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West of Eden

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

You could infer from the production notes that Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain would be useful if it came in a spray can: Spritz a little on a fundamentalist and change him into a liberal, or neutralize a whole church basement of rednecks with a full blast.

This film is inflected to instill something akin to high moral dudgeon. Its depiction of ordinary Americans trapped in loveless marriages and dead-end jobs, its laconic naturalism, and the . . . well, natural way its two male protagonists find themselves, one drunken night on the mountain, riding bareback in a sleeping bag, build an industrial-strength case for breaking the mold, following your heart, and Daring To Be Different. How can anyone find happiness otherwise? On the other hand, the film makes the explicit point that deviating just a tad from the norm will probably lead you to a brutally violent end at the hands of your neighbors. But maybe if they saw this movie . . . ?

The "problem film" often equates sexual excitement with "love," and often ends with the reconciled lovers implicitly living happily ever after—not the case here, but probably never the case when sex is the only real adhesive between two people, anyway. Even so, Brokeback Mountain (opening December 9) suggests that the opposite could be true, if only other people could respect all kinds of love, not just the kind they imagine they themselves enjoy.

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

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    One summer of love leaves cowpokes Ennis and Jack in an insoluble quandary. Seasonal workers, they're soon divided by a lot of wide-open space, marriages, families, and in Ennis's case, guilt and ambivalence. Probably the best thing about Brokeback Mountain is its portraiture of grim, idiotic family gatherings where brewing antagonisms explode into open hostility, and shit-kicker country barrooms full of squat, ugly men with stringy beards itching for a brawl: the whole nine yards of ghoulish Americana, for which the film rather perversely demands an overgenerous degree of sympathy. It's important, as actors like to tell us in interviews, for even the nastiest or most vapid characters to have something "human" about them, something—why not say it?—lovable. Because let's face it, in the end, you've really got to love everybody.

    Four years after the first taste of carnal knowledge, Jack's reappearance rekindles Ennis's kundalini into a veritable bonfire, followed by 20 years of sporadic "fishing trips" where they restage that ever receding time up on Brokeback Mountain. Ennis divorces. Jack, the less inhibited and more insatiable of the two, makes furtive excursions to Mexico when his Uranian urges overpower him in Ennis's absence.

    What Ennis and Jack both refer to as "this thing," established early, is more or less the same thing that glued Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman together in Magnificent Obsession, yet separated them in All That Heaven Allows—a socially inappropriate love, rendered acceptable in the former movie by Rock Hudson's dedication and skills as an eye surgeon, but made impossible in the latter by his low station as a gardener. Needless to say, "this thing" activates Neanderthal reactions in the rowdy cultural backwaters of the film, necessitating a tragic conclusion with calculated echoes of the Matthew Shepard murder.

    The case has already been made by some critics that Ang Lee's is the first "mainstream" movie with "A-list stars" to deal with a gay male relationship—a weird assertion, given how narrowly "mainstream" would have to be defined for this to be true, and how small the theater audience for mainstream films, however you define them, has become, and how wholly dependent on DVD sales and rentals this putative mainstream currently is. (As far as that goes, Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, remarkable as they are as Jack and Ennis, respectively, have been "A-list" stars for about six months, which isn't the same thing as being Barbra Streisand or Warren Beatty.)

    I'm not sure what this type of claim is supposed to signify—that Hollywood is on the cutting edge of social progress? That every other movie on this subject has been merely a "festival film" or in some other way unimportant compared to one with saturation booking in a thousand multiplexes? Or could it mean that we prefer to think we're making progress when the clock is running backwards?

    Consider Brokeback Mountain's overt pandering to Rousseauian notions of the American West and its insularity, the toughness and self-sufficiency of its tight-lipped, xenophobic denizens, its rituals of faith and patriotism. You could say that simply depicting this hillbilly heaven accurately is itself an unsettling criticism, yet the effect, again, is to make it seem, in many ways, admirable—its unflagging work ethic, its quasi-mystical connection to harvest, soil, livestock, and weather.

    Just as Capote's eastern Kansans referred to western Kansas as "out there," Brokeback Mountain's characters seem to shun the wider world as "out there." No one ever refers to the large events of the day, or to places outside his or her immediate ken. Between 1963 and somewhere in the early 1980s, the only evidence of a realm beyond the rodeo circuit and the ranch is the cathode eye in the living room, the slowly mutating look of motor vehicles and supermarket wares, and an occasional reference to the state of the economy.


    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.

    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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