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07 March 2006
Brokeback Mountain

Rock Creek, Montana, 2004I finally got around to seeing "Brokeback Mountain" at the movies several weeks ago, and I have to say, it deserves every bit of praise it has received from critics and the film festival circuit. I was disappointed that it didn't win a couple more Oscars, but it appears that there were quite a few well-crafted films to consider this year. I'll also state, right from the start, that I'm a big fan of Annie Proulx and so walked into the movie hoping and expecting to enjoy it. I'm also extremely unlikely to be offended by gay overtones and I'm generally mesmerized by western landscapes, so my default position was definitely positive on this movie even before purchasing tickets. After viewing it, my opinion is even further in the positive direction. I am already looking forward to watching it again.

I think I've read most of all of anything Proulx has ever published. I thoroughly enjoy her spare-but-rich writing style; a simple sentence paints a thousand vivid images:

"The first snow came early, on August thirteenth, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down -- another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific — and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing them on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light, the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall."

I initially read Proulx's short story, "Brokeback Mountain" several years ago soon after it was published in 1997 or 1998 as a short novella. When I picked it up, I had no idea what I was about to read. I assumed this story was a lot like most of her others - powerful, featuring a small cast of strong but quirky, well-developed characters eeking out a difficult life within a sparse, harsh, unforgiving landscape. However, my jaw nearly hit the floor when the story took the unexpected and now-famous turn toward romantically engaging the two cowboys spending the summer high in the mountains. The story's incredible power comes from Proulx's apolitical, anti-stereotypical portrayal of a very simple, very tragic and extremely believable love story. It's no wonder some folks are offended or scared; it's hard to marginalize this one.

The second step in creating this gorgeous and powerful film was performed superbly by the folks who translated the story to screenplay. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana did an amazingly accruate, sincere and faithful job of breathing life into Proulx's story without redirecting or lightening it. Ang Lee took over from there designing and directing this beautiful film. Lee contrasted the huge, permanent, endless western landscape with the small, insignificance and transcience of humans and their squalid, grubby little towns. Lee uses this contrast of the greatness of nature against unfortunate civilization to argue that the love between Ennis and Jack is an obvious and natural force corrupted by the arbitrary rules and unfair expectations of human society. Lee’s technique is beautiful, simple, direct and unpretentious. A wonderful combination with Proulx's similarly written story.

The actors did a wonderful job of carrying the story to its fullest. I've never thought of Heath Ledger as a serious actor before, but this movie changed my tune. He was stellar. Lastly, the musical soundtrack for this movie was sublimely artful and appropriate to the size and scale of the mood created by Lee's cinametography. It's a collection of simple, somber and elegant guitar and violin pieces that manage to suggest a country-western theme without forcing us to hear it as such.

Overall, this is a movie that I easily award a 'thumbs-up.' I wholeheartedly enjoyed the story, the screenplay, the filming, the music and the message. It's one that will grace my small and select DVD collection when that option becomes available. The only minor problem that the film caused for me, and it's a small thing, is that, for a movie set in those landscapes, on beautiful mountain rivers, with the pretext of 'fishing trips', there could have been more fishing.

Here are additional reviews by Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and the Advocate.

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