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Brokeback Mountain

On Friday, Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain came to the nabes, so I ran around the corner to see the first showing. I wanted to get the experience of seeing the movie for the first time behind me as quickly as possible. As it happens, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana have adapted E Annie Proulx's story of the same name so faithfully that, if you know what Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal look like on screen, then the movie does little more than fill in the color - so far as seeing it the first time goes.

When I saw how faithful Brokeback Mountain is to "Brokeback Mountain," I stopped paying attention to what was going to happen next, and a second story emerged. The first story, the one that's plain to read in Ms Proulx's story, is about Ennis Del Mar's inability, from a want of courage or recklessness, to agree to settle down on "a little place" with his lover, Jack Twist. The second story, latent in the short story but perhaps necessarily far more pressing in the film, is about the consequence of that illicit affection: neither man can really connect to the other people in his life, but must remain inexplicably "different" to them. That the men appear to be normal only intensifies what ought to be mystery but is instead a sour dissatisfaction. This second story is established with a clear visual vocabulary, in which love fulfilled is a matter of mountains, streams, forests, majestic skies and awesome storms, while love denied is a matter of flat scrublands, sordid, derelict buildings, busted vehicles and vulgar interiors. You do not have to be a sociologist to see that Brokeback Mountain is a movie in which "community" is not a good thing.

This brings me to the third story: the one about the film's reception. Will preachers fulminate against it? Will sheriffs close down cinemas that show it? Will large swathes of the heartland have to wait for DVD to see it? (As of this writing it still doesn't have a Wyoming exhibitor.) Will there be a fracas at the Oscars? (Heath Ledger is quite reasonably spoken of as a best-actor nominee.) There is hardly any carnality in Brokeback Mountain to titillate the eye, but no movie that I can think of is more thoroughly steeped in longing.

Ennis and Jack completely lack the "secondary sexual" indicators of homosexuality. They have no interest in Broadway musicals or Hollywood gossip. They don't wish to lead more "interesting" lives. Although both can be gentle, neither is soft. To a degree that might be funny in another context, they are utterly unaware that they are living a butch idyll of leather boots and mountain lakes. In the end, the novelty of Brokeback Mountain - the "gay cowboy movie" - is its most incidental characteristic. Ennis and Jack are merely the latest couple in a centuries-old procession of doomed lovers. What sets them apart - what always sets such lovers apart - is the love that they cannot acknowledge. Keeping your love to yourself, as anyone who has ever had to do so knows only too well, is tantamount to denying your love in everything that you do. The misery of that denial is what writers and actors have to get across in a story of forbidden love, and everyone involved here succeeds brilliantly. But Jack or Ennis might just as well have been a married woman, unable for one reason or another - until rather recently, there were drawersful of reasons - to leave her husband for her lover. Homosexuality is salient here only because, and precisely because, Annie Proulx and the moviemakers want to direct your attention to the fact that a very familiar pattern can arise in an unexpected setting. Forbidden gay love is just like any other forbidden love, and our response to its truthful portrayal will probably always been the same: why the prohibition? What justifies this unhappiness? Over and over again, the answer is, simply, "nothing."

We have reached the stage - and if you don't sense where I'm going with this, have a look at last Monday's entry, "Jane Smiley: the Novel and History" - where, had Annie Proulx written as good a story about two cowboys falling in love that ended happily as "Brokeback Mountain" is a story that doesn't, I am sure that The New Yorker would have been pleased to publish it. Readers of The New Yorker would be unlikely, I expect, to demand that homosexual lovers be punished for transgressing against the patriarchy. Throwing caution to the winds, I will venture that New Yorker readers are at the core of a literate body that has not so much learned as taught itself from fiction that the thwarting of love is the most deadening thing that can happen in a life, and that all the claims of honor, responsibility, duty, and the happiness of others, no matter how highly piled up, fail to tip the scale toward compensation. But these readers would not have had this lesson to learn if not for generations of novelists who evaded social and legal censorship by prudentially placing their fallen heroines in the paths of speeding locomotives. I'm sure that Ms Proulx herself well understands that her unhappy ending will open her story to a wider readership because it does not insult conservative readers with a gay triumph. Some of those readers may even have the patience to consider the real moral of the story, which is, as always, that true love is a terrible thing to waste.

I do not expect Brokeback Mountain to inspire any significant changes in attitudes toward homosexuality in society, and it pains me to read optimistic entries at gay blogs to the effect that, "now that straights understand what it's like, they'll be more tolerant and supportive." Doubtless there will be viewers for whom Brokeback Mountain will be a transforming experience. But movies don't change society. People do - and very slowly. For the time being, the movie will give us a chance to measure national sentiment at the moment. For the future, I hope that straight people who have no problem with homosexuality will give some rigorous consideration to the reasons why anybody does have a problem. I hope also that, upon reflection, they will see the virtue of withdrawing support from the enemies of the post-patriarchal world. (December 2005)

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