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The Unbearable Boredom of Brokeback Mountain

Why the ‘gay cowboy movie’ is more metro than homo

(Originally appeared in Black Book magazine, 2005)

Is there a support group for people who didn’t like Brokeback Mountain? We must, if the rave reviews and newspaper reports are to be believed, be a very tiny – not to mention vulnerable – minority. Am I dead inside because I didn’t experience the torrent of emotions I’ve been reading about in newspapers and in movie forums? Am I as emotionally crippled as Ennis because I didn’t blub and hug after sitting through this ‘visceral’ movie, but instead wanted to go and ‘help with the round up’? Am I suffering from internalized homophobia?

Probably all of the above. But this doesn’t mean that this film which has become a phenomenon, isn’t as tedious, mawkish, lifeless, unconvincing, and bizarrely hypocritical as I found it to be. I wish now that I’d left after the first 15 minutes with the two bored, gum-chewing teen girls in front of me at the multiplex and gone shopping for the latest Westlife album instead. There would at least have been more sex in that.

OK, so there’s a hurried joyless near rape in the dark at the beginning, but we’ve seen all that before in more detail in prison movie films like Shawshank Redemption. Although this part is true to Annie Proulx’s original short story, the only sex scene in this ‘love movie’ seems to owe more to director Ang Lee’s shame and impatience about MANSEX than Ennis’. While Proulx allows our cowpokes other sex scenes in which they actually enjoy ‘love-making’, this filmic essay on homophobia and its terrible toll goes out of its way to shield us from what it is that these two men have together or what it is that they do when together – or why they would bother to go to the trouble of trying to relive it every year for decades. Across thousands of miles.

Even when they kiss, it’s carefully shot so that we never really see them kiss, the shadows in the tepee artfully falls across their mouths, or if somewhere better lit they appear just to be pushing their faces together, lips and teeth gritted. This makes the scene in which Ennis’ wife spies these desperately ‘closeted’ guys ‘kissing’ outside her home all the more unconvincing and ironic. The realisation suddenly hits her: “Omigod! My husband is a fauxmosexual!” No wonder she’s distressed.

Their boss also clocks the lover boys from a distance. But why their boss would assume they were queer because they liked to wrestle with their tops off rather than wannabe Abercrombie & Fitch models I don’t know; maybe he had special binoculars. But I have to say that I sat right at the front of the theatre and I’m still not really sure what the hell they get up to on Brokeback Mountain. They don’t talk much. They don’t shag. They don’t kiss properly. As Ennis’ wife complains, “You go fishing but you don’t bring back any fish.” The film tells us they’re lovers. Insists that they’re lovers, goddammit. But fails utterly to show it.

Perhaps I’m merely a jaded homosexual. Perhaps I’ve seen too much. Perhaps it’s absurd of me to expect a proper snog between the lovers in a ‘love film’, especially in a film that is telling us over and over again in painfully didactic fashion how bad homophobia is and a film which has been trumpeted for its ‘courage’. But in the small provincial town in England’s equivalent of Wyoming where I now live, I’ve several times seen (or rather stared at) drunken young soldiers snogging one another, ‘for a laugh’, tongues and everything, in the middle of crowded pubs, much more convincingly, passionately and lingeringly than these actors who have been told by a thousand interviewers how ‘brave’ and ‘committed’ they were to do these scenes.

But then, there’s not much realistic about this film. Even the impassively beautiful Wyoming countryside seems to have been wrapped in cellophane and Brokeback Mountain a big ribbon bow stuck on top of it. The boys are also very appetising, but while Heath Ledger turns in a fine performance with an almost impossible script and bloodless directing, both of them are too pretty – Jake Gyllenhaal in particular, lovely as he is, looks too metropolitan, too confected, too Details fashion-shoot with a Western theme. By the time he reaches the seventies he looks he like the cowboy out of the Village People: the same haircut, the same black moustache, the same Stetson. But maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising since the cowboy from the Village People, I discovered later, was the ‘gay cowboy consultant’ on this metro-cowboy movie, very Queer Eye For The Western Guy. (Personally, I wished they’d hired Nancy Walker, director of Can’t Stop the Music in place of Ang Lee).

Brokeback is not a serious exploration of rural retrosexuality and its discontents, and certainly not a love story, but rather it’s feature-length propaganda for contemporary, metropolitan metrosexuality. It is an attack on retrosexual repression in general and old-style, ‘outmoded’ stoic masculinity in particular. This is the real reason for its tremendous, zeitgeisty popularity.

Both cowboys, Ennis in particular, are prisoners of their problems with expressing feelings: homophobia, internal and external, is just the biggest symbol of this. Their fat bald boss is an unfeeling bigot. Ennis’ father took him to see the castrated corpse of a local queer when he was a small boy (“for all I know he mighta done it himself”). Jack’s abusive father is uptight, cold and resentful. His father-in-law is a bullying buffon (who turns out to be a coward for good measure).

None of the older males in this film are fully human – because they aren’t in touch with their feelings. They are all twisted, mean and nasty. Jack and Ennis, a product of that world, are stunted too; they’re just not so mean and nasty. This is why they are also the only attractive males in Wyoming. Their desirability is proof to a modern, metrosexual audience of their sympathy, of their goodness, of their modernity, of the awfulness of their retrosexual predicament.

Because retrosexuality rather than homophobia per se is the real target of this film’s didacticism, the emotional hobbling is hetero as well as homo. Ennis is portrayed as someone who is not just closeted about his passion for Jack but closeted in all his relationships. Whenever confronted with the need for a commitment or a demonstration of love, for Jack, his wife, his daughter, his new girlfriend after his wife divorces him, he starts mumbling ‘ahh don’t know… roundup is comin…’. Fear and loathing of homosexuality, of male emotionality and sensuality, of explicit tenderness between men is presented as a continuum.

Which, to some degree, it is. As the ‘father’ of the metrosexual, I have some sympathy with some of the ideology behind this film, if not the execution. And at least in Brokeback male sensuality, aestheticism and homoerotics is not displaced into flip-flops and facials and appropriation of stereotypically effeminate homosexual traits as it was in the spayed marketing version of metrosexuality – even if it is somewhat fetishized here into jeans, Stetsons and carefully beat-up pick-up trucks.

But dress it up purdy or plain, or call it by any other name, like the marketing version of metrosexuality that preceded it, Brokeback is also an accessorisation of homosexuality. This is effectively a film about two straight men who have a homosexual love-affair. The two protagonists are married, the actors who play them are straight, as is the director, the author of the short story it’s based on, the male-female screenwriting partners, and the vast majority of the audience. No wonder they felt they had to hire the gay cowboy from the Village People as fashion consultant. Even the sex is ‘straight’ – there’s rather more hetero sex than homo. Brokeback is acting out the culture’s current fascination with homoerotics and male sensuality. Which, in itself, is no bad thing. Homoerotics and male sensuality are not the unique property of homosexuals. In fact, they make up a small fraction of those human beings who are affected by these things.

And yes, the reticence of the film in regard to actually showing Jack and Ennis’ love for one another, either sexually or in any other way, and its generally unconvincing air, may not be entirely down to Hollywood’s nervousness or hypocrisy. If their love for one another is merely symbolic, to actually show it instead of just asserting it might diminish its universal message.

But what makes a film a cultural phenomenon doesn’t necessarily make it any good. For me Brokeback’s metro-cowboy propaganda is right smack dab in the place where it’s supposed to have a big butch bleeding heart and is the very thing which makes it so disappointing. Brokeback‘s bogus ‘outness’ stands in for and in the way of anything real. Brokeback the ‘breakthrough’ movie depicts less credible warmth, intimacy and tenderness between the male lovers than a movie like say, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – now nearly forty years old.

And rather less homoerotics than that other, ‘straight’, Gyllenhaal vehicle Jarhead, another film about lonely all-American boys sharing tents in the middle of nowhere, which, amongst other things, features a Marine gay gang bang in broad daylight – it’s simulated, but more convincingly, and joyously, than the sex in Brokeback.

Palpably Brokeback is not the movie that people think or want to believe it is – but it is a movie which, in its vagueness, ellipsis and coyness, and even its hypocrisy, allows itself to be misrecognised as the modern explicitly male romance movie people clearly need it to be. Let’s hope that its success means that someone out there can now make a movie that is a little more convincing.

Or even just one in which men in love kiss with their mouths open.

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13 thoughts on “The Unbearable Boredom of Brokeback Mountain”

  1. Good (as in funny and accurate, not positive) review of BM here.

    ” Yes, it’s terminally PC, and no, it’s not a love story, any more than the addle-minded and obnoxious young boob lovers in Titanic were in love. It’s a tale about, let’s face it, two horny queers who like branding each other in the wild. And yes, there is great scenery. This film trumps Crash cinematographically in every way. But, Crash sped through its many tales and characters so quickly that it was more like a music video, and, as a consequence, it was like a quick bug that, once you shat out its last bad remnant, the fever lifted within minutes. Brokeback Mountain is like a festering herpes sore that will take a week or two to go away, but you just know it’s gonna recur and damn your sleeping hours every now and then.”

    “Jack takes Ennis’s hand to his groin as he sleeps, they wake, fight, and within seconds, Ennis is inexplicably battering Jack’s ass with his unprotected salami, moistened only by spit. I say inexplicably because, a few scenes earlier, Jack is cooking and Ennis strips naked to bathe, and neither man takes mind of what the other is doing, but a mere touch to the groin and….SPROING! Instant gays. Were they and their boners freeze-dried? Utterly absurd. Both actors actually look quite physically revulsed during their love scenes. Then, during a reuniting scene, later, they practically bite off each other’s lips. This is love? This is real? Where is any tenderness? No couple, of any persuasion, that I’ve ever met, not even when coming home from war, reunite so erotically in public. That said, neither actor emits chemistry with nor eros for the other. Would it have been too much to cast two gay leads, who could do a reasonable job of seeming to be sexually excited by each other?”

    “The gay duo supplement their lonely lives by meeting every so often, sometimes years apart, up at fishing cabins, where they never fish. I mean, fishing poles and gay sex; could the symbolism be any more laughably strained?”

    “Ledger spends the whole film talking as if he had a cock in his mouth, and Gyllenhaal walks around the whole film as if he has a cock up his ass. That must be PC’s blend of subtlety, no?”

    “Were this a film whose leads were straight, the critics would have torn at it for being every bit as kitschy as the abominable Love Story was. But again, PC dictates that one must always value the social message in a work of art, above all else….unless, naturally, it disagrees with PC. Then, any message manifests the art as a work of ‘hate’.”

    “And, before I forget, this film is hypocritical, too, in that most Hollywood of ways, because, for a supposed film about gays it’s interesting to note that we get no male frontal nudity, only tit shots of the leading ladies. Not that I’m complaining, but, hmmm, why do you think they done that?”

  2. I didn’t like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN either. I am a bit pissed over the plot lines: Two guys fall in lust on a ranch job. Both get married to women and eventually have children. They both become estranged from their wives and children because they are continuing the gay affair. And one guy seems to feel like he is getting short sticked.

    And I don’t know any gay guy that will wait to have sex with that one guy for years like Jack Twist did for Ennis. Gay men do not wait…there are always other men. (THAT IS WHY I CANNOT RELATE TO BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.)

    Why even bother with Ennis? He was getting married to his woman anyway. Jack could’ve went and got him a man that wanted what he wanted.

    I don’t know what possessed Annie Proulx to write a story like Brokeback Mountain.

    The best things about the movie, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN were the cinematography and the film score.

  3. “two straight men who have a homosexual love-affair.” are bisexuals. No point using the definition of a word to avoid the word.

  4. Jim, I fail to see how the feuding wives of “Raise the Red Lantern” has anything to do with “Brokeback Mountain”?

    “Red Lantern” was brilliant because it succeeded in imparting universal, ney biblical (Sarah and Hagar, Vashti and Esther), themes to a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. I left that movie much wiser about the image of women in pre-Maoist China. Women held more than half the world on her shoulders.

    Not even Gong Li could save “Brokeback Mountain”.

  5. ” This is effectively a film about two straight men who have a homosexual love-affair.”

    Well yeah, and that’s all. That’s the point – this is what their socialization and circumstances have reduced them too – straight men. End of.

    So the other straight men in the film are miserable too? That’s just standard data, that’s what being a straight man is.

    I get that the movie didn’t enage you, but you seem to think that has something to do with the movie. Did “Raise The Red Lantern” similarly fail to engage you, and did you criticize it in the same terms? If not, why not? After they both failed to engage you for the same reason – they treat experiences in cultures so alien to your experience that cannot relate to them on their own level. that’s not the fault of the text.

    You complain that the movie doesn’t show ” the modern explicitly male romance movie people clearly need it to be. ” well, duh. No shit. That’s the whole point. That’s the play on words in the title. It is not a 2005 movie set in 1964 drag, it’s a movie about 1964.

    And which people need to be that anyway? Anyone who matters, or just some self-referential 20-somethings who think the world began ten years ago? I ask because that comment puzzles me; quite a lot of people needed it to be exactly what it was, a denunciation of the closet and a society that enforces it. That is still in 2011 not a dead issue for a lot of people, by the way. In fact the movies it much more closely resembles than the gay romance you are looking for is “Farewll My Concubine.”

    I recall hearing some women quite predictably cluelesly remarking on how sorry they felt for the fucking WIVES in the film. Your not on that level, but you’re in spitting distance.

  6. LONESOME COWBOYS!!! We can’t have a discussion unless you’ve all seen this movie by Andy Warhol, which sadly, is a little hard to find.

  7. It’s more about love that is ignored, the missed opportunities to be together and then finally it’s lost forever. Ennis is resigned to his lot, he hasn’t the guts to follow his heart. He realises his wasted life only when Jack is killed. I was touched by this film. It’s more a love story not a racy or shocking take on life.

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