I received an e-mail last week from a reader named Jackson asking me a troubling question. He and his friend, I was quickly informed, both love Far From Heaven AND Brokeback Mountain (ohhh how I love my readers) and they want me to decide which is better. Solve that toss-up dilemma!
They were each Gold Medalists in their respective years in my personal awards (2002 & 2005). Normally I'm very averse to matchups between separate years. It's hard enough to make qualitative choices in one given year betwen 100 or so films (and yes, I am a bit behind in my screenings this year --shut up) let alone comparing entries from previous years. This is why I'm so slow to ever do "best of all time lists" --I love too much. I love too many.
Still, I took this reader challenge and watched this Focus Feature double. They share a same basic tragedy: multiple miseries springing from the denial of love. They share other obvious traits, too. Both received triple Oscar nominations for their brilliant performances --huh, what's that? Heaven only received one? Stupid Academy!
And then there's the little matter of gay. Heaven and Brokeback have memorable twin sequences wherein a wife goes nearly catatonic at the surprise sight of her "all man" husband macking on, well, another man. And speaking of homosexuality --it's a major element...though it is rarely articulated. They (that is characters in both films) refer to it as "this thing." Heaven, though, adds a rather brilliant touch in that the men aren't the only closet cases. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is also hiding her true feelings for the man she loves (Raymond, her black gardener played by Dennis Haysbert) --so though the film isn't as audience accessible as the later iconic hit, it also reaches out with a wide intelligent embrace. This, the fear of love and society's ignorant backlash, is not just a gay concern.
I knew all of this already dear readers. But I was still surprised by the experience of watching them back to back. They make for fascinating twins. Fraternal, mind you, despite all of their identicals. Consider:
Period Piece. Heaven takes place in 1957-1958 or thereabouts. Brokeback begins just six years later but the similarities end there. These are entirely different worlds. The first is a spin on cinematic renderings of the era, the second using realism. Both have tremendous production values but Heaven's intrigue me more. Just how does this hyperstylized world so obviously speak directly to the 'now' whilst also paying tribute and critiquing the 'then'? It's an impressive balancing act.
Heavy Drinking. Within the first six minutes of both films the gays are drinking. The boys sure do like their booze. Further inebriated episodes follow for both Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) in Heaven and Jack and Ennis in Brokeback. But in this bender matchup I'll take Brokeback since Frank's drinking tends to lead to public humiliations while Jack and Ennis's lead to roughhousing and, um, roughsex. If you include the girls in the mix, though, Heaven closes the bar. Heath acts the hell out of a hangover, but who can compete with that daquiri soaked girltalk scene?
The Great Wide Open. Heaven features stunningly designed yet highly claustrophic interiors with saturated colors and foreboding shadows. Brokeback's interiors are understandably drab. But notice how true love always takes place outdoors. Jack and Ennis are only happy in nature. Cathy and Raymond discover their love there, too. True love, you see, is completely natural. No matter what Mona Lauder thinks of it! In this pairing I am camping with the Brokeback boys. For obvious reasons.
Marry Me A Little. Heaven has just the one confusing marriage and painful divorce. Brokeback ups the ante with two doomed brides and grooms. I'm closer to Heaven here, which has a wittier take on its central marriage.
Hung Up On You. Both films have a heartbreaking telephone call just prior to their conclusion. Heaven's features a weary Cathy scheduling her divorce paperwork with Frank and carries a sharp sting. But this contest goes to Brokeback which is more like a gutpunch. It's one of those very complex scenes in which two characters (Anne Hathaway's and Heath Ledgers) total strangers say all sorts of things and hear all sorts of things without anything much ever being said. Awesome.
Clothes. A most endearing twin trait of these two grand movies is that they both place an enormous amount of emotional baggage onto an item(s) of clothing. Obviously Cathy Whitaker's favorite scarf, retrieved by her beloved gardener and then worn while watching him depart forever is the more beautiful piece to have in your wardrobe but emotionally those two old shirts hanging together, one inside the other for twenty years, wipe me out. Brokeback sure does know how to work the tearducts.
After three viewings, Brokeback packs a bigger emotional wallop. It has always been, obviously, the more accessible. But Heaven, after five viewings, still holds me completely in a cineastic-fantastic trance. I never ever want to fast forward. It doesn't make me choke up as much (at least not anymore on the fifth or sixth viewing) but I find its complex mix of tones to be so hugely ambitious and mostly successful that it ekes out the overall victory. Plus it has Patty Clarkson so... points for that.
Still and all --Far From Heaven AND Brokeback Mountain are superbly sung battle cries for true love lost to fear and ignorance. So is this contest even fair? It's practically a duet. It's like asking me if I prefer air or water. The film fanatic in me needs both movies to survive.
Which do you prefer, readers?
And can you guess how depressed I was after I watched them back to back?
previous reader requests: Dolly Parton in the Movies (for Dusty) Best Child Actors (for John T) Classics I Haven't Seen (for Glenn) Favorite Animals (for Cal) Cher (for David) and The Sound of Music (for Becky)
tags: Brokeback Mountain, Far From Heaven, movies, homosexuality, queer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore, Heath Ledger