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February 15, 2006

Leaving Brokeback Mountain

I’m relieved I wasn’t alone in finding Brokeback Mountain depressing. It wasn’t particularly cathartic for me; whatever mistakes I’ve made in my life, they weren’t those. Still, taking from Proulx’ own description of Ennis del Mar, he felt about as bad as he ever had and it took a long time for the feeling to wear off.

Here is assorted interesting reading on the movie:

David Ehrenstein raises objections; once you get past the Evil Bitter Queen persona in his own blog, the points are interesting – most interesting to me is in the comments at Fablog referring to a standard plot device from Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: “The Faggot Dies”.

Daniel Mendelsohn talks eloquently of the “tragedy of the closet” in the New York Review of Books. I agree with him in that the tragedy is specifically a gay one but I wouldn’t rule out the universality of the narrative. Regarding both of the above, we have an addiction to sad stories and doomed lovers; I don’t think it’s sadism as much as a talisman. We see and tell sad stories in part to ward off tragedy in our own lives. We aren’t always punishing those characters; they’re protecting us.

Suzette Chan’s piece on Brokeback and Arcadia is also quite nice and got me thinking.

The original story can be bought or found sprinkled throughout the net – do a Google search for the first line of the novella - Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. It’s worth noting that the version that originally appeared in the New Yorker did not have this preface.

Rereading the short story again got me thinking about the differences between the story and the movie. The ones that stand out for me fall into two areas. The first is to subtly change Ennis’ character in order to push him further, if that were even possible, into the closet.

In the story, it’s Jack rather than Ennis who calls their first sex “a one-shot thing”. The screenplay may have given the line to Ennis to give him something more to say; his only response was “I’m not no queer”, and it fits into the movie’s view of Ennis.

This is the novella on their first leavetaking at the end of the summer:

"Well, see you around, I guess." The wind tumbled an empty feed bag down the street until it fetched up under his truck.

"Right," said Jack, and they shook hands, hit each other on the shoulder, then there was forty feet of distance between them and nothing to do but drive away in opposite directions. Within a mile Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time. He stopped at the side of the road and, in the whirling new snow, tried to puke but nothing came up.

In the movie, Ennis walks. He doesn’t have a truck; he always has fewer possessions than Jack and his poverty is central to his character. So is his frustrated anger. He doesn’t just try and vomit when he leaves Jack, he punches a wall repeatedly in tears and yells, “What the fuck are you looking at?” when he notices that someone can see him. He’s also not just at the side of the road; he’s in (what looked like) a small space between two buildings – caged and observed.

Jack’s speech in the climactic scene in the movie (“I wish I knew how to quit you.”) is lifted straight from the story, but Ennis’ reaction is not:

Ennis stood as if heart-shot, face grey and deep-lined, grimacing, eyes screwed shut, fists clenched, legs caving, hit the ground on his knees.

"Jesus," said Jack. "Ennis?" But before he was out of the truck, trying to guess if it was heart attack or the overflow of an incendiary rage, Ennis was back on his feet and somehow, as a coat hanger is straightened to open a locked car and then bent again to its original shape, they torqued things almost to where they had been, for what they'd said was no news. Nothing ended, nothing begun, nothing resolved.

This is how the quote is reported at IMDb though from memory I think it is slightly off:

Ennis Del Mar: [crying] Well, why don't you? Why don't you just let me be? It's because of you that I'm like this! I ain't got nothing... I ain't nowhere... Get the fuck off me! I can't stand being like this no more, Jack.

It’s not made clear what brings Ennis to his knees in the story; it could be anger, it could be the fact that Jack threatened to leave him, it’s probably several things at once. The movie verbalizes and brings to the fore the frustrated self-loathing. It was Heath Ledger’s hook into Ennis’ character as well:

Those involved with making the film had much to say at the Venice festival on Friday. While Gyllenhaal and Ledger have previously taken a "so what?" attitude to the film's homosexuality, they did acknowledge a bit of discomfort at the love scenes. “I was really lucky that my character was uncomfortable with it and knew it too," Ledger told reporters, "so I could use my own level of discomfort, because it was new and strange for me, and that worked for me."

In the story, while Ennis’ self-awareness is flawed, he isn’t clueless about his sexuality.

Ennis pulled Jack's hand to his mouth, took a hit from the cigarette, exhaled. "Sure as hell seem in one piece to me. You know, I was sittin up here all that time tryin to figure out if I was -- ? I know I ain't. I mean here we both got wives and kids, right? I like doin it with women, yeah, but Jesus H., ain't nothin like this. I never had no thoughts a doin it with another guy except I sure wrang it out a hunderd times thinkin about you. You do it with other guys? Jack?"

"Shit no," said Jack, who had been riding more than bulls, not rolling his own. "You know that. Old Brokeback got us good and it sure ain't over. We got a work out what the fuck we're goin a do now."

"That summer," said Ennis. "When we split up after we got paid out I had gut cramps so bad I pulled over and tried to puke, thought I ate somethin bad at that place in Dubois. Took me about a year a figure out it was that I shouldn't a let you out a my sights. Too late then by a long, long while."

For the movies' purposes, this was more self-reflection than they wanted the character to have.

I noted previously that the movie added an incident where Ennis decides to attend his daughter’s wedding even though it will jeopardize his employment. It’s not in the original story; I saw it as Hollywood’s necessary glimmer of hope. What it substitutes for is:

Around that time Jack began to appear in his dreams, Jack as he had first seen him, curly-headed and smiling and bucktoothed, talking about getting up off his pockets and into the control zone, but the can of beans with the spoon handle jutting out and balanced on the log was there as well, in a cartoon shape and lurid colors that gave the dreams a flavor of comic obscenity. The spoon handle was the kind that could be used as a tire iron. And he would wake sometimes in grief, sometimes with the old sense of joy and release; the pillow sometimes wet, sometimes the sheets.

A funny substitution because in its own way, the dream sequence is as Hollywood as a reconciliation. It isn’t just Hollywood, either. It’s the dream of Paradise that is the consolation we offer for loss. Somewhere, somehow, we will be reunited. Ennis performs as much of an expiating ritual as he can, constructing his own small shrine to his lover. From an interview (not directly linkable, but in the 2/14/06 issue at Advocate.com and called "Brokeback's Big Secrets") the idea to switch the shirts so that Ennis' was now protecting and enfolding Jack's was Ledger's. Ennis' dreams are the cousin of Solor's opium vision of the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère. And having mentioned that, I am doing an incantation to prevent Brokeback Mountain from ever, ever becoming a ballet, although I can already see the long ghostly line-dance of cowboys snaking in . . .

Posted by Leigh Witchel at February 15, 2006 3:17 AM

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