By Daniel Garrett.
Annie Proulx’s short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is amazing: detailed, observant, naturalistic and smart, it is a story about men and land and love and society – in Wyoming, a state of mountains and valleys, greenlands and deserts. Annie Proulx’s language is mostly spare, though a few sentences are extravagant. Her characters’ dialogues include idiomatic speech, with many a dropped ‘g’ and ‘a’ used when ‘of’ is meant. If being pretentious is assuming an authority, importance and meaning for which no substantial proof has been given, Proulx is, for the most part, the exact opposite of pretentious. Stories offer the pleasures of contemplation, description, expression and recognition; and sometimes they answer our need for explanation – why do we disappoint each other, why must we suffer? Proulx’s stories – such as ‘Job History’, ‘People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water’, and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ – reject various kinds of mythology about American life, as there is ignorance, lust and squalor in them, and the desperation is daily, the opportunities inadequate and rare, and mercy hardly exists. Even with their gnashing realism, ‘Job History’ could be read as black comedy, ‘People in Hell’ as a horror story and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ as a tragedy.
The short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’, about unanticipated love and sex between two men, begins with Ennis del Mar, living in a trailer, waking and remembering Jack Twist, having dreamt of Jack; and the dream, which gave Ennis pleasure, seems a source of solace for Ennis: ‘If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong’ (p. 255, page numbers refer to Annie Proulx, ‘Brokeback Mountain’, in Close Range: Wyoming StoriesNew York: Simon & Schuster, Scribner Paperback Fiction, 2000, ISBN 0–684–85222–5.). They owned the world and nothing seemed wrong? That is a false nostalgia, the nostalgia of Ennis not Proulx, for Ennis and Jack were mostly luckless and poor and their only luck was finding work and each other.
Poverty, which leaves a person exposed in all the wrong ways, is rendered truthfully in ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Proulx writes about Ennis and Jack:
They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high school dropout country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. (p. 256)
Ennis is engaged to his future wife, Alma, when the two young men meet in May 1963, as herder and camp tender; and their relationship will continue for twenty years. It is Jack’s second summer on Brokeback Mountain, when they meet; rehired, he must have done a decent job the previous year. They get their instructions from foreman Joe Aguirre, who lost too many sheep – one quarter – the summer before to animal predators such as coyotes, and does not want to lose that many again (and that is why he wants one of them to sleep near – Aguirre says with – the sheep). Ennis and Jack go up the mountain with 1,000 ewes and their lambs. At first Jack is the herder, but after he complains about the distance of the sheep from the camp they have made, and being disturbed from sleep by coyotes, Ennis is willing to herd. Ennis mentions killing a coyote with balls the size of apples, then washes in front of Jack (‘no drawers, no socks, Jack noticed’ (p. 260)). Ennis observed the animal, the coyote; and Jack observes Ennis – each is built, like all of us, for the possibility of sex, but it is not sexual tension between them nor is it a sexual atmosphere that Proulx overtly suggests. The two men talk about horses, dogs, injuries, news of a submarine sinking and family; and they entertain themselves with their untrained singing of salty and spiritual songs. ‘They were respectful of each other’s opinions, each glad to have a companion where none had been expected’ (p. 260). One day after they have supper together, with lots of liquor, and it is late, Ennis says that it is too late to go up to where the sheep are on Brokeback Mountain – it is more than a two-hour trip. Jack tells him the bedroll is big enough for two and their relationship is changed:
‘Jesus Christ, quit hammerin and get over here. Bedroll’s big enough,’ said Jack in an irritable sleep-clogged voice. It was big enough, warm enough, and in a little while they deepened their intimacy considerably. Ennis ran full-throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. (p. 261)
I suspect that no instruction manual is needed, as Ennis has been observing farm animals for much of his life. Jack describes his climax as ‘gun’s going off’ (p. 262, original emphasis). The two men do not talk about the sex except for each denying being queer. Joe Aguirre, their boss, sees them in sexual congress when he comes up to tell Jack that his uncle is ill, but he does not let them know then what he has seen; and when Aguirre returns later to let Jack know that his uncle is better, Aguirre fixes Jack with ‘his bold stare’ (p. 262), a stare that could mean anything (criticality or hostility or sexual interest).
Aguirre, after an early August snow, wants the sheep brought down. This is Proulx’s description of the descent:
The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-loud light, the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt like he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall. (p. 263)
Ennis and Jack’s inattention to work meant that at some point the sheep wandered off and became entangled with another flock, and when Ennis and Jack bring the sheep down to Aguirre, Aguirre notes that, ‘Some a these never went up there with you’ (p. 263). There are fewer sheep than Aguirre expected too: he thinks, ‘Ranch stiffs never did much of a job’ (p. 263).
Ennis and Jack say goodbye to each other and separate.
Within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time. He stopped at the side of the road and, in whirling new snow, tried to puke but nothing came up. He felt about as bad as he ever had and it took a long time for the feeling to wear off. (p. 264)
Ennis marries Alma, who is soon pregnant, and he works ranch and wrangling jobs. The room in which his daughter is born smells of ‘old blood and milk and baby shit, and the sounds were of squalling and sucking and Alma’s sleepy groans, all reassuring of fecundity and life’s continuance to one who worked with livestock’. That suggests both nature, something to be respected, and also animal life, which can be read as an insult. (The animal nature of human beings remains a tension in individual lives and in society: the force and energy of that nature can be exciting and useful or violent and disruptive; and is sometimes both.) There is a scene in which Ennis brings Alma to orgasm with his hand then he ‘rolled her over, did quickly what she hated’, and that something she hated is, apparently, anal sex (pp. 264–65). Self-lubricating vaginal sex is easier and probably more pleasurable than anal sex, though ideas/feelings of domination or transgression may make the latter a powerful experience; and it is possible that Ennis’s preference for anal sex with his wife has more to do with nostalgia for Jack than with pleasure. Pleasure – with opportunity and practice, with imagination – is learned, but one man’s pleasure is not necessarily the same as another man’s or a woman’s; and pleasure can be refused, out of anger, boredom, disgust, morality, pride, shame or something else.
Jack writes a letter, after four years, saying he will visit; and when he does, Ennis
saw Jack get out of the truck, beat-up Resistol tilted back. A hot jolt scalded Ennis and he was out on the landing pulling the door closed behind him. Jack took the stairs two and two. They seized each other by the shoulders, hugged mightily, squeezing the breath out of each other, saying, son of a bitch, son of a bitch, then, and easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together, and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood, his hat falling to the floor, stubble rasping, wet saliva welling, and the door opening and Alma looking out for a few seconds at Ennis’s straining shoulders and shutting the door again and still they clinched, pressing chest and groin and thigh and leg together, treading on each other’s toes until they pulled apart to breathe and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, little darlin’. (pp. 265–66)
That confirms that this is a story not simply of friendship or love but about the power of the sexual urge. Within twenty minutes of their leaving Ennis’s house, Ennis and Jack are fucking in a motel. Jack, who has been involved in the rodeo since they last saw each other, from which he has got scars and broken bones, and who has married a young woman whose father has money, admits that sex with Ennis was why he has visited, but they do not know what their sex means, how much it defines or guides them. (Are they queer? Ennis says, ‘I was sitting up here all that time tryin to figure out if I was – ? I know I ain’t’ (p. 268).) They do not fit nor want to fit a stereotype. Ennis admits to masturbating while thinking of Jack, but says he has not been with another man: Proulx puts it better, when she has Ennis say, ‘I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy except I sure wrang it out a hundred times thinkin about you’ (p. 268). Proulx’s command of language transforms what could be crudely or clinically told into something more; she preserves the urgent passion and ordinary dignity of the men. (Discretion elides vulgarity and also allows for both privacy and disclosure, that is it makes trust possible, and also misunderstanding, not only between characters but also between text and reader.) Jack denies being with other men: ‘“Shit no,” said Jack, who had been riding more than bulls, not rolling his own’ (p. 268). (I think that means he has been with women, or possibly with other men, though, here, the language is somewhat obscure to me.) Ennis talks about how much he loves his two daughters and mentions Jack’s wife and baby, their responsibilities and the lives they have made already with others. Ennis is also concerned about his and Jack’s being able to act decently in public with each other when they feel so intensely about each other. Jack wants the sex to mean something; he wants them to make a life together, maybe to have a ranch together, but Ennis is unwilling and tells him about his childhood memory of two men, Earl and Rich, lovers, whom his father mocked: ‘They was a joke even though they were pretty tough old birds’ (p. 270). That childhood memory – the power of social disapproval, the threat of violent punishment – is a bad lesson well learned. Earl was found dead in a ditch, beaten with a tyre iron; and Earl was, in effect, defaced and castrated, personal identity and sexuality repudiated, annihilated.
Ennis and Jack, however, go off together for several days and afterwards do see each other every year, for fishing trips. Ennis observes the form of marriage, and most of its practical responsibilities, not its spirit; and he sacrifices commitment to his deepest impulses – and feels cheated when his sacrifice is not met with a complementary sacrifice by his wife (how many people consciously sacrifice the possibility of happiness; and what are the results of such a sacrifice?). Out of alienation and resentment, Alma divorces Ennis; and she marries the grocer; and Alma lets Ennis know that she is aware of what his fishing trips with Jack Twist amounted to, sex and no fish, but Ennis denies this. That conversation occurs when Alma has invited Ennis to have Thanksgiving dinner with her new husband and Ennis’s daughters. Alma may have had some genuine love for him; she says that she worries about Ennis, though she did not like his relation to Jack (she refers to Jack Twist as Jack Nasty), but Ennis’s anger means Ennis and Alma cannot – and do not – talk honestly. If they had spoken further, they might have reached some kind of understanding and that might have helped him (if she had accepted his feeling for Jack, then he might be able to do the same; and that feeling would be something that could live, at least a little, in the light, among others).
Years pass, Ennis and Jack grow older, they work in various parts of Wyoming, and Jack, after his father-in-law’s death, has money through his wife, but Ennis and Jack’s desire for each other remains vibrant. When they meet in May 1983 on one of their trips, twenty years after they first met, they enjoy the beauty of nature – Jack thinks he could drown looking up into the sky (an awareness of overwhelming beauty that seems sublime) – and the two men drink, smoke marijuana, listen to radio music and talk of their female lovers and family lives; and Jack tends more than one fire:
Without getting up he threw deadwood on the fire, the sparks flying up with their truths and lies, a few hot points of fire landing on their hands and faces, not for the first time, and they rolled down into the dirt. One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough. (p. 276)
There is a world of difference between the songs they sang for each other when they first met and Jack’s impatient dial-turning of the transistor radio: is Jack aware of the changes in society that have given some support to love between men? Have Jack and Ennis heard of concepts such as bisexuality or the political movement of gays? Do they watch television, which like much (American) popular culture, has first a nationalizing then a globalizing effect? By the early 1980s, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), thought to be spread through sex between men and from intravenous drug use, is publicized – do they know? Jack and Ennis are men largely unconnected to the progressive movement of culture or history (one definition of what it means to be ignorant or poor). Is it possible to create a culture of two – a marriage or a life – without support, without the knowledge, resources and rituals that a community – or society – can provide?
At the end of the trip, Ennis says that he will not be able to see Jack in August as he had hoped, because of work; and when Jack is upset, Ennis admits that he had quit some jobs to be with Jack in the past but cannot do that now. Ennis is older and he has obligations to his daughters and his boss (Ennis tells Jack that he does not remember what it is like to be poor). Jack reminds Ennis of his long-ago idea that they could have lived together and Ennis asks Jack something about Mexico, some rumour he had heard. Ennis threatens Jack (Ennis is willing to punish Jack, as others punished Earl, the man in Ennis’s childhood memory). Jack says they could have had a good life together if Ennis had been willing. ‘You wouldn’t do it, Ennis, so what we got now is Brokeback Mountain. Everything built on that,’ says Jack (p. 277). Jack says,
Count the damn few times we been together in twenty years. Measure the fuckin short leash you keep me on, then ask me about Mexico and then tell me you’ll kill me for needin it and not hardly never gettin it. You got no fuckin idea how bad it gets. I’m not you. I can’t make it on a couple of high-altitude fucks once or twice a year. You’re too much for me, Ennis, you son of a whore-son bitch. I wish I knew how to quit you. (p. 278)
It is almost funny, and possibly inevitable, that Ennis, who most insistently rejects a homosexual identity, is the one who has kept their relationship primarily sexual. Ennis refuses to build his identity or his life around sex – something few mature, moral men could do; he refuses a marginal, minority existence – but he does not evolve anything else or more, as he seems to want to be ordinary. It takes more than sex – or gender or class or skin colour – to form the basis of an identity or life, it takes knowledge and love, and Ennis does not think of his love as more than sex (he does not see sex as one act of a greater love): he lives a smaller, more thwarted life than the large, fulfilled life he might have tried for. It is interesting to see again how insufficient imagination leads to insufficient intelligence and stymies the development of love – and how a failure of love leads to insufficient imagination and limited intelligence: interesting to see how intertwined are imagination, intelligence and love.
Jack recalls for himself a time during their summer on Brokeback Mountain when Ennis stood behind him and held him, a time of intimacy and shame (shame in that Ennis does not look into his face – a sexual shame matched with a sexless intimacy); and Jack wonders if they had ever got closer than that – if that was the only intimacy they attained that did not involve sex.
Jack dies in what is said to be an accident, about which Ennis has suspicions. When Ennis visits Jack’s parents, Jack’s father – ‘staring at Ennis with an angry, knowing expression’ (p. 281) – says that Jack talked about Ennis moving onto the family ranch to work with him, and that later Jack had said that he had found a neighbour who would move with him there to live and work – Ennis intuits that Jack had found another lover, intuits this as the reason for Jack’s death. (What is the root of the hatred of same-sex lovers – biology, custom, dumb prejudice or religion?) It seems that Jack was not ashamed of his love. (What was the extent of his consciousness?) It seems that with – or without – whatever money he had and whatever freedom it gave him, Jack thought he could be involved with ranching, family and male love; it is what he wanted, that combined reality.
Ennis also recalls Jack’s telling him about his repeatedly wetting the family bathroom with his urine when he was three or four years old, and Jack’s father becoming enraged and taking out his own penis and wetting his son with urine. Jack saw that whereas he had been circumcised, his father had not been. Although that recollection is confined to one paragraph, it might be too much for the reverberations – humiliation, castration complex and confusion of urine with semen – it suggests of an Oedipal conflict. It becomes too easy to ask if Jack’s hungry openness to other men, and to Ennis in particular, began with Jack’s conflict with his father, although often it is true that many boys do suffer a wound – a father’s distance or cruelty, another man’s molestation – that preceded the evolution of their sexuality: and it can be difficult to know the difference between truth or cliché (and not to be able to speculate may signify not the acceptance of desire or the affirmation of self, but the continuation of confusion, ignorance and dishonesty – false history or false identity). Of course, homosexuality and heterosexuality are invented categories requiring the denial and dismissal of histories and impulses that do not fit, categories perceived as naturally rigid by the ill-informed and the unquestioning.
Ennis finds in Jack’s room a photograph of a male movie star and one of Jack’s shirts, inside of which Jack had placed one of Ennis’s shirts – and after Jack’s father refuses to have Jack’s ashes buried on Brokeback Mountain, Ennis takes those shirts away with him, a souvenir, and Ennis acquires a photographic postcard of Brokeback Mountain. Jack’s father’s refusal of Jack’s burial wishes – the father wants his son buried in the family plot – may be an affirmation of family, but it is a denial of Jack’s individuality, a denial of Jack’s ambition, love and spirit; and, again, Jack – once full of yearning, and who said nothing came to his hand the way he wanted, in the right way – had been denied.
With its emphasis on nature, its acknowledgement of social limitations and its mix of sadness and sexual excitement (even after Jack dies, Ennis wakes, sometimes with his pillow wet from tears, sometimes with his sheets wet from sexual satiation while dreaming), Annie Proulx’s story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ creates for itself a compelling mystique; and in giving us a new love story, she may have given us a new myth.
Myths can deliver questions and answers we otherwise refuse to receive; and there are questions of aesthetics and ethics – of style, of values, of philosophy, of choice – that Americans, and many people in the world, refuse to take seriously when presented overtly – philosophically or politically; and so in myth those questions are infused with emotion, presented as personal allegory – and deserving then of sympathetic attention; but some questions must be stated nakedly: why are men often measured by the standards of money and violence; and why is love between men despised and feared? Do individuals have the right to define themselves and their own lives – apart from any community, apart from society?
The film Brokeback Mountainhas pristine images of wild and domesticated nature, of mountains, clear streams, green valleys and woods and the animals that walk in them; a couple of perceptive and passionate performances; and a significant story of love between men discouraged by social values, ending with the death of one of the main characters. It is a good movie and time may show it to be a great one, but upon first viewing I did not like it as much as I hoped I would. I saw Brokeback Mountain on the evening of its opening day, 9 December 2005 (I was told that the day’s other screenings had been sold out since the preceding day, and I had failed to get a seat in the press screenings). The film seemed more of a lively melodrama than a tragedy. It differs from the written story in small but telling and sometimes unfortunate ways – for instance, whereas in the book Ennis is a loving father and Jack says he did not really want to be a father and does not sound as if he wants to be one when he is, both men in the film are caring fathers – and that makes Jack more typically respectable. Also, in the book, Jack considers taking his disapproving father-in-law’s money to leave his wife, something Jack considers for his own reason – to begin a life with Ennis, though taking the father-in-law’s money might be considered undignified or shameless; in the film, Jack also considers accepting this payoff, but later he corrects and insults his father-in-law – regarding a child-rearing issue – to his face, making Jack seem (conventionally and) respectably strong. One of the authentic and enlivening things about the book is that Ennis and Jack are not noble: they are just men. The film also fills out the men’s relationships with women, something I like, though the emphasis on Ennis’s relationship to his children, particularly concerning a daughter’s impending marriage, makes the ending less sad and less sexual than in the written story. Yet, I do not doubt that Brokeback Mountain is an important film, the most important American film released in 2005, and certainly one of the most important American films ever made. Thus far, it has mostly received favourable reviews, but it has also received a few nasty reviews from some places I wish they had not come. I think Brokeback Mountain, both art and entertainment, is a film that needed to be made and should be seen.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Jack Twist and Heath Ledger is Ennis del Mar in Ang Lee’s film version of Annie Proulx’s short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Jacob Gyllenhaal, widely known as Jake Gyllenhaal, has been featured in City Slickers (1991), October Sky (1999), Donnie Darko (2002), Lovely & Amazing (2002), The Good Girl (2002), Moonlight Mile (2002), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Proof (2005) and Jarhead (2005). Jake Gyllenhaal spoke about love and the film Brokeback Mountain to Australia’s ‘At the Movies’, accessible via ABC.net.au (14 September 2005); and Gyllenhaal said,
We have this idea of what love is, and everyone says, ‘Love has no bounds.’ And we all subscribe to that idea. And you can read it in cards, you know, like, it’s become such a cliché that we don’t really believe that, because when it comes really down to ‘love has no bounds’, we don’t buy it. We all stay within a form. I’m speaking for myself: I stay within a form of, like, is that OK to do or is that OK to do?
And this movie was like, it has no bounds. Like, these aren’t, in my belief, these aren’t two, like gay guys. These are two people who fall in love. And, you know, from the environment that they’re in, which is incredibly lonely, and, you know, they find each other.
Annie Proulx’s short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was published originally in the 13 October 1997 issue of The New Yorker magazine, before being collected in the anthology Close Range (Scribner hardback, May 1999; Scribner paperback, February 2000). The story proved prescient, as about one year after its original magazine publication, 7 October 1998, a University of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, was attacked – tied to a fence, whipped with a pistol and left for dead in the cold – by young men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, both 21 years old. Shepard, also 21, was found by a cyclist and, though taken to a hospital, died of head wounds without regaining consciousness, on 12 October 1998. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, who willingly left a Laramie bar with Shepard and robbed him of twenty or thirty dollars (reports vary), claimed McKinney panicked when the five-foot-two, 105-pound Shepard made a sexual advance, grabbing McKinney’s leg. (Were these presumably heterosexual men so fragile and insecure that such a boy could intimidate them?) Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping and received two life sentences. McKinney was convicted of murder, aggravated robbery and kidnapping, and also received two life sentences. What does it mean to be prescient? That you tell the truth about what is happening, and when it happens again, people refer to your public speech or art as prophetic. Men and boys have been harassed, beaten and killed for many years for failing to adhere to common gender and sexual codes. The young killers later claimed that it was a desire for Shepard’s money and a drug-fuelled rage that led to Shepard’s murder, not hatred of Shepard as a gay male. It was also said by some observers that Shepard and McKinney were part of the same drug-using scene; and several acquaintances – including one male who had a three-way sexual encounter with McKinney and a young woman – claimed that McKinney, who said during his trial that he had suffered homosexual abuse as a child (abuse that led to panic), was bisexual. The Shepard case seems to have been born of a confluence of elements – poverty, drug addiction, sexual ignorance, the prevalence of guns and violence, and youth – that are not fully or honestly explored in American public discourse; and those explorations are evaded as some of the required responses – such as free higher education and health care, affordable housing and legal representation, full political participation and gun control – are considered too expensive or too threatening to the status quo.
Works – whether imagined or reportorial – that embrace and explore the complexity of human existence and the contradictions of American life might facilitate understanding and then movement on some of the more pressing social concerns: and these works, too, would be somewhat controversial, as they could be read as political acts. In a 4 September 2005 New York Times article on the film Brokeback Mountain and its director Ang Lee, writer Karen Durbin mentions that, following the Shepard murder, Wyoming politicians were angry that national media drew attention to Wyoming’s repeated failure to pass hate-crimes legislation. Eventually, a play, ‘The Laramie Project’, written and directed by Moises Kaufman, about Matthew Shepard’s life and death, was produced for stage and television; and a foundation was created by Shepard’s mother in his name; and both are intended to fight sexual bias. The New York Anti-Violence Project, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have monitored and noted the constancy, and even rise, of gay bashing, during what many see as a time of social change. It seems that the increased visibility of homosexual expression stimulates hostility, whether that is expression of sexuality or simply style or pride: censorship and murder have frequently walked hand in hand.
The New York Times/Durbin article is headlined ‘Cowboys in Love … With Each Other’, a title that contains a kind of dumb surprise, suggesting that despite the thousands of years in which homoeroticism and homosexuality have been present in western civilization, in the cultures of Greece, Europe and America, or in eastern places such as Japan and Persia, they still have not been integrated into contemporary American consciousness, indicating an inauthentic ignorance, a wilful disregard. The article calls Brokeback Mountain a ‘hot potato that had slipped through the hands of other directors’ and describes the short story that inspired it as so effective it seemed to leave an ‘almost physical memory’. I suspect that memory was almost physical in that Proulx went beyond attitude and rumour to deliver the details of an erotic relationship between men; and the story had the cumulative force of art, love and transgression. A story written by a presumably heterosexual woman and published in the long-respected periodical The New Yorker, it was able to enter the mainstream of literary and social discourses in a way that a story by a writer perceived as partisan could not (that is to say, that prejudiced readers would have been suspicious of the prejudices of the writer; and the prejudiced readers would have excused themselves by citing the prejudice of the writer). The New York Times/Durbin article lists Ang Lee’s various film-directing credits such as Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Ride with the Devil (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but somehow fails to list the true antecedent in his oeuvre, The Wedding Banquet (1993), which dealt with an Asian man who hides from his traditional parents his American male lover before all are reconciled at the end. That means that whatever courage involved in making the film of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ has less to do with Ang Lee and more to do with the American audience expected to receive the film Brokeback Mountain. (When reviewing Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger in a 11 December 2000 New Yorker article, later reprinted in the spirited anthology Nobody’s Perfect (published by Vintage in a paperback edition September 2003), Anthony Lane wrote that Lee ‘has been juggling a full set of loves and lusts ever since The Wedding Banquet’, and that Lee’s career seemed to Lane ‘the most interesting in Hollywood today’, and that none of his contemporaries seemed to share Lee’s ‘patience or his range of curiosity’.) The New York Times/Durbin article also describes the difficulty that producer James Schamus, now of Focus Features and formerly of Good Machine, had in getting financing for the film, to which directors such as Joel Schumacher and Gus Van Sant once had been attached, and also the trepidation of some actors. Jake Gyllenhaal is quoted as saying that he was approached about the film when he was 16 years old and was uncomfortable with the subject, but that when approached years later, and given the script and the story, he was moved and said ‘I couldn’t not do it.’ Film producer James Schamus also said that Ang Lee, who is married to a woman microbiologist, has enormous empathy for Americans. Ang Lee, who was born in Taiwan in 1954 and did not leave until 1978 to study at the University of Illinois and then New York University, described the story as a great American love story. Would the film be received as such by Americans?
Would Brokeback Mountain be perceived as complaint, fantasy or true reflection? Would it be received as art? Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain screenplay is by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana; and the film’s production design is by Judy Becker, cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and costume design by Marit Allen, with hair by Mary-Lou Green-Benvenuti and make-up by Manlio Rocchetti; and the film was certainly conceived as art.
Variety, as part of its Telluride festival coverage (online 3 September 2005), presented a review by Todd McCarthy that began by calling the film
An achingly sad tale of two damaged souls whose intimate connection across many years cannot ever be properly resolved, this ostensible gay Western is marked by a heightened degree of sensitivity and tact, as well as an outstanding performance from Heath Ledger.
The reviewer said that the film was
… a real tightrope walk for the writers, director and, especially, the actors. All hands manage it through a shrewd balance of understated emotion and explosive physicality. The young men’s pent-up sexuality expresses itself most comfortably through boyish horsing around, but this can also slip over into outright violence, as when they hit each other with bloody results.
The film was screened at the Venice International Film Festival. In The Hollywood Reporter (6 September 2005), writer Ray Bennett called the film Ang Lee’s best work since Sense and Sensibility, but Bennett described the beginning of the relationship between Ennis and Jack in this way:
One night, Ennis decides to sleep by the fire rather than head off to his lonely post, but in the wee small hours, with the fire dead, he’s freezing. Jack yells at him to join him in his tent. A simple human gesture in sleep prompts a frantic coupling that in the cold light of morning each man is quick to dismiss.
A simple human gesture? There may be discomfort and forgiveness in that phrase, in that presentation, not quite what Annie Proulx described in her short story (of Jack putting Ennis’s hand on Jack’s erect cock). Does that suggest an attempt to erase sexual impulse? Domenico Stinellis begins his own Associated Press report on the film – published on 11 September 2005 in the Indianapolis Star – by stating that ‘Ang Lee’s tale of love between two gay cowboys set in the conservative West of the 1960s won the Venice Film Festival’s top award Saturday.’ The film – about a love which Lee is quoted as describing as both ‘unique and so universal’ – won the Golden Lion award, but it is interesting to see, already, the perimeters of the film’s reception, from a relationship begun with ‘a simple human gesture’ to a broad-brush treatment of the men involved being ‘gay cowboys’. Is there nothing between erasure and sexual generalization? Ennis and Jack are two men living what could be described fairly as active bisexual lives, though Proulx’s text, and Lee’s interpretation of that text in the film, give focus to the most transgressive or unique aspect of their lives, their ongoing, unlegislated relationship with each other. Must one aspect of their sexuality cancel out another?
Jake Gyllenhaal’s co-star in the film, as Ennis del Mar, the Australian actor Heath Ledger appeared in Clowning Around (1992), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), The Patriot (2000), A Knight’s Tale (2001), Monster’s Ball (2001), The Four Feathers (2002), Ned Kelly (2003), The Order (2003), The Brothers Grimm (2005) and Casanova (2005). In one of Variety’s publications, V Life, December 2005, Ledger was quoted as saying that Ennis was the most masculine man he had ever played. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat in their early October 2005 review in Spirituality and Health commended director Ang Lee and Heath Ledger: ‘The director, who has a special talent for drawing out affecting performances, does so with Heath Ledger who plays a cowboy that keeps a tight rein on his words and his emotions.’ The Brussats – who have a simple intellectual gravity that seems as elemental as earth and water – conclude that
Love that must be doled out in periodic visits eventually turns sour for Jack who desperately wants to live with Ennis. Brokeback Mountain works upon our emotions as we see these two men who struggle against the passage of time and drain their energies in relationships that do not fulfill and jobs that do not give meaning or satisfaction. Our hearts go out to these lovers and the yearning that binds them together over the long and lonely years. It is a crime that passion like this continues to be denigrated, hated and fought as if it were the vilest thing that a human being could ever do.
In response to the film Brokeback Mountain, in the online pages of Laramie Movie Scope of Lariat.org, an Internet users group, on 9 October 2005 a commentator, Robert Roten, who said he saw the film months before its theatrical release, wrote: ‘I have lived in Wyoming for over 25 years and can attest to the fact that this film captures the spirit of the Rocky Mountain west and its people faithfully.’ Roten’s assessment of changing values: ‘I don’t know if gay people will ever be accepted because there will always be those who preach hatred, but I think they will eventually be tolerated. Now, they are only tolerated if they keep quiet and out of sight.’
How is such a taboo established? Belief in absolute authority – whether that of an imagined deity, actual government or popular doctrine – and in binary thinking (such as good versus evil or natural versus unnatural, regarding values, but also regarding sexuality, gender, race and class) may be the hard-to-resist inclinations of both thought and social life, but they are very destructive and usually make inevitable the establishment of taboo, of the forbidden. The taboo against homosexuality seems obviously rooted in religion and the idealization of masculinity in pioneering frontier societies and also concern for sustaining the population, something that Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization (Belknap Press, 2003) discusses in depth. When one taboo falls, it is easy to imagine others – or all – falling; and that is why conservatives, when faced with the prospect of love – and marriage – between individuals of the same sex, immediately start predicting the acceptance of paedophilia and bestiality, which seems ludicrous to people who are deeply humane or liberal. However, if a man considers what it means to establish a taboo – something that is not merely unacceptable but unspeakable – he is bound to ask if a particular kind of being or behaviour is actually evil or wrong, or merely strange, and what constitutes its strangeness except its being alien to the current system of living in society? Freud discussed the idea of polymorphous perversity, the primal lawlessness of sexual desire and its ability to go in any direction. Herbert Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization, and others discussed the possibility of sexuality as a forum for liberation. The bravest and most unbelievable assertion today in our narrowly hypersexual world would be the avowal of asexuality or celibacy. Is the only thing preventing paedophilia and bestiality taboo? One cannot say that human nature prevents them – since these are taboos that are sometimes transgressed by human beings. Social roles offer convenience – we do not need to experiment with various identities and think through diverse ethics if we accept the social expectations of society.
The day before the film Brokeback Mountain opened to the general public, writer David Leavitt (Slate, 8 December 2005), a white gay male and the author of the novels Family Dancing, Lost Language of Cranes and The Body of Jonah Boyd, called the film a ‘moving, operatic adaptation’. Leavitt noted the men’s disinclination to label themselves, and the perplexing fact that this is a film about men in love but not a gay film, not a film that carries the clichés of contemporary homosexual identity (I would identify those clichés as camp humour, agitating rhetoric, amoral sexuality and disease). Leavitt asked,
Does the fact that none of the principals involved in Brokeback Mountain is openly gay have anything to do with the film’s happy resistance to the stale clichés of gay cinema? Perhaps. In any case, McMurtry, Ossana and Lee deserve as much credit for their tenacity (it took them seven years to get the movie made) as for the skill with which they’ve translated Proulx’s spare, bleak story into a film with an epic sweep that nonetheless manages to be affectingly idiosyncratic in its portrayal of two men in love.
Stories, like poems, are made of words; and films are made of images and also sounds, some of which are words; and if one wants to know what a book or film is or says one has to look not at the world or one’s own life or conscience but at the elements of the work; although what a book or a film means is enlarged – or shrunk – by those other references. It is arguable that the story of Ennis and Jack is a story of friendship that experienced the accident of sex, which in turn deepened into love, or that theirs is only a story of unpredicted erotic obsession.
There are scenes of very green, layered hills of land near the beginning and end of the film Brokeback Mountain, with a truck driving through the darkness of night and Ennis del Mar is in each truck. When Ennis and Jack Twist first see each other outside the foreman Joe Aguirre’s office, Jack begins to approach Ennis, but Ennis puts his head down, a reflexive withdrawal. After Aguirre (Randy Quaid) arrives he tells them about the work on the mountain, and hires them without announcement – their hire is conveyed by Aguirre giving Ennis a watch and then turning to his other business. Ennis and Jack drink together in a local bar and Ennis stiffly listens to Jack, a look of near disbelief in Ennis’s eyes when Jack describes a lightning strike that killed a bunch of sheep in the previous year. Throughout the film, there are brief glints of feeling in the eyes of Heath Ledger as Ennis, a man reared not by his parents but his siblings – glints of amusement, discomfort, doubt, intolerance and pain. The two men begin working together and already one sees their difference – Ennis listening to instructions about how to handle the getting of supplies and studiously tying down a back pack on a mule, and Jack choosing a wildish horse as his own and carrying a sheep on his lap, then on his shoulder. Their work is tremendous – it is one thing to read about a thousand sheep and another to see them, with only dogs to help the two men. The work is tedious and they get tired of eating beans, leading Ennis to order the soup he said he did not want, before Ennis shoots an elk. When a bear scares Ennis’s horse, Ennis falls and later – after being angry that Ennis was not around when Jack came down the mountain to eat – Jack attempts to treat the wound, an early sign of tenderness between the two. Jack complains about travel time up and down the mountain and gets Ennis to switch roles and go to sleep with the sheep, and intimacy between Jack and Ennis grows – they drink together, talk about family and Ennis talks about his dad’s scepticism of rodeos, and Jack knowingly satirizes rodeo riders, leading to Jack’s funny fall. Jack plays harmonica, which Ennis will later tease him about, and Jack sings a religious song and, after saying his mother is a believer, cannot tell Ennis much about the tenets of his parent’s religion. One night Ennis is crawling drunk, and that is the night of their first sexual intimacy. It does occur as in the book – with Jack putting Ennis’s arm around him and guiding it downward (it is hard to see in the dark, and I do not know if Jack was half asleep: it is suggested by Jack’s earlier claiming to be a sinner that he has had sex with, and slept with, a woman before, though Ennis has not – and Jack may have been repeating a sleep habit, being hugged; or maybe not). The next day both deny being queer.
A terrific night-time scene follows, with Jack inside the tent, and Ennis nearby at the campfire – Jack is waiting shirtless, and Ennis seems to be silently deciding whether to go into the tent – and when Ennis goes in, hat in hand, he is welcomed by Jack: Ennis seems sad and uncertain and Jack gives him a comforting kiss that then turns into passion. Gyllenhaal’s simple directness adds something to these scenes that becomes more significant the more one thinks of it. When it is time to leave the mountain and the foreman Aguirre sees what they have done with the sheep, Aguirre says something that is thought but unspoken in the book: ‘You ranch stiffs ain’t never no good,’ which may be too plain a statement. Why would Jack return to Aguirre – as he does in the film – after hearing this, expecting more work the next year? When Ennis and Jack part, Ennis stops near a wall to retch – and he hits the wall, in rage; and his rage seems more recurrent in the film (he starts several fights) than anything I had noticed in the book. Ennis does marry Alma, played by Michelle Williams, whose performance is perfect: she is blank-faced in church, joyous after the wedding during a scene of them snow-sledding, openly sensual as she tends the clothes line, a bit tired as she does more washing in the sink, and she is in sad shock after Jack visits Ennis and she sees them kissing, but she draws herself up later to ask why Ennis’s friend does not come inside before the two men leave for a couple of days together. There is domestic comedy as well as pain in her awareness of Ennis’s betrayal, in his beginning to forget his tackle box when he is going on what he claims is a fishing trip. (The first sign of his betrayal in the film is when he gets Jack’s postcard announcing a visit and Ennis tells Alma that Jack is an old fishing buddy, when she has asked explicitly if Jack was someone Ennis had cowboyed with: he, inexplicably, lies.) In the motel room where Ennis and Jack lay together, Gyllenhaal invests the scene with a light, wistful, pleased tone. Gyllenhaal in the film is a gentle heart, a talkative man of action and an almost startling object of beauty, with his dark hair, thick eyelashes, large eyes and cheekbones (I do not think that he has appeared beautiful before now). We see Ennis and Jack driving to a cliff, taking off their clothes and jumping naked into the water below, a scene reminiscent of a painting (possibly The Swimming Hole by Thomas Eakins?). As Jack and Ennis talk during the night, Ennis refuses the possibility of the two having a ranch together, mentioning the murdered half of a male couple Ennis’s father showed him when Ennis was a boy.
Meanwhile, Jack’s intimacy with and marriage to Lureen (Anne Hathaway), who we first see dressed in red and riding a horse in a rodeo – looking great, with tremendous prettiness and energy – begins with a bar-room conversation – ‘What are you waiting for, cowboy, a mating call?’ – and a backseat tryst, but the distance between them seems to grow partly because of her attention to business and partly because of his other affairs and devotion to Ennis, with Lureen eventually developing a look of frozen sensuality. We see Jack’s flirtation – somehow careful and urgent – with other men: a rodeo clown, a Mexican and a townsman. After Ennis and Alma’s marriage ends – following a bedroom scene of spoken brutality – Jack arrives hoping for the best and leaves crying. When Alma, after a Thanksgiving dinner with her new husband, confronts Ennis about his trips with Jack, it is obvious that Ennis and Alma are both in great pain, he over having his private self touched and she by the past disappointment and betrayal. I was surprised by Ennis’s subsequent involvement with a woman, Cassie, who, imperceptibly to him, falls in love with him. She is played by Linda Cardellini, in what is also a perfect performance: in response to Ennis, she goes from friendly to glowingly attentive to hurt and exhausted. She is relaxed, with a warm sexiness, when she first talks to Ennis, asking him to dance and then to massage her feet, and in their last encounter, she asks about his absence and her unanswered notes, her posture tense and a bitterness moving around her mouth, beneath her skin. When Ennis tells her he probably was not much fun anyway, she says, ‘Girls don’t fall in love with fun.’ During the last meeting between Ennis and Jack, Ennis accuses Jack of being responsible for Ennis’s being nothing and nowhere – but it is obvious that Ennis has no developed sense of self: has never had a sense of himself as fully present and active in the world, and so he does not see his appeal or what he is doing to people. There is truth here. I liked and admired the film on first viewing, but during a second viewing I began to be moved by it.
What will history make of this work; and what do we make of it now?
Years after a work’s premiere, film scholars are inclined to examine the work, lament its lack of current recognition, and return to the files to learn what was thought about the film in its time. That can be a necessary and thrilling thing or it can be supremely wasteful. Why not watch films as they are made and released, and review their reception, in their own time? Why not rise to the occasion when it is dangerous – and thus necessary – to do so?
Jami Bernard, writing in the New York Daily News (9 December 2005), described Brokeback Mountain as ‘a magnificent achievement’, noting that the film is also about the things that are lost in a classic American journey, including a connection to the land, and Bernard asserts that ‘Jack and Ennis’s feelings transcend anything as mundane as sexual orientation. In fact, the sexiest moment is when Jack doesn’t peek as Ennis strips down to wash just yards away.’ Evoking an elegy, Bernard said that the film ‘drips with longing – in this case, for a vanished breed of man, for the vanished wilderness, and for a pure kind of love that has no label and needs no justification.’ The same day, Jan Stuart wrote in Newsday that the film destroyed several myths at once: the expression of western male sexuality as expressed in visits to the local whorehouse, the threat of portraying homosexuality onscreen to the developing careers of young actors, and radical expectations of the hype that the film began to gather after its festival appearances. (He observed that Ledger as Ennis ‘embodies the terror and entrapment felt by someone who lives his life in a state of emotional house-arrest’.) Stuart also found that the film ‘coaxes audiences to walk several hundred miles in its characters’ shoes, luring us with the scent of forbidden fruit and rewarding us with the sumptuous taste of complex storytelling’.
Mick LaSalle, a San Francisco Chronicle critic, wrote in a review dated 8 December 2005, available online, that the film is about two men in a love that makes no sense, except in one place in the world, the place where it started, on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. And though they come down from that mountain and go about their lives, they keep going back to it, over the course of years, because however much the love doesn’t make sense, it’s real – so real, it makes their lives unreal.
LaSalle commends the work of Gyllenhaal and Ledger, writing,
Both actors do memorable work, but Ledger has the better role, and he makes the strongest choices. He gives Ennis a voice and mannerisms that are utterly idiosyncratic, and then inhabits those choices psychologically, making sense of the locked-down speech, the haunted look and the strong but diffident manner. He completely transforms himself.
The three film reviews that stand out in my mind as wrong, even wilfully wrong, are those by Armond White, David Edelstein and Stephanie Zacharek. Armond White sees the film as constructed of issues, not realities, and says that ‘Director Ang Lee’s hot-topic liberalism thus reaches its low point by making a gratuitous, shameless analogy to the 1998 killing of Matthew Shepard’ (New York Press, 7–13 December 2005). However, the homosexual-killing references occur in Proulx’s story, written and published before the Shepard death, which took place – like the story – in Wyoming. Of Ennis and Jack’s initial meeting outside the foreman’s office, White says, ‘From the moment the two meet, looking for employment at a ranch office, the story seems to be taking place in pantomime. (It’s a scene of not cruising, which just feels unnaturally inhospitable rather than shy.)’ I would say that in addition to Ennis’s lifelong reserve, Ennis and Jack are both applying for needed work, do not know each other and are wary of what might be competition for a job. One of the interesting things about the film is Ang Lee’s trust of silence and the feeling on people’s faces – some of the elemental resources of cinema. Armond White also says about the development of the men’s relationship: ‘Lee is too much the fastidious esthete to demonstrate funky, sweaty or even quixotic desire.’ This is, of course, inaccurate: we see the men engaging in sex, wrestling, kissing, cuddling, which all express their desire (what is not expressed is the coarseness of our own times). The key to White’s complaint is conveyed when he suggests that what the film and men miss and need are ‘events that might have given them gay consciousness or put their affair in some workable context that wasn’t just imaginary’. That is not the story Proulx or Lee was telling about these men whose context is small-town life and wilderness. Brokeback Mountain is not a gay rights pamphlet in the form of a film, nor is it pornography. White asserts questionable meaning: ‘Is it coincidental that Ennis and Jack’s first sex is followed by a shot of dead sheep? It seems to judge the men as despoilers of nature.’ Actually, Ennis and Jack have jobs to protect sheep from coyotes and wolves, which in previous years decimated the flock – jobs they neglected while fucking – and when Ennis returns to the sheep after their first night as lovers he finds one sheep dead. Ennis and Jack did not kill the sheep; an animal predator did, and Ennis’s eyes are saddened by the sight. How can Ang Lee be charged with, on the one hand, wanting to sanitize the men, and on the other wanting to show them as nature’s despoilers?
The tone of critic David Edelstein (Slate, 8 December 2005) is flippant, but at least he admits, ‘As distant as I felt from the movie, there were people around me weeping uncontrollably – gay men, some of them, and a few women who were moved by the spectacle of cowboys in tears.’ (Am I only imagining that sneer at the end of the sentence?) Edelstein begins his review by writing that ‘Ang Lee’s films often focus on the tension between people’s formal roles – those ritualized, culturally mandated poses they feel compelled to strike – and the passions under the surface that struggle to express themselves.’ That neat summary of Lee’s work also describes some of the great works in the western literary and dramatic canon. Edelstein says that ‘Ennis’ [sic] drift into unemployment and alcoholism is relentless’, an observation of a couple of things that I must have missed in the film. Ennis becomes less inclined to meet with Jack as the years go by, as he has to stay employed to keep up his child support payments; and I do not recall unusually wanton drinking. Ennis does drink sometimes when he is nervous or upset, but many American men drink a lot (and resent it if you do not) – and a sober waitress, Cassie, who sees Ennis drink and teases him about it does not think it enough to make him an unsuitable candidate for her attentions. Edelstein also notes the caution of Ennis and Jack, as they ‘could be lynched by all their neighbors, those less-than-liberal “real” men who wouldn’t know a real man if he fucked them in the ass. (Or maybe that’s the only way they would know a real man.)’ The temper of the piece, and possibly what it is reacting against, may be found in this statement: ‘Ang Lee’s formalism is so extreme that it’s often laughable, and the sex is depicted as a holy union: Gay love has never been so sacred.’ That is not how I saw the physical or sexual intimacy between the men, and Edelstein’s comment seems a reaction against seriousness, a reaction against meaning.
Stephanie Zacharek (Salon, 9 December 2005) declared that the film presents ‘an unconventional love story that’s carefully calibrated to offend no one. Brokeback Mountain risks so much less than its characters do – it’s a closeted movie.’ After that questionable claim, she describes what she reads as one of the meanings of the narrative: ‘This is what comes of denying your true nature: You get stuck with a frowsy, unhappy wife in a shabby housecoat, clutching a coffee cup as she stares into space.’ The problem with this is that Ennis and Jack both were poor, and most people born poor stay that way, whether or not they marry, and one of the admirable things about book and film is the acknowledgement of the importance of money. Both Ennis and Alma look unhappy in the divorce court – neither had expected or wanted the end of their marriage. Ennis never had much of anything and, sadly, never expected much, and that is partly why he does not pursue a life with Jack. Anne Hathaway as Jack’s wife Lureen is, according to Zacharek, directed so that ‘We go through the whole picture with no idea how she feels about her husband, and the movie’s ending gives us no further clues.’ I thought Lureen was pleased when her husband Jack stands up to her dominating father. I thought that Lureen’s phone call with Ennis near the film’s end, when her calm is broken by barely audible murmurs in response to what Ennis says, confirmed her controlled grief and her suspicion about how Jack died. Ennis told her they were close friends and took trips together, and she says that Jack wanted to be buried on Brokeback Mountain, which Ennis tells her is where they had worked. That let her know why the mountain meant so much to Jack – she had thought the mountain might be a fable – and what Ennis said about their closeness probably confirmed rumours about why Jack was beaten to death. She had the official story about a tyre-changing accident, but she also probably knew of rumours to the contrary (that is how small towns are: that is how almost every place is). A critic – even an ordinary viewer – can be expected to bring some intelligence and imagination to a work. Zacharek, almost alone among reviewers, seems not to have understood Ledger’s performance, and asks Ledger to betray his character:
Ledger needs to clue us in to what Ennis is thinking and feeling without ever showing us, but the best he can do is to give us a reflective blank, a slate on which we can scribble our own ideas about what might be going on in his head, and his heart.
(Clever, she suggests if others understand Ledger, it is their projection.) She wants an inarticulate, self-protective man to be articulate, expressive, just as she, White and Edelstein want a story other than the one in the book or up on the screen. (Zacharek, White and Edelstein, three critics of formidable intelligence and engaging personality, were friends with the legendary and late film critic Pauline Kael, a writer I admire, and I am trying to resist thinking that Kael’s antipathy for well-intentioned films with an earnest tone, especially regarding sexuality, is thoughtlessly replicated in their responses.) Zacharek also states that ‘Gyllenhaal is at his best in the scenes where he just steps over the line of daring to plead’, that is, he is good when he betrays the character’s dignity, which is very often all that country poor people know they have (rather than dignity, the urban poor have an abrasive attitude and a bluff and reckless energy some see as charming) – though dignity is something that someone as self-conscious, and as moneyed, as Jack is becoming may think he can barter with. In her conclusion, Zacharek states,
It’s a thesis film masquerading as a melodrama – there’s something clinical about the way it keeps its two lovers so clearly focused under its microscope, documenting their hopes, their fears, their desperation, in a way that’s calculated to avoid alienating the straightest of straight audiences. The greatest movie romances require us to make a leap with the lovers; this one keeps us at a safe remove from the edge.
How can Zacharek claim that the characters are opaque and still remark on how thoroughly their hopes, fears and desperation are presented? Does she want a film without a thesis, without an idea or perspective about its characters? Why should the creators of Brokeback Mountain or any film want to alienate an audience? Brokeback Mountain is not clinical: it carefully presents what is for many people an unknown reality – either the homosexuality is unknown or the landscape and western culture are unknown, and the film makes them both known. The problem is not the film’s, but ours: in a world in which homosexuals remain, more often than not, strangers – ever hear homosexuals talked about when none are thought to be around, the way blacks are talked of when none are thought to be around (talkers not recognizing people who blur distinctions – the bisexual, the very light-skinned)? And such a leap of positive identification yet cannot be assumed when presenting work involving sexual difference, such as the bisexuality of Ennis and Jack, although if this film is successful that may become more likely. However, I do not expect the straightest of straight audiences to sit still soon for a film about a man who fucks another in the ass, with them both liking it enough to keep doing it for twenty years. Ennis and Jack are, apparently, not like Zacharek, Edelstein or White, who seem to lack any empathy and generosity for them: as with many of us, something human is alien to Zacharek, Edelstein and White.
The experiences in the film, and the consciousness the film suggests, are richer – more ambiguous and complex – than common aesthetic, emotional or political expectations. To be frank, I think most gay people, like most minorities, like most people, are boring: people are interesting when they do not fit assigned categories. Ennis and Jack are not interested in many of the things that interest me, nor are they intelligent, sensitive, creative or comprehending in ways that matter most to me, but they are distinct men and consequently engaging. Two weekly gay newspapers in New York have taken opposite sides on the film in their first commentaries. Ioannis Mookas, in Gay City News (8–13 December 2005), lamented that the men in the film were not predictably gay, that love and sex had been divorced from political identity. It is a vicious article: Mookas describes Jack’s family as ‘shrunken, fear-riddled’ and Ennis’s visit with them as ‘creepy’, and says the film’s presentation of the women is misogynist, describing Alma as ‘a bleating shrew’, and Lureen as ‘rapacious’ and ‘all feminine guile’, things I did not at all see. Ang Lee’s female characters are not less human than his male characters; and in the female characters there is Lureen’s youthful sensuality and mature professionalism and self-assurance, and Alma’s decency and quiet quest for a better life. The writer, Mookas, even claims that Ledger and Michelle Williams, a couple in real life and new parents, had ‘thought it best to bear a child as unassailable proof of their straight credentials’. Today, there are not many people who want to take care of a child for eighteen years to prove a false point. There is a simple-minded hostility and frustration beneath a thin veneer of intelligence in Ioannis Mookas’s review article. Tray Butler in the 9 December 2005 New York Blade, says that the film is true to Proulx’s story and creates a ‘believable universe of longing’, and he makes some regrettable remarks about the existence of God (for one, saying that God exists) before adding the gay community can shout hallelujah about the film because ‘in every important way possible, the movie gets it right’. Tray Butler describes the film and clarifies that
Brokeback has been tagged a ‘gay western’, but the film itself defies any pat characterization. Its settings alone makes the word ‘gay’ an anachronism, and Ennis lands just barely in the ‘bi’ category. The queer attack dogs have already pounced on the phantom stench of sexual nuance, which is unfortunate.
The last line suggests that Butler recognizes the colonialist attitude some gays have toward the sexuality of others: they want to map and control it, and slander it if they cannot control it.
The most intelligent negative commentary I have read of the film has come from Gary Indiana in The Village Voice, in an article that appeared about a week and a half before the film’s opening (the 30 November–6 December 2005 issue). Indiana does begin with snide comments that ‘Brokeback Mountain would be useful if it came in a spray can’, something you can spray on a bigot, transforming him, as it seems ‘inflected to instill something akin to high moral dudgeon’. (Is it not odd that what used to be a politically progressive paper, The Village Voice, is jaded about a work that seeks to facilitate a change in attitude regarding a beleaguered identity or experience?) Indiana does, however, provide some context, argument and ideas. He notes that often films confuse love and sex, and that sex cannot be the only connection in a lasting relationship. He approves of the film’s grim presentation of family gatherings and ‘the whole nine yards of ghoulish Americana’, and remarks, and not with approval, that the film seems to ask understanding for all its people. What is useful about the article? Indiana identifies some of the film’s – and the book’s (and the larger society’s) – assumptions with specificity. Indiana reminds us of the many other films with homosexual themes that have been made, as does Armond White, and Indiana, like White, goes on to remark on the indifference to changing times and thoughts in the film’s depicted communities, which is ‘depressingly credible’. Indiana reminds his readers of the American impulse to identify and punish deviants of all kinds (he cites Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans). Most significantly, he doubts that Ennis and Jack could maintain a vital sexual connection after such a long time, and doubts that any two people could, asserting that sex becomes dull after about two years (Indiana does not cite which studies he had recourse to for that vast assertion). Indiana thinks that marriage should be honestly identified as a property arrangement, which any two people could enter; and finds the notion of gay marriage to be a borrowed heterosexual ideal, one possibility utilized for assimilation and social respect. He says not everyone wants marriage or even a relationship: ‘It’s often easier to do things you enjoy with somebody you merely like or don’t know.’ He also thinks homosexuality could be encouraged for reasons of population control, and as a way to not spread human misery around. Gary Indiana seems not to be fond of stories of romance (‘truth is, there’s not much mystery left in stories of this kind anyway’), and possibly not fond of romance itself, and the admission is an honest one, as we can see the roots of his critique in his own sensibility. The Village Voice printed a letter in response to Indiana’s article from a self-identified gay activist involved in a thirty-year relationship, John Gill of Spain, in its 14–20 December 2005 issue, and Gill wrote, ‘Indiana is playing into a very nasty form of sexual fascism.’
Whereas some critics see the film narrowly, only in contemporary or political terms, others see it in relation to history and cultural tradition. Stephen Holden, writing in the New York Times (9 December 2005), remarked on the lonesome chill of acute desolation in the film and book, and the boyish sexuality of Ennis and Jack, with its laughter and fighting, before drawing forth a cultural context:
This moving and majestic film would be a landmark if only because it is the first Hollywood movie to unmask the homoerotic strain in American culture that Leslie Fiedler discerned in his notorious 1948 Partisan Review essay, ‘Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey’.
Stephen Holden said, ‘Brokeback Mountain is ultimately not about sex (there is very little of it in the film) but about love: love stumbled into, love thwarted, love held sorrowfully in the heart.’
In The New Yorker (12 December 2005) Anthony Lane wrote,
Not once do our heroes mention the word love, nor does any shame or harshness attach to their desire. Indeed, what will vex some viewers is not the act of sodomy but the suggestion that Ennis and Jack are possessed of an innocence, a virginity of spirit, that the rest of society (which literally exists on a lower plane, below the mountain) will strive to violate and subdue.
Lane called the film ‘a study of love under siege’. I do not know that I would go as far as to say there is no shame or harshness attached to their desire, but I do agree that what is between them – the attention, intensity and openness to desire – sometimes seems as rare as water in a desert or charity in the heart of a fanatic.
With few exceptions, such as those already noted, Brokeback Mountain accurately and persuasively interprets Annie Proulx’s short story in great detail: it is a film made with care, craft, intelligence and feeling. (Proulx, by all reports, is pleased with the film.) There is an unlikely metaphor of defeated natural strength in the name of the story, a story that gives us a view of freedom outside of society. Ennis and Jack are located in particular spaces in time and do not have recourse to, or knowledge of, the full range of history or human possibility, but how often is a sense of that complexity – which might create discontents or rebels – conveyed by parents, schools or most authorities, to anyone? How often do the young guess that such radical knowledge can be found in books? The standards of value in the film are duty to work and family, and the demands and rewards of the natural landscape, and less that of individual impulse and gratification: and the film shows us what the neglect of or disrespect for individuality costs. The world of work, especially as it involves nature, offers struggle, the confirmation of one’s use and splendour. It was interesting to see how in the film the men might affect or be affected by nature, such as when Jack tends the feet of one of the sheep, possibly taking out a splinter, and when Ennis finds the dead sheep and later the mixed flock as a result of the men’s negligence or limited control, and how nature, as in an old-fashioned novel, might reflect mood, such as when Ennis rides up the hill the first day after being with Jack and the sky is cloudy, moody, like Ennis. Ennis has raging, even monstrous moments; and it is possible to feel horror in the impersonality with which he threatens Jack during their last meeting – and there is horror in the murder of the man that Ennis’s father showed him, and horror in Jack’s death. Even what is life giving, such as the bringing forth of children, is compromised by their compromises: Ennis’s daughter has his doubtful silence, though she also is given to bright smiles when she reveals something good in her life. However, in Ennis and Jack being able to relate to each other without a received language, without an established code of love, Ennis and Jack suggest that there is something – a reality, a realm of being – more significant than the rhetoric of cliques, political movements or tribes. Ennis and Jack walk into literature and into film history and change perceptions of real time, of how the West must have been lived, and of how men might live today. I would be curious to know if Proulx knew books such as Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar or James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, as the first involves typically masculine men and one young man’s inability to forget a youthful sexual encounter, and the other involves a young man’s inability to accept his desire and love for a man – and both stories explore spiritual torment and a kind of horror of the self. Does Annie Proulx know James Purdy? Has anyone pointed her to Steven Angelides’s factual and theoretical study A History of Bisexuality? Did Annie Proulx seek inspiration in Walt Whitman or just watch – and imagine – men she knew? The story of Jack and Ennis, which reminds us of anguish and desire, of pleasure and grief, calls us to acknowledge human frailty and hope and urges us to try to be a little more knowing, a little more brave.
The audience at the first screening I attended in Manhattan’s Lincoln Square was alert and respectful, with very little nervous or lewd laughter, and the Chelsea audience at the second screening had a jovial festivity. The audience at the East Village screening I attended, the third screening within a week of the film’s opening, had a mellow collegiality. While waiting to buy a ticket, standing in front of me was a young man who, in between kissing his girlfriend, kept repeating, ‘I wish I knew how to quit you,’ a line from the book and the film that Jack speaks to Ennis, though his girlfriend asked him to stop. ‘That line’s hot,’ he said. In the theatre, one of the girls seated behind me gave a low hoot when Heath Ledger as Ennis got out of a truck during the film’s beginning and walked to foreman Joe Aguirre’s office; and when Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack arrived outside Aguirre’s office near where Ennis stood, the girl whispered, ‘Kiss him!’ Seeing the film a third time, I noted minor errors of perception in my previous observations of the film and I could see more easily how everything in the film was of a piece, part of a whole. I noticed how slowly a film goes by if you do not know it, and how quickly if you do. I was struck again – and am struck now, writing these words a week after first seeing the film – by how Jack listens to Ennis after he has told Ennis that their summer on the mountain is ending and that the foreman wants them to bring the sheep down; as Jack works breaking down the camp, his real attention – without continually looking at him – is on Ennis. I could see how Jack’s hunger for Ennis led him to sexual and social danger.
The world in which most of us live is as built on masculinity, and the force associated with masculinity, and the values masculinity presents, as the world is built on money; and the naked surrender of one man to another has trembling reverberations for individuals and communities, and that gives Annie Proulx’s story and Ang Lee’s film symbolic importance. That literary and film critics have responded to these works as meaningful events, and that members of the general public have shown interest, is a sign of increased health and honesty. Brokeback Mountain is a redeeming work of entertaining, intelligent and tragic art.