3.21.2017

The moment(s) of "Brokeback"


Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005).

When it was announced in 2004 that Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain had gone into production it was already being called the “gay cowboy movie,” and it seemed impossible to believe that it could be anything but a gimmick.  Then the movie opened at the end of 2005, and it became something else entirely—a critics’ darling and an Oscar hopeful, hyped up and buzzed about.  Within certain circles it was being hailed as a watershed film, while for others it was a novelty item with a premise too ripe to resist mocking.  And so it became impossible to see the film for the controversy that attended it.  Brokeback was more than a movie; it was a cultural phenomenon, a sacred cow, a cause célèbre, and a punchline, something on which everyone, myself included, felt the need to weigh in. 


Ennis cradles Jack's shirt: Brokeback as tear-jerker.

After seeing the movie in January of 2006 at Rochester, New York’s Little Theatre (I still remember the male couple seated several rows ahead of me, one with his arm around the shoulders of the other, dressed in army fatigues) I wrote a journal entry in which I decried the film for making its characters into tragic victims: “Brokeback Mountain’s ending locates homosexuality within a stranglehold of impossibility, danger, shame, and secrecy.”  I was a senior in college at the time and heavily into Six Feet Under, which seemed to me a more progressive cultural text.  These sorts of questions were important to me then.  All in all, Brokeback had left me somewhat cold, and I was not among those who were left heartbroken by its loss at the Oscars that March.  I later went on to publish an academic journal article on the film in which I made a sort of peace with it.  The complexity of the film’s relationship to the Western genre, and its playing with notions of space and landscape, insides and outsides, seemed to me more interesting and more valuable than its politics, whatever those could be said to be.  That was in 2009. 


A film about landscapes.

Now that Brokeback Mountain is more than eleven years old it has become easier to see it for what it is, without the distraction of the punditry and the noise of the winter of 2006.  Re-watching it this weekend (I’m teaching it this semester in a course on films about love and sexuality) Brokeback struck me as better made and more emotionally powerful than I had remembered, and its love story infinitely more wrenching.  If my 2006 journal entry is to be believed, I “was moved and even teared up a little” when I first saw it.  This time I found myself crying nearly all the way through.  I cried at things that I didn’t understand back then—at things I couldn’t have understood as a 21-year-old college student just out of the closet, knowing nothing about love or loss or sex, or what it meant to be gay in the world.  I cried to see Ennis cradling that blood-stained shirt, of course (one of the great tear-jerking scenes in movies, it now seems), but I also cried at the moment that Ennis decides, with no little effort, that he will attend his daughter’s wedding, and presumably begin the work of making a bond with the children from which his closeted psyche has kept him alienated.  (The movie also now strikes me as an extraordinary representation of the effects of sexual repression and fear on mental and emotional health; Ennis’ entire self is poisoned by his closetedness.)  I was moved to remember the loss of Heath Ledger, and by the brilliance of Jake Gyllenhaal’s crystal-blue eyes, so full of yearning and desire.   


Gazes of longing: Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack.

The moment that affected me most strongly, though, is one of the loveliest and most poignant in the film—the first of its scenes that can truly be called a love scene, in which Jack draws Ennis to him with the tenderest of embraces, and you see Ennis’ defenses, which are so hardened, stream off him like water.  It’s the purest, most radiantly innocent moment in Jack and Ennis’ love affair, before any outside threat has intruded upon them.  And yet already they have fallen into something that will mean great pain for both of them.  So many of the things about Brokeback that seemed so important in 2005/2006 don’t matter much anymore; what’s left is the love story, raw and urgent and as full of yearning as Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes.

A love scene.

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