Breaking Brokeback Mountain

(spoiler warning)

I get this gut ache – deep and low – every time I hear the quick rising then slow descending of notes in the main motif of the theme song from Brokeback Mountain. That I saw the film during my period and while going through a complex re-negotiation of an important friendship is likely part of the ache. Driving to work on an early, rainy Tuesday morning and listening to NPR as they discuss the Golden Globes, the theme from this intense film for an intense era playing in the background, my stomach tightens; I feel like crying.

What is not about a monthly biochemical dance or anguish over interpersonal miscommunication is the melodramatic core of Brokeback Mountain. I don’t mean the word “melodrama” to be an insult here, if we define the term as a (film) genre featuring exaggerated emotions and intense interpersonal conflicts (much like my life the day I saw it). When I told those with whom I saw the film that I had concerns about the implications of Jack Twist having to die to move the narrative to its conclusion, one said that, as a writer, she understood a need to heighten the drama. The other said that the film called it like it is: gay men are brutally murdered for being gay; people do waste their lives away because of social and psychological constraints and norms. I noted the obvious Matthew Shepard reference (no missing the Wyoming setting) that actively linked fictional text about homophobia and hate violence to its lived counterpart.

I am deeply moved by the tortured sadness of the film, the bleakness of lives that might have been filled with that most blissful of havens in a difficult world: intimacy, passion, love. That misguided torturer CBN is absolutely correct that Brokeback Mountain is “the biggest, boldest attempt yet by Hollywood to gain sympathy, if not outright support, for those practicing the homosexual lifestyle.” Screw their rhetorical choice of the words “practicing” and “lifestyle,” but we might not disagree that, as David Kupelian (author of the charmingly subtitled The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom), cited in CBN’s “review” of Brokeback Mountain, argues, “[T]he entire purpose of the movie is to make homosexuality seem like something good and appealing, and to make people who are opposed to homosexuality bigots and homophobes.” To the degree this is so, bless the magnificent hearts of every single person involved in the film and let me never say a word against it. Of course, I will share my concerns about the film presently, but let me pause to say that Mr. Kupelian, darling of diverse reactionary mean mouths (from Dr. Laura to Fox News’s Michelle Malkin), shortchanges the film when he simply dismisses it as “very, very propagandistic.” There’s more here, heart-wrenching and problematic, gorgeous and garish, to consider.

What most concerns me about the death of Jack is what concerns me with the predictable depiction of violence as part of the Ennis-Jack relationship (especially their entrance into sexual intimacy) not to mention the theme of self-loathing. I thought mainstream America was further along. From a liberal perspective, certainly, this film is groundbreaking. It took me some time to reflect on the fact that I have seen a number of films that feature gay intimacy and love at their center (e.g. Torch Song Trilogy, Frears/Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, or Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, to take a few random examples) or periphery (De Lovely and Kinsey, in recent memory). But none of these films is a major Hollywood studio blockbuster. One that is, by contrast, is Demme’s Philadelphia, which tidily kills off our protagonist, and a tragic dying guy is so much easier to take than a living, thriving queer. And this is central to my mixed feelings about Brokeback Mountain as a cultural document at the beginning of the second half of the first decade of the new century, as a state of the art and politics as my son begins his second semester of first grade and stops calling himself a “birl” (part girl/part boy – so he can play with “all the toys”) and buys two sets of Valentine’s because girls will want “Bratz” while boys will want “Star Wars” or “Power Rangers”: I thought we were further along.

If, as The Celluloid Closet and other histories of LBG representation argue, U.S. cinema went from offering us desexualized “sissies” to menacing/evil fag and dyke stereotypes to sympathetic AIDS victims but not beyond, why aren’t we ready now for LGBT narratives that aren’t about anguish and misery? Why is a pre-Stonewall-era narrative what we most need? Why are we stuck at demystifying the cowboy movie instead of telling of present-day, everyday struggles and triumphs?

This said, I don’t want to be mistaken for arguing that what the film does show us is not important. The film is a glorious antidote to my depression over all the anti-gay marriage crap that clutters my atmosphere and the minds of so many of my students. The wide-open vistas of 1960s Wyoming are, however illusory, a delicious escape from the strangling atmosphere of pollution, corporate greed, and warmongering we live with in America today. It’s just that…dammit…I want to be living in a culture that doesn’t need to rewire homophobia through anguish, torture, and death. I don't want a conflict-free, giddy queer romp (though that's nice too), but I want the characters to live, to keep struggling and working things through despite everything against their happiness. I want this world to be a beyond-Brokeback Mountain world, though I know we’re not.

So, as I struggle with tears at the levels of narrative (why is there nowhere for these two men together? so much self-loathing is so hard to watch), setting (so much space and beauty around their tortured selves), image (tight-lipped Ennis in his wretched trailer, fingering Jack’s shirt), and melancholy theme music, let me turn my critical eye to the film itself and let rhetorical acumen ease the impact of narrative subjection.

The eroticized gaze was fascinating in the movie, for example. Very obvious shots juxtaposing beautiful landscape with glorious blue skies and Jake Gyllenhaal’s glorious blue eyes had me thinking about the sexual objectification/adoration of (white, young, handsome) men in film. If this film is about homosexuality and homophobia, it’s also about the beauty of men. And the linking of male beauty with nature is not something I’ve seen explored much in film. It’s a compelling reversal of links often drawn between women and nature (vs. men and culture). I did find the actual cinematography to be hit-you-over-the-head obvious in this pairing, but I confess I’m also concerned with the possibility of reading the men = nature equation as implicitly saying women = cultural constraint. A reversal, in other words, does not get us past the opposition itself.

Women in the film are kept entirely from nature, and this jives with the way the men’s lies about going fishing resonate in the text. Fishing as a “men’s sport” (not to mention wrangling, rodeo, and other physical and outdoor labor in the film), the idea that the wide outdoors are, generally, for men leave women to bear the burden of being stuck indoors and as representatives of the constraints of normative, life-strangling culture (as well as being baby machines, where children themselves are also stifling burdens men need to be free of). I know Lureen is at first a rodeo rider -- far better than Jack -- but this quickly desolves in the film to her being primarily a seductress (like Ennis's last girlfriend) then attached at the hip to her adding machine.

On a larger level, I did wonder why women could not be part of the liberatory aspects of the film, like male friendships/intimacy and nature. I’m not saying nature wasn’t compromised (the domestic sheep, Randy Quaid’s horrible boss character, the murdered/mutilated body in the field that Ennis was forced to view as a child) nor that we did not see the pain of the female characters, especially Jack’s mother. But I kept thinking that the narrative could have done more to signal something more “alive” about the women, more struggle than pathos (Alma), more self-awareness than self-absorption (Lureen). Instead, did the film fall into the gay = anti-women/children trap?

This brought me to ponder why a story by a woman writer, E. Annie Proulx, was chosen for Hollywood’s breakout gay movie. I have not read the story yet but plan to in the near future. My cynical eye says this may be a case of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author building a hip text from melodramatic and clichéd bits of cultural repression, angst, and kitsch. I may wrong her, and the story, and the film, with this reductive perspective. But I can’t help but thinking about the episode of South Park when Sundance comes to town and Eric Cartman laments that all the films are about “gay cowboys eating pudding.” The appeal of such a story (with elk meat instead of pudding) is just too tempting to pass up for Hollywood.

But I can’t end there. I have to end optimistically. For one, the film has stuck with me and made me think—about film imagery, about gender representation, and about our culture and what we are or are not ready for. I'm still wallowing in the pathos, though I'd rather not be. In the end, I confess I am glad for any film that pisses off the wrongful religious right and happy we’re ready for Brokeback Mountain, however fatalistic and flawed it may necessarily be.


Kate said...

I haven't seen Brokeback Mountain, and do not intend to, mostly because I have been turned off by the self-congratualtory hype surrounding it.
My first reacton, on a gut level when finding out what it was about was, So? A doomed love affair, the arts have been filled with them since people started telling stories. It makes no difference to me that the protaganists are both men, although it is probably a teeny tiny step in bringing such relationships forward. My only question is this, would the film be thought as good had it been about a heterosexual relantionship? In all movies, literature, etc, shouldn't we get to the point where what makes it different, doesn't make it good? Does this film help that along? Let's get to a level playing field, where the big issuses are just a part of the whole, not it's selling point. A good old fashioned love story, no matter the orientation of the lovers involved.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

I did ask myself whether the film would have just been corny had it been hetero. But the film simply wouldn't work if it weren't men. The cowboy/macho/anti-emotional garbage that the men carry (especially Ennis) means this is a uniquely male-male film. I retain some criticisms of it, but I think it worth tolerating the "self-congratulatory hype" (which it is definitely getting) to live through the film yourself. It was a heck of a trip to a place I haven't been before. (And heck, I was so glad I finally saw Fight Club after years of avoiding it because of the hype surrounding it (of a different sort). By contrast, I haven't seen Kill Bill and know myself well enough to know I should not.

kate said...

I'll wait until it comes on cable. then I won't be able to avoid it.

femme feral said...

great review! you articulate a lot of things I'd sort of felt about the movie but hadn't been able to figure out. I want to read the story too. I'm curious to hear what my students (if any of them dare see it here in good ol' texas) say about it.

on a side not, many of my girlfriends have expressed a strong attraction to / obsession with the gay cowboy. I haven't thought through this yet either, but someday...

Marc said...

Excellent review, Elyce. I definitely agree with your take on the elements of violence and self-loathing that are essential to the story. Disturbing elements, yes, but as someone who spent the majority of his life in the closet, they are elements that I've had to wrestle with that I don't know if I could ever adequately convey to someone on my own. For that, I am grateful for this movie.

On your difficulty with the portrayal of women, I don't agree that the film fell into the "gay= anti-women/children trap." Rather, it illustrated the price that society's prejudices imposes on women as well -- by forcing Jack and Ennis to live a lie, society simultaeously forces Alma and Lurleen into existences that fall far short of "life." At the same time, each character becomes the scapegoat to others for what is society's sin. That is the essential nature of the tragedy.

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Nicely put: you describe the mire of the film well. Were there dozens instead of just ONE film on the subject of gay men's lives and struggles at the Megaplex this year, I likely wouldn't have the concern I do about the portrayal of women/gender in the film.

Boris said...

Hey, thanks for posting on my Blog, your post about Brokeback Mountain is quite interesting. I have to say, i pretty much agree to all that you've said. Except one thing : I guess the author put deliberatly women in indoor activities while men were reserved Nature due to the special context of the film and so as to make us remember that women as well were not in the best situation before the Women Freedom Mouvements.

This having been said, your blog is awsome, congratulations!


Michael said...

WOW!!!!! And I thought MY post was well put.....;) Excellent Elyce! and thanks for the post on my blog!

Yawn said...

I understand that gayness can be hazardous to one's health, but I am not sure that it is gayness itself that is so hazardous or that it is worse than smoking. It may be that the the perspective of the gay person looks hazardous viewed from the outside. For example, take a man who is not gay but seems to have that perspective, the subject of Grizzly Man. What is life to Grizzly Man? He has no children nor much family. His parents seem to be creatures of John Watters and therefore can't be taken too serously. He is a cipher in the stream of time. He makes his mark on history by being eaten (by a grizzly bear). Before his demise he said that he was not so sexually bereft that he would lust after bears. But then, he had his Teddy with him in the wild at all times. The applicable phrase, from the coroner in Bleak House (PBS), is I think, "careless of his life" or some such. We live our fantasies! Therefore we die in them.

Deborah said...

I disagree that Jack's death was a punishment or part of the 'tragic gay' motif of film. These are two men who lived their lives apart and in love. The movie could only end with one of them dead. Frankly, Jack's premature death served a utilitarian purpose as it spared the audience the horrors of more and more age makeup.

I am also left with a huge question mark about the nature of Jack's death. Jack died in the way Ennis always feared. Or did he? We don't see Jack die; we see Ennis visualizing Jack's death while Lureen tells a different story.

Granted, Lureen's stiff, formulaic delivery of the story is meant to tell us she is lying. But is that Lureen, or how Ennis hears Lureen? Did Jack die in a gay-bashing, or does Ennis imagine it because he is still so profoundly trapped in his closet? I don't think the movie intends us to be sure.

As for the imprisoning women, I think you have a point. But I also think everyone and everything in this movie is meant to be imprisoning for Jack & Ennis, except Brokeback Mountain and each other.

Could this have been a story of heterosexuals? Of course not. I think the people who say "it's not gay, it's love" are over-apologizing. This is the story of two closets; Jack struggles to somehow be gay, and Ennis struggles to somehow be straight, and the only uncloseted space is the mountain they share.

There are certainly heterosexual stories of impossible love, but each impossibility is unique, and well-done "impossible love" stories tell us something of the nature of culture and the world that makes this particular love impossible. Class wars, racisim, social obligation; all of these have been highlighted by placing a star-crossed love story in the center.

(PS Saw the movie last night and have been avoiding your post until I could see it.)