The Brokeback Mystique

Dylan Hintz
Film Genre 403
Dr. Walker
October 26, 2008

The Brokeback Mystique

“Recent Westerns have indulged a postmodern nostalgia for the cowboy way of life” (Kitses 24) writes Jim Kitses about Brokeback Mountain’s controversial relationship to the western genre, citing its 1960’s setting early in the film as a throwback to “the joys of the cattle drive and bronco busting” (Kitses 24). Ang Lee’s 2005 film follows two men in denial of their sexual preferences, revealed during the time they spend in the endowing paradise of Brokeback Mountain, and how their relationship born within it ultimately affects their lives both for better and for worse. Primarily through stylistic elements such as cowboy hats, boots, horses, and various other iconic and semantic tools, Lee shows that the use of Western nostalgia in Brokeback Mountain isn’t a shallow gesture. Rather it is imperative that the film take place in a mystical Western setting for the two men to experience the fantastic freedom that only a generic Western setting can provide: that of men against the wilderness, bonding and connecting in ways of intimate understanding through survival and mutual heroic appreciation.
It is primarily in the early scenes of the film where Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhall) and Ennis Delmar (Heath Ledger) are untied from the “real world” that the Western-genre elements of Brokeback Mountain are most present, detailing concurrent transformations for the main characters. The first transformation is from male loners, bound together only by their current job, into gay lovers. Supplying this transformation of love and attraction is the metamorphic appreciation they gain for each other over time through the use of Modes of Characterization, as detailed by Northrop Frye and developed further by Douglas Pye in his essay, The Western (Genre and Movies). Over the time spent during their first stay in Brokeback Mountain, the two characters are nourished from their failing masculinity by both the challenges and the privileges that the Mountain provides, and go through an inspiring transformation of Modes which bring them finally into their mutual attraction, as provided by the Western Genre.
The landscape of the film extorts a nostalgic presence of the frontier and its mythic possibilities. Themes of freedom and man-versus-wild (his survival and resulting conquest) populate the mis-en-scene of Ang Lee’s cinema. While Clover and Nealon argue that Brokeback Mountain leverages “the modern Western towards this idea without finally being a Western” (Clover and Nealon 62), they concede that the aesthetic of the picture, consisting of “un-peopled long shots, holy infant sheep, and heroic horses…” portrays its western elements as “…an Eden Diorama” (Clover and Nealon 62). Even through their argument the writers announce many iconic elements of the mythic west as present in the film: open range territories, driven herds of wild animals, and the mythically gorgeous transportation system that pre-empted the noisy vehicles of today.
Early scenes of the film show these elements as if they were transported from any classic western picture: in one lavish shot Ennis and Jack are riding horses, guiding sheep across a creek with the blue sky to their backs. In this short not a single clue might hint to the viewer that Brokeback Mountain takes place any later than 1890, as the fantastic landscape overrides any conscious reminder that Ennis and Jack are not “old west cowboys.”  In comparison, the critics detail how shots like this contrast with the other scenes of the film, specifically any scene not taking place on Brokeback Mountain itself. They acknowledge that any scenes back in the modern world “must bear the entire burden of false nature; against the alpine laboratory for the Late Hollywood Romance is contrasted the bovine world of women, adding machines and squalling babies…” (Clover and Nealon 62). The mythic setting provided for the two men, therefore, creates a completely separate world of freedom.  Brokeback is “open range,” where “feelings of gender, and sexuality, cannot be fenced in or legislated” (Kitses 25), allowing for their love to kindle far from the responsibilities of the real-1960 in which they reluctantly live.
Their desire to escape the present world and live mystically on Brokeback is further communicated in mis-en-scene and dialog detailing the use of Modes of Characterization.  The scenes of their survival during their first visit to Brokeback are told in intentionally choppy montages of cowboy living. Each clip shows Ennis and Jack gradually becoming more and more empowered through their surroundings, moving along Northrop Frye’s Modes of Characterization. Douglas Pye clarifies that a western character does not have to remain in one mode, but that the cowboy exists on “a sliding scale, so that they can occur in various combinations in individual works” (Pye 204). In Lee’s film, Ennis and Jack move from the ironic mode of jobless misfit wannabe-rodeo-riders before their job begins, all the way up to the Romantic mode as mortal heroes who conquer the odds of their environment. Outside of Brokeback, “neither Jack nor Ennis is seen as fully masculine: the movie makes it clear that sheepherding is an abject rung on the cowboy ladder” (Clover and Nealon 63). The two characters become closer as they move up this “ladder” and achieve greater standing within the Modes. More specifically, these achievements occur in scenes wherein the two characters conquer the environment as a pair.
One scene that stands out in particular has Ennis lining up a rifle shot, with Jack hunched eagerly by his side. Jack is known at this point to be terribly inaccurate, holding a place on the Low Mimetic Mode at best, “superior neither to other men nor to the natural world” (Pye 204). Ennis, holding the gun, killing an elk, and acting relatively cool in his emotional state (they were faced with imminent starvation), achieves the bravado-based stature of both High-Mimetic and Romantic Modes. Ennis becomes a man “superior in degree to other men and his environment. Here the hero is mortal, but his actions are marvelous…”(Pye 204). As simple an act as killing a large elk in one shot may appear to be, this conquest of nature thrills Jack, who becomes more obvious in his enamor with Ennis, slapping him in a loving fashion and whispering closely into his ear as appreciation for his accomplishment. It is this slice of the western genre within the film that clarifies what is at the root of Ennis and Jack’s relationship: masculine appreciation in a way neither has ever felt from another human being through classical cowboy contexts. This point is truly articulated in one later scene consisting of some truly revealing dialog between the two characters, the like of which had not yet been expressed.
The conversation begins with Jack Twist’s iconic tapping of a rodeo belt buckle. Ennis’s response leads to a conversation between the two men about their rodeo history— both as failed participants who have aspirations great (Jack) and realistic (Ennis). They admit to their failings as an expression of their mutual placement on the Low Mimetic Mode, where they are “superior neither to other men nor the natural world…” and can “…respond to [their] common humanity” (Pye 204) as they go on to compare their ideas of High Mimetic Mode, as crafted by their fathers. The ever-hopeful Jack describes his father’s career in a way that can only be labeled as Hero Worship, a man who “was known in his day.” Ennis goes on to respond with a detailed personal history, but the melodrama of it all becomes an obvious turn off to the discussion. While he gains intimacy with Jack through this catharsis, he also reminds himself of what makes him happy, going back to story of his own father as “a fine roper,” sipping his coffee as Jack sips his whiskey. He jokes that his father said rodeo riders are all losers. Jack responds angrily at first, then finally in an oddly open and jokingly intimate self-degrading expulsion of pride through a hoot-and-a-holler moment in which he imagines himself as the rodeo cowboy he wishes he could be; as he wants Ennis to see him. These classical phrases and physical reenactments of western mythos create a language that is spoken between Jack and Ennis during their most intimate moments: a language of phrases and fantasies based off the Old West and characterized through the Frye’s Modes.

Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is arguably not a Western. The character’s time spent within the mountain itself, however, is explicitly grounded in the Western Genre. The landscape consists of beautifully orchestrated post-card examples of what the frontier’s mythic existence could provide as an Eden for man, while still existing as that mythical place of challenge that drives men to conquer nature. It is in this defined environment that the characters Jack Twist and Ennis Delmar find themselves and each other through the escalating movements of Modes of Characterization, based on Northrop Frye’s poetic writing. If not for the fantasy of the mountain and the freedom of natural living it provided, the two men may not have ever grown or found a way to express their inner compassions for each other, thus making the Western mystique of Brokeback Mountain essential to the core of its controversial plot.

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