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A breakthrough called ‘Brokeback’

FROM THE East Coast to the West Coast (though, admittedly, not yet a lot of places in between) everyone’s talking about “Brokeback Mountain.” I haven’t heard such constant and pervasive chatter about a pop cultural topic since Tom Cruise jumped on Oprah’s couch. Lord knows, the two phenomena having nothing in common -- “Brokeback Mountain” is a love story about two gay cowboys, and Tom Cruise is, you know, Tom Cruise.

So how has this art-house film, a “gay movie” whose target audience is ostensibly the small percentage of the population that identifies as homosexual, managed to insinuate itself into the hearts and cocktail-party conversations of so many heteros? It’s that 51% of the population known as women, stupid!

Despite its vast Western landscapes, drunken cowboy talk and gay sex scenes (actually, straight sex gets far more screen time in this film), “Brokeback Mountain” is a thinking girl’s chick flick with roughly the same hormonal balance (not to mention the same screenwriter) as that quintessence of high-quality estro-cinema, “Terms of Endearment.”

I’m not talking about the obvious girl-friendly accouterments of the tough guy/tender heart dichotomy -- the men’s skillful horsemanship, their penchant for carrying injured lambs on their laps, the way they look in jeans. I’m talking about something much more visceral.

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For all their monosyllabism, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) are fonts of emotion. Sure, they’re prone to the usual male-pattern drinking, fighting and marrying women without knowing quite what they’re doing, but when it comes to their love for each other, their hearts aren’t just on their sleeves, they’re pinned to their foreheads.

And guess what? Chicks dig it.

It’s curious to see how the Jack/ Ennis model of ideal manhood has come about just as metrosexuality -- that marketing campaign for hair gel disguised as a social trend -- is on the wane. A few years ago, men were being encouraged to access their inner woman by wearing turtlenecks and filling their apartments with “Queer Eye"-sanctioned Pier 1 furniture. As profitable as this may have been for cable-TV channels and the grooming-product industry, the result was a bumper crop of disturbingly aromatic men whose idea of expressing their feelings was to buy throw pillows.

“Brokeback” represents a welcome backlash to that faux male sensitivity. Instead of merely acquiring the trappings of kinder, gentler manhood, Jack and Ennis actually walk the walk. The sight of Jake Gyllenhaal crying in his truck as he drives away from Ennis (who retreats to an alley and vomits in tortured despair) is enough to make even the bitterest woman swoon.

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THAT MOMENT, like so many in the film, feels like an epiphany not because of the gay context but because for once someone other than the woman is crying. Traditionally, women have done the heavy emotional lifting. We’re the ones who scream and probe and force conversations about the relationship while the man stews in confusion as to whether he’s feeling vulnerable or just hungry for a steak. With Jack and Ennis, however, there’s no woman to pick up the emotional slack, and they’re forced to experience their feelings without the benefit of female translation or analysis. In other words, they are (at least for each other) as emotionally available as it gets.

Talk about something being worth the price of admission! For women, “Brokeback Mountain” is kind of like a vacation from our own brains, at least the part of our brains that obsesses over relationships. Instead, we get to watch men express the feelings we always want them to express but often end up doing for them. The sex, whatever the brand, is incidental compared to the unprecedented purity of male emotion on the screen.

Gay men may relate to this film in more complicated ways, but from where I sat, the effect on heterosexuals seemed pretty clear-cut. To my left was my (straight male) date, who I occasionally caught checking his watch and hiding his eyes during the love scenes (though he claimed he was simply rubbing them). To my right was a woman who, when she wasn’t talking back at the screen (“Say yes, Ennis! Say yes!”) was loudly sobbing through much of the picture. For my part, I was just pretending Heath Ledger was vomiting because of me.

Though what “Brokeback Mountain” amounts to, in effect, is female-targeted emotional pornography, both sexes of all inclinations could learn a thing or two from it. By acting like men but emoting like women, by embodying both sides of the divide, Jack and Ennis cover all the bases of the romantic equation. This makes more conventional movie characters -- male or female -- seem woefully one-dimensional by comparison.

And all without buying a tube of hair gel.


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