There's nothing wrong with an independent filmmaker wanting to make a broadly pleasing film, but there's something that seems almost inherent in independent filmmaking to make a film that doesn't try so hard for cheap thrills.
For example, the romantic comedy formula---and it is a formula, is boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy has fight with girl, boy makes up with girl at the end. They are many variations of these, subsituting boys for girls or girls for boys, or what have you.
The formula works because the goal of the film is to draw you in as a person who wants to see this relationshiop work, then to produce an artificial dilemma, so that you, the viewer, now feel bad that this relationship is going to fail, but miraculously, in the end, everything works out for the best.
But it must be the kind of formula that drives some filmmakers crazy, especially if that final scene is unearned. Consider Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. Jarmusch is about as independent as they come (though not as experimental as say, Brakhage).
The story is about Bill Murray, who has made his fortune in computers, and used to be quite the ladies' man. The film opens up with Murray being dumped by a woman half his age (Julie Delpy, who was in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset). His life, at this point, seems awfully hollow. It's hard to believe that he is a ladies' man at all.
He discovers that he may be a father, that one of his flings from twenty years earlier may have given birth to a son, and that son may be resentful. Through the prodding of his next door neighbor, a self-styled detective, he tries to locate four women and find out whether they fathered his son. He is reluctant to do so, but does it anyway, and it becomes a journey into the aftermath of their relationships with him, but slowly it also becomes a journey into a life he could have lived (a theme that Star Trek 2 also covers). What would a son have meant to his life? Would it be more meaningful?
A conventional film would give you what you want. He'd find his son, and they'd somehow make up, and all would be well. And yet, you know, watching such a film, this can't happen, even as Jarmusch dangles a would-be son in front of Murray. He wants you, the viewer, to want this resolution, and then, he takes it away, because such an ending would, frankly, feel dishonest and unearned.
A conventional film such as Latter Days. This film works only because it does a few things well. First, it introduces a world that's hardly ever shown in film, namely, life as a Mormon. It's not particularly insightful, even though the director (and writer) himself is an ex-Mormon. (I suspect a better film for this would be the "prequel" to Napoleon Dynamite, whose director, I believe, is also Mormon. The star of Napoleon also acts in this first effort that deals with Baptists vs. Mormons in Idaho).
Second, it holds very tightly to the notion that love can be meaningful. Treacly as this may be, it's one of the things that works. Christian is a shallow fellow who sleeps with any guy he can. He moves from one to the next. One day, Mormon missionaries move next door, and he makes a bet with his waiter friends that he can bed one of the Mormons. It turns out Aaron is closeted, and when Christian is about to make the moves, he tells Aaron that it doesn't mean a thing, that it's nothing to worry about.
Aaron is repulsed by the idea. He wants love to be meaningful, and accuses Christian of being a shallow individual. This causes Christian to reevaluate his life, and he begins to think about why he is this way. Worse still, Aaron is found out, and he is sent back for "retraining" for his homosexual tendencies. Christian is distraught without Aaron, and goes to look for him, and at one point, he thinks Aaron has committed suicide (he hasn't). This leads to the big moment at the end, when Aaron, left without anyplace to go, heads to Los Angeles, to a restaurant owned by a woman Aaron had given kind words to. The restaurant, incidentally, that Christian works at.
Does it feel earned? Who knows? Romantic comedies make you want the happy ending. Independent films sort of make you want it, but makes you realize that you don't really want it.
Which brings me back to Brokeback Mountain.
Ang Lee, I think, at heart, can go either way with a film, but he has more of an independent filmmaker thinking. Admittedly, he's tied to the source material, a short story by Anne Proulx. I had been hoping to read the short story (I picked up the book shortly after watching the film) to compare before I blogged, but this is as good a way to do it. I'd rather get my opinions down, then read, then see if my opinions change afterwards.
I don't know what reaction people will have to Brokeback Mountain. Contrast it with King Kong, Peter Jackson's latest spectacle. Although I haven't seen it, word is that it is a bombastic, loud picture, with a soul at its center. Jackson's genius is his ability to combine action with a story that you care about. But his style is broadly entertaining. You couldn't imagine Jackson directing Brokeback, at least, not without more overtures to being more entertaining. Even his highly acclaimed Heavenly Creatures brings to life two girls imaginary world, in a dizzying manner.
Brokeback is deliberately paced, and seems almost an odd throwback to an era where emotions weren't out in full display. It's the kind of film that appeals to Ang on many levels. It deals with emotional repression and secrecy, which he has dealt with in Crouching Tiger. It is a period piece, much like The Ice Storm or Ride With the Devil.
In fact, you know Ang is heading this way with an opening dialogue that is well-nigh incomprehensible. Ennis (Heath Ledger) and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) need work for the summer. They are trying to herd sheep. Randy Quaid, the foreman of sorts, describes what they will do, and you scratch your head. Did he just speak English? Yet, it's Ang's way to inject some realism into the kind of job they will do.
Early on, when this film was being cast, some criticized the selection of Ledger. He was some pretty boy, say like Ben Affleck, whose acting skills were seen as deficient. Yet, it's Ledger that's a revelation. Watch this film back-to-back with Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, and you see Ledger's fantastic range, which contrasts even with his role in A Knight's Tale, a role that seems more prototypically Ledger. In Brothers Grimm, Ledger plays bookish Jacob Grimm. In Brokeback, he plays repressed Ennis Del Mar.
It was Jake Gyllenhaal that people had fewer objections to. He had had some roles that people respected more, from the quirky Donnie Darko to the more comedic The Bubble Boy. He was cast as lead for Sam Mendes' Jarhead. He played the bland boyfriend-like character in Proof.
Yet, I'm now thinking that Jake is the one who's range is more limited. In the relationship, he's more the boy, trying to be the man. Ledger plays Ennis as grizzled, reluctant, trying to get on with life.
The pace of this film is slow. The film runs two hours, but it feels like three hours. It spans about twenty years. As much as it seems like a film that's set on a very small scale, focused on its two leads, and the wives they marry, it questions bigger issues.
We imagine, for example, that once upon a time, when men were "in charge" and the women were left at home to raise the kids, that women didn't have much power to determine their lives. Many films, even modern ones, have difficulty portraying a world that's not male-oriented. How many actresses play the suffering or supporting wife? At least, Brokeback is set in a period that we associate with this kind of behavior (it is remarkably dissociated from the time period it goes through---occasionally, there are hints that they are living through the 70s, but there's no talk of a gay revolution that should be occurring through the middle of this period).
In a key scene, Jack hints that he's seeing other men behind Ennis's back. He does so because the two meet up on Brokeback too infrequently for his tastes. This is after Jack has admitted that he has been cheating on his wife with another woman, an admission that doesn't faze Ennis. It is admission that Jack sees other men that puts Ennis into a rage.
It is a worldview that reminds me a bit of traditional Asian male society. I shouldn't say traditional because it's the culture that has come from post World War 2 Japan and other Asian cultures. The stereotypical Japanese works really hard at work, while the wives stay at home to raise the kids. When the work day is over, what do the guys do? Do they rush home to be with their wives? No. They head over to a bar to drink with the guys.
It's been said that John Woo films are homo-erotic, with men only able to express their emotions with other men. I suspect, however, it's typical of a culture that has treated women like second-class citizens. Women raise kids. They do the cooking. They please the man. But they don't understand men. Only men understand men.
It's almost this kind of world that Brokeback Mountain inhabits. Both men marry because that's what they are supposed to do. They do seem like responsible enough fathers and husbands, but the women in their lives don't seem to satisfy them. At least one of the wives knows this is happening, and yet, she lets it continues for years. She doesn't even confront her husband's indiscretions until much after they are divorced.
Despite the vague current of misogyny, it really is a commentary on the culture that causes them to have to marry, instead of being with each other. Strangely, too, it is a commentary on responsibility versus indiscretion, and seems to both support indiscretion as well as put it down. Ennis has a role to play in society, and he tries to play it, even though he knows he wants more than society offers. He can't make himself give up the responsibilities he feels he owes to others, even as it means that he can't be truly happy.
Jack, on the other hand, gets to lead a life that's more his own, and yet, he's also trapped. He can't convince the one man he cares about to abandon his responsibilities and join him.
Jack imagines a world that allows cowboys like him and Ennis to be together. The irony is that this world exists just outside the boundaries of where they live. Yet, they are in a different world, the world of conservative outback Americans. There is no Studio 54. There is no San Francisco. There is no Harvey Milk. There is no disco. They live in a world that hasn't changed, and they try to do what they can in this world. If anything, it feels the film is set at least ten years earlier, if not more, and it very well could be.
In the end, you also question whether the relationship would have worked. You want it to work, for some reason, because you know it's what's most meaningful to the both of them, and yet. Yet.
It would, I think, be ironic if this were the film that causes an acceptance of gay films, if for no other reason that it is almost completely devoid of gay politics. There is a segment of the gay population, the closeted portion, that I'm sure can't stand gay politics, partly because they don't agree with it. It removes this element because it is trying to be a simple story of love, forbidden love, at that. That ultimately, despite the rainbow flags, despite Southern Decadence, despite angry queer cinema, that it's fundamentally about being with who you love.
This film is a bit of a slow burn. It doesn't rise to a huge crescendo at the end, its impact lingering minutes and hours after the film ends.
corrections - - Chick Corea (note the spelling) was a member of Miles Davis' band. - Graham Chapman, the only Graham in the group, is the only deceased mem...
1 month ago