As this blog’s title suggests, I hold a cherished space in my heart for Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s 2005 masterpiece. I have written extensively about the film, discussing the positives (its beauty, simplicity, performances, and relative transgression of film-going audiences’ expectations) and negatives (the relatively poor translation of eroticism from short story to screenplay, an over-reliance on heteronormative tropes).
I often sense some hesitation on the part of my queer friends and colleagues when I explain that Brokeback is my favorite film. I imagine that it’s because it is so mainstream and, some would argue, hetero. Perhaps more frustrating, I am too often labeled as simply “the gay guy” or “the guy who loves gay movies” by straight people I encounter. Those things are obviously true, but my love for this film is not contained by those words.
“It hit me at just the right time,” is a refrain I use over and over when attempting to sum up my attitude about the unconventional and undefinable story of Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist. I wrote about this time in my life in my senior project, the one I have mentioned here before, about Vito Russo and the evolution of queer representation in film. It was important for me to find the ways in which Vito and I could connect, and one of them was through a shared lifelong passion for the stories we see on screen, and the ways they relate to our own lives at that moment.
I would like to use the anecdote I wrote as a point of connection with my readers as well. Perhaps it will explain a little better the ways I view films and just how meaningful they can be for me.
From Beyond The Celluloid Closet: Moving Toward an Affective and Critical Analysis of Modern Queer Cinema:
In eighth grade I traveled with my mom and sister to San Francisco under the pretense of a sibling’s college visit (Stanford) and some long overdue quality time with relatives (the abundantly wealthy great uncle and aunt). Our trip happened to coincide with Gay Pride, a detail which did not go unnoticed on my end, but likely spurred anxiety more than excitement. At the time I was wary of any association between myself and homosexuality. I’d given up on girlfriends but still maintained some illusion of general asexuality among my peer group. And yet, checking into the Hotel Del Sol, a sunny and sassy refuge for gay men it turned out, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
“I feel like we should check out the Gay Pride parade,” I offered to my family, the thought process being that they wouldn’t dare suspect me if I said what everyone else had already been thinking. “It seems like a San Francisco thing to do.” I’d covered my ass well.
We didn’t go.
Several months later I was at my dad’s house—he and my mom had gotten divorced a year earlier but lived only a five-minute drive apart—when he entered the living room with a somber look on his face.
“Joe, I want to talk to you about something,” he started. My hesitancy must have shown; the last time I’d been spoken to in this way, my parents announced that their separation would be permanent.
“Okay? What’s up?”
“Your mom and I have been talking”—and you’re going to get back together?—“and we’ve been wondering if you’re gay.”
Shock was all I could feel; that and a deep dent in the armor I had unknowingly constructed for the past several years.
“You’re asking me if I’m gay?” I said, or possibly shrieked.
“I guess so, yes. You know we love you no matter what. It doesn’t matter to us.”
“Why do you think I’m gay?” My voice was getting higher.
“Well, a few reasons. You really wanted to go to the gay pride parade in San Francisco,” my dad offered, hesitant and uncomfortable with the trajectory of his ill-advised sneak attack.
“We were in San Francisco.” Up another octave.
“And you really wanted to see Brokeback Mountain.”
I was dumbfounded. Of course I wanted to see the most critically-acclaimed film of the year. It just so happened to star two men performing unmentionable acts under the stars (or so I thought).
“You saw Brokeback Mountain and loved it!” I retorted, slimy and snarky. “What does that say about you?”
My dad could see through the intense vitriol but went along with my logic. “Yes, you have a point. I did really like Brokeback Mountain.”
“So then stop talking to me about this! I’m not gay!” And with that I stormed off, teary-eyed and wounded. And, for one of the first times in my life, ashamed. I’d let my family, and my dad especially, in on my love for movies. He was my confidante, the person I could talk to about new trailers and favorite actors ad nauseum without fear of over-doing the enthusiasm. And he’d used my own hidden-but-apparent desires against me.
I don’t recall if he apologized or if we both simply put the embarrassing incident behind us. It is hard to imagine ignoring an event that felt so massively important at the time. All the same, I did end up seeing Brokeback Mountain in ninth grade, though not with my father. Instead, my mom and sister sat behind me on the couch while I stretched out on the carpet in our living room, Malaysian or Chinese carry-out littering the coffee table beside us. My attention was focused not so much on enjoying the film, though I did, immensely; rather, I was anticipating the gay sex which the media had latched on to so vehemently, as though it were the defining characteristic of what was, in reality, a character drama cum western. When the sex came, rough and tumble in the dead of night, I flushed bright red and tensed every muscle. But my sister, mom, and I moved on together, crying at the end. It was utterly satisfying and all- entrancing. Ennis and Jack’s societally doomed relationship stung and titillated and smoldered in my mind for days, months, even years.
The film occupied a space in my life that has shifted and become difficult to understand. I came out in ninth grade, had my first boyfriend in tenth, fell in love in twelfth, and then went to college and wrote a paper about Brokeback Mountain, launching the trajectory of the individualized concentration which would come to encompass my time at New York University. All the while it served as my benchmark for gay life on screen, an ironic and tragic short-sightedness on my part given the temporally and thematically distanced narrative, and the violence with which it deals with its gay subjects. Or perhaps they were queer, my education reminds me, for how would these Rocky Mountain cowboys know or define themselves as “homosexuals.” This questioning, this somewhat overwrought social-consciousness, I sometimes think, is what a college degree has gotten me.
But, when I wander back to Brokeback as the incubating point for my soon-to-be- unveiled sexual orientation, and as the film whose moments of same-sex intimacy warmed me from deep within; as one of the first points of cinematic connection between my un-closeted homosexuality, so new at the time, and my mother; as the impetus for my first tattoo etched in black typewriter font onto the skin of my left thigh, just above the knee; it signifies so clearly the ardor with which I engaged in the experience of identification, of seeing myself (or some version thereof) represented on screen.
It would be roughly five years before I saw Weekend—perhaps the most enriching film-going experience of my life—and many more overtly gay, even more relatable images would slip by me in the intervening time. But none held so cherished a spot as Brokeback Mountain, the movie which, whether I knew it or not, lay at the heart of my desire and at the precipice of my identity.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoy the blog, subscribe, share, and comment below. I’d love to hear about films that “hit you at the right time,” too!