Saturday, December 31, 2005


Friday Movie Review (late)

Went with daughter Alex to director Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy movie. It was pretty good--kinda sad. Alex cried. I didn't. I hate to nitpick from the beginning, but it is a film ostensibly occurring largely in Wyoming (1963 to 1983) shot entirely outside Wyoming--mainly in Canada (looked like Alberta) with a shot or two from New Mexico. Is it too expensive to shoot in Wyoming or are the mountains there not spectacular enough? I was a for real cowboy on the west side of the Wind River Mountains (opposite side from Riverton) in 1979, on a ranch two hours south of Jackson Hole, Wyo, and I think the mountains there are as pretty as they get. Tough to believe it's too expensive to shoot in Wyoming. Also the two cowboys (one time shepherds) may not be completely gay, at least Heath Ledger's character, Ennis Del Mar (don't laugh, that's a good Wyoming name), may not be. I'll get back to that.

I have seen the last two movies of a trilogy Ang Lee made in Taiwan--Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet. (Didn't see Pushing Hands). I can see and hear shadows and echoes of themes in those two movies repeated in this one. Let me explain. The Wedding Banquet is about a gay Chinese man who agrees to wed a 'beard' (a nice Taiwanese girl with no green card) in order not to shame his more traditional family (they find out about his sexuality and don't really care). In the weirdly named Eat Drink Man Woman, a father worries and sacrifices for his three daughters who are having a difficult time find happiness in the modern world while still yoked with the ancient duty they owe their father. In Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboys also have wives and families and Ledger's laconic character worries and sacrifices about at least one of his daughters. Anne Hathaway (more about her later) has a familiar look of both horror and pride when Gyllenhaal finally stands up to her father. There are more theme echoes.

Because of the very sympathetic portrayal of the gay couple in The Wedding Banquet, I always thought that Ang Lee was gay. I could be wrong. He has been married since 1983 and has two children, sons. (Of course, Ledger's character was married with two daughters--so that's no guarantee). That Mr. Lee is a rabid Calgary Flames fan mediates for his heterosexuality (but I guess a 'beard' can take any form). I was about to declare him straight when I ran across these two quotes about this movie and now I'm back on the fence:

It could be the hidden side of you; I think making movies is a great way to release that. I think it is important to be honest with that, and have fun with it.
There's a private feeling to the movie, an intimate feeling. I think eventually everybody has a 'Brokeback Mountain' in them. Someone you want to come back to. And of course, some people don't come back.

Hidden side of you, huh? Some don't come back. Hmmmm?

Here's why I doubt Ledger's character Ennis is gay. He clearly loves Jake Gyllenhaal's character, Jack Twist, but we never see him troll after any other men. Indeed, he immediatley hooks up with his bride, Alma, and after the divorce, lands another filly, played by the cute little nurse with the diabetic son on ER. Hardly the stuff of hard core gaydom. Gyllenhaal on the other hand admits that the infrequent sex he has with Ledger is not sustaining and we see him consort with a male prostitute in Mexico and make minor moves on other men (which apparently is his undoing). He's really gay even though he is able to make love to and then marry Anne Hathaway, the Texas barrel racer. We get to see her ample yet natural looking breasts (which is a treat); but then also have to watch her turn into a bitter, brittle, loveless Texienne in her late 30s, like many whom we probably know and don't like. Not as big a treat.

This movie is not a tragedy. It is sad because it seems the waste of a love, not at all the waste of lives. In a moment of doubt and pain, Ledger blames his station on his love that dare not speak its name for Gyllenhaal. But was he really going to do better had he not fallen in love with a man? What seems saddest is that the guys can't be what they really are except on pretend fishing trips in the middle of nowhere from time to time away from prying eyes (at least of their wives). But this is a repeated theme from an earlier movie Sense and Sensibility (another triumph for Mr. Lee). In that movie, the women, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, were also constrained by the walls society built for them to live behind as poor, high-born women. But in that earlier movie, their savior was love. Here love is the very problem.

In the broadest sense, I thought this was a plea for greater tolerance in America, but I really believe that Mr. Lee is preaching to the choir here (the popular perception of the death of Matthew Sheperd notwithstanding). For this to be a plea to those who need some enlightenment, it would have to have been about two gay sheep-herders in Saudi Arabia. But I digress. The strength of this movie is the reality of the characters' actions and feelings and the bulk of that comes from fine performances, not the least of which is by Michelle Williams as Alma, Ledger's long suffering and perceptive wife. The gossip from the set is that Ledger and Williams fell into actual love and are now a couple.

Some of the credit for the movie's success should also go to Annie Proulx who first published the short story Brokeback Mountain in 1997 in the New Yorker and to the near giant in modern western (that is, cowboy) literature Larry McMurtry, who did the screenplay. It's just that the guys don't talk that much for the writers to take too much credit. I do have a plot quibble, too. Alma is on to her husband's team infidelity not only because she sees him kissing Gyllenhaal, but because they never bring back fish from their fishing trips. I know guys hate to admit this, but there is such a thing as a male refractory period after lovemaking, during which nothing can happen. Couldn't they have fished during at least one of these periods?

And it wouldn't be a real XDA review if I didn't talk about guns. The guys have a Winchester rifle, model 1994 in 30-30 caliber to shoot coyotes and that gun is perfectly good for that provided the coyote is foolish enough to show itself in relatively close range. So they shoot a big elk in velvet. I doubt that a lot. Unless Ledger put one through his eye or something. Hard to believe that Ang Lee got that detail wrong when he was so spot on with the Civil War weapons and tactics in his excellent, but little seen, Ride with the Devil. I blame Ms. Proulx.

Despite the prediction of the NYT's Frank Rich, who appears to be poorly connected with the rest of the country, that this movie would sell a ton of tickets, it's not doing that well at the box office (just over $10,000,000 so far, but $4,000 per screen, which is about twice what Narnia and King Kong are doing) and it's difficult to believe it will have long legs, as they say. Still, it is a very good movie and finally Heath Ledger shows us he can act. (Why is it that Aussie or English actors sound authentically from the place the movie says they're from and the American actors can't hide their east or west coast roots? It can't be that our guys aren't talented, can it?) It's two hours 14 minutes long and stately, but never boring because we care about these guys and their lives in just the opposite way we don't care about anyone in a bad movie like A History of Violence, for example. Go see it.

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