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Monday, January 16, 2006


Of Mountains and Molehills

Brokeback Mountain
by Annie Proulx.

This is a small book (55 double-spaced pages) that originally appeared in the New Yorker Magazine as a short story. It has been published in book form as a result of the hipe for a Focus Features movie of the same name. I read the story in the New Yorker, but ordered the book and read it again in preparation for seeing the movie, which I saw twice. In the movie, neither the Ennis Del Mar nor the Jack Twist character speaks clearly; it takes two viewings to understand the dialog--although understanding the dialog is not that important in following the movie.

Brokeback Mountain is a good story, and Annie Proulx is an excellent writer, especially of short stories, but as tragedy, the story is flawed. Brokeback Mountain tells the story of a homosexual (as opposed to Gay) daliance between two uneducated men of average-to-low intelligence who meet and have sex during a summer they spend together caring for a flock of sheep in the mountains of Wyoming. After their initial encounter, both marry and have children. Although Jack's marriage to the daughter of well-off dealer of farm machinery lifts him out of the poverty--both material and intellectual--that both men share in the beginning of the story, Ennis is not so lucky and drifts from one menial, low-wage job to another throughout the story. For 20 years after the first summer together, their homosexual encounters continue as the two periodically meet "to go fishing." When meeting for one of these "fishing trips", Ennis's wife sees the two kissing passionately and she subsequently divorces Ennis--he's not that great a husband or father as it turns out, so there is adequate reason for divorcing him without knowing about his affair with Jack. Although Jack's wife does not discover Jack's 'secret,' the progress of the story suggests she has her suspicions.

If the definition of a tragic story is one in which the outcome is pre-ordained and unavoidable, then Brokeback Mountain, while sad, is not tragic. Both Ennis and Jack had an "out" that would have saved them, but they did not take it. Although the two men talk ocassionally of "striking out and making a life together" neither, (especially Ennis) can or will make the break with his heterosexual identity that such an action would require.

I grew up in, and live in Texas, and all the tension about the sexual ambivalence and social restraint was tiresome and aggravating: I kept thinking "Haven't you two assholes ever heard of San Francisco, New York, or New Orleans--or for that matter Houston and Denver forGod'sake?" Of course they were ignorant and borderline stupid, but that describes a host of dumb-ass queer cowboys that flock to the cited cities and manage to escape the tire-iron solution. That's not to say that Gay bashing and murder didn't happen in the cities in the sixties--and still does happen there--but there are many places (even in Bush/Cheny Country) where violence against homosexuals was and is considered to be evil and against the law, and the perps did and still do go to prison. True, BBM is a sad story, but so is a dog getting run-over trotting across a freeway. The reality is that Ennis and Jack are homophobic themselves, even if their homophobia is a result of stupidity and ignorance.

The social blindspot (shared by Ennnis and Jack) that prevents understanding and tolerance of homosexuality, is the assumpton that sexual orientation is strictly either/or. It's not. A person's sexual orientation is much more complex. It sure is in the case of Ennis and Jack, and perhaps that's where the real, unacknowledged tragedy lies: forcing a specie that is frequently "omni-sexual" to obey an ideal that posits an unresolvable conflict between exclusive monogamous heterosexuality and homosexuality (whether monogamous or not.) The tragedy is being forced to live in a society that does not allow a man (or woman) to marry the opposite sex and raise children while at the same time permit him (or her) to have a "fishing buddy." Brokeback Mountain takes a peek behind the curtain at the complexity and paradox of human relationships, but it only hints at the real tragedy: sex canons that limit the scope of human emotional connection and physical desire. Underlying all the heartbreak and tragedy proposed in Breakback Mountain is society's fear that civilization will crumble if human beings are allowed to "love" too broadly. A pathological insecurity on the part of the human race tries without success to enforce inadequate and unworkable rules under the general rubric of "faithfulness."

Some may think this is insensitive and parallel to Bill Cosby's criticisms of some African-Americans, but in spite of my mostly left-leaning, libertarian tendencies, even lefties like me should not deny the fact that everyone has a responsibility at least to try and overcome life's difficulties for him/herself; no one ought to be excused from that. But overcoming difficulty requires courage, the essential missing element in both Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar.

A better movie with 'gay' tendencies, and a truly poignant tragedy is Capote. If you've not seen it, it is a mini-biography of Truman Capote during the time he was writing In Cold Blood. I had not read In Cold Blood before seeing the movie, but I have read it since and Great Living Jesus! what a wonderful writer Capote was.

My criticism notwithstanding, by all means order Brokeback Mountain (by clicking below) and go see the movie. They are both well worth the investment in time and money.

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