Mainstream criticism of Brokeback has centred on the “the moviemaking chameleon’s (referring to Ang Lee’s jump from The Hulk to the cowboy drama) ability to tell a gay love story uncontroversially set in the pre-AIDS past, utterly removed from the political movement whose success made it possible.”
Ehrenstein has a point there. Our acceptance and indeed appreciation for the movie comes from a mindset that has become more accepting of alternative lifestyles. To that extent, Lee may have been the unwitting beneficiary of greater public tolerance.
But to claim that the movie (and the book) are “easy” is to miss the finer point. No forbidden love is easy, even if it is not played out in the public eye of a political movement. Ehrenstein may like to read The God of Small Things, where Ammu and Velutha’s illicit love has tragic and may I add, public consequences. Their lives get tied up with the politics and biases of the day.
Granted, this is not the case with Brokeback. The men find a space for themselves in the wild-wild west, that is displaced from even the hint of time and place.
Yet, Jack (who dies) and Ennis’s lives ultimately remain private domains of grief:
Around that time Jack began to appear in his dreams, Jack as he had first seen him, curly-headed and smiling and buck-toothed, talking about getting up off his pockets and into the control zone, but the can of beans with the spoon handle jutting out and balanced on the log was there as well, in a cartoon shape and lurid colors that gave the dreams a flavor of comic obscenity. The spoon handle was the kind that could be used as a tire iron. And he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets.
There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.
(Brokeback’s last lines)
This is a comment on the prejudices of the time and their effect on human psychology. Intolerance has peculiar ways of poisoning even those who are its certain victims.
To sum up, Brokeback may not be a political movie but it is far more subversive than some of them.
Sidenote: Curiously, GOST’s protagonists follow a proscribed trajectory of love akin to the Brokeback lead.
The Line of Beauty is a good start for those who agree with Ehrenstein. Lyrical and captivating, it does not skirt controversy.