I saw Brokeback Mountain at the local theater a few weeks ago. It’s an affecting, gorgeous, and thought-provoking film. Today, via this post at Hullabaloo, I read Daniel Mendelsohn’s spoiler-filled meta-review of the movie; I say meta-review because Mendelsohn’s essay is as much a response to the marketing and various conversations about the film, as it is about the movie itself.
Mendelsohn argues convincingly that the presentation of the movie as a “universal” love story—despite that presentation being a well-intentioned way of keeping the movie from scaring away potential moviegoers—does an injustice to it. Stepping through some of the movie’s moments, Mendelsohn argues that Brokeback Mountain “is a tragedy about the specifically gay phenomenon of the ‘closet’—about the disastrous emotional and moral consequences of erotic self-repression and of the social intolerance that first causes and then exacerbates it.” He concludes his review:
The real achievement of Brokeback Mountain is not that it tells a universal love story that happens to have gay characters in it, but that it tells a distinctively gay story that happens to be so well told that any feeling person can be moved by it. If you insist, as so many have, that the story of Jack and Ennis is OK to watch and sympathize with because they’re not really homosexual—that they’re more like the heart of America than like “gay people”—you’re pushing them back into the closet whose narrow and suffocating confines Ang Lee and his collaborators have so beautifully and harrowingly exposed.
Entirely unrelated to Mendelsohn’s review, one of the things that struck me intellectually about the film was the juxtaposition of two very different lifestyles, both rooted in the mythology of the ranching west, the latter of which only apes the former. The whole film has a disorienting sort of ahistorical feel to it: though it spans the 60s, 70s, and 80s, there is only the briefest glimpse of the broader world that changed so dramatically and with so much tumult during that time. Ennis, in particular, stays in a world bounded by the conventions of his rural, ranching childhood, one that seems increasingly anachronistic—especially compared to the all hat, no cattle Texas in which Jack finds himself—but is, of course, no less definitive of the course of his life. Jack, meanwhile, ends up selling combines to wealthy Texas farmers, men who are far removed from the disappearing family cattle operations that they imagine themselves to still be a part of. He lives in a posturing West, populated by men described by Bernard DeVoto as patsies in the “system of absentee exploitation” that draws wealth away from the West, who, in their aspiration to be cosmopolitan cowboys, become simply buffoons in their embarrassingly florid cowboy getups.
These two Wests do share one thing. The faux-cosmopolitan ranchers and the dirt-poor cow-calf operators of Brokeback Mountain remain unified in their violent antipathy to homosexuality, always understood acutely by Ennis but not quite appreciated by Jack. The paradoxical tragedy of Jack’s life is that the community in which he lived had abandoned the lifestyle but clung fiercely only to the trappings, of the West, and among them a model of appropriate masculinity into which he could never fit. This of course isn’t truly surprising, either at the level of slowly-moving social change or cultural symbolism. But the vividness of the film’s depiction of these changes that are not-changes in the West was tremendously intriguing. At a time when clearing brush is depicted as synonymous with ranching, or more deceptively, with being a rancher, the trappings of culture rarely need to reflect reality. I think this kind of dissonance between symbols makes for an interesting way to think about the film, as well as contemporary image-making.