JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The truck that brings Ennis to Brokeback drives past three telephone poles that rise along a hill like crosses, suggesting the crucifixion.

The scene where Aguirre spies on the frolicking couple through binoculars seems like a reenactment of the Biblical Fall...

One of the things Ang Lee may be calling for is a final end to the God of Wrath, and an embracing of the God of Love — for everyone.

Some shots convey a gloomy, tumbledown beauty reminiscent of the dustbowl photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.

The women suffer an emotional pain nearly as savage as that suffered by Ennis and Jack.

In an interview, actress Anne Hathaway says: “Ennis is somebody that keeps his feelings so trapped and pushed down that it’s almost like, when he talks, the words are punching themselves out of his mouth.”

The ranchers’ summer ritual of taking a flock of sheep up into the mountains to graze is probably no longer strictly necessary in a world where any living thing can be raised in “hothouse” conditions...

...and where the genetic cloning of sheep has become a reality.

 

Brokeback Mountain, p. 2

2.

There is much that could be said about Brokeback Mountain’s central idea of men “getting back to Nature” to explore or celebrate their masculinity. Such socially accepted activities as hunting and fishing have promoted male bonding for centuries, in exactly those rugged, remote areas where there are few, if any, women. Jack and Ennis’s affair is carried on under just this disguise. In his excitement to be back on the road with Jack, Ennis nearly forgets the tackle-box that is his cover, the prop of “normal” male relations; this fuels the suspicions of his wife. Here, women are being identified — in a somewhat odd twist on how their mythos was traditionally presented — not as avatars of Nature itself, but as the first principle of order and civilization, the rule of law, so to speak. It is precisely in defiance of this female-identified societal law that modern men stage their return to Nature.

In Jack and Ennis' case, this involves sex. However, it has been depicted in many other films and novels as a more routine, less intimate kind of camaraderie. In Hemingway’s fiction, for example, men in the wilderness still bond around the idea of taming a Nature that is female: the Goddess element of Nature precludes and prohibits the men from being tender toward each other. But as men moved, historically, to fully dominate the natural world, so the natural world became less and less ineluctably female and more a creation of male instincts and male engineering. With James Dickey’s Deliverance (filmed by John Boorman in 1972), the hill country that is being invaded by land developers represents Nature already in the process of becoming masculinized, infected with male-against-male power struggles: gay sex enters as an act of hostility, without tenderness. Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? pointedly involves a working-through of Oedipal conflicts. Mailer's father-son bear-hunting expedition in Alaska is rife with overtly Freudian implications about the size of the bear reflecting on the shooting prowess of the hunter — implications which the young narrator is both well-read enough and adolescent enough to fully savor.

This gradual making-over of Nature into a “Father” rather than a “Mother” — with the female-maternal relegated to the civilized world of town and household — is only possible because civilization has propagated itself so completely. For ancient man, it was probably automatic to think of the Earth and Nature as female. Individual lives were born of women in much the same way as annual crops were born from fertile ground. Both processes remained awe-inspiring and enigmatic to the irrational, pre-scientific mind. Even when ancient man understood his own role in procreation and in the cultivation of the land, he could not have explained the processes themselves, nor could he have made those processes more efficient in any definitive sense. He could not have preempted or short-cut Nature itself. In the modern world, however, nurturance has been rendered asexual by the fact that science can explain and even control the production of both human life and natural food sources. Deprived of their primal mystery (and protected, through advanced medicine, from the former dangers of childbearing, for instance), women have been placed in the position of caretakers and upholders of civilization rather than the unruly “Goddesses” who once stood in challenging opposition to it. On its surface this historical situation is neither markedly feminist nor anti-feminist. If anything, feminism in the practical arena of social life only became possible when the ancient mystical ways of looking at women were dispelled in favor of more human ones.

The draining-out of all mysticism from modern life has reduced men and women to nearly equivalent functionaries in the societal machine. If women have been deprived of the power that once came from being the inexplicable and uncontrollable bearers of life, then men are also deprived of the power that came from placating and even warring against the nature-principle. In the sexual binary code of Brokeback Mountain, where men and women are turned away from each other, the men reinvest in Nature — as a kind of excess luxury, a libidinal surplus — all of the forgotten male energies that are no longer needed by the social order as such. The ranchers’ summer ritual of taking a flock of sheep up into the mountains to graze is probably no longer strictly necessary in a world where any living thing can be raised in “hothouse” conditions, and moreover, where the genetic cloning of sheep has become a reality. Perhaps the enclosure of homosexual desire is such that it masculinizes the external, natural world in every case, leaving no possible room for traditional representations of Nature as female-maternal. (Genet describes the world and the universe as having “become” the phallus of his deceased lover.) Phallic mysticism is in line with the effects of modern industrialization to make the natural world reflect male, rather than female, biological processes (active manufacture over passive creation; the planned circumvention of seasonal cycles; sky-scrapers, etc.). Therefore, a homosexuality that is entirely isolated from women and society, and which is also hyper-masculine (with the men performing male rituals not out of necessity but only to prove that they still can), can be read as symptomatic of male energies returning to some source of power in order to recharge themselves like a battery.    

3.

Will it surprise anyone if I say that the film is smarter and more generally subversive when dissecting male-female dynamics? In some ways, the movie is “stolen” by the supporting female roles: Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams), Jack’s wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), and later Ennis’ girlfriend Cassie (Linda Cardellini). All three find themselves in love with men who are closed off to them, emotionally unavailable, and barely interested in even having sex. The film is as moving a portrait of these women’s struggle for selfhood as of the men’s. This, in itself, is a brave place for the film to go: most gay-themed films have refused to dwell seriously on the problems faced by women who fall in love with closeted gay men. The true subject of the film, at its deepest level, may be what John Lennon once called the “karmic wheel,” where people come into each others’ lives to work out common destinies. In fact, there’s just as much, if not more, heterosexual sex in Brokeback Mountain as gay sex. What’s radical is the critical context in which the heterosexual scenes play out. The male-female sex is presented as business-like, negotiated, and (apart from baby-making) inconsequential; while the gay sex gets to be spontaneous, playful, and of lasting consequence. The film suggests a kind of trade-off whereby gay sex gets to be “authentic” (and given the societal risk factor, this is not necessarily an unearned authenticity) while hetero sex enjoys a certain sanction, the imprimatur of respectability.

Moreover, the entire heterosexual world depicted in Brokeback Mountain is sick, power-mad, delirious in its hyper-defensiveness. Jack’s father-in-law is an aging badger obsessed with his own manly prowess and the familial authority it confers. When Jack and Lureen’s son is born, the father-in-law crowds into the hospital bed, crowing, “He’s just the spittin’ image of his Grandpa!” The preacher who marries Ennis and Alma (they don’t exchange actual wedding vows so much as recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison) says peremptorily, “You may now kiss the bride — and if you don’t I will!” Heterosexuality is viewed not so much as a natural thing but as a construct eternally in need of shoring up through constant semiotic identification. “I’m straight, I’m straight,” the male characters keep identifying themselves, a surplus luxury which further undermines the gay characters’ fragile resolve.

It’s part of the film’s genius that it documents how homosexuality can’t be understood except in relation to the larger heterosocial context from which it departs, and against whose background it is fated to play out.[4] [open notes in new window] Brokeback Mountain does not shy away from asking hard questions about this heterosocial context. It seems to suggest that men and women are fundamentally unknowable to each other, speaking radically different languages, and that the mystery they feel vis-à-vis each other is the source of both their heterosexual yearning and their pain. Again, the women in the film suffer emotional pain nearly as savage as that suffered by Ennis and Jack. If few men can live comfortably with the thought that they are not quite manly, then few women can withstand the fear that they are not loved by a man. This kind of hard-wiring, reinforced young and unlearned only with great difficulty, still has a high degree of dramatic resonance, even if forty years of feminist theory (and common sense about the inevitable gray areas of human sexuality) have helped us to overcome the repressive, black-and-white stereotypes of gender-essentialism.

The result is that relations between men and women can become little more than contracts meant to ameliorate mutual fears. Trying to use their whole power of reason in a desperate effort to understand, the women in this film read the inarticulate language of their men as a dense forest, and get lost inside it. The ultimate fault, the women assume, must be their own. Rather than believe her eyes when she catches Ennis locked in a passionate kiss with Jack, Alma labors on in the marriage, taking the blame for her husband’s “inexplicable” wandering. Eventually, she does divorce him, but it isn’t until many years have passed that she can bring herself to confront him, so bewildered is she by what she has seen. Later, Cassie assumes that if Ennis doesn’t want to marry her it’s because she must not be “good enough.” These women are true to the pre-feminist culture that forbade them from participating in men’s activities, and as a result left them helpless to decipher the nature of men’s experiences. It’s the shock of seeing Lureen riding a horse as well as a man that attracts Jack to her.

But if the men speak a language that is closed to women, it’s also closed, for the most part, to other men. The brilliant opening scenes are completely wordless. Ennis and Jack arrive separately at the ranch where they are both applying for a summer job herding sheep, and, being two men who are strangers to each other, can not surmount the social barrier that will make one of them more vulnerable by speaking first. Jack’s framing of Ennis in his truck’s rear-view mirror is the film’s first encoding of homoerotic desire, but it’s passed off in a reverse-angle shot in which we see Jack using the mirror to shave. When the rancher, Aguirre (Randy Quaid), arrives, he ignores both men, going inside his trailer and closing the door, drawing arbitrary power lines. A second later, he reemerges and summons them inside; but the message is clear. Even when a genuine social purpose is established (hiring someone for work), reluctance to speak to other men is deeply conditioned within the male psyche. (Later, because Jack develops a certain openness, a glibness even, he is able to draw out other closeted males, and discovers that desperate loneliness is a common feature of many men’s lives.)

Because of this, all realms of human experience become battlegrounds, contested and infected zones. Religion is among these, and the film does not shy away from examining it, both critically and in proto-mythic terms. In one of the film’s first images, the truck that brings Ennis to Brokeback drives past three telephone poles that rise along a hill like crosses, suggesting the crucifixion. During the early seduction scenes, Jack mocks the apocalyptic Pentecostal zeal of his family by bellowing a drunken hymn about the Second Coming. He goes on to admit:

“I don’t know what the Pentecost is. My ma never explained it to me. Guess it’s when the world ends and fellas like you and me march off to hell.”

Jack and Ennis are already acutely aware that, if they want to be together, they will have to defy the strict religions they were raised with. Later, Ennis argues with his wife when he doesn’t want to attend a church social, calling it the “fire and brimstone crowd.” His growing discomfort with the church’s (anti-gay) message is a sign of his growing feelings for Jack, or of his omnipresent fear. But the film doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Some genuine religious feeling — without dogma or judgment — is evoked by the landscape, the tranquility and majesty of Brokeback itself serving as a kind of Eden myth.[5] Their employer’s name, Aguirre, is surely a reference to the anti-hero, nicknamed “the Wrath of God,” in a well-known Werner Herzog film. Indeed, the scene where Aguirre spies on the frolicking couple through binoculars seems like a reenactment of the Biblical Fall. One of the things Ang Lee may be calling for is a final end to the God of Wrath, and an embracing of the God of Love — for everyone.

4.

Brokeback Mountain is a heartfelt dramatization of the very human problem of having to carve out a place for oneself in the world. This could be anyone’s problem. Popular culture often pretends that love is automatically the greatest boon that can occur in anyone’s life, but for some people — inculcated, perhaps, to grow low self-esteem — love is the greatest source of terror. Many of us, whether gay or straight, are barely raised to understand or accept love; or we come from parents who were faulty models. Passionate first love overwhelms and frequently devastates timid, tender hearts, especially if that love is lost; one clings to the memory as to a fleeting vision of paradise, a personal “Rosebud.”

Much has been made of Ennis’ painful inarticulateness. When Cassie casually asks him what he’s been doing, he mumbles, “Earlier today I was castrating some calves” — as hysterically deadpan and impaired as a Samuel Beckett character. In an interview, actress Anne Hathaway says, very perceptively:

“Ennis is somebody that keeps his feelings so trapped and pushed down that it’s almost like, when he talks, the words are punching themselves out of his mouth.”

This is true; Ennis is a man afraid of his own voice, afraid of revealing any internal part of himself. But his unwillingness to exist goes deeper; in any room with other people, he often doesn’t seem to even be there at all. Jack has a far greater sense of entitlement; he strives to re-make the world in his own image, gathering to himself an ever-widening net of lovers. It’s Jack who first pushes the two of them into exploring their attraction to each other. In a scene where he and Ennis argue, Ennis accuses him, “I’m like this because of you!” and though his words feel a love-tap unfair, they also ring true. Jack is just trying to find a way for himself to live in this world, but he shirks responsibility for the passions he inspires, sometimes forgetting that others have a reality equal to his own. By contrast, Ennis’ hyperawareness of the responsibility that comes with love causes him to make the opposite move: withdrawing, shutting out the world, steadfastly refusing to impose his image upon it.

Finally, in its relentless depiction of various kinds of culture-shock, and in its allegory of freedom eternally at odds with social destiny, Brokeback Mountain has more in common with Easy Rider (1969) than with any “gay movie” I can think of. Both are landmark films for their time, and both are protest films. Both films feature a bonded pair of nonconformist heroes. Ambitiously, both films kaleidoscope the whole range of American experience — family, friendship, love, sex, religion, drugs, nature, money, popular culture, the pursuit of happiness — into a depressing terminal condition where every broken promise in this life must be weighed against the heaven that could never be enough, could never live up to our over-inflated expectations. Both place sudden, untimely death at the end of freedom’s winding road. And both are grim, sometimes queasy postcards of the romantic, spacious, wide-open America that is clearly not free and open to everyone — and which some can possess only at the total cost of their lives.

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