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Tom Chaney: What Might Have Been

Of Writers And Their Books: What Might Have Been Tom discusses the differences between movies and novels and comments on Brokeback Mountain and the Oscars. This column first appeared 12 March 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Manhunt!

By Tom Chaney

What Might Have Been
Brokeback Mountain and the Oscars

I am always leery of a movie based on a piece of fiction. A well-written novel or short story can have such complexities of plot and character that the film maker's choices rarely ever reflect what I would have chosen, so I am easily disappointed.

The vocabulary of film is not the vocabulary of the novel. A lengthy description of character or relationship in a novel may be communicated by a shot of an actor's head, a single tear, or the hint of a smile. The same is true of mood and weather and the intricate relationships of visual imagery as opposed to verbal.

The film Brokeback Mountain, based on the Annie Proulx short story of the same name, won three Oscar awards for three elements that distinguish a fine movie from a prose version of the same material. Those awards were to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for best adapted screenplay, to Ang Lee for best director, and to Gustavo Santaolalla for best score.

Both as story and screenplay Brokeback Mountain strikes at the heart of western storytelling. Annie Proulx and Larry McMurtry are both masters at demolishing "old West clichés. (They) excavate and honor a certain kind of elusive life, then nearly level you with the emotional weight of the center," according to Gail Caldwell of the Boston Sunday Globe.

Let's talk about the story. "Brokeback Mountain," says Walter Kirn, "is the sad chronology of a love affair between two men who can't afford to call it that. They know what they're not -- not queer, not gay -- but have no idea what they are."

This is not your usual western story, yet we should have been ready for it based on McMurtry's other fine work. Male friendship was carried to new depths in the fine television marathon, Lonesome Dove. And the explicitness of Brokeback Mountain is certainly foreshadowed in The Last Picture Show and Hud, the latter based on his Rider Pass By.

Some essayists (I don't want to call a writer a critic who refuses to even see the movie which he lambastes, such as Mr. Albert Mohler of the Baptist seminary in Louisville) have decried that Brokeback Mountain will cause the death of male friendship. This is nonsense. Writers from the Hebrews to the Greeks to the present time have dealt openly with the subject of love between two men. Perhaps the pseudo moralists amongst us make the subject harder to handle these days. The ostrich approach will not work -- not in life, not in the legislature.

But Proulx and McMurtry capture the same vision, communicate the same depth of understanding in both story and screenplay.

They are well-served by the work of Ang Lee the Taiwanese director who transforms the image of the story into cinematography.

One scene leaps to mind. The two characters, Ennis and Jack meet when they are taking a herd of sheep up into the mountains for the summer. They meet at the trail and head up to pasture. "Ennis and Jack, the dogs, horses and mules, a thousand ewes and their lambs flowed up to trail like dirty water through the timber and out above the tree line into the great flowery meadows and the coursing, endless wind."

Lee gets that scene exactly right. It is breath taking.

The ambiguity of Jack's death whether by exploding tire rim or at the hand of a hate monger with tire iron is deftly managed.

And Santaolalla's brilliant score picks up the futility of the relationship between Jack and Ennis with its ambiguous themes and the dissonance of a tune trying to be a melody but never getting there. The vocabulary of the West is suggested in the score, especially with the use of the slide guitar.

In the last few days the Oscar awards have been criticized for not honing in on the most popular films of 2005. Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash deal, according to those critics, with fringe segments of society.

George Clooney, in his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, offered a defense, against the criticism that Hollywood puts out "provocative, but unpopular and left-leaning, movies." "This Academy, this group of people, gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 [for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind] when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters," he said. "I'm proud to be . . . part of this community, proud to be out of touch."

Let us celebrate the films that are on the cutting edge of modern life. Perhaps they make us a bit uneasy with life as it exists. Perhaps they make us really squirm. So be it.

Was it not the apostle Paul who himself had a thorn in the flesh to keep him in touch with the real?

Perhaps a better image is that movies such as Brokeback Mountain serve as a burr under our too comfortable saddle.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

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