Thursday, December 29, 2005

Race to the Finish Line

OK, I've been playing media catch-up over the past week or so, consuming (mainly) music and movies as fast as I possibly can before the end of the year, while still attempting to give them their due.

I'm finally taking time to digest Extraordinary Machine, which grows on me, almost despite myself, with every listen (does anyone have a download of the Jon Brion version I can borrow or copy? I'd be curious to hear it and compare). I just got around to picking up Late Registration, which, at this early stage in my appreciation of it, I think might actually be better than The College Dropout (can it possibly be true?). And, I recently bought The National's album Alligator, which, if you squint, is about one flugelhorn away from being Cousteau, except for the fact that it's totally not cheesy at all, doesn't flaunt its sterilizing-your-bullet-hole-with-bourbon lyrics like "Karen, put me in a chair / Fuck me and make me a drink," and has way more than mood going for it. Plus, I loves me some world-weary baritone.

Went out to see Good Night, and Good Luck on Tuesday night, at long last. Yeah, it's kind of a glorified PBS special, and the plot, such as it is, is really just a vehicle for the archival footage and the commentary on the state of journalistic integrity in this country, but it's gripping as all get-out and rabble-rousing in just the right way. The evocative black and white visuals, though perhaps a predictable stylistic choice (really, though, what the hell else are you going to do with it?), are absolutely gorgeous. Clooney's turning into quite the little director, isn't he? I've heard folks make comparisons to Clint Eastwood, but I think between Clooney's leading man persona and his occasionally smarmy self-satisfied, self-righteous attitude, the more apt comparison might be to—wait for it—the Golden Boy, Robert Redford. There's a very Quiz Show vibe in the 1950s / loss of innocence / TV-insiderness of Good Night.

King Kong is nothing short of spectacular, in both the connotational and denotational sense of the word. As CTLA has often been known to say, I laughed, I cried, I took notes. Peter Jackson can do no wrong. He's one of the rare directors I can think of who possesses the ability not only to ratchet up the thrills way beyond anything you've ever seen on screen before, but also to then use and build on that visceral response he's just elicited from you in service of deepening your emotional reaction to the story. In one of the most brilliant edits I've ever seen, the movie cuts from the heart-pounding dinosaur stampede on the island to a shot of Ann Darrow getting dropped from Kong's palm when he returns safely to his lair. Far from being just an ADD-induced switch to the next scene, Jackson and his editor knew it was imperative to harness our exhausted, breathless, terrified, ecstatic excitement and transfer those feelings, seamlessly, over to Ann. When you literally feel like you've spent a couple hours in her shoes on this grand, confusing adventure, the heartbreak at the end is all the more potent. Highly recommended. Bonus points for catching the Sumatran Rat Monkey inside joke when they're taking a tour of the boat.

And then, of course, there's Brokeback Mountain. Ah, disappointment is such a loaded word, isn't it? Now, I know I'm going to sound like a pretentious wanker for saying this, and I'm totally, 100% willing to be proven wrong, but I just can't shake my suspicion that the medium of film itself is fundamentally unsuited to tell the story this story is telling. "Brokeback Mountain," the story, is a masterpiece. Don't get me wrong, I'm no Annie Proulx devotee, and I only just read it two or three weeks ago, but I was so immediately taken with its power that I knew it was going to be (no pun intended) an uphill battle for a movie to do it justice. The translation from page to screen is admirable; it gets everything from plot points and main characters to, in a general sense, the spare, stoic tone pretty much right. But, not to get all film schooly here, I don't think Fang Lee (yeah, I know it's Ang Lee, but I heard Hugh Grant once call him "Fang Lee" and I thought it was the funniest thing ever) sufficiently accounted for the way the sexualizing gaze of the camera would transform it from a love story that happens to get tangled up in homosexuality into a homosexual story that happens to get tangled up in love.

Maybe I'm just being immature, but considering how rife the tropes of the traditional movie Western are with homosexual undertones (as Stephen Holden aptly points out), it took everything in me not to want to snicker like a madman each time, pre-consummation, the two characters so much as glanced at one other, not to mention anytime anyone said anything about "fishing," "hunting," or "horseback riding." There's even a latent giggle in my tendency to, however affectionately, refer to the movie as The Gay Cowboys. I shouldn't have wanted to do that. I would never even be tempted to give the short story that nickname. I could stick a pen in my eye for temporarily reinforcing the unbelievably still-lingering, century-old fallacy that cinema can't summon the psychological richness that literature can, but, goddamn it, the visuals kind of trivialize what Proulx was trying to do here. Even without nudity or explicit sex scenes, film invites us as viewers to voyeuristically consider bodies in motion and when those bodies belong to two beautiful men kissing rapturously on the mountainside, then, by golly, you've got yourself a gay cowboy pitcha, no matter how much dialogue and how much Method is expended in service of the idea of it being about greater social issues or, yes, even capital-L Love.

The way I see it, this story is not about sex. It's not about homosexuality. It's about love. I know it's a slippery slope to talk about love in the context of gay rights, or, hell, even just general societal acceptance, but that's exactly what's so fascinating, to me, about Proulx's story. She posits this situation where two people who are the loves of each other's lives, and use their sexuality as a means of expressing it, don't know what to with themselves or the intensity of their feelings because they live in a culture that hasn't built room for the possibility of romantic/erotic same-sex relationships. In a variation on the drum that Dan Savage has been beating in this repressive, reactionary Bush era, our collective ability to deal with the reality that men will want to have sex with other men and women will want to have sex with other women should have fuck-all to do with notions of love or fidelity precisely so that when love does enter the equation, as it so clearly does in the case of these two characters, it doesn't result in the large-scale destruction of a person's family, other relationships, and sense of self. Of course, what better way to dramatize this conflict than in the context of stereotypically rigid gender roles carved out of the myth of the West. (Paging Dr. Higgins, ABD.) This place where public pressures collide with private certainties is the crossroads of heartbreak and tragedy. The last line of the story says it all: "There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can't fix it you've got to stand it."

My point being, did I get any of that out of the movie? I don't think so. (Please, by all means, let me know if you did.) I got a sense of heartbreak, a sense of "that sucks," and even a sense of poignancy in that final shot, but the fact of its being filmed added nothing to what was already present in the story. It just shifted it to another medium that leans a little more heavily on our heartstrings and robs some of the interesting tension that comes from what Nick Hornby described in this April's Believer as literary fiction's "ability to be smart about people who aren't themselves smart, or at least don't necessarily have the resources to describe their own emotional states."

Are all you other filmies keeping up with Slate's annual Movie Club? (Thanks to Mike O'D for reminding me the exchange had begun.) It's an awful lot to take in one go, but fun to rub your own opinions against. One of my favorite turns of phrase this season, courtesy of A.O. Scott: "I of course am pro-evil, anti-Christmas, and in favor of Brokeback Mountain being taught alongside Darwin (and, for that matter, Darwin's Nightmare) to schoolchildren." Also, Rosenbaum gives a very cool shout-out to his "friend and favorite film academic" Jim Naremore, whom I would probably describe with those two terms as well.

Happy fourth anniversary to the O'Ds today! And happy new year to the rest of all y'all, as I doubt I'll be posting again until we flip to '06. Cheers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the shout-out. We look like such little kiddo's in that picture! How did our friends let us do such a thing?!
Lots of love to you- M O'D