10 January 2006

Brokeback Mountain is no Chinatown

Brokeback Mountain - dir. Ang Lee - 2005 - USA

What do Chinatown and Brokeback Mountain have in common? Well... honestly, very little, aside from one key detail: their titles. Both Chinatown and Brokeback Mountain signify a physical place, but in the context of the films, they more accurately represent a time and, most accurately, a state of mind associated with the place itself. For Chinatown (duh), the memory is not a happy one. For Brokeback, it's a time where our two leads could disappear from the annoyances of their exterior worlds and live in the harmony of the free air. Jake (Jack Nicholson) spends his time in the film trying to forget Chinatown, though he’s ultimately doomed to repeat that history with Faye Dunaway. Another Jake (this time Gyllenhaal) can’t stop thinking about Brokeback Mountain, yet ends up never truly rekindling the magic.

One might assume that by comparing Brokeback Mountain with Chinatown, easily one of the greatest films of all time, that I hold Ang Lee’s gay cowboy epic in a similar regard. You would be wrong. Where these two films initially separate is in the depiction of the place that they’re each named after. The physical Chinatown, as you should know, doesn’t arrive onscreen to the final moments of the film, and the state of mind associated with the locale is only mentioned cryptically (but enough for us to understand its significance). The physical Brokeback Mountain is introduced within the first ten minutes of the film; its significance unfolds before our eyes. This, in itself, doesn’t seem bad at first, for the film’s time on the mountain is easily the best time spent in the film. The shots unfold with a quiet, calming beauty, a picturesque display of Americana (this Taiwanese director sure has a thing for it, with this and his overrated The Ice Storm). The clouds drape the blue skies, fully wrapping a sanctuary around our two cowboys. What’s best about these scenes is the use of audio. Dialogue is scarce. What we hear most is the whistling of the wind in the trees, always a bit too restless; there seems to be a storm brewing throughout the men’s entire stay on the mountain. Ang Lee used similar tactics in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, using the setting and movements to reflect the general tension and mood of the film. When our lovers finally elope, they embrace violently, almost beating each other up with passion. A friend of mine argued that this reflected more a woman’s idea of how two “straight” men would react when giving into their carnal sexual desires (the short story the film’s based on was written by a woman). I might argue the men’s physicality works best in the context of Ang Lee’s work (well, really, only Crouching Tiger…). The fighting in Crouching Tiger is the same as the (yes, I’m going to say it) fucking in Brokeback Mountain. Both use outward physicality and choreography to personify the feelings within the character.

So where does the film go wrong? Promptly when we leave the mountain. When we’re brought back to the real world, we see Brokeback Mountain is going to unfold just as we suspected. Ennis (Heath Ledger), a man of few words, marries and begins a life of boring domestication. Jack (Gyllenhaal) marries a wealthy rodeo gal (Anne Hathaway), has a kid, and turns into a salesman for top-of-the-line farm equipment. Jack’s willing to drop everything to be with Ennis; Ennis can’t ditch his responsibilities nor deal with the social ramifications of their relationship. The men see one another monthly, going on “fishin’ trips” and Ennis’ wife (Michelle Williams) finds out. And so on. Brokeback Mountain is simply complacent with being a pretty run-of-the-mill tale of forbidden romance. Just because it’s a Hollywood flick about two dudes in love doesn’t make it any less typical. When we become aware of how things are going to unfold, we’ve lost interest. Lee inserts a few “for your consideration” scenes (notably when Michelle Williams confronts Ledger about his fishing trips), but otherwise, the film simply coasts. I found myself almost grateful when Scary Movie’s Anna Faris showed up onscreen as the chatty, annoying country gal sister to her character in Lost in Translation, simply to loosen the film up.

Perhaps it’s Lee’s point to make the second act of Brokeback Mountain mundane. The only time I truly felt connected with the film was on the mountain, and perhaps the annoyances and boredom of the rest of the film is as it is to show us that the magic on the mountaintop cannot be reclaimed. If this is the case, he does his job well. That doesn’t mean I can’t ask for more.

Pick of the Day: The Opening of Misty Beethoven - dir. Radley Metzger (alias Henry Paris) - USA
A porno Pygmalion! While the crass Deep Throat may have started the trend in the early 70s of mainstream porno chic, The Opening of Misty Beethoven is probably one of the most glorious porn films of all time. Director Metzger was best known for his European-influcned erotica (with such titles as Score, The Lickerish Quartet, and Therese and Isabelle). After Score, Metzger ventured into legitimate porn, and this is his crowning achievement. Sex-positive, sincere, and actually rather funny, Misty reminds us of a time when sexual experimentation and pornography were not smutty, dark, evil things.


dirtylooksnyc said...

I can see your point, however, in the context of contemporary cinema, I think that Brokeback is better than you're implying. Also, there is a whole lot of contextual weight that it holds that you're not aknowledging.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I agree. While the film does sort of coast in the middle section, it really does have some great scenes towards the end, especially that of Ennis interacting with Jack's parents. A lot of visceral hatred and bitterness on the dad's part, sheer grief and surprising candor from Ennis, and quiet strength from Jack's mom Great camera work for the entire scene. Heath Ledger did an amazing job with the entire film.