Thoughts on Brokeback Mountain

posted March 17, 2006

Warning: May be something of a spoiler if you haven’t seen the movie!

Being pregnant reminds me of swimming in the pond when I was a kid. Back then, my family lived at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill was a large pond-or a small lake-that the residents of the hill came to swim in, or later in my childhood, row the communal boat on. I loved the pond and ran splashingly into it in my pink and orange checkered bikini; it was alternating muddy and clear, with soft squishy sand on its bottom. I was allowed to swim all the way to the middle if one of my parents were nearby.
What reminds me of my pregnancy is the way the pond would become suddenly cold, suddenly hot, with no warning at all as I swam towards the middle. Later, I discovered this sensation was caused by hot springs. Some days I loved the surprise, seeing the whole swimming event as an adventure. Other days I wished I could just stay all warm or all cold. A swimming pool had the same water temperature throughout, and some days I just craved the sensation of uniformity. That’s still pretty much the way I feel.
Tom and I went to see Brokeback Mountain a few weeks ago, and yesterday I read the short story by Annie Proulx on which the movie is based. What struck me about the movie (though not the story) was not so much the homophobia, nor the tale of love. What struck me was the misogyny of the late twentieth century Wyoming culture.
When I was growing up, my sisters and I had the good fortune to attend the same church as the groundbreaking sex educator, Mary Lee Tatum. Mary Lee had been married to a gay man and had two daughters with him. When he came out to her, and admitted there was a man in his life whom he loved, they divorced, though they remained best friends. Ten years later, when he died in a hospital bed of AIDS, Mary Lee held one of his hands and his lover the other.
Mary Lee taught the most frank brand of sex ed, and volunteered to lead a class for us lucky church teens.
“Homophobia and misogyny,” she said. “Are two sides of the same coin. Hating the feminine in a man is no different from hating the feminine in a woman. It’s all the same fear and hatred: fear of the soft, the gentle, the emotional: the parts of ourselves that feel things deeply. It’s a mistrust of the heart; a ceding of all power to the head. And really it boils down to fear more than hatred. For the feminine is the most powerful life force on earth, obviously. We’re the ones who make life, who give life. When a man is homophobic, he is ultimately afraid of his own ability to give life.”
As I watched Ang Lee’s movie, I couldn’t help but see how right she was. Also, I had to notice the women in the film, who are largely absent as characters from Proulx’s narrative. In the movie, the women were flesh and blood, beautiful and oddly powerful, even in their powerlessness over Ennis’s and Jack’s affections. I thought Ennis (in the film version) was more crippled by his own inability to speak and communicate than he was by his homosexuality. To be a man in the American West is to be a man with extremely narrow choices. In terms of communication, these choices include simple, uncomplicated utterances, and the language of fists and tire irons: that’s about it. When Ennis and Jack say goodbye at the end of their first summer together, they barely acknowledge their parting. Yet five minutes after they split, Ennis finds himself puking in an alley, as if what’s inside of him needs to come out in whatever way it will. When a passerby sees him, Ennis threatens him with violence. Similarly, when his ex-wife, Alma, finally confronts him about Jack—and refers to Jack Twist as “Jack Nasty,” Ennis yells at her, gives her a “bruised bracelet” and stalks out of the Thanksgiving dinner to pick a fight at the local bar.

To be a woman, I am finding out, apparently means to feel things deeply. I always knew this; after all, one obviously does not need to be pregnant in order to be fully female. Yet being pregnant is a non-negotiable situation (at least at my hormonal stage of the game) and the issue of one’s biology overpowering one’s sociology is fairly undeniable. I swim through these invisible currents of hot and cold without a clue as to what the next sensation will be; I go from pouring rain to dazzling sunshine in the blink of an eye (although one could argue that that’s just the actual weather we’ve been having in New England this spring.). Watching and reading Brokeback Mountain, observing these two characters being plunged ignorantly into a relationship that is much more powerful than either of them ever could have expected, resonates with me. Love is like this, isn’t it? Before I met Tom, I really doubted that I could ever be a good girlfriend. I just didn’t believe I had the kind of time and heart-space I knew people are supposed to have for potential partners. I thought I was too selfish, too wrapped up in my music, my writing, my friends, my relationship with the Connecticut River. But then I met him and I fell head over heels in love. “For you,” I recall saying (obnoxiously) after our first date, “I’ll make time.”
And I’m assuming it’s going to be the same way with this little one who at the moment is kicking my right side. It’s hard for me to imagine any more space in my heart these days: my heart’s pretty full right now. So is my time. I think I wasn’t the only one in the movie theatre who wanted to slap the Ennis character when Jack drove fourteen hours overnight to be with him after Ennis’s divorce. Ennis wouldn’t make enough time for anyone, choosing to work and live in solitude over letting his older daughter move in with him; choosing to hide rather than make a life with Jack.
I think part of the reason I’ve felt like I’m swimming through currents of hot springs these days is that this lesson–that our time really is limited, that our time really is best spent loving the people we love– is hitting me hard. That paradigm goes directly against the illusion that we are individuals, powerful enough to protect ourselves if only we work hard enough, do the right thing, make the right choices and marry the right people. But those are notions of the head; what I got from Brokeback was that we’ll never get any satisfaction that way. We need to cede our time to the heart, to the simple rhythms and laws of the body; to take off our watches and hand them to the ones we love and say, “Here. From now on you can tell me what time it is.” Because they will, anyway.

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