Brokeback Mountain and Its Influence on the Genre

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Genre is a complex element of film, often interacting differently across adaptations. Annie Proulx’s text Brokeback Mountain, and Ang Lee’s film adaptation, include elements of a multiplicity of genres, though most predominantly the western and melodrama. If genre is to be defined through setting and iconography, Brokeback Mountain, with its filmography of landscape, is a western. However, defined through character and plot, the story is a romantic melodrama. It closely follows conventions of both, combining the traditionally masculine western and feminine melodrama to form a hybrid genre. The timeless environment of the cowboy film becomes the foundation of a queer romance. This essay seeks to explore how Brokeback Mountain has ‘taken an established conventional genre by the horns’2 B. Ruby Rich, ‘Review of Brokeback Mountain’, The Guardian, (2005) [accessed 7 March 2019] (para. 3 of 16). , intersected and mutated it, and how the relationship between literature and film communicates the treatment of genre.

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Deliberations of genre work differently in opposing medias. Genre can be exemplified through mise-en scene, with settings and costume often ‘encourag[ing] the spectator to make assumptions about a film’s genre’3 Andrew Dix, Beginning Film Studies, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p. . Proulx maintains the macho hero image of the ‘supple body made for the horse and for fighting’,4 Annie Proulx, Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories, (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p. although this image is ironic, as the body’s main interjection in the narrative is during the men’s sexual encounters. Proulx’s writing informs genre by incorporating western men into a melodramatic plot, intentionally creating a running commentary on the western’s hidden sexual agenda. In the adaptation, the focus on the implicitly homosexual western narrative challenges the ‘gendered codes of film genres and their essentialised concepts of the audience that often attempted to separate the western from the melodrama’5 Gary Needham, Brokeback Mountain, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010) p. 92. . Thus, the audience is forced to question how useful genre is in updating the story, with Lee reworking Proulx’s western image through contemporary political concerns surrounding homosexuality.

Lee offers a combination of the archetypical lone ranger and epitomes romantic hero through character representation. His reliance on genre aesthetics is most prominent through Ledger’s apathetic performance of Ennis, the quintessence of the western ‘brave, generous, unselfish man’.6 Annie Proulx, ‘How the West Was Spun’, The Guardian, (2005) [accessed 4 March 2019] (para. 1 of 33). This exemplifies the contextuality of the western in conveys some form of machismo to male audiences, encouraging hero-worship of the outsider. Yet, the film does not adhere to western convention, with no gunfight or epic dual. The closest Lee comes to presenting a climactic moment of confrontation between the pioneer and the wilderness is during Ennis and Jack’s final meeting at Brokeback, where a series of close-up shot-reverse-shots between the two resembles a stereotypical gun dual. This is pertinent to Lee using long shots to always keep the men within the same frame, but physically distanced. This scene presents Jack in the foreground, with the deep focus on Ennis in the background, retaining Proulx’s intentions of Ennis as the protagonist. Whilst visibly separated, by remaining in the same frame, Lee reminds us of love existing across time and space, with ‘nothing ended, nothing begun.’7 Annie Proulx, Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories, (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p. Lee testifies to western conventions through the cowboy aesthetic in this scene, though subtly differentiating Jack and Ennis’s costume. Ennis stands with his jacket buttoned up, hat concealing his face, which indicates his homosexual repression. Despite the open space around him, Ennis is still held captive through his costume.

If it were a melodrama, this scene would typically be a moment of resolve. Instead, social repression prevents the melodrama’s ‘happy ending […] the one formal feature […] that virtually everyone can identify.’8 The camera arches around Jack, not in a typical full circle, but a semi-circle that signifies the inability for either genre’s plot to come full circle. The camera stops, cutting to a long shot of Jack standing in front of Brokeback Mountain, jacket open and hat tilted, symbolising freedom. The western expanse in the background is empty of civilisation, and the only location in the film without a subdued colour palette. Whilst it is a place for homosexual freedom, the emptiness of the land epitomises the loneliness of a disparaging society. Yet, Jack manages to free himself from social conformity, unlike his romantic counterpart, planning a life for himself and Ennis. Nonetheless, using a deep and shallow focus dichotomy, with the shallow focus on Jack, suggests such a life cannot be fulfilled, foreshadowing Jack’s unfortunate fate.

The interaction between genres is most prevalent through the presentation, and inclusion, of women. Alma and Lureen, the female leads, receive more on-screen presence from Lee than Proulx, inhabiting roles as active observers. The lack of female presence in Proulx’s work directs the reader to focus on the love and loneliness lingering between the two men. A common convention surfacing in western films is that of the strong man and the virtuous woman who can redeem him from his uncivilised life. This plot converges with the melodrama, in which a hero, often a lone ranger, saves an endangered heroine. The role women occupy develops ‘love plots in the Western, in which [they] often represent[ed] the antithesis of the cowboy experience.’9 Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003) p. 47. Proulx’s writing heightens the role of ‘men as heads of families and business empires’,10 Stephen Neale, Genre and Hollywood, (London: Routledge, 2000) p. and the protagonist’s struggle to achieve this. The complicated gendered identities in Brokeback Mountain, with its differentiation in hero and heroine role, undermines the formula of both genres. The women uphold their husbands’ heteronormative social positions. This comes into conflict when Jack and Ennis reunite for the first time, with Alma as their witness. Jack’s ‘hat fall[s] to the floor’11 Annie Proulx, Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories, (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p. as Alma oversees ‘their mouths [coming] together’.12 Annie Proulx, Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories, (London: Harper Perennial, 2006) p. The hat is removed from Jack’s body, their relationship is no longer secretive as they have unknowingly been caught.

Lee also informs genre through music. The melancholic nature of the western is produced through non-diegetic cowboy music, only apparent in scenes where the men are living heterosexual family lives. The western music invades scenes of melodrama, acting as a symbol of repression, whilst the western scenes include nothing in the audio track but room tone. The silence, and sound of nature, is significant in portraying the freedom they could contain in the western.

Repression is further presented through character. Propp’s theory of folklore, used to structure melodramatic plots, argues the same rudimentary characters exist in each story. Arguably. Alma embodies the villain component of each genre, disrupting the men’s relationship. Furthermore, according to Esselman, the ‘image of the knight and the concept of the quest are reflected in the American western’.13 Kathryn C. Esselman, ‘From Camelot to Monument Valley: Dramatic Origins of the Western Film’ in Focus on the Western, ed. by Jack Nachbar (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974), p. 9. The role of the knight in the melodrama, and the western hero, thus belongs to Jack, the true ‘hero [who] secretly fears women and civilisation’.14 Philip French, Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, (London: Secker & Warburg Limited, 1973), p. 66. Proulx created Jack as a hero appropriate of the truest western definition, ‘[as] the embodiment of good’15 Philip French, Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre, (London: Secker & Warburg Limited, 1973), p. 48. , which Gyllenhaal performs faithfully. His quest involves seeking justice for his homosexuality in a repressive society. Ennis therefore takes on the feminine role, torn between conforming to social norms, and his passion for Jack, the knight enticing him away from his heteronormative relationship.

In the film, Alma’s role as a villain, a symbol of oppressive western society, is indicated through a shift in hierarchy of knowledge. The adaptation presents Alma as a more three-dimensional character than Proulx intended. The scene previously discussed, where Jack and Ennis are reunited, remains an indicative moment for Alma in the film, as she, and the audience, learn the true nature of the relationship. This period of separation between the hero and heroine, significant of a melodrama, is represented through the time the men spend apart. Furthermore, Proulx’s inclusion of Alma creates a love triangle symbolic of the melodrama, with the western outsider, Jack, disrupting the relationship, and consequently the genre. However, Proulx also dismisses Alma, neglecting to develop her. Lee emphasises her role through a point of view shot, incorporating more pathos than usual in a western. This forces the audience into an empathetic position, as Alma is placed behind a closed door, symbolising the barrier forming between her and the family unit she is entitled to. Thus, Alma, Lureen, and Cassie, a character solely created for the film, exemplify fatally damaged women.

The film’s Thanksgiving scene visually represents the pressures existing on heterosexual orthodoxy, reminiscent of Butler’s queer agenda. The scene has a dual nature, unlike Proulx’s writing which only visualises Thanksgiving from Ennis’s perspective. Lee’s deeper focus establishes a more empathetic stance, visualising the corrosion of the nuclear family. This is translated through the conventional mode of framing, using a medium shot to capture Jack at the head of the table. This shot follows Jack’s row with his hyper-masculine father-in-law. The deep focus establishes Jack’s patriarchal position as he significantly carves the turkey. This scene then cuts to a close-up of another turkey being carved. Whilst we witnessed Jack maintain his machoism, Ennis occupies the role of the passive observer, as Alma’s new husband is established as the alpha male.

To conclude, the relationship between western and melodrama can be compared to that of Ennis and Jack. Both simultaneously blend together, yet inevitably come into conflict in the end. The story does not fulfil conventional generic plots. Just as Ennis and Jack have no resolution, neither does genre. Rather, the text is a conglomeration of genre, with the film relying on melodrama, and the text focusing on the western.

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