I finally got to see Brokeback Mountain today and I was surprised at what a cold film it is. The two main characters, apart from being somewhat nice to their kids, are pretty aloof, selfish, and uninteresting when they aren’t with each other. There are two possible explanations for this, one more generous than the other. The first one is that the film is deliberately anti-heroic. The real message of the film being that the life of a cowboy is not an easy one or a glamorous one, and they are lucky if they can squeeze out a few drops of meaning out of their miserable lives. The second explanation is that the film really is about being gay, not about class at all, and the only way to show the main characters as trapped in their false heterosexual lives is to show them as being not very nice people when they aren’t together with each other. (Children excepted, although even there they aren’t exactly model parents.)

I went to the film expecting it to be fairly mainstream hollywood fare, albeit in the hands of a director who seems to get more confident with each film (although The Ice Storm is still my favorite). And it was. There wasn’t really anything unexpected. In a Counterpunch article, John Scagliotti writes:

I know Annie Proulx, the heterosexual on whose short story the film is based, thinks she has captured a reality in her heroes’ doom, but what she has tapped more powerfully is straight women’s fantasies of primal sexuality and impossible love: O, Heathcliff! O, Cathy!” A real Ennis and Jack might have said screw this place and moved to the Castro, opening an antique shop, or taken any number of paths to an authentic life, like thousands of Western gay boys did in the seventies and eighties. But that would upend the romantic convention, so Proulx, and the screenwriters after her, relied on what has been a running joke in the gay community …

The joke itself is a spoiler, so I’m putting it below the fold (although anyone whose seen a few films will spot this one a mile away):

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Why does the homo always have to die?”

A good question indeed. Lakshmi Chaudhry makes a similar point:

Epic love stories have always been the stuff of great Hollywood movies, and the movie’s PR machine is selling Brokeback Mountainas just that, doing its best to play down the fact that this particular version involves two penises.

… But herein lies the irony: only a gay cowboy movie” can meet the literary requirements of grand passion in 21st century America.

Unlike these two critics, what disappointed me was not that the film was ultimately just a Victorian romance wrapped up as a (gay) cowboy film. That is what I was expecting. What surprised me was how un-epic and unsentimental the film really was. Like I said, it seemed quite cold. It may be that this coldness was the film’s real genius, or it could be that it was a result of the film’s failure to conceive of gay love as anything but tragic.