Max DeCurtins explores his complex feelings about “the gay cowboy movie,” and all the sad and lonely silences that make it so haunting.
I’m not sure by any means that I should have agreed to re-view Brokeback Mountain.
No, not because I don’t share the perspective of those who were all over this film because OMG HEATH LEDGER. I get that. I don’t have any celebrity crushes—never did—but I can see how having one for Heath Ledger (or for Jake Gyllenhaal) would color a viewer’s experience of Brokeback Mountain.
It’s not even because I recently collapsed across the finish line of a semester-long marathon of the most challenging class I can ever recall taking, and I feel like doing nothing except sitting by the fire with a potent potable and daydreaming. (Note to self: it helps to have an actual fireplace.)
No, I’m not sure I should have agreed because, as silly as it sounds, I think I felt intimidated by the movie. At its core, Brokeback Mountain is a story about two people with a lot of friendship and love between them who just couldn’t get it to work, whatever it is. It’s been billed as a timeless love story, but I’m not so sure that’s what it is. It’s a film full of denial and delusion, aspiration and failure. In short, an emotional clusterfuck.
When I first saw Brokeback Mountain, I didn’t have any personal context to inform my experience of the film. I do now. 2015 has been a banner year for emotional clusterfuckage in my life. Mostly, I’d argue, thanks to other people doing their frustrating other people things. And sometimes you’re at the end of some particular rope, and something just has to give.
I suspect that most people have at least some firsthand familiarity with a relationship—of any type—that stands apart from others for its lack of straightforwardness. Whatever it is, it evades our classificatory predilections. There’s love involved, to be sure. At times you feel convinced that the significance of the relationship is mutually felt; at others, you couldn’t be more in doubt. Sometimes you wish you just didn’t care, but of course you do care, for better or worse. The relationship in question lacks not for value, but for mutual understanding, and danger seems to lurk behind every potential remedy for the problem. When it ends, it ends badly, usually coming to a screeching halt that denies you a sense of closure. A unique kind of pain attaches to this scenario; Brokeback Mountain examines this pain in excruciating detail. What’s not to like? I knew that watching it would force me to revisit what I don’t particularly want to think about, and so this re-view has grown into something of a personal challenge. I like to think that that’s one of the better things about 10YA; given the right material, writing a re-view takes me well past reflecting on the movie, to a point where I can process out loud, as it were, thoughts kicking around in my head that won’t decamp until they’re ready to leave.
I first saw Brokeback Mountain alone at a theater somewhere in Goleta or Santa Barbara. I saw it again about two years later, and I haven’t watched it since. The plot, such as it is, doesn’t lend itself well to a play-by-play re-view, so I’m going to skip the recapitulation. Just go watch it. Preferably while sprawled upon the most comfortable piece of furniture you have, in gratitude for the fact that you’re not stuck in a hailstorm on a goddamned mountain in the hinterlands.
For the sake of some basic detail for this re-view, Brokeback Mountain follows three relationships over a period of time: Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), Ennis and his wife Alma (Michelle Williams), and Jack and his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway). It’s never made explicit how much time passes in the film, but the number is approximately twenty years or so. Twenty years wreaks all manner of changes on people, some welcome, some not so welcome. The story doesn’t really present development of the characters over time so much as snapshots of them at various points within that timeframe. I’d forgotten just how much the narrative flow—again, to the degree the film has one to begin with—ambles along in much the same way as it did a moment before, until BOOM! Serious shit goes down, and then it’s back to ambling. In most cases, I’d doubt that this approach would sustain audience interest throughout the entirety of the film, but here it works without question.
This is one of those times when ten years seems like nothing. To watch, Brokeback Mountain feels brand-new, as if it could have been filmed only last year. It feels incredibly fresh, but I can’t say whether that’s really the film or the fact that I haven’t seen it in eight years, coupled with the sea change in LGBT rights since 2005. To read about it, you’ll encounter sweeping descriptions of the film as an operatic masterpiece, or a universal love story, or something similarly broad. Honestly, though, this kind of fulsome praise stands at odds with the totally minimalist aesthetic of the movie—at least for me, anyway. Brokeback Mountain takes place away from everything: away from cities, away from people, away from new experiences and heterogeneity. Even sex has to be conducted far away from other people, lest anyone get caught satisfying the human urge to get off now and then. You’d think that would be easy, given all that open space. At times the vast stretches of land and sky in Wyoming (really Alberta, where the production filmed) threaten to smother us like a heavy blanket; rather than liberate the characters who inhabit them, they confine them through distance and silence.
I had especially forgotten how much silence is in this film. It calls to mind the saying, attributed to half a dozen composers and thus likely apocryphal, that “music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.” Brokeback Mountain does not belong to that club of movies whose score, in the cringe-worthy words of the musically challenged, “builds to a sweeping crescendo” to mark important or emotionally charged scenes. (N.B. A crescendo is simply a dynamic marking that instructs the musician to increase the loudness of the music by some quantity over the duration of time indicated by the marking.)
In fact, the film opens with no music at all; no floofy credits distract us, there’s just an atmospheric image and the name of the film. The first music we hear is a single unresolved semitone, which is then repeated. In a way, there could not exist a better summation of the plot, of the deprivation of certainty and closure that characterizes the kind of relationships I described earlier. The semitone exists to resolve to the tonic. It’s the bedrock principle of Common Practice Western music: start somewhere, go somewhere else, and return. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as the saying goes. If we do not return whence we came, informed by our journey, then the music remains unfulfilled. In the world of Brokeback Mountain, we are forever going “there,” even when—to borrow from Bilbo Baggins—we come “back again.” I’m honestly flabbergasted that the film won the Oscar for Best Original Score, for what is essentially musical narration as minimalist as the landscapes it accompanies, consisting of a few solo guitar cues, light string scoring moving upwards harmonically from the submediant to the tonic, and the unfortunate twang of country music. I guess you can’t have cowboys without the twang.
Brokeback Mountain long ago earned its epithet as “the gay cowboy movie.” Except, if you actually watch it, you’ll find that it’s really nothing of the sort. Oh sure, there’s gay subtext to be found beneath many of the interactions—definitely something I missed when I first saw the movie—but as a viewer, you have options aplenty for how to read this film. One thing, for example, I realize I completely missed in my historical viewings is the option to interpret Ang Lee’s magnificent imagery of Brokeback as a paean to a natural world increasingly imperiled by climate change and economic development. The kind of weather patterns that drive the seasonal business of herding, farming, fishing, and logging grow less and less reliable with each passing year. We may have talked about it less in 2005 than we do now, but the intentional presence of these issues in the movie seems unmistakable to me. Brokeback as environmental film—who knew?
I also missed the amount of material that is left to the imagination of the audience. Mostly it’s material connected with Jack, given that Brokeback Mountain doesn’t quite focus as much attention on Jack’s as it does on Ennis’, but even still I found myself surprised at just how much core, plot-related material is at the viewer’s discretion to decide, not the least of which is the fundamental question: are Jack and Ennis gay? Most likely. I don’t know for certain, though, and frankly I’m not sure it matters. They met; their lives intertwined. They love each other; they hate each other. And everything in between.
The two men share much in common but differ plenty in tone and temperament. Ennis can be cheekily charming, as he exhibits during their summer together on Brokeback, but more often he expresses himself as a frightened realist. He remembers his father showing him, as a boy, the corpse of a local man suspected of being gay who got beaten and then dragged by a pickup truck until his penis ripped off, and that memory informs Ennis’ entire character. “This thing grabs hold of us in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and we’re dead,” he warns Jack. Which brings me to another point I missed the first time around. Ennis never refers to his relationship with Jack as such; it’s always “this thing.” Language choice matters, and Ennis knows it. Jack, on the other hand, is more earnest in acknowledging his love. He admits: “Truth is, sometimes I miss you so much I can hardly stand it.” Preach. He’s also more direct about the harm done to him by perpetually unfulfilled emotional and sexual needs, yelling at Ennis that “you have no idea how bad it gets.”
We’re supposed to feel sympathetic toward them on account of the social repression that overshadows their torturous relationship, but neither Jack nor Ennis come off as wholly likable characters. They both knowingly inflict suffering upon their spouses. Ennis, by his reluctance and occasional shows of favor, manipulates Jack into staying invested in the hope for things impossible. It’s a sick reminder of the Power of Least Interest—he who withholds himself from the relationship has control. For his part, Jack simply doesn’t grasp the consequences that his actions and desires have on others. And he persists in hurting himself: when Jack learns of Ennis’ divorce, he drives all the way up to Wyoming from Texas, thinking that Ennis has finally made the decision to be with him. Ennis declines, to no one’s surprise, leaving Jack to drive off in tears, except it’s his own damn fault. Jack made this idealistic, grand gesture that he had to know, somehow, would ultimately fail. This isn’t some lofty Hollywood romantic drama at work but rather the mundane tragedy of miscommunication; Ennis keeps trying to tell Jack that he won’t commit to a life together, but Jack just isn’t really listening.
Speaking of listening, I swear I’ve never had to work so hard to make out a character’s words as I did with Ledger’s Ennis, when he speaks at all. Nobody talks very much in Brokeback Mountain. There is SO MUCH DAMNED SILENCE in this film.
I also didn’t necessarily remember after eight years that Ennis and Jack’s first sexual encounter is also the only one actually depicted on screen; they kiss far more than they have sex. And when I watch them in that first encounter, I honestly think it’s to the film’s benefit that there isn’t more man-sex. Still, Ledger and Gyllenhaal handle it as best they can. In fact, watching the two of them makes me kind of uncomfortable. The logistics of it are also . . . Er. That shit doesn’t just happen, folks. It takes some serious fortitude to attempt bottoming with no preparation and just a spit of saliva for lube. It’s ambiguous sex though, which is of a piece with Ennis and Jack’s entire relationship, and it’s yet another reason that I’m reluctant to call Brokeback Mountain a love story.
Whether or not you think Brokeback Mountain is primarily a love story, there’s little question that the film’s secondary focus centers upon what my academic colleagues would call the “performance of masculinity.” When Jack and Ennis first meet, they stare silently at each other, as if sizing up their plan of attack should killing each other become necessary. They declare to each other on Brokeback that they’re most definitely not queer, reinforcing their masculinity, despite all later evidence. (It’s also worth noting that their intended meaning of “queer”—i.e., homosexual—differs from contemporary usage, which applies the term more commonly to questions of gender identity.) For what it’s worth, Ennis does code that he’s gay at least three times:
- Early on, when he and Jack discuss the difference between Methodists and Pentecostals, Ennis quips of Jack that he “may be a sinner, but I ain’t yet had the opportunity,” and the sin in this case is clearly homosexuality, or more directly, gay sex.
- Later, in one of his extramarital trysts with Jack, Jack asks, “What are we gonna do now?” Ennis replies, implicitly acknowledging the legitimacy of his love for Jack, “I doubt there’s nothin’ we can”
- Finally, during the fight that has been twenty years in the making, Ennis identifies with precision an experience known to anyone who’s spent time in the closet: the sensation that complete strangers somehow know you’re gay. It’s unnerving at first, particularly if you’re not out, but you get used to it. Still, the fact that he can articulate this seems fairly indicative of Ennis’ sexuality.
Repression of feelings, abusing your wife (Ennis), or lashing out at your wife’s asshole father (Jack)—these all offer examples of acting out within the parameters of rural Midwestern masculinity. Broadly speaking, that masculinity still holds sway over a large swath of society; despite gains in legal protections, plenty of places still exist where Brokeback Mountain’s culture is alive and well. “Bromance,” that bon mot of our time, gets lampooned so often that it can be hard to spot real love between two men not in a “traditional” romantic relationship, and straight guys most of all seem to have taken up the bromance as another way of “performing” their particular masculinity. For Ennis and Jack, their masculinity links inextricably with the formal boundaries of their relationship, and the implications the blurring of those boundaries has for their sense of themselves as men engenders considerable confusion.
As for me, when I finally realize that I’m in love—to some varying degree, and yes, there are degrees—with someone, the feeling isn’t elation, or giddiness, but rather dread; from the recesses of my mind comes an ugly little voice that tells me: You’re not supposed to be in love with this person. You’re not allowed. You might think I’m referring to a straight guy, and with good reason—there’s certainly an urban trope of sorts, involving the young gay man who falls for his unattainable straight best friend—but I’m not. The most confusion arises when the other guy is also gay (and if you don’t believe me, just google “can two gay guys” and watch the auto-suggest list). The performance is not of masculinity but of the formal boundaries of relationships. The anxiety comes from hoping that you don’t cross them in the wrong way, whether purposefully or inadvertently. And as much as I have learned to navigate life openly as myself, I still have a long way to go.
I rarely view—or re-view—a film with as much personal context as I have for Brokeback Mountain. I understand now how it can elevate one’s experience, like watching a movie on steroids, and have the result be a viewing that sticks with you and becomes memorable. My recent struggles differ, of course, from those faced by Ennis and Jack, but there’s a lot I can identify with now that I’ve had to grapple with it for myself. I don’t know if Brokeback Mountain will always mean something to me, but at the time of this re-view it certainly does, and that’s honestly a pretty novel thing for me.
What I do know is that Brokeback Mountain is one fucking beast of an amazing movie. It reaped accolade after accolade, and the controversy surrounding its failure to capture the Oscar for Best Picture rivals that of the actual content of the film itself. It makes you wonder a little, and the enthusiasm that people express for the movie makes watching it that much more engaging, as you put yourself in the shoes of film critics. Its strengths are such that teasing out the weakest parts of the film is an enjoyable challenge in the subtlety of analysis. Is it a love story? No . . . and yes.
If you haven’t seen Brokeback Mountain, you should. It’s not just that it will feel as familiar as your favorite pair of broken-in shoes to anyone who’s struggled, or still struggling, with an unfulfilled relationship that defies all easy classification. It will make you instantly grateful for all the relationships in your life that are not like those presented in the film. If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, I don’t mean it to. This is one of those films that holds up on its merits alone, and doesn’t pander to its audience. I feel certain that it will still fare as well after forty years as it has after ten.
– When Ennis flips over the final postcard and sees what’s stamped on the back, I was all: Fuck, well that’s ironic.
– I’m pretty sure now that Aguirre’s sheep herding was in fact illegal. He makes a couple of references that imply he’s trying to avoid detection by the forest service, because it’s great that the government pays to maintain ecologically healthy wilderness, just as long people can use it for their personal profit. I’m too tired to take a swipe at pathological anti-government types, so I trust y’all will think of one your own.
– Sure, boys, just go ahead and eat any old wild creature you shoot with a rifle. Because there’s no chance said animal might be diseased or carrying parasites or anything. Nope, not a chance.
– Do you just learn to stop having hangovers if you drink that much whiskey that regularly?
– When the contraception runs out, Ennis and Alma stop having sex. Here’s a lesson, kids: condoms.
– Poor Michelle Williams. Having drawn the short straw on the poster child show for teen angst on Dawson’s Creek, she still can’t get ahead, this time in the angst-ridden world of gay cowboys.