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What a Difference a World without Women Makes: Brokeback Mountain and the Quest for Good Ol' Frontier Masculinity

Mattilda, a.k.a. Matt Bernstein Sycamore

Not since Tom Hanks died of AIDS in Philadelphia has a "gay" movie received as much attention as Brokeback Mountain. With a straight director (Ang Lee), straight screenwriters (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana), straight actors (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal), and inspired by a short story written by a straight author (Annie Proulx), the movie could more accurately be described as gay-for-pay. And pay it certainly has -- with a production budget of $14 million, Brokeback Mountain grossed $66.5 million in its first 10 weeks, winning four Golden Globes (including Best Picture) and receiving eight Oscar nominations. Brokeback Mountain has also garnered fawning press, from the New York Times ("anguished love story"), to Entertainment Weekly ("a quietly revolutionary love story") to the Wall Street Journal ("a deeply felt, emotional love story that deals with the uncharted, mysterious ways of the human heart").

To probe the depths of this so-called love, it helps to examine its initiation. In the mountains of Wyoming, two ranch hands on a sheepherding expedition (Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar) get smashed together. They joke about rodeo, family and religion. Ennis says to Jack, "You may be a sinner, but I ain't yet had the opportunity." The camera lingers over the full moon. Later, asleep in the tent, Jack pulls Ennis's arm around him. Ennis awakens, the two grab each others' faces, ready to fight until Jack pulls his own pants down to expose his rump and Ennis spits on his hand and then pump, pump, pump as Jack groans and then they sleep like babies.

In the morning, Ennis discovers the bloody carcass of a sheep, its entire ass ripped off and devoured by coyotes (omen?). Later, Ennis and Jack get deep. Ennis: It's a one-shot thing we got goin' here. Jack: Nobody's business but ours. Ennis: You know I ain't queer. Jack: Me neither. (Anyone confident that the original story must certainly contain dialogue slightly more nuanced will be sorely disappointed -- this brilliant repartée comes right from the original). With everything resolved, the romantic music enters the scene and the two are now ready to hug and kiss, continuing to fight each other like real men yet hungering for ass, I mean affection. When Jack lassoes Ennis, it's a scene right out of Falcon Video, the reigning gay porn mega-company, until -- gasp -- they start fighting instead of fucking. Well, that's just foreplay, but then there's blood! -- it's Ennis's nose, poor thing.

This is where we need to ask a quick question about the title of this almost-made-for-porn classic. Every faggot in the world coyly refers to it as Bareback Mountain, and sure, when Annie Proulx wrote the story in the mid-'90s, she might have been unaware of the bareback media craze, headlines screaming that gay men, unable to control their basest urges, are once again spreading AIDS to the rest of us! But could it be possible that an entire production staff in 2005 was also ignorant of the media debate that has been raging for years? More likely, they were interested in cashing in (just like the porn companies, who have unleashed hundreds and hundreds of bareback sensations). For if Brokeback Mountain is also about barebacking (what other kind of sex would real men have?), it's primarily about sexual obsession, repackaged as Love: a Fragrance for Men. Where porn usually contains a great deal of mechanical sex without emotional depth, Brokeback Mountain revels in overwrought emotionality without the comeshot. Perhaps this is pornography turned inside-out -- more "respectable," and just as honest.

The ridiculous sex scene where Jack bares his own ass so that a mainstream film audience will not be forced to confront the image of a straight man raping another (straight) man, also illuminates a central agenda of the movie. True "love" between men occurs only when masculinity remains unquestioned, when men can escape the confines of the world around them and explore their primal "nature." Or, as Entertainment Weekly states, "They wrap their bodies in a rough embrace and, without a hint of seduction, they have sex, an act that's as shocking to them as it is to us."

If only those women didn't get in the way! Ennis gets married, quickly fathers two daughters, and fucks his wife up the ass while the camera cuts to Jack riding the rodeo, where he meets his wife, moves to Texas. The two reunite for occasional "fishing" trips in the mountains alone, but their love is as rough and tough and raw as ever. Jack wants Ennis to leave his wife and come with him only, but even when Ennis's wife discovers the two making out, and leaves Ennis, he remains paralyzed. Eventually Jack gets beaten to death with a tire iron for his lack of discretion with some fucking woman's man, and the tears start pouring for Ennis and the audience (Jack's wife, cold as all wives are, shows no emotion except for a new Farrah Fawcett hairdo -- welcome to the '80s!)

In the movie, homophobia is something big and awful and there's absolutely no way to challenge it, even as gay liberation rises and falls in the real world. While it is quite possible for closeted straight guys in Wyoming in 1963, when the movie begins, to exist unaware of the shifting political climate for faggots, it is nonetheless striking that, almost two decades later, they still remain entirely in the dark. Surely some homophobic remark would clue them into something about the gays. Instead, the "first Hollywood movie to unmask the homoerotic strain in American culture" (New York Times) posits a distinctively retrograde vision of the possibilities for queer love. Sure, we're all sick of boring, one-dimensional, consumer-friendly coming out movies, but Brokeback Mountain warns against any step in the coming-out direction: it'll get you killed. Living a secret life is the only possibility for "a love story that starts in 1963 and never ends" (The New Yorker). This is, as screenwriter Diana Ossana reminds us in her essay accompanying the published screenplay, "a dramatic love story involving two men who [are] not hairdressers or drag queens."

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