Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Oscar Race, Part the Fifth: The Contender

***NOTE: I wrote this before the Oscars, but was unable to post it due to Blogger being a pain in the ass. My vociferous reaction to the actual outcome will be posted tomorrow.

At long last, a few hours before the ceremony, here is my installment on Brokeback Mountain. I am assuming it will be the front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, because the only other real option is Crash, and should that happen I am liable to personally slay every member of the Academy. At the very least.

Last night, Sarah-Doe and I saw the movie, my second time and her first. Several weeks ago, I saw it with Megan, and between those two viewings I read Annie Proulx's short story, upon which the movie was based. It is an astonishingly loyal adaptation, capturing almost all the dialogue (with the notable exception of Jack Twist's gasp, "gun's goin' off," during the men's first sexual encounter) and most of the details of the journey. It shows us far more of Jack's life than the story does--the true protagonist in Proulx's piece is Ennis, not the relatinoship between Ennis and Jack, as is the case in the film. But the simultaneous tightness and expansiveness of the plot, the painfulness of the stretching years, and the factual delivery of every element of the story are present in both the film and the story.

After the second viewing, I think I like the story better than the movie.

I saw Brokeback Mountain long after the hype had overrun the country. Being of the liberal slant, I was inclined to support the movie, but being of the hypercritical slant, I didn't think it would be nearly as good as kneejerk liberals said it was--among other things, it couldn't be. I heard a number of homosexual friends and acquaintances attempting to excuse their desire to see the movie or their affection for it after seeing it based solely upon their sexual orientation--Sharon said the film was for gays what romance novels are for straights, which was why she intended to see it, and Jay's expansion of his post-viewing opinions began, "Well, I'm a gay man, so . . ." and ended, "But again, I'm a gay man." I'm never able to decide how much faith I place in that. I'm a bisexual woman who has thus far mostly been involved with men, but my sexual perspective aside I can't help, somewhere, believing in an absolute standard of quality. I think some movies are good and some movies are bad, and this qualitative judgment is not altered by their social significance, or their emotional resonance based upon one viewer's (or a percentage of viewers') personal experiences, which also exist independently. Standards of quality have to do with measurable qualities that do not relate to the viewer's perspective. You may like some kinds of movies better than others, your emotional reaction is not debatable, but your emotional reaction is not always related to the quality of the movie--I've wept over horrible books and films before, knowing they were horrible and still moved by concepts and projections. I knew, however, that my projections were projections. I'm not sure yet how true that theory is, though I'd love to get a few opinions.

So when I entered the theater for Brokeback Mountain, I didn't really know what to expect. I found a stronger movie than I'd thought I would. The cinematography is truly stunning, as is the scoring (Gustavo Santovalli is now on a par with Thomas Newman in my personal hierarchy of film composers--I was startled on my second viewing to find that Santovalli had composed a very authentic-sounding country song that I assumed was an old standard, in addition to his amazing themes), and Ang Lee times his storytelling with astounding delicacy. Heath Ledger's performance is out of this world--I think Phillip Seymour Hoffman will win the Oscar and I'll be happy if he does, simply because Ledger will be recognized on other occasions, but nevertheless it's an astounding accomplishment. I didn't cry at the end of the movie, but I left shaken, left feeling as if the film had dug into me.

My mother and my sister were not fans of Jake Gyllenhaal's performance; my sister said she simply didn't believe him as a cowboy. After my first viewing I argued with her, from a position I still support somewhat: Gyllenhaal's character Jack Twist, who honestly does see himself as a homosexual (unlike Ledger's Ennis Del Mar), has a hard time believing himself as a cowboy. He consistently feels inauthentic, pushes himself to points of dishonesty to compensate. I thought very highly of him, and felt Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway also did excellent work, Williams in particular. The difficulty, for all three of them, was aging. Brokeback Mountain spans twenty years in the lives of its characters, and only Ledger, who has the least makeup or concrete physical change, is able to embody that change successfully. Jake Gyllenhaal, even as he succeeds at conveying the changes and maturing in his relationship to Ennis, remains a young man with a mustache, a fake paunch and age makeup; Anne Hathaway, who gave a better performance than I would have expected, is laughable in her attempts to be a forty-year-old beauty beyond her prime. She's younger than I am, which makes me think it's ridiculous to expect her to be capable of realistically aging twenty years, but my sister disagrees--perhaps rightly in that if she couldn't do it, maybe she shouldn't have been cast. It does take you out. Michelle Williams does a passable job of aging, but she still feels youthful. Her portrayal of the character is beautiful; her inability to age is not something I want to fault her for, even less than I do Anne Hathaway.

Obviously these difficulties aren't present in the story. I also found that its ending, a repetition of Ennis' most memorable and oft-quoted line from the film, was stronger than the ending of the movie. While the visuals are stunning, it doesn't match up to the delicacy and expansiveness of the prose in Proulx's story. Still, McMurtry and Ossana deserve to be honored for their adaptation.

In my second viewing, I saw my family's point about Gyllenhaal, even as I still stand by my own interpretation, and the fissures--in the writing and the acting--were much clearer to me. Watching beyond the hype, on the second viewing, I felt like I saw more flaws than I had watching within the hype.

Nevertheless, I'd be content with Brokeback winning the Best Picture Oscar, both as a cultural touchstone regarding homosexuality--not to be undervalued even in the forest of liberalism that is ostensibly Hollywood--and with regards of respecting filmmaking and the act of putting together a real and wrenching story.


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