FILM THEORY & CRITICISM
Brokeback Mountain Breaks the New Queer Cinema Mold
In Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) we see the binary character study of two men engaging in a socially unacceptable love affair throughout a lifetime. The implications of such a plotline give Brokeback Mountain a public persona that is incorrectly associated with New Queer Cinema. The motives of films defined within the realms of New Queer Cinema are substantially different from those of Brokeback Mountain, whose primary objective seems to not openly address its story of two gay cowboys so much as to present the conflict at hand: namely, two men have continual sexual relations, neither of them admittedly homosexual, and are both stuck in a society where such relations are very taboo. In light of this situation, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist both explicitly state to each other that they are, in fact, not gay, and the film unfolds well into a third hour before never answering that lingering question to the audience. Nevertheless, Brokeback Mountain does not exist to answer any questions, merely to present the socio-political issue that it involves, and as such it stands apart from the ultimately-generic New Queer Cinema with which Brokeback might be easily associated.
It is worth considering that New Queer Cinema presents material that has been present in both independent and mainstream films since film's inception. Homosexuality and homoeroticism has always been present in the movies, even if it was muffled as needed to meet industry standards. Film Noir as a genre, for example, is rife with blatantly homosexual characters, but those are usually presented in a non-flattering and immoral light. New Queer Cinema seems to have come at a time when the independent film scene was a growing commodity in the 1990's, and when the increasing organizational power of gay and lesbian communities in the wake of the AIDS virus. Normalization of homosexuals in film existed, then, purely because of the existence of an increasingly successful (if only marginally) independent film scene where subject matter was not under the duress of major studios' involvement. There exists an argument by critic Geoff King that independent film, for all its claim to originality and innovation alternate to anything Hollywood pumps out, has boiled itself down to "individually-centered cinema... that limits its capacity to present radical alternatives to dominant American ideologies." King argues that New Queer Cinema is no different than the indie sector, failing to address in its films issues of homophobia or other gender insecurities that are broader cultural issues and lie at the root of many dominant American ideologies. In response to this argument, this essay would like to examine Brokeback Mountain which fits the category of both indie film and N.Q.C. film, but manages to situate itself alternatively to both.
When comparing Brokeback Mountain to the New Queer Cinema genre, it is only fair to consider audience and how that might affect content. Since Brokeback Mountain is an independent production when considering the distributor and financier1 - and, considering its content, it theoretically has a strong draw within the gay and lesbian community – the tendency is to link Brokeback to New Queer Cinema, whose niche within the indie film community is mostly the only haven for films containing heavily homosexual content, especially if that content is sympathetic to Bi-Gay-Lesbian-Tranny ideologies. However, New Queer Cinema reached a point, like much of the indie film sector, where its innovative qualities were lost among a genre that was over-saturated, and whose films were no longer edgy and radical. It eventually fulfilled an expectation of genre for its niche-audience, very much like Hollywood blockbusters that fulfill genre slots in the mainstream: action, horror, romantic comedy, etc. Brokeback Mountain, however, does not conform to the conventions of New Queer Cinema nor does it allow itself to appeal to the Hollywood mainstream because it refuses to make a statement about its content, and instead allows the story to stand on its own.
Keeping in mind, then, King's assertion that New Queer Cinema contrives itself to the Hollywood mainstream, does Brokeback Mountain conform itself in turn to an individually-centered ideology? Ennis Del Mar, shortly after having sex with Jack Twist, insists, "You know I ain't queer" where Jack responds, "Me neither". This affirmation of heterosexuality is continued by each character when they go on to live within the confines of heterosexual relationships, and then seemingly contradicted by the continuance of their homosexual relations. However, Ennis and Jack's relationship seems to be normalized by their feelings concerning each other, and is only made foreign by the social and cultural consequences involved with their relations. At one point Ennis tells a story of two cowboys he knew as a boy where one was killed by a group of men (among whom his father may have been) that tied a rope around his penis and dragged him behind a truck until the organ was ripped off; the men then left the man in a ditch to bleed to death. Ennis' story becomes the standard of brutality that both he and Jack fear for themselves if they were ever to publicly admit to their relations. Therefore homophobia becomes a central theme in Brokeback Mountain whose normalized, cultural stigma is an aversion to homosexuality that is met with either complete rejection – Joe Aguirre says to Jack Twist, "You boys sure found a way to make the time pass up there. Twist, you boys wasn't getting paid to leave the dogs to babysit the sheep while you stem the rose" – or violence: Jack Twist's highly ambiguous, violent death that is presented via the dialogue of Lureen Newsome and, supposedly, Ennis' imagination. Such reactions to Ennis and Jack's relationship are natural and widely accepted within the culture that both men inhabit, and for themselves and the audience, their relationship henceforth becomes a difficult issue.
The conflict in Brokeback is also more complex as it becomes clear that Jack Twist pursues homosexual behavior outside of his relationship with Ennis Del Mar, where Ennis does not, and in fact engages in heterosexual relationships instead. Jack takes a trip to Mexico when Ennis is unable to make a "fishing trip" due to his daughter's visit and implicitly pursues a male prostitute into the darkness of the night. Ennis even accuses Jack of being explicitly gay, saying, "I've heard what they have for boys like you down in Mexico." Jack is also propositioned by a man from a couple that he and Lureen are double-dating to go out to a cabin and fish, alone, where the scene heavily implies a sexual connotation. In addition, Ennis discovers from Jack's father that Jack had plans to "have another fellah [besides Ennis] come up here with him... help run the ranch." All of this seems to indicate that, although Jack's strong feelings of admiration and love for Ennis are clear throughout the film, Jack's tendency is of a homosexual nature, where Ennis never engages, or is shown even considering, in such behavior outside of Jack. In addition, one must consider that both Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are seen as off-the-cuff within their respective families, which seem to fail due to both men's mutual feelings for each other. Alma Del Mar sees Ennis and Jack making out in front of their home, which is a contributing factor in their marriage's decline. Accordingly for Jack, our first indication that Lureen had suspicions about Jack and Ennis' relationship is when she speaks to Ennis on the phone and explains her version of how Jack died. Her facial expressions, as well as verbal, imply her knowledge – or at least suspicion – not only of Jack's homosexual tendencies, but also of his relationship with Ennis.
At this point, one might read Brokeback Mountain as a film trying to ask which of these two male characters is gay. The film, however, never explicitly answers that question, and while it toys with various implications, it never explicitly asks the question either. Just as the society and culture that surrounds Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist forces their relationship into an issue, so does the society and culture of the audience force that question into existence for itself. Ultimately, while Jack seems to be the one that could be considered overtly homosexual out of the pair, Brokeback does not stipulate this. The final scene shows Ennis smelling Jack's blue denim shirt, and looking at a photograph of Brokeback Mountain, which centers the audience on the emotional qualities of the film – the heartbreak of the situation, the unfairness, etc. – instead of taking an assertive, political stance on homosexuality. This stands in direct contrast to the New Queer Cinema movement that explicitly defined not only its political stance, but also its sexual orientation as a normalized, explicit structure that befuddled itself into generic conventions of the mainstream. Brokeback does not conform to such parameters, nor to such a political ideology, but instead presents itself as an examination of a homophobic culture wherein homosexuality did, indeed, exist and was not necessarily flamboyant nor overtly gay. Perhaps most importantly, although Brokeback is a period piece, its thematic issues remain relevant in our society today, a distinction that makes Brokeback separate from individual-centered films common in the independent film movement.
- For a major motion picture, especially considering its stars, the film was made for only $13.9 million (www.the-numbers.com)
- King, Geoff. American Independent Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Print.
- King, Geoff. American Independent Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. Print."Brokeback Mountain – Box Office Data, Movie News, Cast Information." The-Numbers.com.
- Nash Information Services, LLC, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2011.