Before 'Brokeback Mountain'

Eytan Fox's 'Yossi and Jagger' addressed the same issues years before recent Oscar reject.

yossi jagger  (photo credit: Courtesy)
yossi jagger
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When it comes to the Academy Awards, movie star etiquette is very simple: if you lose, smile graciously and try to appear happy, even if every instinct you have is telling you to stick out a foot and try to trip the smug jerk whose name was just called. Hollywood's reigning hotshots obeyed this rule impeccably during this year's Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles, heartily applauding those who'd beaten them out or effusively lauding their fellow nominees if they'd indeed been lucky enough to win a gold statuette. An unusually high percentage of people went home feeling good about themselves after this year's show, which judiciously distributed three Oscars apiece to four of the year's best films, preventing a sweep and spreading around the glory in exactly the manner predicted by most industry insiders. But just as entertainment reporters and movie fans were about to consign the 2006 Oscars to show biz oblivion, National Book Award winner Annie Proulx revealed that no one had clued her in about the gracious loser rule, and that she was actually pretty peeved about the outcome of the night, which saw Brokeback Mountain, a film based on one of her own short stories, upset in the best picture category by dark horse candidate Crash. Apparently, she reported bitterly in London's Guardian newspaper, the production company behind the winning film had "inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash - excuse me - Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline." Mocking the film's examination of racial tensions in Los Angeles, she went on, "Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver." For admirers of The Shipping News and other examples of Proulx's extraordinary writing, the author's catty commentary was disillusioning - the literary equivalent of finding out that Charlize Theron, underneath her make-up, actually just looks a lot like Tzipi Livni. Besides the juvenile wordplay (Crash? Trash? Oy!), Proulx demonstrated not only her own bad sportsmanship, but also a self-serving misperception of Brokeback's timeliness and place in the sexual culture wars. Brokeback is, of course, one of the past year's most notable films, an aching story of attraction and repression told through masterful acting and a powerfully minimalist screenplay. The film may indeed be better than the somewhat contrived Crash, but Proulx is kidding herself if she considers Brokeback Mountain any more revolutionary or original. If she wants proof that Brokeback's been done before, all she needs to do is look back four years at another gay-themed film - Israel's equally effective 2002 drama Yossi and Jagger. As Proulx would find out, Brokeback Mountain is located at least as much in northern Israel as in the Wyoming wilderness described in her short story. In terms of characters, story arc and lingering message to moviegoers, Yossi and Brokeback are practically twins, separated at birth but distinguished by little more than the contextual details which give the stories their cultural meaning. Brokeback Mountain initially gained fame as the "gay cowboy picture," with its two central figures serving as a rebuke to one of the major archetypes of American masculinity. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) fall in love despite their cowboy hats and monosyllabic speech patterns, but they also suppress their feelings - mostly at the insistence of Ennis - as they force themselves through the motions of a socially acceptable mid-western American life. Set in the 1960s, the film depicts the consequences of the men's secret affair on their wives and children, who are all indirectly damaged by the quiet unhappiness of their family's repressed patriarchs. Like their American counterparts, Yossi and Jagger's title characters (played by Ohad Knoller and Yehuda Levi) find themselves in a remote region made beautiful by vast natural landscapes. The scale of their surroundings contrast with the intimacy of their relationship - a secret romance conducted not far from the army base they both guard near the border with Lebanon. As in Brokeback, one of the two men longs to bring the relationship into the open, while the more repressed second man refuses for fear of social disgrace and violence. Two women arrive on the scene looking for love or at least a bit of sex from the two men, who like Ennis and Jack must decide how to deal with an authority figure who may have figured them out. Both films conclude with a traumatic twist that takes away one of the men, leaving the more repressed man behind to reflect on the relationship and wonder how he might have conducted it differently. The audience departs the films shocked by the loss of the more open man but also inspired and moved by his passion and bravery. It's doubtful, of course, that Proulx saw Yossi and Jagger before penning her selfserving Guardian rant. If she had, she might have been moved to praise Yossi writer and director Eytan Fox, who, unlike Proulx, set his story in his country's "here and now" rather than removing it to the safe distance of a time long past. Like Brokeback, Fox's film also lays waste to a major cultural archetype - in this case the male IDF warrior - but with characters and a setting that couldn't be more relevant for the society in which it was released.