Lead actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger gave the kind of extraordinary performances that will, for better or worse, indelibly color their future careers. In the film, neither character has any doubt about his masculine gender, but Gyllenhaal as Jack is more accepting of his homoeroticism whereas Ledger, as Ennis, is drawn against his will to submit to Jack's overtures. In their first coupling we watch Jack spit in his hand and director Ang Lee discreetly lets us imagine what follows.
But for straight men in the audience, even this euphemism can be a psychological challenge, if not a threat. What is the male audience supposed to think and how are they supposed to feel? Director Ang Lee's answer seems to be that they should be able to suspend their own sexual taboos and accept with tolerance what they see on the screen. As for what they should feel, there are only 2 minutes of homoerotic activity and no frontal nudity in this slow moving film that lingers over the beauty of the tree-capped mountains and the pristine wilderness. Hopefully, heterosexual men will feel neither the excitement of arousal and attraction nor the repulsion of dismay and disgust. That, at least, seems to be Lee's directorial formula and perhaps that is why Brokeback Mountain was able to make it out of select theaters in urban America and continue to draw large attentive audiences in the red states and around the world.
When Ang Lee received the Oscar for Best Director he saluted his lead characters Ennis and Jack, "they taught us all so much, not just about the gay men and women whose love is denied by society, but just as importantly about the greatness of love itself." This emphasis on "love itself" was certainly how Lee directed the film. What one sees are 2 men falling in love, and it is this love that ruins their conventional marriages and inexplicably binds them together. "Why can't I quit you, Ennis?" has become the tagline of the movie. This attachment to a doomed love that lasts their lifetime, rather than a celebration and display of the "differences" in homoerotic Eros, is the spin of the movie. For some in the gay community this lack of display was "covering"--suppressing the free expression of sexual identity to reassure the heterosexual majority. They complained about Lee's euphemistic restraints, about the fact that neither the lead actors nor the director were gay, and about the "love itself" marketing of the film. But for mainstream audiences, Brokeback Mountain was gay enough, and its star-crossed lovers evoked compassion and tolerance.
Although Ennis and Jack actually herd sheep and not cattle, the film passed into popular culture as the "gay cowboy movie." Cowboy movies are, of course, a uniquely American genre that shaped the American identity--they gave us the paradigm of masculinity, and put us all into blue jeans.
If the tragic love story of Brokeback Mountain allowed audiences to experience a new attitude of empathy and tolerance, as a gay cowboy movie mocking the icon of Hollywood Westerns it was an irresistible invitation to locker room humor. Every talk show host and stand-up comedian had a "gay cowboy" routine. The cultural legacy of tolerance that Ang Lee's film aesthetic gave us was rapidly replaced by derisive humor. The New Yorker, which had published the original Annie Proulx story, delivered the coup de grace in February of this year after the Vice President's infamous hunting accident. The editors could not resist their derisive impulse so they put Cheney and Bush as Ennis and Jack on the cover.
Woody Allen--in one of his moments of wacky genius--has a character in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors who says "Comedy is tragedy plus time." This could describe the cultural fate of Brokeback Mountain since there are already over a million gay cowboy jokes referenced on Google and "brokeback" has entered our vocabulary as a new derisive euphemism for gay.
Crash is neither tragedy nor comedy and certainly it is no landmark in film or in American culture. Indeed it has the same title as David Cronenberg's 1996 cult film starring James Spader and Holly Hunter, in which automobile crashes were meant to be a source of sexual excitement. Apparently 1-word titles cannot be copyrighted, and so Paul Haggis, who cowrote and directed the Oscar winning Crash, was able to borrow Cronenberg's title, just as he borrowed almost everything else he put into the film.
Haggis, a long time TV writer/director, likes to tell about the recurrent nightmares he used to have. He would wake up in a cold sweat having seen his own tombstone inscribed, "The creator of Walker, Texas Ranger." He feared that was to be the measure of his artistic talent. But that measure changed when he wrote the screenplay for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby--last year's Best Picture. In it Haggis demonstrates that he is a man who knows how to find new life in old clichés. That is what he has done again in the Oscar-winning film, Crash.