Two men’s shirts

February 27, 2006 / Thoughts on Brokeback Mountain and reaction to Jefe’s blog posts.


I finally saw Brokeback Mountain last night. If you haven’t seen it yet but are inclined to at some stage, stop reading when you finish this paragraph. Then immediately go and see the movie. In the spirit of the “La, la, la” response to spoiler-avoidance, just take the recommendation on faith and fork over your $10 at the local cinema. (You’ve only got a few days before the Academy Awards too, if you go in for that sort of thing.) If you have seen the movie, or don’t intend to, there should be minimal danger in continuing, and then not so much from the fact as from the opinion…

Read on, MacDuff!

In some recent posts Jefe has commented extensively on Brokeback Mountain and I’d like to follow up on one of his questions: why is the film so curiously a-historical? Jefe writes:

I can’t help but wonder why Proulx, who holds a doctorate in history, tells us exactly when the film begins—five months before the assassination of JFK—and thereby allows us to know about when it ends—just as AIDS is exploding onto the nation’s front pages—even as she refuses any explicit reference to history outside of that starting date. Countless revolutions occupied those twenty years, but among the least remarked-upon of these revolutions is the unmooring and transformation of American masculinity.

To me it seemed that seclusion is one of the film’s most important devices—the entire story unfolds on the other side of some imperceptible boundary between the world of history and a “timeless” tragic landscape. I don’t mean that things happen in a temporal vacuum (as an aspect of time), but rather in a place that, by virtue of being physically and socially remote from the metropolis, resists the tug of history (timeless as an aspect of place). It seems to me that this distancing of the context of the film’s action heightens, almost to an audible buzz, the “psychological” components of a brilliant narrative, as Jefe also points out when quoting Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books:

As Brokeback makes so eloquently clear, the tragedy of gay lovers like Ennis and Jack is only secondarily a social tragedy. Their tragedy, which starts well before the lovers ever meet, is primarily a psychological tragedy, a tragedy of psyches scarred from the very first stirrings of an erotic desire which the world around them—beginning in earliest childhood, in the bosom of their families…

[This is] specifically a movie about homophobia.

Absolutely. It’s about being so thoroughly embroiled in relations of hatred and fear that the very landscapes that the characters escape to in their brief moments together only serve to act as a more perfect theatre for their problem than if they had stayed in the city—it seals them off from the world of political and social struggles (homophobia as a social problem) and leaves them alone with their troubled and demanding relationship: unalloyed, potent and irreconcilable (homophobia as a personal and inter-personal barrier). The movie shows not how social struggles have their roots in personal problems, but rather how personal problems have their roots in apparently immutable social conditions, and how people internalise those conditions and travel closely with them, often throughout their lives.

Brokeback Mountain shows us the tragedy of a monumental, life-spanning, impossible love—soul-mates if ever there were—by showing us the cords and ropes that connect specific characters to the experience of a deeply distressing fate. Most amazingly, we sense the truth of their unrequited love (in the sense of a lifetime spent apart) through the eyes of Jack’s mother when Ennis comes down from Jack’s room not with his ashes, but with their entwined shirts. She knows what is really worth knowing, and the moment she shares with Ennis gives them (and us) some sudden and unexpected comfort. In the small, unspoken communication that passes between them, we witness an incredible yearning for her son and for that which mattered most to him in his life, and which therefore mattered most to her.

Without doubt this was a movie about homophobia. A story about how it fucked up the lives of the two characters and all those they touched. About a social problem that is so personal that it begins with fathers, sons, mothers and daughters, and never relinquishes its grip on the living. We don’t question that Ennis believed Jack’s sincerity when he said that they could have had a beautiful life together, but he never really understands it until he sees their two, bloodied shirts in Jack’s closet: evidence of a lifetime commitment to the ideal. Probably it would never have worked. As Jefe explains so well, the dreamed of double-life that Ennis denied Jack was founded on the privatisation of their love and so also the amputation of their humanity. Homophobia created the people that they were, destroyed Jack and left Ennis with a fuller realisation of his loss.

This was, quite simply, the best movie I have ever seen. I cannot recall ever connecting to a movie with such force, or having felt so altered afterwards. Elena and I had difficulty leaving the cinema which was more rightly at that exact moment a place of mourning rather than entertainment. It felt a bit weird. I think I may be forever affected by the thought of those two men’s shirts, enfolding each other in the closet. The images is a requiem, perhaps, for universal love and loss, but more importantly, for Jack and Ennis.


Regarding the title of this post: “Three mens shirts” is a term coined by Elena, that denotes an ambiguity because specific ownership cannot be determined. Does the phrase mean three shirts for any men, or more specifically, the shirts of three particular men? The problem was first defined as a typographic one (the absence of an apostrophe on a “three-pack” of men’s t-shirts), but the more I think about it I don’t know that adding or subtracting the apostrophe really changes the underlying uncertainty of meaning—it all comes down to the context. Anyhow, I leave it up to the reader to determine the level of specificity or generality appropriate to any particular application of the phrase, including the title of this piece. It’s a thinker.

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