis insists, he's "not no queer." This is the story of two men who shared a deep and enduring love for one another, but to call them gay assigns them a cultural label that is grossly misplaced.

All of that said, I'm still stuck on that first intimate encounter. I can't get over how Ennis exhibited the sexual instincts of a Colt Studio film star as he flipped Jack over like a rag doll, hocked some spit onto his hand and effortlessly found his target in the dark. I guess you can't expect the female author to know any better.

Here's how Annie Proulx wrote the scene:
"Jesus Christ, quit hammerin and get over here. Bedroll's big enough," said Jack in an irritable sleep-clogged voice. It was big enough, warm enough, and in a little while they deepened their intimacy considerably. Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he'd touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he'd done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack's choked "gun's goin off," then out, down, and asleep.

I think this moment needed a little more tenderness and a little more naiveté about sexual mechanics. I think it should have gone down a little more like this:

"Jesus Christ, quit hammerin and get over here. Bedroll's big enough," said Jack in an irritable sleep-clogged voice. It was big enough, warm enough, and in a little while they deepened their intimacy considerably. Ennis lumbered into the tent and plopped on the bedroll and finally dozed off, grateful for the warmth emanating from Jack's body. Unable to find a fitful sleep with Ennis lying so close to him, Jack was groggily aware that Ennis's leg had entwined between his own. With sleepiness and the haze of whiskey still clouding his judgment, Jack seized Ennis's hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he'd touched fire and pulled his leg out from between Jack's calves. Jack, fully awake now, fretted silently that he'd committed an unforgivable trespass that would ruin everything. But the fire in Ennis's own loin had been ignited. Moments passed, and Ennis, shaking with nerves, took Jack's hand to the bulge in his jeans. Jack held his hand still there, astonished to sense Ennis fumbling with his own belt buckle and pulling his pants down. Freed from the terror that his earlier overture had been unwelcome, Jack worked Ennis like he'd done to himself many a night up on the mountainside alone, peering down at Ennis's campfire below. Ennis reciprocated, albeit in a frantic manner, as if in a rush to finish the deed before he could come to his senses. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp gasps, then out, asleep.
You see, Ennis was not one who would have fantasized about this moment--he would never have let himself play this out in his mind, despite a growing emotional bond toward Jack. Indeed, he really would have needed an instruction manual to maneuver Jack into a doggy-style sex romp, even exhibiting the resourcefulness to use his own spit to ease the way. And Jack, despite his deep desire for Ennis, would be unlikely, I think, to, er, open himself up so freely in this first encounter.

But, I could be wrong. The movie seems to be resonating perfectly with the men who have been to their own Brokeback Mountain. When I read their stories, I am reminded that these are the folks that those of us on the other side must keep fighting for.

I am a 50-year-old gay man, and I saw this film yesterday. I was almost afraid to see it, because I knew it would open old wounds. I was raised in the Midwest, in a town of less than 4000 - everyone knew everyone. I didn’t even know what being “gay” meant. I only knew what “queer” and “homo” meant, and the hate they percolated. I matured into a masculine outdoorsman – a man’s man - but with a “secret.” I’d had a couple of experimental encounters with boys when I was in my early teens, but I swept those memories away as kid stuff, and got on with marrying and raising a family – all the while hoping this “secret” would go away. When I met my current partner, we were both married. We belonged to the same internet club. We met for a beer, and to introduce ourselves. When I gazed into his steel-blue eyes for the first time, the room literally disappeared. After sneaking around for a period seeing each other clandestinely, we both knew we were putting our marriages in peril – we ultimately had to make the most difficult decisions of our lives. I won’t bore you with the pain, anguish, terror, embarrassment, horror, and self-hatred I endured – thanks to my upbringing in a completely gay-void environment. I won’t mention the suicide thoughts for being a “fag” and a “queer.” I won’t try to describe the pain I felt, knowing I should walk away from the only person I had ever truly loved heart-and-soul, in order to avoid burning in hell for all eternity. Brokeback Mountain is about that kind of love….love so painful to consummate that many men (and women) cannot bring themselves to pay the price. I did, and I’m glad – it was worth it in the long run. This movie honestly depicts the consequences of never accepting your “secret,” but rather succumbing to societal fears of severe repercussions for “coming out.” Brokeback is a HUGE triumph. It displays gay men as some of us are: masculine, quiet, and CAREFUL. I can only hope that it will save many people from suffering, as they realize how much better it is to accept yourself for what you are, and rid yourself of that “secret.” Love is truly a force of nature.

To all of you with a Brokeback story, I truly hope that this movie gives you the courage to be true to yourselves. It's never too late.


Anthony Mendiola said...

Marty, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I too have been fortunate enough to take the path to self-acceptance. However, I also recall the anguish I went through caring for someone that was not able to free himself from the social shackles of the time. We were both in the military so that should help you to understand the dilema we faced. When he got his orders to go to his next assignment I was as sick as Ennis at the end of his first summer on the mountain. I even got very ill-tempered for a while. I'm sure most people can relate to aspects of both Ennis and Jack's characters. As I examined my own feelings I found that I most strongly related to Jack. Somehow, in my youth, I managed to gain a perspective on life that allowed me to believe that I deserved some level of happiness even though I might have to hide it and even deny it to outsiders I still deserved it. For that I'm truly grateful. On another point, regarding the initial sexual encounter, I'm in total agreement with you. The scene was not realistic to me. Ennis had mentioned earlier in the movie that he hadn't had the opportunity to commit a sin that would send him to the pentacostal fires of hell. I took that to mean he was virgin to that day. Even in the heat of passion how could he possibly know how things go together. I like your re-write for the scene and I agree that a little tenderness along with that first-timer awkwardness would have been a bit more realistic even for a couple of manly-men like Ennis and Jack. All in all I enjoyed the movie for its entertainment value. I expected to be in a state of total emotional chaos at the end but as touching as this story was it did not have the anticipated effect. I walked away with many memories of my own past, some painful and some pleasant. I had long since buried the painful ones deep into the dark recesses of my psyche hoping never to feel them again. It is nice to know that I can now face those memories without waves of pain and nausea. I'd recommend that anyone go see this movie if for no other reason than to see mountain scenery.

Marty Grimes said...

I loved the scenery too. Never have a 1000 "pasture maggots" (what we called sheep back home) looked so beautiful. But before you book a trip to Wyoming, realize that the mountain scenes were filmed in Alberta. O Canada!

Amy Stewart said...

Oh, dernit. There's no good sex in movies anymore. (Was there ever? Seems like my parents were always covering my eyes back in the 70s--that must have been something worth watching.)

Well, I'll go see it anyway--doesn't get here until next week. Yeah, I was hoping for a little heartbreak along with the hotness.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Good article. I am part of a group of men that are generally conservative, - many from religious backgrounds, masculine & into other men. One of the key things that caught me as unrealistic about brokeback was indeed the UNrealistic sex scenes. I wasn't alone. Similar feedback soon came into the group. Here is our review link:
and the link to a larger group review:

As you can see - the author of THIS article is in general agreement with many men - many who do not feela connection to today's gay men's movement.