“All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” writes Leo Tolstoy in the opening line of his saga of thwarted passion, Anna Karenina. All great love stories too are unhappy, but each in their own way.
Brokeback Mountain is a tragic love story of epic proportions. The passion shared by Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), grabs hold of the young men on a lonely mountain-side one summer and never lets go, marking them for a lifetime of sorrow and yearning that is the inevitable reward of true love. This is the stuff of Anna Karenina, Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise.
Brokeback Mountain is just the latest iteration of a narrative of tragic love that has gripped the Western imagination ever since troubadours in medieval France began to sing the legend of Tristan and Iseult. In one of the definitive books on the history of romance, Love in the Western World, Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont wrote:
Love and death, a fatal love – in these phrases is summed up … whatever is universally moving in European literature, alike as regards the oldest legends and sweetest songs. Happy love has no history. Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself.
A love affair between two hard-bitten cowboys set in Wyoming back in 1963 (or for that matter, today) meets all three criteria. Like star-crossed lovers through history, Jack and Ennis pursue a love forbidden by Church and Law, consummating their fevered desire in isolated mountain meadows, seedy motel rooms, with the knowledge that it may literally kill them. As it did Earl, the old cowboy a nine-year old Ennis sees lying dead in an irrigation ditch: “They’d took a tire iron to him. Spurred him up, drug him around by his dick until it pulled off, just bloody pulp.”
This is love as affliction, a madness that defies human reason and self-control – “There’s no reins on this one,” says Ennis – wreaking havoc and misery in their own lives and those closest to them. It is as great a tragedy for their bewildered wives, who too followed their hearts only to find themselves tied to unhappy, distant strangers unable or unwilling to love them. “I wish I knew how to quit you,” says an older Jack, saddened by a passion that in twenty years has given him little more than fleeting moments of happiness over a near-lifetime of solitary yearning.
Epic love stories have always been the stuff of great Hollywood movies, and the movie’s PR machine is selling Brokeback Mountain as just that, doing its best to play down the fact that this particular version involves two penises. Ledger told Time magazine, “I don’t think Ennis could be labeled as gay. Without Jack Twist, I don’t know that he ever would have come out. I think the whole point was that it was two souls that fell in love with each other.” His co-star Gyllenhaal also did his bit (though with far less eloquence) in an interview with ABC Australia: “Like, these aren’t, in my belief, these aren’t two, like gay guys. These are two people who fall in love.”
“This is not a gay cowboy movie,” he asserted again while walking the red carpet at the movie’s première.
But herein lies the irony: only a “gay cowboy movie” can meet the literary requirements of grand passion in 21st century America. As Rougement explains, love is only as immense as the barriers that prevent its fulfillment:
Unless the course of love is being hindered there is no ‘romance;’ and it is romance that we revel in – that is to say, the self-consciousness, intensity, variations, and delays of passion – not its sudden flaring. … passionate love at once shared and fought against, anxious for a happiness it rejects, and magnified in its own disaster–unhappy mutual love.
For straight folks, those barriers have long been eroded in the name of progress. The 20th century democratized marriage, tossing aside considerations of class, race, family affiliations. It also tore down the centuries-old separation of love and marriage, making wedlock the natural and desired objective of heterosexual passion. As old Blue Eyes summed it up, “Love and marriage/Go together like a horse and carriage/This I tell you brother/You can’t have one without the other.” The same custodians of social order who once tore asunder young men and women in love now nag them to “find someone and settle down.”
Wrapped in the chains of domesticity, Eros has over the course of decades slowly lost much of his perilous lure; the appeal of passionate love eroded by the ever-present prospect of being led down the aisle into the tedium of marital life. Today, even adultery – the last, remaining haven for illicit heterosexual passion – has been rendered mundane. A present-day Anna would either head straight to a marriage counselor or the divorce court, not the railway tracks.
The risks entailed in modern love are personal and individual, and so are its impediments. Where lovers once battled against social norms, they now wrestle with each other’s inner demons, which seem to be just as effective in keeping us apart. Love seemingly can conquer all, except our own fears of intimacy.
Our risk-averse generation enters into “relationships,” and “takes things slowly” to “the next stage,” as we work our way toward a “commitment.” As the risks of love have diminished so has our appetite for unreasoning passion. Eros and his brand of mad love has instead been relegated to the category of “sexual obsession,” the kind that turns us into creepy stalkers à la Fatal Attraction.
As the recent string of date flicks reveal – pick any Ashton Kutcher movie – Hollywood too has embraced the diminished scale of modern relationships. Great love stories on the silver screen can now only be found in period pieces like Pride and Prejudice, Titanic or The English Patient. That Brokeback Mountain too is set in the dangerously homophobic environs of the American West (as opposed to San Francisco or New York) and pre-dates the queer movement, is an indication of the fate that awaits homosexual tales of romance.
As calls for gay marriage gain support, and homosexual love enters the realm of social respectability, the gods of passion will once again succumb to dictates of mortal life. Progress suggests that the gay love stories of the future will look a lot like that other Hollywood staple: the romantic comedy.
Coming soon: When Harry Met Harry.