My children know Brokeback Mountain primarily as a punch line on Glee—a pretty strange afterlife for a prestige picture, an international indie production with a niche subject. But the doomed love between Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist captured the attention of moviegoers worldwide, becoming one of the most-discussed movies of the decade.
Read the last Popdose on West Side Story.
This collection of essays, The Brokeback Book edited by William R. Handley, is ostensibly about the film's huge impact on pop culture and discourse, about the film’s transformation "From Story to Cultural Phenomenon," as the subtitle puts it. And it is, intermittently, just so. But The Brokeback Book is also, without intending to be, a book about the increasing marginalization of American intellectualism, and a story about how a business—in this case, cultural education—becomes a racket.
Any enterprise, no matter how noble its intentions, can sink into purely mercenary motives if sufficient money and prestige are involved. The argument was occasionally about the U.S. Space Shuttle Program, in its waning years (most trenchantly by Gregg Easterbrook at The New Republic). The shuttle, the argument went, existed primarily to resupply the International Space Station, which in turn existed mostly to give the shuttle someplace to go. Any scientific benefits of the shuttle program to the general public were secondary to its real aim—the continued generation of revenues for the aerospace industry. The tools of exploration had become an end in themselves, rather than a means, and the endgame was simply to keep the money flowing.
Many Americans regard academia, especially theoretical fields like cultural studies, in much the same way. Certainly, part of this attitude comes from garden-variety anti-intellectualism. But sneering news reports about course offerings like "Epistemology in Battlestar Galactica" or "Madonna: Mimesis and Metamorphosis" are always good for a cheap laugh, help to reinforce the impression. And so, frankly, does The Brokeback Book.
Great stretches of the book are given over to essays that amount to shop talk—critics writing for other critics in the vocabulary of the trade, academics talking only to other academics. This in itself is no surprise. Indeed, it's par for the course in collections of this type. But when discussing Brokeback Mountain, a film and story that connected with so many people on such a fundamental level, that touched so many hearts—that was, in a word, such a populist success—the abstracted, by-experts-for-experts tone of this analysis is a particularly ill fit.
Not that there is no excellent and illuminating material here. Some of it is delves into sexual politics in unexpected and provocative ways, as with the essays in the opening section, dealing from various angles with Brokeback Mountain's place within gay culture—whether it should be considered a "gay film" as such, or a universal story. Some essays are bracingly scholarly, as with Mun-Hou Lo's "Backs Unbroken: Ang Lee, Forbearance, and the Closet," which invites us to consider Brokeback from its place within the director's body of work and provides vivid cultural context for the themes of self-repression that have informed Lee's work from his earliest Chinese films.
A few of the essays are intensely personal. In "Personal Borders," Martin Aguilera details what the film meant for him as a gay Mexican-American, its resonance with his own experience being pulled between two cultures. And there are entertaining recaps of Brokeback's critical reception and its reception in the larger culture—whether as parody magazine covers, late-night monologues or the occasional New Yorker cartoon. (Or, for that matter, a punch line on Glee.)
Much of the book, though, falls within the standard academic film-critique vocabulary. In "Not So Lonesome Cowboys," Judith Halberstam searches earlier film Westerns for signifiers of same-sex desire, while Susan McCabe's "Mother Twist: Brokeback Mountain and Male Melodrama" reaches for parallels with the works of filmmaker Douglas Sirk. The trouble is, none of these essays are completely satisfying. For each one, the immediate response is always the same: Yes, but… Yes, Ennis and Jack's fates are tied to their socioeconomic origins. Yes, the confines of traditional masculinity within the hetero-normative patriarchy of 1960s America mold their actions. But to reduce them to a set of responses predetermined by their circumstances denies them agency—denies them, in a word, character.
The essays that delve the deepest into literary theory (as opposed to the more personal reactions, or the examinations of the Brokeback phenomenon) are thus the most frustrating, because they largely ignore the primal emotional audience connection that gives the film its power. McCabe's essay is well-written and decently argued, but its thesis is strained—and even if Ang Lee's film is consciously echoing the thematic concerns and closeted sensibilities of Sirk's melodramas, so what? What does that actually tell us, either about Sirk or about Lee? Similarly, Vanessa Osborne's "Marx on the Mountain: Pleasure and the Laboring Body" made me groan with recognition. I had not encountered an example of Marxist film critique in the wild since my own days as a film student when I was required to write such things myself.
And that's where academia starts to look like a racket, like a place where the means have become the ends. Who is the audience for a Marxist critique of Brokeback Mountain, except for, well, the kind of people who write Marxist critiques of Brokeback Mountain? What purpose can it serve? What are we meant to learn from it? Will we learn about Marxism? Surely there are better instruments for that purpose. About Brokeback Mountain itself? (It doesn't help that it's written in a jargon-heavy style seemingly engineered to confirm your worst suspicions about academic writing.)
Decades of deconstructionist literary theory and Death-of-the-Author rhetoric have taught us that, when it comes to art, meaning is up for grabs. For the most part, that's a good thing. The movement has brought critical voices to the fore that had previously gone unheard—queer voices, women's voices, voices of minorities—and allowed for the examination of old works with new eyes.
Those are good developments because they are useful developments. They provide new and useful tools for comprehending the world and the culture that surrounds us. But if academic and literary theory serve best to deepen understanding of the arts, too often they are used as a substitute for understanding, and turns the story of two unforgettable men—their passions, their struggles, their failings and desires—into a parable rather than the tragedy it was meant to be. Brokeback Mountain is a work of ideas, yes, but first and foremost it's a story about people—and any critic, any scholar, ignores the human factor at his or her hazard. Brokeback Mountain is an important film not only because of its content or its context, but because of the way in which it was embraced by mass audiences. The Brokeback Book can only examine that phenomenon at a remove, talking about that audience—about those people—instead of to them.
A legendary icon of rugged American individualism, Jack Feerick slyly subverts paradigms of traditional masculinity as Critic-at-Large for Popdose.