BY GARY MCGHEE
Love yourself. Two little words with a very big meaning. All else flows from them, the trajectory of your life, the meaning of it, the truths, the experiences, the decisions you make, the sense of your place in the world and what you can achieve in it. Without self-love you are bereft, compromised, emotionally undone, adrift, fated to not live a life worth living. Without it you are incapable of accepting the love of others. Why should anyone love you if you don’t love you? And even if they do, the chasm can remain too wide to be crossed. This is the tragedy of Ennis Del Mar, the fictional main character of the story of ‘BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN’ (2005) and it is truly heart-breaking.
I was very late to the party having only recently seen this film and read the beautiful short story by Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx about two male lovers, Ennis, and Jack Twister, two country boys from dirt-poor backgrounds, who found love in a world that didn’t allow two men to do that. The story is publicly well documented, the movie, originally an Arthouse project, became an unexpected box office success winning multiple awards. There was hype, controversy, noises off. It spans the two decades from 1963 to 1983, in which these men had the scantest of time together but persisted with it because they were the only times in their lives when they could truly be themselves and express their love. It has a universal appeal because it could have been a relationship across any cultural divide, religion, race or class, but it had rarely been done so poignantly, so movingly about the love between two men before.
The stunningly beautiful mountain they visited together a few times a year didn’t judge them. The powerful epic grandeur of the landscape mirrored how they felt, the purity and solitude of nature, at being at one with it and with each other – the freedom of being in touch with your true nature. The metaphor is an even more acutely apt one though because nature is also harsh and cruel, and the circumstances of their lives, where they spent most of their time apart performing unfulfilling roles as husbands and fathers, living up to the expectations of others, in a society that is deeply, murderously homophobic, is every bit as cruel. The tragedy was compounded moreover by the heartbreak of their wives, the fact that these men didn’t love them, and their wives knew it. They spent their vacations without them and their children because it was the only way Ennis and Jack could spend time together, could experience the joy of their love. This story brings home, lays bare, the destructive, inhumane consequences of homophobia, both external and internal. Nobody, but nobody benefits from it.
It’s hard to explain why I neglected to watch it, I meant to but maybe it felt too close to home. Maybe it was because I’d been in a long-term relationship with a man who didn’t really love himself and this was still raw then. Yes, that was it. But seeing it now has meant that I can appreciate it more than I would have when it came out, when I could easily criticise it then for being a negative portrayal of gay relationships. I realise now that it is no such thing. It has some of the most moving and heart-wrenching scenes I’ve ever seen on-screen, helped of course by the superbly well-realised and utterly convincing acting of Heath Ledger as Ennis, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jack. Ledger’s performance is just mesmerising. Playing a taciturn character, who is bottled-up, emotionally stunted, unable to really articulate himself, who only really opens-up around Jake, physically and with passion, but still can’t bring himself to truly let go and is terrified of making a commitment, of living openly with a man. The stinted body language Ledger uses to convey this is desperately compelling and real. In an interview Ledger described him as a homophobic man who fell in love with another man. I would say that he is an internally homophobic man who falls in love with a man despite everything, despite the huge societal pressures, and most significantly despite himself. This a film that celebrates gay love, the power of it, because the odds against it were so stacked, the love had to be real and palpable and enduring. But ultimately Ennis is unable to break through his own barriers, even after 20 long years. It isn’t really a spoiler to say this because from early on it is clear Ennis is too damaged, the mountain that he had to climb was too high, the fear in him too strong. The more you got to know him the more apparent this was. In one of the exchanges between them, years into their relationship, Jack says that there are times that he misses Ennis so much he can hardly stand it. Ennis responds impassively, says nothing, looks away. Jack’s heartfelt words just blow away on the wind. Jack copes with the futility of this by becoming an alcoholic.
The situation of the time and place is critical. Ennis never leaves rural Wyoming. Going to live with Jack in Texas would be like going to live on another planet. There is no sense that Ennis knows or cares about the huge social changes and upheavals that signified this period, and the film deliberately doesn’t go there. Gay liberation would pass him by, and he would probably be too threatened by it to acknowledge it. Only the styles of clothes, haircuts and cars and some incidental changes in appearance affected his world. His remote and inhospitable environment, both physically and emotionally, could easily remain largely untouched by progress, and his life was. They were country boys, cowboys and ranch hands, and Ennis was most comfortable with what he knew. It was all that he really knew. But he did at least experience love, he did at least know what that felt like. Many people don’t. I ultimately take that away from this story, that whatever happened there was that. Life is short and often harsh, but that just makes the joys, the highs, the moments of passion, tenderness, and warm contentment all the sweeter. There are moments in this drama when the world stood still, when the outside world didn’t exist. It was just them and their love and the mountain. Jack and Ennis could just be.
R.I.P. Heath Ledger. (1979 – 2008) The James Dean and River Phoenix of his generation. Like them snatched away far too soon after having achieved great work at tender ages that stand the test of time.
Gary McGhee is a semi-retired screenwriter, loving the outdoor life with his partner in the Norfolk countryside. Gary was ‘red-pilled’ before it became fashionable, and believes in liberty, freedom, modernism, and defying herd-mentalities.