The Corner

Hibbs On Brokeback

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

the film.

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