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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Brokeback Mountain versus “Brokeback Mountain”

Posted by on December 20 at 12:15 PM

Last night I went to Harvard Exit for the 7:30 Brokeback Mountain, got turned away, walked to the Egyptian and bought tickets for the 9:50, went somewhere and read for a while, showed up to the movie early, watched the theater fill up, saw the movie, didn’t cry, went home. This will come as a shock to no one, but I didn’t really like it. Whereas the short story it’s based on ruined me. The short story is so much better. Bear with me.

First, the two actors wear too much make-up. In order to believe what the story requires you to believe (that in spite of their undeniable pull toward one another they are, Ennis in particular, too stoic and rough-spoken and beholden to the world’s idea of men to allow themselves to create what could be a life together) you have to believe they are roughened men, and gobs of foundation and blush do not a rough man make. A technical point, but highly distracting. Second, the movie (even though it’s so damn long) leaves some things that were in the story out, things I’d argue make the whole thing stronger, like Ennis’s fevered, cartoonish, lurid-colored dreams about Jack at the end. Third, in the movie, Jack is jonesing for a fuck from the get-go, posing against his truck, checking out Ennis in a mirror, whereas in the story their attraction is weirder, harder to explain, they discover they’re into men through each other, and the sex is as unexpected and exhilerating to each of them as it is to the reader. In the movie, again, there is preening, and even a shot, before they ever touch, of Ennis sticking his ass up into the air as he’s crawling around drunk that made the audience laugh and laugh. There are lots of these kinds of laughs in the movie. The story has none of this baiting or campiness. Fourth, in the movie you just don’t get the interior state (obviously, it’s a movie), but these men’s interior lives are precisely what’s at stake. The scene in the movie that corresponds to this moment in the story (the men have parted after their first summer together, and as they do so Enis realizes the agony that will accompany not seeing Jack anymore) just doesn’t do justice to the following, in the story’s low-register tone:

“Well, see you around, I guess.” The wind tumbled an empty feed bag down the street until it fetched up under the truck. “Right,” said Jack, and they shook hands, hit each other on the shoulder; then there was forty feet of distance between them and nothing to do but drive away in opposite directions. Within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time. He stopped at the side of the road and, in the whirling new snow, tried to puke but nothing came up. He felt about as bad as he ever had and it took a long time for the feeling to wear off.

In the movie, Heather Leger tries to throw up, punches a wall, and then yells at someone for looking at him. Fifth, the cinematography — isn’t it wonderful? isn’t it amazing? Uh, I guess — is it hard to be amazing when you’re taking shots of clouds and mountains? Is it as hard as writing sentences like: “Dawn came glassy-orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green.” Or: “The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire.” Sixth, the dialogue is so much better when Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t delivering it. Seventh…. ah hell, I’ll let you get back to your day. This is what I’m trying to say: for it’s economy and mystery and surprise and lasting sadness, the short story is a greater artistic achievement than the movie. It just is. I had a fight about this earlier today with Annie Wagner (who loved the movie, which is great, there’s a lot to like, although it’s just not done as well as the story is). She will now undoubedtly weigh in with something that sounds smart on technical terms but lacks something. (Feeling?) This is because she read the story after she saw the movie.

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Huh. Sounds like you'd only have liked the film if it were a continuous shot of someone reading you the entire story aloud. Your comments seem more of an contrarian affection than a reasoned analyisis and comparison.

You mention nothing of the distracting score.... The second rate guitar strumming got in the way for me at every turn.

I'm not a contrarian. I'm a person! I am not affecting anything. I'm just trying to account for why the movie let me down, while everyone else is raving nonstop. Sure, I like literature more than I like movies, but I like movies too, and this one could have been so much better. Glad I'm not alone, Erin. I hadn't considered the second-rate guitar strumming, but you're totally right.

It wasn't just the second-rate guitar strumming, it was where they used it: the first time Jack and Ennis drive the sheep up the mountain, carrying lambs, falling into ice cold creeks. Without the music, you might have got an idea of how hard they were working. But that guitar strum was fucking pastoral -- and inauthentic pastoral at that, like Virgil's idle shepherds playing their lutes

I got the feeling that, unlike Annie Proulx, no one involved with the film understood Wyoming or the West.

On the bright side, at least people who liked the movie might pick up the short story and be really even more impressed. This is sort of a weird argument for not reading things first (as a disappointment avoidance device).

It looks like the New Yorker took the short story off their website, possibly to coincide with its publication as a slim stand alone paperback, priced at slightly more than the cost of a movie ticket.

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