Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) integrates traditional western motifs and iconography, and follows a common plot structure of the genre, but at the same time overlooks certain aspects and introduces new concepts and motifs, mixing western with melodrama to create a contemporary Western.
Brokeback Mountain’s queerness challenges us to question the usefulness of boundaries and categories, not just between straight and gay masculinities, but mainly between the film’s genre leanings as both melodrama and western.
“The western represents American culture, explaining its present in terms of its past and virtually redefining the past to accommodate the present.” – Thomas Schatz (1981)
The western’s various cultural forms indicate the central role that it continues to play in conceptions of national identity. If the western genre represents American culture, as Schatz implies, then can the film Brokeback Mountain be considered a western? On the one hand, if Brokeback Mountain is to be considered a western this would imply that homosexuality has always been part of the narrative and logic of the western. However, to reject the film as a western would also overlook the ways in which it rewords the genre through contemporary political concerns. Brokeback Mountain is made in such a way as to be considered both a revision of and an extension of the western genre. It integrates traditional western motifs and iconography, and follows a common plot structure of the genre, but at the same time overlooks certain aspects and introduces new concepts and motifs, mixing western with melodrama to create a contemporary western.
In most films, a true western is set in a particular historical moment approximately between 1836 and the Mexican Revolution in 1913 (Kitses, 1969). Brokeback Mountain is set between 1963 and 1983, which seems to come too late by historical definition. The impression given by the film, however, is of an American setting that represents a continuum with the old ways of western life. This western life, though drastically altered by twentieth-century capitalism is seemingly unchanged by twentieth-century ideology. Although Brokeback Mountain is not set in the distant past, it clearly conjures up the mythology of the West; the lonesome cowboy figure: the cowboy attire; the solitary lifestyle; the restriction of the homestead on men’s freedom; working with animals; rodeo culture; the power of the wilderness; and melancholy produced through country music. Since Brokeback Mountain begins in 1963, it might not represent the west as an epic moment and Ennis and Jack might not be considered real cowboys but it portrays a west that exists through the ideologies and practices of specific American regions associated with western mythology. Set between Wyoming and Texas, Brokeback Mountain still presents the West as a mythic, imagined fantasy, a concept of a way of life that remains intact with the west of the past.
Brokeback Mountain presents the contrasting relationship between wilderness and civilisation through its aesthetic conflict between freedom and restriction, namely between the mountain and the town. The film characterises the western through its structuring of life in the wilderness, symbolised through Ennis and Jack’s freedom to express their love there. In contrast there is the reality of rural town life with their respective wives and children, which forces them to conform to a failed “normal life.” As Gary Needham states, “Brokeback Mountain claims the landscape and the frontier for its symbolic meaning to express freedom and the cowboy’s affiliation and closeness to nature, the land, and of course to the other cowboys who might be out there too.” The wilderness is fabricated by the title Brokeback Mountain. Created by Annie Proulx, it not only represents isolation and secrecy, but also empowerment. The mountain symbolises the only place where Jack and Ennis are able to express themselves unrestricted and free from fear, shame or paranoia. The place comes to symbolise a temporary escape from the closet, an almost-freedom, and this is shown through the landscape in the film. The landscape is juxtaposed against the bleak suffocating small town.
Masculinity and the western landscape are the two most symbolic elements in the western because of their power to be translated into epic mythologies and concepts of freedom. The traditional western is, more than anything else, about the conflict between civilization and savagery on the frontier. In the genre, the western man has a duty to uphold justice and honour all that is “good” in civilisation. He is characterised as brave, honourable, rugged and a loner. Tompkins (2004) argues that the west “functions as a symbol of freedom, and the opportunity for conquest. It seems to offer escape from the conditions of life in modern industrial society; from mechanized existence, economic dead end, social entanglements, unhappy personal relations, political injustice. The desire to change place also signals a powerful need for self-transformation.” With his tall masculine frame, quiet reserve and deep voice, Ennis looks and sounds like the typical western hero traditionally seen in the genre. Ennis is forced to deal with the pull of the wilderness while at the same time remaining true to civilisation by quitting his job to attend his daughter’s wedding rather than quitting to see his unorthodox lover Jack. In Brokeback Mountain, every main character suffers because of the masculine western myth, with Ennis suffering the most. The antihero Jack meets his antihero end at the hands of the unsympathetic civilisation which cannot accept his true identity. But the hero (Ennis), the frontier cowboy who stays close to the land but resists nature’s temptations, and who attempts to do right by his daughters has a more painful fate. He is left ultimately alone in his trailer forever knowing that what might have been can never be. And this is all because he is the man of the west, the lonely hero forever doomed to tread alone.
The most obvious change introduced to the western genre in Brokeback Mountain is the issue of homosexuality. The lead characters Ennis and Jack share a homosexual love interest, a concept very rarely explored in western texts. Chris Packard (2006) states, “If there is something national about the cowboy, and if there is something homoerotic about the partnerships he forms in the wilderness, then there is something homoerotic about American national identity as the literary West conceives it.” Because of this, homosexuality is not an issue that is readily explored in western literature or cinema, especially within the western genre. The romantic interest in the traditional western is the femme fatale, desired for her feminine charm and allure. Brokeback Mountain twists this concept by placing another male (Jack) as the hero’s love interest. However, in doing so, Jack merely takes the place of the femme fatale and is therefore attached with the same ideologies of femininity. It is Jack who seduces Ennis, tempting Ennis when he calls him into the tent. So while exploring the relationship between the two men, Brokeback Mountain aims to put a twist on the traditional western, but ultimately adheres to the motif of the femme fatale.
Although many of the motifs and structures used in Brokeback Mountain follow the western genre, the ultimate powerlessness and emotional involvement produced in the film fall into the melodrama genre. The power of melodrama to create intense feelings is contrasted with the serious genre of the western in which masculine identity is of greater importance than any romantic connection. The film creates overly emotional responses and attachments through portrayal of tears, separation and loss, thus removing all seriousness, reason and propriety.
our experiential investment in the narrative of Jack and Ennis’ relationship is primarily emotional; for Needham, then, Brokeback Mountain mobilises melodrama as “a tactical way of provoking feeling and sentiment that are politically efficacious.”
It exhibits an excess of confusion, suffering and restlessness and it expands on two key motifs of melodrama in order to express and to some extent work through this excess. By utilising a version of the “maximised type” David Lusted has argued, “the Western emerged in the earliest days of Hollywood as a generic form of melodrama, dependent on the melodrama stage for its dominant narratives, themes and performance styles” (Lusted, 1992: 13).  These melodramatic themes, Lusted suggests, include love sacrificed and reunited; suffering, misunderstanding and reconciliation; victimhood, emotionalism and pathos (Lusted, 1992: 17ff).
The film’s melodramatic mode and form are constructed through narrative situations of separation and loss. Suffering and failure, and helplessness and pathos. Brokeback Mountain is places as a melodrama to narrate to great affect the ongoing problems of the closet and homophobia.
Brokeback Mountain uses several structures which fall under the melodrama genre. These include and expressive use of music to produce heightened emotion; discrepancies in point of view and the timing of narrative events that are mobilised to induce tears. It is Brokeback Mountain’s melodramatic form that allows it to express a history of unjury, backward feeling and affectivity thought the conventions of melodrama that work so well in dealing with themes of secrecy, passivity, paranoia, shame and temporal irreversibility.
though many western films traditionally use long shots, Brokeback Mountain makes use of close-up shots to key the audience into the main characters’ relationship. This heightens the sense of intimacy between the two characters. Nearly all of the love scenes between Jack and Ennis are close-ups, bringing the audience into their relationship.
The Western genre is ultimately one which incorporates other genres, including romance, war, melodrama and action. As Kitses (1969) puts it, “Experiment seems always to have been varied and development dynamic, the pendulum swinging back and forth between opposing poles of emphasis on drama and history, plots and spectacle, romance and ‘realism’, seriousness and comedy.” Brokeback Mountain utilises this flexibility to successfully introduce new ideas into its plot, while still retaining traditional structures of the Western. Not only does the film follow the genre specific framework and incorporate classical Western motifs (cowboy costumes, alcohol, and a landscape which represents paradise), it also builds on the theme, creating a new and contemporary version of the genre and demonstrates the detrimental impact to identity brought about by social ideologies of what is normal.
Brokeback Mountain’s queerness challenges us to question the usefulness of boundaries and categories, not just between straight and gay masculinities, but mainly between the film’s genre leanings as both melodrama and Western.
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