My Very Own Brokeback Response: Where’s the Love?

*spoilers*

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.

2 Responses to My Very Own Brokeback Response: Where’s the Love?

  1. Anonymous says:

    But, maybe since you changed, you have your own heterosexual love story. You seem to be relatively young and maybe cannot appreciate being 40 or 45 and STILL being gay and what options would be left to you.

  2. Anonymous 2 says:

    I have to say, this is the only review of Brokeback Mountain I have found with which I totally agree. I am am a man who is completely and exclusive attracted to other men, and yet I have a wide variety of friends whom I love very much and who love me. The father of my godson and I tell each other we love each other, and my girlfriends and I call each other just to say “Hi, I was thinking about you, and I love you.” I am totally out, and I have had a very good life. Yeah, sure, I got caught up in the story and characters and wanted to cry when Ennis is with Jack’s shirt, but after about two days, I found myself pretty repulsed by both characters.

    I mean, these guys jerk each other and their wives and families around for years trying to have it all ways, and the only thing I can see which makes them at all sympathetic is that they’re really pretty. But once the images of their beautiful bodies and faces fade in my mind, I have pretty much zip. And I’m left wondering exactly what (as the review here states) these guys are running from … anti-gay society or just the normal stresses of life.

    And if Jack was crazy about Ennis and vice versa after about two days and a 3-minute conversation, imagine how in love their wives were. But they’re just props in this movie, and these guys are amazingly callous toward their feelings. Even a straight guy going for a romp in the woods with a woman from time to time would stop for a moment and say “Gosh, I wonder how my wife would feel about this.” Instead, these guys (and supporters of this film) seem to think the women are just collateral damage from an inevitable clash of desire and social norms.

    Moreover, if they were completely in love, how do they stand ignoring each other for months and years at a time? I never was tempted to see this film in the theater because I immediately thought it was a piece of very pretty propoganda, then I caught it on TV and thought, “Maybe I was wrong.” Now that I’ve calmed down from seeing all the hot scenes, I have to say, there’s nothing there that makes me want to see it again other than the soft-porn thrill of seeing Jake and Heath kiss.

    While I’m on a roll, let me say that the whole idea of these guys being a real reflection of actual gay men on the range is not something I buy. Oh, I’m sure there were gay men a-plenty (like, 2%, as everywhere) in the west, since I’m from Kansas stock and know of stories of gay guys from my Dad. But pretty early on, like all gay people, they and everyone around them knew they were not particularly straight, and the compromises were found. Now, were there also bisexual men? And were there guys who engaged in “situational homosexuality’ (which is very different in nature from preferential homosexuality)? Yes. And did some of those guys have a real affection for another man? Sure. Did they fall madly in love and yearn for each other and have dry heaves when they parted and cry at the touch of their shirt? Probably not. The writer of this story justifies the premise by citing a rancher who claimed that he would send men to tend the sheep in pairs so they could boff each other when lonely. Fine, but that’s situational homosexuality, and I find it very hard to believe these guys went home and cried their eyes out trying to forget each other. That’s being homosexual, and any homosexual with a brain would find any way possible to avoid putting themselves in the same situation again to avoid the heartbreak that comes with such unrequited love. A true homosexual wouldn’t spend their life hanging out with cowboys all day for the very reason that it is painful to fall in love over and over and not have it returned … the very fact that these guys are able to turn it on and off makes me thing they’re not really homosexual, and they could not really be that attached to each other.

    OK, I think I’m done … it ticks me that this movie has gotten so much praise for being a love story, when, in fact, it’s not.

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