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by Harlan Kennedy


There was never a western like it. Cool runnings of riverine sheepflocks across heaven-high mountain flanks; strafings of human passion where there ain’t no passion (or ain’t supposed to be); and a Taiwanese-American director in Venice, Europe, where they honour film festival victors – in the old Italian style – by throwing them to the lions, or the lions to them.

There was never a western like it, unless we think all westerns were secretly like it: wild oaters, transgressive tales, encrypting subtexts about forbidden love and blushing buddyism inside stories of cattle, gunslingers and the opening up of America.

There was never a love story like it, unless we think all good love stories are like it: tales of love’s impossibility (or unfulfillability) in a world with no room for distractions of the heart that defy the jealous conformities which rule that world.

There was never a Venice victory quite like it. Even though Ang Lee was on the Golden Lion shortlist from the get-go, sensible folk thought a film about cowboys who liked each other’s company – who really liked each other’s company – would finally prove too brave a choice for a festival that likes its own survival: a survival depending (we thought) on staying legit in a world where religious revivalism is becoming a pandemic and in a country which is to Catholicism what Detroit is to Motown or Flint to General Motors.  

But hey. This is the 21st century. Even while George W Bush, the Pope and the armies of religious fundamentalism – aka fascists for Christ – try to pull the planet back towards edict, mysticism and intolerance, sane folk know that freedom is the only future worth working for and that love is a rainbow that knows no single colour and no forbidden glitter.

Let’s start, though, with what Lee’s film isn’t. It isn’t a pamphlet for gay rights. It isn’t a piece of retroactive humanitarian legislation imposed on a bygone west. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, like the Annie Proulx story it comes from, is too good to be reduced to a single message, too open-range in its poignancy – allusive and elusive – to be claimed by any sect as exclusive property. That includes well-meaning liberationists who call the two heroes ‘gay cowboys.’

Are Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) gay? They sure make out up there on that Wyoming mountain where a sheep is normally a man’s best friend and where lonely nights encourage thoughts of love as surely as a dustbowl engenders dreams of  plenitude. They spend a night, indeed a season, ‘stemming the rose,’ in the opaquely opalescent language of the ranch foreman (Randy Quaid), who more than once sees them, or spies on them, making love. (This is a voyeur subplot all its own, or might be in a longer movie or story).       

But human love can no more be labelled than wildernesses can be fenced. Jack and Ennis go off betweenwhiles to their wives and kids, accrued over long years between the two men’s first kiss and last tryst. To their society’s eyes, sometimes even to our own, they are fully functioning straight arrows in macho middle America. It’s just that once, twice or thrice a year they get together to discover that life has an extra dose of meaning.

Memory leads them back to make new memories. Love and its renewings become a repudiation of duty, routine, obligation. And passion can leave everything naked and sacred, even the innocence of a silent hug by a campfire that becomes – for Jack at least – the heart of their story: “Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it, even the knowledge that Ennis would not embrace him face to face because he did not want to see nor feel that it was Jack he held.”

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN’s real story is not outlaw love but the discovery of longing. That’s why Annie Proulx and Ang Lee, and Lee’s screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, extend their story over so vast a time. Longing is inexplicable, so it can never be consummated. And what cannot be consummated will forever be longing. (And the search for ‘belonging’ is the search to lock those separatenesses together. It can happen or not happen, can take a moment or elude a lifetime.)

Objects become talismanic in both tale and film – that bloody shirt tucked inside that other shirt – because they are eucharistic symbols for a love without language: one that must reach across unmapped spaces, terraforming them with its own landmarks, milestones, memories. It’s a process the two heroes at once encompass intuitively and yet, poignantly, barely begin. At the end Ennis and Jack are still arguing about that ranch they will never share, that life together they will never build.

It’s simplest to say they are still in denial. (Ennis after their first lovemaking: “Y’know, I ain’t queer”. Jack: “Me neither”). Or it’s simple to say they know that lynch law in redneck America would make short work of them if they ever did set up a lovenest. (That tyre iron that finished off a gay neighbour in Ennis’s dad’s day. That tyre iron that perhaps finishes off Jack, though the film leaves his death more open than does the written tale).

But the love story in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN isn’t reducible to simplicities. There may even be something more than love involved, more than man-to-man, lover-to-lover love. The title after all is a place. The longing is for a freedom not just distilled in sexual passion but transubstantiated into the vastnesses of landscape. Jack and Ennis’s fishing trips into the far country are about a land that still has its places of beatific innocence, a west that is still – in part – unwon, a range forever open. Above all, there are places where the oldest tradition of all, the freedom of nature (including the freedom to love according to longing, not law), antedates the oldest traditions – biblical, punitive, moralistic – that social man has created. 

In an early scene Ennis tells Jack how his parents died in a car crash. “There was one curve in the road in 43 miles and they miss it.” It’s a good laugh line. But it also tells us what Jack and Ennis triumph by not doing. They don’t miss the curve. They will both die in time. But they saw where the road did something different, rode the deviation, and came to recognize that life has options. And to be blind to those options can sometimes be just as dangerous as to take them, embrace them and be changed by them.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.