Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain

To misquote Madeline/Judy writing to Scottie in Vertigo: And so I finally saw Brokeback Mountain . After months of hearing about the movie, after months of wondering how it would be, whether it would work or not, I saw it. It was, as they say, an anti-climax.

The story goes back a year or two. I remember reading, perhaps two years ago, that an Annie Proulx short story about "two gay cowboys" (or rather, their doomed love story) was about to be filmed. There was enormous speculation: which two actors would "risk their images" for the two lead roles? (Clearly this is one of the most fatuous lines of inquiry that I've ever encountered. This Caryn James article is a perfect example of utter silliness). Who would be the director who would add his own name to this enterprise? Would the studios go through with it? What about the sex? How would they film it? Would people see it? And on and on and on.

Sometimes when one's questions are answered, it takes the piss out of the whole thing. There is a "buzz" around Brokeback Mountain now. It's been raved about to death. It's an Oscar contender, perhaps the leading Oscar contender. It's been proclaimed to be a film about "universal love" (as opposed to "simply a gay love story"), even as a "paean to masculinity". Frank Rich wrote a predictable editorial in the New York Times making the "rash prediction" that the movie would play well in the heartland. People around me who would never have heard about Brokeback Mountain now want to see it. I should be feeling happier -- I certainly know I am -- but the feeling remains. Something has been lost. Our film has become simply our film.

It wasn't so a year ago. I read Proulx's short story then, (after hearing that it was going to be filmed). Having never read Proulx before (and I only managed to read one other story in that collection), the prose seemed different, relying almost entirely on formal restraint. Her words fall over one another but they are careful words, always stoic, never sentimental. The story's power was in its afterglow, its capacity to remain in mind long after the words have been forgotten. It was meant to be savored, to be thought about, and perhaps read again. Ang Lee's adaptation is scrupulously faithful to Proulx&# 39;s story in most respects. It also adopts completely Proulx's tone -- her detachment -- that makes the afterglow of her story so poignant.

That is a tragic mistake. Lee does everything: he shoots the breathtaking landscapes perfectly, exacts excellent performances from his actors, keeps the spirit of the story intact but he is never able to make the story come alive, never able to take us into Ennis's or Jack's heads. Brokeback Mountain is too distanced for its own good, far too aesthetic, too controlled, and perhaps even too intellectual. The formal restraint, the careful distance, may be to people's liking but I wish Lee had done it differently. I wish that, like the best of Douglas Sirk's films, he had poured out his characters' repressed emotions into the background score, into the beautiful Montana backdrops and gone deep into them, bringing out in vivid, detailed colors what they only hinted at.

But Lee is a tasteful director. He is also studiously unsentimental, or tries to be. When he lets go, as in Ennis's scene with Jack's grieving parents, the effect is marvelous; the restraint works. Perhaps Stanley Kauffmann has a point: Lee's Taiwanese background and his American training make him uniquely sensitive to filial relationships (his endearing The Wedding Banquet is one of the most lovely portraits of parental grief and disappointment). But in most other scenes Lee's camera only observes, never participates. This is not to say that Brokeback Mountain is a bad film. God, no. But it never moved me as much as it could have. Who knows, perhaps that's a good thing. Emotion is a tricky thing, hard to balance, hard to restrain; perhaps restraint is the best course.

Heath Ledger, who has been praised to the skies for his performance, is certainly restrained as Ennis. Stephen Holden of the NYT compared Ledger's turn to the best of Penn and Brando. As a comparison, this is bizarre. Penn and Brando are flashy actors. If anything, the template for Ledger's performance Nick Nolte's Wade Wodehouse in Affliction . Ledger is good, I'll grant him that and God knows, he has tried hard. But he is less-than-convincing because his persona precedes him. He is always Heath Ledger with the twinkle in his eye and the smile on his lips -- his personality hovers over his character's. The opposite is true of Jake Gyllenhaal, who on first appearances seems to be miscast. He is a far cry from the buck-toothed short jaunty Jack Twist of Proulx's story. But the spirit he has created on-screen, with that woebegone face and the hangdog look, is authentically Jack Twist's. Jack waits for Ennis eagerly, gives unselfishly and dreams radiantly if in futility; Gyllenhaal captures him perfectly. his performance makes Ledger's (well-acted) final scenes truly poignant.

For both actors, even if not for Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain is a triumph.

And yes, if it does manage to win the Oscars, I know I'll be happy.


Toni said...

Anything new is best to see with, dare I say, a virgin mind. Even with the best intentions, one's opinion can be skewed by other's perceptions. This being the only blessing of ignorance's curse I proclaim :)

Shreeharsh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shreeharsh said...

Thats very true. Nothing, to quote Charlie Kauffmann, quoting Alexander Pope like a "spotless mind". What did you think of the movie?

Avraj said...

Interesting post. I agree on most counts. Due to the excessive hype surrounding the movie, and the raving critics, I decided to go for it (this was two days after it won the golden globe), and the theatre was 80% full (i doubt the valley art theatre has ever seen such crowds).
I found the film to be rather flat. Good acting all around, good concept, but the execution fell short and had the overall effect of leaving me cold. As one guy said upon leaving the theatre, "if they'd played that song one more time, I was gonna kill myself".