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Hawking Sentiment Carefully Divorced from Gay Identity

Arriving on an avalanche of hype, “Brokeback Mountain” finally reaches the screen nine years after E. Annie Proulx’s memorable short story first appeared in The New Yorker, after a string of false starts. The story’s enduring impression—once the novelty wore off, one of sentimentality and archaism—is preserved intact in Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry’s reverent yet inventive adaptation.

It’s the summer of ’63, and butch, banked-down Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) meets wannabe rodeo hotshot Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) when they sign up to tend 1,000 head of sheep on Brokeback—the Rockies of Alberta subbing for Wyoming. The drive up the slope, pitching camp, herding rituals, and such are washed in the kind of feathery guitar chords you might hear in an acupunctur­ist’s waiting room. Up above the tree line, closer to God as it were, the days are long, the nights are cold, and when the hooch breaks out it’s just a matter of time before the hormone-flooded boys get to cornholing.

Their primal joy is of course predicated on the standard disavowals that neither is “like that.” When the foreman (Randy Quaid) spies them capering topless across the meadows, the idyll is shattered. Ennis stays in Wyoming and gets hitched to the frumpy Alma (Michelle Williams), while Jack lights out for Texas and scores the farm-equipment heiress Lureen (Anne Hathaway). Ennis sires two daughters and Jack a son, meeting the reproductive imperative but not the productive one—neither succeeds in work, as if the libidinal energies of their liaison somehow sapped their productive potential.

Four years later they reunite and start a clumsily concealed affair stretching over two decades of “fishing trips,” right up to the Reagan era. These opaque semi-annual getaways poison their marriages, even as Ennis’ steadfast rejection of Jack’s entreaties to forge a life together corrodes their own long-distance relationship. Eventually Alma divorces Ennis and wins custody of their daughters, while Jack and Lureen retreat into a sterile kabuki performed for her openly hostile parents and their nouveau-riche peers.

Inevitably, things end badly, with Jack’s murder. Ennis phones the Twist residence, and though Lureen recites a practiced alibi, a flashback insert reveals Jack’s bludgeoning at the hands of anonymous thugs. Pursuing his lover’s ashes, Ennis has a creepy penultimate encounter with Jack’s folks, a pair of shrunken, fear-riddled Pentecostals. Ennis’ offer to scatter Jack’s ashes on Brokeback as he’d wished is vetoed by the father: “Tell you what. We got a family plot, and he’s goin’ in it.”

But we’re trying to sell popcorn here, so uplift is injected to help you feel good out the door. Ennis’ eldest girl Alma Junior, now a coltish 19, comes calling at dad’s ramshackle trailer to seek his blessing on her engagement to an unseen beau; his perfunctory comic demurral and her ebullient gratitude leave smiles all around. If this promise of the next generation’s fulfillment is meant as a Sirkian ironic happy ending that underscores Ennis’ desolate future, its effect is to dilute the impact of Jack’s murder into a mellow, wistful regret.

The prospect of validation by the dream factory excites curious enthusiasms, specifically in the Greek root sense of enthous, or divine possession; in this case, the deity is a gilt statuette. One review following “Brokeback”’s Toronto International Film Festival screening described it in soaring cadences as “a shift in scope and tenor so profound as to signal a new era,” declaring that “Ang Lee has done nothing less than re-imagined America as shaped by queer experience and memory.”

A curious claim for what is only incidentally a gay film, since it was created by, and in a significant sense for, straight women. Proulx penned the short story after resettling in Wyoming, and co-producer Diana Ossana called it to her partner Larry McMurtry’s attention, then doggedly shopped their adaptation. Focus Features executive James Schamus candidly specified women as the film’s audience to Newsweek: “[He] told Lee that ... they were making this film for one core audience. ‘Yes, of course,’ Lee said. ‘The gay audience.’ No, Schamus said. ‘Women.’ ”

Presuming a locked-up gay audience, the film’s marketing deploys the durable tropes of romantic melodrama in an end run around the resistance of its female target viewers’ hetero boyfriends and husbands. In this estrogenic gambit, “Brokeback” perhaps edges closer to the wildly popular, homoerotic Yaoi subgenre of Japanese manga/anime—produced and consumed mainly by young and middle-age women, only marginally by queers—than to its more obvious, and more liberating, antecedents like Warhol’s “Lonesome Cowboys.”

When Ennis is obliged to abort one fishing trip for work, the frustrated Jack tools over to Ciudad Juárez, presented as a mall of dusky rent boys idling in half-lit alleyways, just waiting to be picked up by a moneyed gringo. Referencing Hollywood’s ancient fantasies of a hypersexualized tropics, this vignette also contains a submerged counterpoint to the film’s pretenses to grand tragedy. If we replay this scene through the eyes of those Mexican men, Jack and Ennis are more clearly seen as a heightened, not to say distorted, reflection of the lived sexuality of millions of men, from Casper to Cairo to Calcutta, who navigate between de facto behavioral bisexuality and their culturally scripted roles as respectably married, child-rearing patriarchs. Does each one of their lives constitute an epic tragedy?

Adopting this “other” perspective exposes how this western rests on assumptions that are distinctly Western—it’s touted as a “universal” love story precisely because the subjects are white and male—but also pinpoints the maneuver of splitting off behavior from identity. Speaking of how the film’s embrace by a mass audience depends on viewers’ certainty of the stars’ heterosexuality, Ron Gregg, of the University of Chicago’s Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, has pointed out how “they’re isolating performance from character, and assuring the audience that the actors are stretching their talent.” The corollary operation within the film itself is isolating homosexual behavior from gay identity, so as to recuperate the men’s “instinctual” attraction while foreclosing the possibility of a shared social existence.

Is it me, or is there not something inherently masochistic in gays obediently lining up to throw our mythic disposable income at a movie whose stars assiduously deny their own gayness, as well as their characters’? Ledger and real-life companion Michelle Williams thought it best to bear a child as unassailable proof of their straight credentials, while Jake Gyllenhaal explained their roles to ABC Australia as follows: “In my belief, these aren’t two, like, gay guys. These are two people who fall in love. And, you know, from the environment that they’re in, which is incredibly lonely, you know, they find each other.” Incredibly lonely people who aren’t, like, gay. Exactly.

Finally, does it matter where you spend your money, and who profits from it? It’s necessary to ask because Focus Features is a subsidiary of the media conglomerate NBC Universal, which is owned in turn by General Electric. Having already recouped its cost through international pre-sales, “Brokeback” profits further enrich what is in fact the world’s largest corporation measured by market share, while the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and other laurels burnish a public veneer that obscures a record of malevolence as long as the mountain is high.

Beholding “Brokeback”’s lyrical images of the pristine natural environment, for example, you’d never guess that its corporate parent has worked tirelessly to sabotage the federal Superfund law requiring egregious polluters to clean up their toxic wastes. GE’s attempts to evade an Environmental Protection Agency-ordered dredging of some 1.3 million pounds of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) it dumped into the Hudson River would also have the broader effect of undermining the enforceability of future Superfund cleanups.

Perhaps best known for its nuclear commitments, GE’s power is such that, despite the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s knowledge of their faulty engineering—in the event of a meltdown, GE-designed nuclear reactors are 90 percent likely to disgorge radiation directly into the atmosphere—it continues to issue licenses. Even now, GE is preparing to build a new reactor in Claiborne County, Mississippi, the first new reactor construction since the 1970s, enabled by Republican profiteering in the name of post-Katrina Gulf Coast recovery.

In this context, “Brokeback” is perfectly of its moment. The film’s mass embrace by gay audiences offers no less an instance of people acting against their self-interest than poor and working-class red-state voters shoring up Bush’s fraudulent majority last November, hastening their own ruin. The perceived center, of both our politics and our popular culture, has drifted so far right over the past five years that people might actually mistake this anachronistic folly for some kind of progress.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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