AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
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CUDDLING COWBOYS, HIDDEN PASSION
by Harlan Kennedy
There was never a western like it. Cool runnings of riverine sheepflocks across heaven-high mountain flanks; strafings of human passion where there ain’t no passion (or ain’t supposed to be); and a Taiwanese-American director in Venice, Europe, where they honour film festival victors – in the old Italian style – by throwing them to the lions, or the lions to them.
There was never a western like it, unless we think all westerns were
secretly like it: wild oaters, transgressive
tales, encrypting subtexts about forbidden love and blushing buddyism inside stories of cattle, gunslingers and the
opening up of
There was never a love story like it, unless we think all good love stories are like it: tales of love’s impossibility (or unfulfillability) in a world with no room for distractions of the heart that defy the jealous conformities which rule that world.
There was never a
But hey. This is the 21st century. Even while George W Bush, the Pope and the armies of religious fundamentalism – aka fascists for Christ – try to pull the planet back towards edict, mysticism and intolerance, sane folk know that freedom is the only future worth working for and that love is a rainbow that knows no single colour and no forbidden glitter.
Let’s start, though, with what Lee’s film isn’t. It isn’t a pamphlet for gay rights. It isn’t a piece of retroactive humanitarian legislation imposed on a bygone west. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, like the Annie Proulx story it comes from, is too good to be reduced to a single message, too open-range in its poignancy – allusive and elusive – to be claimed by any sect as exclusive property. That includes well-meaning liberationists who call the two heroes ‘gay cowboys.’
But human love can no more be labelled than wildernesses can be
fenced. Jack and Ennis go off betweenwhiles to their wives and kids, accrued
over long years between the two men’s first kiss and last tryst. To their
society’s eyes, sometimes even to our own, they are fully functioning
straight arrows in macho
Memory leads them back to make new memories. Love and its renewings become a repudiation of duty, routine, obligation. And passion can leave everything naked and sacred, even the innocence of a silent hug by a campfire that becomes – for Jack at least – the heart of their story: “Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it, even the knowledge that Ennis would not embrace him face to face because he did not want to see nor feel that it was Jack he held.”
Objects become talismanic in both tale and film – that bloody shirt tucked inside that other shirt – because they are eucharistic symbols for a love without language: one that must reach across unmapped spaces, terraforming them with its own landmarks, milestones, memories. It’s a process the two heroes at once encompass intuitively and yet, poignantly, barely begin. At the end Ennis and Jack are still arguing about that ranch they will never share, that life together they will never build.
It’s simplest to say they are still in denial. (Ennis after their
first lovemaking: “Y’know, I ain’t
queer”. Jack: “Me neither”). Or it’s simple to say they know that lynch law
But the love story in
In an early scene Ennis tells Jack how his parents died in a car crash. “There was one curve in the road in 43 miles and they miss it.” It’s a good laugh line. But it also tells us what Jack and Ennis triumph by not doing. They don’t miss the curve. They will both die in time. But they saw where the road did something different, rode the deviation, and came to recognize that life has options. And to be blind to those options can sometimes be just as dangerous as to take them, embrace them and be changed by them.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.