I went to the Loews multiplex at Broadway and West 68th Street on the Friday evening that Brokeback Mountain premiered in New York. It was mobbed. On the touch-screen console that sold tickets a dozen teal boxes, each representing a Brokeback showtime, were crossed out with big red Xs. I returned early Saturday afternoon for a matinee. Every show until nine was sold out. I bought tickets for Sunday right then.
Good thing too. The theater was completely packed when I got there. I sat behind two grandmotherly looking women who were discussing a documentary about a female-to-male transsexual. I overheard a man sitting in the row in front of them say his New Year’s resolution was to take a yoga class.
Then we were all in Wyoming together, Director Ang Lee’s Wyoming: a steep landscape rich in gaping emptiness, silent and cold in summer daylight. Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) start off as just two ranch hands of a piece with the landscape, sent up to Brokeback Mountain for a summer to wrangle sheep. Boredom, whiskey, and adroitly filmed glances make them something else; something that culminates in a jarringly sudden, almost violent pup-tent love scene. For a fleeting moment, all the mythic qualities of the American West dovetail idyllically with liberated homosexual love: Civilization is far behind, along with judgment. There’s plenty of space to for Jack and Ennis to be themselves, and walk around naked save for cowboy boots. But summer ends and reality in 1963 Wyoming wrenches the couple apart.
Reviewing for the New York Times, Stephen Holden calls Brokeback an “epic western.” This sent me to Dictionary.com. Epic: “a literary or dramatic composition…celebrating heroic feats,” like Beowulf. Brokeback is moving, even to cultural skeptics. And Ledger’s performance deserves at least an Oscar nomination. But heroic? To devotees of the Times Arts section, yes. Ennis and Jack are the heroes. The bigoted society that keeps them apart is the monster. Surviving is the heroic feat.
Usually the monsters die by the end of the epic. Not here though, not literally, because the monster Brokeback is after isn’t a fictional one. It’s the prejudice in the audience. And if the film doesn’t chop the head off “homophobia,” it certainly sticks it good, maybe better than any wide-release movie since Philadelphia. Heartstrings are stretched. Sounds like something the Old Grey Lady would huzzah for. And yet, not quite.
“America’s squeaky closet doors may have swung open far enough for a gay rodeo circuit to flourish,” Holden writes tentatively, “But let’s not kid ourselves…especially in sports and the military…behavior perceived as soft and feminine…triggers abuse and violence.”
This downplaying of an undeniably good day for the cause of gay acceptance has a progressive logic to it that’s more complex than the standard gloominess. The most satisfying part of any epic isn’t the part when the monster dies. It’s the tense, morally charged struggle that invariably leads to resolution. That’s why the Death Star blows up at the end of Star Wars, not the beginning. Moviemakers play these dramatic struggles out as long as is feasible. Cultural liberals, starring in their own vision of history, play out their edifying drama as long as they can. If cultural liberalism is to work on an emotional level, the struggle–for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, the environment, gay rights, or all of the above in a righteous amalgamation–must go on. If that means pretending that nothing changes and success perpetually remains a tiny dot on the horizon, so be it.
Jack and Ennis walk in place too. Absent from Jack, Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), has a couple kids and leads a terse, lonely life. Jack follows the rodeo circuit, and in an easily overlooked scene, makes eyes at Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and falls, excitedly–Lee takes pains to make that clear–into the backseat of her car. He marries her, moves to Texas, has a kid and but for a few furtive forays to Mexico, lives a terse and lonely life.
Jack eventually tracks Ennis down and pays a visit. Their initial reunion leads to a rolling series of rendezvous over the next 20 years. The pair attempts to recreate their Brokeback paradise on “fishing trips” and put a lasso on their diminishing future together. Jack wants to leave Lureen, set up a ranch with Ennis and live happily ever after. Ennis knows it’s impossible. The weekends start to anguish him. Jack’s flame flickers. Then, just as abruptly as they were introduced, all the possibilities disappear and all that’s really left is the high prairie landscape. This is genuinely sad.
Or frustrating, if you’re Village Voice writer Gary Indiana. Going a step further than the Times review, Indiana thinks Brokeback is a big step backwards for sophisticated sexuality. The problem, as he sees it, is fundamental.
“Not everyone wants to be in a family or a ‘relationship,’ or any kind of marriage,” Indiana scribbles. “And not everyone wants to love whomever he or she happens to be having sex with. It’s often easier to do things you enjoy with somebody you merely like, or don’t know.” He puts the word love in quotes wherever it appears. He concludes the movie is “propaganda on behalf of gay couplehood.”
This is the enduring problem for cultural liberals: Even thinkers as reflexively cranky and bitter as Indiana can see the self-edifying epic resolving itself. A society that has its cowboy heroes hoping to buy a ranch together isn’t he same society that has its cowboy heroes fighting Indians. Tolerance and equality are on the march. But the progressive epic, the struggle, can’t end just like that. Without it, elite liberalism would be as emotionally stimulating as allocating federal funds to avant-garde dance troupes. So the monster changes. Pervasive homophobia is replaced by insufferable, propagandizing ideologues intent on ramming the idea of “love” down everyone’s throats. The struggle to make society recognize homosexuals, and treat them on equal terms, becomes the fight to make sure no one ever even implies judgment about society’s next heroically misunderstood victims; those who choose to live a life of meaningless sex. Somewhere, someone’s already working on the screenplay.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York City.