Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: Not a typical Western

Brokeback Mountain was advertised as probably the best film of the year. The main theme of the film, which was homosexuality, was under-played and the film was advertised as the description of a forbidden romantic love. In this way a theme that could easily shock the conservatives found itself in the mainstream cinema.

Two young cowboys take a harsh summer job. They have to take care of a herd of sheep up in the mountains without getting in contact with other people for a month. Living alone in nature, under harsh conditions, they become close friends and eventually lovers. When the summer job ends they part and get married. They, however, remain in touch and arrange fishing-trips in order to be able to see each other and make love. As the years go by their reunions are becoming harder and harder to organize and their secret leaks out.

The film is well thought a directed. The scenery plays its own part to the film. Both actors play exquisitely. Small facial expressions create whole moods. Few words are aired but their feelings are obvious.

Only a non American director would dare to go against the strong tradition of the western. In American Culture West was always considered as a place of harsh but beautiful environment where “real” men can battle against nature and themselves in order to prove their manhood. A cowboy had all the paraphernalia a tough man needs. He is a loner, crude partly civilized, a man carrying always the phallic symbol, his riffle, or his gun. In Ang Lee’s film irony runs strong for those who know the stereotypes of a typical American Western. The beautiful and harsh environment testing the men is present through-out the film. The men are loners, typical cowboys with their riffles and beans. Beside their toughness they are homosexuals. In America of the 50’s and 60’s homosexuality was the considered a threat to nuclear family and therefore a threat to America itself. In other words being homosexual you were an enemy of the state only a step higher than the communist. It is hard to overcome ideas that have such an old root. In Lee’s film both men manage to create a family that is dysfunctional. Through the film we realize that these people are condemned to loneliness and isolation. It doesn’t matter if their secret is revealed or not. No being able to communicate their deeper wishes they are condemned to a life without sentimental connection. When one of them dies, the other has not even their brief encounters as a small compensation for the complete destruction of his life. The film presents homosexuality as a destructive and addictive passion, like cards, alcohol or drugs. Because of their homosexuality these men can not be happy, can not fit in society. They ruin their families. One of them at least keeps loosing his jobs and ends up economically ruined. He had been afraid of being outcaste if he was exposed, and he ends up living outside society anyway.

Homosexuality is still a sensitive matter. Lee tries to handle it with care. He declares that homosexuality can be based on love, on a real sentimental connection. It is not only a sexual passion. On the other hand it is presented as a curse. As if being a homosexual refrains someone form functioning as a normal member of society. In the end the film manages make he spectators sympathize with the heroes. In the same time, though, I think that it takes away some of the respect that is due to these people. We might feel sorry for them, but can we appreciate them?

1 comment:

OJAY said...

In Brokeback Mountain it is not the main characters' homosexuality itself which leads to the tragic developments in both their lives. Rather, it is the way homosexuality is condemned in society (rural American here, but as a broader statement society in general). Not just condemned actually.

The key moment to understanding Brokeback Mountain is the short (and only!) flashback which takes us into Ennis' childhood memory of a gay farmer who was tortured to death by his father and other "common" men of their neighbourhood. The child is shown, like in a perverted moral lesson, what is to become of people who do not adhere to the rules of heterosexual, mainstream society. Not surprisingly this has shattered Ennis' life.
Repeatedly we are shown the effects of Ennis' deep-rooted fear: not only the sometimes violent struggle against his own feelings. Later in life he asks Jack if he also feels awkward in society. And when being told about Jack's fatal accident, the first thing that springs to his mind is a gay bashing and killing much like the one that traumatized and destroyed him.

The beauty of Brokeback Mountain is that it plays on two levels: First the harsh reality for gay characters and their families within mainstream reality, forced upon them and rooted on false ideals. Secondly, and only for short glimpses, the dream life of an alternative reality, which has to take place outside society. Ennis and Jack can only find this on the mountain. Only here Ennis can be himself, far from restraints and fears. And that's also where Jack, who is less fearful about being himself yet cannot fully be so without his great love Ennis, wishes to stay forever. But even in death Jack's parents deny him his true face.

Brokeback Mountain is a milestone in modern cinema. It has taken one of the most common film genre, the cowboy film, and manages to place upon this a whole new universe. It makes transparent gay reality, which has forever been subdued by a pronounced purely heterosexual "normality". It does not present a travesty of homosexuality and it does not show gay people from a heterosexual point of view as in previous mainstream "gay themed" movies ("Here, look at THEM, who are different from US"). By understanding life on Brokeback Mountain many of its viewers have for the first time entered this parallel reality. Eventually they might come to see that it is in its core not so different from their own, as love in the end is nothing but love.