(2005) dir. Ang Lee
Overall, it’s a good drama featuring some good performances and some nice cinematography. Despite The Hulk (2003), Ang Lee has proven himself to be a competent and commercially successful maker of these types of films in Hollywood. Yeah and the guys and the supporting cast are good. To be honest, from many perspectives that is all I really have to say about it.
Pressing myself, I thought a lot about this film’s popular description as “the gay cowboy movie”. And while the characters are ostensibly “gay cowboys”, I pondered whether or not this movie was or wasn’t a “cowboy” movie, a Western in genre terms. It’s an interesting question and one that requires a definition of what comprises the Western as a genre. Typically, it’s an historical and location setting, placed in time usually around the expansion of European civilization into the American West or sometimes into the expansion in Australia that parallels the more typically American experience. There are several Westerns that push out of the 19th Century, the period in which most of the films of the genre are set, and in pushing into the early 20th Century, the films often speculate on the death of the cowboy’s world. Some films that I can think of having seen that fall into this area of discussion include John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Richard Linklater’s The Newton Boys (1998). There is in many ways some self-referential quality to some of these films since they also address the death of the Western as well, which has been progressively become a less and less common or potentially significant genre for evolving contemporary culture where it once was a significant image in even the popular culture of the American Experience. It is still incredibly iconic and has great historical significance, of course, but I digress.
The point being that often in these later films addressing the changing world of the West, the characters: true cowboys, either outlaws, lawmen, homesteaders, etc., the men and women (typically men) find themselves at a loss in the modernization of civilization and the result of having “tamed” the West, the job that is the meat and potatoes of the more traditional stories of the genre. These stories that take place in this transitional time tend to analyze this experience, often quite sadly commenting on the loss of this life despite the positive aspects of “civilization”.
Taking this established critique in mind, I pose this on Brokeback Mountain, which takes place starting in 1963 and ends sometime in the late 1970’s, clearly a long shot later than even the most-late-period settings for traditional Westerns. What is the life for a cowboy in this time period? Are these characters really cowboys? Well, they are in the broader definition of the term and the way that it might be applied to people these days who live within certain lifestyles: careers, etc. that still are tied to herding cattle (or sheep in this instance) and/or working the rodeo circuit or so forth.
For these characters, Jack and Ennis, they are the types of guys who would have been in a more traditional Western, in a sense, but are in a modern Western world, where their work and life is on the fringe of society, but is also encroached in the world of Wyoming, still to this day the most underpopulated state in the nation per capita and very much the Western state. There is still a lot of breeding of livestock and the remnants of that world still exist in some anachronistic but compromised ways. Jack and Ennis are hired to take care of a large flock of sheep that are meant to feed illegally on government-protected land, having to live out with the sheep and hide from authorities. So, even in being given a “cowboy” job, they are compromised by the potentially less-manly management of sheep (i.e. not cows — is this important or just a silly question?) and they are also culturally lost in ways. Ennis is poor and needs the job because he doesn’t really have any other options in the depressed small towns of Wyoming that have been his center of his life. Jack is still trying to hold onto this lifestyle, a hanger on as a low-level rodeo entrant and someone who is still attracted to this lifestyle.
As the movie moves on, Ennis carries on with his work as a ranch hand, mostly itinerant and not settled from year to year. He does spend some time in town and working in a factory, a period of suppression and sadness for him, living in squalid settings away from nature that is also a significant portrayal by Lee. Jack winds up getting a job selling tractors and combines, stuck in a fruitful though stylistically challenged middle-class suburban lifestyle of the mid-1970’s. He seems beaten down by his choices in life (obviously hiding his homosexuality and his true desire: to live with Ennis on their own ranch, “their own plot of land”).
Additionally, the happiest times for both of them are set against the landscape of the open country. This is meant to be Wyoming. I don’t know that it really is. But that is somewhat beside the point. The open country is shot beautifully and Jack and Ennis are most in their element there. The beauty and pure nature of the country is clearly aligned with their love for one another, I am guessing as also pure and natural. Even more than that, it is the setting in which their characters are the most “at home” and is the place of their own personal freedom.
There is more here to look at but I am running out of steam. What also does then this say about their homosexuality? I am positing that their characters’ personal tragedies include their situation in a world where the connection to nature and the lifestyle of a cowboy is completely marginalized and eroding. It parallels in some ways their “perditious” love (perditious to the world of their story), also marginalized and unsustainable. Not that they could have done it or to have even known, but what would it have meant for their characters to move to some place like San Francisco in the late 1970’s where their love and lifestyle would have been more accepted and less-challenged. Of course, a modern city was also no place for them. They need the landscape and cowboy life as much as anything.
Well, that probably poorly articulated analysis was the most interesting approach that I could take on this movie, this mild cultural phenomenon of its own in 2005, moving the “gay cowboy” movie into the cineplexes of present-day America, even in a small town in Wyoming one might guess, which I could only guess how different it is in those places these days than the story’s setting of the 1960’s – 1970’s.