Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Focus Features, 2005.
A few Saturday mornings ago at a local coffee shop, I overheard a group of middle aged men discussing Brokeback Mountain. One particular remark seemed to sum up the group consensus:
“There is absolutely nothing my wife could do,” one of the men said, with a glint in his eyes and a clearly sexual smirk across his lips, “that could get me to go to a movie to see two dudes have sex.” If box office receipts are indicative, most people, my coffee shop buddy included, have not seen Brokeback. Nevertheless, the film has been satirized on Saturday Night Live, protested at Wal-Mart, and discussed in coffee shops around the nation. Brokeback Mountain has made an indelible mark on American life.
The movie unfolds like this: Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) spend the summer of 1963 herding sheep on Brokeback mountain, just outside Signal, Wyoming. Despite their different personalities, the two develop a friendship. After a night of drinking and laughing by the campfire, the two engage in a sexual encounter marked by both violence and tenderness. As the summer progresses, the two explore their sexual attraction, all the while reminding each other that they “ain’t queer.” When the summer ends, Ennis and Jack part ways, both marry, and both have children. After a few years, Jack sends Ennis a postcard and the two set up a series of “fishing trips” – their cover story for twice yearly sexual trysts in the wilderness. As the years go on, Ennis divorces but continues to rebuff Jack’s repeated proposals to build a life together. Jack begins to admit his sexual identity and has encounters with other men; Ennis, on the other hand, tries to date, but finds himself perpetually confused and unfulfilled.
In the New York Times, reviewer Steven Holden writes that Brokeback Mountain “is ultimately…about love: love stumbled into, love thwarted, love held sorrowfully in the heart.” Roger Ebert says that the film is about the “forbidden love” of two men “forced” (by a repressive culture, one assumes) to “deny the only great passion either one will ever feel.” And, in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane claims that Brokeback is “a study of love under siege.”
What all these eminent reviewers assume is that Brokeback is a love story. Because love, to these critics, looks like it always does in a Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts movie. Two people meet and feel an incredible sexual and/or emotional connection. Something conspires to keep the lovers apart – cultural constraints (Mona Lisa Smile), personal doubts (When Harry Met Sally), social status (Pretty Woman), the difficulty of celebrity (Notting Hill), romantic unavailability (Runaway Bride) or geographic distance (Sleepless in Seattle). This formula even applies to such seemingly insurmountable barriers as marriage (Closer), the limits of linear time (Kate & Leopold) and, yes, death (City of Angels). The movies have taught us that if there isn’t a spark felt and an obstacle overcome, it mustn’t be love. Or, more fittingly in this case, because there was chemistry felt and complications to encounter, it must be love.
What we, as followers of Christ, should be worried about is not that people are talking about Brokeback as a gay love story. We should be concerned that anyone can see this movie and think that it is a love story at all. At every turn our society tries to persuade us that attraction, lust, economic or political compatibility, common interests, shared experiences, and even legitimate affection are tantamount to love. I’m sure this isn’t unique to our postmodern experience; after all, St. Paul had to remind some of the very earliest Christians that their understanding of love was skewed. In writing to the believers at Corinth he says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). That passage has been read at countless weddings, and for good reason. It is beautiful, inspirational and true. But, it is not what our society tells us love is. In fact, this Christian conception of love is remarkably countercultural.
Jack and Ennis give us glimpses of patience – they are able to wait years to be with one another. But when they do come back together they don’t even have time for coffee before they find themselves in a dirty hotel room. There are moments of kindness, but they are always punctuated with outbursts of violence. Trust never develops, in large part because of the envy each harbors for the way the other one lives—Ennis is jealous of Jack’s other sexual encounters; Jack longs to leave his wife and have the freedom that Ennis experiences. While there isn’t much boasting or pride in their relationship, they both suffer from the equally sinful inversion of those crimes—self-loathing and mutual denigration. Both men have pent-up anger that, while mostly about one another (what does this mean? They’re angry that they can’t be together?), is only occasionally directed toward one another. Jack lashes out at his fatherin- law; Ennis starts (and loses) a bar brawl. They both lie to their wives and neglect other obligations to pursue their secretive encounters. Their relationship, unfortunately, is almost the exact opposite of Paul’s exhortation to the believers at Corinth.
And why? Because just as in Paul’s time, we don’t understand what it means to love. In his recent encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI tells us that while erotic human love is initially “covetous and ascending,” through the process of developing a mature relationship “the element of agape thus enters into this love.” Without agape (self-sacrificing love), “eros is impoverished.” Jack and Ennis never move from the eros into the agape. This is not because they weren’t serious about their Christian faith. Or because they lived in Wyoming during a repressive era. Or even because they were gay. This is because it takes faith, grace, and deliberate commitment for any of us to move beyond our selfish and fallen desires into true life-giving relationships.
Nevertheless, Brokeback Mountain is a brilliant movie, mostly because it captures the brokenness of two men desperate to be known and loved. This film is too complicated to be a polemic. Jack and Ennis care too much about their wives and children, talk too much about their fathers, and hate themselves too much for this to be homosexual propaganda, as some of the film’s harshest critics would have you believe. Instead, Brokeback is a realistic account of the devastation that comes when we try to fulfill our desire to be satisfied instead of the call to satisfy one another. In retrospect, perhaps this movie is a great love story for our time. But, if it is, it is only because we have absolutely no idea what it means to love.
Mattie Germer AB ’03 is a Government graduate from Kirkland House. She is currently completing an MA in Christian Spirituality at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.