Gay conservative writer Dale Carpenter calls his review of Brokeback Mountain a “dissenting view,” presumably because he’s a conservative in a liberal culture. Supposedly the review has generated some controversy when it’s been published. Carpenter claims that “nobody in the gay community” (except him, one might guess) is “even considering the moral complexity Brokeback Mountain presents.”
What is the moral complexity that Carpenter says is overlooked? He thinks the interests of the families, the wives and children, is being overlooked. He asks whether we should blame Ennis and Jack for their selfish choices, and says that he could not cry for them because of his anger.
I have some minor quibbles with Carpenter’s ideas (for instance, his criticism that the sex in the movie is artificial probably says more about his own experience rather than anything about Jack and Ennis), but overall I think the review is a good attempt to interject some moral complexity into the gay community’s dialogue over this seminal movie.
But why stop there? As long as we’re going to criticize viewers who, in Carpenter’s words, “believe that the only tragedy in the film is the thwarted love of these two men,” then let’s not stop in our consideration of moral complexity until we can go no further.
It’s worth asking where does Carpenter believe the moral complexity stops? Hard to say, though the only thing he finds worthy of mentioning is the hardship imposed by Ennis and Jack on the wives and children. He says his anger towards the men prevented him from feeling the emotional weight of the tragedy at the end. But what about the moral responsibilities of the women, especially Ennis’s wife. She knew, but said nothing, and decided to remain married as long as she did, and later she opted for divorce over, say, marriage counseling. She is no innocent victim of a bad, bad man. She’s a moral agent making her own way in the world in circumstances no less tragic than Ennis. We can have compassion for her plight, but we cannot dismiss her need to take responsibility for her life.
The tragedies of Brokeback Mountain start with the thwarted love between Ennis and Jack, but they do not end there. They go on… to all the moral choices made by the men and their wives… and to the society at large, so pervaded with homophobia and heterosexism that it kills the human spirit and leaves entire families, broken and scarred, in the rubble… and on… and on…
I’ve seen Brokeback Mountain twice, both times with a predominantly gay audience. And the tears of gay men are always flowing freely. More than one friend has told me he’s seen the movie twice and cried more the second time. My own emotive style is more quivery than weepy, and several scenes in the movie made me shake and sigh. I never know what’s going to stir me so viscerally, though it’s rarely what I would expect. I felt little when Ennis discovered the bloody shirt in Jack’s closet, but I clutched my stomach when Jack’s mom asked Ennis to come back. Her pain and loneliness and grief struck me like a ton of bricks. Putting myself in Ennis’s boots, I just wanted to step outside the house and puke.
Let’s applaud Carpenter for criticizing the shallow view “which sees in a multi-layered calamity only a beautiful but doomed gay romance.” And let us question his opinion that gay audiences are so superficial that their tears are merely the signs of compassion for two lovers. How the fuck does he know… or I know… or anyone know… why so many gay men are crying? Isn’t it enough that we are human enough to cry? Gays are not immune to seeing the multi-layered tragedy, even if we see the universal dimensions through our own lense. Very often in life it’s the pain of those most like ourselves that provides the opening to a flow of compassion and healing that is ever deeper and more expansive.