In theory, five movies will be competing for the Best Picture prize when the Oscars are awarded this Sunday. In practice, there are two candidates, Brokeback Mountain and everything else. In the world concocted by the movie's publicists—both paid and volunteer—the future of gay rights rests on Brokeback's ability to win Academy Awards; a victory for anything else would be a victory for the forces of reaction. A cadre of anti-Mountain men have played their role in the kabuki drama, condemning the nominee as a "stomach-churning story" (allegedly virginal columnist Ben Shapiro), a "very dangerous message to America's youth" (allegedly former homosexual Stephen Bennett), and a "twisted, laughable, frustrating, plotless and boring piece of homosexual, neo-Marxist propaganda" (WorldNetDaily's Ted Baehr). As is usually the case with these overblown culture-war skirmishes, I find the picture being debated both hard to like and hard to despise. But this battle's premise seems especially dubious.
The big myth about Brokeback Mountain is that it's a gay cowboy movie. I'm not saying that to downplay the film's gay content, and I'm not making the pedantic point that the cowboys are actually shepherds. (That distinction may be significant in real life, but in Hollywood, as in Nashville, all you need to be a cowboy is the right kind of hat.) I'm saying it isn't a cowboy movie, a distinct genre whose motifs we all know. Ang Lee's film falls into a different tradition, that subgenre of romance in which a couple that wants to be united faces a seemingly impenetrable barrier: They're married to different people, or they come from different social classes, or they're on a big boat that's about to sink, or they come from different social classes and they're on a big boat that's about to sink, or one of them is a self-absorbed playboy who inadvertently causes the death of his would-be girlfriend's husband and then accidentally blinds her. (They made that last one twice.) Sometimes the lovers manage to overcome those obstacles and sometimes the affair is doomed, but the story's archetypal quality, from Romeo and Juliet through Titanic, is that impassable wall, that impossible longing.
If the couples in such sagas are traditionally heterosexual, their audience has always included a disproportionate number of gays, presumably because they find the idea of forbidden love particularly resonant. There are reasons why, say, the soapy dramas Douglas Sirk made in the '50s became iconic in the queer community, influencing gay directors from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Pedro Almadovar to Todd Haynes. Like Far from Heaven, Haynes' uneven tribute to Sirk, Brokeback takes a template that has always suggested the closet and makes it literally about the closet.
This suits Lee, a literal-minded director whose recent specialty has been to build arty middlebrow confections out of watered-down genre material: the kung fu flick (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the superhero movie (Hulk), and now this fragile fusion of the western and the weepie. There are three chief differences between Brokeback and Lee's last two features: It has less portentous dialogue, it has more portentous symbolism, and it puts poorly lit sex scenes where the poorly lit fight scenes used to be. I'm not a devotee of the romantic tear-jerker myself, but I can see a distinction between Sirk's better melodramas, dreamlike stories that invite the audience to find a garbled reflection of their inner lives onscreen, and a movie like Brokeback Mountain, which is too literal to be a dreamscape, too careless to be realistic (how did a country record released in 1988 end up in a jukebox in 1978?), and too timid to be a bold political statement. The best thing it has going for it is the photography, and I never cared for the Out of Africa school of filmmaking that confuses a coffee-table book with a movie.
But it's fun to watch critics embrace it. The paradigmatic positive review came from Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times, who called the picture "a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart just as so many mainstream films have before it. The two lovers here just happen to be men." The "just happen" locution offended Daniel Mendelsohn, who collected several such statements in The New York Review of Books and argued they were an attempt to pretend there's nothing especially gay about the story. To me they sound more like liberal self-congratulation, an upgraded version of the fellow who makes a show of declaiming his color-blindness. ("They were men? Frankly, I never noticed.")
But there's another possibility. What if the movie really is striking a universal chord? What if heterosexual audiences are projecting themselves onto these sheepherders the same way gay audiences once projected themselves onto Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman? That would make for some gloriously complicated sexual politics. But it isn't the sort of thing to stress if you want to win an Oscar. The Academy prefers its politics predigested.