Tag Archives: Brokeback Mountain

“The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin*

I just finished reading A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s classic novella, written in memoir style. The thing is, I was disappointed with it. This was my first time reading it, but I had high hopes because of how much I love the movie. I grew up watching that movie over and over, and I still watch it over and over. It’s such a wonderfully told, wonderfully woven coming-of-age story of love and loss, addiction and gambling, family and fishing and faith (those last two – fishing and faith – being treated as interchangeable in this particular narrative). And if you can’t relate to any of those themes, then hopefully you can at least appreciate a young Brad Pitt early in his career!

Naturally, being the bookworm I am, I started wondering why I liked the movie so much better, and I even felt a little guilty for admitting it at first. It can’t be purely about childhood nostalgia or celebrity crushing. In my brief review of the book on my Goodreads account, I recommended that any readers who love the movie and/or aren’t familiar with fly fishing skip the first hundred pages (the copy I read paginated to 160). I don’t know if I’d stick to this recommendation exactly because, to be sure, there are details (perhaps even necessary ones) in the first hundred pages that the reader might appreciate having access to. That being said, though, reading this book gave me a whole new respect for screenplay adapters and script writers. The makers of this movie took a beautiful concept that, in print, translates as piecemeal, extremely personal, and even a bit amateur, and made it into one of the most profound, complex, touching, and universal stories I have ever experienced. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

For starters, the movie’s plot line is more linear than the book’s. Book Norman jumps back and forth, in and out of various stages of his life from childhood to young adulthood to marriage to old age, and it can be difficult to tell what’s happening and in which stage it’s happening. (This is something we certainly would’ve focused revision efforts on had I been his editor.) The movie, on the other hand, moves pretty much chronologically from start to finish in a way that makes complete sense. The movie script also skillfully cuts out certain digressions detailing the technical aspects of fly fishing, the substance of which are what so bogged me down in the first half of the book.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of pulling out the best lines from the book and freeing them from their tangential entanglements so that they provoke the maximum amount of thought and reflective ahhhs. Don’t get me wrong; the book has some great one liners that are certainly thought provoking and deserve to be quoted. But it also has several trains of thought that are absurdly abstract; the kind of abstract that, like certain works of art [most notably the ones that appear to be just errant splatters on canvas, no more impressive than a first grader’s work], make me feel as if I’m missing something for not being awe inspired or driven into reverent and somber silence.

My disappointment with this book and rare (almost shameful) admission that the movie is actually better got me thinking about the other times I have experienced this anomaly. It hasn’t been often, but it has certainly been noticeable each time.

The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the most memorable. I inadvertently bought the abridged version of the book. I had already seen the movie and knew the story and, even with the abridgement, still found the book long, boring, and so tortuous that I couldn’t even finish it (notice that’s tortuous, not torturous; there is a difference). My disappointment was considerable, given that I considered Alexandre Dumas to be one of my favorite authors and I highly revere The Three Musketeers. 

The other main fault I found with The Count of Monte Cristo is that there are too many supposedly important characters and too much time between pickups of their story lines for any reasonable person to be able to remember their pertinent details. In that sense, reading the book felt like the print version of the TV show Heroes. (Remember that show? How awesome was season 1? And even season 2, and then it just got awful after that!)

Brokeback Mountain is my third example of a movie that surpasses its printed counterpart. If you know me at all (or if you’re a faithful reader), you know that I love this movie to pieces. Naturally, I assumed I would also love the short story, but I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I fell in love with the characters as portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Film Ennis and Film Jack are excellent and skilled enhancements of Annie Proulx’s Ink Ennis and Ink Jack. Proulx, like Norman Maclean, spins a tale layered with intricacy and a depth that seems almost too much to be adequately unraveled without visual aid or an outsider’s objective interpretation.

It is not a criticism of these beautiful pieces of literature to say that their visual companions did the job better. In fact, better is probably not even the right word. I posit that it’s even a credit to the authors that their works are so layered, so complex, so profound, that they require something more than just black and white words on a page. The fault lies with consumers, perhaps, rather than the authors of these fine works of prose. We consumers have become so detached from the sacred experience of literature that we need the visual stimulation, the third-party, more objective interpretations, to help us connect and engage and receive in the ways these themes deserve and are meant to be received.

That being said, would I take it well if I were told that my masterpiece was better represented, understood, and received in its butchered, doctored cinematic version instead of my own, lovingly crafted original? Likely not. But that’s a hypocritical post for another day.

*If I’m not careful, this could become a post series. I blogged about the 8th deadly sin just over a year ago.
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Tragically Complex: An Analysis of Brokeback Mountain

As a preface to those who might be inclined to judge my morality as a result of reading this post: This post is not about gay rights or my support of the gays. It is not a sermon on gay acceptance and tolerance. This post is merely an observance and a comment on a piece of the literary world which I deem beautiful. For those who would prefer to judge my taste in movies rather than my moral equilibrium, go ahead – if you’ve seen the movie, that is. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll just warn you now that it would probably be a waste of your time to read this analysis because I am not going to summarize or fill in any trivial details for those who might not be in the know.

Tonight, a good friend and I, in an effort to spend some quality time together before I move out of the state, are going to watch my current favorite movie, Brokeback Mountain. In honor of this epic event, I have decided to write this post that I’ve had notes on for a while but have not ever fleshed out before now. So here I give you, my analysis of Brokeback Mountain, the genre-breaking movie directed by Ang Lee and based on Annie Proulx’s short story and starring the late and wonderfully talented Heath Ledger (as well as the still-alive and not-as-talented-but-still-tolerable Jake Gyllenhaal).

I went to the theater to see this movie without any expectations other than those of being somewhat of a “rebel,” since I was still at the time attending one of the most conservative universities in the country. In 2005, my opinions on the rightness (or wrongness) of homosexuality were shaky at best but condemning at worst. It wasn’t until 2008/2009 that I finally confronted and solidified my convictions about the controversial subject, but I think it was in 2005, after I saw this movie for the first time, that the wheels first began to turn.

Like I said, when I sat down in the movie theater, feeling proud of myself for being so liberal by supporting such a controversial cinematic endeavor, I had no idea this flick would turn out to hold the number-one spot in my list of favorite movies for at least the next four years. (It hasn’t been replaced yet.) I have watched Brokeback Mountain numerous times since then, and every time, I never fail to be impressed by some nuance or other. If you read the short story it was based on, I think you’ll come away underwhelmed, as I was. But the movie is phenomenal, and here is why.

First and foremost, this is a love story. It’s not a story about gay men. It’s not a story about rebellion. It’s not a story about cheating. It’s not a story about ranching, farming, or rodeoing. Those are all minor components of a bigger picture. It’s a story of love and heartbreak, pure and simple. It’s a story about broken families and unmet expectations and bitter disappointments. And it’s a tragedy.

The element of homosexuality is what makes this movie beautiful. The homosexuality in this story lends a layer of depth to the plot that no straight love story I’ve ever read or seen has been able to capture. (That’s not to say that heterosexual love stories will never be as good. I’m just saying that in this one instance, this particular example, this story could never have been what it has become without the gay plot line.)

What this storyline has going for it to begin with is that it smashes into oblivion all the existent stereotypes about gay men – those existent stereotypes being that gay men are effeminate, weak, and flamboyant. Before it was okay to be openly homosexual in society, there must have been scads of closeted gay men all over the world who were as mold-breaking as they come – masculine, strong, burly, quiet. Brokeback Mountain gently tells the story of two such men who are powerless under the indictment of a society that says they cannot be in love. So they do what they feel they must, what the world demands of them. They marry women and they work and they produce children.

But that is not enough, and they are both powerless to deny this truth forever. So eventually, their hearts pull them back to each other, and they weakly maintain their love via clandestine mountaintop rendezvouses that mollify both but satiate neither. When they are together, even when they are alone atop the mountain, with no prying or judgmental societal eyes, they still talk gruffly and joke coarsely about the women in their lives.

On one such occasion, Ennis uses the phrase “puttin’ the blocks to” to describe the nature of the relationship between himself and a woman he has been seeing. (This wording leaves the viewer wondering whether this means that sexual interaction has occurred because the viewer has not been privy to such interaction, but this glibness from Ennis implies that there have been further encounters which the viewer may not have not seen.) Jack shows no real reaction or emotion to this news. If anything, he’s happy that Ennis might be finding contentment after his divorce from Alma. There is no jealousy here. Ennis does not expect it, and Jack does not show it.

But then, when there is mention of the possibility of Jack being with other men, Ennis loses his temper and flies off the handle. Why? Is it because Ennis (and Jack too) knows that Jack can sexually perform for his wife out of a sense of biological responsibility only but that no love exists there? And does Jack know the same about Ennis? Is there something so intrinsically different, some key emotion so palpably absent, during their sexual encounters with women than the ones with men? Ennis’s detachment from Alma, evident in his need to turn her over to her stomach during intercourse, implies that yes, there is such a difference, such an absence. And he remains sexually faithful to Jack in this sense. He does not have sex with any other men, and it is clear from his forced and detached interaction with Alma (and their subsequent divorce as well as the later ambiguity over whether he has sex with the “gal up in Riverton”) that he cannot bring himself to think of anyone but Jack in such an intimate manner.

So then, conversely, why does Jack need Mexico? And why does it show him setting up a possible rendezvous with another man – whose wife is a friend of Jack’s wife – at the man’s boss’s cabin “down on Lake Kemp”? Is it, then, just a purely physical need for Jack? Does he not feel the same love that Ennis feels? Or is it simply not enough? After all, when he and Ennis are together, Jack is so clingy, so much more so than Ennis would ever have the capability of being.

When they are together, Jack is always pushing for Ennis to leave his current life so they can get “a place” together and ranch and live together and be together all the time, an idea Ennis always rejects. This clinginess on Jack’s part implies a deeper-than-lust attachment, so the question again becomes, Why does Jack need Mexico? Perhaps Mexico is the only way Jack can forget or at least assuage, for a time, the pain he feels from being apart from Ennis. Maybe the pain is so strong and so deep that when Jack goes to Mexico, though he is not with Ennis, he sees it as an opportunity to close his eyes and imagine, momentarily, that he is with Ennis.

Ennis is your typical manly guy. He speaks few words and shows little emotion. Is he emotionally immature or closed off, a result of his upbringing? Or does he still struggle with the reality of his own sexuality? After all, after his first encounter with Jack on the mountain, he stubbornly and gruffly snorts, “You know I ain’t queer.” Then later, during one of his many mountaintop weekends with Jack, they get into a tiff, and Ennis accuses Jack, saying in a fit of anger, “You made me this way!” This implies that Jack has both enriched and ruined Ennis’s life. If it weren’t for Jack, he never would have known love, but he also would never have had to admit to himself that he is gay.

In the end, is Ennis duty-bound or just afraid? His character and his hesitance to build a life with Jack are reminiscent of the character Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and his reluctance to run away with Scarlett O’Hara. Ashley is always railing on about his honor even though he is clearly in love with Scarlett. But all his talk about honor turns out to be a disguise for the true reason he won’t run off with Scarlett – his cowardice and his self-loathing of that cowardice within himself. In the case of Ennis del Mar, is he protecting his daughters’ perceived innocence? Staying faithful to his responsibilities? Or is he just afraid of intimacy and the truth about his own sexuality?

Just like Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist never get to be truly happy. Jack becomes the victim of a fatal hate crime, and Ennis is left to deal with the world all by himself; left with only his precious memories of his few sporadic trysts with Jack; left with the bittersweet knowledge that Jack kept both their bloodied shirts from that very first summer on the mountain; and left with the crippling realization that he will probably never love again.

And the viewer, if not completely devoid of emotion, is left at the end with the sense of hopeless effort, the feeling of if only, and the resolute certainty that such tragedy will not befall him in his own life if he has anything to say about it.

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