Saturday, May 30, 2009

On 'Brokeback Mountain'

I wrote this critical essay on the film adaptation of Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" for my Textual Analysis class in May 2009. Luckily, I passed the module and thought of sharing my work.

In the 2005 film adaptation of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain”, director Ang Lee stays faithful to the short story: he admirably manages to portray the growing bond – which will develop into a powerful, yet ‘controversial’ love relationship – between the two male protagonists Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist. The two cowboys fall deeply in love, but will live their story secretly. However, in comparison with Proulx’s text “Brokeback Mountain”, the particularity about the film is the greater emphasis on these men’s masculinity. Not only do Jack and Ennis impersonate the ‘typical’ cowboy, who is defined as “a hardworking but somewhat undisciplined who is so fiercely independent” person; yet although their homosexuality, both Ennis and Jack undoubtedly remain very masculine in the course of the film.

The adjective ‘masculine’, written as such in Collins English Dictionary and Thesaurus, is defined by “possessing qualities or characteristics considered typical of or appropriate to a man." In addition, “Masculinity in the Modern West” mentions that the word ‘manly’ is commonly associated with terms such as  “brave”, “strong”, “forceful” “valiant” “resolute” and “unyielding."

On the other hand, in regards to the term homosexuality, it is slightly more difficult to define the ‘stereotypical’ traits of gay behavior. It still remains a speculation but “in the case of homosexuality, the inherited traits that are more common among male homosexuals might include greater than average tendency to anxiety, shyness, sensitivity, intelligence and abilities." Furthermore, male homosexuality is commonly linked to having a more ‘effeminate’ behavior.   
In  Brokeback Mountain though, interestingly enough, both terms – homosexuality and masculinity – do not seem to be contradictory. Both can be regarded as two incompatible concepts, in a sense that homosexuality does not necessarily equal to 'unmanliness'. Indeed, the two protagonists lead a same-sex relationship, yet they are not portrayed as becoming more ‘effeminate’ in the process. In fact, they manage to keep their ‘virile’ traits very explicitly. It is relevant to note that the director of the film, Ang Lee, manages to both epitomize Ennis and Jack's manly factors and at the same time, illustrate the fondness they have for one another. In addition, in order to reinforce this robust, masculine image, the director strengthens their relationships with the other characters in the additional scenes, which are not found in the text. He empowers Ennis and Jack’s roles as leading and responsible family men. “In the screen play, Jack and Ennis are carefully redrawn as competent and caring father-figures, reassuring audience of their “all but normal” masculinity." Brokeback Mountain displays this important aspect: director Ang Lee produces this more ‘masculine’ effect to underline the fact that Ennis and Jack’s desire for one another do not oppose their virility. In other words, Brokeback Mountain wants to prove that sexual orientation does not define one's so-called level of manliness. Therefore, the relation between sexuality and ‘being a manly man’ is not an arbitrary one.

First of all, we will start with a thorough examination of Ennis del Mar’s aggressiveness. In the film, there are various occasions where he will get into fights. This factor can undoubtedly be regarded as a common sign of masculinity. Ennis’ encounter in a fistfight occurs when he gets annoyed by two drunken men who make ridiculous comments during festivities in Riverton. Ennis points out their misbehavior to them: “Wanna keep it down? I got two little girls, here.” After attacking both of them, he adds: “You wanna lose half your fucking teeth?” This is a clear analogy of Ennis’ manliness. He wished to comfort and assure the security of his family. Furthermore, he is not tolerant to reckless behavior in the presence of women and children. He is brave in front of the ‘enemy’. Being protective of one's family is an important demonstration of masculinity.

The second moment in the film where Ennis Del Mar gets into a fight is after storming out of the Thanksgiving dinner he spent in the company of his daughters and his ex-wife Alma’s new husband and child. He is furious as Alma finally confronts him about his love affair with Jack Twist. Consequently, Ennis deals with his anger by getting into a fight with a ‘stranger’ who almost runs him over on his way to the bar. Although, compared to the previously mentioned episode, this next fistfight is purely unnecessary since this stranger did not personally attack him. Ennis has the profound urge to prove his manhood by getting into these fights. As he alludes in the film as well as in Annie Proulx’s short story, “I’m not no queer." It seems to Ennis that the term 'queer' automatically implies 'effeminate' or weak; but in the film, it is evident that there is absolutely no contradiction between gayness and virility.

The reason why Ang Lee accentuates Ennis del Mar’s aggressive side is to show the audience, as much as the protagonist desires to prove to himself, that manliness is overpowering and is not in conflict with his sexuality. Although, as stated above, one would associate homosexuality to having a rather sensitive, anxious and especially 'effeminate' personality, Ennis is never afraid to punch -- and even punch back. In effect, his sincere sentiments towards Jack do not weaken his masculinity.

Furthermore, in comparison to the Annie Proulx’s short story, there is an additional character in the film adaptation which  will further accentuate Ennis del Mar’s omnipresent masculinity. In contrast to the other protagonist of the film, Jack Twist who, for instance, goes to Mexico to have sexual encounters with other men, the only same-sex relationship Ennis has occurs with Jack. After his divorce with Alma, he eventually gets involved with another woman, namely the local bar waitress Cassie. Director Ang Lee wishes to praise Ennis del Mar's manhood and does not seem to have added this character in the attempt to camouflage Ennis’ homosexuality. In the film, he genuinely enjoys the company of this woman. For instance, in their first encounter, he dances with Cassie and massages her feet. He'll introduce Cassie to his daughter Alma Junior and will even announces to Jack that he's “been puttin’ the blocks to a good-lookin’ gal, in Riverton” as well. Once again, Ang Lee emphasizes Ennis' manly behavior by adding this specific sequence with Cassie, which affirms his “'all but manly' masculinity." 

The concept 'masculinity' does not contradict homosexuality. We can take as another argument the strong bond between Ennis and his daughters. He pays particular attention to them, especially to his eldest Alma Junior. After the announcement of his divorce with Alma, Ennis is now only capable of seeing his daughters very seldom. Jack is so happy to hear from the divorce because he believes that their difficult situation – seeing each other every few months – will drastically change. He rushes to Riverton to find Ennis. “I got your card that your divorce came through. So, here I am”, says Jack. Ennis stands in front of a choice, which is to either run away with his Jack or he'd rather spend precious moments with his daughters. In the end of this scene, he chooses his family over Jack Twist. This is an interesting observation since through the entire film, Ennis explains the important and irreplaceable place his family holds in his life. He takes on his duties as a responsible father and he stretches out to Jack that his family is the reason why they cannot be together. In Proulx’s text, Ennis mentions: “What I’m saying, Jack, I’ve built a life up in them years. Love my little girls." In the film adaptation, it is shortened to “I’ve got my life in Riverton”. Even after his divorce with Alma, he continues to complete his tasks as a loving parent. “You ever hear of child support?”, he asks Jack. Ennis del Mar puts his family first instead of his own interests. He is a caring and dedicated parent. He never fails or withdraws his care and love from his children. Despite the fact that he is homosexual, manifesting this clearly reliable, manly trait and proclaiming this responsible father figure is an illustration of Ennis’ unquestionable masculinity. Once again, there is a clear separation between sexuality and manly – and fatherly – traits.

In addition, at the end of the film, Alma Junior drives to Ennis’ trailer park and tells her father about her engagement to Kurt. As a loving father, he wants to be certain about his daughter’s future with the young man as Ennis asks: “Now this Kurt fella, he loves you?” Alma Junior indicates the importance of her father’s presence at her wedding as she cringes when Ennis says he might not attend because of his work. It is obvious to the audience to notice that Ennis and Alma Junior are very close. Consequently, Ennis' father figure projects a distinct sign of a manly trait. Director Ang Lee portrays this strong father-daughter relationship in order to emphasize Ennis’ manhood in Brokeback Mountain. Therefore, his sexual orientation is not an opposition to this dedicated father figure.

We will now focus on the character of Jack Twist. The main difference between Jack and Ennis is his honesty about their same-sex relationship and he even suggests living their love to the ‘open’. During the course of the film, as well as in Annie Proulx'sBrokeback Mountain”, it is not an option for Ennis. In the film, after seeing each other again since their summer on Brokeback Mountain, he declares: “What if you and me had a little ranch somewhere? Little cow-and-calf operation? I’d be a sweet life.” Yet even if Jack shows a much softer side in comparison to his lover, he does not necessarily manifest any signs of ‘unmanliness’. In fact, like the other male protagonist Ennis del Mar, there are a lot of incidences in the film that describe Jack’s predominant masculine behavior.

We will take as a first example his relationship with his father-in-law, who despises him very much. He explains this relationship to Ennis in the film: “Hell, Lureen’s old man would give me a down payment to get lose. More of less already said it.” Jack will let his father-in-law’s remarks get to him but on Thanksgiving, he decides to be a man and stand up to his father-in-law as he screams: “Now, you sit down, you old son of a bitch! This is my house, this is my child, and you are my guest.” This is a scene the director Ang Lee added, which cannot be found in Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” In effect, Ang Lee portrays a more 'masculine' Jack in a sense that he doesn’t like to be stepped on neither will he let this happen. His virility is put into test, and he will advocate his manhood by “manfully challenging his father-in-law." Once again, despite his maybe gentler side compared to Ennis, Jack doesn’t prove to be less worthy of a manly man. Once again, Ang Lee stretches out the distinction between sexual orientation and masculinity.

In addition, Jack Twist, like Ennis del Mar, is extremely committed to his son. “The film’s Jack is a devoted and playful father, not merely conventional but ideal in his care for his young son." In Brokeback Mountain, Jack is concerned about his son Bobby.

Jack: Speaking of Bobby, did you call the school back yet about getting him a tutor?
Lureen: I thought you were gonna call.
Jack: I’ve complained way too much, his teacher don’t like me. Now it’s your turn.

Showing interest in his son’s education is a proof of an authoritative and responsible parent. The expression “way too much” underlines this commitment. Therefore, we can consider this particular characteristic as being representative of a very masculine trait. Once more, homosexuality does not collide with one’s ability to be head of the family i.e. to be “the man of the family”. Jack, like Ennis, is a competent father as he cares for his family and wants the best for his son's education.

In conclusion, in the light of these different arguments, we can sense director Ang Lee's profound desire on making masculinity a predominant factor in the course of the entire film. We can question what is the relation between homosexuality and masculinity i.e. remaining a manly man. The director of the film brings the evidence to the screen that homosexuality does not instantly imply 'effeminate.' Are Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar suddenly no longer virile because of their same-sex relationship? This film breaks down prejudicial thoughts and stereotypes: being homosexual does not automatically equal 'effeminate' or 'unmanly'. In fact, in regards to Brokeback Mountain, the audience is even more convinced of their manhood. We are then assured that the relation between sexual orientation and manhood is not definitive. We shall even regard them as two separate terms because masculinity is not 'measured' by homosexuality nor heterosexuality. This finally suggests “that whether one desires a man or a woman is inconsequential, but it is to wonder whether desire's direction alone should define a person."