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.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

X-Men 244-254

After the flawed, but undeniably epic Inferno, X-Men crashes to Earth with the weakest period since the first Cockrum run. Up through Inferno, there was always a strong sense of purpose and moving forward, the plot and character arcs were constantly progressing and there was a sense of some ultimate destination. Looking back, it seems like, in a lot of ways, Fall of the Mutants was the climax of Claremont's run, with that storyline he said basically everything that needed to be said, and wrapped up the primary thematic question of the book, as the X-Men finally proved themselves to be heroes in the public eye.

If Fall of the Mutants was the thematic resolution, Inferno provides the resolution for a lot of the lingering plot points left over, and when Inferno is finished, there doesn't seem to be that much left to do. If X-Men was a TV show, I'd imagine Fall of the Mutants as a perfect series finale, and then Inferno is the movie. But, it's not like that, the series goes on, and things are suffering a bit here, primarily becuase the book no longer has a strong sense of direction. This is the result of a number of factors.

The first major one is that the original Claremont characters, the most well developed in the X-verse have been spread thinly around the universe, meaning that there's barely anyone left in the book actually called X-Men. This is another case of the business needs messing with the creative, Kitty and Kurt were shipped off to make Excalibur a viable book, but that hurts the flagship title. In the 230s, Claremont put together a pretty solid new team, but with this series of issues, he goes around systematically dismantling it. Wolverine is always missing, in 247, Rogue is sieged perilously, then Storm is 'killed,' Longshot leaves, and eventually the remaining four X-Men go through the Siege Perilous and vanish from the book. By Inferno, Claremont was starting to make the new team pretty interesting, but they're ripped apart before they can really gel, and by 254, we're left with a bunch of random people, the core cast is completely gone.

I feel like Marvel was taking advantage of the fact that people are going to buy the book called X-Men, even though X-Factor or Excalibur had more of the characters who were with the X-Men in their glory days. But, I can't just blame this on corporate, Rogue didn't go anywhere, and Claremont still wrote her out. I guess what they were doing here was setting things up for the introduction of a new team, but it wasn't a wise decision to get rid of the book's entire cast, except for Wolverine.

Tracking back a bit, on an issue to issue basis, this run is pretty weak. After Inferno, Claremont does two comedy stories about the X-Men taking a night out. They're decent, but it feels a bit contrived. It's partially because even when the X-Men are trying to take off, they still wind up fighting various evil factions, so the whole point of the issue is undermined. It would have been better to give them some real time off, and let us get to know the characters better. The thing I did really like from 245 was the 'Jean Bomb,' a parody of all the Jean-related issues from Inferno.

246-247 has an arc where Nimrod comes back and gets turned into Master Mold. This arc brings things back to the human/mutant anxiety, which is good, but the death of Senator Kelly's wife feels like a plot device more than a real emotional moment, because it comes about so quickly. Plus, Claremont once again places a female character in the kinky maid outfit of the Hellfire Club. He's definitely got a specific taste when it comes to women's attire. This little storyline was pretty strong on the whole though, the best of this run of issues.

248 is one of the worst issues in a long time. The Nanny robot from way back in 118 or so returns and takes control of the X-Men, terrorizing them in their base. 249-250 is another bomb, no surprise considering it takes place in the Savage Land. I don't think it's possible to write a good story set in the Savage Land, and this one is no exception to that rule. The whole plotline doesn't make much sense, and it just seems to be a series of weak action sequences. This storyline also introduces the bizarre gimmick where Lorna Dane somehow becomes a giant, not good.

251 at least brings some focus back, as Wolverine returns and is attacked by the reavers. The issue also sees the other X-Men go through the Siege Perilous, an odd choice because it means that we're down to one X-Man left in the book. I guess the point of this run of issues is to completely dismantle the current team of X-Men to pave the way for rebuilding later. It's an admirable idea, but in 251 and 252, it means too much action that doesn't really go anywhere. The reavers aren't particularly interesting, and have all the hallmarks of bad 80s design work. They don't really have any character development, so it's not interesting to watch the X-Men fight them. Also, because of their cyborg nature, they can take huge amounts of damage and still come back, a problem with a lot of recent Claremont villains. When he decided that the marauders could be ressurected, Claremont completely undermines the moral and dramatic tension of fighting them.

So, with all the characters gone, and after a weak string of issues, the book wasn't looking that good. The whole experiment in making the X-Men dead led to nothing but having them teleport all over the world battling people, with no agenda or development, and none of the long running character arcs that were once Claremont's trademark. I think having the X-Men dead could have worked well, but there was never any exploration of what it did either to the people they knew or society as a whole. And having Gateway meant that there were no consequences of being isolated in Australia. Claremont gave them too much power, and because they didn't have to struggle, it meant that there wasn't as much dramatic involvement as in the Byrne or Romita era. The era from about 200 to Fall of the Mutants was fantastic because there was a sense of complete chaos and constant danger. The X-Men had no control over their situation, they were just trying to survive, now they're in no danger, they've become too good at what they do.

That may be why Claremont saw the need to reset things and send the X-Men away, leaving the title pretty much vacant. This allows us the chance to meet up with some characters who hadn't appeared in a long time, most notably Moira. She hadn't been in the book since the end of the Massacre and it was good to check back in. Once again, there's some bizarre Claremont wardrobing, like her leather miniskirt and halter top outfit she wears when doing tests on Lorna, but on the whole, her and Banshee feel much more human and developed than the X-Men had in recent issues. It's good to see Banshee back, he had been out of action for roughly 130 issues, so he's no the finely tuned pro that the X-Men were.

I guess that's the big problem with the Australia era, the X-Men had become a perfectly efficient, almost military unit. They'd lost the messy humanity of the early Claremont years. While Jubilee was clearly brought in to create a dynamic similar to early Kitty, it's notable that when Kitty came, the X-Men welcomed her as a family member, while Jubilee sneaks around their complex, scared of the X-Men. They're no longer a welcoming group, they've become hardened by the years of battle. I'd suspect this was influenced by the popularity of Wolverine, they made all the characters, most notably Havok, like him. However, that ignores the fact that the joy of Wolverine is watching him deal with more emotionally open people, to recognize his savage side with his human side, so if everyone's like him, there's nothing interesting about him.

The other really cool element of 253-254 is the return of Forge. He was there for one of Claremont's finest hours, Lifedeath, and he's still one of the best characters that Claremont developed. I love how Mystique is now essentially good, rebelling against the government's orders that she collaborate with Forge, the man who killed the X-Men. Her relationship with Destiny is also really interesting, I wish Claremont got to play out the idea that the two of them are Nightcrawler's parents, with Destiny as his mother and Mystique as his father. Watching Mystique's anger at Forge here is one of the first times we see the emotional impact of the X-Men's death on those who loved them, both for Mystique and Forge.

So, at the end here, things are looking up. In the 230s and 240s, things got so bogged down with big action storylines that Claremont lost sight of a lot of the book's supporting cast, and it's good to see them return. The book has a momentum it hasn't had since the buildup to Fall of the Mutants.

I'd be curious to understand what led up to all the X-Men getting sent through the Siege Perilous. It's pretty risky to write out every single character, it raises the question of whether X-Men is still X-Men without any of the main characters. Stepping away from the business end of things, I think it was a mistake to completely separate the core of Kitty, Storm, Wolverine, Kurt and Colossus. Even post Mutant Massacre when most of the team was split up, the presence of Wolverine and Storm made it feel like X-Men, you just need two of those five together to keep that feeling of team. However, by splitting them all up, the book lost any sense of emotional core, while Claremont did make some good characters since, no one's matched those five. That's why the Mutant Massacre was so momentous, more than the death of the Morlocks, it was the death of the X-Men as they were. The core family unit was broken in that conflict, and ever since then, things haven't been the same. As much as I admire Claremont for continuing to push things forward, in this case, that new direction has lost sight of the book's emotional core.