Academy Award voters will likely give "Brokeback Mountain" the Oscar for Best Picture.
The decision will be political rather than artistic, because it is a story about gay lovers. And that's a pity. Film is an artistic medium, first and foremost. If a film is didactic and awards are to be given, then they should be given for how artistically well the message was delivered and not for the message itself.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a pro gay-rights liberal. I believe two people who love each other should be allowed under the law to marry, regardless of their sex. I have gay and trans-gender friends and acquaintances. If two people can love each other enough to want to make that commitment, my blessings are with them.
Perhaps because I'm not at all "shocked" by the gay relationship, I approached this film strictly as a story of star-crossed lovers. On that level it is uninspiring and pedestrian. Worse, it is cliché. And that is unforgivable given the film's intent.
When dealing with the story motif of "star-crossed lovers", there are usually two sets of conflicts: internal and external. The internal conflicts take place within and between the lovers
in their souls and within their immediate, intimate relationship. The external conflicts are between those inside the intimate relationship and those outside it who want it stopped and, sometimes even worse, want the lovers punished because of it.
The external conflicts are kept to a minimum, here, and dispatched quickly. They may account for 10 percent of the film. That being the case, this is a film that focuses on the internal conflicts. Because film is a visual medium, this can be a problem because internal conflicts of the soul are not terribly visual. They tend to work better in literature because we can read the characters' thoughts. As a result, directors tend to rely on external symbols as metaphors for the internal conflicts. That is fine with me, except this is how Ang Lee's work descends to cliché.
The various clichés include: the men as shepherds (perhaps a connection to Matthew Shepard, the poor young man killed in Wyoming for being gay); sudden changes in weather, including flash snow storms and thunder; gentle sheep contrasted with a craggy, jagged landscapes; an unsettled feeling that the tent is not set-up right; unending meals of beans (lack of variety); the threat of wolves; following the first gay sex, a sheep is killed by a wolf followed by the wolf's inferred death, his tale hanging from a pole; the shepherd man on horseback rides into a stream clearing, startling a huge bear who roars at him furiously, frightening off the shepherd and his pack mules. These are as cliché as symbols can get.
CAUTION! A SPOILER IS COMING. DON'T READ FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT THE PLOT LINE TO BE SPOILED! There is only one really good symbol, and it is actually for the external conflicts. One of the men dies under questionable circumstanceshe was changing a tire when it blew out and the rim hit him in the forehead and killed him, though the lover suspects he was killed ala Matthew Shepard (and another Wyoming connection, BTW). Half of his cremated remains are spread in Texas and the other half is sent to his parents in Wyoming with instructions that they be spread on Brokeback Mountain. The father will not allow it. These will be interred in the family plot. The truth of the relationship will be buried within the family and schism between two worlds, Texas and Wyoming, gay and straight, will stand even in death. It's a very good bit of symbolism.
So when the visual metaphors of a story of internal conflict prove cliché and, therefore, fail to drive the emotions of the piece, we must rely on dialog to do the job.
Unfortunately, we are left to suffer Marry McMurtry's (Lonesome Dove) suffocating staccato style. One man's a talker. The other is Gary Cooper in "The Westerner". He doesn't talk much, though he does kick stuff once in a while. Yup! For me the story fails because it doesn't inspire the kind of emotional connections one should feel from a story of star-crossed lovers. The best example of this kind of film for me is Zeffirelli's "Romeo and Juliet". Obviously you can't beat Shakespeare for the dialog. But the visuals that are married to this dialog allow the film to soar, fully supporting the word paintings with images worthy of the words.
About the acting, I don't understand how come guys from Wyoming sound like they're from Oklahoma. I live in Colorado. I've been to Wyoming. People don't talk that way. In Southern and Western Wyoming, they speak with a flat, mid-western accent. In the Northeastern part of the state, they sound like they're from the Dakotas (think the movie "Fargo", but not quite as extreme). This interpretation is a real a problem because, even here, we are dealing with cliché. Why? Judging this film solely as an artistic love story, "Brokeback Mountain" failed for me. I was bored. If I was watching on HBO, I'd have been searching for the remote about halfway through. If it was not for the shock value of the gay relationship, this film would be forgotten as quickly as "The Squid and the Whale", another poorly rendered love story.
This film will win Best Picture. It shouldn't. Of the three Best Picture nominees I've seen so far, "Capote" should.
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