What I didn't like about the advance hype I read about the movie
I knew that I would eventually see Brokeback Mountain at some point, but I wasn't rushing off immediately to do so. The premise wasn't one that held particular interest for me, and besides I kept reading and reading "It's not really a gay movie" "It's not really a gay movie".
Well, if it's not really a gay movie then why should I see it? I see plenty of movies that aren't really gay movies. I want to see a gay movie.
Some of my feelings about the hype surrounding the category of "gay movie" go back to the period 25-30 years ago when gay themed novels could not get reviewed in the mainstream press. People don't believe me when I say this, but it's absolutely true. I vividly remember the first few reviews of explicitly gay novels in the New York Times Book Review, which were all small reviews in the general section and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM criticized the books for not being universal in theme. Yes, really. Because, as we all know, the way for a book to be "universal" is for it to be about straight white people, usually men. Seriously. The New York Times. I'm not joking. It infuriated me.
I suppose I should consider it a 180 degree turnaround improvement that Roger Ebert's review of Brokeback Mountain explained in detail that it is through very particular situations that universal themes are explored (his review is not part of what I'm complaining about in the advance hype), and this is good and correct. But it does not pacify me that there should even be a need to explain this extraordinarily obvious fact. It's much better than those old book reviews I mention, but it's still the flip side of the same coin.
Another reason I wasn't specifically excited about the movie in advance is idiosyncratic, but I happen to know a fair number of gay men who eroticize the cowboy image and who were REALLY excited about this movie, as if it promised to be the best porn film of the decade. I feared that if I saw the film I'd have to sit through too many discussions about the film with a primary evaluation metric of "how hot was that guy?", which is a valid metric I suppose (entertainment is entertainment) but one that I wouldn't find of particular interest or worth more than a half-sentence. Fortunately, in my experience, the advance salivating did not translate into this sort of post-film lip-smacking, which says something for how good the film really was as a film, although I did come across (second-hand) a criticism that the "cowboys" in the film weren't rough and dirty enough to be "real" cowboys so they weren't as hot as the reviewer had hoped. Um, ok. So, whadja' think about the perfect grooming of the scantily-clad female prisoners in Chicago?
What I liked about the movie
I changed my mind about wanting to make a point of seeing the film when my father, who saw it almost immediately, told me how much he liked the film and how moved he was by it. As my mother pointed out to me, my father cries at Hallmark cards, but even so my parents will sometimes recommend a movie very highly to me and I don't recall that they've ever steered me wrong. So I saw the film during its opening weekend in Minneapolis.
I liked the movie a whole lot more than I feared I would -- that is, I had feared I wouldn't like it much but I liked it a good deal. I thought the movie as a whole, and the emotions it conveyed, and the performances, were generally first rate. I was particularly impressed that the dialog mattered. Over the last couple of decades I have become less of a film fan because films have become more about charismatic actors in farcical or adventurous situations and less and less about the words spoken. I was particularly impressed that the movie felt like this to me despite its spare and simple dialog, sometimes in sentences of one-syllable words. I found particular lines resonant: "I don't know how to quit you." "Women don't fall in love with fun." You have to listen, then you think, and then you feel. Or at least I do, and I did, and I did.
I didn't cry, any more than I would cry at the ending of a Greek tragedy. The sorrow of the movie was woven into its fiber throughout, so to me there was no punch of sadness to set me off even though the film did move me.
What I didn't like about much of the commentary I've read about the movie afterward
Since the movie opened I have read many, many opinions and comments about it, and for the most part I'm surprised and impressed at the richness and nuance and general engagement of the discussion. People have found much to think about in this film. And yet...
Folks, this is not a documentary about gay life in Montana in the 1960s, any more than The Painted Bird is an historical resource about the holocaust. This is not a polemic about the importance of gay marriage. I'm on much shakier ground with this statement, but this movie's quality is not directly correlated with how well it tells your own specific story about your years in the closet, even if how well it resonates with your specifics is part of what makes up its quality. In other words, it is fiction. All of the emotions you feel when watching this, all of the ways the movie touches or does not touch you, all of the ways it makes you think -- these come from the building blocks of fiction, and how fiction can address the issues and concerns of the non-fictional (although perhaps internal) world.
Fiction is amazing and wonderful and has far more power than many in our technocratic culture would give it, and I think that's why people seem to be framing their responses as if the film were to be judged on how "real" it is. Of course it's real, but what's real about it is the emotions and concerns it addresses, or encourages you to address. Fiction can do this in ways that nonfiction cannot. It is certainly not a lesser thing to consider how well something works as fiction than to consider how well it works as reality.
Whew. It's been decades since I've gone so screedish about, well, art.