Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Shadow of the Closet on Brokeback Mountain

In this third and final installment of Frank D. Myers’ “long hard look” at the award-winning film, Brokeback Mountain, the toll that the closet takes on the lives of queer people is explored.

In undertaking such an exploration, Frank examines how the ending of Brokeback Mountain, the film, differs from that of the short story, and concludes that “the most important lesson of Brokeback Mountain is stated more explicitly in words than on film.”

(NOTE: For Part 1 of this series, click here. For Part 2, click here.)


[The] closet operates, as I see it, on two levels. First, the actual closet; pretending we’re not who we are, living in fear that our families and friends will find out who we are – even though there’s a good chance many of them already know – and living lives that are stunted or twisted or deceitful because we’re afraid of what others will think.

Look at Ted Haggard. Look at you and me. Look at [at the two main characters of Brokeback Mountain] Ennis and Jack: a potential life-giving relationship that promised a lifetime of love and affirmation was reduced to a week or so a year in the shadows. Both men, feeling it necessary to play it straight, involved women in their deception, damaging them irreparably. Neither gave himself the chance to rise to his potential because of the burden of carrying around that load of who he thought he should be rather than throwing it away and living as who he was.

One aftermath of that Brokeback piece I wrote [for the Globe Gazette] was hearing, for the most part anonymously over the telephone or via e-mail, from many people – many of them still in that closet and many of them still in a great deal of pain because of it. So I can guarantee you that this great problem is still with us, although the specific stories I heard are not mine to tell.

I’m not sure Ennis and Jack had a way out of that closet together, back not so many years ago. But that is no longer the case and, as I wrote a few months ago, I do see the story and the movie for Ennis at least as a redemptive tale – a record of endurance and acknowledgment. We are not told where Ennis went after that final scene in the old trailer, and so we’re free to bring him with us out of the closet in that stoic, slow-moving cowboy way of his, and into the sunshine of life fully lived.

I said that the closet operates on two levels. The second level is in the heart, and being out of the closet outside does not necessarily equate with being out of the closet inside. It’s always a work in progress.

I know very well, especially among those of us who are older, that we still have doubts, we may still bear a residual load of imposed guilt, we may still secretly believe we do not have equal standing before our creator, we may hesitate to speak up when we should or challenge the assumptions of our friends, families, or neighbors. In other words, we’re still afraid and insecure, we’re still very human victims, I’d argue, of what’s now called post-traumatic stress syndrome – even through we try to look on the outside as if we’re not.

I was struck by Ennis’ immediate assumption, when told late in the film that Jack was dead, that he had been beaten to death alongside a Texas road with a tire iron – when that was not what he knew had happened. Jack might well have died that way or he might not; we simply were not told.

But it’s a fairly clear example of the power that fear has in our lives – fear of what we’re afraid will happen makes us afraid to get out there and see what actually will happen.

I’m not suggesting there are not causes for concern. We’ve just passed the eighth anniversary of the murder of Matthew Shepherd, beaten and left to die tied to a fence outside Laramie. There really are people out there ready and willing to hurt us.

My parents were stunning examples of grace operating in my life. Not once in the years we spent together did I hear either say anything that could be considered racist or homophobic. I was given to understand from the beginning of my life until the end of theirs, that their love for me was absolute and unconditional.

But many young people, even today, are not so lucky. So even a self-acknowledged gay kid who finds himself in a hostile family situation faces perils that he or she has to deal cautiously with until reaching the age independence.

And surely there can be nothing more painful than explaining to a beloved partner of another sex that a marriage relationship is founded on a lie, and working to convince children of that relationship that the circumstances of their conception has nothing to do with the extent they are loved.

So there are many dangers, trials, and snares involved in becoming who we are – externally and internally – but it is necessary for the sake of ourselves and for the sake of those we love.

If I have a bone to pick with Brokeback, the film, it would be the way it ended. There is a difference between the movie and the short story upon which it is based, and in that difference, reaffirmation of Brokeback’s big lesson.

You may or may not remember that toward the end in both versions, Ennis orders a postcard view of Brokeback Mountain at a shop in the little town he lives near. In the movie, when the card arrives, Ennis comes home, walks to a closet in that banged-up old trailer of his, opens the door, tacks the postcard up inside it, considers those two old shirts hanging there below it (representing the most important relationship and the defining events of his life) and then shuts the door.

But the short story ends a little differently, and that’s important.

When it came – thirty cents – he pinned it up in his trailer, brass-headed tack in each corner. Below it he drove a nail and on the nail he hung the wire hanger and the two old shirts suspended from it. He stepped back and looked at the ensemble through a few stinging tears.

“Jack, I swear–” he said, through Jack had never asked him to swear anything and was not himself the swearing kind.

See the difference? The film leaves Ennis with that closet door of his tightly closed, as perhaps its primarily straight writers, producers, directors, and actors might have expected.

But the short story leaves Ennis with that postcard and those shirts apparently in plain sight hanging on the wall, just as you or I might hang a family photograph in the living room for all who enter our lives to see and question.

And so the most important lesson of Brokeback Mountain is stated more explicitly in words than on film: don’t close that closet door in your hearts or in your lives, but hang your life out there on the wall for all who enter it to see. Live openly, live bravely, live transparently.

That’s what being out of the closet means. Grand gestures are fine, but not necessary. If you’re comfortable marching in gay pride celebrations, writing letters to the editor, or standing up here [like me] and running the risk of making an ass of yourself, more power to you. But the important thing, the decisive thing, the revolutionary thing is how you live your life out there for everyone to see, minute by minute and day by day.

– Frank D. Myers

For Part 1 of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click here.

Opening Image: Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist and Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain.

Recommended Off-site Link:
Can Movies Change Our Mind? - Maria Dibattista (Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2006).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Christian Draz’s Critique of Brokeback Mountain
Heath Ledger (1979-2008)
The “Real Gay Cowboy” Remembers His Friend, Heath Ledger


Anonymous said...

Excellent series of essays! Thank you for sharing these!

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Eileen,

Thanks for your positive feedback.

I'm happy you're back and contributing to the discussion on various threads (such as here).

I appreciate your perspective and your willingness to share it.



Anonymous said...

I'm happy to, Michael. I think, it's important for Roman Catholics to contemplate who is leaving Mother Church, and for what reasons.

I personally don't see Rome moving on this in my lifetime - not without some drastic reason to do so, and I'm not praying for that either! God calls us where we need to be called, and uses our voices as they need to be used.


Frank Partisan said...

Each day you try to take a step forward politically and culturally. The key is keeping personal political goals realistic. The alternative is cynicism.

Really good essay.

This is Aaron's brother's blog.