Saturday, January 13, 2018

Ennis in Brokeback: The Ultimate Show Don't Tell

One of the weirdest encounters I've had in the world of popular culture is with film critics who rate verbiage over visuals.

I've encountered this issue with reviews of manga, where I consider it odd. With films, it is positively bewildering.

Ennis from Brokeback Mountain is a good example of this larger issue. Apparently, when the movie came out, a well-known critic accused Jack of being a "predator" re: Ennis. This caused some fall-out since "predator" is a loaded term within any relationship and particularly within the gay community.

I came across this accusation shortly after seeing the film for the first time. My issue wasn't with the rhetoric. What threw me was the reading of the characters: had I misread them that badly?

So I watched the film again and came away with the same reaction I had the first time plus the additional reaction that film critics don't use their eyes.

Ennis is the ultra introvert of the film. Jack is the relative extrovert. Jack is far more likely to argue his case with Ennis, to speak his affection and desire. In addition, Jack is searching for a relationship; he is what sociologists call an affiliative rather than agentic extrovert. Jack isn't interested in awards or leadership--he isn't a "go-getter." He requires social interaction and daily affection.

In one of the most remarkable scenes in the movie, Jack tentatively flirts with a cowboy in a bar. What is remarkable is that the audience sees the scene not from the point of view of enlightened city-dwellers (Jack's behavior in a gay bar in any city would appear not only innocuous but unreadable--he is a reserved cowboy). Rather, the audience sees his behavior from the perspective of the culture in which he resides. Jack's behavior appears incongruous--and Jack as an outlier--because of his context, not his personality.

Jack is not the pursuer--he simply appears that way. And Ennis is not the pursued, as his actions (not words) betray.

Ennis is an intense, duty-oriented introvert. That doesn't mean he doesn't feel. As a pained Elinor explains in Sense & Sensibility,
"If you can think me capable of ever feeling—surely you  [understand now] that I have suffered. The composure of mind with which I have brought myself to consider the matter . . . did not occur to relieve my spirits at first. Then, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely . . . from openly shewing that I was very unhappy." (my emphasis)
Ennis's lack of verbal acknowledgement (his silence) is continually trumped by his "openly shewing" behavior: his willingness to take Jack's place on the mountain; his request for different food--that Jack likes--from Supply; his willingness to talk (dead giveaway):
Jack Twist: Friend, that's more words than you've spoke in the past two weeks.
Ennis Del Mar: Hell, that's the most I've spoke in a year.
Even more telling is Ennis's body language: his physical ease with Jack; his amusement at Jack's antics; his agitation on the days that Jack is supposed to arrive; his wrenching sobs alone (one of the most painful parts of the movie) when he and Jack are brought back from Brokeback early. The comparison to Elinor comes full circle since Ennis refuses to show his despair (other than in the fight with Jack, which Jack mostly correctly interprets) to anyone.

Ennis is no victim or un-involved partner. And although I am aware that extroverts often misread introverts (understandably since so much interaction relies on reading between the lines), I expect more from film critics. If one cannot read visuals, one might look for a different job.