Monday, January 23, 2006

Beware of "Brokeback"

This weekend I finally saw Brokeback Mountain. I say "finally," because -- though the movie has been released since the end of last year, is one of the best-reviewed movies in a very long time, and is racking up awards left and right, it's still only playing on a handful of screens.

Last week, the film led the nation's box office in ticket sales for at least two days (Tuesday and Wednesday), even though it was playing in only 682 theaters. Presumably, the fact that people actually want to see it encouraged the Powers That Be to release it to more venues. King Kong opened on 3,568 theaters. This past weekend, "Brokeback's" release practically doubled. It's now showing on nearly 1,200 screens nationwide.

Amazingly, one of those 1,200 is here in Benton Harbor.

I almost fell over in shock. I thought I was going to have to travel to South Bend or Grand Rapids to see it (and was seriously considering making the trip). So before the theater owners changed their minds, I went.


The movie is remarkable in many respects. For instance, it is bullseye true to E. Annie Proulx' original short story.

(The story first appeared on Oct. 13, 1997, and earned the "New Yorker" the National Magazine Award for Fiction. It was featured in "Prize Stories 1998: The O. Henry Awards." It’s also available in “Close Range: Wyoming Stories,” and as a self-titled novella which, as of today, is ranked in the top 50 bestsellers on and moving up.)

Evidently, the New Yorker posted the story online for awhile at the end of 2005, but I couldn't find a reliable link at However, the original short story can be found online if you look.

The film's text has an impeccable pedigree. Proulx won the 1994 Pulitzer for "The Shipping News." Fellow Pulitzer winner Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove," 1986) was the seasoned screenwriter who kept the original prose largely intact while he translated it to the big screen. Rarely in Hollywood do words have such capable caretakers. And rarely is the source material treated with such reverence. [I predict an easy Oscar win for Best Adaptation to McMurtry and his screenwriting partner Diana Ossana.]

The movie mesmerizes rather than entertains. It's achingly sad without being depressing. Though every character is miserable, each is sympathetic.

The film has gotten a lot of press for its subject matter. But calling "Brokeback Mountain" a gay cowboy movie is like saying "Romeo & Juliet" is a play about teen suicide.

Far from being a narrowly-defined genre film, I find it a wide-reaching drama. I've never seen anything that so clearly illustrates the fact that we don't really connect with many of the people we meet. In other words:

I never knew you were missing from my life until I met you.

I met my husband when I was 17. I'd never given a great deal of thought to getting married. It was never an important goal in my life. My plan, upon graduating university, was to go to Europe -- probably France -- and find work as an ESL teacher. But Robert changed all that. My original plan was a good one. I just never knew Robert was missing...

In the same vein, having children was never a huge priority for me. We tried for years. As time passed, we figured that it just wasn't meant to be. When our daughter was born (after 14 years of marriage), it was as if the fabric of life had somehow changed. She literally adds a whole new dimension to my existence. All those years, and I never knew she was missing...

"Brokeback Mountain" explores what happens when you meet the person you never knew was missing from your life -- and choose to lose. It asks, "What happens when you discover too late that your worst fears weren't what you thought?" It reminds you that every choice counts. Every decision comes at a price.

Beware of "Brokeback." If you prefer your movies mindless, stay away. It's sobering, difficult, and melancholy; hardly the usual popcorn fare. It makes you think -- long after you've read the last word, or watched the credits begin to roll.

Of course, if you like that sort of thing (and one of the 1,200 screens happens to be in a theater near you), you're in luck. Besides, judging by the previews of upcoming releases (MI:3 anyone?), who knows when something this well-written, -crafted, -acted, and -directed will come our way again?