Almost Paradise: How Surveillance Problematizes the Public, the Private, and the Paradisiacal in Brokeback Mountain

“Almost Paradise” was written for CMS.796, Major Media Texts, taught last semester by Professor Eugenie Brinkema on the topic of “Forms of Love”.


Brokeback Mountain still

Let us first consider the sidewalk. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book about urban planning, Jane Jacobs prescribes conditions for the ideal use of sidewalks: “First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other…Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.” (35) Jacobs points to the inherent relationship of public/private space to surveillance and perhaps even anticipates the problems that may arise when these distinctions are unclear and when/where it is appropriate for natural surveillance to occur. This is exactly what we deal with in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. For Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, love is a spatial problem. Their relationship can only seem to find its full expression in the marginal mountains, backwoods, and wilderness — whereas outside of these spaces, the same relationship comes under scrutiny, becomes muted, and is hidden altogether. Specifically, the film deals painstakingly with what Lauren Berlant calls a “zoning” of love and desire to restricted and restrictive spaces, a term that we can think about in parallel to Jacobs’ language of city planning and clearly demarcating the public and private. This paper will examine how non-normative love/desire functions in public and private space and will aim to deconstruct how surveillance transforms love/desire in public/private space from paradisiacal to problematic. In this essay, I will address the following questions: How does the film structure “zones” of public/private space, and how are these structures antithetical or not to the ideals of paradise/fantasy when it comes to love/desire? How might surveillance disrupt what is allowed or not allowed in the public/private, and what does it mean that surveillance can convert paradisiacal spaces of plenitude into sites of shaming, discipline, and violence? After we’ve looked at these questions, we may then challenge whether love can be paradisiacal at all (as Jack Twist would say: “where the blue birds sing and there’s a whiskey spring”) with zones, or whether love/desire itself simply becomes a no-where or no-place that is impossible to inhabit.

“Paradise invariably requires isolation…The public space of Brokeback itself becomes a problematic zone, its openness seeming paradoxically restrictive as it grows more obvious that their relationship can only exist in spatial liminality.”

Foremost, we must be clear about how to deal with love and desire as they relate to space, as well as how they relate to notions of paradise and fantasy. I will be leaning on Lauren Berlant’s characterization of these concepts in Desire/Love: whereas desire is a “state of attachment to something or someone,” (6) love “makes a world for desire’s endurance” (7). Thus, love serves as a site for the repetition and continued iteration of desire. That is, love contains desire. This containment maps onto the idea of the “zoning” (14) of love/desire as mediated by external power structures. Berlant draws on Freud to illustrate this interdiction: “Questions about the designs of desire not only have consequences for the ways we think about intimate sexual practices, sexual identity, identification, and attachment: they also help us track sexuality in the political sphere and mass entertainment, since public sites help to designate which forms of desire can be taken for granted as legitimate, in contrast to those modes of desiring that seem to deserve pity, fear, and antagonism” (pp. 23-24). As Jacobs does with sidewalks, Berlant gives us a way of thinking of the relationship between love/desire, space, and surveillance — that is, public space is a zone in which desire is tracked and politicized. We can transpose and invert this notion within Brokeback to evaluate whether private spaces function the same way. Next, Berlant offers a taxonomy for love in relation to fantasy, claiming, “love is deemed always an outcome of fantasy” (69); in other words, fantasy produces love, and love cannot exist without fantasy. (For the context of this essay, I will be talking about fantasy and paradise synonymously, as both serve as utopian counternarratives to misery and suffering.) Williams echoes this in “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” in her discussion of the structures of fantasy, calling fantasy a “setting for desire” (10), which works productively with the idea that fantasy generates love. Given the logic that both fantasy and love can contain desire, we may also think about how love and fantasy often stand in for each other. Like Berlant, Williams also leans on Freud to introduce the idea of “original fantasy” (10) as a form of solving problems of difference. In this context, in the same way that castration might function as a fantasy to solve the problem of difference in gender and sex, we might say that love and fantasy offer a solution to the “quest for connection” in melodrama (11), e.g. through Jack and Ennis’ non-normative romance. So, if fantasy/paradise produces love/desire, and love/desire tends to be zoned within particular spaces, let us then consider Brokeback’s visual and textual rhetoric to understand how public/private spaces in the film establish where Jack and Ennis’ romantic relationship is cast as legitimate or illegitimate. I will also be investigating how the film treats vision and sight as modes of surveillance. First, I will focus on the problem of public and private zones, then move on to discuss how acts of surveillance can disrupt the function of these zones.

“Jack points out the zero-sum game that they have both been playing with regard to space: it’s either Brokeback or nowhere.”

On the surface, the film neither seems to privilege public space nor private space as sites that legitimize Jack and Ennis’ relationship to the viewer; we see positive expressions of their love/desire for each other in both public and private spaces. The film offers rhetorical cues for when public/private spaces are meant to be perceived as paradisiacal and affectively positive, versus when they become problematic and affectively negative on behalf of the viewer and characters involved. From the beginning of Brokeback, the film zones the mountains of Wyoming as a site that visually stands apart from others. In contrast to the bareness of the landscape around Aguirre’s cramped trailer office, wide shots of the landscape evince the openness and vacancy of the area (excepting the occasional wild bear, elk, and the sheep) as well as the distance between the mountains and the conventions that exist beyond them back on ground level. (We later also learn that Brokeback is a fourteen-hour drive for Jack from Texas, so this distance is neither imaginary nor exaggerated.) The mountains are also presented with a sort of Edenic visual language, often represented by verdant foliage and sweeping skies. Brokeback is a public space for unrestricted expression of the characters’ own selves as well as a space that “makes possible the love that overwhelms these two men” (Kitses 23). In a scene with Jack and Ennis in front of the campfire, Jack shrieks and facetiously mimics a rodeo cowboy and Ennis admits, “Hell, that’s the most I’ve spoken in a year.” Conversely, their tent, usually lit with warm yellow tones for its interior shots, serves as a private, enclosed space on the public, open mountain landscape. Using Williams’ concept here, the tent on the mountain is a fantasy/paradise that provides a setting for desire. The only other place that we see this happen is the motel room in Wyoming when Jack comes to visit Ennis, pointing at the scarcity of zones beyond Brokeback for their love/desire’s sexual expression. While public and private settings both enable Jack and Ennis’ romance, we are reminded too that paradise invariably requires isolation, a constraint that consequently disables and impairs their relationship. The public space of Brokeback itself becomes a problematic zone, its openness seeming paradoxically restrictive as it grows more obvious that their relationship can only exist in spatial liminality. This realization spurs a confessional confrontation the last time they see each other:

JACK: Tell you what, we coulda had a good life together, fuckin’ real good life, had us a place of our own. But you didn’t want it, Ennis! So what we got now is Brokeback Mountain. Everything’s built on that.


ENNIS: It’s because of you, Jack, that I’m like this. I’m nothin’. I’m nowhere…

Here, Jack points out the zero-sum game that they have both been playing with regard to space: it’s either Brokeback or nowhere. In the beginning of the movie, Aguirre tells Jack and Ennis: “You eat your supper and breakfast in camp, but you sleep with the sheep, hundred percent, no fire, don’t leave no sign.” Perhaps the fact that Jack and Ennis are asked to leave zero evidence of their presence on Brokeback foreshadows it as a place that eventually impossibilizes their relationship’s public inscription and existence. The film also casts domestic zones (the home, the workplace), which Jack and Ennis share with Lureen and Alma, respectively, as private spaces that their non-normative romance interrupts. By repeatedly escaping to Brokeback to be with each other, Jack and Ennis grow increasingly distant from their wives and families. Ennis and Alma’s marriage erodes and ends in divorce while Jack remarks about his relationship with Lureen: “As far as our marriage goes we can do it over the phone.” Jack and Ennis’ relationship seems to be impossible within these private domestic zones. We might also consider framing as another mode of zoning in the film. For instance, the dramatic scale of Brokeback that we see in the initial establishing shots shrinks to the dimensions of a postcard contained by the private space of Ennis’ closet. Similarly, the final shot of the film leaves the spectator with an eclipsed view of the wilderness that once dominated the screen, as seen from the inside perspective of Ennis’ claustrophobic trailer home. Furthermore, the problem of framing also manifests itself in the film’s mixing of genres. Whereas genres are designed to frame (and perhaps zone) types of narratives, Brokeback imports the Western into melodrama: “The melodrama contains the action, the heroes unable to achieve self-definition…But at the same time the Western’s conventions can be said to constrain the melos, lowering the emotional and stylistic peaks, the extreme gestures, the ‘music’ of the melodrama” (Kitses 27). Thus the film’s narrative classification itself is one marked by containment and constraint — the same language that Berlant and Williams use to talk about love, desire, and fantasy — with no clear place or definition in one genre or the other. While Kitses might say that the dissonance between genres works to “naturalize” (25) the queer love story, it problematizes both the public identity and private interior lives of the protagonists in that the public performance of masculinity and heteronormativity that often accompanies the Western genre seems irresolutely discordant with the private non-normative sexual and emotional lives of the film’s protagonists. Any naturalization of their relationship is only possible through fantasy (through the characters and the spectator), considering the ultimate death of their relationship. This returns to the idea that fantasy can be read as a convention that solves problems of difference, in this case the difference between heteronormativity and homonormativity. Now that we have looked at how fantasy and paradise operate across the film’s different zones, we can say that both public and private space seem to invite and evict the possibility of Jack and Ennis’ romantic love, making paradise appear reachable and remote in both demarcations of space. If this is true, then these sites have the ability to play twin, Janusian roles: to suspend as well as provoke the Fall. What prompts the oscillation is the figure of surveillance, which we will examine next.

Brokeback Mountain promotional still

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault writes, “Visibility is a trap” (100). This could be an appropriate epigraph to consider alongside the discussion of sight and surveillance in Brokeback. Acts of surveillance serve as a means of appropriating political, sexual, and economic power in the film. The power that one gains through surveillance has the ability to transform both public and private sites of plenitude into ones of paucity. To start, let us dissect different readings of surveillant acts in the film. One reading of surveillance is that it is a a way of ensuring security. Jack and Ennis’ sole duty on Brokeback is to watch Aguirre’s sheep (i.e., to surveil them), and the conceit of this act is that watching the sheep equals protecting the sheep. However, despite their vigilance over the animals, their stint on Brokeback inevitably results in the death of sheep, losing track of sheep, and mixing-up of sheep with another herd. While at first blush we are meant to think of surveillance as a form protection or accounting, the film suggests also that it often leads to more violent consequences like tracking and intrusion.

“Given that both public and private space can be disrupted by acts of surveillance, do we also need to think more deeply about what this does to notions of privacy?”

Suddenly, the mountains, “like the oceans, aggressively visible” (Kitses 25), make possible the intrusion of Aguirre’s binoculars on the spectacle of Jack and Ennis’ relationship, changing the initially idyllic setting into one of public shame. Aguirre’s vitriolic denial of a job for Jack is a direct result of his surveillance over Jack/Ennis, from which he makes a judgment on their their lackadaisical work habits and sexuality: “Twist, you guys wasn’t gettin’ paid to leave the dogs baby-sit the sheep while you stemmed the rose. Now get the hell out of my trailer.” While looking is something that grants political and economic power between Aguirre and Jack/Ennis, it is also a mode of gaining and conceding sexual power between Jack and Ennis. Jack holds a sort of ocular advantage over Ennis, the latter characterized by his verbal and visual restraint, usually pictured looking at away from his interlocutor and seldom speaking long utterances. When they first meet, Jack regards Ennis in the rearview mirror of his pickup truck. In the tent the first two times they have sex, we see close-up shots of Jack’s face looking at Ennis, whereas Ennis’ eyes are either closed, looking downward, or unpictured. Hats, especially when it comes to Ennis, work to accentuate when looking happens or does not happen, as they have the ability to obscure and block the gaze. Ennis uses his hat to shield his face from view when he traumatically breaks down in the alley after his and Jack’s first separation. So, if Jack is a character who often looks, Ennis is then a character constantly anxious about being looked at, which prompts further questions about how surveillance can be actual as well as perceived. To revisit Discipline and Punish, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, as discussed by Foucault, is one of the more widely cited figures in the discourse on surveillance. It is an architectural design for prison institutions that is meant “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” and renders surveillance as “permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in action” (201). For Ennis, going into town means entering a panoptic zone that raises certain anxieties about being watched, about others knowing about his homosexuality: “You ever get the feelin’, I don’t know, uh, when you’re in town, and someone looks at you, suspicious, like he knows. And then you go out on the pavement, and everyone’s lookin’ at you, like they all know too?” Ennis’ sense of public space as sites of judgment conjoin both Berlant’s claim that public spaces help to designate what is legitimate (pp. 23-24) with Foucault’s idea of “judges of normality” being present everywhere, making private matters feel as though they are public concern. According to that reading, surveillance is not limited to public space at all; it can also intervene anywhere, through anyone. Foucault suggests, “We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements” (304). In short, anyone can be a watcher for what is “normative” or not, and anyone can be watched, anytime. Ennis’ decision to live on the outskirts of town and on what Alma calls “lonesome old ranches” is perhaps a deliberate decision to stay away from sight, surveillance, and the judgment that often accompanies it. Still, he is unable to avoid surveillance even in the private space of his home. Alma’s gaze leads her to discover Jack and Ennis kissing in the alley, and her intrusion upon Ennis’ crail case for fishing through her note (“Hello, Ennis, bring some fish home. Love, Alma.”) is an act of surveillance that confirms her suspicion of her husband’s relationship with Jack. She later uses the knowledge of their relationship to disempower Ennis’ role as a husband and father, first through filing for divorce and later during a violent confrontation during Thanksgiving. Even after the divorce from Alma, a reticent Ennis turns Jack away in barely a mouthful of words in front of his ranch. Importantly, he does this in the presence of his daughters, who, though they are not cast as surveillant actors, still seem to give Ennis a sense of being watched and judged. Ennis’ paranoia about being watched may also stem from his childhood memory of seeing the dead body of Earl, a homosexual man in his community, meant to be a warning to others who strayed from society’s conventions. The fact that Earl’s murderers are never revealed and that circumstances of Jack’s death are left ambiguous suggest that anyone in the public anomie could have been and could still be responsible for this policing of sexuality, a notion that would rightly inspire fear and paranoia.

“That Jack can never answer to Ennis; that there are no witnesses; that both the shirt and postcard get folded back into the recesses of the closet; that this takes place in a constrained private space.”

Finally, the most striking convergence of all aforementioned notions of the public/private, fantasy/paradise, love/desire, and surveillance is the figure of marriage. With regard to zoning public/private space, weddings occur in public settings with witnesses. We see Ennis and Alma get married in a church full of people, and tragically, we see their marriage end in a courthouse likewise populated with other bodies. Marriages are officiated/unofficiated (read: made legitimate/null) in these public settings. As far as fantasy/paradise goes, weddings historically bookend narratives to point at a “happily ever after,” a sort of paradise in itself. The final scene involves Alma, Jr., asking for Ennis’ permission to get married, then departing toward her wedding in the proximate future. Alma, Jr.’s marriage-fantasy is juxtaposed with another. What happens next in that scene can also be regarded as a sort of lo-fi wedding: Ennis stands facing Jack (represented by an object, his shirt), backgrounded by a postcard that stands in for Brokeback Mountain, and utters the words, “Jack, I swear…” The incompleteness of this phrase invites the spectator to fill in the ellipses to approach some meaning, but one must not ignore that these are words that we also hear, incidentally, in wedding vows. Despite the fantastic possibility of this wedding, it is a moment that is marked by impossibility. That Jack can never answer to Ennis; that there are no witnesses; that both the shirt and postcard get folded back into the recesses of the closet; that this takes place in a constrained private space of Ennis’ trailer rather than an open public one suggests, like the postcard print of Brokeback, that the fantasy of their love can only be sustained through simulacra, lacking true definition in public space. Then again, what I said about a lack of witnesses in the final scene is not totally correct. There is at least one intended witness to the lo-fi wedding: the spectator. Same-sex marriage had still not been legalized in the United States by 2005, when this film was released. Reading this scene against a real-world political context may assign it a different meaning. Perhaps the fantasy of witnessing a same-sex marriage works toward provoking public surveillance of such an event instead of preventing it, with the sense that such a provocation might instantiate change, evoke empathy, even naturalize this love story.

Ennis declares that it is because of his relationship with Jack that he is “like this,” that he is “nowhere.” Incidentally, the Greek root for utopia, a synonym for paradise, comes from ou, meaning “not” and topos, meaning “place.” As we have seen, Brokeback is simultaneously the only place Jack and Ennis can be together and no place for them to be together. Our investigation into how the concepts of public/private space, love/desire, and fantasy/paradise interact gives rise to a new set of questions to consider, primarily: is it possible at all to achieve or arrive at paradise through love/desire when it must be zoned, surveilled, accounted for, politicized, patrolled? Zoning, in the case of Jack and Ennis’ relationship, seems antithetical to non-normative love/desire and fantasy/paradise. Acts of surveillance work toward enforcing containment, as in the case with the sheep on the mountain and Alma’s fishing note, but we may also read containment as ultimately futile. The sheep still get mixed up; Ennis and Alma still divorce. However, surveillance deeply debilitates those who attempt to cross (or “ooze,” to revisit Jane Jacobs’ language) over designated zones. And given that both public and private space can be disrupted by acts of surveillance, do we also need to think more deeply about what this does to notions of privacy? Perhaps privacy provides a mechanism for self-determination, and since the failure of Jack and Ennis’ romance is rooted in their “inability to achieve self-definition” (Kitses 27), it is lack of privacy (and not lack of private space) that problematizes the fantasy. In both public and private settings, Jack and Ennis’ “life together has been one apart” (27), impossibilized by the zones their love/desire was restricted to. Ennis and the spectator are left the sole solution of resolving this problem of space through fantasy, which, as Rushdie would say, speaks to “the human dream of leaving, a dream at least as powerful as its countervailing dream of roots…It is a celebration of Escape, a great paean to the Uprooted Self, a hymn — the hymn — to elsewhere” (qtd. in Batchelor 74).


Batchelor, David. Chromophobia. Reaktion Books, pp. 64-75, 2000.

Berlant, Lauren. Desire/Love. Punctum Books. 2012.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translated from French by Alan Sheridan. Vintage Books: New York, NY, 2009.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage Books: New York, pp. 34-35, 1961.

Kitses, Jim. “All That Brokeback Allows.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3. University of California Press, pp. 22-27, 2007.

Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal. River Road Entertainment, 2005. Film.

Gay Marriage Timeline: 2000-2004, 2005-2011.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4. University of California Press, pp. 2-13, 1991.

Lily Bui

About Lily Bui

Lily Bui's masters research focused on using sensors to support environmental monitoring, and communicating sensor-based data to different stakeholders. She is currently a PhD student at MIT's School of Architecture & Planning in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning. She holds dual bachelor's degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. Before joining MIT CMS, she worked at Public Radio Exchange (PRX), where she helped generate and distribute science public radio; and SciStarter, where she helped find and tell stories about citizen science. In other past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she can be spotted on a surfboard or skateboard (and/or strumming a ukulele) somewhere warm. Thesis: Sense and the City: Representations of Air Quality Data in the “Smart City”


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