Conversing Brokeback Mountain's Varied Spaces and Contested Desires

Article excerpt

Over the late summer and fall of 2006, a small group of scholars specializing in Western American literature, cinema, and cultural studies began exchanging ideas about a collaborative project that would examine the provocative film text, Brokeback Mountain (2005). Directed by Ang Lee, starring Heath Ledger as Ennis del Mar and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack Twist, Brokeback Mountain presents a particularly interesting case of intertextuality, as its screenplay by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana adapts Annie Proulx's short story of the same name. That Proulx garnered the National Magazine Award and an O. Henry Prize shortly after her story's original publication in The New Yorker, Lee won the Motion Picture Academy's "Best Director" and the British Academy's "David Lean Award" for 2005, McMurtry and Ossana earned "Best Adapted Screenplay" from both the academy and the British Academy, and the production was nominated for a host of other awards including 2005's "Best Picture" Oscar merely hint at the film's popularity and success. And still, as these scholars recognized, practically no scholarly attention has been paid to this film and its somewhat contentious messages. Alan Weltzien, Sara Spurgeon, Donovan Gwinner, and Scott Baugh responded to this call by engaging in a "conversation" in short-essay form.

With the help of Tara Penry, the group initiated a dialogue by exchanging prompts that elicited careful analyses of the film text; each of the four members provided one prompt and responded to the three from her or his colleagues. Referencing a handful of only the most relevant secondary sources--Jane Tompkins's West of Everything, Lee Clark Mitchell's Westerns, Laura Mulvey's theories of spectatorships, and Leslie Fiedler's notions of masculinity and chaste love, for example--and foregrounding particularly close attention to the primary texts, the group discovered its own path through Brokeback Mountain's "varied spaces" and "contested desires."

Prompt: How does Brokeback Mountain conform to or challenge conventions of the Western genre? Jane Tompkins argues the real antagonist of the Western is the "cult of domesticity" (39). Savage Indians, outlaws, or landscapes are merely straw men the hero battles as he protects a feminine domestic social order he nonetheless despises. Does this film subvert the traditional narrative trajectories of the Western? Or does it carry Tompkins's notion to its logical extreme by having the violence which threatens the heroes originate in the space of "civilization" rather than "savagery"?

Gwinner: Insofar as the society in which Ennis and Jack live enforces heteronormativity, sometimes violently, "civilization" in Brokeback Mountain is "savage." Since our heroes do not really battle homophobic "forces" directly, however, we must look elsewhere for the conventional antagonist. While the savagery of repressive society serves as the abstract oppositional force, the more identifiable "enemy" is a localized symptom of society's repressive-ness: a fear of others knowing about their sexuality. The heroic fight is thus redefined to cast the "savage" enemy not as desperados, Indians, or the land but an internalization of the "savagery" of homophobia. As an extension of such internalization, homosexual desire itself, the film suggests, is a wild threat. The "enemy" is both without and within. Indeed, one of the most wrenching implications of the narrative is that Jack and Ennis seem to be their own worst enemies. They live at cross purposes, engaging in a secretive homosexual relationship while leading straight lives. That Jack wishes to settle down with Ennis only dramatizes the intrinsic tension of their situation, the bind of having it both ways and, finally, not having it at all.

The crucial depiction of societal savagery directed at homosexuals is revealed by the story of the murder of Earl, the gay man who lived with his partner Rich in Ennis's family's community. …