Film

Love Is Risky Business

Jennifer Makowsky
Brokeback Mountain

With all the Oscar buzz swirling around Ang Lee's taboo-busting drama, our literary liaison wants us to not forget the stellar short story it's based upon.

It was no surprise to me when Annie Proulx's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Shipping News was adapted for film. It seemed cinematic enough. But when I heard that her short story, Brokeback Mountain, was being made into a feature length film by Ang Lee — director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — I was taken aback.

Like The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain is no stranger to accolades. Published in The New Yorker in 1997, it was heralded for its humanity and went on to win the O. Henry Prize and the National Magazine Award. But with it clocking in at a mere 55 pages, the story itself barely suggested a feature film.

As a work of short fiction, Brokeback Mountain is a tightly crafted little tale about a love that could never be. Not new stuff to the literary or film world, but the fact that the passion is between a ranch hand named Ennis Del Mar and a rodeo cowboy named Jack Twist in 1962 Wyoming makes the story both compelling and risky. Even though their affair spans 20 years, the two men can never fully realize or manifest the way they feel about each other. The repercussions they would experience if anyone ever found out would just be too dangerous. Instead, they both go on to have "normal" lives after their initial affair. They get married and have children. They're only able to convey their feelings in private on quarterly trips back to their 'Mountain' meeting place.

The short story is a sparse piece of fiction written tersely and with restraint. Despite the economy of the language used, Brokeback Mountain was apparently a difficult and extremely emotional challenge for Proulx to put on the page, as she tells in her essay "Getting Movied", included in the new book Brokeback Mountain: From Story to Screenplay (Scribner, December 2005). The screenwriters — Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana — also declare their own literary issues: Ossana claimed to be overcome by "deep, gut-wrenching sobs" upon first reading, while McMurty called the story "a masterpiece."

Like the text, director Lee is frugal with the dialogue and allows most of the intensity to come through the surging yet suppressed emotions between Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal). The screenwriters, showing their reverence for the source material, keep conversations from the story intact, word-for-word, and develop the silences the text skips over. Because they had to draw out the story rather than compress it (unlike what most screenwriter's must do when adapting a book to a screenplay), they were able to get creative along the way.

The biggest adjustment from story-to-screen is the beefed-up roles for the women in these men's lives. In Proulx's version, Ennis and Jack's wives aren't fleshed out and serve mainly as background characters in order to provide conflict. Similarly Ennis's daughter, Alma Jr, who is just a name in the story, grows up before our eyes in the film and eventually becomes the young woman played by Kate Mara.

Michelle Williams plays Ennis's wife, Alma, a quiet young woman whose defeated and brooding temperament throughout contrasts nicely to William's childlike looks. Like the two men in the film, Alma is brimming with restrained emotion. Her big eyes water a lot and she looks tired most of the time. When she catches her husband devouring Jack Twist's mouth one day, she never confronts him. Instead, she simply seethes in silence. In a way, she is the antithesis of Jack's gal Lureen, played by Anne Hathaway, who is sassy and sexy — never afraid to say what's on her mind. Hathaway is captivating with her bad clothes and hair that gets blonder and bigger as the movie progresses. Her most shining moment occurs near the end of the film when she has a chilly but poignant conversation with Ennis over the phone. Her facial expressions twitch beneath a lid of bleached hair as she spits her words through stained teeth.

Unlike the actresses, the actors are purposefully picture perfect. This is something that always manages to get my purist panties in a bunch: the physical transformation of the characters from inadequate human beings on the page to beautiful Hollywood icons strutting across the screen. In Proulx's story, Jack Twist is described as short, bucktoothed, a bit portly, and curly-haired. In Lee's version, we get the tall, lean, glossy-haired Gyllenhaal swaggering around, even posing at points, and flashing his collinear pearly whites. Yes, he is a sight to behold and yes, he's a fantastic actor, but couldn't they have uglied him up a bit for the integrity of Proulx's vision? Can you imagine if they hired someone like Paul Giamatti for the role instead?

Likewise, Ennis Del Mar, according to the text, is less physically blessed than Heath Ledger. In the story he is described as having a "high-arched nose and narrow face" and "scruffy and a little cave-chested" with "a small torso" and "long, caliper legs." This makes me think of someone like Willem Dafoe, not the robust and flawless Ledger. But since Hollywood dictates that all lead characters in a love story must be physically flawless, I imagine the movie wouldn't be as likely to draw audiences if Giamatti and Defoe were seen hoofing around in tight wranglers and cowboy hats, tackling each other half-naked.

Despite their good looks though, Gyllenhaal and Ledger literally act their cowboy boots off. There are a slew of intimate moments in the movie, beginning with the most graphic love scene between the two men in a tent on Brokeback Mountain. The scene follows the story closely as Jack brings Ennis' hand to his crotch. Initially Ennis fights Jack off but then suddenly unbuckles his belt, heaves Jack on all fours, and violently does the deed with a little help from his own spit. The scene is explicit without showing any skin and I can imagine it wasn't easy filming it for the two straight actors — especially since they continued to kiss and cuddle semi-naked throughout the rest of the film.

From a performance point then, Heath Ledger makes you believe he is Ennis Del Mar. Not once during the film did I think of him as Heath, Naomi Watt's ex-boyfriend. His slow drawl and pained looks made me believe he was the tortured sheepherder who was so wrapped up in all of this Marlboro Man-love. Similarly, energetic and charmingly emotional Jake Gyllenhaal had me convinced he was Jack Twist — the feisty one, determined to make the relationship work despite all the odds working against it.

Like Proulx's story, the movie is careful not to over-sentimentalize anything. It is what it is: a love affair that could never come to fruition, destined to end tragically due to societal intolerance and ignorance. There is no sweeping Hollywood denouement. Instead we are treated to a literary ending: a closing shot of Ennis emblematically closing the door of a closet containing a picture of Brokeback Mountain itself. Yet while the closet door may indeed be closed, Proulx is very clear that you can't lock away true love. It's the most important point of her story. Thankfully, it's the most important part of the cinematic translation as well, making Brokeback Mountain a true rarity: an adaptation that believes in, and builds on, its source.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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