Sidney Poitier slapped a white man. Or, more specifically, actor Sidney Poitier, portraying black Philadelphia police officer Virgil Tibbs, slapped a white man—and in one of the most revolutionary acts committed to film, he was not made to pay for his sin. Looking back, it is difficult for some to understand the artistic and sociopolitical significance to be found in a single action that occurred in director Norman Jewison's 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, which came along during the height of the civil-rights movement. But when added into the cinematic mix of the film and the complexities of where America was at that place and time, Virgil Tibbs' actions in a small Mississippi town meant something very significant. It became something important—the slap heard 'round the world.
High in the mountains of Wyoming, where the summers can still be cold, two cowboys work diligently herding sheep. It is a lonely, thankless job, where most of the time their duties don't even afford Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar the opportunity to socialize. Their nights are spent in separate camps, with one pitching tent among the sheep to ward off predators, while the other watches over their makeshift base of operations. One night, after a bit too much to drink, and against the orders of their demanding boss, Jack and Ennis sleep in the same camp, sharing the same tent. Outside, the high mountain elevation brings a bitter chill, while inside the tent the cold mountain air creeps in and embraces the shivering Jack and Ennis, who are sleeping off the effects of booze. Jack stirs from his slumber and reaches around, pulling Ennis close, the groggy act of one cold human being looking to share the body warmth of another. But then Jack places Ennis' hand on his penis. Ennis wakes with a startled mix of emotions, and what seemingly starts out as a fight between two twentysomething men, quickly turns into a carnal act that will forever define and shape the lives chronicled in Ang Lee's new film, Brokeback Mountain. And not unlike Sidney Poitier slapping a white man, the explosion of pent-up sexual desire and repression between Jack and Ennis, equal parts mountain brawl and synergistic lovemaking, is likely to become something very significant. For lack of a better term, it will be the fuck heard 'round the world.
There has been considerable buzz surrounding the film Brokeback Mountain for a long time. Starting out as a short story by E. Annie Proulx that appeared in The New Yorker magazine, it was adapted as a screenplay by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) and frequent McMurtry collaborator Diana Ossana. For years, often referred to as the "gay cowboy movie," the screenplay circulated through Hollywood, looking for someone daring enough to fund the film. During those years of rejection, Ossana and McMurtry's script built a reputation as one of the best unproduced screenplays out there. The problem was that no one wanted to take a chance on a film that tracks the decades-long love affair between Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger), both 20th-century cowboys more like the prototypical Marlboro man than the limp-wristed queens of cinematic lore.
With director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense and Sensibilty) at the helm, Brokeback Mountain has finally made it to the screen, and is now arriving in theaters after winning awards at the Venice and Toronto film festivals (for more on what makes it such a great film, see page 51). Lee's film already has had a long list of critics lining up to sing its praises (and, of course, some detractors ready to damn the whole thing). Rolling Stone says, "This classic in the making ranks high on the list of this year's best movies." Meanwhile, nearly everyone uses catch phrases like "gay western" (the Village Voice headline was "Homo on the Range") to describe the film as some sort of hybrid of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the gay porn of Joe Gage. Ignoring for a moment the underlying homosexuality of films like Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch, calling Brokeback Mountain a gay western is misleading and wrong. In the most traditional definitions, this is neither a western nor a gay film. And if people can see past the hyperbole and whatever controversy may surround it, they will see Brokeback Mountain for what it is: a brilliant love story that promises to be among the most revolutionary films in years.
Given the political climate in this country, it is easy to see why anyone with money would be hesitant to fund a film like Brokeback Mountain. As the pendulum has swung to the right, tolerance has shifted. Gays and lesbians, who in the years since the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York have enjoyed a liberation of sorts, are now being shown the way back to that closet. A significant number of American voters, who have confused the Bible with politics, have declared that enough is enough—the fags, dykes, sissies and homos need to be put back in their place.
During the height of what history will hopefully acknowledge as the new era of McCarthyism—when homosexuality and terrorism walk hand-in-hand much as desegregation and communism did five decades ago—there is a queer revolution going on. This new battle of gay liberation, building on the foundations laid in the aftermath of Stonewall, seeks to do more than recoup the losses incurred in recent years. What is going here is a complex issue—clouded under the rhetoric of same-sex marriage and eternal damnation—that is, quite plainly and simply, a matter of civil rights. Few people want to call it that, as if the acknowledgement of such somehow humanizes lesbians and gays in a manner they don't deserve. But the truth is that queers—much like blacks in the early part of the 20th century—are not seen as human beings. And so the struggle at hand is to be seen as humans. Perhaps one of the strongest weapons in this conflict will be the emergence of the new queer cinema, films like Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Transamerica (opening in Portland later this month) and others, which are going a long way to redefine notions of homosexuality and portrayals of gay people.
For years, gay characters and storylines have found a place in film and television. More often than not, these were supporting characters steeped in stereotypes, or stories catering almost exclusively to queer audiences. From the fringes of filmmaking, directors like Gus Van Sant, John Waters, Todd Haynes and Greg Araki have challenged the notions, concepts and image of sexuality in America. But their most overtly (homo)sexual films have primarily been relegated to the celluloid closet of arthouse theatres and queer film festivals. To that end, gay films weren't so different from the black-cast and race films of the 1920s, '30s and '40s that played almost exclusively to the segregated African-American audiences of the day.
As America grappled with the issues of segregation and civil rights for blacks, the film industry, in a move of equal parts magnanimous humanitarianism and monetary foresight, decided to desegregate. It started in what were then seen as edgy films like 1960's Sergeant Rutledge or 1963's Lilies of the Field, culminating with In the Heat of the Night. Comedian Lenny Bruce joked about these films—many of which, like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, share the stamp of producer Stanley Kramer—calling the movies little more than liberal fantasies. In his own way, Bruce was right. But at the same time, had he lived, Bruce would have seen how these feel-good treatises on race relations actually helped create palpable change.
There is something similar going on today with films depicting gay characters and gay themes. When film historians look back on 2005, it will be known as the "Year of the Queer"—the year of cinematic liberation. This will no doubt be bolstered by the likely Oscar nominations for Capote, Transamerica and Brokeback Mountain. Filmmaker John Waters noted in a recent WW interview (see preview, page 37), "The final step will be when a gay man goes to the Oscars for playing a gay man."
Ultimately, however, this is not about Oscars and other awards so much as it is about how these films will affect those who watch. Not to take away from the contributions of pioneering cinematic liberators like Van Sant, Waters and Araki, who were responsible for laying the foundation of what has become the new queer cinema, but revolution is born out of evolution: For all the poetic beauty in Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, for all the ways it challenged the notions of love between two men, gay films have moved beyond that landmark work. The films of this current chapter in film history owe a great debt to everything from Midnight Cowboy to Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, but the depiction of gay characters has changed even since Haynes' 2002 work, which was itself a step in this evolution. The confines of what is thought of as traditional queer cinema have become too restrictive. The stories and the characters that would have once been relegated to a very specific type of film, for an equally specific type of audience, are no longer needed. It's not much different from Sidney Poitier slapping a white man, the ultimate symbolic gesture of black frustration and rage of the times that spoke to all audiences, regardless of color, in a language they could understand. Brokeback Mountain's high-altitude tryst works much the same way.
It is difficult to gauge how any film will affect people. The popularity of 2004's Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to usurp a president, while the success of The Passion of the Christ was a sign of either a hunger within the world of faith-based filmgoers or a penchant for sadists wanting to see a man tortured for two hours, or both. But the problem with citing those two films as examples of how movies shape and affect our culture is that they exist more as cinematic anomalies—exceptions to the rules that govern the world of motion pictures. More often than not, film is a fantasyland we escape to in an effort to avoid the real world. Sometimes, it can take us to a reflective place, where we look back upon the past with a profound sense of understanding, as we search for reconciliation or atonement. But every now and then, a film takes us neither to where we've been nor where we yearn to venture, but to where we need to be. This is when film, in its art-as-imitation-of-life role, becomes transcendent, conveying us to places like a mountain in Wyoming where two men fall in love.
If it's possible for a film to have heart and soul, then at its core Brokeback Mountain is a poetic, brilliant love story. A tale of repressed, burning desire, it reaches heights of emotional purity and delves into the depths of raw humanity. Director Lee explored similar themes of repressed desire in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film similar to Brokeback Mountain in that it portrays a doomed love affair suppressed by societal norms. Brokeback Mountain would be equally compelling if it were about a man and a woman. But it isn't, and that's what makes it revolutionary.