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Film Review: Brokeback Mountain (Dir. Ang Lee) 

Gerry Fitzsimons

7 March 2006

Wanting to see a film, which validates a progressive attitude to modern sexuality, has become an aspect of modern life itself. However, under capitalism the acceptance of the depiction of underserved isolation nearly always takes a long time and is usually conceived in exceptionally tragic terms. 

Some cinema historians have disagreed about the significance of Brokeback Mountain (Dir Ang Lee) and point out that Making Love (1982 Dir. Arthur Hiller) was the definitive ‘validation’ of gay lives on film. But there is a difference. Making Love was only really accepted in the Gay Community while Brokeback Mountain has been seen as, and accepted by the wider film going public. Indeed a stir was created when it was reported that the US State of Idaho had banned the film.  Irate Idahoians pointed out to the web site that published the report, that in fact, only one theatre in the State had banned the film. In America Brokeback Mountain has gone well beyond being a film for the eyes of one audience.

The Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has commented that the best people to describe the social and political ‘state of the nation’ in art are ‘outsiders’. Ang Lee as a Chinese American is one such outsider who has reworked post WWII American themes here and given them classic form. His previous major achievement being Ride With the Devil which records the affects of the American Civil War on a small group of men who try to preserve what they believe to their Southern way of life. It diligently references the many fictional and non-fictional works devoted to the subject and yet succeeds on its own terms. 

Similarly, Brokeback Mountain connects very well to the many books and documentaries, about the persona of James Dean, the passionate rural rebel trying to encompass the vastness of America and breaking himself into pieces. That is one very strong influence on Brokeback Mountain and Ang Lee  quotes many iconic scenes from Giant as he does from The Last Picture Show (1971 Dir. David Bogdanovich screenplay also by Larry McMurty). 

Picture Show subtlety implied that the anxieties and rivalries of two small town high school contemporaries could have been assuaged had they really tried to be friends, instead of embarking on a disastrous competition for the same spoilt girl. In Brokeback the main characters become intimate yet marry women and start families. 

It is therefore significant that the leading characters in Brokeback are enclosed and suffer within what we are to accept is a very insular community – so insular, that despite the time frame of the film 1963-1976 it is unaffected by the social revolution of 1960s and 70s – their liaison remaining a deadly secret. 

The Texas/Wyoming of the 1960s of Brokeback has actually reverted to the Texas of 1950s of The Last Picture Show where there is only desperation and exile, both film scenarios rendered in this respect in all their wistful detail by the screenwriter Larry McMurty. In this sense these films are not about homosexuality but the social exclusion of bi?sexuality. The original story by Annie Proulx (first published in the New Yorker) and its realisation show some kinship with those visceral American tragedies of Tennessee Williams which concern themselves with insular communities or families and their destructive desperation to enforce conformity. The particular brutality of Williams’ Orpheus Descending makes an important appearance in Brokeback. 

The alterative to the small town Guignol is the frontier, as with The Electric Horseman, the main characters only really encounter one another to the full, when they are alone in the countryside and at one point Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) suggests to Del Mar (Heath Ledger) that they buy a ranch. 

Returning, from the mountains and trying to make do, the film gives an account of the restrictive social after effects on each man. This story it is short on social change as most short stories are. When Del Mar’s becomes reconciled with his daughter because she has asked him to attend her wedding, it is quite rightly (in terms of the original story) the penultimate scene. 

The neglect of other social possibilities from Brokeback Mountain and the bypassing of  the open reality of modern extended families – even in the Texas of the 1970s is a weakness. The film ignores what most gay and bi-sexual men did at the time of the film – realising they were living in small town America, they left for the West Coast.


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