When my friend Rwita sent across the DVD and asked me to review ‘Brokeback Mountain’, I was more than little apprehensive. I had seen Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ previously and thoroughly disliked it for being overtly crafty with the absence of almost any cerebral satisfaction derived out of it. After a little more than two hours, I had a different opinion. Not that the film moved me with its eloquent canvas having a backdrop of the majestic ranges or the melancholia associated with its two central characters and the unhappiness shrouded on everyone around them – instead, it raised some questions, about the film, about the period and more importantly, about our existence as socially responsible veritable individuals.
Mountain vistas, big blue sky overlooking the meanderings of the blue rivers, the flock of sheep moving like a big white bubble – ‘Brokeback Mountain’ starts off with high expectations. It was way back in 1963, in a tiny town named Signal in Wyoming, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger’s eclectic performance as a self-confined and confused ranch person) and Jack Twist (the wide-eyed cupid in Jake Gyllenhal) are the two young ranch persons (I consciously refrain from referring them as ‘cowboys’ since they were not – they herd sheep and not cattle, in the early portion of the film) who were asked to mind a vast herd of sheep in the spectacular Brokeback mountain. Both the guys are young, probably just out of their teens. One fine sunny morning, we find Ennis waiting outside a foreman’s office, eaning against the wall, his hands in his jeans pocket and his head held low. On the opposite we find another guy Jack who measures up Ennis with the menace of a narrow-eyed gunslinger. This exceptional opening scene vibrates with an undercurrent of homo-erotic passion without a dialogue being made. The distance between the characters and their ’sizing up’ of each other gives them a virtual proximity as opposed to their physical distance. Hence, jack’s looking at Ennis is a voyeuristic gaze – the inherent drama is set. This establishing shot rescues the film from the mundane ‘cowboy buddy film’ tag – the calm, composed Ennis wearing a white hat as opposed to the black hat of restless Jack – the binary opposites set the tone for the events that unfold subsequently. The Ennis/Jack relationship fits into the familiar trope where two outsiders (social/racial/geographical) find friendship with each other – the basis of both same gender buddy films or opposite gender romance films. And as in many on-screen western relationships the two protagonists come close when they share their past on a bottle of alcohol and reach a new level of intimacy. We find, twice atleast, when either Ennis or Jack bathes in the nude infront of the fleeting eyes of the partner – the ‘male’ gaze on a ’male’ body which at this point of time is devoid of lust or yearning.
One cold night and loads of alcohol brought them together as they huddle close in their tent and unexpectedly become lovers. The next morning both of them decry the act as Ennis spurts out—”You know I ain’t queer” to which Jack quips “Me neither”. But that is not the end. The next twenty years these men marry women, father children and positioned themselves in opposite coordinates – both socially and in location. Yet, they discover that they connect on a deeper level than just one night’s adventure and in the world beyond the two of them there us hardly and tenderness. This is one of the major drawbacks in shaping the canvas which would speak for the melancholy of the two protagonists. Ennis and Jack find peace and love only in each other’s arms against the serenity of the Brokeback mountain – a fact that Ennis found hard to accept in his effort to remain ‘normal’ and lead a ‘normal’ life. At one point he tells Jack “I wish I knew how to quit you”. Jack was more impulsive who proposed to leave his wealthy wife for Ennis. Ennis here, though shown as the macho among the two, embodies the weight of repression and the two characters reflect the dichotomy between American individualism and duties towards community/society/family. Such a degenerate existence obviously had taken its toll and the film emanates a haunting sense of regret about the other possibilities that were left unexplored. Unlike most classic Hollywood romances, this film craves out its own path as the saga of forbidden love that culminates no-where and in its stride it takes the audience’s yearning with it – for a happier tomorrow for Jack and Ennis. The director probably spent more time in shaping up Ennis’ character – not only because he is seen for a longer time on screen, but also because he has multiple shades in his oeuvre.
The main drawback of the film, as mentioned previously, is probably in its inability to sketch the other major characters with same insight, care and logical judgement. Ennis’ wife Alma (Michelle Williams) and his post-divorce girlfriend of very short time-span (a stunning Linda Cardellini) are emotionally damaged in their quest of love for Ennis. His incapability to love these caring and thoroughly responsive women makes Ennis a miserable tragic character. In the latter part of the movie we can find out how Ennis was distanced from his daughters as well and how he barricades his feelings towards them – which probably had risen from the guilt of not being a ‘normal’ parent. In setting the backdrop of Ennis-Jack’s love in the glorious Brokeback mountain as opposed to the shabby and constrained interiors where they are hemmed in, director Lee is being utterly conventional. The visual metaphors are predictable, accompanied with the run-of-the-mill clichés which depict women as inferior to men in their pursuit of life. Unfortunately, Jack’s wife Lureen (an explosive and vivacious Anne Hathaway) has even smaller role to play in the context of the film. She seemed lost in the small breathing space she got – as a result the entire sequence in the end where she narrates Jack’s death to Ennis over the phone seems out of place. The subtle change from a hetero-sexual relation between Ennis/Alma and Jack/Lureen to a hetero-social yet homo-sexual one (between Ennis/Jack) is depleted due to absence of a honest study of the cause of this shift. Alma’s character in particular had the glimpses of realization of what women suffer because of the patriarchal society’s attitude towards them. A discourse on the female sexual desire (of the two neglected wives) is much demanded here which the director didn’t harp upon. In pivoting the philosophy of the film as one which depicts a world centered on men (women are present for the benefit of men, as the child-bearer but hardly a lover), ‘Brokeback Mountain’ haplessly bear the fruits of a traditional ‘buddy film’ of the 1960’s and 1970s.
The other salient observation that can be made is the temporal backdrop of the film which stationed itself in the early 1960’s to start with. Probably it helps in giving the film a look of the ’Western’ genre, and more importantly, it brings the history of US homo-sexuality into question. There had been reference of an incident which young Ennis experienced when a gay couple was lynched for their affinity towards the same-gender. From a historical stand-point as well, since the early 1950s, homo-sexuality was considered as a new menace, probably as dangerous as Communism. In 1956, Time Magazine quoted psychologist Edmund Bergler who described the gay man as “Unreliable…and always hates his family. There are no happy homosexuals” (Ref: page 107, V. Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (NewYork: Harper & Row, 1987)). Taking cue from this attitude towards homo-sexuality in society, the ‘buddy’ films of the period used to show the relationship between two men acted out in a violent manner. And almost always, the buddies stand ‘side-by-side’ and never ready to stand ‘face-to-face’. ‘Brokebac Mountain’ being set in the 1960s but shot in the twenty-first century tries to sort out two issues at the same time. On one hand, in order to be honest to the period, it referred again and again to the ignominy that the central characters experienced in accepting that they are gay. On the other, unlike those early western buddy films, the complete absence of action ensured that this film has scope and time to portray the joys of sex among the same gender, the dangers of it and how it can harm families. Is it to use the scenic backdrop that the characters are made ranch-persons or the director raises the question of homo-sexuality through a passage of time in the US demography – in either case, the love of creating an epic is probably the foremost consideration in which the expanse of space and time are of utmost importance. Hence, the previously agreed premise behind choosing the timeline of the film in the early 1960s becomes questionable. The film surfaces as essentially a love film in the mould of classic, romantic Hollywood genre and in this regard it comes close to being an epic.
……and the Final Cut
The expectations from ‘Brokeback Mountain’ after its first half-hour is quite sky high due to the care with which the director built up the saga of love and betrayal (from the society at large in a torrid and adverse time). However in its rejection of patriarchy which preaches and advocates hetero-sexual love and the institution of opposite-gender marriage, the film makes quite an indelible impression on the audience. Above all the milk of love flowed through the entire screen in the brooding landscapes, the rumblings of the two lovers and the rendition of Gustavo Santaolalla’s soulful music. However, the film lost its way in the middle as Jack and Ennis grew older. The changing times didn’t show up tangibly in the reel reality apart from their funny make-ups (especially Jack’s moustache) and their increasingly cold relationship with their wives. The trips to Brokeback mountain became customary and repetitive and as audience we failed to understand the true meaning and value of the place in their hearts. The timeless self-retreating portrait of longing marks the staggering range of emotions in Heath Ledger’s Ennis. He remains a high point of the film and also among all the gay characters depicted so far in the history of Hollywood films. All others fared reasonably well within their limited scope.
In the age of feminist film theories and the ‘male’ gaze on the ‘female’ object being an established trajectory of intellectual discourse, the new-found sexuality of men is at cross-roads. Whether he is the gazer of the object or both, leads to a basic and all-important question – “What do men want?”
The director’s journey raises it but his uncertain handling of the storyline ensured that the question remains essentially unanswered.