Q: What do Jews do on Christmas eve? A: See first-run movies without standing in line. We went to see Brokeback Mountain last night under my favorite film-viewing conditions: three times as many empty seats as full ones.
I woke up this morning thinking about how a film that portrays the persecution of the Other reveals so much more about self-torture. The predecessors of Brokeback Mountain were films like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), examining bigotry by externalizing it. In each film there is a noble character who represents the Other: in Gentleman’s Agreement, Gregory Peck plays an investigative reporter who impersonates a Jew to expose antisemitism; in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Sydney Poitier is a doctor who falls in love with Katharine Hepburn’s and Spencer Tracy’s daughter. The actors’ names alone conjure almost everything you need to know about the protagonists’ nobility. Each film also features a rainbow of more or less ignoble characters who are brought, after great struggle, to see the light. There are doubters close to home—lovers, friends, parents—and more distant characters whose crude prejudice is shocking.
The impulse that drives these older films is the same: through the interaction of representative characters, the viewer learns why a decent society requires that people be given equal due and equal opportunity; and why personal integrity demands that the Other be supported by those closest, despite their own fears. In contrast, there’s not much nobility in Brokeback Mountain. The engine that drives this film is empathy, a little like Romeo and Juliet: by feeling the pain and longing of star-crossed lovers, the viewer is made to see that (as Virgil said a couple of thousand years ago) “Love conquers all: let us, too, yield to love” and abandon the small mind that resists whatever form love may take.
So far, so good. In telling this story, Director Ang Lee (and cowriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry) avoid the path of representative characters. Instead of noble and ignoble figures, we get men and women of profoundly mixed impulses, careening off each other, responding viscerally to situations they seldom discuss and barely comprehend. There is sufficient backstory to let us know that the two men who fall in love tending sheep one summer on Wyoming’s Brokeback Mountain have seen the ugly face of hatred. Ennis, the more involuted and inarticulate character, was taken as a child to view the horrific result of mob violence against two gay men who ran a nearby ranch together. The excursion is clearly meant as a cautionary experience; to the viewer, it makes oblique reference to the killing of Matthew Shepard. We are given to understand that this baseless, atavistic hatred still exists.
But Ennis and his lover Jack don’t encounter it much, in part because their sexuality is hidden by their own choices—both marry and father children. Even when their relationship is exposed to an employer or a spouse by their own heedless missteps, the secret holds. Jack hopes the two will someday retreat to their own ranch in the countryside. But although Ennis’s refusal is the deciding factor, there is also ambivalence in the way Jack pursues his impersonation of married life and the material comfort he has attained by marrying up. By the time we see them sitting at the campfire smoking a joint together in the late sixties, we know Jack and Ennis could emigrate to San Francisco and live to tell the tale, as so many others did, understanding it was not right or just that they should be forced from home, but necessary.
I came away from the film surprised at how much less empathy with the protagonists I felt than I’d expected. I could understand the power of a connection that precedes words and renders words irrelevant. There were times I felt the sweetness of their longing, sharing the desire it should be fulfilled. But the thing I felt most powerfully, and the thing that clings to my skin this morning like static electricity, was how in the span of two lifetimes, these two men were never completely honest with a single human being: not their parents, not their wives and children, not each other, not themselves.
And why not? Internalized fear of punishment, certainly. I was about to write “and of being ostracized,” but they had both handed down that sentence to themselves already. Still, I know it is possible to allow oneself to be controlled by fears of what has already come to pass, by the fear that others will do to you what you have already done to yourself. I can’t say a sense of obligation drove their deception, because for the most part, they gave others little more than tokens and falsehoods. The lowered horizons of class and culture came into it: Ennis’s imagination of possibility has been so shrunken by the time we meet him—he has so completely internalized his oppressor—that he might as well be frozen like Sleeping Beauty, too far under to awaken at Jack’s kiss.
No, in the end, this film reprised Romeo and Juliet, whose self-destruction—whose decision to waste their own lives—is the always indigestible irony at the center of that love story. I came away feeling that despite its stark portrayal of the truths of sexual fear and violence, Brokeback Mountain was actually about the ways that people destroy their own potential happiness by living in lies, a very sad story indeed.