The formal design of Brokeback Mountain.
Taking these remarkable qualities for granted, however, I shall concentrate instead on the various thematic and structural patterns layered over them. All three, of course, are interinvolved. Lee's elegant syntax, like the prose of Jane Austen, owes its elegance to its transparency. It serves its subject selflessly--without self-advertisement--but it can also be thickened and heightened when the occasion arises. At the same time, the speckled coffeepot (and all the other observational data of which it is the token) helps prevent the overlay of pattern from seeming tendentious or allegorical in a blatant way, half dissolving it in the burr and static of everyday experience. An embedded parable for this kind of scumbling can be found within the film itself when Lee drowns out the words of a commentative song ("A Love That Will Never Grow Old") with the roar of Jack's engine. The data is there for the finding, but it has to be retrieved. Lee half effaces what he sets up so purposefully in Brokeback Mountain, shaping and controlling our responses to the film, but never in the assertive, button-holing way that Keats deplored: "We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us--and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket" (61).
The first patterning device that I wish to address is Lee's thematic use of color. For this he alone must take credit, for many of the relevant details do not figure in the screenplay at all. Whether consciously or not, he has paralleled the color scheme of To the Lighthouse, which advances red as a signifier of the masculine, blue of the feminine, and purple (the secondary color generated by their commingling) as an androgynous tertium quid. Brokeback Mountain propounds a similar scheme, except that there the semiotic values have been reversed. For
as long as he is associated with bull-riding, Jack wears black and blue. The textual source of this combination is the Black and Blue Eagle, the bar where Ennis humiliatingly loses his fight with a roughneck. He loses because, in his vision of things, Alma has turned Delilah, trying to name his love for Jack and so impugning his sense of his male power. Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio espangol, playing throughout this Scene, recalls a bull ring clarion in Minkus's Don Quixote at one point to remind us that she is baiting her ex-husband, trying to strip away the power of his silence as Elsa's questions strip Lohengrin of his. Ennis therefore attempts to reverse the damage by reaffirming violence as the viable alternative of words, the black and blue pointing to the putrefaction of red blood, the curdled bruising of force, just as the solitary headlight on his pickup images his cyclopean vision of things. After having bested two bikers against a blaze of red, white, and blue stars on the Fourth of July, he loses this one-on-one combat, and all because Alma has come close to uttering the dreaded official name for his relationship with Jack, which he sees instead as being sui generis--an experience wholly divorced from any conception of gay.
That he manages to torque his life back from that brink becomes apparent toward the end of the film, where he exempts himself from being gay even as he accuses his lover: "I heard what they got in Mexico for boys like you" (Story to Screenplay 82). Such self-exclusions don't figure in Annie Proulx's original story, but, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, they characterize the popular reception of the film:
Indeed, a month after the movie's release most of the reviews were resisting, indignantly, the popular tendency to refer to it as "the gay cowboy movie." "It is much more than that glib description implies," the critic of the Minneapolis Star Tribune sniffed. "This is a human story."
However, it is also a story of human damage, for the child is father to the man. What the film doesn't explicitly translate from the story is the way Del Mar pere taught Ennis the "efficacy" of violence above words, though it does display the fruits of that tuition in the tableau of the castrated rancher (in whose lynching, as Ennis tells Jack, his father may well have played a part).
The black and blue of Jack's early bull-riding career also amounts to a demonic inversion of the blue and white sky of Brokeback Mountain, and draws this meaning from a different well altogether. Blue and white--traditional colors of truth and purity that the church conscripted into the iconology of the BVM--mutate in a different direction if black enters the picture. In some Romantic operas, for example, a blue flame in darkness has demonic implications, and in the twentieth century, Richard Wilbur made blue and black the color scheme of Hades in his poem "Stop"--indications of the sinister, infernal tonality that this combination has developed. This is particularly noticeable in the nocturnal rodeo that provides our first sight of Jack on a bull. Here red is associated only with the parodic succor of the rodeo clowns who pull the bulls off the riders, a violence duplicated by the allomorphic transition from the Del Mars' clanking bedstead to the gate of the bull chute. For back in that Riverton bedroom, warm light has also been quenched by darkness, and Alma taken from behind, either "doggy style" or sodomitically. Whatever the facts, she is anguished by the experience. In Proulx, she is simply uninterested in sex, but the screenplay, by positioning Ennis behind her, suggests that he tries to re-enact his Brokeback experience, even to the point of inflicting anal intercourse upon her. However we read this open-ended moment, there can be no doubt that she tries to prolong the frontal posture of their love-making, whereas he is eager to reverse her face, no doubt to facilitate the projection of another's.
The bar scene that follows Jack's first ride is more sinister still, a scene of penumbral black and blue shadows splashed here and there with gouts of neon blood. By contrast, when Jack meets Lureen, the sun is shining, and she wears either crimson or scarlet (depending on whether one goes by the theatre print or the DVD, for the tonal differences between them are marked, and raise interesting questions about the ontology of film). Jack's bull ride also takes place in daylight, even though he still wears the black and blue of machismo. The bar in which he meets Lureen that night is much less menacing. More women are present, a datum that Lee underscores with the warm suffusion of red. It is a glowing presence, unlike the neon blood spatters and bolts of the bar in which Jack tries to pick up Jimbo. After settling down with Lureen, he starts riding red farm machinery instead of black bulls, the apodeictic violence and self-assertion of the alpha male now yielding to purpose and utility. One brand name that he touts happens to be "Versatility."
Roger Clarke has advanced a different reading of the agricultural machinery ("Mechanisation is routinely shown as alien and alienating and the two main characters' fishing trips seem to be as much about getting away from the world as about evading their wives"--31), but one could argue that combine harvesters represent a more intelligent alternative to the chest-thumping male display of the bull-ride. Even Ennis cannot see "the point of ridin' some piece of stock for eight seconds" (Story to Screenplay 14), while in Annie Proulx's text, the syntactic relocation of "point" (as she renders it in indirect speech) shows that he sees that mastery of animals as something extrinsic (and therefore purposeful) rather than self-assertive: "Ennis said that the kind of riding that interested him lasted longer than eight seconds and had some point to it" (Close Range 289). The point of this point is underscored by the montage of Jack in a farm machine with Ennis throwing bales of hay to ranch steers. Moreover, Jack also teaches his son to drive these machines, reversing the concept of fatherhood embraced by Twist pere ("Never taught me a thing. Never once come to see me ride"--Story to Screenplay 14), a more humane conception of fatherhood than either of the protagonists has ever known. Lee in fact deploys his visuals to revoke and qualify the screenplay's belittlement of Jack's effort in this regard:
JACK, who can drive anything, is doing a fine job of putting the tractor through its paces, but there's an air of boyish inanity about him. LUREEN, sales binders in hand, passes behind the farmers as they exchange glances. FARMER #1 Didn't that piss-ant used to ride the bulls? FARMER #2 He used to try .... LUREEN looks over at the oblivious Jack, a look of mild disappointment on her face. (Story to Screenplay 55)
This moment receives a very different intonation in the film itself. When Jack advances the combine toward the picture window where the two men are gossiping, he dwarfs them with a pharaonic majesty, and Lureen's look is one of contempt rather than disappointment, directed at the hulks rather than her husband. It anticipates the showdown between Jack and her father about what "growing up to be a man" in Texas should properly entail. Jack, it is clear, has tried to reshape his macho heritage. What he craves is domesticity--"some shared and sexless hunger" (31), but what he gets is occasional "high altitude fucks," filled out with low altitude excursions to prostitutes or pickups across the border. To dramatize this thirst for something beyond infrequent couplings, for stability, nurturement and companionship through time, Lee modifies the black and blue of his masculinism with Lureen's red. He wears a purple shirt, significantly enough, in the scene that begins "Honey, you seen my blue parka?" (Story to Screenplay 56) and he eventually sports a red vest. (1) When we last see Jack in real time, his parka has a dull maroon lining (almost an emblem for the deadening of his hopes, which Jake Gyllenhaal also registers in his lifeless, uninflected delivery of "Guess I'll head on up to Lightnin' Flat"--Story to Screenplay 80). Lee manages this semiotics of color so unemphatically that one never resists it. Indeed, the little wrinkles and creases in the pattern serve only to render it more persuasive. Jack might wear red at the first four-year reunion, but reverts to black and blue for a later tryst, and, in the scene at the Thanksgiving table, he is still in black and blue, which leaves the shrill cerise Draylon of the dining room chairs to register as an emblem of a compound, inclusive sexuality even as they anatomize the nouveau riche glare of Lureen's decor.
For the film is as honest about the society that forces conformity upon the lovers as it is about their broken attempts at accommodation. Their union is rooted in a compound sense of transgression against it. For example, Ossana and McMurtry turn Jack's solitary violation of Wyoming Game and Fish regulations (the eagle he shot in 1962-286) into a shared out-of-season elk-killing. All the more significant, therefore, that when Ennis turns into Pershing Street on the day of Jack's postcard, we see ELKS emblazoned on a corner-storefront. That cosy, conforming community ironically recalls the unlawful "blood sacrifice" four years earlier, itself integrated into the unlawfulness of Aguirre's directives about the camps and the allotments. The tension between the Rotarian herds and Elkish flocks and the coyote outlaws is of a piece with Ennis's rejection of the church social and "that fire-and brimstone crowd" (Story to Screenplay 60), the same crowd that recoils from his own version of fire and brimstone when, on 4 July, he smites the "Philistine" intruders like a vengeful, glowering prophet. He also makes an atavistic appeal to that first shared sense of criminality when he placates Jack in his disappointment: "Lighten up on me, Jack. We can hunt in November, kill a nice elk" (Story to Screenplay 81).
The sheep that is killed on the night of their consummation slots indirectly into this line of images. In the film, Jack is never apprised of the anguish that Ennis experiences upon leaving him ("Ennis felt like someone was pulling his guts out hand over hand a yard at a time"--Close Range 293), and this leaves him in doubt about the intensity of his commitment, a commitment to which only we are privy. For when Jack says "You got no idea how bad it gets" (Story to Screenplay 82), Ennis has his back to him, and we alone see the confirmatory suffering on his face. Ossana and McMurtry have, even so, transposed the image of winched-out innards to that savaged sheep, for sheep, like the congregants of the Riverton Methodist church, and like the Riverton chapter of the Elks, are creatures of conformity. This dead animal, a red cavity on the grass, has quite literally been vacated--gutted--by coyotes, those animals of instinct. Ennis seems to read it as an emblem of his plight after bedding Jack. Private need has been allowed to supervene on public duty (to Aguirre at least, if not to Wyoming Game and Fish), and that transgression compounded by "illicit" sex. There are tears in his eyes--not of compassion for the victim, but for his own sacrifice on the altar of alternative sexuality, his own credal disembowlment.
Yet another image of transgression counterpoints the first kick that the baby Alma administers to her mother's womb at the drive-in. At the point that that scene elides into the shot of Jack's pickup in Signal the following year, the soundtrack of Surf Party links it with Aguirre's disownment of his homosexual hands: "Parking this trailer on the beach is illegal." And--this a super-subtle link barely detectable for the audience--that same link of transgression is activated by Alma Junior's saying that she will "color the beach" on the afternoon of Jack's arrival in Riverton. The line does not figure in the original screenplay and points to the director's unfaltering touch as he coaxes the situations into life on the screen and causes them to flower with meaning. Just as the conforming Elks' corner-storefront comments ironically on the transgressive elk-killing on the day of the postcard, so the baby Alma germinates a hidden seed from Surf Party on the day of the men's reunion.
Roads also play a crucial part in the structural organization of the film. Ossana and McMurtry have developed their road-making interlude from a single sentence in Proulx ("Ennis got on the highway crew, tolerating it but working weekends at the Rafter B in exchange for keeping his horses out there"--Close Range 293-04) to italicize this image-train, for the road is designed to tame the prairie, to regulate it with a directional grid. Because it opposes the trackless Romantic wanderlust of the two men during their trysts in the high country, Ennis's part in its construction becomes a source of irony, as indeed does the gabble of a fellow laborer--"I told her strong backs and weak minds run in the family" (Story to Screenplay 30). Thus do the screenwriters generate the antithetical notion of "broke" backs and strong minds, the willpower that resists the road that Jack attempts to lay for both of them. Ennis says nothing, but his gaze at the distant prairie is response enough.
The road is one of the first things we see in Brokeback Mountain, subtending the mountain itself as day breaks and the six-wheeler bringing Ennis from Worland to Signal moves across the screen from right to left. At the end, Lee inserts a similar shot between the visit to Lightning Flat and the return to Riverton, except that the mountain is missing, and Ennis's pickup travels from left to right, hinting in the same unemphatic way of James's coda to The Portrait of Lady ("She had not known where to turn; but she knew now. There was a very straight path"--591) that he might have changed course, even though the ambiguous image opens itself to the idea of retreat as well as of reversal. If we acknowledge that the final scene between Ennis and his daughter is a coda, and therefore partly disjoined from the design, these two prairie road shots throw a bracket around the film, forging a figure that the rhetors call inclusio. It stabilizes a design by framing it with the same (or similar) motif at start and finish. If Ennis is indeed reversing the passage to Brokeback Mountain, confronting his love for what it is instead of inoculating it with silence, then Lee has provided us with an image of "contrary motion," that tense and sometimes discordant drive of musical scales in opposite directions. Whatever it is, however, it remains purposive, and to that extent contrasted with the circular motion of their penultimate tryst (itself a magnification of the circular rear-view mirror in which Jack first views Ennis at Signal and in which he sees him retreat at the end of their summer idyll). On the eve of their quarrel about the move to Texas, they cross a gulley right to left, travel from right to left and then amble from left to right past a still lake (premonition of the unruffled waters that back their final confrontation). The circular route functions as much as an emblem of futility as it does of perfection, for both qualities are compounded into their affair, its intensity guaranteed by its very defect of intermittence. Lee uses its rotary swing to offset Ennis's return to Riverton, and Jack's equally purposeful diagonal drive from Texas to Wyoming when he learns about the Del Mar divorce.
The asphalt road at the start of this hinge scene is dead straight (if undulating). Indeed the Wyoming state sign itself intimates how Jack dreams of marriage to Ennis, book-ended as it is by two bucking broncos. Half the ground for that image has been laid, for we have already heard him say, "I doubt there's a filly that can throw me" (Story to Screenplay 6), and we will later hear Ennis tell his daughters that "Only 'bout three seconds I was on that bronc, an' the next thing I knew I was flyin' through the air" (Story to Screenplay 67). In any event, two broncos facing each other create an image of contrary motion, a tense but viable pattern of opposition. The energies run against each other, but they meet at a point of chiastic tension comparable to that between the two prairie shots at the beginning and near-end of the film. They seem to promise a dynamic stasis, a conflux of competing male energies that will be difficult to ride, but which, even so, will be reined and therefore manageable. Or so Jack hopes. When the boys shift camp on Brokeback Mountain and repitch the tent, he tells Ennis that "It ain't goin' nowhere. Let it be" (Story to Screenplay 16), and so imposes on that transient structure a stability and domestic focus as if in readiness for the consummation to come. The tent contrasts in its calm with the bullride, which also goes nowhere, but which may very well end in death or mutilation.
The illusory straightness of the road from Texas to Wyoming is confirmed by Jack's singing along to a Roger Miller ditty on the radio. "King of the Road" recalls the arrival of the destitute Ennis at Signal in 1963, the essentialism of having little but one's own existence to hand, or, to quote Ennis's paraphrase at the end of the film, "If you don't got nothin', then you don't need nothin'" (Story to Screenplay 95). Jack, of course, is ready to give up the nouveau riche comfort of life with Lureen for precisely this kind of life (both screenplay and story speak of a pioneer log cabin at Lightning Flat)--a life which, in its absolutism, confers a paradoxical kingship on those who embrace it: "I'm a man of means by no means / King of the road." Arriving at the Riverton shack, Jack creates a trajectory that, intersecting with that of Ennis's truck at an acute angle, represents a pinnacle to him, but a corner to his lover. After they embrace, Ennis unhooks Jack's hand from his neck in a poignant flash-forward to the coat-hanger hook at Lightning Flat. He also forces Jack to look over his shoulder at the white pickup in the same way that Aguirre had forced him to look up the slope of Brokeback Mountain by training his binoculars on Ennis. A crow flies in tandem with a white pickup while Ennis mumbles on about the roundup. That white pickup says it all, for it (or another like it) is the certain vector of the tire iron that will eventually kill Jack for hooking his hand around the neck of man. The bird passes comment on its menace, evoking as it does the irrevocable loss embodied by Poe's "Raven" or the crow that follows the outcast wanderer in Schubert's Winterreise as if in anticipation of his death. And so Jack is forced to retreat, but not before another instance of inclusio seals up the scene and, with that, all hope of the domesticity for which he thirsts. He decides to travel down to Mexico (and we are made geographically aware of that axis by the slanted line of the perspective, different from the side-to-side movement of Ennis's two journeys). The book-ended Wyoming state sign is now itself book-ended by another sign altogether, this one giving mileages to the Mexican border. Jack, on the rebound, is seeking the blind oblivion of the flesh, and the meat rack of his quest is located in a corridor between two rows of buildings. It, too, is a road, ending not in the wind-swept vastness of Wyoming that the would-be King of the Road had driven toward, but in sinister and formless darkness. Jack enters it on the arm of his pickup/prostitute, the hellmouth of masculinist impersonal sex. Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi ch'entrate [Abandon all hope all you who enter]. Ennis has forced that abandonment upon him--a fact made clear by the Osvaldo Farres song on the soundtrack:
Y asi pasan los dias Y yo, desesperando Y tu, tu contestando Quizas, quizas, quizas [And so pass the days; And I in despair And you, you always rejoining Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.]
The idea of hope recurs emblematically when Ennis visits Jack's bedroom after his death, for his bedside lamp is in the shape of an anchor, the standard attribute of Spes in the Italian imprese. We are reminded of the tense face-off of the book-ended Wyoming broncos, but that energy is now directed outward rather than inward, for the anchor comprises two question marks that have been inverted and stabilized, making a chiastic pattern out of the motif that Ryan Gilbey detects in the shirt scene: "One of the film's most telling shots shows the crook of a coat-hanger imposing a wire question mark on Ledger's intractable face" (50). Jack represents an unrealized hope for Ennis when he is alive. Does he still represent that hope in death? It would seem that he does, for when Ennis exits the homestead, we become aware of curious C-shaped cloud above its gable. It is so distinctive in itself and the shot is so prolonged that Lee invites us to read it. But how? Dare one claim that it answers the line of the coat-hanger interrogative, creating the provisional Gestalt of a heart? That might seem to threaten sentimentality, but only if we think in terms of Valentine cards. Hearts have a sturdy semiotic tradition that stretches back to the seventeenth-century emblem books and beyond, and we should not let their vulgarization block their power to signify. In any event, it seems to be one of several hints at a new direction for Ennis Ang Lee has incorporated into the last few minutes of Brokeback Mountain. We also notice, in this regard, that the wooden cowboy on Jack's desk is a finished simulacrum of an animal in reins, unlike the riderless horse that Ennis crafts in his tent on Brokeback Mountain. Reins, as we have seen, are an important recurrent motif in the design. Bull-riding, a reinless activity, provides a submerged metaphor for the central relationship, for its huge and ultimately unmasterable force. When first we hear Gustavo Santaollala's heartbreaking threnody in compound thirds--he called it "The Wings" before the fact, but Lee gave it a very different function--it plays under a gloomy pronouncement: "Ain't no reins on this one" (Story to Screenplay 54).
And since I have touched on the film score, I would like, by way of coda, to mention Ang Lee's remarkable deployment of music throughout. What is striking, and possibly unique, is his use of a musical cadence to close Act 1, superimposing its serene closure on the chaos of Ennis's grief as he kneels, retching, in the roadside shed. (2) Music is also used punctuationally and structurally at other points. The Leitmotif of sexual tension occurs at the start of the film (its minor seconds suggesting contiguity and discord all at once), just before the consummation on the mountain, and just before the four-year reunion. The design of that motif is also cadential, but subtly so, for those seconds seem to harp on a tonic that slips a third, converting the new interval into the dominant for a V/I to the new (and actual) tonic. All of which reads as an unexpected resolution, and therefore provides a parable of the mountain experience itself. And there also seems to be another musical/balletic "allusion" in the film though it is hard to be sure how consciously the director has incorporated it. For in the scene in which Ennis embraces Jack from behind and rocks him in his arms (a heart-rending flashback to the mountain at the end of film and story alike), one is reminded of the moment in Swan Lake when Siegfried folds Odette in his arms, and rocks her back and forth, infusing their passion with all the tenderness of a berceuse.
These, then, are some of the ways in which Ang Lee has woven a net of reinforcing images over the screenplay to hand, sometimes generating them from hints in the text and in the story that subtends it, sometimes relying on his own unfaltering instincts. And, like the best nets--the nets that catch the most--this one is so finely and cunningly crafted as to seem almost invisible.
Clarke, Roger. "Lonesome Cowboys. " Sight and Sound 16:1 (2006): 28-32.
Gilbey, Ryan. "Brokeback Mountain." Sight and Sound 16:1 (2006): 50.
James, Henry. The Portrait of a Lady. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.
Keats, John. Letters of John Keats: A New Selection. Ed. Robert Gittings. London: Oxford UP, 1970.
Heinrich. Hans Heiling: Romantische Oper von Eduard Devrient Komponiert von Heinrich Marschner Klavierauszug von Gustav F. Kogel. Leipzig: Friedrich Hofmeister, No Date.
Mendelsohn, Daniel "An Affair to Remember." New York Review of Books. 53.3:23 February, 2006. http://www.nybooks.com/ articles/18712.
Proulx, Annie, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay. London: Harper Perennial, 2006.
(1) At least it is red on the DVD copy if not in the cinema, where it figures instead as claret.
(2) One is tempted, en passant, to think that Lee might himself have contributed something to the embodiment of this scene, for although Ossana and McMurtry introduced the wall-thumping of their own accord--there is nothing to parallel it Proulx--it bears a strong resemblance to the way Wai Tung thumps the hospital wall when he comes out to his mother in The Wedding Banquet.)
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|Author:||Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
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