Saturday, January 07, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: not just "homo on the range"...

Brokeback Mountain presents an interesting question that transcends the media's intense focus on the sexual orientation of the two male leads...namely, can an extramarital affair ever be justified in the name of "true love"?

Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar (why, oh why did Annie Proulx have to give him such an unfortunate name...one thatwhen said by the character himself, sounds so much like "anus"?) have unsatisfactory marriages. It's not that they fight with their wives, nor that they suffer from any sort of sociopathological need to cheat for cheating's sake. Rather, it is because they have allowed themselves to wander outside the bounds of their marriages and engage in an extramarital affair. And in so doing, they become "checked-out", not present in their marriages, in their lives. Had they simply divorced their wives before engaging in an affair, some of their suffering could have been avoided. Heterosexual, homosexual, it really doesn't matter. These men have strayed. And their straying wreaks havoc on themselves, their wives, their children.

Truth is, there's nothing really new or different offered by Brokeback Mountain on the topic of adultery, other than the sexual orientation of its adulterers.Countless films that came before it have delved into adultery, its justifications and its varied consequences. The 1970's French classic, Cousin Cousine, for example, illustrates the devestation of an extramarital affair, even when the adultering pair are truly in love AND have terrible spouses. Its 1980's American remake,Cousins, has the same "made for each other" sort of adulterers, the same appalling betrayed spouses, but a happier ending, with the adulterers coming together without any major lasting damage to the cuckolded spouses.

Damage or no damage, one thing remains the same in both films: the lovers are soulmates, and we root for them to ditch their "wrong" partners and come together. This is also true of the movie Yes, in which the wife cheats on her repulsively uptight and cheating husband, and in which we root for her to end up with her lover, even as he leaves her (as it turns out, only temporarily) for the symbolic equivalent of his spouse: Lebanon, his birth country. Ultimately, our wishes are answered, and the adultering pair is reunited to live happily ever after (we assume this, although in truth, we learn nothing about their lives AFTER they finally come together as a legitimized couple).

In Prince of Tides, the extramarital affair ends with the cheating husband taking the high road by breaking it off with his lover, despite that she was probably "the one" for him, and he for her. Nevertheless, we are left wishing, even crying, that it should have turned out differently for them. On a somewhat less obvious note, there is A Walk on The Moon, where the cheating wife breaks it off with her inappropriately young and hippie-ish lover for the sake of keeping her family together. We understand her justification for acting responsibly by not leaving her family behind for the gypsy life of the sexy traveling salesman she has fallen for, but at the same time, it's bittersweet for us.

Why? Because they were in love. In both Prince of Tides and A Walk on the Moon, we are made to understand that the wandering spouse is sacrificing true love for true responsibility and commitment. And so we are left to wonder: is the sacrifice of true love actually a Catch 22-style punishment for having allowed the betrayal to occur in the first place?

By contrast, films like Unfaithful and Fatal Attraction admonish us that an extramarital affair is not only entirely without justification but also potentially dangerous to life and limb when the lovers are not "meant to be". When it's all about the sex, we judge the adulterers harshly, wishing for the affair to end at the earliest possible moment. Just STOP it already, we want to scream at them.

Why? Because they're not in love. All that they have is lust, chemistry, pheromones. And that is simply an unacceptable justification for an extramarital an affair. As liberal as we would like to think of ourselves, we find ourselves judging harshly those who would let their desires take hold of their reason: How disgusting! How selfish! How amoral! How stupid!

In real life, we tend not to offer much sympathy or generosity of spirit towards those who cheat on their spouses, regardless of the rationale offered by the cheater. This is true even when it is claimed that the cheating is motivated by a realization that they have found their "true love" too late, only after having married someone else. Look, for example, at how long it took the public to accept the coming together of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, if the public has indeed accepted them at all.

Yet when it comes to the movies, we tend to give such long sufferering romantics the benefit of a doubt, a moral reprieve of sorts. Nevertheless, such reprieve seems never to come without some form of punishment.....which brings me back to Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar.

Let's look for a moment at the moral missteps they made: They cheated on their wives. They failed to accept themselves as gay and to accept their love for each other at a time when their having done so would effect only themselves, and not those to whom they had made promises. Instead, they made a choice to deceive the women who loved them, to marry them and attempt to reap the benefits of mainstream life, while maintaining a secret life with one another, one which fanned the flames of their love and left all others out in the cold. Talk about having your cake and eating it too...

As a result, Ennis's marriage goes down, if not exactly in flames, then in a slow burn of repressed resentment that ultimately gives way to blinding fury. And Jack's marriage dwindles down to something that, as he puts it, can be taken care of "in a phone call." Jack's adorable, sexy wife is left out to dry, becoming as increasingly brittle as her increasingly blonde hair. In her final sene, the camera lingers on her lips, coated in lipstick one would imagine seeing on a corpse at a wake, dry as dust, pursed into a tight grimace of pain as she carefully chooses the proper words to tell Ennis that Jack has died (what she does not say is that he is the victim of a violent gay bashing). Ennis's kids remain at arms' length from their father for the majority of their formative years. And it doesn't take words to convey the pain and confusion felt by Jack's parents when Ennis visits them after Jack's death.

Yet who can watch Brokeback Mountain and not wish for Ennis and Jack to make it work? Who didn't wish that Ennis and Jack would end up growing old together, peacefully living on and working their own ranch? Wouldn't Ennis's life have been so much more rewarding, so much more comfortable, for that matter? Wouldn't Jack have not ended up a homicide victim in a gay bashing? Wouldn't Ennis's ex-wife and daughters have had a more open and expressive relationship with Ennis if he wasn't so repressed? Wouldn't Jack's wife have had a shot at maintaining her fresh, dewy, youthful sexiness rather than slowly hardening into a brittle, bottle-blonde shell of her former self?

The last scenes in Brokeback Mountain bring to mind that mother of all extra-marital fantasy movies, The Bridges of Madison County...in which we also couldn't help but hope that these two soulmates would somehow find their way back to each other before it was too late. But like Bridges, Brokeback must find a way to punish the adulterous lovers. The fitting punishment is, of course, to assure that the lovers shall never be reunited, death being the ultimate and ultimately sole means of parting the couple whose love cannot be allowed to exist in this world.

The fact that the adulterous couple is gay in Brokeback does little more than to add a slightly different wrinkle to the Hollywood formulation. Because Jack and Ennis are cowboys in a macho, repressed late 20th century American West, their homosexuality stands to lead not only to ridicule and embarassment, but also to their becoming the targets of violence, and even homicide. As such, their failure to bring their relationship out into the open, and their related choice to take wives and pose as heterosexual husbands and fathers can be understood. One can truly sympathize with the dilemna they faced as well as the decisions they made. Thus, we don't exactly crave retribution for their choice to pose as heterosexual husbands and fathers or even for their choice to continue their relationship even after they are married.

However, in the movies, as well as in books, even the most ambiguous of moral ambiguity tends to be resolved through the fitting punishment of those who would tread on the grey areas. And so it is that Jack is murdered for his sexual preferences, and Ennis must live his life with no hope of ever seeing Jack again, except in his dreams. One is left with nothing more than the hope that Ennis's having sacrificed his chance with Jack (as well as his tacitly having permitted the sacrifice of gay men to lynch mobs) will lead to Ennis's having learned his lesson. And that lesson is that one must be true to onesself and true to one's loved ones and sacrifice neither for the other.

YC

4 comments:

Teresa said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought that the whole point of Brokeback Mountain was that Jack and Ennis were queerer than three dollar bills. They're not punished for adultery. If anything, they're being punished for not having the courage to be together.

Saying it's a film about straight marriages broken with a homosexual twist is just one more way that straight people make everything about them. But homosexuality is the entire point of Brokeback Mountain. It's a movie about what happens when you try to deny basic nature and true love because you're rightfully afraid of what horrible people might do to you if you are true to yourself.

yoga chickie said...

That's one way of looking at it. I think there's room for more than one theme, more than one lesson.

Josephine March said...

I do think it is much more than a wrinkle to the Hollywood formulation. The big difference here is that their marriages never had a chance. And their wives were doomed to unhappiness from the beginning.

The point of this film, IMO, is that because these men did not have the courage to be together (and I don't know if I blame them given their environment), or even the courage to embrace that part of themselves, there were many victims. Their wives...themselves...everyone was damaged and broken because of it.

Ennis never fully admitted to himself that he was gay. He couldn't accept it. He couldn't even admit to Jack that he was gay. I thought it was interesting that he told Jack that he was having an affair with the wife of the foreman when it was clear from the movie that his affair was actually with the husband, not the wife.

It wasn't called Brokeback Mountain for nothing.

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.

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