...The first scene of Brokeback reveals features typical of the Ang Lee style. A ranch hand (Heath Ledger) and a rodeo cowboy (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will become lovers, wait outside an office hoping to snag a seasonal shepherding job. The manner in which they put on and take off their hats, light cigarettes and take drags, is much more eloquent than the words they utter.
Brokeback succeeds by keeping alive the tension between the flow of the action and its symbolic counterpart, which is the myth of the cowboy. While that myth, perpetuated by John Wayne and the Marlboro man in equal measure, proclaims the virtues of freedom and rugged individualism, the plot of Brokeback traces a tale of love denied, of repression inherent in rural societies of the United States in the 1960s. The movie draws emotional power from the palpable pain felt by the characters, while its intellectual and political import derives largely from an interrogation of well-established forms of representation, specifically the cowboy movie genre.
Lee did something similar in adapting Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen's least mature novel centred around the romance between Elinor Dashwood (played by Emma Thompson) and Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). In that film, Grant walks in measured steps, speaks deliberately, bows low when introduced to women, creating an atmosphere of sombre ceremoniousness. He is dressed in jackets with such high collars that his head seems sometimes on the verge of disappearing entirely from sight. The intensification of upper class British formality is so carefully calibrated that most viewers notice no departure from established conventions.
The device allows Lee to achieve an ironic distance from the society he is representing. It enables him to see with an anthropologist's eye. And in this lies the political radicalism of the work.
Let me explain the context in which I speak of radicalism. Anthropology was, for decades, a discipline built upon the examination by Europeans of non-European cultures. Anthropologists tended to consider themselves and their own society as governed by freedom and rationality, while thinking of cultures they studied as domains of ritual, custom and tradition. What Lee does is to reverse this gaze by highlighting the fetishes, rituals, taboos and customs of Westerns societies...
Reversing the gaze