Kate Mara as Alma del Mar Jr.
Set in Wyoming, and unfolded over a twenty-year period (1963-1983), Brokeback Mountain recounts the story of the relationship between two ranch hands, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist. Directed by Ang Lee, the screenplay for the film was adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx (“Brokeback Mountain, included in your coursepack).
Some questions to consider before viewingBroke back Mountain 1) In “An Affair to Remember” (see the url for this essay in the course description), Daniel Mendelsohn draws our attention to the powerful media impulse–anxious in its repetition and insistence--to characterize this film as “universal,” i.e., not as a queer story but as a love story in which two queer men happen to figure by chancce. Indeed, at the Golden Globes, where the film won all the major awards, the director, Ang Lee, flatly says: “This is a universal story. I just wanted to make a love story.” The advertizing and press materials circulated around the movie certainly disavowed its queer elements: as Mendelssohn reminds us, a t.v. ad shows the male leads embracing their wives, but not each other.
But do these descriptions of the film do justice to it? Is queer life “incidental” to the film? As Mendelssohn says, we might well say that Schindler’s List or Beloved are stories with universal appeal, but we would probably never say, in the same breath, that the Holocaust was incidental to Schindler’s List or American slavery to Beloved.
What gets evacuated from the film, from the story, by being described as universal?
What does “universal” mean in these contexts? For what is it a kind of alibi or cover?
What do you make of Joel Conarroe and James Schamus’s defensive remark that Titanic wasn’t called “the greatest straight love story of all time,” so why should Broke back Mountain be characterized as “gay”? (See the url for this rejoinder to Mendelsohn’s essay in the course description.) What is the problem with the very premise of Conarroe and Shamus’s remark?
And does the film do justice to itself? Does it have the courage of its convictions? Does it even have convictions?
In what ways does the film itself disavow its queerness?
The claim is made that the film brings people together; but in what ways does it rely upon and re-entrench heteronormative conceptions of queer life?
2) In what ways is the film about what Sedgwick calls “the epistemology of the closet”–i.e., ostensibly inside spaces that are in fact always already outside, a vexed scene in which knowing and non-knowing are interwoven? In what ways are closeted spaces in the film occasions for the psychological and the cultural work of that strange thing that Sedgwick describes as the “open secret”? To what extent does the film do justice to the complexities of the closet? (Note that key scenes happen quite literally in and around a closet.) What is the significance of the film’s restless movements between expansive outside places (in which “Canada” plays “Wyoming”), and various differently constricted inside spaces?
3) The film often plays with the ostensible difference between looking and being-seen or being looked-at; and of not-seeing oneself and being visible to others. “What the fuck are you looking at?” Ennis says at one important point in the film. As is certainly the case in Boys Don’t Cry, a film that struggles, mostly without success, to articulate what Judith Halberstam (in the assigned course material) calls a “trans-gender look,” Brokeback Mountain calls attention to the work of on-lookers and surveillance: Who is watching whom? With what–by turns–desirous, fearful, and murderous looks? Most important, what knowledge is presumed to be firmly in the possession of the watcher? Look out for the ways in which Ennis is an observed creature: by Jack, by the boss, Joe Aguirre, by his wife, Alma. Film itself is all about looking, and specifically about being a spectator of events, and in particular a knowingspectator, or a spectator who can claim to know and see everything, even if the characters we are watching do not.
4) An important problem to consider: Compare and contrast the details of Annie Proulx’s short story and what Ang Lee does with that story in making the film. What do you make of the differences? What scenes does Lee introduce into the film that are not in the Proulx, and to what effect? In what ways does Proulx’s story imagine a queer life that is conspicuously absent from Lee’s film? But in what ways does Proulx’s story also fail to do justice to queer life?
5) In what ways does this film explore the question of masculinity and its relationship to gender? Various actors, for example, play different kinds of “men.” Various characters within the film also play different kinds of “men.” How so? To what end?
6) How are Ennis and Jack differently queer? That is to say, they are not two “repressed gay cowboys,” indistinguishable except for the fact that one is murdered and the other survives. Yet why does the film find itself struggling to articulate their differences–specifically, their queer differences?
7) Lastly, what on earth is up with Tureen Newsome’s hairstyles? (i.e., Jack’s wife, played by Anne Hathaway. For some odd reason, hair figures as self-conscious signifier in this film, as it