19 April 2006


Second Looks at "Brokeback Mountain"

Yesterday, Andy Towle at Towleroad pointed (here) to this article by (gay) writer Andrew Holleran on "Brokeback Mountain." The piece is pretty good, and I think it gets at what many gay men might feel about the story and flick: How Ennis and Jack's relationship is doomed not just by individual mistakes (on both their parts), but also by the structures and inertia in the world -- or at least the world of that place, that time -- that didn't want to see two men live together, be together, be emotionally intimate.

Most superior works of art, however, have more than one element, and Brokeback is such a work. The story of these two loser ranch hands is also a film about adultery, poverty, the miseries of family life (it was important to have women in this story, Proulx said), dreams one never realizes, wasted lives, the attempt to conform, friendship, and isolation. While the love between Ennis and Jack starts out as an idyll—as bucolic as Theocritus—it does not remain that way for long. The “urban critics,” Proulx writes, dubbed this movie a tale of two gay cowboys. No. It is a story of destructive rural homophobia. Although there are many places in Wyoming where gay men did and do live together in harmony with the community, it should not be forgotten that a year after this story was published Matthew Shepard was tied to a buck fence outside the most enlightened town in the state, Laramie, home of the University of Wyoming.

It is that theme that drives the movie and provides the contrast with the pastoral love. The editing and the score follow a single pattern throughout, alternating the magnificence of the mountain scenery (guitar and orchestra) with the squalor of the men’s domestic life (the whine of country-western songs), the homophobia that requires the repeated escapes, followed by inevitable return. The whole movie is structured on this schism between the ideal and the real. Ennis lies in the street, being punched and kicked by the driver he has attacked. Cut to the breathtaking ridge on which Jack and Ennis are riding to their rendezvous.

Indeed, everything about the relationship between Ennis and Jack is both idealized and utterly true to life. Passion is very much here—a passion that will make the sex obsession many gay men settle for seem so much less. But what’s unsettling is the context. What’s threatening to some about the movie is the way it blurs friendship and Eros. Jack and Ennis are both best friends and lovers, fishing buddies who bring home no fish. Nothing is so touching as the way Jack prefaces his remarks to Ennis with the word “friend” (or the Bob Dylan lyrics Willie Nelson sings over the credits in “He Was a Friend of Mine”). This most masculine, most American, of themes (“Come back to the raft, Huck honey”) is at the movie’s core.

We watched the movie on DVD last night, and it was even more powerful, for me at least, than on first seeing. The overwhelming sadness of the story comes across not just as the sadness of the tragic relationship depicted, but also of the sadness of many of our lives as gay men from more rural areas, since we can't have the loves we want in the places we know as home. Well, the sadness that some of us once felt, invoked by the story until it is felt again as if it were happening now.

I had re-read the short story after seeing the movie, too. As affecting as the text is, I have to admit that the entire cinematic experience -- not just the words of the characters, but the images, the glances, the sounds, the music -- works in amplifying, in bringing to the surface, what is in the story only, in parts, in suggestions and gestures (even if the short story is more explicit in that one first-encounter scene).

Today, Christopher Orr at the New Republic online (registration required) had this article (link via this Ross Douthot post at The American Scene) about the story and movie, about how they tell a story of masculinity struggling to exist in an era unwelcoming of such. The comments are interesting and thoughtful, tying "Brokeback Mountain" to "Lonesome Dove" and more.
No, the real difference between Call and McCrae and Ennis and Jack isn't about the appearance of homosexuality but the disappearance of homosociability. The former lived in the late 1800s, a time when there were still wide open spaces to conquer, wildernesses where men could be men and could be with men--sexually, platonically, who was to say? In a border hamlet like Lonesome Dove, let alone in the wilds of Montana, no one could complain if two men lived together, given that all the marriageable women had been left behind in Kansas City or San Antonio. Indeed, the life that Call and McCrae shared--two bachelors running a ranch together--is exactly the one Jack dreams of, and pleads with Ennis to undertake. But the modern world denies such a possibility. Land is no longer free to anyone with the nerve to take it, and "civilized" expectations--marriage, children, work--pertain everywhere. Even on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis and Jake must negotiate the conflicting rules of the Forest Service and the rancher who hired them.
Maybe the story and movie do communicate something on that high cultural level, but I think they both work best as stories about individuals, certainly individuals reflecting the culture of the place/time, but individuals with their own immediate heartaches and sweet memories, than they do as big signs about trends in the modern world. At least, those are the aspects that spoke to this one.

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