Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Brokeback Mountain – Neither “Gay” nor “Cowboy”

As a lot of other people have pointed out, calling Brokeback Mountain a “gay cowboy” movie does it a disservice. The characters, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, are sheepherders, not cowboys. That may sound like a trivial point, but in the heirarchy of the cowboy culture, that’s an occupation that is low on the totem pole, and therefore these men do not deserve the respect that a true cowboy — one who takes care of cattle — would earn.

As for the other tag, these guys aren’t gay. They may have sex with each other and they may truly love each other, but that doesn’t make them gay, it makes them homosexual. For most people that’s a distinction without a difference, but if you’re going to really understand what moves this story — the agonizing pain that they live with for the twenty years they know each other — you have to see that being gay isn’t the same as being homosexual. If Ennis and Jack were gay, they would have found a way to make a life together and they would be able to express their love for each other without the agony of their separation or the façade of marrying women and having families. They would accept their feelings for each other and they would do whatever they could to be together. It isn’t just Western society with all its quaint mores and macho imagery that prevents their happiness; that’s just an excuse. These men cannot allow themselves to express their love for each other any more than they can allow themselves to love their wives or their children; the scenes with Ennis and his daughter and his inability to express his love are just as painful as his last moments with Jack. And if these men were mature enough to accept and embrace their love for each other above and beyond the physical, they would have had a chance, and there wouldn’t be a story here, either.

It may sound elitist to say that straight people cannot understand this film the same way gay men do, but on some levels I think that’s true. Our society makes it very difficult for gay men to learn how to express themselves; we do not get the same opportunities to learn the social graces and rituals of courtship — school dances, social affairs, the simple act of going on a date as our heterosexual adolsecent counterparts, so when we finally confront our need to be with our own kind, all we have in common is the physical need, not the social niceities. Is it any wonder, then, that homophobes focus on the “ick” factor in gay relationships rather than the possibility that two people of the same gender can find love outside the bedroom? (Not to mention that many homophobes have their own issues with their own sexual identity, but that’s another posting.) Love between two people, regardless of gender, is a mystery enough without throwing in cultural and social taboos.

So what we have here is a story of two misfits. They don’t belong in the world they find themselves in, nor are they able to reconcile their feelings for each other because of the strict moral code of the world they must live in. So the only place they could be happy is in their own lost world — the summer of 1963 on Brokeback Mountain when they were nineteen.

As for the film itself, I concur with the buzz that Heath Ledger did an amazing job of portraying the character of Ennis; inarticulate to the point of brutality. This is not to say that Jake Gyllenhall didn’t do a fine job either, but Jack is able to express his feelings more openly, even if it results in self-destruction. Ennis is the one, however, who truly epitomizes the oppression that is at the core of our gender identification programming. Boys don’t cry, men don’t show affection without making it a wrestling match, and male bonding, be it a poker night or the second week of deer camp, is a kabuki dance with bright lines of behavior rules that are never crossed, and both of these actors portrayed their roles with understated craft and elegance. Director Ang Lee also captured the magnificence of the setting (I have my own powerful memories of spending summers in the Rocky Mountains and each scene there brought them roaring back) and contrasting it with the desolation and depladiation of the lives lived in the shadows of the mountains and plains.

I first read Annie Proulx’s short story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1997. I saved it, knowing that it was an important piece of literature, especially since it touches a lot of themes I see running through my own life and writing. I have no delusion that I will ever be able to write as well as Ms. Proulx, but if I can’t, I am deeply glad that someone was able to tell the story and give voice through characters who, ironically, were unable to express it themselves.