I’d already seen the film in the US, but for the McGowans it was their first viewing of a film they’d not only heard much about but also anticipated seeing.
After all, as Richard Schneider, Jr. notes in the May-June 2006 issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, “Brokeback Mountain was one of those rare movies that crossed over into real life to become, at the very least, a media event, and just possibly a transforming cultural moment . . . The extent to which people both and gay and straight couldn’t stop talking and writing about this movie is testament to the variety of chords it struck – and to its susceptibility to differing interpretations.”
One thing that all of us who watched the film in Wagga agreed upon is that Ang Lee’s film is a powerful reminder of the tragedy that ensues when societal conventions prevent people from simply being themselves and thus living a fully human life.
Of course, the film isn’t perfect. As Mike McGowan pointed out, the only reason that the film presents for the lifelong relationship between Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist (the film’s two protagonists) is carnal attraction. Other reasons obviously exist, perhaps most importantly the transforming happiness that each experiences in the other's company; a happiness that of course can be expressed sexually, but also in other ways as well. Yet this happiness and its expression is never satisfactorily explored and depicted in the film.
Christian Draz, a writer and philanthropist based in Boston, addresses this particular failing of the film in his article, “Lost in Adaptation” (Gay & Lesbian Review, May-June 2006). Draz even suggests that the film version of Brokeback Mountain “perhaps even betrays the subtlety of the original [Annie Proulx-authored] short story that it seems anxious to embrace as faithfully as possible.”
“In their haste to hurry on the tragedy of these two men’s thwarted lives,” writes Draz, “screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, and ultimately director [Ang] Lee, end up cheating Jack and Ennis of the full measure of their joy.”
Draz demonstrates his point by examining “the two bookends of that joy, the first and last nights that Jack and Ennis spend together”. In doing so, the “scanting of their happiness becomes clear.”
Even allowing Lee’s re-visioning of that initial night’s drunken, spontaneous sex as a kind of violence-tinged grappling, I can’t accept what he and the screenwriters do with the morning after. The short story finds Jack and Ennis waking up and effortlessly knowing “how it would go for the rest of the summer” – as indeed it does, euphorically, their sex “quick, rough, laughing and snorting,” whereas the movie finds Ennis returning to the high pasturage under lowering, thunder-racked skies, only to discover a bloody, eviscerated sheep – a guilt-inducing, sin-and-ye-shall-pay symbol worthy of the Old Testament but utterly absent from Proulx’s text. This is followed immediately by a scene of somber, choked denial that either man is queer: the words are right, the tone tragic, and wrong – a misrepresentation of what the short story suggests is only a half-serious aside tossed off in the midst of their unashamed, sun-struck lovemaking.
Twenty years later, the final night Jack and Ennis spend together – which in the story finds them lying about the women they’re chasing even as they can’t keep their hands off each other – in the film finds them physically separated in two lawn chairs, unable to touch. The still “brilliant charge” of their physical attraction, which has them making love next to the campfire, is reduced in the film to Ennis’s anodyne draping of his hand over Jack’s shoulder as they sleep in their tent.
But once again, it’s what happens the next morning that the film alters most egregiously. In the story, when Jack cries out in frustration, “I wish I knew how to quit you,” Ennis mutely, shockingly, collapses to his knees, his legs buckling beneath the unbearable weight of the thought that Jack might actually leave him. In the movie, however, Ennis howls, “Then why don’t you?! Why don’t you let me be? It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this. I’m nothin’. I’m nowhere.” These words are wrong in so many ways! This self-pitying outburst from the man who has always gotten by on next to nothing? Whose motto has been, “if you can’t fix it, you got a stand it”? And flung at the man who has been the only real source of joy in his wretched life, and “the rarest thing in the world, The Only One”? This refutes their mutual hunger, turns Jack into a predator, Ennis into a victim, and their passion into a kind of prison. Worse still, it dangerously suggests that one man can turn another man into a homosexual, literally queering his hope for heterosexual happiness.
Draz isn’t arguing simply for more sex in the film. However, what the film did need, he says, was “more physical proximity, more affectionate touching, more laughter, more horseplay, more scenes, more sense of the sustaining joy these two men shared over twenty years.”
There must be the understanding that for all the pain of “their separate and difficult lives,” once up in the mountains, they could, to paraphrase Ford Madox Ford, be with whom they loved and take their ease amidst the whispering of aspen leaves, in their rugged terrestrial paradise.
In darkening Proulx’s already bleak story, I assume the screenwriters and director believed they were bringing the tragedy of these two men’s lives into sharper relief. But what it suggests to me is something darker still: not just an understandable straight squeamishness at depicting Jack and Ennis making love too passionately, but an almost unconscious reluctance to show them loving each other too happily. It’s as if, for all their good will, they were unable to understand these two gay men’s love as anything other than tragic. How else can we understand their having seen only menace and misery where Annie Proulx saw something far more complex, difficult, and truthful: our full humanity.