Here is a love story between two men in which the protagonists actually make love, and they do so in a way that is psychologically authentic. Their first sexual encounter is a rough and rushed fuck. Ennis is more unbroken colt than man and indeed the scene recalls Jack’s rodeo rides; here too Jack wants to hold on as long as he can, but it’s seems to be over almost before it starts. Their next time has an entirely different emotional timbre. Jack is lying in the tent half-awake and naked. Ennis enters the tent, his head bowed, almost apologetically, like a boy who had just hit a ball through the neighbor’s living room window. Jake takes him in his arms. They kiss and slide to the ground, and Ennis lies beside Jake, crouched in a near fetal position, his head cradled on Jake’s chest and surrenders himself to his friend’s caresses and finds solace. Ennis’s whole body seems to cry out, love me, a cry that he, still bound to his fears about what living with another man would mean, tragically fails to heed.
Even if Brokeback Mountain weren’t the great movie that it is, even stripped of its cinematography and absent Ledger’s brilliant performance, it would still be a memorable film, if only because of scenes like these and others that follow. Nikolas and I tried to think of another mainstream film which had at least one scene that depicted two men making love. We settled for a kiss. But even then only a few came to mind. The sloppy wet kiss in a crypt in Verhoeven’s (vastly underrated) The Fourth Man. Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck’s kiss in In and Out. We couldn’t remember if there actually was a kiss in movies like Another Country (there was) and Maurice (still not sure). Ironic, isn’t it? Even in movies like these that focus on relationships between two men and where you’d expect a kiss, you can’t be sure the protagonists pressed their lips together. In his essay “When a Kiss is not a Kiss” Gary Morris calls this the “lost kiss”, as in Philadelphia: “…where we must take the word of the gay partners that they love each other because the filmmakers didn’t have the guts to offer any visual evidence.”
Nikolas and I were finishing dinner in a restaurant in Kypseli, a funky little place with a tongue-in-cheek décor that sports a row of heavy oaken wine casks and the sort of modest tear-drop chandeliers you might find in the home of a maiden great-aunt who had traveled but not widely. I was sharing with him my enthusiasm for Brokeback Mountain. I don’t recall why we got to talking about the movie, it could have been any one of a myriad of conversational triggers. Nikolas seems to find points of departure in things I say that I didn’t know were there, like a scout who can make out the faintest of paths in the undergrowth.
It is perhaps only when movies like Brokeback Mountain come along that we feel so strongly the absence of passion that otherwise we tend to take for granted, and mourn for the kisses lost in other movies. Even then this loss may not be apparent for straight audiences (and certainly not a cause for lament).
But imagine a cinema in which no one made love. A world in which strawberries are served in a bowl and ice-cubes in a glass, kitchen tables are for eating breakfast and the sink for washing up. A world in which William Hurt would have used the door, Lancaster and Kerr would have gone looking for beach pebbles and Patrick Swayze would have let his wife finish her pot. A world in which a man and woman fall in love but never kiss, a cinema in which all the signs of our humanity, the virtue and vices that give life to a character and drive the story—courage, ambition, jealousy, greed, self-sacrifice, envy, and many more—are enacted save one: passion. Where men and women pursue truth or justice or beauty … but not their love for each other.
P.S. I later ran across an affectionate collage of scenes of men kissing at the movies, many of which slipped Nikolas’s and my memory, including Deathtrap and Cabaret. Kudos to the anonymous editor who put together this six-minute video.