Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee, 2005
Cowboys and Injuries [notes from correspondence, January 2006]
Of course you’re right, the story of the two lead characters in Brokeback Mountain is the classic narrative of doomed love in a hostile society, and it accomplished the romantic tragedy angle perfectly – I reckon Ang Lee is one of the best directors around for translating literature to screen without trivialising or diminishing it (and he’s worked in nearly every genre too). I’ve not read the Proulx story, but I’d imagine he got the wider social complications and repercussions spot on from her too. Having said that, the differences from age-old mythic romance may be as interesting as the similarities.
That’s partly why the ‘gay cowboy’ thing is a facile label, to be sure, but more besides. Clearly there was no way the main sexual relationship wasn’t going to be central to the tabloid reception; so they might as well make a merit of it, I suppose. More to the point, the film (though probably not the written story) is full of visual and stylistic allusions to classic cowboy movies and characters; but where the naïve individualistic heroism of your average John Wayne is thoroughly and openly demystified – as both personally disastrous and inevitably conforming to the barbarity of so-called civilisation (i.e. not just genocide and slavery, but sundry contemporary forms of oppression too). This is something very rare in modern Hollywood blockbusters directly referencing the Western genre – the most obvious other recent example I can think of in this respect is Clint Eastwood’s revisionist The Unforgiven; but here the homoeroticism is conventionally submerged beneath Freudian father-son masculinity dynamics where women are mere cyphers (note, conversely, Lee’s sophisticated dramatisations of gender anxiety in many genres: e.g. The Wedding Banquet, 1993; Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994; Sense and Sensibility, 1995; The Ice Storm, 1997; Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, 2000; even Hulk, 2003 …).
However, this precisely wasn’t a Western, since the whole premise of cowboy films is that the wilderness is beyond the limits of civilisation, where dangerous savages (usually feminised too, such as Native Americans) are tamed (usually annihilated) by male bonding macho pioneers who have to suppress or displace their feelings for each other in order to ‘get the job done’. Whereas the Brokeback wilderness is already fully colonised by political economy (disrupted only by remnants of barbarism like coyotes and bears). So it is a precarious sanctuary inside civilisation and the only place within which the free play of unfettered desire could express itself – albeit temporarily (think of discourses of tourism; except on Brokeback the protagonsists were dirt poor, although the Mexican ladyboys later on did yield to commodity relations) .
So the parallel with the Western then continues in the characters’ divergent trajectories. The rooted class realities reflected in Heath Ledger’s character’s attitudes and environment suppress development and constrain his options in ways he is (fleetingly) aware of and fatalistic about – although in many minor ways throughout he resists merely reproducing the patriarchal patterns that formed him (though these small acts of resistance typically neither succeed nor afford anyone much consolation). Whereas Jake Gyllenhaal’s more mobile drifter takes the aspirational route (in Westerns, this would mean lackeying for whoever was in power; here – i.e. modern ‘Western’ society – bourgeois social and economic advancement concealing his ‘corruption’), which requires the deliberate, selfish manipulation of those around him and the disavowal of responsibility for the consequences both for them and him, resulting in his eventual ‘lynching’ (in a manner similar, for example, to the traditional fates of transgressive, sexualised women or uppity lower castes).
Most of all, for me, the way the personalities, behaviour and interactions of the main characters were shown to affect and mingle in the lives of each other, their families and others rang very true – and the best cinema can achieve this level of subtlety without having to be put into words (whereas in writing there’s no choice). I’d have liked to have seen more from the perspectives of the wives, and more of the social ripples further out. But that’s just quibbling really. As for whether mainstream audiences go beyond stereotypical responses, at any level – well, maybe they do; but they’re on their own, since none of the critics did. As per …