Ang Lee | Sense and Sensibility | Brokeback Mountain

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Ang Lee

Ang Lee has directed films in both Taiwan and the United States.

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility (1995) shares several features with the later Brokeback Mountain. The world of both films is similar. Both take place in a natural landscape, green, wet, hilly, geographically spread out, one in which people use horses for transport, and raise sheep. Both are worlds in which people create their own entertainment: music is provided by live singers, there are elaborate dances in large halls, lots of intimate two person conversations, exchanges of life history, festivities with sky imagery (coins in Sense and Sensibility, fireworks in Brokeback Mountain), and ordinary people doubling as their society's entertainers (poetry reciters and musicians in Sense and Sensibility, rodeo performers in Brokeback Mountain). Living within extended families, much concern over money and getting family financial support, and the endless passing around of the deeply kept secrets of one's personal life are key lifestyles in both films. Both worlds seem "pre-modern": relics of an era before modern times, urban living, and mass communication.

The two Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility seem oddly similar to Jack and Ennis in the latter film. Both have an intimate closeness, beyond anything they share with their heterosexual partners. There are several scenes in which the sisters sleep together in the same bed, cuddling close for warmth, like Jack and Ennis sharing a blanket together early on the mountain. The personalities are related, too. Eleanor is like Ennis: repressed, bottled-up, with intense feelings locked inside, constantly giving up her natural emotions to live according to society's ideas of duty. This is regarded as "sense" in the earlier film, but nightmarishly tragic in the latter. It has its dark side in Sense and Sensibility, too, however, with its heroine much too ready to settle for less. Her overwhelming tears at the end, where she finally lets out her repressed feelings, are like Ennis' tears that he sheds at ultimate moments. By contrast, Marianne and Jack pursue their romantic interests, and frequently get rebuffed, hurt, and finally approach death.

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain is a personal film for Ang Lee. Like The Wedding Banquet, it deals with gay men pressured into heterosexual marriage and fatherhood by social convention. Like Sense and Sensibility, it contains a long, difficult and frustrating search for what is often an unrequited love, by one person for another. Like The Ice Storm, it deals with the dysfunction sexual mores of a well defined place and era in American history. Like much of Lee's work, parent-child relationships play a major role. Also like many of Lee's films, there is a multi-protagonist, many person Point of View.

The mystical or fantastic side of Brokeback Mountain

The Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin are fantasy books that take place in an imaginary realm. Earth formations, such as mountains, caves and rocks have magical powers and are more-or-less alive. They are known as the Dark Powers of the Earth, and become centers of cults, oracles and strange events.

Brokeback Mountain (the mountain, not the movie as a whole) has something of the same feel here. It seems to be a place with spiritual powers. People go up to it, and behave it different ways than they can elsewhere. It has a unique geometric shape, at which we keep staring, and which seems trying to convey some moral significance. It is often peeking out though mist. One also thinks of Hanging Rock in the Peter Weir film.

The postcards with Brokeback Mountain on them are like spiritual messages from another world. They send messages of love - and eventually its exact opposite, death. These are like the messages from the otherworld the hero receives over the radio in Orpheus (Cocteau). And the messages about the famine in The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir) that come over the heroine's security teletype machine. In all three films, these are messengers of Hidden Truth, oracles that have a special relationship to reality, information not obtainable elsewhere.

An opposing or at least very different set of mental states is offered by Ennis' childhood memory or account of the persecution of the gay men. This is staged as a visionary experience. It is outside of the normal bounds of space and time. We see a ritual-like procession of the father and the two boys. The boys are being inducted into a sinister rite. At its center: a human sacrifice, as in many religions. The characters move forward in a dream-like, hallucinatory way, like the processions in the strange zone in Orpheus. The landscape is different too, from the rest of Brokeback Mountain. It is a low, dry rocky desert, with some modest valleys and hills. This is like the land of Death in LeGuin's Earthsea books: The Dry Land where spirits wander after death. It is also like the similar land of death to which the characters travel at the end of the Sami film, The Cuckoo (Alexander Rogozhkin, 2002). And also the "dead border station" in The Desert of the Tartars (Valerio Zurlini, 1976), which is similarly contrasted to the green places where the hero grew up.

Towards the end of the film, Ennis has a second vision, seeing Jack's death. This is not in the Dry Land - it takes place in a real, and fertile green ditch. But is it is related as a mental vision. The original prose story makes the link clearer in another way: Ennis realizes that Jack's death is due to "the" tire iron, just like the killing showed him by his dad.

This religion is evil. It seems to be practiced in secret, and only by men. It is not the same as Christianity, which in the film is associated with women and heterosexual marriage: the church with the wedding, and Jack's mother at the end, seen against a crucifix on the wall.

There are other scenes with a mystical significance. We see Ennis shown against a huge fireworks display, which erupts behind him. At the end, Ennis has the postcard of Brokeback Mountain displayed like a shrine, and swears to it. There is also Jack's discussion of Pentecost, which he does not understand at all. But the way the Spirit seems to descend on the couple on Brokeback Mountain at the start is perhaps an expression of this Event.

Gay Themes

1) The two men in Brokeback Mountain are highly dysfunctional. They lead lives that are full of bad choices, and they leave a world of hurt behind them. Interpreting such characters is always fraught with difficulties - even in films full of vastly less controversial material than BM. Does a film justify dysfunctional characters? Condemn them? Condemn them but pity them? Excuse them?

It is not clear that Brokeback Mountain regards Jack and Ennis as "typical gays" or as representing "gay life". Many people have read the film as suggesting Jack and Ennis are "pre-gay": what happens to men with gay feelings who reject, supress gay feelings and life choices. The film (in this interpretation) shows how rejecting gay feelings lead to emotional destruction and a wasted life. In particular, Ennis:

The hell this puts the two men - and their wives - through is the tragic result of this refusal. If Ennis had accepted Jack's love, and lived with him as a couple, their lives would have been infinitely better. Instead, Ennis clings to heterosexual lifestyle ideals, tormenting both Jack and the innocent Alma he has dragged into the middle.

According to this interpretation (and it is the one seen in many reviews, as well as being widely supported by the film itself, IMHO), Jack and Ennis' life is as repulsive and dysfunctional and unappealing as my critics suggest. However, this life is not "gay life" - it is the life that occurs when people reject gay life to live a lie. It is not intended to make heterosexuals or anyone feel superior to gays. It is intended to show that the teaching of the Religious Right - that gay men should supress their gay feelings and lead a het life - leads to human wreckage.

If I could risk comparison with a very great film, There Was a Father (Ozu, 1942) shows a man who keeps rejecting his child, and refusing a relationship in the name of various high-minded social ideals. Brokeback Mountain has a little of the same structure.

2) Ennis is "bottled up": he is full of feelings that masculine socialization has trained to supress. Many men (both gay and straight) strongly identify with such characters. I suspect that much of huge appeal of Brokeback Mountain and Ennis in particular directly comes from this. Many men immediately identify with Ennis, and give him their secret but overwhelming support and love. He has the same problem they do - they've had a nasty upbringing prevent them from letting go and fulfilling their feelings.

I had a (straight) friend years ago in college, who wanted to be a gym coach, while his parents were determined he would be an engineer like his father. They just tormented this kid, and put him through the tortures of the damned. And he was a nice guy. I told him that most parents would be thrilled to have a son like him - he worked hard, never touched drugs or alcohol, was honest, etc.

This sort of experience is virtually the Male Condition for many contemporary men. Brokeback Mountain positions Ennis' supressed gay feelings as this sort of "man trying to let his feelings out" situation.

It is easy to imagine Heath Ledger getting the Oscar next spring, with lots of straight men identifying with him and secretly cheering him on. Ledger's great scene stealing moments - his secret collapse in tears after leaving his friend after the first summer, and his final scene in the parents' home - directly build on such experiences. He lets out what he feels, but what he tragically could never say to Jack.

3) Brokeback Mountain does indeed try to interpret gay feelings in a way that straight people can understand. This seems to horrify some people, and thrill others. It is clearly not the definitive recipe for all gay cinema. But is it so awful for an occasional movie?

This is a very complex issue that could lead to a lot more ramifications.

4) Brokeback Mountain is on its most morally weak ground in its treatment of its two heroes' wives. The film does not really show the full negative real consequences that occur when gay men pretend to be straight, lie to women they marry, and deceive them by having adulterous gay sex while pretending to be faithful husbands. This is the part of the film that seems to have lead to its negative reviews by Dave Kehr and Andrew Sarris. They have strong points here.

Brokeback Mountain does not endorse such marriages. But it does excuse and pretty up the men who commit them. Allegedly:

This is the same sort of crock that many movies use to pretty up and justify straight adultery (man cheating on his wife with another woman).

I can see why this part of the film could really turn people off. To the point they reject Brokeback Mountain.

As Dave Kehr pointed out, Making Love (Arthur Hiller) gave a far more responsible treatment of these issues. I could add The Dying Gaul (Craig Lucas, 2005).

The Dying Gaul ferociously condemns gay men who engage in this sort of adultery. And it undercuts the idea that there is something "liberating" about such conduct, or that it is a form of "gay liberation".

Nobody wants to see The Dying Gaul. I am one of 5 Americans who paid to see it. As a look at the real world of adultery, it is pretty strong stuff. It is not an evening of fun. Still, like the "horrors of heterosexual adultery" film Love Letters (Amy Jones), it tells some home truths that would benefit most people to keep in mind. I suspect that it would benefit society if all Americans were required to see and write a paper about these two films on turning 18.

5) On a more positive note, Brokeback Mountain deserves respect for condemning gay bashing. There are still lots of people who defend gay bashing, who fight like tigers against legislation against hate crimes, etc. Brokeback Mountain is not being trendy or indulging in cheap effects here. This is a problem that is still with us.