Is Brokeback Mountain about the West? Sort of

 

The movie Brokeback Mountain moved slowly through film festivals, winning raves, then on to limited release, and now it's up for a pile of Oscars and is making wannabe Westerners think twice about wearing that Stetson.

In Salt Lake City, theater-owner Larry Miller ramped up the rhetoric by canceling a showing at one of his venues. Miller owns large chunks of the Salt Lake City economy, including the Utah Jazz basketball team, a community college campus, a throng of Honda and Toyota dealerships and assorted entertainment spots from theaters to automobile racetracks. It’s no secret he made up his mind about the movie early on.

For historical reference, Miller is the same tons-of-fun guy who once came boiling out of the stands to fight a basketball player he disapproved of. He also signed alleged Jazz basketball center Craig Ostertag twice. So, you can see that prudence is not a big part of his skill set.

While I enjoyed both the 1997 versions of the Jazz and Honda Accord, I can't cut Miller much slack here. He cancelled Brokeback Mountain while the movie was showing in the outer provinces of Logan, Utah, where I live. Salt Lake City is a mere $110 cab ride from Park City and the always-edgy Sundance Film Festival. One would think "who cares?" But the really crazy part is he canceled the movie without even seeing it.

Like Miller, most people don't really see the West before they make up their minds. They cancel out the reality and insert what they think it should be. People still think the West is idyllic and immune from statistics and the laws of probability. That's really the only thing that makes the movie shocking. The movie wouldn't make news, and Brokeback Mountain wouldn't be up for a rusty pick-up truckload of awards, if it were not set in the cowboy West of a few decades ago. The truth is: Gays, lesbians, Democrats, Republicans, poverty, drug use, divorce, fundamentalists, homicidal teenagers and tree-huggers all coexist in the West, and always have. The cowboy West really only existed in Marlboro County ads and tourist posters.

The marketing teams forgot to mention that just off-camera, there were lots of regular people living their gay, straight or in-between lives.

The movie is based on a story by Annie Proulx that was originally published in the New Yorker magazine before being brought to the screen by a Taiwanese director. So maybe it just took Easterners and a far Easterner to bring Proulx’s heartfelt, place-based tale of forbidden and dangerous love to the public. You do have to wonder why they chose the West as the setting. One answer is that a gay couple living in Manhattan or San Francisco is nothing new and fairly safe. You’re not safe in a culture that makes 100 percent macho men the only men allowed — even in the liberal 1960s, where the movie romance begins.

But that dang press keeps getting it wrong. They keep calling it a "gay cowboy movie" when anyone with a Western eye for detail can quickly point out that it is more a gay sheepherder movie. This is a pretty big error in continuity, since in the real history of the West, sheep and cattle mixed about as freely as Yankees and Confederates.

As a side note, some of the only special effects in this languorous tale involve fake sheep. Getting two Hollywood leading-man hunks to act out a love story was nothing compared to trying to get a thousand sheep to walk along the edge of a cliff in just the right light. Director Ang Lee obviously didn't do much research on Suffolk sheep, so he had to digitally add a few hundred to the flock.

Another maddening twist is that the spectacular scenery in the movie wasn’t made in Wyoming; most of the movie was shot in Alberta, Canada. So, all in all, Western purists can sleep comfortably, knowing that this movie was only a Taiwanese misinterpretation set against a liberal Canadian backdrop.

Apparently, this hasn't stopped an influx of calls to the Wyoming office of tourism. Even when people are told that the movie's backdrop is the Canadian Rockies, they don't seem to care. They still like the idea of Wyoming better than the real place.

Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Logan, Utah, where he works in extension communications for Utah State University.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • SENIOR ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking a Senior Environmental Planner to lead the Nature in the City team. This interdisciplinary position is housed in...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) is seeking a dynamic community engagement assistant. The individual will work to identify and empower members, supporters, volunteers, and others...
  • VOICES OF WISDOM 2019 SOUTHWEST
    May 25 & 26 At the bank of the Colorado River, at Riverbend Park in Palisade, Colorado, the Sacred Fire Community in the Grand Valley...
  • PHILANTHROPY COORDINATOR
    Wyoming Wildlife Federation - collaborates with the Executive Director and staff to ensure the effective implementation of all philanthropic activities. https://wyomingwildlife.org/hiring-philanthropy-coordinator/.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    HawkWatch International is hiring an Executive Director to lead the organization. The next leader of this growing organization must have: 1. Enthusiasm for conservation, birds...
  • EVERLAND MOUNTAIN RETREAT
    Everland Mountain Retreat includes 318 mountaintop acres with a 3,200 square foot lodge and two smaller homes. Endless vistas of the Appalachian mountains, open skies,...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Home Resource is a non-profit community sustainability center. We work with, in, and for the community to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and...
  • COUNTRY ESTATE NEAR KINGS CANYON AND SEQUOIA PARKS
    Spectacular views of snowcapped Sierras. 15 miles from Kings Canyon/Sequoia Parks. 47 acres with 2 homes/75' pool/gym/patios/gardens. 1670 sq.ft. main home has 3 bdrm/1 bath....
  • BRN DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Borderlands Restoration Network 501c3 is hiring a full-time Development Director. Description and job details can be found at https://www.borderlandsrestoration.org/job-opportunities.html
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST NEW MEXICO
    Beautiful off-the-grid passive solar near the CDT. 9.4 acres, north of Silver City. Sam, 575.388.1921
  • WEB DESIGN AND CONTENT MANAGER
    We are seeking an experienced designer to be the team lead for web development and digital media. Part creator and part planner, this person should...
  • CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER
    at RCAC. See the full description at https://bit.ly/2WJ3HvY Apply at [email protected]
  • GRASSROOTS ORGANIZER
    The Utah Rivers Council is looking for an energetic individual with strong communication and organizing skills. The Grassroots Organizer works to ensure our campaigns are...
  • JOHN DEERE SNOW BLOWER 24"
    Newly refurbished and tuned. Older model, great condition. Gasoline engine. Chains on tires. Heavy duty for mountain snow. Call cellphone and leave message or email.
  • STRAW BALE, ADOBE, TIMBER FRAME, HEALTHY HOME, NEAR LA VETA PASS, CO
    unique custom home in Sangre de Cristo Mountains of CO near La Veta Pass, 3 bed, 2 1/2 bath, private gated park, two hours from...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Flathead Lakers are seeking a dynamic, self-motivated and proven leader to be our next Executive Director (ED).
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Blackfoot Challenge, a renowned collaborative conservation org in MT, seeks our next ED.
  • COPPER CANYON MEXICO CAMPING & BACKPACKING
    Camping, hiking, backpacking, R2R2R, Tarahumara Easter, Mushroom Festival, www.coppercanyontrails.org.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, ALASKA
    Earthjustice is hiring for a Staff Attorney
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    to lead an organization that funds projects in National Parks. Major gift fundraising and public lands experience critical. PD and app details @ peopleinparks.org.