I’ll start by saying that I, like everyone else under the sun it seems, was very much impressed with *how* the film was done. The acting was good, as far as I can tell. Everything was beautiful. Heath Ledger was astounding. It was a thoroughly enjoyable moviegoing experience. I liked it a lot. Blah blah blah.
If I had sat down in the theater simply expecting something in the genre of “movies which aesthetically observe the distintegration of the lives of highly dysfunctional people stemming from their poor choices, with tantalizing hints of possible redemption towards the end,” I would have considered it a masterpiece.
But since I’d been told by some (e.g., Wayne Besen) to expect a life-changing message and a love story for the ages, well, I went away a bit underwhelmed.
One minor reason is that the story felt oddly reactionary to me. I remember from The Celluloid Closet that a convention of old movies with plausibly gay characters is that the “really gay” ones die. That is what made the portrayal of homosexuality acceptable, able to get past censors and/or a bigoted public in the “olden days”–the sinner got his due. So it feels kind of odd that in a movie that’s supposed to be so progressive and breaking new ground, we’re back to killing off the gay guy (who “seduced the straight guy” and “ruined his life”) at the end. But that’s only a minor annoyance. After all, we can’t not make movies about fatal anti-gay violence, just because it involves conforming to a rule of a less enlightened era.
But the major reason is this: After seeing the movie, I’m convinced that Jack and Ennis were very hot for each other, and that they very much enjoyed their frolics in the woods. But was it love? When I was pondering the film afterward, I tried to recall a single instance of sacrifice or a significant act of caring on the part of either character toward the other? What does Jack ever do for Ennis? Sure, he drives from Texas to Wyoming repeatedly, but we know who he’s doing that for. And what does Ennis do for Jack? Nada, as far as I can tell. Each wants the relationship on his own terms, and spends most of his share of the minimal dialogue between the two characters complaining about how the other won’t give him what he wants. What’s love got to do with this?
Yes, there’s a great deal of passion and sentiment. But for me, the jury’s still out on the love part, if love is understood as involving a commitment to seek the good of the beloved. It’s not that I think there’s *no* love present. I don’t think it’s ever an all or nothing thing. But I guess I feel that to suggest that this movie does a great job of depicting gay love is to insult the capacity of gay people for real, deep love. The kind that may involve but is so much more than explosive “ain’t-no-reins-on-this -one” desire. The kind that may involve but is so much more than hanging on to somebody’s shirt. I say this as someone who *knows* that gay people can love: If I had walked into Brokeback a skeptic of gay love, I would have walked out a skeptic.
Furthermore, it’s unclear to me how much of Jack’s and Ennis’s struggles had to do with being gay in a straight world, and how much of their struggles had to do with a refusal to accept the difficult responsibilities of ordinary life. How much of their yearning for their mountain romps was about needing to be with a man, and how much of it was about getting away to a fantasyland, away from sick babies, wives who need support, tough and scarce low-paying jobs, debts, obnoxious in-laws, etc.? It seems to me that the film asks us to believe that if Ennis could just come out of his paralysis of indecision, leave his family and settle down and start a ranch with Jack, that they would live happily ever after. (It appears that’s supposed to be the tragedy of the film. That they could have had it all or at least had something, if Ennis had been able to “carpe diem” and “live life to the fullest.”)
But is that true? How would the Ennis-and-Jack relationship have played out in Real Life (as opposed to escapist “fishing trips”) when the going got tough? Would they be supporting each other and comforting each other? Or sloughing off responsibilities and blame onto each other at every opportunity? I’m honestly not sure. I’d love to believe that their treatment of their wives and families didn’t reveal their “true character”, but was merely a product of bitterness, resentment, and frustration with their predicament. But I guess part of me believes that our true character just is what comes through in the face of things like bitterness, resentment, and frustration with our predicament.
The character who in my view exemplifies the ingredient missing from Ennis and Jack’s relationship is Alma (and to a lesser extent Alma Jr. as well). I’m not saying that she handled things perfectly, but there were elements of true love in what she did. Sacrifice, loyalty, compassion, fidelity. She stayed with Ennis and supported him despite knowing what was going on. She tried to make it work. She surely had countless opportunities to out him and exact revenge for what he put her through. And when the divorce came, it wasn’t so much about her getting rid of him as it was about her setting him free. He was the one who issued the ultimatum. After the divorce, she let him be involved with her new family, having him over for Thanksgiving dinner. It seems to me she could have easily gotten his visitation rights done away with! (But maybe I’m mis-estimating the laws of that era.)
Alma Jr. also impressed me later in the film with her compassionate understanding of her father, best exemplified by her conversation with Ennis’ new girlfriend whose name escapes me at the moment, and also by her patience with him in a couple of conversations toward the end. By contrast, Ennis doesn’t want to understand Jack, doesn’t want to know about Mexico or the ranch foreman['s wife], doesn’t want the man he so likes to have sex with to be a “queer”. He loves an idea, an image of Jack, and doesn’t want to exchange that for the real Jack. Something like that often happens in relationships. But is it intimacy? Is it love?
I realize I’m coming down awfully hard on this. If I sound like someone who not too long ago went thru gobs of premarital counseling, seminars, and books hammering home the difference between love and being “in love,” there is a reason. But all I know is that going into Brokeback expecting a love story left a funny taste in my mouth, which I washed out by going home and watching my latest Netflix fix, Torch Song Trilogy. It lacked the Wyoming scenery, the quality of acting, the hot actors, and the Ang Lee directing, and overall it just couldn’t compete in the same class as Brokeback, but at least I got to watch some gay men really love each other.
In spite of all the above, I did shed some tears in Brokeback. I didn’t break down and bawl like I thought I might, but I didn’t leave dry-eyed either. Both scenes of Ennis with the shirts were very powerful. Which raises the question for me: if I was so unimpressed by the love in the movie, what the heck was I crying about? What touched me about this movie?
1. These are human beings who have been wounded deeply. I don’t want to get into the whole reparative therapy/brokeness thing, much of which I disagree with, but nonetheless I think Ennis’s soul must have been 90% “scar tissue.” Only when Jack is dead does Ennis begin to come alive, begin to feel in a more integrated way. That was touching to see. He transitions from someone who is all bound up in his anger to genuinely experiencing sadness–all the real emotions that his anger was covering all those years. That’s a painfully hard transition, and I think the movie conveyed it well.
2. Romantic passion, which the men definitely had a great deal of, is an amazing, powerful thing. It (rather than love, I think) is the force of nature that the movie’s advertising refers to. Even as I wonder whether the Jack and Ennis were ever able to truly love each other, their passion for each other was striking and moving on its own. And seeing that passion thwarted by the circumstances of life is something that’s familiar to a lot of us. At least, it’s familiar to me. There have been people in my life that I wished I had known how to quit. There have been times when I have felt the weight of “If you can’t fix it, you got to stand it.” My favorite line was Jack’s “This is a bitch of an unsatisfactory situation,” because I’ve known exactly how he felt when he spat out those words. It’s a coarse but succinct way of spelling out how I felt so often in the difficult early years of my ex-gay journey. Romantic desire, and the frustration caused by obstacles preventing attainment of the object of desire, are common and powerful aspects of human experience. One doesn’t need to be gay or ex-gay to know something of how Jack and Ennis felt.
I think it’s these things that made Brokeback Mountain a touching experience for me, even though I didn’t find much of a message to take away.