A majestic tale.
"This is a celebration of individual freedom, not of homosexuality. No government has the right to tell its citizens when or whom to love. The only queer people are those who don't love anybody." Feminist Rita Mae Brown (1982, about the opening of the Gay Olympics in San Francisco)
It's time for America to face the fact that gay life is an integral part of diverse American life. No better vehicle for certifying that alliance is film and its best picture of 2005, Brokeback Mountain. Ang Lee's majestic tale about two lonely cowboys who find love in the wilds of Wyoming during endless nights of shepherding couldn't be a better introduction to gay love for those of us who avoid the subject out of sheer ignorance or outdated notions of the right way human beings should mate. The film, however, could be enjoyed for the stunning photography of Alberta, which lends a lyricism to the story, a grandeur that raises the conflicts to the level of high nature, where prejudice and betrayal have no place.
It's been more than 50 years since Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar hinted that cowboys were not all Marlboro men nor wanted to be; Brokeback takes less than a half an hour to entangle its protagonists in the bedding of a small tent. The entanglement of the rest of their lives is the purview of the rest of the film, which like that love scene, carefully reveals the layers of prejudice, outside but mostly within themselves, that they must struggle with to find emotional peace.
You can see that sex has not been an essential ingredient of this film; rather Lee shows the painful longing that hiding love brings, the disorientation it offers to the wives who may or may not know the double lives of their husbands but who suffer with their husbands the dislocation of emotions that reach for permanent and proprietary status. But this is as modern life should be portrayed with people leading productive lives while dealing with hidden powers of love bursting to be born. Remains of the Day expresses the same theme but in a wholly different setting and without sex to mess things up.
Lee's reverence for this complexity reminds me of the celluloid closet atmosphere in such movies as Howard Hawks' Red River (1948) with John Wayne. The latent homosexuality between cowboys Matt (Montgomery Clift) and Cherry (John Ireland) is hinted at when Cherry, handling Matt's gun, says to Matt, "You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?" And that's about as much as we got almost 60 years ago. Thank goodness for the openness of modern times.