Archive for February, 2006

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Brokeback

February 13, 2006

‘The subtle and varied pains springing from the higher sensibility that accompanies higher culture, are perhaps less pitiable than that dreary absence of impersonal enjoyment and consolation which leaves ruder minds to the perpetual urgent companionship of their own griefs and discontents. The lives of those rural forefathers, whom we are apt to think very prosaic figures–men whose only work was to ride round their land, getting heavier and heavier in their saddles, and who passed the rest of their days in the half-listless gratification of senses dulled by monotony–had a certain pathos in them nevertheless. Calamities came to them too, and their early errors carried hard consequences: perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting; but the maiden was lost, and the vision passed away, and then what was left to them, especially when they had become too heavy for the hunt, or for carrying a gun over the furrows, but to drink and get merry, or to drink and get angry, so that they might be independent of variety, and say over again with eager emphasis the things they had said already any time that twelvemonth? Assuredly, among these flushed and dull-eyed men there were some whom–thanks to their native human-kindness–even riot could never drive into brutality; men who, when their cheeks were fresh, had felt the keen point of sorrow or remorse, had been pierced by the reeds they leaned on, or had lightly put their limbs in fetters from which no struggle could loose them; and under these sad circumstances, common to us all, their thoughts could find no resting-place outside the ever-trodden round of their own petty history…’

Silas Marner, George Eliot

Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, the two men of Brokeback Mountain, are exactly the ‘ruder minds’ of which George Eliot speaks. Like the villagers in Silas Marner, Ennis and Jack are neither well-educated nor well-heeled and cannot boast of any degree of sophistication except a certain encyclopaedic knowledge of farm animals, yet they are portrayed in such a gently sympathetic light, with equal play of humour, that their lives are ennobled far beyond their paltry means. This was what I enjoyed most about Brokeback: that such tragic beauty can be found in the private histories of two seemingly insignificant men.

The performances of the two lead actors are stunning: these gay men are real men’s men, they do not speak much, and they prove themselves through words, not deeds. For the first ten or so minutes of the movie no-one speaks; this trend of scant conversation continues throughout the entire movie. Yet there is such power in the absence of words: when Ennis and Jack first separate, Ennis (Heath Ledger) breaks down: his cries are haunting, a raw expression of the deepest grief. There is no dialogue, no monologue, to introduce or explain, there is only sorrow. Ennis and Jack frequently find themselves without the proper words to say just how they feel, and their lack of words adds to the richness of the movie: what could be more powerful than what has come to be known as the most memorable line in the movie, when Jack tells Ennis, ‘I wish I knew how to quit you.’ Yet this has none of the clear, poetic erudition that is commonly associated with tragedy. This lack of erudition adds rather than subtracts from the movie. When there are no words, the mind thinks surprisingly clearly and the images endure.

Without the proper words to explain themselves, Ennis and Jack have no way out of their ‘petty histor[ies]’. They lack the education and perspective to rationalise away the pain. Throughout their embittered relationship, Jack shushes Ennis’s anxiety with the ineloquent ‘it’s okay’. But things are rarely so, and despite Jack’s words things never turn out ‘okay’. Entrapped in increasingly loveless marriages and burdened with children, the two men escape to Brokeback Mountain, where they first met each other, to find respite in each other’s company.

Brokeback Mountain becomes, therefore, a kind of symbol of a perfect world to which both may escape. The mountains are beautiful, and provide the perfect background for the unfolding of their relationship, suggesting a kind of naturalness to their love. They frolic bucolically in the streams and ride horses into the sunset: a juxtaposition with the trivial tragedies of everyday living (the unloved wife, the troublesome father-in-law, the dreary jobs) as well as the impending tragedy that is Jack’s death.

Jack’s death is interesting: is the lynching real or imagined? Whose mind’s eye saw that violence? Was it Ennis’s insecurities about his own homosexuality resurfacing as a paranoid possibility? Or did it truly happen, and was Lureen lying about the circumstances leading up to his death? Jack certainly was frequently and unsubtly involved with another man, that much is known. But beyond that any ambiguity is sheer genius on the part of Ang Lee, who knows the power of subtlety and who truly wants to challenge the audience.

The exigence of tragedy is death, but Jack’s death leaves a hollowness in the heart. Some part of us wants Jack and Ennis to live together, forever, happily ever after: but we know that that is not to be the case, wrong time wrong place, and even if it weren’t Ang Lee, to his credit, does not idealise their homosexual love: already we begin to see the cracks in their relationship. Jack seems to be a serial monogamist, and even if he were together with Ennis most certainly would have cheated; Ennis seems to be too hung up over his own sexuality to truly ever be happy with a man. Jack’s death is necessary to facilitate the ennnobling of both his and Ennis’s trivial existences, and imbues the movie with a richness of feeling that could never have been produced had they lived happily ever after. This appeal to tragedy, the universal constant, is what lends the movie a relevance not only to homosexuals, as many foolishly assume: it is, at its heart, a story of unfulfilled love which has power to endure. The movie ends with Ennis asking his daughter if her future husband loved him, but even this is double-edged and ambiguous: will their own story end with rupture, with the infidelity of the husband or the dying out of love?

As with all good movies and books, the political never outweighs the personal. Brokeback Mountain is not meant to rouse the gays into rebellion. There is, in fact, quite little in Brokeback that is inflammatory: the dead man, killed for his suspected homosexuality, seen by Ennis in his youth, is oddly peaceful. Jack’s own death is placid, a simple falling-over. The images, however, have a certain power over the viewer: the horror is made all the more inevitable by their slow and silent unfolding. Neither are heterosexuals demonised: in fact, the heterosexual relationships are handled with such beauty and delicacy that they perhaps have as much power as the one that Jack and Ennis share. Alma’s discovery of her husband’s extramarital affairs, and the subsequent decay of their love, is beautifully portrayed.

At the end of the movie Ennis is left with nothing but a strange and unplaceable realisation, perhaps not enough of an epiphany to truly be termed peripeteia, and the catharsis is never complete: there is something missing, something not quite right, something that, like Jack’s never-washed bloodstained shirt from the first fight, will haunt us forever. The sense of equilibrium is not fully restored. Brokeback Mountain is reduced to a postcard hanging in Ennis’s closet: we assume that he never returns there or has another serious relationship; and Brokeback Mountain becomes a symbol of something more, a dream that we all dream of but can never have, ‘perhaps the love of some sweet maiden, the image of purity, order, and calm, had opened their eyes to the vision of a life in which the days would not seem too long, even without rioting’. But age, time, place and ultimately reality, which puts a paunch on Jack’s belly and brings wrinkles to Ennis’s eyes, defeat us all. The audience leaves disturbed but enriched.