A Brokeback Review

We finally saw Brokeback Mountain. The first time, Parker got a case of the scoots and we got called to pick him up just before showtime. The second time, it snowed, and out babysitter was trapped in Virginia. But the third time, we finally got to see the movie. By now, I’ve read the story-to-screenplay paperback, so I knew what to expect on screen. But reading a story and seeing it play out before your eyes are two different things. And seeing Brokeback, I found myself profoundly moved, but also thinking about how other people might see it and I how I might be seeing it in a totally different way.

So, this is my attempt at a review. And if you haven’t seen the movie yet, I ‘ll warn you now that there are some spoilers ahead. So, if you haven’t seen it or read the script/screenplay, you might want to come back and read this after you’ve seen it.

About midway or more through Brokeback Mountain, there’s a scene that effectively sums up what happened to the two main characters — ranch hands Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, whose union on the mountain in the title stretched over twenty years, two marriages and three kids. For me, the scene had more impact than any other in the movie, delivering its essential message so that the rest of the movie was like the slow-motion fall that follows a knockout punch. And though the landscaparguablyulably the uncredited co-star of the movie, the scene was almost completely interior and entirely domestic; appropriately, if you ask me.

It takes place during probably the most family oriented holiday on the calendar, Thanksgiving. It’s years after after Ennis and Jack’s time on Brokeback Mountain — two marriage and three children later, between the two of them — and aside from moving the story forward, it also spells out what each man has become due both to what exists between them and the reality of time and place that makes it their secret burden.

In Jack’s case, he finally asserts himself and challenges his “stud duck” of a father-in-law, after the old man undermines him in his own home. Where the “stud duck” starts out carving the turkey (as another means of asserting his authority and status), by the end of the scene the knives change hands and Jack is carving the bird. Fade to Ennis, sitting at the table with his daughters, his ex-wife, and her new husband. The bird is already carved, and as his ex-wife’s new husband sits at the head of the table Ennis relates an old glory story that ends up sounding pathetic. Later his ex-wife confronts him about his relationship with Jack, and the scene ends with Ennis lying in the street after picking a fight and getting the losing end.

Strangely enough, it was the turkey that caught my attention. I think because it was the the focus during the transition from Jack to Ennis. And though it seems odd to focus on that detail, it struck me as a metaphor for what had happened to Jack and Ennis, one that clearly described the state of their lives and hearts by that point: carved up. Like the bird staring in the the picture post card version of the typical family meal; no longer whole, picked over, left in scraps, living on the one moment that was only ever right and reliving it in faint echos. And not just their lives, but those of the women who wander into their paths and the children born out of what amounts to their compulsory pantomimes of heterosexuality.

Granted, it’s not all that profound or dramatic a moment in the movie. And the message it delivers is one that hits you over the head by the end of the movie: not being allowed to love each other, openly and honestly, destroys these men and the ripples of that destruction makes wreckage of other lives as well. Love, as the tagline of the film says, is a force of nature. Dam it up and it gathers strength, breaks through, and leaves destruction in its wake. It’s a story plenty of gay people know well, but one that might new to some heterosexuals who see the movie (one wonders what Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who objected to an episode of Postcards from Buster that featured lesbian parents, and saw Brokeback made of the movies message) and they’re seeing it even in the reddest of red states.

Even in predominantly Mormon Utah, where one theater owner cancelled its scheduled showings of the picture, the film was an unexpected smash in Salt Lake City where it grossed $40,000 its first weekend. “For a film like this, that’s saying something in my business,” Schamus says. And in Mason City, Iowa, last week, 41 people petitioned an eight-screen commercial multiplex to get the movie shown. “It’s the first time I’ve seen that happen,” says the cinema’s assistant manager, Johnny Mattis, who explains that the film was scheduled to arrive on Jan. 27 anyway.

Mattis, 24, isn’t sure what all the fuss is about. “I don’t know why people really want it to come here,” he says. “I don’t like the drama-romances anyway, and I really don’t want to see one with two gay men.” But Mattis and the rest of the usually coveted audience of guys 18-34 years old aren’t the target this time. From early on, Focus said the film was aiming for the same female fans with upscale tastes who loved “Titanic.”

And, according to a bit of info a coworker shared with me recently, people are looking for the movie in some of those same states.

Based on Hitwise Demographic data, for the four weeks ending January 28, 2006, visitors to the Brokeback Mountain official move site were 56.8% male versus 43.2% female while 53.8% of visitors to the site were between the ages of 25 to 44.

Regional visitors to the site during the same timeframe indicate that the states with the highest index of visitors to the Brokebackmountain.com site were:

  • Arkansas (216.8, indicating that online residents of Arkansas were more that twice as likely to visit Brokebackmountain.com than the U.S. Internet population overall)
  • Connecticut (198.2)
  • Oklahoma (167.0)
  • Rhode Island (164.8)
  • Tennessee (156.9)

So, if it pulls a few heartstrings in the heartland … it’s just a movie, but it may yet be more.

That said, sitting in the theater as a black gay man, there’s an aspect of the story that I can’t ignore. It’s that Jack and Ennis, even as they break hearts and cause tears to be shed in theaters across America, are really just white men on the downlow.

If these characters had been black, they would have called this movie a film about the down low. Instead, they’re calling it a classic love story. It’s for that reason that I love Brokeback Mountain and I hate it. I love Brokeback as a film that is able to move beyond the down low pathology, but I hate what it says explicitly and implicitly about the double standards in America based on race and sexual orientation.

… But make no mistake about it. These men are on the down low. The term “down low” is commonly used to refer to “men who have sex with men but do not identify as gay.” If that’s the case, these two rugged cowboys are saddled up for the down low. Ennis and Jack are married with children and yet they’re secretly sleeping with one another. If that ain’t the down low, then what is? If the cowboy boot fits, then wear it.

The reason why we don’t say they’re on the down low is simple — they’re white. When white men engage in this behavior, we just call it what it is and move on. But when black men do it, then we have to pathologize it into something evil called the “down low.” Therein lies the double standard.

And I couldn’t help thinking that if the characters had been black, and the story set amidst the concrete canyons of an urban landscape, what kind of movie would have been made and if it would have been nearly as sympathetic to the main characters.

The two characters in “Brokeback Mountain” are drawn to each other in spite of the powerful cultural taboos against men expressing physical affection for one another and engaging in consensual sex. Many communities including African-American and Latino communities harbor similar taboos. Even among men of color in the urban landscape who self-identify as “gay,” there are many who often need to develop macho personas or “front” as straight men on the subways, in their neighborhoods, and in many of their relationships.

… Not cowboy hats and leather boots, but doo rags and Timberlands signify the masculine strength that protects these men from becoming targets for bias-related violence. This effort is not simply shared by men of color—look at the hypermasculine images that the gay “mainstream” has utilized over time from the “Castronaut” to the “Muscle Queen” to the iconic gay-signifying characters portrayed by the Village People.

The film shows the struggle of Ennis and Jack to find their way toward each other while maintaining their identity, status, and safety within their straight world. “Brokeback Mountain” is a chronicle of the emotional strain of living life on the “down low” with a wife and kids while trying to find fulfillment through often highly sexualized and compartmentalized relations with other men.

Sitting in the dark in the theater, I half considered writing it myself, but in truth perhaps there will never be a black Brokeback Mountain.

What was Brokeback Mountain but a brilliant film about two men on the down-low set to glorious music and enchanting scenery? “It’s pretty clear that if they had been two black men it would have been a different reaction,” says Keith Boykin, the author of Beyond the Down Low. “It would have been an evil, nefarious story about deception and disease. These are guys who blatantly cheat on their wives with other men. There’s no way it would have been called a love story if they were black.”

… Which brings us back to Brokeback Mountain – a film that sensitively illustrated how even our most intimate human relationships are framed and shaped in no small part by the power, prejudices and conventions of the world around us. It is the only movie I have ever heard of where women cry, in sympathy rather than anger, at the sight of two men routinely betraying their wives, set in a place that embraces rather than stigmatises human frailty – where people cheat because the rules are stacked against them. On the down-low up high in the hills.

And if the ever is on, it probably won’t arouse the sympathies that Brokeback Mountain does. And it probably wouldn’t be a big hit. At least, not unless Terry MacMillan wrote it.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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4 Responses to A Brokeback Review

  1. troy says:

    So I guess the tag team of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, even though they weren’t cowboys wouldn’t count…Or even before that Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, or even in the 70s the twosomes of cops and badguys as underdog heros wouldn’t count…Interesting.
    Hollywood finally gives into a token kudos to gays and it seems the world must be coming to some sort of end, wasn’t this same sex love played out onscreen before but wasn’t always a canadian western? One wonders..

  2. Terrance says:

    Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence played starred in a gay love story? Bill Cosby and Sidney Potier played starred in a gay love story? If they did, I missed it. Or I missed the point of the comment.

  3. troy says:

    Love comes in many many different formulas, some obvious and some not…

  4. SteveS says:

    Terrance, I enjoyed your review. I have a question about the phrase down low. You say if it involves two black men then we have to pathologize it and call it something evil – the down low.
    Pleading ignorance here, I really don’t know, but I thought black men coined the phrase. They’ve given the phrase to themselves, I thought. I do think it’s the same principle, basically another word for the closet, but it’s not that the term closeted doesn’t have connotations of evil itself. It does.
    I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read the story. I would have to say that whether it’s about closeted men or men on the down low, or if it was even a story of unrequited love or an underlying -unspoken – love that isn’t even really addressed to the viewer (as I assume the previous comments are referring to, an Odd Couple type of arrangment where you just know, but it’s never really said…), it could still be a classic love story. Romeo and Juliet is a classic love story and look how that ended up. I don’t think that saying it’s a classic love story is in any way trumpeting the deceptions that the men created. They felt love but were overcome by outside pressure. That can still be a love to reckon with. That’s my two cents.

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