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Author of this essay:

Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(Oct 6, 2005)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

As expected, Brokeback Mountain has become a hot topic with religious groups. The film is supposed to present homosexuality in a favorable light, and this has conservatives worried. They need not have concerned themselves. The film, while an exquisitely beautiful production, does not benefit its subject. Despite the hype, the film is a standard story about hopeless love - except that the protagonists are also the antagonists. This odd but crucial difference creates an image of complexity that the plot does not properly reflect.

Ang Lee sets in motion three men who, like most of us, have a mix of good and bad qualities. They are interesting characters, but despite the appealing charm of the two leads, they are not sympathetic ones. Too easily we see the negative aspects of their personalities - the greed, lust, cowardice, deceit, bullying - with which they injure each other and the people they thoughtlessly use.

Randy Quaid is brilliant as the drama's catalyst, a sheep rancher, Joe Aguirre. The story begins when he offers and fully explains an illegal job to two young strangers. The job is noteworthy. At the outset, it sets the sleaze-bar low.

Sheep ranchers are permitted to use two kinds of high mountain pasture for grazing their huge flocks: open-range on which they can guard their sheep from predatory animals, and land that has been set aside as wildlife refuges, habitats that are protected by the Park Service. Sheep ranchers can allow their flocks to graze in these wildlife habitats only if they agree not to interfere with natural predation. In short, they may not enter the refuge to defend their sheep by killing wolves, mountain lions, bears, or any other protected species.

Aguirre hires Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, attractively played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, to shepherd the flocks in both pasturages. Each night one of the men must surreptitiously follow the sheep into the protected habitat and kill any predator that threatens them. The men, both experienced outdoors men, understand and agree to the illegal activity.

The night duty is hard and lonely work particularly since, for fear of alerting a park ranger, the guard cannot build a camp fire for cooking or for keeping warm. His return in the morning has all the emotional relief of a lone soldier's return from a frozen battlefield. Food. Warmth. Safety. Camaraderie. Such conditions naturally provoke intimacy.

Both men are consenting adults and neither is married; although Ennis expects to marry in the fall. The loneliness, the adversity, and the overpowering majesty of the untamed mountains crush societal inhibition: they need each other, and there is nothing or no one there to obstruct the satisfaction of the need. Jack initiates the sexual contact, and Ennis, though at first reluctant, responds with the pent-up fury of a cinched bronco. In every sense of the word, they become lovers.

The moral deficiencies multiply. They want to spend their nights together; and to justify doing this, they grouse about the "unfair" conditions Aguirre has imposed on them. Too often, they leave the sheep unguarded and vulnerable to predation and to violent storms that cause the animals to stampede and intermingle with other flocks.

Aguirre, coming to the campsite to inform Jack that a close relative of his has been hospitalized, sees the two men cavorting; and when he speaks to them, his attitude reflects his suspicions. Ennis, as homophobic as he is homosexual, is sensitive to the innuendo. Jack is not only oblivious to it, he insouciantly confirms it. The news which is serious enough for his employer to ride up into the mountains to give him, is not serious enough for him to be concerned about. He clearly does not want to leave Ennis and the campsite and so he affects a "Too bad.. but what can I do about it?" attitude.

The season ends and the men, having lost sheep - and profits - by failing to do efficiently the job they had contracted to do, return to town to face the rancher's ire. Jack wants to continue the love affair, but Ennis, sexually conflicted and embarrassed by Aguirre's outspoken criticisms, declines. Their parting is painful. Jack drives off. Ennis privately collapses in grief and shame.

Despite his love for Jack, Ennis marries and his wife is soon pregnant. The following spring, Jack, hoping to find Ennis and repeat their idyllic mountain job, returns to Aguirre's trailer. The rancher is scathingly hostile and leaves no doubts about his contempt for Jack and his costly homosexual activity. Hurt and disappointed, Jack retreats into a seedy world of rodeos and honky-tonk bars. He cruises for accommodating males; but when he meets a pretty girl and learns that her father has money, he pursues her. He, too, though still in love with Ennis, marries and has a son.

Ang Lee confronts us with characters we must understand if we are to solve their mystery. Reflexively, we dislike Aguirre. He personifies the thorny evil that torments humanity at every trudging step. He is greedy and arrogant and exudes that special kind of "good-ole-boy" contumely that is casual in its corruption but rigid in the high moral standards it expects underlings to keep. It is the powerful rectitude of hypocrites.

But, on the other hand, he did not deceive Ennis and Jack when he described the job to them; and if Aguirre is contemptuous of environmental law, so are they. He was decent enough to ride up to the campsite to deliver a message about Jack's family; an effort that is trivialized by Jack's uncaring response. At the men's return with the flock, he was angry about the loss of so many animals. And why wouldn't he be, we later wonder. We would be angry, too.

But we can muse about Aguirre's character at our leisure. We are not given time for reflection when it comes to Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. We must immediately take a position. How do we feel about their love?

We are puzzled by the wedding scene. We do not know if Ennis has regarded the Brokeback Mountain affair as an anomaly, one that he can safely disregard, or whether he has entered into a fraudulent marriage contract. And Jack? Is he simply bisexual, a man who, preferences notwithstanding, is able to be happy with either sex?

The film asks us the same questions it asks itself: "Should these two men have let their relationship develop beyond the initial stages of sexual attraction? If the liaison was one of those "ships passing in the night" affairs, we'd expect the attraction to dissipate with each step that returned them to town. But if the love was genuine, i.e., if these two men found in each other that perfect complement that every human being requires if he is to become whole, we want them to stay committed and, in any way possible, to honor that love. There is no precept against love. There are many against dishonor.

The pain that is caused by social embarrassment or a lover's rejection cannot be eased by the anodynes of pretense. We can conduct ourselves as though we are not at all the kind of person who could commit the embarrassing social error or that while we were somewhat wounded by a rejection, the injury has healed nicely, and we've moved on. When we resort to such pretense, we are trying to cure the wrong disease - a misdiagnosis that is fatal to recovery. We can't eradicate a painful episode from our histories, we can only strive to understand it and to give ourselves back our humanity.

Insurmountable obstacles to a love affair can be found whenever love must be denied or sacrificed to a more compelling cause as when the lovers are members of hostile races, families, nationalities, or religions; or when one or both are married to others and are bound by domestic responsibilities; or when one member is committed to a religious life of celibacy; and so on. In Brokeback Mountain, when these men became lovers, none of these conditions obtained.

Negative qualities do not yield positive results unless there is a fundamental change. Somebody has to "see the light" - i.e., he has to correct the error in his outlook or attitude or value system that created the problem. In Brokeback Mountain that change should have been made by Ennis. It isn't. His conflict is that he loves a man but hates men who love men. The battle within himself becomes a chronic complaint; and it is this "neither, nor" lack of resolution that troubles the film. We are charmed by Ennis, by his good looks and manly carriage, his wry sense of humor, his humility and quiet strength. In fact, he is the weakest, most harmful, and least honorable character in the film.

Ennis' wife, after four years of hand-to-mouth poverty and two little girls in diapers, quizzically watches her stoic husband excitedly primp and pace as he eagerly awaits his first reunion with Jack. Then, incredulously, in broad daylight, she looks out the window to see him greet his "fishing buddy" with mad passionate kisses. What happened to Ennis' fear of being tabbed ‘homosexual'?

Preparing for a subsequent assignation, Ennis, who is supposed to be baby-sitting his two toddlers, is so impatient to see Jack that he takes the kids to his wife's place of employment - a grocery store - and dumps them on her and then leaves. Dazed, she can only apologize to her boss for the disruption in her work and for the broken jars of merchandise the incident has caused. She knows the true purpose of these sham fishing trips. And when Ennis later wants to have intercourse with her and she, not wanting to get pregnant again, brings up contraception, he dismisses her coldly, saying that he doesn't care to have sex with any woman who doesn't want to bear his children. This, in any civilized society, would be her cue to shoot him. Instead, she turns away in anguish.

Jack's wife, once a vibrant rodeo competitor, loves her husband and is proud to see him stand up to her overbearing father - who is also her employer. But her inner life drains away as Jack's life fills up with his new mysterious "fishing" infusions. Relegated to marital prop, she becomes a bleached blonde mannequin.

The film offers the lame excuse that Ennis' reticence arose from a childhood experience of seeing the corpse of a murdered homosexual man; but this explanation simply cannot carry its burden. Where was it decreed that Ennis and Jack could not have "closeted" their relationship? In fact and in fiction many men shared living quarters. Ennis began his affair with Jack in 1963, a time when even J. Edgar Hoover, the bulldog head of the FBI, lived openly with another man. (To my knowledge he never denied being a homosexual. Of course, I don't know of anyone who had the guts to ask him the question.)

n 1965, Neil Simon, inspired by the real life circumstances of a relative of his, wrote the hit broadway play, The Odd Couple, later made into a film and a television sit-com. Cohabiting men would not of necessity have caused any problems. Neither Ennis nor Jack was effeminate. They sexually interacted with women and appeared as naturally male as John Wayne. No, a childhood memory of murder does not serve to explain Ennis' rejection of Jack's plan to live and work together; and we are given no other explanation.

After the first reunion, we have years of repetitious loves scenes that are oddly funny. If these two guys had lived in Anytown, U.S.A. as a man and a woman, they'd be in and out of Domestic Abuse Court. They meet several times a year, ostensibly to go fishing, but they never fish. Instead they beat each other up... and then make up and longingly part, staying apart until the cuts and bruises heal so that they look good when they "go fishing" again at which time they beat each other up and then make up and longingly part, staying apart until they heal in time to "go fishing" again at which time...

But these years are no Same Time, Next Year George and Doris trysts. Ennis and Jack are not two individuals committed elsewhere who find in a brief annual meeting a season of comfort and security. George and Doris received something rare and valuable at no one else's expense - like a spring day . Ennis and Jack leave markers all over the place.

After a dozen years of trying to abide in this "built-in" alienation, Ennis wife divorces him. Jack assures Ennis that he is so physically estranged from his wife and despised by his father-in-law that he will be paid handsomely to leave the marriage. There is nothing to prevent the two men from being together. But Ennis again demurs and simply replaces his wife with another woman.

By 1983 Ennis' daughters are grown. He is completely free. But the more free he becomes, the more he confounds Jack's expectations. Again, we are stymied.

And it is here that the film fails to acknowledge homosexuality's single most important event: the AIDS epidemic, known in those days as the "Gay Plague." Jack is so frustrated by Ennis' refusal to see him for more than a few brief encounters a year that he recklessly consorts with Mexican border-town male whores. The risk of contracting a fatal disease is enormous, but when Ennis learns of Jack's promiscuity he is not concerned about the danger to his lover's health. He registers... machismo jealousy? Was Mr. Lee in a coma in 1983?

Ledger and Lee do not bridge the gap between Ennis Del Mar's considerable charm and sensitivity and the "trailer trash" callousness that looms behind it. We cannot reconcile the man who sits at Jack's window and, like Balboa at Darien, sees for the first time the formative features of his own undiscovered world... with the klutz who reacts to his teen-aged daughter's wedding invitation by pouring two glasses of whisky, one for him and one... for her? A son, maybe. (This guy really does have a gender problem.)

he film is beautiful.. the scenery stunning, the music perfect. Technically, the work in its entirety is a marvel. But where we have all surface... the imagery of conflict... and are denied the profundity of cause, we leave the darkened theater without any insight whatsoever. For us to be enlightened, the protagonist must see the light or at least illuminate for us the reason he remains blinded.

Jack's character is cleanly drawn and portrayed. We can understand his pain. But Ennis is too appealingly presented to be such a selfish and rather stupid jerk.

Religious conservatives can relax. As far as homosexual love stories is concerned, Brokeback Mountain is no Philadelphia.

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