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Thursday, March 16, 2006

"Brokeback Mountain" / "The Three Melquiades Estrada"

Back in the saddle

Revisionist westerns return to the screen

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Jake Gyllenhall and Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain" (c) 2005 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.
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Tommy Lee Jones and Barry Pepper in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" (C) 2005 EUROPACORP-JAVELINA FILM COMPANY

Once upon a time in the old westerns, men were men and they did manly things without worrying too much about the subtext. These days, it's rather hard to peruse an old western like "Ride a Wild Stud" or "Battle of the Buttes" without having to suppress a knowing chuckle.

The western, that last bastion of mythical American masculinity, has been queered irrevocably by "Brokeback Mountain," director Ang Lee's film of Annie E. Proulx's short story of two young cowboys herding sheep in Wyoming in 1963 who become something more than just friends.

True, this may be the first "gay cowboy" movie -- though that's true only if you discount Andy Warhol's 1968 camp-fest "Lonesome Cowboys" -- but what "Brokeback Mountain" is doing is continuing in a long tradition of revisionist westerns. In fact, this month in Tokyo, we've another one, too: Tommy Lee Jones both directs and stars in "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," another modern western scripted by "Amores perros"' writer Guillermo Arriaga, who puts a distinctly south-of-the-border spin on the proceedings.

Old West into new

The western has been Hollywood's most enduring genre, at once both shoot-'em-up entertainment and sacred repository of national myth. In time, the cowboy became a symbol of rugged individualism, freedom, chivalry, strength and national will. Or, in the eyes of many non-Americans, a symptom of a maverick, reckless and violent culture. Witness how often George W. Bush has been described as practicing "cowboy diplomacy."

Watch any western from 50-odd years ago -- say, Howard Hughes' "The Outlaw" or Gregory Peck in "The Gunfighter" -- and you'll see a lawless land full of both opportunity and danger, where a cowboy must depend on his own resources to defend his life and liberty. Anyone wishing to understand America's worldview today would do well to grasp the lessons imparted by literally hundreds of cowboy flicks, serials, and television series between the 1920s and the '70s.

It was only after the country's moral and historical consensus began to unravel in the late '60s -- under the strains of feminism, the civil rights movement and opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam -- that the western also lost its moral certainty. John Wayne, the Schwarzenegger of his day, star of so many classic Westerns (from "Rio Bravo" to "Fort Apache") and the embodiment of machismo, came down squarely on the side of empire, endorsing the brutal Vietnam War with "The Green Berets." A bad move, since this forced questions long left unspoken: If you were opposed to napalming Asian villages, then you had to wonder, exactly why was Wayne shooting all those Indians in his previous movies? The genre started to lose revelance, and soon even long-running TV serials like "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke" would be gone.

At first, it looked like the western was dead, out of sync with the times, and with new attitudes. And yet, the mythical pull of the western on the national psyche was such that its critics, rather than ignore the genre, decided to produce their own.

Thus was born the revisionist western. Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," (1969) reflecting the televised and seemingly pointless carnage of Vietnam, made a film where "you'd really feel what it's like to get shot." Dustin Hoffman starred in "Little Big Man" (1970), which at last showed the genocide of Native Americans for what it was. (And, lest we forget, was the first "gay Indian" movie.) "A Man Called Horse" also had a white man "go native," with a fairly sympathetic depiction of Indian life.

Sergio Leone, meanwhile, introduced a cool nihilism to his "spaghetti westerns," with star Clint Eastwood in films like "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," an implicit debunking of the six-gun chivalry on display in so many earlier westerns. Hippie icon Peter Fonda even weighed in with "The Hired Hand," which posited -- horror of horrors! -- that life at home with a woman could be preferable to cold nights and tinned beans with smelly men on the range (which makes it the polar opposite of "Brokeback Mountain.")

Out on the range

After a Reagan-era hiatus, the revisionist movement really took off again after Kevin Costner's sympathetic look at Native Americans, "Dances With Wolves," won the Best Picture Oscar in '91. Clint Eastwood's gritty, realist anti-western "Unforgiven" took Best Picture in '92, but no other western has even had a shot until "Brokeback Mountain." Ang Lee took home the Academy Award for Best Director last week, while Gustavo Santaolalla's plaintive guitar score also won; Heath Ledger was robbed of Best Actor, but this is definitely the highest profile western of the past decade, and certainly an unlikely one.

On the surface, the idea of "Brokeback Mountain" -- having two popular, straight mainstream stars playing a gay couple in an unabashedly romantic story -- is a bold one. But then again, there was Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung in 1997's "Happy Together," the emergence of prime-time U.S. TV shows like "Will & Grace" and "Queer Eye" -- and who hasn't seen Hard Gay on the tube here? So the question arises: In 2006, is this really so radical a film?

Well, context is everything, and queering the cowboy image still feels radical. The extent to which "Brokeback Mountain" works can be attributed almost entirely to Ledger's shape-shifting performance, and his appropriation of the classic Marlboro Man image. His Ennis is certainly no queen; in straight-leg jeans and boots, his hat pulled low over his eyes, his face gives away nothing, and his growl of a voice is rarely heard beyond a long "yeeeaahp," because, well, there ain't hardly nothin' worth sayin' nohow. He's the kind of guy who verbalizes his emotions once every decade or so, while not hesitating a second to physically challenge some bikers who are cussing a blue streak in front of women and children. Brooding, gruff, self-contained, tough, he's every inch the classic cowboy; it doesn't take much to picture him riding with "The Magnificent Seven."

Which is what makes "Brokeback Mountain" truly subversive, whereas Warhol's film was nothing more than New York bohemians flipping the bird at Texan steak-eaters. Society seeks to marginalize gays -- or criminalize or even sometimes exterminate them -- through painting them as some sort of deviant other. "Brokeback Mountain" makes the case, in the most mainstream way possible, that you can be every inch the macho, gun-shootin', bean-eatin', whiskey-swillin' cow-poke and like guys better.

Some would say this is nothing new; there has been plenty of ink spilled over the supposed homosexual undertones in many past westerns. Given the western's frequent glorification of all-male life on the range, with women kept back on the farm or in the brothel, this was perhaps unavoidable. But while there is a case to be made -- I mean, how many times did Rock Hudson don a Stetson? -- all too much of this criticism seems spurious. Sure, you can argue for a queer subtext in, say, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" -- notice the way Butch keeps popping up annoyed whenever Sundance is talking to his flame Etta, and just why is his name "Butch?" -- but you can't pin it down. Sometimes a buddy is just a buddy.

The clearest precedents for the transgressiveness of "Brokeback Mountain" lie on the fringes of the traditional western. In 1969 "Midnight Cowboy" John Voight played a buckskin and Stetson-clad gigolo whose relationship with his roommate/fixer Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) was just shy of homosexual. Meanwhile, Stephen Frears' "The Hi-Lo Country" (1998) had ranch-hand Billy Crudup assault his best friend Woody Harrelson's girlfriend out of jealousy -- but jealousy for her or for him was a question that remained hanging in this excellent but oft-overlooked film.

Turning the tables

It would be simplistic to refer to traditional westerns as somehow representing a single "status quo," especially given the number of outlaws it glorified, or the thematic depth of works like John Ford's "The Searchers." But revisionist westerns have often followed a loosely leftist, postmodern critique, seeking to question and broaden the genre's assumptions on race, gender, class, and sexuality. Thus, the Native Americans earned some long overdue payback with (avowedly liberal) Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves."

Follow-ups like Mario Van Peebles' "Posse," with its rap soundtrack, or the gunslinging feminism of "Bad Girls," however, seemed to wear their issues on their sleeves, and were too ahistorical to convince.

Latinos, though, have still been waiting for some riposte to a century's worth of shiftless, sneaky, steenking bandidos. In some ways, the 2004 remake of "The Alamo" was more radical than "Brokeback Mountain" even, offering a nod of respect to the Mexican soldiers and noting that the Texan Anglos were largely seceding to maintain their slave-owning rights. This was too much for U.S. audiences, however, who perceived it as politically correct, and it died at the box office.

"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is unburdened by myth, and has an easier time scoring its points. Screenwriter Arriaga, himself from Mexico, is clear to show the casual racism of cowboy-styled Texans toward "wetbacks." Arriaga also enjoys the chance to show a border patrol agent getting his comeuppance, though at times the justice seems a bit too poetic, like when the illegal Mexican border crosser he slugs early in the first reel turns out to be the herbalist/healer who has to save him from a rattlesnake bite in the last reel.

"Three Burials' " long horseback trek across the border region from Texas to Mexico brings to mind many classic westerns, despite its modern setting with the fugitives pursued by helicopters and SUVs. And the code of personal honor displayed by rancher Pete Perkins (Jones) in his almost crazed determination to bury his murdered friend in his Mexican hometown, would not be out of place in an old-school cowboy flick.

In many respects, though, "Three Burials" seems like a riff on Sam Peckinpah's delirious "Bring me the Head of Alfredo Garcia." Like that film, it has its protagonist spend most of the film carting around a corpse, although the black humor that arises this time may not be intentional.

More problematic is the film's resemblance to Arriaga's last one, "21 Grams." The theme of a character who accidentally kills someone and spends the whole film getting beaten down before finally finding redemption is almost identical.

Near the end of "Three Burials," Perkins arrives in the heart of Mexico only to find that his friend's hometown no longer exists. It's a fitting metaphor for our relationship to the Old West: gone for good, but a dream still lingering in our heads.

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