The Murder of a Gay Cowboy By Maja Bogojevic

in 50th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Maja Bogojević

Based on a Pulitzer winning short story by Annie Proulx (and adapted for the big screen also by Pulitzer winners Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry), Ang Lee’s best film winner at the Venice Festival, Brokeback Mountain – screened in the official section (outside the competition) of the Valladolid Festival – is hailed as inaugurating a new sub-genre – the ‘gay western’.

Does this film really mark the birth of a new (sub)genre with (only) seemingly oxymoronic connotations? If we recall the simplest canyon or high mountain slopes to highlight the cinematic effect of horseback riding with the historical dominant of the white man’s conquest, the civil war or its consequences, in which a charismatic main hero, a bearer of the new moral, an often unshaved justice fighting cowboy, is opposed to negative characters – ‘bad guys’ (usually Indians or ‘criminals’) who do not comply to the norms and standards of the new Western society, then Ang Lee’s film displays no features of the western genre.

Set in the 1960’s and 1970’s USA background, in the wake of many liberation movements, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis del Mar (played by Heath Ledger in by far his best role)’s love saga is set in one of the Wyoming mountains – Brokeback mountain, and is beautifully filmed through long panoramic shots. Nature is important to them, the dramatic mountain landscape strengthens their instinctual drives and impulses, and they feel in harmony with the capricious, unpredictable nature which is kind to them: they can easily endure and survive the most violent storms and cold winds, because they have one another and the ‘blessing’ of nature. Even animals will not hurt them. It is in the outside world, ‘civilised’ social circles that they cannot survive; the society with its (un)written rules is a source for their tragedy.

The typical western’s sheer and permanent action with its stylised choreography of violence and boasting its over-emphasised self-sufficiency is replaced by more complex portrayals of human conditions and nuanced characters’ relationships, confronted with nature in the ‘making of a civilisation’. Lee subverts the classical western genre codes: the gunfight is transformed into a gunless fight for ‘forbidden love’ and a fight for moral principles on behalf of a social group becomes their fight against this ‘same social group’s moral principles’, for the justice of their love, for a free expression of their emotions.

Violence is completely absent in the film, except for the occasional angry outbursts of Ennis (the result of his frustrations of the unrealised and ‘socially unacceptable’ love) and two murder scenes, brilliantly handled with ellipsis. The first murder scene is shown visually as part of Ennis’s flashback story as he tells Jack: when he was a little boy his father takes him to the sight of a brutally tortured and killed man from his village (strangled with a tyre) for committing a ‘crime’ the rancheros did not approve of and could not forgive – he loved and lived with another man. Ennis, thus, learns very early in his life a lesson of what is right and wrong. This scene is pivotal for the film’s diegesis, as Ennis’s flashback becomes simultaneously a flash-forward, announcing a tragic death later in the film in exactly the same way, but the word ‘murder’ is never mentioned nor confirmed in the real time.

The choice of a mountain as their love nest is not accidental, the mountain being the symbol of masculinity, of male power and erection. The protagonists’ names are chosen also with care and have a great symbolic value: ‘Ennis’, while rhyming with a male bodily part, means ‘island’, the last name del Mar (almost unnecessarily and redundantly) underlines the sensitive, more ‘feminine’, watery nature of Ennis, thus conveying his insular, introverted, solitary, silent character and his profound emotions.

By contrast to a classical western genre (a typically male film) where women are barely present – they are usually talked about, longed for, admired, missed, fought for or dead – women in Lee’s film have a real, albeit passive, presence. If they speak, it is more as a side-effect of men’s own personal drama on their lives. Jack’s wife, Lureen Newsome may appear as the ‘new emancipated woman’ (her last name again may herald the ‘new, the innovative’), who is a good professional, but a ‘terrible’ (house)wife or mother or daughter. Different from Alma , she is another type of woman, best described by her husband: “She is excellent for selling machines, but she is no good for marriage, we could as well have a relationship on the telephone”. Thus, Lureen is a ‘telephone relationship’ woman, good for business but not for marriage (she is too ‘busy, cold, asexual, frigid’, too masculine?).

In a ‘western’ with no blood, no revenge, no gunshots, with two men loving each other and with a female rodeo queen, Brokeback Mountain would more aptly be described as a ‘post-modern western’, if it is a western at all. If it falls into any strict genre classification, it exhibits more elements of a social (post-modern) melodrama, in which the impossibility of a heterosexual love is replaced by the same sex love saga. Adding the fact that the film is an adaptation, visual transposition of a previously existing text, which does not inaugurate a new literary genre, it becomes rather difficult to speak of Lee’s film as establishing a new film (sub)genre.