Saturday, January 21, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

It's the film that's virtually a lock for best picture when the Academy Awards go down in a couple of months, and after seeing the film, it's pretty clear why. The best picture winner usually takes a classic Hollywood formula, but twists it in a modern way. In talking about the comics audience, the general wisdom is that the audience wants the same, but different, and it's the same here. Gladiator was a sword and sandal epic, a classic genre, but with modern style and effects. A Beautiful Mind was a throwback to classic biopics like The Life of Emlie Zola and Brokeback is a fairly classic Hollywood melodrama love story, with the twist that the love is between two men.

It's a really strong film, not my best of the year, but certainly a satisfying, emotional filmgoing experience. Heath Ledger becomes the character, and it's his struggle that dominates the film, choosing between his own desires and the life that society suggests for him. The initial mountain stuff is obviously necessary, but I think the far more interesting part of the film is the middle section, where both Ennis and Jack struggle to put their experience behind them and truly engage in their new lives. Watching Ennis with his wife and kids is difficult because you're always aware of the fact that he's not fully there. He's just playing a role, and that's ultimately the film's primary theme, how the masks we wear, the lies we take on obscure our true desires.

The film reminds me a lot of Wong Kar-Wai's stuff, particularly In the Mood For Love/2046, both men have the same problem that Chow did in 2046 when they try to move on from this mythologized love, but both are held hostage by it, unable to commit to anyone else. It's also similar to Before Sunset, in the way the characters have an almost antagonistic relationship, holding up that brief moment as the best time in their lives, and troubled by the fact that they can never recapture it.

However, what makes this different is the sexual orientation issues. When Ennis is unable to make a life with his wife, is it just because she's a woman or is it because she's not Jack? In Jack's case, it seems clear that he's using Lureen as a shield for the outside world, and part of why he's so annoyed with Ennis is the fact that he's much more open with his sexuality. Lureen seems to pretty much go along with whatever Jack's doing, she's much more independent than Alma. Ennis is someone who seems unable to initiate a relationship, always finding an excuse to not pursue something further. The only reason he is with Jack in the first place is that Jack opened up to him, similarly Cassie practically had to drag him onto the dance floor to start their relationship, and after a while, he let her just drift away.

Ultimately, Ennis is held back by his fear. He struggles to admit to himself that he loves Jack, the only moment we see him being emotionally open is when Jack first turns up at his house after the four year absence, there the emotions overwhelm him. But other than that, he always remains guarded, right until the end when he refuses the chance to make a real life with Jack. At the end of the film, the news that Jack was thinking about fixing up the farm with another guy hurts Ennis because it means that Jack was able to do what he never was, and move on.

However, by doing so, Jack also brought about his own death. The tragedy of the film is that these two people are trapped in a society that won't allow them to do what they want, but they're tormented by the memory of a place where they were free enough to do anything. In some ways, the end of the film basically excuses Ennis for his refusal to emotionally commit. His fear of being a target of violence turns out to be valid. So, there basically was no solution to Ennis' problems, he did the safe thing, and he still ended up broken.

Another thing I really liked in the film was the score, which used a lot of variations on the same basic theme, the closing swell of that theme was very powerful. However, on the whole, this was a film where the filmmaking was basically invisible. It was all about just telling the story. There's nothing wrong with that, but I don't think the film reaches the emotional or visual heights of 2046. This isn't a movie designed to work in that style, but I feel like 2046 does a better job of wrapping the viewer in a world of regret. I guess the difference is Brokeback Mountain is like witnessing real events, while 2046, with its jumbled chronology is like experiencing a memory, the perception of events rather than the reality.

But, it's still a great movie, and one I'd be perfectly happy to see pick up the Academy Award.


Keith G said...

I basically agree with everything you've written - it is a classic Hollywood melodrama with the gay twist. (Hehe - Jack Twist.)

The audience I saw it with was primarily gay and the reactions amongst them were much more mixed than the mainstream audience is or will be. They were grateful for seeing two men in love on the big screen in an honest way, but had differing views on whether the film commented on their lives or was simply a period piece.

I think that's the only problem with the idea that this film will somehow give straight audiences insight into gay men and queer society. Straight people are more likely to embrace the story and gay men will embrace what the film stands for - a mainstream film with medium-name actors with gay characters.

As usual, Ang Lee captures a time and a place superbly and the characters fit in there perfectly. Ledger was wonderful but I don't think Jake should be overlooked at all. And Michelle Williams was also excellent (the film improves on the short story by fleshing her character out and giving some time to Anne Hathaway's character as well).

It may not end up being my favourite film of the year either - and if it were competing with my top ten of 2005, it would have been head-to-head with 2046. Which would have won? Almost impossible to say, for the reasons you give - one is reality and the other is memory.

If it wins the Oscar for Best Picture, though, it will be the first film to do so in a while that at least was near the top of the films I enjoyed that year.

Patrick said...

Yeah, it's set in a completely different time, when you couldn't be openly gay, at least in the Midwest. So, it doesn't comment that much on the gay experience today. The film that it reminds me of is Far From Heaven, in how it shows you this older view of homosexuality, and by showing this more extreme version of prejudice, it brings into focus where we've moved forward, and where we still have to go.

And I'd definitely agree about Jake, I thought he was great, and I'm surprised that he doesn't even seem to be in consideration for the best supporting actor race. He certainly was stronger than Michelle Williams, even though she was good as well.