A stunning, enrapturing film, a crowning work by one of the American cinema’s most essential artists.
TORONTO -- "I was never a citizen of any particular place," Ang Lee tells me. "My parents left China to go to Taiwan. We were outsiders there. We moved to the States. Outsiders. Back to China. Now we were outsiders there, too -- outsiders from America."
He stirs his tea and inhales. Doesn't drink it yet. Ang Lee is such an outsider that both of his children were born in my hometown in Illinois. One year I was interviewing the arriving nominees at the Oscars and he told me proudly, "These are my two Urbana children!" People then asked me, "What kind of children did he say they were? Did they have some kind of condition?"
"Everywhere can be home and everywhere is not really home and you have to deal with loneliness and alienation," Ang Lee tells me. "I'm old enough to realize that eventually you have to deal with loneliness, anyway. I'm happily married, I love my children, but eventually you have to deal with yourself. I trust the elusive world created by movies more than anything else. I'm very happy when I'm making a movie. I live on the other side of the screen."
In that sentence, he explains why his movies are so different one from another. We look at their outer worlds. He lives inside them, where they are all the same world -- his. He makes comedies like "Eat Drink Man Woman" (1993) and angst like "The Ice Storm" (1997) and science fiction like "Hulk" (2003) and martial arts fantasies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000) and EngLit adaptations like "Sense And Sensibility" (1995), and now here is his "Brokeback Mountain" (opening Friday), about two young cowhands in Wyoming who discover they are gay and have absolutely no way of dealing with that fact.
The movie stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, who take summer jobs in 1963 as sheepherders on a mountainside. For days and days, they seem to be waiting for something, and then one night, suddenly, they make love. "That was a one-time thing," they agree in the morning. But then it is night again, and their destinies are fixed. They are doomed to be in love for the rest of their lives, in a world that has given them no way to understand homosexuality and no one to discuss it with.
The movie is based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx. "I never asked her why she called it 'Brokeback,' " Ang Lee says. "I was scared to ask her."
Later that same day, during the Toronto Film Festival, I spoke with Heath Ledger, who sometimes seems as surprised to be an actor as his character is surprised to be a homosexual.
"He was fighting against his genetic structure," Ledger says of Ennis, his character. "He's fighting against every tradition and fear that has been passed down to him. I worked to try to physicalize his fear. His words have to battle their way out of his mouth."
Growing up in Australia, he said, he knew ranch hands and sheepherders. "They work daylight to nightfall on a horse, with gravity pulling down on their shoulders. At quitting time, when they dismount, they walk differently. Getting off a horse is like a sailor stepping ashore. Australian ranch hands speak with tense upper lips. I knew how to do that, had seen that, been around it. I figured that was to keep the flies out of their mouths."
Is that a smile?
Heath Ledger will probably win an Oscar nomination for this performance. "I never went to acting school," he says. "I never had a black empty performing space and a pair of black pajamas to run around in and express myself. All of my mistakes are on film."
None of them are in "Brokeback Mountain."
"Ennis hated himself for the form of love he felt for Jack," he said. "That's how I played his journey. What's so important about his relationship with his children is that's the one area in his life he felt confident about.
"It's a pattern of mine, no matter what the story is or the character, to find out whether I doubt myself. Doubt myself, or the character doubts himself, or both. Huge amounts of fear and doubt, that I don't know how to do it. If I think far enough ahead, I wouldn't be brave enough to make a choice like this."
But he was.
"At one point I had to take a step back from a career, which was somewhat handed to me on a platter. Which I felt I didn't deserve. handed to me at a young age. I had to walk away a little and make more interesting choices."
In the movie, the characters played by Gyllenhaal and Ledger both get married. Gyllenhaal is more willing to accept his hidden feelings. He thinks maybe one day they could run a ranch together. Ledger knows a couple of guys who got killed when they tried that.
"They don't really ever talk to each other," Ang Lee tells me. "Not about that. This story is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove in everything but its sexuality. I discussed this with McMurtry, who wrote the screenplay. Lonesome Dove was ripe for a homosexual love story. It took a foreigner like me or a woman like Annie to tip that over and spill it out and get rid of the metaphor and just see it. It's just there. I began to realize, in that particular time, they have no understanding of their behavior. Nor do their wives. All they feel is a private, very romantic idea of falling in love, which they cannot discuss. We say we fall in love. It's like falling into a void. Are you afraid to take the fall? The most powerful thing in their lives is something that is missing.
"Heath Ledger, the movie rides on him. He's able to carry that mythical, elegiac Western thing. A macho environment in which he's scared and private. It happens after they climb higher to where the air is thinner and everything is unknown and a mystery. That's Brokeback to me."
Finally he sipped his tea.
"I'm experienced enough to know," he said, "that the hardest thing to tell is an epic short story. Slices of life that add up to an epic feeling. You have to choose small details that feel like they add up to gaps of two or three years, between their meetings. It looks easy but it's not, especially since they never talk about it. One day I said to Annie, 'Your terse prose is very hard to bring to the screen.' You know what she said to me?"
What did she say to you?
"She said, 'That's your job.' "
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