Ennis holding Jack as a memory.

Ennis holding the memory of Jack.

My own spectatorship as a political act.

A gay appropriation of Oscar Levant and Gene Kelly in An American in Paris (1951).

A gay appropriation of Tony Randall and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959).

Jack and Ennis as ‘fishing buddies’ searching for a campsite.

‘Fishing buddies’

‘Fishing buddies’ at their campsite.

Ennis using a little ‘spit’ in addition to his ‘clear slick’ to prepare for sexual intercourse with Jack.

Ennis having sexual intercourse with Jack.

Ennis watching the fire while Jack undresses in full view of Ennis and the viewer.

Jack and Ennis have their first kiss.

Jack holds Ennis in a passionate embrace.

Jack and Ennis at the start of their first sexual encounter.

Alma witnessing Jack and Ennis kiss for the second time.

Jack and Ennis kiss for the second time as seen from Alma's point of view.

The audience point of view highlights Jack’s wedding ring.

The camera pans so the audience point of view also includes Ennis’ wedding ring.

Ennis whispering a childhood lullaby into Jack’s ear.

Wide shot of Ennis comforting Jack.

Jack watches Ennis ride away from camp, knowing that he will return the next day.

Jack watches Ennis ride away in his truck, unsure of when he will see him again.


Fear and loathing on Brokeback Mountain

by Craig Snyder

Valentin: “You gays never face facts. Fantasies are no escape.”
Molina: “If you have the keys to that door, I will gladly follow. Otherwise, I will escape in my own way.”
Valentin: “Then your life is as trivial as your movies.”
—Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985

As I sat in my local movie theater five years ago, waiting for Brokeback Mountain to start, I flashed back to another moment of similar anticipation. I was 23 and attending a small university. I had finally worked up the courage to rent My Own Private Idaho from the video store down the street and I was convinced that everyone in the store would know that I was gay simply because of the choice of film I was renting.

When I rented My Own Private Idaho that day, I had two specific motives as a viewer: The first was to be identified by others (customers, store clerk, etc.) as being someone that either is gay, or had the potential to be gay. The second was to hopefully see a new cinematic rendering of what life could be like as an openly gay man.

In other words, through spectatorship, I was attempting to locate my own homosexual subjectivity, as well as discover a new one: A homosexual whose natural desires were not deemed to be pathological. So as I scanned the audience in the movie theater while waiting for Brokeback Mountain to start, I found myself realizing that I had the same motives as when I rented My Own Private Idaho. I wanted to take my place in the audience as a gay man, amidst the swarms of heterosexual couples, and I desperately wanted to see a new cinematic rendering of life as a gay man. I had a certain set of expectations when walking into the theater that night, most of which were based on the incredible media exposure leading up to the film’s wide release dates. As Entertainment Weekly proclaimed, the film contained “…a force so powerful it can scarcely be named.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] Or, as Roger Ebert declared,

“It is the story of a time and place where two men are forced to deny the only great passion either one will ever feel.”[2]

All of which is to say that my viewing of Brokeback Mountain was located as that of a gay man with an expectation of witnessing a sea change of sorts in how Hollywood cinema represented gay men. Five years later I’m still waiting for that sea change to happen, and all indications point towards the unsettling fact that it may never come.

Annie Proulx’s fictional story and Ang Lee’s film allows a contemporary audience to look back in time at a culture that is seemingly much different then today. Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain was originally published in 1997 and takes place in isolated small towns of Wyoming from 1963 to 1983. The setting of Brokeback Mountain supports a reading of the queer love story as one that could never happen in modern times. The remoteness of the location, the job of a ranch hand or sheep herder, or the very notion of the ‘cowboy’ provides for a reading that can be both nostalgic and elegiac. Simply put, the setting is far removed from our current cultural condition of legal same-sex marriages (in specific states), or gay soldiers serving openly in the U.S. military, or the federal legalization of sodomy. As a result, the suffering, joy and lost love within the film is often seen as being an inherent product of their particular time and place, rather then a fictionalized Hollywood representation of a gay love story between two men.

However, the distant past that Brokeback Mountain presents is in many ways not that distant at all. For example, internalized homophobia, shame, discrimination, and threats or acts of violence are all alive and very real in contemporary queer culture, regardless of your setting. After all, Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student at the University of Wyoming was murdered just a year after Brokeback Mountain was published, and the It Gets Better project was created in 2010 to address violence against LGBTQ youth, much of it self-imposed.

As a gay man, I had experienced many aspects of the film that have often been contextualized or dismissed as being from a distant time and place. The safety of the closet and the fear of violence are all too familiar to me, as well as the projection that living as a gay man inherently means living an unhappy and unfulfilled life. Importantly, I learned about these cultural norms from watching movies long before I experienced them first hand.

Research into the pleasures and validity of homosexual spectatorship within the cinema have been explored by authors such as Alexander Doty, Richard Dyer, Judith Mayne, Yvonne Tasker, B. Ruby Rich, Brett Farmer, Thomas Waugh and Clare Whatling. They have looked directly at the pleasures and processes of viewing films homosexually, that is to say, either as a homosexual or looking for homosexual narrative. All of these observations have sprung from earlier works on gendered spectatorship, Laura Mulvey most notably among them.

As a way of expanding on that scholarship, I’m locating my gaze onto Brokeback Mountain as a gay male spectator. Which is to say, my viewing position is unlike the viewers that Linda Williams references, whom it seems, she feels were enlightened by the gay sex acts on screen:

Brokeback Mountain staged consensual sodomy between two men in a very dark tent as a simulated R-rated movie sex scene available for viewing by all persons seventeen or older, or any age if accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.” (2008:240)

I am also not the type of viewer that Caroline Evans and Lorraine Gamman propose:

“Although we would argue against the idea of an essentially gay or lesbian gaze, we do not want to make the case for the ‘queer gaze’ either. Rather, we want to make the case for identifications which are multiple, contradictory, shifting, oscillating, inconsistent, and fluid.” (2004:217)

After all, I had spent my entire life negotiating ‘contradictory’ identifications in the cinema. I was desperate for a new representation of the gay male body because I had grown tired of Hollywood’s portrayal of homosexuals as lacking moral guidance and self-control, a slave to their deviancy that controlled them from some deep-seated place within. As Richard Dyer notes:

“Equally, there can be no doubt that most stereotypes of gays in films are demeaning and offensive. Just think of the line-up – the butch dyke and the camp queen, the lesbian vampire and the sadistic queer, the predatory schoolmistress and the neurotic faggot, and the all the rest. The amount of hatred, fear, ridicule and disgust packed into those images is unmistakable.” (1999:297)

The pathological representation of the homosexual has turned increasingly sophisticated in post-AIDS Hollywood cinema. For instance, it has now become suitable for the homosexual character to develop an empathetic connection with the audience. In this way, his probable death can be interwoven into the narrative in a way that serves a greater purpose. The audience is now allowed to see the homosexual as an individual, and thus, possess their own subjectivity. Spectators are encouraged to find empathy with the queer, and sympathy for the loved ones left behind. Particular examples of this include Philadelphia (1993), American Beauty (1999), and most recently, A Single Man (2009).

Classic Hollywood cinema was much easier to navigate for me as a youth. Since the classics did not have overtly homosexual characters, I was free from having to emotionally reconcile a pathological storyline. Instead, I could let fantasy take over and thus, see myself inserted into a classic on-screen love story. In films such as An American in Paris (1951), where as a spectator, I would elect to see seduction and love between Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant, rather then Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Or Pillow Talk (1959) where it was exceptionally easy to provide a queer reading of blissful domesticity between Rock Hudson and Tony Randall rather then the officially sanctioned romance of Rock and Doris Day. As Brett Farmer aptly points out, classic Hollywood was a safe terrain for the gay viewer:

“Spectatorship assumes a similarly performative function within gay contexts. For many gay men, spectatorship offers a privileged forum in which to define and express their identifications with discourses of gayness.” (2000:30)

My ability to read a film “against the grain” provided a form of comfort and resistance from the normative pressures I was facing as a gay youth. As Clare Whatling proposes,

“One appropriates what is there, straining to read into it those elements which are not there. In this sense the text sets up the terms of representation and of resistance, colonization and refusal which structure any appropriation of the dominant with the margins.” (1997:5)

Or, as Annette Kuhn describes,

“…the acts of analysis, of deconstruction and of reading ‘against the grain’ offer an additional pleasure – the pleasure of resistance, of saying ‘no’: not to ‘unsophisticated’ enjoyment, by ourselves and others, of culturally dominant images, but to the structures of power which ask us to consume them uncritically and in highly circumscribed ways.” (1985:25)

So as the lights went dark in the theater five years ago and the high school boys in the audience finally stopped making jokes about lonely cowboys and sheep, I thought to myself that perhaps now, finally, I’ll experience visual pleasure when seeing Hollywood’s version of the homosexual. What I did not realize then, was that the gay bodies in Brokeback Mountain were never meant to be on cinematic display for my pleasure. Rather, they were on display for my discipline.

Cinematic pleasure

Like any successful Hollywood film, Brokeback Mountain formulated its love story in a way that reached a mass audience. The fact that the love story was taking place between two men seemed to form a spectacle that only heightened the publicity and the box office. Ang Lee won an Academy Award for Best Director for the film and it grossed $178 million in theatrical release. It was then followed by DVD release, resulting in 1.4 million copies of the DVD being sold on the first day.

Critical reception of the film focused on the ways in which it avoided gay male stereotypes and exceeded at being more then just a gay love story. The film was celebrated for the ways in which the gay male characters were represented, and the resulting impact on mainstream culture. As Harry Benshoff writes,

“In presenting Jack and Ennis as ‘normal’ married men who like to go on fishing trips together, Brokeback Mountain threatens our culture’s very definitions of heterosexuality and masculinity.” (2008:15)

Or, as Andrew Holleran states,

“The whole achievement of Brokeback is to make this love serious. It’s important to stress that, whatever else it is, Brokeback is a love story. That’s the source of its power: as old as Romeo and Juliet.”

Holleran continues,

“What’s threatening to some about the movie is the way it blurs friendship and Eros. Jack and Ennis are both best friends and lovers, fishing buddies who bring home no fish.”[3]

The success of Brokeback Mountain only added to my expectations of seeing a queer on-screen representation that would be positive and affirming. As Brett Farmer reminds us, the culturally produced homosexual has the potential to be a powerful figure:

“Homosexuality is a central determining paradigm in modern, Western cultures, and many subjects articulate their desires, make their meanings, and live their lives, whether in part or whole, whether centrally or peripherally, through it. Thus it is valid to speak of gayness as an identifiable category of subjective organization, to recognize that it has specific force and function, even if its realization in material contexts, its performance to speak, will always be contingent and variable. Furthermore, the production of a formal figure of gay spectatorship can be a powerful and enabling strategy to combat heteronormative presumption, and this more then justifies any putative risks of abstraction and essentialism. Not only does the construction of a theoretical image of gay spectatorship refuse the pervasive demands to silence and marginality that circulate around the very idea of gay spectatorship in dominant culture, making visible the invisible, speaking the unspeakable.” (2000:9)

I first felt the power inherent within my own gay spectatorship of Brokeback Mountain when Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist kissed for the first time. They had their first sexual contact the night before, which will turn out to be the only time the audience witnesses (simulated) sexual intercourse between the two. Earlier in the day they had reconciled the sexual exchange from the night before. According to Ennis, it was a “one shot thing we have going on here.” Ennis continued, “You know I aint queer.” Jack responds, “Me neither.”

With their sexualities straightened out, the film cuts to a scene of the campsite that night, Ennis in the foreground by the fire, Jack in the center of the frame undressing in the tent in the background. We hear the crackle of the fire and a peaceful night. This is the first time we have seen both men sober at camp, without a whiskey bottle in sight. Ennis sits by the fire to the left of the camera’s frame as he watches Jack undress. He pokes the fire with a stick and gets up to walk towards Jack in the tent. The film cuts to a medium shot of Jack inside the tent, shirtless, in a reflective moment. Jack hears Ennis approach and looks towards the tent’s opening. As Ennis enters the tent, Jack sits up to meet him. First grabbing Ennis’s arm, then moving his hand up to cup the side of Ennis’s face. Jack’s hand pulls Ennis closer as their lips touch in a passionate kiss. In this medium shot, their eyes are locked onto each other in a way that is affirming and caring.

The exchange between them seems to be less about lust, and more about passion. After the kiss, Jack continues to hold Ennis’s face as Jack reclines again, taking Ennis with him, his head resting on Jack’s bare chest. It’s within this scene that we see Ennis overtly display a romantic desire for Jack. He lets his hands explore Jack’s body and his lips meet jack’s lips again as Jack rolls on top of him. Their long series of kisses play out in the tent as we hear and see the fire crackle in the background. No words are exchanged.

The scene is unlike the night before, where the tent contained a sexual exchange between them that seemed to border on assault. This moment illustrated romance and a level of intentionality that could indeed be considered queer, despite their claims otherwise. For me, as a gay viewer, it marked the beginning of their love affair. It also marked the moment in which my viewing position became normalized. The love I saw on the screen was my love. I did not have to rely on fantasy to insert myself into a Hollywood love story. It was there before me, affirming and welcoming, and beautifully familiar. It provided a taste of what I imagine it must be like for heterosexual men when they witness countless Hollywood love stories between male and female stars: spectatorship from the center, rather then from the margins. While Ennis and Jack share other moments in the film, none are as intimate as this one. We see them kiss just one other time in the film, sneaking kisses in front of the sad eyes of Ennis’s wife Alma.

It’s only near the end of the film when a level of intimacy returns to that which was displayed in their first kiss. Jack gets into an argument with Ennis on one of their return trips to the mountains. It’s been 20 years since they first met, and Ennis informs Jack that it will have to be another year before they can meet again. Jack tells Ennis that he can’t get by on “a couple of high altitude fucks once or twice a year,” and he famously says, “ I wish I knew how to quit you.” A crying Ennis replies,

“Then why don’t you? Why don’t you just let me be? It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this. I’m nothing, I’m no where….I honestly can’t stand this no more, Jack.”

As Jack reaches for Ennis and they both crumble to the ground, hugging and crying, there is a slow fade to a campfire of 20 years ago. The viewer shares Jack’s memory of the love he feels for Ennis, as Jack reflected on a specific moment occurring up on Brokeback Mountain that first summer. In the flashback, we see Jack standing at the campfire as the camera tilts up from the smoking embers. Jack has his head down, black cowboy hat hiding his face. Ennis walks up to him from behind and gently reaches his right arm over Jack’s shoulder and across the front of Jack’s chest. Cut to a close up of Ennis whispering in Jack’s ear: “Well, now you are sleeping on your feet like a horse.”

As Jack tilts his head up, eyes closed, embraced by Ennis, Ennis whispers a lullaby into Jack’s ear. The same lullaby that Ennis’s mom used to sing to him. The film cuts to a wide shot as we see the full campground, horses, crackling fire, and Ennis holding Jack tight from behind as the lullaby continues. Cut back to a close-up as Ennis whispers into Jack’s ear,“ I gotta go,” as Jack nods his head, eyes still closed. Ennis continues, “ See ya in the morning.” As Ennis unwraps himself from Jack and turns away to walk to his horse in the background, we see Jack turn his body away from the camera and watch Ennis ride away. As Ennis leaves the frame, the film cuts to a reverse shot of us watching Jack straight on, as he continues to watch the spot on the trail where Ennis just disappeared. Jack seems to be in a sleepy dream state, comfortable in the fact that Ennis will be back the next morning. The film then cuts back to present day, where we see Jack watching Ennis leave down the road in his pick-up truck in a cloud of dust.

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