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March 10, 2006

"Brokeback Mountain" Retrospective

Wile E. Delaplaine

Conflated and tiresome they may be, the Academy Awards occasionally serve one of their intended purposes, and that is to refocus attention on recent films which deserve (in theory) to be seen.

Having already seen "Capote" and "Brokeback Mountain," I will now make it a point to catch "Crash," "Syriana," and "Walk the Line" to see for myself what all the fuss is about. Had the latter three films not won major awards at this year's Oscars, I would have cared little and probably would not given them another thought.

Which leads me somewhat tangentially to thoughts on "Brokeback Mountain"... because I was hoping for "Brokeback," one or two more of the big trophies - best film, best actor, or best supporting actor. Not that this would make the film any better or any worse, but because it might convince another couple hundred folks to drag themselves to the theatre who otherwise would not, and let them experience this film first hand.

It would be curious to see what effect, if any, the film might have on "Red Country" folk, who by and large have boycotted the film. My hope would be that in seeing the film, it might awaken in a handful of "ditto-heads" and Fox News junkies, a certain sense of empathy for the plight of the two closeted cowboys in the film.

The logical side of my mind knows that this is sheer wishful thinking. I know that those who already have strongly held and preconceived notions on what many view as the evils and sinful nature of homosexuality are beyond the stage where opinions will easily change. Firmly fixed notions, right or wrong, rarely change. Logical resignations do not help my struggle to be a realist. Hope in the hopeless and hope in the absurd can be wonderfully comforting, at least in the short run.

Back to "Brokeback"... which I saw twice. Initially, I saw it drawn like a moth to the flame because of its gay theme and, of course, the controversy. This is not, however, what drew me back.

The power of the film really has little to do with the fact that the two main characters happen to be gay, though they are and though this is integral to the story. Undeniably the film revolves around the two cowboys, Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) who are homosexual in a difficult time and difficult place.

But the film is much bigger than the mere story line. It is the story of regret, a troublingly deep and painful regret, over not so much of what should have been, but of what could have been. It is the story of wrong choices made, and the horrible consequence of getting enormous decisions wrong.

The plot is basically as follows. Two young closeted gay cowboys, Jack and Ennis, have a fling one summer while working together, tending sheep on Brokeback Mountain somewhere in the Wyoming wild. The job ends; they go their separate ways; and both attempt to lead normal lives.

Both marry, and both father children, but this does nothing to change their nature. After a handful of years, they meet back up and - astonishingly to them - their old passions have grown enormously and can no longer be ignored.

But each is trapped in the impossible and unsuitable married lives they have chosen to lead. For the next 15 years they sneak away a few times a year, back to the mountains, only to return home where they attempt to forge ahead as before, with less and less success and with less and less fulfillment.

The Brokeback secret takes on a life of its own, twisting and ruining the lives of not only Jack and Ennis, but also distorting and crippling the lives of their wives and children.

Curiously, one could fairly easily make the argument, albeit wrongly, that the film itself shows the sinful nature of homosexuality. But the real reason that so many lives in the film are damaged is that Ennis's life with his wife is a lie.

Ennis's choice to lead a "normal life" and his lack of courage to abandon that lie before further damage is done itself causes all the ruin, and not the fact that he is homosexual.

Ennis saw the choice of a life with Jack as unrealistic and dangerous and therefore unwise. But the power of the film is that the road not taken is so real, so palpable, and so looming. Ennis misses again and again opportunities to correct his course, a course leading to destruction, because he fears the other course, a life with Jack might end up badly.

Ennis does not live in a vacuum, and the course of not only his life, but the lives of those around him are adversely affected by his decision, and they all spiral down with his.

In the end, we find Jack dead, Ennis alone, and their families trying to pick up the pieces of their own shattered lives. Ennis in his empty trailer stares at all that remains of the life that could have been, two blood stained, intertwined shirts. Ennis looks at the shirts in silence; the regret of what could have been is deafening.

What drove me back to see the film is this powerful imagery of regret. In the movie, Ennis must have known that the choice he made was certain to lead to misery. In the end, he cannot doubt that he made the wrong choice. He is condemned to suffer with that knowledge and the knowledge that no correction of any kind is anymore possible.

This powerful theme transcends the simple fact that the characters are gay. It is this towering theme of regret that I couldn't get out of my head after the first viewing.

After the second viewing in fact, I didn't want to. In holding on to this imagery, I have taken some moments to search my own closet, if you will excuse the pun, for any objects which might reveal themselves to me in 10 or 20 years as bloodied and nightmarish symbols of regret of what I should have done, or should not have done differently now, when decisions really matter.

That to me is powerful stuff for $9, if you skip the popcorn. Oh, well. I suppose "Crash" must be pretty good, too.

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