Jack finds a man in Mexico

Ennis as a young boy with his father and brother on their way to see Earl.

A young Ennis looking at death.

Wide shot of Earl makes it nearly impossible to see him.

A jump cut to a medium shot of Earl is unexplained, but reinforces the violence that Earl experienced.

An adult Ennis looking at death.

The death of the sheep foreshadows the death of Earl.

Ennis on the phone with Lureen trying to learn the details surrounding Jack’s death.

Lureen explaining to Ennis how Jack died from an accident involving a flat tire.

Jack being followed by a group of men on a grass trail with no truck in sight.

Jack is struck from behind with a tire iron.

Jack is repeatedly beaten.

A boot to Jack’s groin is similar to the violence inflicted on Earl.

Jack continues to be struck with the tire iron, inflicting the same types of wounds that Lureen described as resulting from the accident with the flat tire.

The viewer is able to see Jack’s version of a caring and passionate Ennis.

The viewer is able to see Ennis’s version of Jack’s death.


Cinematic discipline

This flashback is significant in two ways: First, it allows the audience to see the overt love that Ennis has for Jack. Second, because we see Ennis’s actions via Jack’s memory, Jack’s homosexual subjectivity becomes dominant. In contrast, Ennis is seen more as homosocial then homosexual. After all, it was Jack that started the sexual contact with Ennis in the tent, and it was Jack that made the trips from Texas to Wyoming to see Ennis for the last 20 years. It was also Jack that repeatedly tried to settle down with Ennis:

“Tell you what, we could have had a good life together, a real fuckin’ good life.”

This imbalance in sexual subjectivity proves to be a critical element when looking at cinematic pleasure because it results in a form of cinematic discipline. From a pleasure perspective, Ennis displays tenderness, intimacy and a critical distance from homosexuality. From a discipline perspective, Jack’s homosexuality is framed within a predatory context. As Ennis himself says,

“Why don’t you just let me be? It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this. I’m nothing, I’m nowhere.”

As a result, the audience is simultaneously invited to find pleasure in their (my) love, while also being shown the deviancy inherent in it. The end result is that the homosexual is “fixed.” Even though the audience may find him a warm and sympathetic character, even to the point of being able to love. He nonetheless can never escape from the moral implications of his sexuality.

As Homi Bhabha describes, subcultures are “fixed” in ways that maintain the superiority of dominant culture:

“Fixity, as the sign of cultural / historical/ racial difference… is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition.” (1983:18)

Bhabha continues by illustrating the relationship between fixity and stereotype:

“Likewise the stereotype, which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place,’ already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated…” (1983:18)

It’s this fixity, working through stereotypes and other means, that maintains the gay male body as being pathological. The homosexual is demonized, outlawed, dismissed, or as is often the case, left for dead. This is not to say that the visual pleasure that I experienced in Brokeback Mountain was not real. But it is to say that engines of dominant cultural production, such as Hollywood, created those moments as part of a larger disciplinary action. Brokeback Mountain shows the homosexual as being fixed, destined for unhappiness and failure or worse yet, death. Which is to say, the formation of homosexual desire within Brokeback Mountain is constructed in a way that gives the audience at least two choices of readings—the homosexual as a tragic and flawed figure, or the homosexual as deviant and predatory. Regardless, their homosexuality is fully known to the audience. Which is in contrast to how D.A. Miller proposes Brokeback Mountain’s homosexual construction:

“At one end of each shot is a homosexual who doesn’t mean to be a homosexual, at the other end, matching and mirroring him, is a film spectator who doesn’t mean for him to be either. Both parties are disallowed self-consciousness, the homosexual unable to attain it, the spectator freed from it by having its burden shifted to the dramatis personae.” (2007:58)

Jack’s deviancy is more then just the fact that he is a homosexual. It’s the fact that he acts on his homosexuality that is important. For example, he was the bottom when they had sexual intercourse. He also has gay sex outside of his relationship with Ennis. Jack confessed to Ennis to having sex with men in Mexico, which the viewer sees in an earlier scene in the film where Jack picks up a Latino man in an alley. It is not clear if the man is a prostitute or just cruising. Regardless, for Ennis and the film itself, this overt level of homosexuality is clearly deviant behavior. We also get confirmation of Jack’s overt homosexuality when Ennis learns from Jack’s parents that Jack was planning on bringing a man other then himself to his parent’s ranch to help turn it around.

As a result of this imbalance between the men, Brokeback Mountain creates a secondary “Othering.” The first Othering is that both men are deemed to be gay. The second Othering is that Jack is more gay then Ennis. This double layer Othering secures the stereotypical construct of the deviant homosexual (Jack) whom recruits and corrupts the masculine straight male (Ennis).

Of course, since Ennis and Jack share a bed together, Ennis is implicated at some level in terms of his homosexual desire. But Ennis’s same sex desire seems to be offset for the audience by his rugged masculinity. For example, while they were on Brokeback Mountain that first summer, Ennis switches roles with Jack and it’s Ennis that ends up watching the sheep on the mountain, rather then cooking and cleaning back at the base camp. It’s Ennis that shoots the elk to provide food for Jack, who is tired of eating beans. It’s Ennis who is getting married as soon as he gets down from the mountain, and once off the mountain, it’s Ennis that fathers the first child.

Paramount to his masculinity within the film is Ennis’s refusal to have a domestic relationship with Jack, and to only be a top when they have sexual intercourse. These elements allow the viewer to create distance (real or imagined) between the homosexuality of Jack and the homosexuality of Ennis. For instance, while it’s true that Ennis had sexual intercourse with Jack, he did so in a way that could easily be dismissed for acting out of necessity (he was drunk and horny on a mountain). Or it could be interpreted as a sexual act that was equal to having sex with a woman, since we see later in the film that he prefers anal intercourse with his wife Alma.

Brokeback Mountain does not attempt to question or offer an alternative to the idea of the homosexual as deviant. Instead, it affirms a heteronormative reading that results in the audience seeing disciplinary actions on the gay body as normal and justified.

It’s in this way that Brokeback Mountain disciplines my own gay body. As a viewer, I am skilled at navigating around overtly homophobic representations of my gay body on screen. However, Brokeback Mountain is able to combine and entwine its call for the discipline of the gay male body within a larger, seemingly innocent, dramatic love story. As a result, the mass appeal of Brokeback Mountain provides a new level of homophobic discourse. One that works on a nearly subliminal level that encourages the mass audience to continue to embrace and enforce fixity, Othering, and discipline upon the gay male body.

On their first camping trip since being on Brokeback Mountain, Jack reminds Ennis how good their life could be if they decided to settle down together. Ennis replies,

“If we are together, and this thing grabs hold of us again, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, we’re dead.”

Ennis continues by telling Jack the story of how his dad took him and his brother to view the dead body of a homosexual when they were kids. It’s during this scene that we learn the full extent of Ennis’s knowledge of the immorality of homosexuality, and perhaps most importantly, the ramifications of living an overtly homosexual lifestyle.

As Ennis tells Jack the story of Earl and Rich—“two old guys ranched up together down home”—the film cuts to a medium shot of a man and two boys walking with their back to the camera down a trail. This flashback, seen from Ennis’s memory, unfolds as his voiceover continues:

“They were the joke of town, even though they were pretty tough old birds. They found Earl dead in an irrigation ditch, tire iron to him, spurred him, tied him up by his dick and drug him around till it pulled off.”

As the voiceover plays, the camera pans onto a close up of the young Ennis, as he stairs directly ahead. The film cuts to a medium shot of Jack back at the campfire asking, “You seen this?” The film cuts to a medium shot of the grown Ennis replying, “Yeah, I was about nine years old,” which then cuts back to a young Ennis looking straight ahead, his father’s hand placed directly on the boy’s neck to keep him looking straight ahead. Ennis continues, “He made sure my brother and I seen it.” The film cuts from a shot that has the audience watching a young Ennis, to a shot which allows the audience to see what Ennis is seeing: a dead man sprawled out amongst the rocks in a ravine. However, the camera is showing us a wide shot of the scene, and it’s difficult to make out the visual details of the dead body, let alone find the body in the landscape all together. After a few seconds of this wide shot, the film cuts to a medium shot of the body in center frame. It’s at this point we see that his jeans are pulled down and that blood covers his groin. The jump cut from a wide shot of Earl to a medium shot which shows his injuries is non-diegetic. Young Ennis did not move closer to the body to warrant this closer view. It was delivered to the audience by the filmmaker as a way of visually affirming the penalty for being homosexual.

This scene serves to define two types homosexuals within the film: the homosexual that acts on his deviant behavior, and the one that does not. The one that refrains from acting on his desire is allowed to live. The one that actively pursues his same-sex desire will most likely die as a result of it. Thus, it provides the viewer with evidence as to why the gay male body needs to be disciplined. For at the same moment the audience learns of Ennis’ traumatic boyhood experience, we assign blame for that trauma not on the men who committed the crime, but onto the homosexual(s) that caused the crime. As a result, the viewer is provided with two versions of the deviant homosexual. The first is alive as a result of his self-discipline. The second is dead due to his lack of self-discipline. Through our association with the characters on screen as a result of spectatorship, the audience comes to understand that there is a price to pay for overt homosexuality.

During the course of the scene, the viewer moves from the third-person perspective of the audience, to the first-person perspective of the homosexual (a young Ennis) as he is forced to see the mutilated body of Earl. As a viewer, having access to his gaze allows the audience to learn of Ennis’ homosexual subjectivity at the exact same time that Jack learns of it. It provides the audience a level of intimacy with Ennis that Jack can’t obtain. We are able to see what Ennis saw, while Jack is left to imagine the details on his own. Thus, the audience is able to identify (and join) with Ennis’ self-discipline, while simultaneously reinforcing the positioning of Jack as the deviant homosexual. After all, it is Jack that wants to live together like Earl and Rich did.

This scene is foreshadowed earlier in the film when Ennis rides back up to the sheep the morning after their sex scene in the tent. Ennis awakes to find himself with his pants down and Jack sleeping next to him. As Ennis rides out of camp, the camera follows him on his horse, climbing up to the sheep in a sweeping wide shot. We hear the dog barking in the distance. Ennis gives the horse a kick and takes off on a quick gallop towards the barking dog. The film then cuts to a shot of Ennis approaching the dog and a dead sheep nearby. As Ennis looks at the dead sheep, the audience is given his first-person perspective as he looks down at the sheep, split open along the length of it’s belly, chest cavity showing a brilliant red of blood and emptiness. Not unlike the view of Earl’s groin.

The discipline of the gay male body within Brokeback Mountain culminates near the end of the film when Ennis hears of Jack’s death. As we hear Jack’s wife Lureen describe in a voice-over that Jack died from an accident while fixing a flat tire on his truck on the side of the road, the film cuts from a medium shot of Ennis on the phone with Lureen, to a wide shot of Jack walking from three men in the grass near the railroad tracks. The viewer is given the idea that they are seeing the true story of Jack’s death through Ennis’ perspective. However, this is only partly right. The camera maintains a third-person perspective throughout the scene, allowing the viewer access to Ennis’ fears and projections without any first person point of view. The men in the scene strike Jack with a tire iron and continue to beat and kick him on the ground. The film makes a series of jump cuts between his bloody face, kicks to his crotch, and repeated blows to his body. As we hear Lureen ask if Ennis is still on the line, the film leaves Ennis’ imagination and returns back to a series of cuts between Lureen and Ennis ending their phone conversation.

This scene provides the audience with an oppositional reading to Jack’s earlier flashback of Ennis. In that memory sequence, Jack is reflecting on how passionate and caring Ennis is to him. In contrast, in this moment, Ennis is imaging how Jack’s overt homosexuality surely got him killed. As a result, Ennis and the audience share in what now has become common knowledge between them—the gay male body is a threat that needs sustained discipline.

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