Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Everything's Already Been Said About the Movie, Brokeback Mountain Edition

In particular, check out Matt Cheney for a review that pretty much expresses my feelings about the film's quality, and Dan Hartland's discussion of how class affects the characters' actions, and then I'll just add my brief comment.

I like the fact that both the film and Proulx's original short story don't shy away and in fact stress the fact that, for all that their society and their upbringing had a very great deal to do with it, the main reason that Ennis and Jack don't end up together is Ennis and Jack. This isn't to dismiss the no doubt tremendous, perhaps insurmountable, obstacles that two gay men living together in 1960s Wyoming would have had to face, but the fact remains that Ennis and Jack didn't even try. They walked away from each after their time on Brokeback Mountain, and in so doing essentially sealed their fates--everything that happens later is a result of that moment when neither one of them had the courage or the self-awareness to say 'this is it and I'm not letting go of it'.

I'm not saying this to be critical of either the story or the characters. The best tragic love stories aren't the ones where lovers are torn apart by uncontrollable circumstances but the ones where love fails because of ordinary, flawed humanity--Newland Archer refusing to start a new life with Ellen Olenska because a lifetime in New York society has calcified his soul. It's the same with Brokeback Mountain, and for all the marketing hoopla about the film being a romantic epic about a love that transcends time and distance (did the marketing wonks even watch the film, I wonder), the film itself is a tragedy about human nature and the simple fact that, no matter what the storybooks tell us, love isn't stronger than anything. Frailty, poverty, and time will wear away at it, and at us. Without ignoring the fact that they were carefully made as they are by social and economic forces, the film very definitely blames Ennis and Jack for ending up as they do and failing to achieve happiness.

All of which is fine, until we start to notice the other heartbreaks that Ennis and Jack are blamed for--the damage they do to their wives and children. While there's no question that Alma and Lureen suffer because of their husbands' choices (one of the ways in which the film improves on Proulx's story is the scene in which Alma--remarried, pregnant, and comfortably well-off--finally confronts Ennis about the truth of his relationship with Jack. Where the story made that confrontation seem waspish, an attempt to hurt Ennis from a position of strength, the film makes it clear that Alma has in no way recovered from the heartbreak that Ennis caused her. She is finally expressing her rage and betrayal at his actions--and Ennis doesn't see either), Lee's Brokeback Mountain seems to suggest that Ennis and Jack's failures as husbands and fathers are just as important, if not more so, than their failures as lovers. Which strikes me as a distortion of the original story's message.

It's true that Ennis and Jack can't seem to conceive of women as being capable of the same emotions as they are, and that they can't connect the love that they feel for one another with the kind of love they owe their wives. Although Ennis threatens to kill Jack for sleeping with another man, the two joke and tease one another over their relationships with women--in the clear understanding that these relationships are in no way meaningful. The addition of Cassie, Ennis' girlfriend after his divorce from Alma and one of the very few major deviations from the original text, is clearly meant to address this issue. "Girls don't fall in love with fun!" she exclaims at Ennis after he drops her without a word, finally clueing Ennis (who has recently had a painful and, as he doesn't yet know, final encounter with Jack in which they both railed at the pain that their love was causing them) in on the fact that the love that women feel is just as painful, just as complicated and just as thorny as the love that men feel. When his grown daughter comes to see him in the film's coda and tells him that she's getting married (instead of already being married as she is in the story), Ennis emotionally asks her if her future husband loves her, clearly thinking of the pain he and Jack caused their own wives by not loving them enough.

Which, to my mind, comes dangerously close to suggesting that Ennis had to experience the loss of Jack so that he'd learn to be more understanding and loving to the women in his life. There's no question that Alma, Lureen, and their children deserve our pity--perhaps more even than Ennis and Jack do, as their suffering was caused by no choice of theirs beyond the choice to love, trust, and marry an untrustworthy man, but Brokeback Mountain was never intended as a tragedy about being the wife or the child of a closeted gay man. While I certainly can't complain about a film that shows a repressed, emotionally unconnected man coming to understand and respect women to a greater degree, I don't think it's too much to expect that a tragic love story between two men (or two people of any gender), should focus on the lovers and not on the effect they have on the secondary characters.


Steve Middleton said...

Very perceptive comments. This film has had a great impact on me - in fact it upsets me, because it is probably too close to home. I think Jack & Ennis also spent a great deal of time hoping to find something better/different/more real(?) in their lives, and then returning again and again to each other, because they could never live together nor apart.Why despite the fact that he was the pursuer, did Jack need to find other male sexual partners, whilst Ennis appeared to stick to Jack & women? Was Ennis treating his women as men - in the hope of finding someone he could share himself completely with as he did with Jack (the scenes where he talked about his early life - did he share this with Alma?)

riemannia said...

Given that Alma manages to break free of Ennis and create a new life for herself (despite her old hurts), and that Lureen at least survives (unlike Jack), I don't really agree that their failures as husbands and fathers are greater than as lovers. I found Jack and Ennis to be the tragic figures in this film.

Abigail Nussbaum said...


I don't think that either the story or the film are intended as an accurate portrait of the sexual behavior of the closeted gay man (if such a thing can even be said to exist). If we accept that sexual orientation is a spectrum and not a binary condition, it's clear that Jack is 'gayer' than Ennis, or at least more in touch with his nature (which Dan Hartland, in the essay I linked to above, suggests has to do with their different economic situations), but I don't think there's much point in analyzing the men's specific sexual actions. Ennis and Jack love each other and connect with each other in a way that they don't find with other people - although you may be right that they try to do so with their wives and, for Jack, with the other men he sleeps with. It's that connection that is the focus of the film, not their specific gayness (and in fact I've read at least one reaction that suggests that both men should more accurately be referred to as bisexual).


Physically and financially there's no question that Alma and Lureen end up in better shape than their husbands, but emotionally? The last time we see Lureen, the bright, vivacious young women she once was is nowhere to be seen. Her soul has calcified, and the film strongly suggests that it was her loveless sham of a marriage that brought this about. As I said in my post, our final encounter with Alma makes it very clear that she hasn't recovered from the heartbreak Ennis caused her, and one wonders if she ever will - will she spend the rest of her life stewing over his betrayal, biting her tongue whenever she sees her daughters dote over their father?

But the point of my argument wasn't that Alma and Lureen can or can't be said to have won at life. I was talking about the portrayal of their suffering as it took place - and as Ennis and Jack were suffering themselves. My argument was that as that quartet of pain was going on, the film was stressing the women's pain, and that the film's ending strongly suggests that Ennis has come to the same conclusion (note the way that he decided to dump his job in order to come to his daughter's wedding - the same concession he was unwilling to make for Jack).

riemannia said...

My argument was that as that quartet of pain was going on, the film was stressing the women's pain, and that the film's ending strongly suggests that Ennis has come to the same conclusion (note the way that he decided to dump his job in order to come to his daughter's wedding - the same concession he was unwilling to make for Jack).

I can see that, though that's not really what I took away. The film did widen the lens but my focus, during the movie and now as I think about it afterwards, is Jack and Ennis. I wasn't crazy about the last daughter scene myself. I had the impression they just didn't want to make Jack totally alone.

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