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A Picture of Two Americas In 'Brokeback Mountain'

Director Ang Lee's images reinforce the metaphor of men out on the mountain but closeted at home.
Director Ang Lee's images reinforce the metaphor of men out on the mountain but closeted at home. (Focus Features)

Yet it makes an argument with images craftily employed to communicate ideas. Nothing in it is arbitrary.

For example, one merely has to compare the visual motifs by which director Lee expresses homosexual life vs. heterosexual life.

Homosexuality in "Brokeback Mountain" is always associated with a river: It's a great torrent of nature, which cannot be controlled and which provides sustenance, nurture, satisfaction, joy. The happiest image in the film, and the most poignant, is Ennis and Jack, off by their lonesome, pulling off their clothes and leaping off a cliff into the placid, welcoming waters below. Realistically, it's a river; metaphorically, it's the great river of homosexuality, and safe and free immersion in it is utterly joyful to them. Indeed, most of the two men's squabbling and (mostly off-camera) lovemaking takes place next to a river. It's glimpsed in many of the backgrounds, usually a turmoil of frothing white water to signify the rush and power of their love and lust for each other. Sometimes it's calming, it's always there for them, and they suffer at their imposed distance from it.

Contrast that with the imagery of family and hearth. These venues are expressions of the impoverishment of the heterosexual family lifestyle. Ennis lives in a shabby apartment where he is regularly assailed by his doughy, clueless wife (Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams). His children squall and make demands that he cannot satisfy; his wife clings and resents; we are pressed to identify with him and feel the pain he feels and the yearning he aches with as he lurches out to the "purity" of the river.

The same is true for Jack. His family is equally dysfunctional, fronted by a bully and braggart of a father-in-law who sells farm equipment in Texas. His wife, Lurlene (Anne Hathaway), is first glimpsed as an impossibly pretty young rodeo rider, but after the marriage she ages gracelessly into a chain-smoking harridan with big blond hair and bad teeth.

Then there's Ennis's visit to Jack's parents at the family homestead, which might be called "Ennis calls on Grant Wood's 'American Gothic.' " Old Ang Lee is really laying it on thick here. The actor chosen to play Jack's father (Peter McRobbie) certainly looks like Wood's living cadavers -- grim, wheezing skinhead, lacking only that pitchfork -- and the house itself has the quality of skeleton to it: bare with unfinished wood, rotting in the sun. Again the visuals are overwhelming in their attitude: family life, home life, breeder life as a gestalt of impoverishment and stark, comfortless angularity. The old man cares less about his son's life than his death; his one issue is that the boy's ashes not be scattered on Brokeback Mountain, as Jack had wished, but that he be buried in the family plot, that he be hypocritically reclaimed for something called the name of decency.

In fact, generally, the movie is cruel to family. It seems to think family is a bourgeois delusion; Ennis's poor daughter ends up in a gaudy Trans Am owned by her fiance, a harbinger of roughneck disaster to come. Jack's boy is simply forgotten about; his ultimate pain -- and it will be considerable -- is not commented upon.

The movie also misses the deepest joy of family, which is that sense of connection to the great wheel of life. Giving birth to, educating and loving a kid are among the profound joys of human existence. "Brokeback Mountain" cannot begin to imagine such a thing; that reality simply is not on its radar, and if you looked at the story from another vantage -- the children's -- it would be a different tale altogether: about greedy, selfish, undisciplined homosexuals who took out a contract in the heterosexual world, and abandoned it. They weren't true men; they failed at the man's one sacred duty on Earth, which is to provide.

It's when the movie moves upstairs at Jack's parents' house that "Brokeback Mountain" achieves its true power and universality. The subject then becomes not homosexuality but closets, which Lee presents, again literally -- that's a real closet there -- and metaphorically. Ennis is alone in the room, but he feels a presence and looks into the closet where he's metaphorically lived the most meaningful and happiest days of the life. He ducks in as if prostrating himself before an altar, drops to his knees and, hidden way in the back, finds Jack's shirt, smeared with blood from a fight they'd had; and within Jack's shirt is his own shirt, with his blood from the fight. It's all that remains of Jack, and this man, who can ride and rope and fight (we've seen that) and kill (coyote and elk) finally has a tender moment as he brings the garments to his face and rubs them against his cheek. Presumably the people who will be sickened by that sight have either a) not come in the first place or b) left an hour or so earlier after the first scene in the tent. Those of us who are left get the full emotional weight of the scene as the repressed man finally allows himself the redemptive pleasure of a little expression.

We see the shirts again shortly; now, however, their order has been reversed, so that Ennis's shirt encloses Jack's, in a gesture, too late but all the more poignant for it, of protection. The site of the shirt, however, is still the closet: It's Ennis's closet in his trailer where he lives alone, essentially an exile from each society, gay and straight. On the inside of the closet door, he has taped a photo of what may be the actual Brokeback mountain, or just a mountain that his imagination has taken as Brokeback. It's an image of paradise, as the whole train of mountain imagery is generally glorious, going all the way back to James Hilton's Shangri-La. The picture makes homosexual America a Shangri-La.

But when he opens the door, it swings out on its hinges and comes to rest against the wall. By a cleverness of design that is brilliant, it is next to the window of the trailer, and through the window, we see another America. The composition of the shot is genius-level work. Both images are framed -- the mountain by the frame of the photo, the reality by the frame of the window, and both are enclosed in a third frame, the screen. The meaning is clear: the movie is offering choices. Shangri-La or . . . ?

And what's the image of the real America through the window? Why it's flat. It's a dreary rural wheatscape, if you will, with no features to interest the eye, no textures to assuage the soul. There's nothing interesting to it. It expresses someone's idea of repressed America, where gay men are forced to bury their personalities and violent conformism is the rule of the day. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there's no there there.

Lee has made his point viscerally; he's not in a pulpit, but he's no innocent either. He's speaking louder with images than most of his ideological opponents do in words.

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