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49 Years from Wolfenden: A review of Brokeback Mountain

by Jenna Ng

Jenna Ng is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at University College London. She is currently writing her research thesis on the notion of epiphany in digital cinema.

In some ways, it is hard to imagine that homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain only 49 years ago, via the celebrated 1957 Wolfenden Report (named after its chair, Sir John Wolfenden) as commissioned by the British government. I write this review on the day Brokeback Mountain won four major Golden Globe awards (for best director, best picture, best original song and best screenplay) and set on the road to Oscar glory or, at least, prominence. The controversy of the film’s overtly homosexual love story has been conspicuous, as is, no less, the tension between its acclaim and the outrage of the usual gay-opposition groups: The Times, for example, describes the victory of Brokeback in the Golden Globes as “a choice which is unlikely to endear the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), which hands out the awards, to the American heartland.” Of course, awards doled out to controversial films in the past are not uncommon—one can think of Life is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni’s representation of the Holocaust) and Boys Don’t Cry (Hilary Swank’s portrayal of a cross-dressing youth), to name a couple—yet this time round, one senses a difference in the attitudes towards the gay controversy in Brokeback. This sense of change is primarily encapsulated in a sensibility of a larger awareness, a kinder acceptance, a more compassionate reception. Homosexuality has been represented before in many mainstream and acclaimed films, but the issue in those precedents remains one used as a plot device—such as The Birdcage (for comic effect)—or else essentially fringe in a panoply of larger themes. To name a few examples of such films and their broader ideas in which homosexuality is enmeshed: The Band Played On (Aids and HIV); My Beautiful Laundrette (race relations in multi‑cultural Britain); Far From Heaven (racial rifts in mid‑century America); The Wedding Banquet (the pressures of a traditional Chinese family); Philadelphia (a man’s fight against the American legal system); American Beauty (quit your job and feel alive for a year). Brokeback, on the other hand, is a drama that is steadfastly, unwaveringly, fixedly about a gay relationship. To that extent, Brokeback is perhaps not unlike Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together, yet the latter remains, to the Western world at least, an art film, an auteur work, and it certainly did not open to the publicity, mainstream acceptance and award glory that Brokeback is currently basking in. And perhaps that is the difference I sense: for once, these were award wins accomplished despite of controversy rather than because.

In that vein, too, I see this breakthrough of Brokeback as part of a larger sea change for a more publicly gay-tolerant society, accelerated in the past five years or so primarily by television. Programme names reel off easily: Will and Grace; Sex and the City (to some extent); Queer Eye for the Straight Guy/Girl; The L Word; Queer as Folk, all of which consistently presented a gay lifestyle as something a little less than horrific and abominable. The change is also seeping into the political and social front: barely five weeks ago, civil ceremonies were allowed to be sealed between same-sex partners in England, marking a significant social transformation in the country (only 49 years after Wolfenden, remember) unshadowed even by the glitter and glamour of Elton John’s own ceremony with his long-term partner.

Brokeback details a twenty-odd year relationship between Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) which started when they met on a job herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain and which remained forbidden and illicit through the years even as they front their gay relationship with wives, children and seeming normality. Ang Lee directs with a patient and unhurried hand reminiscent of his early work which focussed most pointedly on difficult relationships (such as Pushing Hands and Eat Drink Man Woman), always teetering between love and pain, always hovering over suppressed anger and frustration. His style is spare, preferring silence to dialogue, a subtle gesture to an angry body movement. For example, the opening scene—the first meeting of Ennis and Jack—was conducted in complete silence. Jack drives up in his truck, gets out and looks at Ennis, waiting by the steps to a trailer. They exchange a glance, they turn away. In the next shot, Ennis is reflected in the side-mirror before the film cuts to Jack shaving in front of it: their disinterest in each other qua strangers is not overdone, but quietly neutral and subtly detached. When Ennis strips to take a bath, Lee’s preferred shot is to focus on Jack, directing him to give no reaction other than to continue washing his clothes, expressionless and unreadable. They eat a killed elk together by a crackling fire, again with no dialogue, their camaraderie and companionship at that point shown by nothing except the licking of their lips, their sitting side by side and the unspoken mutual relief of not having to eat anymore beans.

Reflexive of the controversy of its subject, the film is not without its ominous tones: Ennis brings up a childhood memory where he was forced by his father to witness the bloodied body of a man who had ranched with another man and told the story of his mutilation. The episode is a depiction of the moral tones of the period and its intolerance of homosexuality. One recalls Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, which made a similar reflection on mores upon two fronts: the vain though dominant inter‑racial relationship between Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) against the successful though furtive (and, one feels, condemned to be so) gay relationship between Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) and the boy he met at a hotel. Haynes’s homage to Sirkian melodrama required an anachronistic reception of the film—the spectator of a more liberal millennium is solicited to take on a 1950s mores which was just about to witness the civil rights movement, though still a long way from gay liberation. Unlike Haynes, however, Lee’s presentation of mores is completely without subtext. Aligned to today’s greater tolerance of alternative lifestyles, the treatment of the rancher is merely historical.

For, as mentioned, Brokeback is less about the social and political issues of homosexuality than the relationship between Ennis and Jack. To that extent, because there is not much else in the film, we are forced to focus on that relationship. And because of the deftness of Lee’s direction and the complexity of the story, we are forced to think hard about it. The two men have sex with each other; we see a clear physical need for them to be with each other. But we also see the respective domestic situations of Ennis and Jack: the squalor of the Del Mar household characterised by dead-end jobs in a grocery store and lateness in paying bills, the claustrophobia of a cramped house, rent with the unmistakable screaming-baby-in-the-house tension. We see the cold conjugality in Jack’s life—“as for the marriage, we could do it over the phone,” he tells Ennis. We see Jack with his father-in-law—“he hates my guts”—who, after eight years of being married to his daughter, still tries to put him down by turning on the television after Jack has deliberately turned it off. And then we see the relief with which Ennis and Jack get away from their families to see each other on their “fishing trips”. We see them camping and riding in the magnificent mountains, under clear blue skies, beside a bubbling river. We see Ennis lying supine on the river bank while Jack sits beside him, trying to dream of a life for them together. We see how painfully Ennis mourns for Jack, how badly he misses him, and his unspoken regret as he agrees to attend his daughter’s wedding, trying valiantly to hold onto what is left for him to cherish. We see the flashback which ends the film, with the two back at Brokeback Mountain, eighteen years old again, as Ennis comes up behind to embrace Jack: Brokeback Mountain, where it all started in one night of passion and lust, when they were young and had uncertain dreams and were simply just trying to get away from home.

And in thinking about the relationship we realize that for a movie so determinedly about a gay relationship it is not a gay movie after all. In the scene of the denouement of their relationship, Jack bursts out: “So what we got now is Brokeback Mountain. Everything’s built on that, that's all we got boy, fuckin’ all.” But it isn’t. We get together with someone else for a lot of reasons, and in infinite combinations. Sometimes it is because of sex. Sometimes it is because of love. Because we need, and need to raise, a family. Because of social and conventional expectations. Because of loneliness. Because of companionship. Because of money. And sometimes because, just because.

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