Caution: One obscenity included.
I like Ms Proulx’s books not because of the characters or the plots but because she’s spent much of her life roaming the same turf I have — Vermont, Quebec, Newfoundland — and she’s got a tremendous ability to capture the essence of the land, and in particular the way a harsh land shapes the character of its people. She began writing fiction in the Seventies, for Gray’s Sporting Journal, which wanted hunting stories about men called Zack, and she co-founded a local newspaper in my part of the world called Behind The Times (“All The News That’s Kept Till Now”), and in both she did a better job than most liberal progressive artsy types do of accepting country folk as they are. “I lean toward realism, not myth,” she says.
But when you take a short story and make a movie of it realism turns all mythic. For a start, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar become two rising male stars — Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger. You get a big orchestral score and tag lines on the posters (“Love Is A Force Of Nature”) and, though the western literary tradition is not just Zane Grey and Bret Harte but also Willa Cather, when you put your fellows up on screen in cowboy hats on horses against the big sky of Wyoming, it looks far more explicitly like a gay take on the manliest of Hollywood genres: Queer Eye For The Straight-Shootin’ Guy.
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And from that point on the film settles down into not so much a “gay western” but a gay version of Same Time Next Year: the kids get older, the Sixties become the Seventies, Ennis divorces, Jack grows a moustache, but they still go up the hill thrice a year for “a couple of high-altitude fucks”, as he puts it. Which, to be honest, is a better summation of their relationship than “Love Is A Force Of Nature”.
In fact, across two-and-a-quarter hours, there’s not a lot of evidence of “love”, as opposed to a much-needed sexual release. For its urban audiences, Brokeback is a new wrinkle on one of the oldest gay fantasies: the masculine man who likes sex with men. So it’s a gay love story with ungaylike protagonists — Straight Eye For The Queer Guy. In the distaff answer to lezzie porn for het men, for the gals it’s a gabby chick flick with uncommunicative tough guys.
But by the end of a bleak portrait of failed lonely lives, with one of the lads cheating on the other with ranch-managers and Mexican rent-boys, you’re not even sure how gay-friendly the thing is: are the men bad uninterested parents because society’s forced them to live a lie or because they’re the sad self-destructive prisoners of their sexual appetites? And, if it’s such a “bold” “courageous” “ground-breaking” film, isn’t it a little ridiculous that a gay male love story has Miss Richards and Miss Hathaway both baring their breasts with straight abandon while Messrs Ledger and Gyllenhaal’s penises remain discreetly tucked away? Instinctively, Ang Lee seems to understand that even this film’s audience wants to keep some things closeted.