Author Topic: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?  (Read 27435 times)

Offline Casey Cornelius

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Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« on: May 03, 2007, 12:14:11 pm »
A number of posters - lauragigs, Amanda, Daniel and miniangel started a discussion about the symmetries in Brokeback in Amanda's  'loveable subtle details' thread, but I've transferred the content here so that it does not capsize Amanda's worthy thread.  Let's go brokies - hoping that the above members will repost their replies and keep this going !!


I'd affirm miniangel's notion that the film folds in upon itself with such certainty that I feel it is something we need to explore more.   We've spent hours seeking out bookends and mirrors which are obvious and evident throughout the whole film, but I'm convinced that these are all arranged in a symmetry which miniangel has alluded to.

I've always been obsessed with the idea that the film is exactly symmetrical around a central image which has haunted me since about my 5th theatrical viewing of the film. 

At precisely the 1:07:59 timing of the film, there is a shot of a determined, purposeful Ennis entering the bathroom in his Riverton apartment, toothbrush in mouth, to retrieve something from the medicine chest .  As he opens the door bringing its mirror into view of the camera it creates an image of his face mirrored symmetrically in the centre of the frame. This is followed immediately by a reverse shot from the rear of him exiting the bathroom which exactly mirrors the previous shot of him entering.  If you trace outwards from that moment, one can track plot, verbal and visual elements which are exactly symmetrical on either side of that moment which is close to the precise mid-point of the film's 2:14 running time.  SIDEBAR- I've always thought of that singular, striking bathroom mirror shot telegraphing at a deeper level, Ennis's acknowledment of his abandoning the staid, conventional marriage to Alma and the start of his commitment to a giddy, headlong relationship with Jack.  For all intents and purposes, one life is at that precise point irrevocably replaced by another.


In addition to those pointed out by miniangel my initial random observations would see :
1 - the Jimbo the Clown scene mirroring the Mexican Alley scene, Jack attempting to pick up another man;
2 - Alma and Ennis innocently frolicing in the snow mirroring the Thanksgiving debacle with the snow gently falling outside- the first and last times we see her together with Ennis in the film;
3 - exactly tracing out from the previous elements - Ennis self-inflicting pain on himself in the Signal alleyway, whimpering inchoately and yelling at an anonymous by-passer miiroring his picking a fight with an anonymous truck driver with the unconscious intent of stupidly inflicting pain upon himself with the beating in the road
4 - Ennis picking a fight and kicking with a balletic kick the biker in the presence of Alma and his daughters at the Riverton July 1 fireworks mirroring his picking a fight with Alma in the presence of his daughters and kicking over the ash-bucket with a balletic kick as a substitute while the girls play on a swing-set [with its appliqued star decals a possible visual symmetry with the fireworks, but that might be a little too much !]
5 - the obvious one which we've all mentioned of the opening and closing scenes taking place in similar looking trailers, Aguirre's and Ennis's, but adding to this the idea [discussed just last night in the chat room with Ellemeno, Meryl, Amanda and others] that the first meeting of Jack and Ennis has elements of a marriage ceremony mirroring the discussion of the same in Alma Jr's marriage to Curt.
6 - the final shot with the wind blowing through the grass visible in the open window on the right hand side of the frame balancing the icons in the closet on the left of the frame as homage to Jack's intensely felt absence from Ennis's life mirroring an opening shot of the film with Jack's  impressive, confident profile on the left side of the frame balancing the wind blowing through the grass visible on the right side, the first time Ennis ever laid eyes on Jack.  This use of symmetry within the frame is an obvious use of a technique championed by Michelangelo Antonioni, a film-maker whom Ang Lee has declared one of his major influences.

Just a few thoughts "for what its worth", but I am convinced that these are not random.  True, it could be argued that the film uses so many of the same visual and verbal elements throughout that there is bound to be some repetition.  But I have a gut feeling that the exact symmetry of the film which reads to me like the equivalent of a palindrome is an intentional structural feature by Ang Lee much as composers such as Bartok and J.S. Bach have been shown in musical analysis to have mapped a similar two-dimensional symmetrical structure on top of the fluid chronological, psychologically experienced medium of their multi-movement compositions such as the Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste or the St. John Passion.


Casey
« Last Edit: May 04, 2007, 01:27:40 am by Casey Cornelius »
What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand ...

Offline Meryl

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #1 on: May 03, 2007, 01:14:01 pm »
Thanks for starting this, Casey.  It's great having some of the ideas first discussed at IMDb brought over for further thoughts. 

This particular topic has always made me wonder how the screenwriters came to decide to do this kind of balancing/mirroring act.  Maybe just the fact of having two marvelously balanced protagonists whose relationship rises, then falls, was enough to start the juices flowing.  I looked up palindrome and was interested that the definition is from the Greek, translated as "running back again."  The word "back" always means something interesting when applied to Brokeback Mountain.

Your discovery of the midpoint is crucial, and I think it's apt: two Ennises caught for a moment when he's reflected in that mirror.  Out of that image, each half of the movie spools out and then "runs back" in.  Brilliant.

Trying to find the balancing scenes is a challenge.  You mentioned some great examples.  Here's a thought from me, which I'm sure you and others have noticed.  The first postcard from Jack, which starts their new relationship, comes at a moment when he has accepted his commitment to a woman, Alma.  The last postcard, although it's Ennis's own postcard coming back (there's that word again), is also a message from Jack, which ends their relationship irrevocably, and it comes after Ennis has rejected his commitment to a woman, Cassie.
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Offline serious crayons

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #2 on: May 03, 2007, 01:51:17 pm »
I think this is a fascinating topic, one I have pondered before. There is a lot of symmetry in the movie, and it definitely is not random. My only problem is I've never gotten the pallindrome to work quite as neatly as I'd like. The scenes seem more roughly symmetrical than perfectly symmetrical.

I don't have a DVD so I can't measure the exact times, but here are a few that I think would be approximately opposite each other if BBM were an inkblot.

The scene in Signal where Ennis helps Jack get his truck ready to go, then Jack stands at the open truck door and announces he's going to see his folks. He hopes that they will get together again, but Ennis says he can't. Shortly afterward, Ennis collapses in tears. A guy in a black hat looks in on him and Ennis yells him what the F he's looking at.
and
The scene at the lake where Ennis helps Jack get his truck ready to go, then Jack stands at the open truck door and announces he's going to see his folks. He expects that they will get together again, but Ennis says he can't. Shortly afterward, Ennis collapses in tears. A guy in a black hat goes to help him and Ennis yells at him to get the F off him.


The scene where Aguirre rides up and says "here I am" and peers out at something in the distance. Jack follows his gaze, and realizes they've been seen. Jack has the chance to be with a relative or be with Ennis, and he chooses Ennis.
and
The scene where Jack rides up and says "here I am." Ennis peers out at something in the distance. Jack follows his gaze, and realizes Ennis is afraid of being seen. Ennis has the chance to be with relatives or be with Jack, and he chooses the relatives.


The scene where Ennis is sitting on a log by the campfire, thinking. He looks over at the tent, gets up and goes inside. There, Jack wraps his arms around Ennis (who is wearing a shirt).
and
The scene where Ennis is sitting on a stool by the radiator, thinking. He looks over at the closet, gets up and goes inside. There, Jack's shirt is wrapped around Ennis' shirt (the same one, right?).
« Last Edit: May 03, 2007, 06:24:24 pm by ineedcrayons »

Offline Casey Cornelius

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #3 on: May 03, 2007, 01:53:27 pm »
Meryl,
Thanks for replying - I'm excited by this topic as you can tell.

I'm not sure Proulx, McMurtry and Ossana would have had the symmetry in mind as it's not necessarily a literary conceit, but a filmic one created by Ang Lee.
 I think it's a product of Ang Lee's oriental Weltanshaung.  It's a cliche to we occidentals that Chinese art, literature, drama, feng shui etc. stress harmony and balance, but I had no idea of how pervasive it was until spending 5 weeks in China last summer.  Whether viewing ancient two-millenia-old monuments such as the Shin terracotta warriors and the First Emperor's Mausoleum or the layout of incredibly modern Pudong in Shanghai, symmetry is paramount and primary to their visual sense and conception of the universe at large.  I'm not even sure that the apparent symmetrical structure of the film spooling out and then running back - as you so brilliantly state it - would have been a conscious conceit on Ang Lee's part.  It's probably so ingrained in him that he didn't even deliberately consider what he was doing in the framing and editing.
BUT, the sense of symmetry reaches into other aspects surrounding the film [about which Ang Lee might or might not have had authority] such as that wonderful Titanic-marketing-inspired publicity shot of the two boys
looking out in different directiions - Janus-like.  It's both a wonderful image expressing both their emotional proximity AND their inability to fully realize a life together as they look down and in different directions.

I think you're spot on with your suggestions for symmetrical visual and plot elements.
The die is cast, the gauntlet thrown down - let's keep seeking ...
Casey
« Last Edit: May 08, 2007, 06:06:15 pm by Casey Cornelius »
What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand ...

Offline southendmd

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #4 on: May 03, 2007, 01:59:15 pm »
Wow, this is great to think about.  The bathroom mirror image is indeed striking.  

I have to go back and look at Amanda's thread, but I thought I'd list a few balancing scenes that come to mind.

***Of course, the "right-to-left" truck balancing the "left-to-right" truck.

***Ennis's paper bags, I'm sure has been mentioned.

Here's a couple more:

***Aguirre and Old Man Twist balance each other, as the face of intolerant society.

***I was trying to think of what balanced the Twist Ranch scene; it's so unlike anything else in the film.  My first association was of Ennis climbing the stairs:  maybe that's balanced by going up the mountain in the first place.

The ascent up the mountain is all about youth, discovery and the future; new possibilities; new friendship, new love.  Ennis's ascent up the Twist stairs is about death, loss, memory, and a different kind of discovery.

Offline Casey Cornelius

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #5 on: May 03, 2007, 02:01:38 pm »
ineedcrayons [Katherine]:

Your reply was posted while I was replying to Meryl's post.

Your suggestions of symmetries are spot on.  

I don't think it matters that they aren't exactly symmetrical - like an inkblot as you say [love the analogy !!]
That they have just an approximate chronological symmetry does not obviate them to my mind, nor should it to yours.
I'm not saying and do not at all believe that Ang Lee would have consciously made so schematic and artificial a film that it is so rigidly symmetrical - that would be a case of formal construction overwhelming expressive, human, emotional content, sort of like bad 12-tone music. From the pervasive and ubiquitous uncontrollable emotional response it has generated, we all know that is not the case.

However, it cannot be denied that many of us apprehend a much more formal symmetry upon multiple viewings than is obvious from initial viewings of Brokeback.
Casey
« Last Edit: May 03, 2007, 02:18:38 pm by Casey Cornelius »
What Jack remembered and craved in a way he could neither help nor understand ...

Offline Meryl

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #6 on: May 03, 2007, 02:09:24 pm »
Thanks, Casey.  Yes, of course I should have included Ang Lee in the mix with the screenwriters.  What he brings to the story is what makes it all work so brilliantly.

Katherine, just wow.  I love how you've put those scenes against each other so perfectly.


***Aguirre and Old Man Twist balance each other, as the face of intolerant society.

***I was trying to think of what balanced the Twist Ranch scene; it's so unlike anything else in the film.  My first association was of Ennis climbing the stairs:  maybe that's balanced by going up the mountain in the first place.

The ascent up the mountain is all about youth, discovery and the future; new possibilities; new friendship, new love.  Ennis's ascent up the Twist stairs is about death, loss, memory, and a different kind of discovery.

Aguirre and Twist both sit behind a desk or table, like a judge, and make pronouncements and give orders.  One sends them to Brokeback, the other denies the return to Brokeback.  So interesting.

Speaking of Ennis and the stairs, I think someone once made this comparison:  At the reunion, Ennis sits at a window looking out for Jack, then runs down the stairs to embrace him.  At the Twist house, he mounts the stairs, looks out the window and doesn't find Jack, then goes to the closet and embraces the shirts.

The ascent up the mountain could possibly be mirrored by Ennis leaving the Twist house.  One journey is his first with the living Jack, the other is his last, with what remains of Jack.  One is going up a mountain, the other is over a flat plain.
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Offline serious crayons

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #7 on: May 03, 2007, 03:19:06 pm »
**I was trying to think of what balanced the Twist Ranch scene; it's so unlike anything else in the film.  My first association was of Ennis climbing the stairs:  maybe that's balanced by going up the mountain in the first place.

Well, people have noted that the climb up the Twist staircase corresponds to the climb up the mountain. And at the top of the stairs, the bedroom corresponds to the campsite. There's a gun, a fire/radiator, a log/stool, a closet/tent.

So what scene do we see as corresponding to the Twist kitchen? It could be Aguirre in the trailer, I guess, except that scene better matches the trailer scene at the end. So is it the scene after they come down from the mountain, when Aguirre is complaining about the sheep count? There's a grouchy, contemptuous older man in each scene. And one has sheep that never went up there with them; the other has ashes that won't be going up there with Ennis ... Or, another way to look at it, one grouchy man complains about sheep that never went up there with them and the other complains about Ennis never going up to Lightning Flat with Jack.

Another thing that keeps the movie from being TOO symmetrical is that scenes can be matched a variety of different ways. For example, in my post above I correlated the scene where Ennis collapses at the lake with the scene where Ennis collapses in the alley. But the lake fight/collapse ALSO echoes the fight before Jack and Ennis come down from the mountain. Ennis gets angry in both; Jack comforts him in both.

Ang or Larry or Diana or all three obviously intended it to be intriguingly symmetrical, but they mixed it up just enough to keep us guessing.  ??? :)
« Last Edit: May 03, 2007, 06:26:39 pm by ineedcrayons »

Offline Front-Ranger

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #8 on: May 03, 2007, 11:00:34 pm »
A number of posters - lauragigs, Amanda, Daniel and miniangel started a discussion about the symmetries in Brokeback in Amanda's  'loveable subtle details' thread, but I've transferred the content here so that it does not capsize Amanda's worthy thread.  Let's go brokies - hoping that the above members will repost their replies and keep this going !!


I'd affirm miniangel's notion that the film folds in upon itself with such certainty that I feel it is something we need to explore more.   We've spent hours seeking out bookends and mirrors which are obvious and evident throughout the whole film, but I'm convinced that these are all arranged in a symmetry which miniangel has alluded to.

I've always been obsessed with the idea that the film is exactly symmetrical around a central image which has haunted me since about my 5th theatrical viewing of the film. 

At precisely the 1:07:59 timing of the film, there is a shot of Ennis entering the bathroom in his Riverton apartment to retrieve a  toothbrush.  As he does so he opens the bathoom medicine chest bringing its mirror into view of the camera creating an image of his face mirrored symmetrically in the centre of the frame. This is followed immediately by a reverse shot from the rear of him exiting the bathroom which exactly mirrors the previous shot of him entering.  If you trace outwards from that moment, one can track plot, verbal and visual elements which are exactly symmetrical on either side of that moment which is close to the precise mid-point of the film's 2:14 running time.  SIDEBAR- I've always thought of that singular, striking bathroom mirror shot telegraphing at a deeper level, Ennis's acknowledment of his abandoning the staid, conventional marriage to Alma and the start of his commitment to a giddy, headlong relationship with Jack.  For all intents and purposes, one life is at that precise point irrevocably replaced by another.


In addition to those pointed out by miniangel my initial random observations would see :
1 - the Jimbo the Clown scene mirroring the Mexican Alley scene, Jack attempting to pick up another man;
2 - Alma and Ennis innocently frolicing in the snow mirroring the Thanksgiving debacle with the snow gently falling outside- the first and last times we see her together with Ennis in the film;
3 - exactly tracing out from the previous elements - Ennis self-inflicting pain on himself in the Signal alleyway, whimpering inchoately and yelling at an anonymous by-passer miiroring his picking a fight with an anonymous truck driver with the unconscious intent of stupidly inflicting pain upon himself with the beating in the road
4 - Ennis picking a fight and kicking with a balletic kick the biker in the presence of Alma and his daughters at the Riverton July 1 fireworks mirroring his picking a fight with Alma in the presence of his daughters and kicking over the ash-bucket with a balletic kick as a substitute while the girls play on a swing-set [with its appliqued star decals a possible visual symmetry with the fireworks, but that might be a little too much !]
5 - the obvious one which we've all mentioned of the opening and closing scenes taking place in similar looking trailers, Aguirre's and Ennis's, but adding to this the idea [discussed just last night in the chat room with Ellemeno, Meryl, Amanda and others] that the first meeting of Jack and Ennis has elements of a marriage ceremony mirroring the discussion of the same in Alma Jr's marriage to Curt.
6 - the final shot with the wind blowing through the grass visible in the open window on the right hand side of the frame balancing the icons in the closet on the left of the frame as homage to Jack's intensely felt absence from Ennis's life mirroring an opening shot of the film with Jack's  impressive, confident profile on the left side of the frame balancing the wind blowing through the grass visible on the right side, the first time Ennis ever laid eyes on Jack.  This use of symmetry within the frame is an obvious use of a technique championed by Michelangelo Antonioni, a film-maker whom Ang Lee has declared one of his major influences.

Just a few thoughts "for what its worth", but I am convinced that these are not random.  True, it could be argued that the film uses so many of the same visual and verbal elements throughout that there is bound to be some repetition.  But I have a gut feeling that the exact symmetry of the film which reads to me like the equivalent of a palindrome is an intentional structural feature by Ang Lee much as composers such as Bartok and J.S. Bach have been shown in musical analysis to have mapped a similar two-dimensional symmetrical structure on top of the fluid chronological, psychologically experienced medium of their multi-movement compositions such as the Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste or the St. John Passion.


Casey

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Offline Penthesilea

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Re: Brokeback's filmic structure a palindrome ?
« Reply #9 on: May 04, 2007, 08:03:04 am »
We've discussed the "inkblot" symmentry before, but I'm glad Casey brought it up again and I'm astonished by all the insightful additions by all participants.

Quote
4 - Ennis picking a fight and kicking with a balletic kick the biker in the presence of Alma and his daughters at the Riverton July 1 fireworks mirroring his picking a fight with Alma in the presence of his daughters and kicking over the ash-bucket with a balletic kick as a substitute while the girls play on a swing-set [with its appliqued star decals a possible visual symmetry with the fireworks, but that might be a little too much !]

No, it's not too much (the star). Just yesterday I mentioned that star on the swing-set again on another thread. It stands out so clearly. Always, with every single viewing, I stumbled across it.
I buy the theory that it mirrors the fireworks on the spot.