Thursday, February 04, 2010

Discovering America -- Reflections on Brokeback Mountain

Discovering America: Reflections on Brokeback Mountain
by Justin Vicari
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As I watched Brokeback Mountain, I wondered if its total despair would sit well with gay activists, who have striven to promote uplifting images of gays in the media. Moreover, contemporary homosexuals seem to pride themselves on having conquered at least the kind of self-inflicted quagmires that Jack and Ennis find themselves consumed in. But ultimately I don’t think this film was made for the gay community. As a primer on the devastating effects of external and internalized homophobia, Brokeback Mountain is probably more revelatory and sobering for the straight audience, who are, at this point, more familiar with gay fashion-sense than with all-out gay despair. (It goes without saying: this is as far removed from the cuddly camp of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as it is humanly possible to get.) And director Ang Lee, perhaps reasoning that to fully “convert” the mainstream a certain vulgar overstatement must be risked, has pulled no punches in bringing this despair to life. [1]

Such deep fatalism is largely alien to Hollywood cinema — the existential seriousness which Lee brings to Brokeback Mountain has more in common with “art-filmmakers” like Wong Kar-Wai, Malick, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Herzog or Fassbinder. [2] In the work of those great directors, one finds similar characters groping inarticulately through a life that is more like living hell or living death, characters whose complete suppression of emotion is the unmistakable sign of being imprisoned in hostile, even fascistic environments. Indeed, Brokeback Mountain deconstructs the very fabric of the social environment as a series of ugly, uncomprehending face-offs of fear and intolerance, a relentless grid-work of people squaring off over various kinds of turf. Many scenes of the film play like a bad acid trip, thick with malevolence and paranoia. Jack’s co-workers insult him behind his back. Husbands and wives bicker in ways that suggest years of pent-up frustration and murderous rage. Children shy away from adults as if from incomprehensible monsters. Straight men in cowboy bars turn pale at the presumed sexual advance of another male. When people come on to each other (both heterosexually and homosexually) the moment is always claustrophobic, tense, even life-threatening. All human intercourse is viewed through the eyes of two men who are living with a vast secret, divided against themselves, and, as it were, spies or interlopers in this world of marriage and family, ever in fear of being caught out and excommunicated or worse. Through the cold shadows and gray twilights of Brokeback Mountain, there is a constant feel of lurking terror and dread.

This “immense on-sliding American dread,” as Norman Mailer has written (“sad as the ghost of tenderness itself”), is palpable even in those epic scenes that take place in enormous outdoor vistas, on sun-swept plains. Spectacularly filmed by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Brokeback Mountain is loaded with breathtaking panoramic shots of “Big Sky” country: azure and white cumulus, Bighorn ranges, sylvan forests. (In spite of its philosophical affinity to the work of certain European filmmakers, this is visually a very North American film — one of the most American of recent films.) This landscape is freedom and openness itself, unbounded, majestic, pure; as such, it only serves as an ironic teasing counterpoint to the conflicted relationship of the protagonists. They want to be as vast and free as this landscape, but are often dwarfed against it. Already in My Own Private Idaho (1991), Gus Van Sant made similar use of sprawling horizons to accentuate the loneliness of the futureless young hustler (River Phoenix) who could find no rooted identity or belonging. [3] Here, the U.S. that’s held up to Jack and Ennis inspires them, seemingly, to try to rise to its challenge, to claim some piece of it for themselves — and in raw unspoiled nature, away from other people, they can almost achieve this. The scenes on the mountain have a primeval quality that suggests the first stirrings of life on some dormant planet. Though taking place in the mid twentieth century, these scenes have a primitiveness that harkens back to at least the nineteenth, when the men scrub their clothes on a rock by a streambed, or hunt the elk that they will eat for dinner. (Other shots in the film convey a gloomy tumbledown beauty reminiscent of the dustbowl photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.)

A certain “backwardness” is central to Brokeback Mountain’s vision of the United States. The U.S. West may or may not like the way it’s presented here: as a slough of pathic defensiveness and murderous intolerance, similar to the Badlands of Boys Don’t Cry (1999) but, if anything, more pervasive. Unlike Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain is not limited to the exceptional brutality of ex-cons and trailer parks (a brutality which might be expected, after all), but roams its eye over the hidden brutality of “respectable” mainstream society. It takes on the “sacred” U.S.A. of God-and-family. Brokeback Mountain is a goading reminder that whatever public liberation of gays has taken place over the past thirty-five years has been almost exclusively confined to a few urban centers, where economic demands have forced a greater reliance on others and created more universal openness to the pursuit of happiness. But what of the lonesome West, rugged and insular, knitted by tradition and stubbornly resistant to change? The self-reliant mentality (we might deploy the folkloric wisdom, “Good fence-posts make good neighbors,” as an anti-motto here) and the hyper-religiosity of the God-fearing are hardly conducive to a climate of openness or acceptance for anyone. Of course, if homosexuality is a phenomenon that can naturally occur anywhere, then gays must already exist even in those places where few provisions are made for them. Sometimes, we know they are unable to exist there for long: in one of Brokeback Mountain’s most unsettling scenes, we feel like we are watching a nightmarish reenactment of the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie.

This last point could give an ultimate clue to the reason why Brokeback Mountain got overlooked for Best Picture by the Academy: not because it’s “about gays,” but because it seems to have so little to do with the reality of life in urban L.A. (unlike Crash, the film that got the 2005 nod). One can imagine many cosmopolitan Angelenos throwing up their hands: “Well, of course, that’s just the way it is outside of California! Why didn’t Jack and Ennis move here?” It’s all well and good to accuse Jack and Ennis of being “flat-earthers,” clinging to an impossible way of life in which they can’t be free when they could just as easily have moved away. But could it be that easy? Leaving their homeland would be akin to breaking out of their heavily guarded character armor. “You know me,” Ennis grumbles to Jack. “About all the travelin’ I ever done is around a coffeepot, lookin’ for the handle.” At their boldest, they discuss opening a small ranch together in the same western states where they already live in fear of persecution. These men are as psychologically tied to the land they come from as they are to each other. It’s clear that the film does not want to force them into making such a hard, final choice between the men they were raised to be, and the men they actually are.

For they are both those things, and remain so to the end. If the deep dichotomy in Ennis and Jack is disturbing even to the occasional point of seeming schizophrenic, the film is rooting for their freedom to have it all. One could argue that the film allows them almost too much freedom. Is it credible that two men so inherently homophobic keep returning to each other throughout the years, or are able to wholeheartedly enjoy and invest emotionally in the furtive sex they have together? I don’t know the answer to that; one of Brokeback Mountain’s virtues is that it doesn’t present either character as a readymade composite of gay-identity or lack-thereof. Like the short story (by Annie Proulx) from which it derives, the film simply, and convincingly, suggests that this is how these two men handle their struggle for identity, a struggle that takes a lifetime and consumes nearly all their reserves of emotional and psychological energy.

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