Critics Fumble the Gay Cowboy Movie
Brokeback Mountain is so gay.
I don't mean to insult you by stating the obvious. One of the movie's better-circulated nicknames is Bareback Mountain, and in one lovely, spit-slicked scene after another, it earns it. But reading some of the New York and L.A. film critics, you might be confused.
The "ostensible gay Western," an advance review in Variety sniffed. "Jack and Ennis's feelings transcend anything as mundane as sexual orientation," according to the New York Daily News. "Brokeback Mountain is at once the gayest and the least gay Hollywood film I've seen," the LA Weekly's Ella Taylor wrote, nonsensically, "which is another way of saying that [director Ang] Lee has a knack for culling universality from the most specific identities." J. Hoberman of the Village Voice opined, "Brokeback Mountain is the most straightforward love story—and in some ways the straightest—to come out of Hollywood, at least since Titanic." (1997, that distant epoque.) In the New Yorker, Anthony Lane came across pompous and flippant: "This slow and stoic movie, hailed as a gay Western, feels neither gay nor especially Western: It is a study of love under siege."
In Slate the author David Leavitt, something of an authority on the subject of gay fiction, made a tortured argument against considering Brokeback Mountain "gay": "Is Brokeback Mountain, as it's been touted, Hollywood's first gay love story? The answer—in a very positive sense, I think—is yes to the love story, no to the gay." He went on to discuss the Annie Proulx short story the movie is based on, saying it doesn't conform to the tradition of gay literature, "which poeticizes urban promiscuity and sexual adventuring." Leavitt's argument is ridiculous: Gay means urban and promiscuous, therefore a movie that is set in Wyoming and imagines monogamy as an unattainable paradise is not gay. Never mind the buttfucking.
What motivates these reviewers to decry the "gay cowboy" label? Mainstream critics and writers for trade magazines probably think they're doing something noble. In downplaying Brokeback Mountain's gay content, they're following the lead of its marketers and attempting to make the film safe for heterosexual audiences. Unfortunately, their exertions make the film sound pretentious and dull. For his part, Leavitt is trying—however clumsily—to draw a distinction between a camp aesthetic and homosexual subject matter. But he succeeds only in exaggerating "all the banalities implied in the word gay" and insinuating that "a paean to masculinity" cannot simultaneously be a film about gay characters.
Brokeback Mountain is a film about gay cowboys—that is what it's about—played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. The first half is a gorgeous love story in which words are kept to a minimum and the arid, exhilarating images of high-altitude scenery and exalted flirtation leave you as breathless as the heroes. When the famous pup-tent consummation (faintly damned as "tasteful") finally occurs, their hunger for each other's bodies is fierce and convincing. In the film's devastating second half, the cowboys come down from the mountain, marry women, and inflict the violence of their disinterest on their families.
Insisting that the film is somehow not gay, or beyond "all the banalities" that the word "gay" implies, undermines the central conflict—man versus a repressive society—that earns Brokeback Mountain its status as a latter-day Western. When critics acknowledge the "gay cowboy" label, then divert their readers' attentions toward "transcendence" or "universality" or a vague "love story," they're diminishing the specific, sexual power of the narrative. They're damning the object they pretend to love. What Brokeback Mountain achieves—and it's a stunning success—is an elegant hybrid between the "masculine" genre of the Western and the "feminine" genre of melodrama. There are women in this movie too—Michelle Williams is especially affecting as Heath Ledger's too-comprehending wife. The tragedy is layered: the punishment the cowboys experience at the hands of others, the hatred they unleash upon themselves, and the uncomfortable sex they have with their wives. But the gay sex is totally email@example.com