The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Brokeback Mountain

Written by James MacDowell.

Photo from the article

Printer friendly format [Normal view]

Everyone is rushing to call the wonderful Brokeback Mountain a ‘gay Western’, but is it really a Western at all? It’s understandable that people want to call it one: apart from anything else, it makes the film’s homosexual romance seem even more out of place and daring. As well as this, the Western is a very popular genre with critics - has been since at least the days of John Ford - and is also one that has found precious few decent incarnations recently; thus I suppose it follows that, when a good film comes along which can conceivably be called a Western, it will.

I, however, would like to stake a claim on Ang Lee’s latest in the name of another recently overlooked genre: the melodrama.

If Brokeback is a Western, it is so purely because of its images: first and foremost, cowboy hats/shirts/boots; secondly, strong men looking after herds of animals (in this case sheep, not cows); thirdly, the landscape of the Southern States. And that, as far as I can tell, is where its links with the Western end. Granted, defining exactly which genre certain films fall into - drawing lines in the sand designating, say, Film Noir’s boundaries - is always difficult. Is a Noir a Noir because the majority of it is shot in the city at night, with expressive shadows, women who smoke and men who drink hard? Or is it a Noir because its story concerns crime, hidden secrets, a slowly unfolding mystery and protagonists who live as if they know their lives are doomed?

If it is merely setting and iconography that make up the world of a genre then perhaps we could call Brokeback a Western (even then: this West is contemporary; where are the guns?). If, however, genre is created by story, character motivations, and the tone that these elements produce, then the film belongs very much in the world of the melodrama.

All That Heaven Allows
All That Heaven Allows
First and foremost, this is a tale of forbidden love like any classic melodrama - say, Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) or Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Here the love affair is forbidden not because it unacceptably bridges class boundaries, or because it is extra-marital (though it becomes so), but because it is felt between two men. This fact marks the film as unique, yes, but it nevertheless also connects it to the age-old romance tradition that has been a cornerstone of melodrama: that of society’s values scuppering romantic love. In fact, it feels right that this film should herald the return of the mainstream Hollywood romantic melodrama after so many years of the genre languishing in failure and virtual non-existence.

At the very least since the emergence of the concept of ‘camp’, melodrama is a genre that has become implicitly - and sometimes explicitly - linked with homosexuality. The two films mentioned above are prime examples. Brief Encounter was written by the closeted Noel Coward, and its story of a ‘normal’ wife and mother having a reckless almost-affair with a stranger has been interpreted as a veiled representation of gay longing and repression. All That Heaven Allows stars Rock Hudson and features a similarly repressed widow falling in passionate love with her gardener, much to the disapproval of her conservative town. Hollywood's only real recent attempt to recapture the essence of the melodrama was made by one of the leading lights of ‘New Queer Cinema’, Todd Haynes, with his Far From Heaven (2002), itself a tribute to Sirk. Yet, although Haynes’ film does feature a gay character (played by Dennis Quaid) coming to terms with his sexuality, this plotline is still not treated to the empathetic centre-stage granted the interracial relationship between Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert.

We have had to wait until Brokeback Mountain for a gay romance to openly form the centre of a Hollywood melodrama, and it feels about time. Here the role of the woman torn between responsibility and passion is filled by Ennis (Ledger) and the lustful man enticing him away from humdrum safety is Jack (Gyllenhaal). Perhaps my earlier statement dismissing the influence of the Western on the film was premature, because in a sense it is the clash of that traditionally ‘masculine’ genre with the ‘feminine’ Melodrama that creates so much of the beauty and tension found here.

On the surface, the film’s images conjure up the very stereotype of the strong Western frontier man that our central characters are expected to live up to, and which is suffocating and trapping them into silence. Meanwhile, the intense emotions, story and music layered on top of these images betray the fact that what these men’s lives truly feel like underneath is a Melodrama. One of the most moving aspects of the film is the generally reticent and taciturn way Jack and Ennis relate to each other, even when speaking of the most powerful emotions: they do not instantly shake off the reserved exterior of their conservative culture simply because they are engaged in a love that flies in the face of that culture. It is as if they and their relationship have found themselves in the wrong genre and are struggling to come to terms with the disparity.

When I say “the wrong genre”, what I suppose I really mean is the wrong place at the wrong time. Granted, it took pretty well the whole of the twentieth century for homosexuality to make its way out of the shadows and achieve mainstream acceptance in even the most liberal environments, but one can’t help but think whilst watching Brokeback what a tragedy it is that Ennis and Jack hadn’t lived in another milieu - that of New York, San Franciso - any but theirs. And it is here that the final link between this film and the classic Sirkian Melodrama comes into play: the way it uses the genre's conventions as weapons with which to move us into addressing social issues.

In these times - when Bush seems intent on making the whole of America into one big Texas, when the idea of gay marriage gets dismissed in order to preserve the “sanctity” of the institution, when a film like Brokeback is banned in certain U.S. cinemas - this film becomes, like its forbears, a Melodrama with a distinct and relevent political message, one that is stated beautifully, starkly, and touchingly through the medium of feelings.

This Alternate Take was published on January 17, 2006.