Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Broken Hearts of Brokeback Mountain

In years past, I have spent many a Saturday morning in local parks by the side of lakes, Book of Common Prayer and lections in hand, meditating on my Franciscan vocation and its implications for my life. I cherish the memories of those times when living under a Third Order Rule of Life was so important to me even as I struggle with what today I experience as the onus of that rule in my midlife.

This past Saturday, I awoke with the realization that the lake again called me. But this time my life was not demanding the Daily Office. Rather, it was calling me to examine a ragged edged hole in my soul that had arisen seemingly out of the blue in the advent of a new film due out in December. And so, amidst the unlikely combination of brazen male hustlers, yuppie joggers glistening with sweat and a couple getting married by the lakeshore, I found a hollow of a cypress tree on the banks of Lake Eola in our downtown park where I perched myself for a couple of hours of reading, meditating and weeping.

Brokeback Mountain is an adaptation of a short story by Annie Proulx from a collection in Close Range: Wyoming Stories. While I do not doubt this movie will end up being superficially billed as "the gay cowboy movie," it is much more than that. As a woman Episcopal priest from Wyoming said on an internet list on which the book was discussed, "It's a love story." It is, indeed, that. And as such, it should prove to be universally relevant to anyone who will actually go see the film. But it is also much, much more than a mere love story.

I am uncertain how I first became aware of the impending movie. I'm guessing someone mentioned it on one of the many internet lists on which I participate. A short google search later and I had located the trailer for the film, produced by the famous Ang Lee of Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger fame. On the very first viewing of the trailer, I dissolved into a mass of blithering, salty tears. Like a singed moth drawn to flame, I found myself watching the trailer over and over during the ensuing week with the same result each time. I felt a sense of dark sadness settling over me. It was that sadness, and the puzzlement as to what power this story seemed to hold over me that awoke me last Saturday morning and drove me into the park, my new copy of Close Range in one hand, my Starbucks grande in the other.

The characters in Lee's film are well chosen for the parts, as it turns out. Heath Ledger does a good job of portraying the detached, silent partner brutalized by his father and then orphaned at 14 when his parents went off the only curve on the highway to town. Jake Gyllenhaal's casting as the more optimistic, sensitive would-be rodeo star appears perfect, his sensitive face able to catch the pain and the ecstasy of this story magnificently. They are beautiful young men, no doubt far more beautiful than the men whose true story they bring to the screen. But their portrayals, courageous in a Hollywood still marked by homophobia and fear of the religious right, will also no doubt allow audiences to enter into the story itself with all of its subplots in a way that perhaps less attractive though more realistic casting might have provided.

So what is the power Brokeback Mountain holds over me? Why did I erupt into not just weeping but deep sobbing as I watched the trailer over the last week, now almost afraid to see the whole movie for fear of embarrassing myself in public? Someone on the list suggested I read the short story and perhaps it would help me see the "inner processes" for which Proulx is apparently famous. That prediction proved accurate.

In Proulx's story, several themes emerge. First, neither of the men feel they have much value in the world, not to others but, most of all, not to themselves. Ennis, the orphaned cowboy whose dreams of graduating high school died in ninth grade with the broke down truck that constituted the totality of his parents' legacy to him, seeks a sense of value from living into conventional expectations. He seeks out manual labor odd jobs, marries a woman he doesn't love, becoming a father of two girls. Jack, the product of a rigid patriarchal family complete with its demanding, stern "stud duck" patriarch, sought value in a short-lived and ill-fated rodeo career and a loveless marriage to a moderately wealthy heiress. Neither had found what they were looking for - until they found each other.

It's funny how radically your life can change when you suddenly encounter your very soul in the face - and heart - of another. For the first time in your life, you can dare to believe in yourself, believe you have value, believe you have a right - and maybe even a reason - to live. And when you find that key, when you've had that life-altering conversion experience, you cannot go back. And you cannot let go.

The result is an intense, white hot love born of desperation. It's not just an everyday, ordinary "falling in love." What's at stake here is your very being. In a life where there is nothing else, to lose that love is to lose everything. And so the young men explode into each other's arms, not knowing what to call what they felt, not knowing how to deal with this volatile commodity they experience in each other's presence, but knowing that while they couldn't let go, the very fact of their love for each other meant their lives were in danger.

That's the third theme that Proulx develops so well. These are men who are vulnerable, threatened by a world that not only does not value them, it is unlikely to countenance what they value most. And so it is not surprising that this story will not have a happy ending.

As I put down Proulx's book Saturday, wiping my cheeks and rubbing my reddened eyes, I knew why this story had caught me. I have known only too well the feelings of doubting my value as a human being, of wondering if I had a right - much less a reason - to live. My wrists bear the evidence of those doubts, scars self-inflicted by razor blades and knives over many years of self-loathing. I also know the mercurial feeling of having someone come into my life who suddenly caused me to feel I could be valuable and the simultaneous despair of knowing that love could never be borne to fruition.

But what my meditation with Brokeback Mountain helped me to recognize this past weekend was how vulnerable I had been so many times in my life and how frightened I had been in the face of that danger. I was taken back to my first two years teaching in Inverness, Florida, beginning in 1976 (about the same time this story was occurring). I was fresh out of college (though not yet out of the closet), idealistically determined to save a world not at all interested in being saved. Almost immediately I committed the Socratic sin of causing the children of the city to question conventional authority in the name of wisdom and the hemlock came quickly and surely.

I could rarely admit to myself then how frightened I really was. The late night phone calls with deathly silence on the other end, the verbal homophobic assaults by former students in the grocery stores, the mud splattered all over me at the local beach, the nights when the pick up trucks would stop in front of my house with shotguns pointed out the windows, the days I would come home to broken beer bottles and citrus fruit smashed in my driveway in attempts to injure my dogs on the screen porch, events long repressed and forgotten came flooding back. I had truly been frightened. And I will be eternally in my father's debt for recognizing the grave situation I faced but couldn't admit to and coming to my house with his truck, insisting I load my stuff and leave at the end of the second school year. I don't know what he had heard. But I do know he probably saved my life.

As Ennis del Mar said in the story, "If this thing gets hold of us in the wrong place it could kill us." I've been in that wrong place and know Ennis' observation - born of his own experience of a fatal gay bashing his father forced him to observe up close - to be true. Living in the valley of the shadow of death can be debilitating. It can mark you for life. Denial of the fear, necessary to continue functioning and often accomplished through the consumption of more than ample amounts of pain and fear numbing alcohol, cannot last forever. And so it's not surprising that Brokeback Mountain evoked weeping, weeping for innocence lost, weeping for remembrances of vulnerability and desperate loves. This film touches places deep in the soul. For that Ang Lee is to be thanked.

Unlike Jack Twist, I have survived. And unlike Ennis, I have begun to find a way to overcome my sense of being without value, a work still in progress here at midlife. In many ways, I have been fortunate, finding a beautiful, gentle partner who could love me when I could not love myself, who stayed with me through the desperation that drove me to self-destructive behaviors and who has helped me find a modicum of stability and serenity, albeit a stability still vulnerable in an erratically sometimes just, sometimes frighteningly homophobic world.

I would like to believe that Ang Lee's film will win the Oscars it is touted as meriting. I'd like to think that people will be able to see the universal themes lying in the depths of this love story, so poignant in the scene where Ennis, visiting Jack's parents after his untimely end, discovers his own blood spattered shirt still hanging in Jack's closet, Jack's own shirt tucked securely inside it. I want to believe Americans can prove less superficial than the predictable "gay cowboy" reductionism already used to describe the film suggests. Time will tell. And perhaps by December I will be ready to face my dragon, allow the ragged edges of my soul to be prodded once again and see the film. As Ennis del Mar said, "If you can't fix it, you've got to stand it."

In the meantime, if you want to see the trailer that spawned this long, rambling introspection, I invite you to do so at:


Warning: The best advice I got from those who discussed the trailer on the list was simply this: Bring plenty of tissue.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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