West of Eden

Daring to be different, Ang Lee's epic gay romance goes looking for love in the heartland

In effect, two decades of history produce no important effects in the communities and individuals under scrutiny. Attitudes and opinions remain obstinately immobile, without any help from televangelists or Phyllis Schlafly. Even TV, which replaced verbalization in so many American homes during the period spanned, can only emit meaningless images to people who have nothing to say to each other in the first place.

This is depressingly credible. Tight-knit communities, like tight-knit families, manage to stay tight by deflecting any strong sense of connection with larger social configurations—"America," to this mindset, is, or ought to be, a country whose norms are indistinguishable from their own, ergo not such a big place after all.

The insular quality of American life reinforces a stubborn naïveté about sexual matters that's been part of our national character from the outset. The hermetic communities pictured in Brokeback Mountain illustrate sociologist Kai T. Erikson's findings in Wayward Puritans (1966)—that American communities have always defined themselves in terms of who doesn't belong in them. The deviant, whether religious, political, or sexual, has always needed to be identified from among the existing population, then exterminated or expelled. The expunged have tended to found their own little territories, which in turn establish their identities by driving out the unorthodox—who have to be invented if they don't already exist. (Slaves, of course, were imported, and assigned a negative status as legitimate inhabitants.) From the days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the present, American exceptionalism begins on the microcosmic level. In this respect, Brokeback Mountain is a pungent slice of an essentially unchanging reality.

This thing called love: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger
photo: Kimberly French
This thing called love: Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger


See also:

  • The Scripting News Brokeback writers on the road from page to screen
    by Jessica Winter

  • Blazing Saddles Stable relationship: Gay frontier weepie is Hollywood's straightest love story in years
    by J. Hoberman
  • What seems less real, despite the months that separate each of Jack and Ennis's reunions, is the unfailing high voltage of their sexual connection. It's not implausible for two people who love each other to continue for 20 or even 60 years to love each other. But it's rare for people to stay sexually interested in someone they love for much longer than two years. If things were otherwise, the world's oldest profession would probably be arms dealing.

    On this point, denial mechanisms become mobilized in defense of institutionalized couplehood, not only by liturgical types but their surrogates in Congress, manifested in submental decrees like the Defense of Marriage Act. One wonders if marriage needs defending, or ought to be more lucidly understood as a property arrangement, which any two individuals should be able to enter as a legally binding thing.

    The relatively recent repackaging of homosexuality as an arrangement of committed couples takes the arrangements of heterosexuals for granted as an ideal. "We love just like you, and have families just like you," the argument runs. Yes and no. Not everyone wants to be in a family, or a "relationship," or any kind of marriage, and not everyone wants to love whomever he or she happens to be having sex with. It's often easier to do things you enjoy with somebody you merely like, or don't know.

    As the brilliant author of Our Lady of the Assassins, Fernando Vallejo, says in Luis Ospina's documentary The Supreme Uneasiness, "Sex is innocent, no matter who or what it's with. Reproduction is another matter. In animals it's blind. For the majority of mankind, even now, it is still blind. People reproduce blindly because they relate the two things." Even Jack and Ennis, who know they don't want any such thing, blindly father children as if it were an uncontrollable biological imperative. It isn't. In fact, you could well argue that homosexuality ought to be encouraged over procreative sex. The world has too many babies being born for no good reason. (And Vallejo is perfectly correct in saying that it's stupid to defend the huge families engendered by parents too poor to take care of themselves, let alone their offspring. If they don't know any better, teach them.)

    "Love," an opaque if many splendored quantity, isn't much of an antidote to the kind of ignorant attitudes movies like Brokeback Mountain seem determined to change. Some people are just shits, as the wise old drag queen told William Burroughs. The more pointlessly fecund our species, the more shits we are likely to have.

    Propaganda on behalf of gay couplehood, even intelligent and well-made propaganda, invariably addresses the social question with a defense of "love." "Everybody has a right to love," "if you have love, you should hold on to it," and "a pure and beautiful love story" are a few quotes plucked at random from Brokeback Mountain's press kit.

    Yet love, in this context, is little more than a euphemism for sex—Ennis and Jack never do shack up in the little ranch Jack dreams about them playing house in, hence never experience the downside of cohabitation; this seems like too much love for too little content. And there's too little sex to make a good argument for needing it eternally from the same person, given that there's one fairly explicit rear entry and otherwise as much steam as Peter Finch's smooch with Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971).

    As for the idea of Brokeback Mountain as a reinvention of the western genre, Andy Warhol went much, much further with Lonesome Cowboys back in 1968. Heath Ledger, who plays Ennis, gives the most revealing read on Brokeback Mountain: "I find there's not a lot of mystery left in stories between guys and girls. It's all been done or seen before." The truth is, there's not much mystery left in stories of this kind anyway, no matter who's riding high in the saddle.

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