However, after seeing Brokeback Mountain and obsessing over it for several months, I finally asked myself, "Is it possible that Brokeback Mountain actually surpasses Shawshank Redemption as the best movie?" Having been preoccupied with the film night and day for months, I decided this was a valid question. As I continued to ponder it, I found that there are actually quite a few similarities between Brokeback Mountain and Shawshank Redemption in terms of theme and structure.
Before I go any further, here's a key for the abbreviations I will be using in this essay:
RHS = "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption", short novel by Stephen King
TSR = The Shawshank Redemption film, written and directed by Frank Darabont
BMS = "Brokeback Mountain", short story by Annie Proulx
BBM = Brokeback Mountain film, directed by Ang Lee; written by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana
Part of what makes both BBM and TSR special and significant is that they are stories that depict men expressing emotions in a way that is outside what is usually considered socially acceptable behavior, and even the emotions themselves may be outside the acceptable norm. Now, before I go any further, I want to state unequivocally that I am NOT suggesting that the relationship between Andy and Red in TSR (or RHS, for that matter) is in any way romantic or sexual, and I would challenge the interpretation of anyone who did say so. And yet, I don't think describing their relationship as "friendship" is adequate (particularly if one insists on tacking on the hideous modifier "just"). English--at least American English--doesn't really have a strong enough word to describe that kind of deep bond between two people. Spanish has a lovely word for it--simpatico--but for those of us who don't speak Spanish the connotation may not come across. I guess the best way to describe it, though still woefully inadequate, is to describe it as "brotherly love". Neither Red nor Andy make mention of any living family1 on the outside. Apart from their daily occupations (Red with the black market and Andy with the library and escape plans) the only thing either of them has is each other, so they become each other's family. People need to make emotional connections with other people, regardless of whether or not they make physical connections.
I've always liked the fact that Andy and Red share a non-sexual/non-romantic love, but I used to feel guilty about doing so. Why should I feel that way? Could it be that, after all I've been through, deep down inside I'm really just a closet homophobe? Eventually I discovered that the reason I like the non-sexual/non-romantic relationship between Andy and Red is because I find it to be a refreshing change. Typically, American movies tend to revolve around some kind of romantic relationship, even if the film itself doesn't necessarily fit into the romance genre. There's nothing inherently wrong with that; I like a good romance as much as the next person, but I also like variety and originality...every once in a while I like to see something new. Sometimes it seems like Hollywood thinks that stories about non-romantic love, be it among friends or family or whatever, are not worth telling, and as someone who has experienced a great deal of joy and fulfillment from non-romantic relationships, I find that ... overly simplistic.
Of course, there are movies that focus on relationships among friends, but for the most part (at least in America) they tend to feature relationships among women (the best example I can think of is Fried Green Tomatoes, another one of my favorite films). There is also a genre of so-called "buddy films" which feature friendships between men, but they tend to be action/thriller type movies in which the friendship is almost an afterthought--a side effect of the events of the plot. This is something that Tim Robbins points out several times in the special features on the TSR special edition DVD; he says that many men tell him that they appreciate the film because the focus of the film is the friendship between the two men which is something that they rarely get to see in American film,2 and they, too, feel the lack.
It goes without saying that in BBM the relationship is inarguably sexual (although how romantic it is is probably open to interpretation), and this, too, is very rare in American films--almost unheard of. Not that there's a shortage of gay characters in American films, but they tend not to be the protagonists and they tend not to be portrayed either realistically or respectfully. More often, they are broad caricatures that exist solely for comic relief. Jon Stewart, in his opening monologue at the Oscars, said of the film Capote that it was "groundbreaking...[because] it showed Americans that not all gay people are virile cowboys; some are actually effete New York intellectuals." What he was pointing out, in his typically ironic and irreverently humorous way, is that even when gay people are depicted realistically in American film, it is usually only one very narrow reality that is depicted, the reality of the urban-dwelling gay community, and while that is certainly a legitimate viewpoint, it is not relevant to the rural-dwelling gay community, whose stories are rarely told. And when I say their stories are rarely told, I don't only mean on film, but in life. Rural America is slowly but inexorably being dragged into the 21st century, but is kicking and screaming all the way. We still tend to cling to our traditions and old ways of thinking, we still feel a nostalgia for the non-existent "good old days" of decency and moral rectitude and see any change as degradation, and we still tend to cope with the issue of homosexuality by ignoring it; by pretending it's not there--or, more accurately, that it only occurs in filthy urban hellholes and not among our good, clean, upstanding neighbors--we hope that it won't affect us. And part of what makes BBM such a poignant and effective film is that this is the very environment that the protagonists have grown up in, their philosophy is that of avoidance (even after their first sexual encounter, they both insist to one another that they are "not queer"), but for better or worse, they are forced with the reality of this taboo within themselves and have to come to terms with it.
As I said, both TSR and BBM depict men expressing emotions that may be outside the socially acceptable norm. Happily, the norms seem to be changing, and surely culturally significant films like TSR and BBM are helping to push those boundaries.
In terms of theme, both films deal with themes of imprisonment versus freedom. In TSR the imprisonment is, of course, literal. I was going to say that it is figurative too, but it is probably more accurate to say that it is psychological. Suffice it to say, once the characters are free of the literal prison they are still trapped within their own minds, having come to depend on the prison. The exception, of course, is Andy, who never let himself become "institutionalized", who, rather than becoming trapped in his own mind actually escaped in his own mind and found comfort in the ideal of a perfect place where he could go and be free. And because he had this ideal place of freedom in his mind he was able to slowly but surely work toward escaping to that ideal place and being free not only of the mental prison walls but the literal walls as well.
In BBM, on the other hand, the prison is metaphorical rather than physical. Ennis and Jack are imprisoned and confined by society, by rigid norms and standards of acceptable behavior. The only place they are free to be entirely themselves is in the isolation of the mountains, especially the first summer they spend on Brokeback Mountain. While Brokeback Mountain is a real, physical place, over the years it becomes an ideal, and takes on iconic, almost mythic, proportions. Brokeback Mountain is the one place they could be entirely, completely free, not only free to do what they want to do but free from all their problems and responsibilities and worries that they need to face in their other lives (not the least of which is the worry that someone will discover their secret and do them harm).
In the story it is explicitly stated that, even though they go on these sporadic "fishing trips" over 20 years, they never go back to Brokeback Mountain (in the movie this point becomes rather muddled, seeing as one mountain location looks very much like the next). They don't go back to Brokeback Mountain because they fear, or perhaps know, that it won't be the same, that the feeling of freedom that they experienced there can never be regained (personally, I think they are probably right about that). On the subject of imprisonment, I said before that both characters, being raised in rural Wyoming, at first reflect the dominant beliefs and attitudes toward homosexuality, the very beliefs and attitudes that imprison them once they come down off the mountain after having discovered their feelings for one another. In a sense, they've been imprisoned by society all their lives, so it's interesting to speculate whether or not they realized that they were imprisoned before experiencing freedom on Brokeback Mountain. If you knew nothing but prison walls and iron bars, would you realize that they were holding you in? Would you have any knowledge of or curiosity about what lay outside? and would you long to experience it for yourself, or would it frighten you...or perhaps a little of both? Clearly Ennis and Jack were both aware that there were people who lived beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable by society, and clearly Ennis was sorely afraid of it even during and after the summer on Brokeback, but I wonder if either of them felt confined by the strictures of society before the summer of emancipation.
In terms of structure both the movies and the original stories have several things in common. Each movie is based on a short fiction work3 which takes place over a span of about twenty years. Though RHS uses an episodic plot structure, both films are told in a mostly linear manner, with brief use of flashbacks. There was a time when I would have said that both movies are more effective at telling the stories than the works of fiction on which they are based, but I don't entirely feel that way anymore. Having covered RHS with my Intro to Lit students last year, I have since gained a better appreciation of King's technique, so I now believe that RHS is the most effective possible means of telling the story through the written word and TSR is the most effective possible telling of the story on film. I do find, however, that the movie version of BBM is more effective than the short story, which is not to say that Annie Proulx did not write the most effective possible short story version, (although I suspect that this may be the case), but I find the film version to be more effective because it transcends the limits of the page.
In BMS there is a marked difference between the voice of the narrator and the voices of the characters. The characters are uneducated, working-class people, and their voices reflect this (although the dialect is perhaps a little exaggerated), whereas the voice of the narrator is intellectual and literary and is probably closer to the voice of Proulx herself. Because the narrator is third-person and not part of the story, the discrepency in the narrator's voice is acceptable. While I don't think it's a weakness, I confess that I personally find it a little off-putting; sometimes it feels to me like the voice-over on some sort of anthropological documentary. I do wonder if the story would have been told more effectively with a different narrator (perhaps a first-person viewpoint, as in RHS) or if the narrator had been given a different voice, one closer to that of the characters. But that's a personal preference more than anything.
The main reason I feel that the film version is more effective is that in this story we are dealing with cowboys4 and, as screenwriter Larry McMurtry says (and I paraphrase) cowboy culture is a laconic culture (this is largely true of the larger Midwestern culture as well). The characters in the story are people of few words; Ennis, in particular, is particularly singled out as such several times in BMS. I remember hearing in speech class once that up to 90% of communication is non-verbal; we indicate our thoughts, feelings, and intentions through non-verbal cues such as pauses, tone of voice, gesture, etc. I'm not sure how accurate that 90% figure is, and it probably varies by culture, etc., but in the case of someone like Ennis, a lot of the communication is going to be non-verbal, probably more than most people. Here we run into the limitations of fiction; in a written work intended to be read rather than performed, even if you make a point of making one of your characters a largely non-verbal communicator, you still only have words to communicate their feelings to your readers. There are some non-verbal cues (like pauses and tone of voice) that you can indicate typographically, but others, like gestures or facial expressions, pretty much have to be described in words. However, if you do this too much it is going to get very tedious for the readers. So Annie Proulx had a choice: she could either make Ennis as non-verbal as he's supposed to be and use words to describe his every subtle gesture and facial expression, or she could make him more chatty than he would probably be and put words into his mouth that he probably would not say. She chose the latter, which I believe was probably the better and more effective choice; if nothing else, a less egregious waste of words. However, in a film, you are not limited to words; film is a visual medium, and as the old cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Now we have an actor who can perform all those non-verbal cues, and when you have an actor as talented as Heath Ledger you know he can do so very well. McMurtry and Ossana, being skilled screenwriters, took those extra words out of Ennis' mouth and allowed Heath Ledger to portray him as the largely silent man he is supposed to be, which, needless to say, he did beautifully. This goes for the other characters too, but it's most noticeable in the case of Ennis because his silence is such an important part of his character.
As we have seen, there are several parallels between the two films. In some cases, these parallels could be seen to be mirror images of one another. TSR is a comedy in the sense that it ends happily; BBM is a tragedy in the sense that it does not. As I said, they each deal with themes of imprisonment versus freedom. In TSR the characters start out imprisoned in Shawshank and spend the whole movie trying to escape to the ideal place of freedom which becomes manifest as Zihuatenejo Mexico; whereas in BBM the characters meet each other in the ideal place of freedom--Brokeback Mountain--then return to the prisons of their separate lives. They spend the rest of the movie longing for the freedom found on Brokeback Mountain, but never regain it, and if the BMS narrator is to be believed they never return to Brokeback Mountain because they're afraid that they won't experience the freedom as they did before, that Brokeback will turn out to be just another mountain rather than a perfect sanctuary.
This parallel, mirror-image quality of the two films makes it extremely difficult to decide which is the better movie. It was also hard to decide because BBM is such a deeply personal movie for me; it's very difficult for me to look at it objectively when the characters are my friends and family, people I've known all my life--and, indeed, myself. Ultimately, however, I still have to award the laurels to TSR, with BBM at a very close second. In terms of story, I'm sure I could never decide, but based on my very limited knowledge of film, I believe TSR is slightly better executed. After purchasing the TSR score I was listening to it in my car and just kind of flowing along with the stream of consciousness, and one of the thoughts that floated through my head is, "There's nothing about this movie (TSR) that I don't like." Then I stopped and thought about it more carefully, and I realized it was true. Even with movies I like, there are usually things that I think could be done better: there's plot point that's fuzzy or some gaping plothole, there's a role I'd like to see a different actor play, or a line that could be delivered more effectively, etc. But there's not a fault I can find with TSR; not a scene I would add, not a word I would delete; not a part I would recast, not a line I would have delievered differently; not a frame out of place, not a note out of tune...it is, in my opinion, the most perfectly executed film ever.
BBM is not so far behind TSR in quality, and for the most part there is very little that I would change had I the opportunity. Most of the criticisms I might make about the film would boil down to personal taste on my part rather than sloppiness on the filmmakers' part. But there is one flaw in the film that I cannot reconcile; it's a very small flaw, but it happens at the film's climax and so, for me, detracts from the effectiveness of the climax particularly and, by extension, the entire film. The climactic scene in BBM is a fight between Ennis and Jack over their dissatisfaction with the arrangement they have made to meet each other a couple of times every year, which culminates in a flashback to the Brokeback Mountain days in which we see (though it is admittedly much clearer in the short story) that is it love and genuine affection for each other that keeps them coming back together, that it's not about the sex (and the inconvenience and danger of finding another, closer, willing partner), but it really is a desire for one another's company--no, more than that, that's a wimpy way of saying it--a desire for the communion that they have with one another. Yes, communion is the word I will use, with all it's religious connotations attached. Now, the problem that I have with this scene is a technical one; it fades from the fight scene into the Brokeback Mountain flashback. Now, the fade clearly indicates a shift in time, but to me it's hard to tell whether we are flashing back or flashing forward. It dissolves to a campfire, which could be anywhere or anytime, then pans up to reveal Jack standing next to the fire falling asleep standing up; his head is pointed down so that we can't see his face, so I personally couldn't tell whether we were in the past or the future until a few seconds after Ennis came on the screen, and by then the scene was halfway over. It is arguably the most important and poignant scene of the whole film, but for me it was made less effective.5 In the filmmakers' defense, a more careful viewer who pays attention to what people are wearing probably would have noticed that they were wearing the same clothes they wore on Brokeback. However, because the knowledge that it's a flashback to Brokeback Mountain days is so crucial to understanding the scene, it seems to me that they could have done just a little bit more to establish that it was a flashback.
So TSR remains, in my opinion, the best movie ever made. As to which of the two is my favorite, that's a lot harder to decide. I love them both equally, for different reasons. Shawshank Redemption is outside myself; though the themes resonate with me, the actual subject matter is so far outside my frame of reference that I feel sympathy for the characters rather than empathy. The lesson (for lack of a better word) of TSR is something that I aspire to, to have hope not only for myself but to spread hope to others, but it's not necessarily something I own.
Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, is a story that I can and do own; it's deeply personal. It takes place where I grew up (or close enough), its characters are people I know, and everything that those characters go through in terms of struggling to deal with the reality of homosexuality are things that I have gone through, vicariously if not personally. It's not so much a question of relating to it or identifying with it; I am part of the story of Brokeback Mountain...and it's a part of me.
1Andy of course is wrongly convicted of killing his wife; in RHS, Red reveals that he, like Andy, is in prison for killing his wife but, unlike Andy, was actually guilty
2I tried to think of another example of an American film in which the main focus was the friendship among men rather than some quest or other, and about the only other one I could come up with is City Slickers, in which there's still a quest of sorts but it's really the relationship among the three men who have been friends since they were kids and the way they help one another deal with their individual crises or upheavals that is the central focus of the story. Another example that I just saw recently is Stand by Me, based on another Stephen King novella published in the same volume as RHS. Maybe Stand By Me shouldn't count in this category because it features prepubescent boys, but on the other hand, they do tend to behave outside acceptable social norms, even--GASP!--crying.
3Even though it was published separately as a movie tie-in, it would be very generous to call BMS a novella; they clearly did some very creative things with margins and typeface to get it up to 55 pages
4When accepting the BAFTA for Best Picture (Go Brits!) producer James Schamus made reference to the film's reputation as "the gay cowboy movie" by explaining, in a mock-exasperated tone of voice, that the moniker is inaccurate because they're sheepherders, not cowboys. This is apparently an important distinction in ranch culture, but I would point out that, even though they are sheepherders when they meet on Brokeback Mountain, it should be perfectly acceptable and accurate to refer to them as cowboys, because Jack is a rodeo bull-rider and Ennis later gets a job (or several jobs; that point's kind of fuzzy) on a cattle ranch; ergo, they are in fact cowboys.
5I had a similar problem during Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which the shift from present to past was so subtle I was genuinely mystified as to why two people who had been making out just a few minutes before were now acting as though they didn't know each other.