Last night I watched Brokeback Mountain with my wife and some friends at Tucson's art-house cinema, The Loft. I expected that I would like the film, and I did. I expected more wide open, big-sky Wyoming shots, but what the film did slake my costant hankering for great tragedy.
With my reading of the early part of Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell (the follow-up to Justine), I can make some notes about the issues inside the film and the novel. B-back Mtn. is about masculine, open-air gay love and desire within a society that shuns that natural desire. Balthazar starts with a short confession sequence about an aged, cross-dressing British spy/expatriate living in Alexandria, by the name of Scobie. The character goes on and on (it seemed to me) about "the Influence" and the urges he cannot control, and worries about people back home (his employer in England) learning of this. The sequence is expository; a curt description of the old man's feelings, which he seems to admit, are perverse.
The same sort of self-consciousness envelops the characters in Brokeback Mountain. Heath Ledger plays Ennis Del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jack Twist. They love each other powerfully and passionately in a society that dictates their feelings and actions verboten. Although they love each other, they try to live their lives as "normal" men in Wyoming and Texas, unsuccessfully of course. Since the film plays off of our conventional notions of romantic love--one person loves another but can't within the strictures of their society, like Romeo and Juliet--the "seed" of doubt, which is really progressive thinking, is planted. The "seed" I'm referring to is the idea that in human culture, twice makes a tradition, and our notions and right and wrong don't have any logic behind them. The harm in the film comes from the fact the characters cannot be themselves.
The film is a rebuke to those who would say, "Homosexuality is a choice," or "Why can't you just be normal?" or "The Bible says..." or even, "Love the sinner, hate the sin." What's the sin in caring for another person? Why is it so hard to ask that question for many people? Questions like these continue my conflicted relation to the region in which I was born, where I consider much of the population muted, unthinking, and permanently lacking in what I call critical consciousness. A place where someone can't see the irony in saying "Jeff Gordon's a fag" minutes after the most homoerotic horseplay I've ever witnessed. (I refer to my working with the men of the hog farrowing facility, G-d bless them.)
My wife talked to a lesbian couple after the show, who said it really affected them, partly because B-back Mtn. has so much production value: excellent actors, excellent directing from Ang Lee, smart cinematography. But there's more hetero sex in the film than gay sex. The production value didn't amaze me so much as the classically tragic story did. The longing is real, made real, the death of Jack harrowing and the loneliness of Ennis makes one ask, Why?
The film illustrates my idea, or what I'd like to think is my idea, that the best art will push and tug the society which it documents. At one time, love between a man and a woman was not the norm, or interclass love and marriage. These are the typical plots for early novels: Jane Austen onward. But those issues are now "settled," so the culture's imaginary space has moved on to more diggable or minable issues where human passion--the breadth of it--can be further pushed, where the structure of human society does not have room enough for its humans. That is the why Brokeback Mountain works so well, and also why our society is "ready" for a full-on Hollywood depiction of romance between men.
I'd like to think that I have longings, passions and feelings that my society as it stands has not room for, but I may be wrong. Nevertheless, as a teacher and a human being, I am liberal in the sense that I think the strictures of society should be pushed, widened, and brought down even, as an end-in-itself. I see far greater harm from denying the breadth of the human soul than in constricting that soul in an illusory attempt at "protecting" people--from their desires and ultimately from themselves. I don't need a social apparatus to protect me from myself; only the weak do. Nietzsche knew this much, and I for one privilege the boundless over the bound.
Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking. --adam