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Sunday in the Park

When the film opens, the entire screen is filled with an emerging silhouette of a mountain range. It is that mystical hour when night is evaporating and the colorless light of day is starting to catch a tint, a hint of the pale, most pale rose. In the foreground, tiny, so tiny you are forced to understand the vastness of the landscape, is an 18-wheeler on a stretch of lonely road. Right from the get go, you know the land is a main character in this film that has been labeled a "gay western."

For anyone who has spent any time in Wyoming on those lonely roads at any hour, you recognize the spirit and the accurateness of that desolate image. (Though because of expense, the film was actually shot in Alberta, Canada. With the legislative session due to start next week here, we can only hope this year will see some serious money devoted to strengthening our own film industry by offering viable incentives to film companies to work here. But I digress.)

The plot line is both sparse and poignant. That’s the way Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx wrote her yarn, "Brokeback Mountain" in 1999, included in her book of short stories titled, "Close Range." Those stories are all set in Wyoming and are a variety of tales of hardscrabble, rural life, mostly about rodeo cowboys and the women who want them. There are not happy endings or beginnings. They are grit-in-your-teeth, sand-blowing-in-your-eyes, kind of real. If that measure of raw human emotion is uncomfortable for you, don’t go see this film.

That said, there is such beauty. When the cowboys are riding those wide open ranges or herding the sheep up those mountain canyons, the landscape speaks volumes. Big Sky country, that is. An image of every kid’s dream of living off the land with no one to bother you, riding your horse around abundant wildlife and the chance to call a sky full of stars your ceiling. Simple food cooked over an open fire with dishes washed in the stream. Not the real world but an oasis sometimes for actual escape and sometimes just a postcard left in your mind.

This is a love story, to be certain. Forbidden love, misspent love, parental love and lack thereof, love of the land. Nobody in this film gets what he or she wants. Nobody. This love story is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. With, of course, a very old Shakespearean theme, that old, "to thine own self be true."

The acting is brilliant and already the film has picked up awards for best director, best film and best supporting actress from the critics choice panel. It is nominated for seven Golden Globes, which will be determined later this week.

The screenplay was written by that Lonesome (Dove) cowboy himself, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, who have co written films from "Terms of Endearment" to "The Last Picture Show." They understand the sounds of the West and they keep the language like Annie’s prose — sparse, lean, to the point. In fact, almost every word of dialogue from the 30-page short story is included in the script, verbatim.

So why all the fuss? Certainly not for the two scenes of sex in the story that translate to less than a minute of time on screen. No. We’re not so shocked as a society, I suspect, as all that. It is the dangerous idea of real men loving each other. Longing for each other. Crying in heaves of pain, missing each other. And the "Code of the West" (whatever the hell you think that is) not accepting the idea that love is hard enough to find in this mixed up world, why should anyone care how we love, or who we love? But therein lies the rub, as Hamlet said. We think it’s our job not only to care but to judge love, as if it were a rodeo ride. If you stay on ’til the bell, you’re a prize winner and if you get bucked off, you just might find yourself broken. And beyond. It’s all about the bull.

Here’s the way I came upon this short story in the first place, years ago. The book was given to me, when it was less than a year old, by my neighbor and dear friend, Bruce, who has been happily married, this time, to his wife Candy for nearly 20 years. He is the father of two boys and a guy who loves the outdoors and has spent much of his free time going deep in nature for renewal. I had driven through Wyoming on my way to a 10-day hospital stay in Denver. To break up the trip, Bruce had suggested I stop in Saratoga, Wyo., about 40 miles east and south of Cheyenne, at the base of the Snowy Mountain Range — Annie Proulx country as it turned out. I had a peaceful, powerful stay there.

Upon my return home with an illness that defied diagnosis, Bruce dropped off "Close Range," said he just finished it and thought I would like it. Now you have to know a person pretty well, I think, to recommend this work. It is not for the romance novel crowd. But we had all read "The Shipping News" and thought this woman, who didn’t begin to write fiction until her 50s, was very smart and very accurate. Bruce understands the West and he flattered me by suggesting with this book, I just might understand a piece of it, too.

I remember getting to the end, when the character of Ennis, touches a shirt that once belonged to now-deceased Jack, his friend and lover. It read that he had a few stinging tears streaming down his face. I had more than a few.

Starting next week, we will, once again, be the center of the celluloid world for days on end. The envy of cities and towns, large and small. We will be inconvenienced by the festival, whether at the post office or the market or just driving the kids to school. Let it go. Because inside those darkened theaters there are important stories being told. Stories that need to be told. Stories that connect us to our tribesmen. We now know that films premiered here will be the talk of the industry in a matter of hours sometimes, and for years to come. Find a way in. Just one film. In the middle of the day. Get lost in the story. Laugh. Cry. Get mad.

"Brokeback Mountain" premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September. Imagine what waits for you, here, next week. You can find new stories well told and old stories retold well, any day for the next two weeks but on at least two, very special, Sundays in the Park&


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