Brokeback Mountain ages in opposite directions.
Maybe that’s overstating the case. It’s definitely benefited from having a few (seven) years to breathe. In that time, gay marriage has come and gone and come again to the center of social politics. In California, the high profile battle around Prop 8 and its subsequent passage into law in 2008 brought new attention to the lives and concerns of gay Californians, Americans, and people. The Supreme Court is now set to review the constitutionality of Prop 8 before June of 2013.
In 2005, Brokeback Mountain was an oddity. It was marketed as a love story, but how could straight people be expected to care about passion between gay folks? Insult to injury: the casting of extremely palatable, great-looking, and bankable Hollywood stars. I take it back, the real insult: these gay folks talk and look like god fearing conservative good old boys! To put it bluntly: the hyper-masculine, bootstrap-Americana mindset as narrative centrifuge. To put it more bluntly: those ack-sents! And Hollywood has long been one of America’s favorite ways to get itself all riled up.
Brokeback’s Wikipedia entry has 10 sub-sections devoted to “controversies.” (7.1-7.10.) Bill O’Reilly maintained, not alone and not quietly, that Hollywood was pushing an agenda with Brokeback Mountain, and the media pored over all incoming details regarding the film’s revenue (and presumed success or failure.) The group Concerned Women for America was, understandably, concerned. Residents of Wyoming (where the film was set, but not shot) were peeved, presumably because there are no gay people in Wyoming. A Utah theater owner refused to screen the film. On and on and on.
The conventional wisdom here is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Demonstratively, Brokeback Mountain made back over $175 million on its $14 million budget.
All of this is to say that, when it first emerged, the film was compellingly offbeat. It was attractive because it was weird. People couldn’t stop talking about it, and they couldn’t stop seeing it. But the way a film is sold always differs from the way it is made, and Brokeback Mountain was not made to be an oddity—it was just sold that way. Among other things— observant cinematography, incredible performances, and a crackling script– the film happened to be upsetting to some demographics. That made it a controversy, and controversy is, frequently, good brand posturing.
You can tell that the filmmakers aren’t hedging on the “weirdness” of their screenplay, because that screenplay has aged so well. There’s really not a lot of time to meditate on how controversial gay love is. Every scene has clear direction; no thoughtless lines or glances. It’s an extremely economical story, one that plays to Ang Lee’s strengths as an aggressively visual storyteller (witness The Ice Storm.)
Larry McMurtry, who worked on the script with Diana Ossana, is in similarly top form processing local color into a pleasurably complex geography of fears, desires, and introspection. (The author of the Lonesome Dove books understands well the relationship between the physical world and the internal landscape of men.) It seems to take for granted incredibly sophisticated performances that will make use of key silences, bits of business, and rich art direction/ abundant locations, and, less surprisingly, thoughtful direction (presumably McMurtry knew Lee was attached.)
When I say it’s aging in opposite directions, what I mean is: while removing the movie from the context of its own controversy makes it clearer just how good it is, as the years go by, the painful score and egregious dissolves don’t get any better. The movie has a lot of style: some of it awful. The dissolves are snappy and hope to be casual; instead they operate as a parody of the type of meditative pacing Lee, one hopes, was trying to authentically build. Yuck.
The score is even less mysterious, featuring precisely one memorable track. This track tearfully titters over the action with a frequency that can only be described as humiliating. It’s the canned equivalent of the old-woman-in-front-of-you-in-the-theater repeatedly emoting “awwww.”
But I’m glad that any bad-aging Brokeback Mountain can expect to weather will be related to aesthetic missteps, and not its having pandered. If you’re going to do a movie about gay cowboys in 2005, it’s brave to play it straight (so to speak.) On the other hand, maybe it’s a no brainer that forbidden love ages well. Our culture tries not to let anyone turn 16 without reading Romeo and Juliet.