Brokeback Mountain

A vitally important, visually stunning, socially conscious, emotionally wrenching love story, that I predict will win the Oscar for best picture of 2005.

The film Brokeback Mountain is very powerful. It’s supposed to be controversial, but all that was forgotten after the first five minutes. It’s one of the saddest and most tragic films I’ve seen recently, with the possible exception of Hotel Rwanda. But it’s such a different animal. The film started out innocuously. By the end, it packs an emotional wallop. It draws you in, to care about the characters in a way that is really uncommon. Particularly because both characters seem very earnest and very honest in their desires and drives. They are both likable, if flawed human beings. It doesn’t seem contrived at all.

One of my first observations is that the actors really pull it off, especially Heath Ledger. It took an act of tremendous courage for them to do so. For the most part, it has not been considered acceptable in the mainstream cinema for a leading-man type actor to play a gay character or have anything do with anything overtly gay. So for these two actors we’re not only talking about something that has to do with very personal courage, and being willing to deal with their own issues around conflicted sexuality (assuming that they are in fact straight), we’re talking about careers potentially at risk.

Paradoxically, I think the risk paid off. This film will do wonders for both their careers.

Brokeback Mountain is a metaphor for the love of the two characters as a force of nature. And it’s very important to be able to see any type of love between two people as magnetic and natural, whatever course it may ultimately take. All relationships exist on a continuum or spectrum somewhere between platonic love and erotic love. This is very similar to the Kinsey scale, where you have a continuum between gay and straight. (I think it would be helpful if society could recognize this, so that people don’t fear ruining their friendships over crossing such a line. And then they would understand that the natural feelings they have should not be accompanied with shame, but rather should be embraced and expressed. It is more important to take a risk than have safety in such a situation. Today’s social norms are decidedly against such risk-taking, but it’s a lesson a more mature society could learn to apply across the board.)

The two cowboys end up together in a tent, because it’s cold outside. Jack takes a tremendous risk. Men have been killed in the past for making a pass at another man. I think even hinting at it could get someone beat up in those times (probably today as well). Ennis jumps at the chance though, and the two go at each other with animalistic fervor. The suddenness of it jarred me in seeing the film, but it was appropriate given the fact that the characters were also taken by surprise.

There were two battles being fought in Brokeback Mountain. The first was the battle of the two men against convention and society. The second was the battle of Ennis, Heath Ledger’s character, with himself, and his inability to express his feelings and communicate. And both as battles were equally real. I identified more with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, because I felt that he was somebody who took some action, and he kept his life reasonably well on track. Though he had his own difficulties, he eventually stood up to his overbearing father-in-law in a very dramatic way. I was impressed with this, and also how well he kept trying to work things out between the two men. He was determined to have a life that would allow them both to experience more joy than what fate seemed to have in mind.

Jack was the one who could see the reality of the possibility of his dream, whereas Ennis could only see far enough ahead to barely get by. He couldn’t express himself well enough to even admit to his desires, only to kind of follow through with his duties. For the most part, he allowed life to get the better of him. Yet, he managed to be there for Jack, and be available for the one person who really mattered to him. It was not his daughters, it was not his wife. It was his lover and friend. And that was a powerful message.

Others have identified with the wives and daughters in the film. I can see their point, but these men did not belong in that society or with those women. It’s clear director Ang Lee deliberately set out to satirize the religious and redneck culture of Wyoming and Texas that was the backdrop for the story. The sweeping panoramic vistas that were a metaphor for the men’s feelings were in sharp contrast to the squalid physical and social environs that sought to keep those same feelings in check. So it was very hard for me to have any sympathy for anyone in that society, though I suppose such an argument could be made.

Typical was the scene in which Heath Ledger’s character Ennis gets married, shortly after the two men meet. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the minister looks over at the bride, and then to Ennis and and says “you may kiss the bride… or I will.” Another such scene occurs at a Fourth of July celebration. Two drunk rednecks are harassing Ennis, who is there with his family. He confronts the men, and knocks the shit out of them. But the tableau is almost beyond belief: All-American fireworks in the background, a mortified wife with two screaming kids (one on each hip), while an out-of-control Ennis (who doesn’t belong there), takes out his frustrations on two even less fortunate souls. The irony couldn’t be more powerful.

The film spans 20 years of the two men’s lives. It asks a lot of familiar but still important questions: What does it mean to be bisexual? What is the morality of a marriage where children are produced, yet the loyalty is elsewhere? Does this equation change if one of the parents is gay/bi? Can we effectively love more than one person at a time? Does lying constitute betrayal if it is out of loyalty to a greater purpose? What are the feelings we should value most in life? Is it better to have the safety of conformity, or to live large and take huge risks?

This is a film that deserves the hype. It could change the way many people feel about gay male relationships. But sadly, those who need to see it most probably won’t–or they will derive the opposite lesson as intended. Let’s just say that the ending is shocking and yet not surprising–but artfully crafted. A must-see.

Comments (7 comments)

Mike Bommerson / January 23rd, 2006, 9:01 am / #1

Hi Sean,

thanks for the info! I’ll go and see it when it arrives (expected the 16th of February in Amsterdam).
I had just made a resolution to no longer just go for easy entertainment. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything with H.L. too.
Is there anything online on your own current projects? (just curious; you are in movie finishing, aren’t you?)

Regards from Amsterdam,

BlackSun / January 24th, 2006, 1:48 am / #2

“What are the feelings we should value most in life? I would add an addendum to this question: “And why?””

Each person needs to evaluate what are their strongest motivations and desires, and have the courage to act on them fully. This would be the process of self-actualization. I know it seems obvious, but many people are restrained by expectations of culture, family, and friends–or they could just be restrained by their own fear to take risks. As to the why, it’s simply because such clarity, boldness and being true to one’s self is the best way to live a fulfilling life.

“I think it is possible, for some individuals, under certain circumstances, to have this. I don’t think it is for everybody or even for most. I think it requires a great deal of consciousness to do this in a way that is authentic, honest, and sustainable.”

Exactly. And I don’t think this is very viable in today’s society. It might not even be in accordance with human nature. There are two problems: 1) Fear of loss of affection and conflict between two objects of affection. 2) Social ostracism, for breaking the “rules” and changing the game for others.

I think for any type of polyamory to be accepted, it would require a wholesale change in society. (i.e., getting rid of the ‘ownership’ paradigm of relationships) It would require steadfast individualism, so that a person’s emotional security did not depend on their romantic attachment to others.

So, in a nutshell, I don’t think it’s very practical today. Most people are not now capable of this. But today’s relationship styles (mostly serial monogamy) raise equally difficult questions.

In any event, someone who is bisexual is more likely to face these issues than someone who is gay or straight. (Although many gay or straight people carry on CLANDESTINE polyamory, which in today’s climate always involves deception.)

Darrel S. / January 24th, 2006, 9:02 am / #3

” But today’s relationship styles (mostly serial monogamy) raise equally difficult questions”

what do you mean?

“I think for any type of polyamory to be accepted, it would require a wholesale change in society. (i.e., getting rid of the ‘ownership’ paradigm of relationships) It would require steadfast individualism, so that a person’s emotional security did not depend on their romantic attachment to others.”

Are you saying monogamomy inherently involves an ownership paradigm?

Do you think people who choose monogamomy are more more dependant on their attatchment to their romantic partner than those who favor a polyamorous lifestyle?

I don’t think ones ‘capacity’ for polyamory necessarily has anything to do with more evolved consciousness. And either(or ANY style of human relationship) can be chosen for emotional healthy or unhealthy reasons. As a evolved choice or unevolved. Either can be a sacred path..or not.

For me those who “choose” monogamomy are just as likely to be responding consciously to their sexual orientation, and to do otherwise would be just as devasting as being forced to act straight when your gay. To imply that it is somehow a lesser evolved path is just as disrepectful.

BlackSun / January 24th, 2006, 10:22 am / #4


” But today’s relationship styles (mostly serial monogamy) raise equally difficult questions” what do you mean?”

For a detailed discussion of the problems of monogamy, you should check out Laura Kipnis book “Against Love.” What I was referring to however was more the difficulty most so-called monogamous people have in actually being monogamous.

“Are you saying monogamomy inherently involves an ownership paradigm?”

Yes. I don’t think anyone would argue this fact. We say MY wife, MY girlfriend, MY boyfriend. A slightly less possesive term would be MY lover, which implies the person might have other lovers.

“I don’t think ones ‘capacity’ for polyamory necessarily has anything to do with more evolved consciousness.”

It may or may not be more evolved as an end result. But what I mean is that it is definitely more difficult to navigate successfully–therefore would require a more evolved psyche to maintain.

“For me those who “choose” monogamomy are just as likely to be responding consciously to their sexual orientation”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and challenge the conventional wisdom that sexual orientation is not chosen. I think we do make choices. We have to look at what Kinsey theorized was a continuum between gay and straight. How people act on their tendencies is really a matter that is settled between their own personal choice and what may be socially acceptable, and what risks they are willing to take. The same could be said for an “orientation” toward monogamy or polyamory.

I also want to address the concept of polyamory through deception. This is how this discussion started–talking about Jack and Ennis in the film, and how their relationship co-existed with them both having families with children. Whether or not these two men were ‘actually’ gay, and just keeping their marriages as a ‘beard’ is immaterial. The fact is, they had relationships with both men and women at the same time. And they were not honest about it.

Many people are attracted to and have sex with people other than their ‘partners’, gay or straight. This always involves putting one person at a disadvantage. Usually the cheating partner tells the third party about the primary relationship. So both those two have an informational advantage over the partner who is being cheated on. That person is then left holding the bag, and being made to look like a fool. The archetype of betrayal is always involved in such a situation. What I think would represent an advance in society and morality would be if there could be honesty in such situations without the primary relationship being destroyed. I’m not going to get into an in-depth conversation about this in this column, because it is a BOOK-LENGTH subject that at this point raises more questions than can be answered.

But I’m tired of all the moralizing about monogamy from people who also then go out and cheat. Why not examine the evolutionary reasons why people continue to be compelled to do this–and ask what it would be like if there could be a different approach involving honesty and acceptance?

BlackSun / January 24th, 2006, 10:46 am / #5

Myriam, you make an excellent point about the love triangle with the guru.

This is something that is true to a greater or lesser extent in all religions. But it was certainly the case in CUT. There was always a third person (god) in the marriage bed. Psychologists theorize that we all bring ghosts of other people into our relationships. This is mainly parents, and past lovers. But as you said, the ‘god triangle’ is the strongest of them all.

I think how severe this influence was definitely depended on the degree of ‘devotion’ of two people involved. Because I think it played largely into supporting very human preferences: “god wouldn’t want us to do this (particular sexual act)” for example. Or “I can’t have sex with you now, because we just came from a service, and I want to maintain the ‘light’ in my body” etc.

People on staff at CUT were given special instructions for decrees (prayers) to do before and after sex. So there was never a time when the two people could just be together and revel in their humanness.

But like the rules about masturbation, I think the community rules about sexuality were widely ignored (who could enforce them?). I just can’t see most people feeling good about putting the brakes on their passion to pray. But you can bet that there were situations where one partner insisted on doing this. What a buzzkill.

The larger issue you raise is the social idea that relationships need the blessing of god to be legitimate. Hence religious involvement in what ideally should be a contract between people.

There would be no broad discussion whatsoever about same-sex marriage if it wasn’t still widely considered to be a religious issue. The state has no interest whatsoever in whether two people who enter into a partnership contract are two men, two women, or a man and a woman.

BlackSun / January 24th, 2006, 9:17 pm / #6

Whoa! Myriam. First of all, I think you are confusing polyamory with polygamy, the practice popularized by fundamentalist Mormons, not officially sanctioned by the Mormon church. Polygamy as practice by those groups is SERIOUSLY CULTISH, with overtones of sexual abuse, impregnation of very young girls, welfare fraud, and other problems.

There have been questions as to the consensuality of this practice, and it is certainly not something that in my opinion deserves to be emulated. If somehow consensuality could be assured, then people should be free to associate how they choose. But I think it unlikely that the fundamentalist Mormon polygamous paradigm would be any example. Especially since it is heavily patriarchal and steeped in dogmatic justifications for any abuse based on divine authority of the patriarch. Sheesh!

What I was referring to was simply examining the issues regarding consensual as opposed to coercive or clandestine polyamory. This would necessarily include polygyny as well as polyandry. But I think this thread is getting dangerously off-topic, as it originally referred to a particular dynamic in Brokeback Mountain which raised the issue.

With regard to contractual arrangements you mentioned, I’m simply in favor of letting people share property, give power of attorney, buy life insurance, adopt children, etc. by mutual agreement–separate and distinct from any religious context of marriage. This would sidestep the entire question of the gender or number of persons involved, and could lead to some creative arrangements.

Here is the wikipedia link, which has a ton of information:

There are some polyamory titles listed on the main page under BSJ sexuality that have some good information if you care to explore further. I would respectfully request that any further comments on this thread stay within the context raised by the film. Thank you.

BlackSun / January 25th, 2006, 10:51 am / #7

I don’t delete posts unless they are patently offensive–such as when CUT members use quotes from dictations to make their arguments.

Your post wasn’t offensive in the least–it’s just easy to forget why the thread was started. I would hope that others who had seen the film could weigh in with their opinions of it also.

Finally, it wasn’t a reprimand. That connotes a hierarchy that doesn’t exist here. I’m simply acting as moderator to keep things on track :-) Thanks for your comments, Myriam.

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