Saturday, February 18, 2006

Descending Brokeback Mountain

Watching Brokeback Mountain is one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. I knew it wouldn’t end well; I’d been warned of that. In fact, I’d heard a lot of things. I’d heard that only one of the two main characters married a woman–in fact, both did. I heard that it wasn’t a love story but a statement of oppression–a coldly clinical analysis that oversimplifies the story for political purposes. And I’d heard that the relationship between the main characters was more violent than loving–a statement that is only possibly true if one overlooks forms of sharing love that are not overtly physical or sexual.

But most of all, I’d heard that it was a cowboy love story starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Well, it was certainly that and more. But initially, I thought it was a joke–they don’t make the fantasies of gay men (and some of their straight female friends) into mainstream movies, right? Well, not if they’re just sexual fantasies, no; but a fully realized characterization that goes to the depths of the human heart and soul is another matter.

And that’s what Brokeback Mountain is. Indeed, the fantastical moments are quickly and easily overshadowed by the aspects that are vividly heart-wrenching and true-to-life. That’s why I left the theater with tear-stained cheeks and a sadness that took nearly a week to dissipate. Well, that and the fact that it brought rushing back feelings from some of the hardest times of my life. It reminded me of the days in my youth and very early adulthood when I used enormous amounts of energy to hide who I really am and to construct some sort of perverse, parallel life in its place. It reminded me of the elusiveness of pleasure, of the fact that there were four and a half years between my first and second boyfriend. It reminded me that, while living my old shadow life, the dominant themes was desperation.

At that time, a sense of desperation pervaded everything–my thoughts, my actions, my moods. I was governed by the perception of obligations and duties, while my mind was dominated by an inner struggle waged from waking til sleep. The words of W. B. Yeats in “The Second Coming” are an appropriate reflection of my emotional state and, in the last two lines, my impulses at that time.

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.


This sort of anarchic demolition of reserve eventually leads one to despair or action. As with the character of Jack Twist, my body and soul raged against the restraints imposed by my mind. This revolution brought Jack into the hands of his killers, but it set me free. It was the stoicism of Ennis Delmar, however, the left me most astonished. What strength it takes to forge a compromise that permits restraint to exist without ending in the corrosiveness of despair or an explosion into action. And what a sad, unnecessary sacrifice.

So, it is not Jack’s death but Ennis’s life riddled with loss and abandonment that left me most bereft. It was the extinguishing of hope, the failure of a lifetime’s passion to be ultimately consummated that left me sobbing in my bed that night. As this film brought me to dwell with Ennis in bleakness, it brought back the dominant emotions from my moments of greatest despair, and therefore my greatest fears: failure, loss, isolation, and hopelessness.

My escape from the traumas of these recollections was gradual. At first, I tried to reconstruct the story in ways that ended happily, as I sometimes do upon waking from a nightmare. I agree with the notion that straight people would not have made such a story the success that it has been. For one, tragedy was consistent with the lives of these characters, and for another, there is a long modern tradition of gay characters dying–and films that deny this convention are as trite as straight films that end happily ever after.

For me, what ultimately worked best was to compare the opportunities I have in my life to those that the characters lacked. They were never set entirely free; I am. They let countless opportunities pass; I have not and need not do the same. If there is to be a happy ending, it will be created by those of us–gay, lesbian, and straight–who build upon the efforts of past generations, living and letting each other live with peace and with love.