Friday, June 28, 2013

On Brokeback Mountain: Remembering Queer Lives and Loves Never Fully Realized

The Wild Reed’s 2013 Queer Appreciation series continues with an excerpt from an essay by Annie Proulx from the book Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay. Proulx, as I’m sure many of you know, is the author of the 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain,” which in 2005 was made into a critically-acclaimed film.

“Brokeback Mountain,” insists Proulx, is not a “tale of two gay cowboys” but rather a “story of destructive rural homophobia.” Is it appropriate, then, to highlight such a story as part of a “Queer Appreciation” series?

I believe it is appropriate, and here's why: First, we need to remember and honor the reality that the encountering of adversity has always been a defining aspect of queer experience and identity. Second, in the wake of the historic gay rights advances that have recently taken place in the United States, I feel it's important to acknowledge, and in some way honor, all those queer lives and loves throughout history that have been overwhelmed by adversity and thus were never fully realized. In her fictitious characters of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, Annie Proulx brings to vivid realization two such lives in "Brokeback Mountain." Indeed, as you’ll read in the excerpt below, one of the "small things, here and there" that helped Proulx construct her story and its central characters was her observation of an older ranch hand whose gaze one night in a bar was "fastened" on some pool-playing young cowboys. "Maybe he was following the game," writes Proulx, "maybe he knew the players, maybe one was his son or nephew, but there was something in his expression, a kind of bitter longing, that made me wonder if he was country gay."

As I mentioned, many of us are celebrating the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings in favor of marriage equality. And without doubt they are rulings worth celebrating. But there are still many countries throughout the world and many places within the United States where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people live in uncertainty and fear. I lift this reality up not to be a downer, but to remind us that the journey continues, and to perhaps galvanize our commitment to complete the work that still needs to be done.

So, on that note, here is the excerpt from Annie Proulx's essay in Brokeback Mountain: From Story to Screen that I wish to share this evening. It's supplemented by images from Ang Lee's award-winning 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger as Ennis del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist.

Close Range contains nine stories, including "Brokeback Mountain," ostensibly concerned with Wyoming landscape and making a living in hard, isolated livestock-raising communities dominated by white masculine values, but also holding subliminal fantasies. Most of the stories are loosely based on historical events, as the botched castration in "People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water." "Brokeback" was not connected to any one incident, but based on a coalescence of observations over many years, small things here and there.

Sometime in early 1997 the story took shape. One night in a bar upstate I had noticed an older ranch hand, maybe in his late sixties, obviously short on the world's luxury goods. Although spruced up for Friday night his clothes were a little ragged, boots stained and worn. I had seen him around, working cows, helping with sheep, taking orders from a ranch manager. He was thin and lean, muscular in a stringy kind of way. He leaned against the back wall and his eyes were fastened not on the dozens of handsome and flashing women in the room but on the young cowboys playing pool. Maybe he was following the game, maybe he knew the players, maybe one was his son or nephew, but there was something in his expression, a kind of bitter longing, that made me wonder if he was country gay. Then I began to consider what it might have been like for him – not the real person against the wall, but for any ill-informed, confused, not-so-sure-of-what-he-was-feeling youth growing up in homophobic rural Wyoming. A few weeks later I listened to the vicious rant of an elderly bar-café owner who was incensed that two "homos" had come in the night before and ordered dinner. She said that if her bar regulars had been there (it was darts tournament night) things would have gone badly for them. "Brokeback" was constructed on the small but tight idea of a couple of home-grown country kids, opinions and self-knowledge shaped by the world around them, finding themselves in emotional waters of increasing depth. I wanted to develop the story through a kind of literary sostenente.

The early sixties seemed the right time period. The two characters had to grow up on isolated hardscrabble ranches and were clearly homophobic themselves, especially the Ennis character. Both wanted to be cowboys, be part of the Great Western Myth, but it didn't work out that way; Ennis never got to be more than a rough-cut ranch hand and Jack Twist chose rodeo as an expression of cowboy. Neither of them was ever a top hand, and they met herding sheep, animals most real cowpokes despise. Although they were not really cowboys (the word "cowboy" is often used derisively in the west by those who do ranch work), the urban critics dubbed it a tale of two gay cowboys. No. It is a story of destructive rural homophobia. Although there are many places in Wyoming where gay men did and do live together in harmony with the community, it should not be forgotten that a year after this story was published Matthew Shepard was tied to a buck fence outside the most enlightened town in the state, Laramie, home of the University of Wyoming. Note, too, the fact that Wyoming has the highest suicide rate in the country, and that the preponderance of those people who kill themselves are elderly single men.

In my mind isolation and altitude – the fictional Brokeback Mountain, a place both of empowering and inimical – began to shape the story. The mountain had to force everything that happened to these two young men. I have many times heard Wyomingites who have gone east for one reason or another talk about how badly they missed their natural terrain, the long sight lines, the clear thin air, how claustrophobic were trees and how dead the atmosphere without the constant flow of wind, and I find it so myself. It seemed to me that the story could only balance on love, something all humans need and give, whether to one's children, parents, or a lover of the opposite or same sex. I wanted to explore both long-lasting love and its possible steep price tag, both homophobic antipathy and denial.

I knew this was a story loaded with taboos but I was driven to write it. The characters did something that, as a writer, I had never experienced before – they began to get very damn real. Usually I deal in obedient characters who do what they are told, but Jack and Ennis soon seemed more vivid than many of the flesh-and-blood people around me and there emerged an antiphonal back-and-forth relationship between writer and character. I’ve heard other writers mention this experience but it was the first time for me.

As I worked on the story over the next months scenes appeared and disappeared. (The story went through more than sixty revisions.) The mountain encounter had to be – shall we say? – "seminal" and brief. One spring, years before, I had been in the Big Horns and noticed distant flocks of sheep on great empty slopes. From the heights I had been able to see a hundred miles and more to the plains. In such isolated high country, away from opprobrious comment and watchful eyes, I thought it would be plausible for the characters to get into a sexual situation. That’s nothing new or out of the ordinary; livestock workers have blunt and full understanding of the sexual behaviors of man and beast. High lonesome situation, a couple of guys – expediency sometimes rules and nobody needs to talk about it and that’s how it is. One old sheep rancher, dead now, used to say he always sent up two men to tend the sheep "so's if they get lonesome they can poke each other." From that perspective Aguirre, the hiring man, would have winked and said nothing, and Ennis's remark to Jack that this was a one-shot deal would have been accurate. The complicating factor was that they both fell into once-in-a-lifetime love. I strove to give Jack and Ennis depth and complexity and so mirror real life by rasping that love against the societal norms that both men obeyed, both of them marrying and begetting children, both loving their children, and, in a way, their wives.

. . . It was a hard story to write. Sometimes it took weeks to get the right phrase or descriptor for particular characters. I remember vividly that, driving on Owl Canyon Road in Colorado down over the state line one afternoon and thinking of Jack Twist’s father, the expression "stud duck," which I had heard somewhere, came to me as the right way to succinctly describe that hard little man, and a curve in the road became the curve that killed Ennis's parents. The scene for the kiss when Jack and Ennis reunite after four years occurred in its entirety as I drove past the Laramie cement plant – so much for scenery. In fact I did most of the "writing" while I was driving. The most difficult scene was the paragraph where, on the mountain, Ennis holds Jack and rocks back and forth, humming, the moment mixed with childhood loss and his refusal to admit he was holding a man. This paragraph took forever to get right and I played Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny's "Spiritual" from their album Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories) uncountable times trying to get the words. I was trying to write the inchoate feelings of Jack and Ennis, the sad impossibility of their liaison, which for me was expressed in that music. To this day I cannot hear that track without Jack and Ennis appearing before me. The scraps that feed a story come from many cupboards.

I was an aging female writer, married too many times, and though I have a few gay friends, there were things I was not sure about. I talked with a sheep rancher to be sure that it was historically accurate to use a couple of white ranch kids as flock tenders in the early sixties, for I knew that in previous decades it had been mostly Basques who did the job, and today it is often men from the South American countries. But jobs were scarce in Wyoming in that period and even married couples with children got hired to herd sheep. One of my oldest friends, Tom Watkin, with whom I once published a rural newspaper, read and commented on the story as it developed. I thought too much about this story. It was supposed to be Ennis who had dreams about Jack but I had dreams about both of them. I still had little distance from it when it was published in The New Yorker on October 13, 1997. I expected letters from outraged relgio-moral types, but instead got them from men, quite a few of them Wyoming ranch hands and cowboys and the fathers of men, who said "you told my story" or "I now understand what my son went through." I still, eight years later, get those heart-wrenching letters.

– Annie Proulx

NEXT: Manly Love

For more on Brokeback Mountain at The Wild Reed, see:
Christian Draz's Critique of Brokeback Mountain
Frank D. Myers' Long Hard Look at Brokeback Mountain
Digging Deeper on Brokeback Mountain
The Shadow of the Closet on Brokeback Mountain
Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

For previous posts in The Wild Reed's 2013 Queer Appreciation series, see:
Doing Papa Proud
Jesse Bering: "It’s Time to Throw 'Sexual Preference' into the Vernacular Trash"
Dan Savage on How Leather Guys, Dykes on Bikes, Go-Go Boys, and Drag Queens Have Helped the LGBT Movement

See also the previous Wild Reed post:
Liberated to Be Together


jamez said...

What a beautiful sad tragic story. Her writing is so sparsely eloquent and sheerly honest that Ernest Hemingway couldn't have come close to the depths that Annie Proulx navigated in Brokeback Mountain! My favorite line - "...for Jack loved a little dog." Annie told a tragic truth that we all need to hear and remember. We must remember this as we celebrate and continue to fight the hard earned victories for Marriage Equality. Those who would oppose Marriage Equality need to read/see Brokeback Mountain and understand that this is the tragic reality of life for millions of people all over the globe. We can have people living and caring in committed lifelong relationships building family and community or we can continue the tragic realities expressed so painfully clear in Brokeback Mountain. Those who refuse to be so moved surely must not be able to see the vast realities of life beyond the end of their nose...

Brian R said...

Brokeback had the greatest impression on me of any movie I have ever seen. I was 19 in 1961, the same age as Ennis and Jake, and although I lived in Sydney things were not much better for a young man living in the western suburbs. I came out of the theatre in Burwood in 2006 and sat in the food court with tears streaming down my face, very embarrassing for a by then over 60 year old. Within days I had discovered a group on the net of others similarly affected. I met some locally, have visited others in Europe and the USA. My local Anglican priest raged against the movie in a sermon. I walked out and moved to one of the few gay welcoming churches in Sydney even though it took a 2 hour train ride to get there. My mother died later that year and this led to my deciding to move to an Anglican diocese which has ordained a partnered gay man. The bishop is a friend. So now I live in Dunedin, New Zealand where recently same-sex marriage was legalised. I still keep in contact with some "brokies" as we call ourselves. I have seen the movie half a dozen times and thought I was largely over it but, reading your post, the tears come again. Queers have come a long way in my life time but as you say there are still areas of the world and even areas within more enlightened countries where life is still diffcult.