I enjoyed reading Tom Hibbs’s NRO take on
Brokeback Mountain today, but would
disagree with him on one particular interpretation. Tom correctly sees that
director Ang Lee contrasts Jack and Ennis’s flat, bleak reality of life on
the plain with the Marlboro-Man romanticism of the mountain world to which
they run off to for their affair. The way I read this framing, though, was
as a message about the false allure of escapism. Both men idealized that
summer they had as teenagers on the mountain, and spent their lives running
off to recreate it, instead of living in the real world and dealing honestly
with the difficult realities of the lives they had chosen. The mountain
symbolized their self-centered flight from reality and moral responsibility.
In that regard, Brokeback reminded me of the excellent film The Secret
Lives of Dentists, in which a husband whose wife is caught up in a vivid
romantic affair struggles to do his boring duty to his family. He is the
hero of that film, by denying himself — though there is redemption there.
Tom was right to see that there’s no redemption available to the characters
in Brokeback, but these characters sealed their miserable fates much
earlier by thinking they could defy gravity and live in the clouds forever.
Or so it seemed to me.
Of course many viewers of the film will say, “Their fate didn’t have to be
tragic; society gave them no choice.” I think it must be admitted that the
culture those men grew up in and lived in made it extremely difficult for
them to make sense of what they were thinking and feeling (as Annie Proulx,
author of the short story on which the film is based, pointed out in an
interview, these are two poor country boys, not sophisticates in any sense).
Nor did it offer them any realistic possibility of living together in that
world. On the other hand, does anybody get to freely choose their own lives?
One does the best one can in the situation into which one is thrown, and
when things go badly, one tries to honor one’s duty, however stoically. “If
you can’t fix it, you got to stand it,” Ennis tells his lover, which is the
moral of this film. True. A bleak truth, but true, is it not?
Interestingly, I recall that the Annie Proulx story didn’t depict the
mountain in such glowing terms. Rather, it came across as a place full of
danger and excitement and wildness. A place that’s thrilling, but also
frightening because it contains the possibility for a kind of exaltation,
but also destruction. It’s a far more ambiguous image than what you see in