NEAR THE end of “Brokeback Mountain,” the film widely touted as a breakthrough gay romance for straight audiences, the wife of one of the lovers tells her husband as he is leaving for one of his “fishing trips” that Brokeback Mountain is his pretend place. Movies specialize in such private fantasies, but they are also expert in using the arts of pretending to criticize -- in the hope of changing -- reality. “Brokeback Mountain” represents this kind of make-believe.
Movies can envision the need for social change, but it is unclear that they can help bring it about. They are better at pointing the way to a different, happier, more fulfilling life. Not the least interesting thing about the hopeless love dramatized in “Brokeback Mountain,” which garnered eight Oscar nominations last week, is how many social hopes it has inspired. Ang Lee, after winning the award as best director at the Golden Globes, hailed “the power of movies to change the way we’re thinking,” although he later thought it advisable to wait to “see how it plays out.”
So far, “Brokeback Mountain” plays out as a love story that has ignited the cultural equivalent of a range war. Typical of conservative salvos is Don Feder’s denunciation of the film as one of Hollywood’s “agitprop epics” that he lambastes for being “anti-American ... religion adverse and into moral relevancy.” Frank Rich pronounced the film “a landmark in the troubled history of America’s relationship to homosexuality,” and he exuberantly declared that it “is not leading a revolution but ratifying one, fleshing out -- quite literally -- what most Americans now believe.”
But what Americans believe may not be the same as what Americans want to see fleshed out. When recently asked whether he had seen “Brokeback Mountain,” President Bush, without disclosing his reasons, reported that he hadn’t. He then amiably added, “I hope you go back to the ranch and the farm ... " (without elaborating what we were free to do once we got there).
Movies can take on the great social problems of their time, but they may be the least effective -- or appropriate -- medium for solving them. Did “Gentleman’s Agreement” mark the beginning of the end of anti-Semitism in America? Did “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” make it easier for interracial couples to marry? Did “Wall Street” help unseat the captains of industry and discredit their doctrine of “greed is good”? Name any “problem film” -- whether it deals with discrimination (racial, ethnic, sexual or religious), social reform (of schools, prisons, legislatures) or corporate corruption (national or global) -- and you will come up with the same unimpressive results. The more designs a movie has on us, the less willing we are to change our minds, much less our social and business practices.
“Brokeback Mountain” seems to have its own thoughts on this question of movies and social change. As it opens, “1963" appears on the screen. That year began in militant democratic hope -- Martin Luther King Jr. announced “I have a dream” and President Kennedy asserted “Ich bin ein Berliner” -- and ended in the trauma of Kennedy’s assassination. It was the year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the Supreme Court ruled that reading the Bible in public schools was unconstitutional and Bob Dylan prophesized “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
But none of these indicators of change are evident in the rural West where the movie is set. There, the “homosexual mystique” and all the lives it warped -- all the violence it inspired -- are simply taken as part of the way things are. The movie’s insulation from the realities of 1963 may give its love story a feeling of being outside time -- but it also suggests that social change does not transform everything in its wake. The movie shows us people and places left behind or slow to catch up. And it holds out little hope to them.
Can movies that offer no visions of a happier society still change hearts and minds? The lovelorn melodramas of the 1930s and 1940s, to which “Brokeback Mountain” is more deeply indebted than to the western, offered audiences little or no hope of change in the real world, yet morally uplifted them with the myth of self-sacrifice as ennobling. Bette Davis assuring her lover in “Now, Voyager” that they didn’t need the moon, they had the stars, testifies to the transcendent power of this myth. The self-denial in “Brokeback Mountain,” by contrast, is morally barren. There were scenes in which I thought Heath Ledger, who plays the stoic and laconic Ennis Del Mar, was turning to stone right before my eyes.
The images of freedom and change in the movie are associated with Brokeback Mountain itself, the great pretend place where men ride horses with pleasure -- and purpose -- across the beautiful, demanding land. The movie’s scenery is the scenery of the myth of the American frontier, which has always represented the promise of spiritual, as well as physical, openness. In the movie, that promise becomes a hope that two men might find a way to be together without hurting others or destroying themselves.
What moves us to want to change things-- even ourselves -- when we watch a movie are its images, not its social agenda, however creditable. If “Brokeback Mountain” changes the way we think and act about homosexual relationships, that change won’t come from seeing two men throbbing with love for each other. It will come out of our last glimpse of Brokeback Mountain, reduced to a postcard tacked on a closet door. You don’t have to be gay or straight, you just have to be alive to human possibility to feel the reproach of that diminished prospect.