Love on the rocks: Brokeback Mountain

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Many budding gay men learned about the power of spit lube from Brokeback Mountain, for which we should be grateful to Annie Proulx and director Ang Lee. In 2016 it’s hard to believe this Hollywood weeper started such chatter in early 2006: talk show appearances in which an uncomfortable Jake Gyllenhaal and less uncomfortable Heath Ledger laughed off their kiss; thousands of words of slash fiction exploring every doomed facet (I read one where livid rancher Joe Aguirre, played by Randy Quaid, does unspeakable things to Jack Twist because he’s more repressed than Ennis Del Mar); and an Oscar ceremony proving with the coronation of Crash that the worst Hollywood partisans are Hollywood partisans. They got something right, though: insiders will take the message picture over the romance. Sam Goldwyn and Louis Mayer knew. It even won an Oscar for Best Cinematography because Academy voters confuse National Geographic nature photography for compositions.

In my series of Stylus Magazine excavations I’ve republished my review, written the day before Christmas Eve. I liked the movie so far as it went, recognizing its absurdities and limits. For a while, however, Brokeback Mountain became one of those decent movies that affected me. I got defensive when people knocked it. In 2005 and early 2006 I referred people to Tropical Malady, aware damn well that it was all for nought. Now the picture looks like what David Thomson predicted: a curiosity.

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Brokeback Mountain
12-23-2005
Stylus

They meet, they herd, they fuck, they marry women, they die. Looming before Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) is Brokeback Mountain, in whose shadow they’ll remain for the rest of their rather miserable lives. On the slope which gives Ang Lee’s film (based on E. Anne Proulx’s 1997 short story) its name, Ennis and Jack revel in the love-that-dare-not-speak-its-name, with the full awareness that what began as a impulse born of loneliness will remain so.

The year is 1963. Hired by a scowling rancher (played by Randy Quaid, chewing a toothpick with quiet menace) to tend his flock of sheep for the summer—an idea that rightly confounds a contemporary audience—Ennis and Jack’s days mostly consist of smoking and cutting trees for firewood. What little talk occurs comes in grunts from the reticent Ennis, whose year in high school and miserable childhood (he was raised by a sister and brother) don’t give him much to talk about anyway. On a cold night, awash in whiskey, Ennis crawls into Jack’s tent; Jack, the more brazen of the pair, makes the first move.

Their relationship—I use the term loosely—will mimic the clumsy groping of their first sexual experience. Each acquires a devoted wife (Michelle Williams) who, in Ennis’ case, will care for ailing children and register with devastating quietude the sight of her husband making out with another man; and in Jack’s, the heiress of a farming equipment fortune (Anne Hathaway, of whom there is precious little) whose increasingly outré hairdos have more verve than Jack himself.

A director almost sunnily at ease with repression, Ang Lee can’t make Brokeback Mountain very erotic, let alone funny. So let’s get this out of the way: there isn’t enough sex in this film, and I wanted more of it. Just a handful of scenes between Ennis and Jack show the gingerly, coltish affection that only two young men in love can project; never let it be said that homosexual courtship follows hetero patterns. The actors (Gyllenhaal in particular) are game; Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurty and Diane Ossana don’t match their daring. If we are to believe that Ennis and Jack’s love hollows them, Lee must trace how a physical attraction deepens into this earthshaking phenomenon. These are, after all, two men, not a man and woman, and as such the feel of flesh should provide the metaphysical elements Gyllenhaal’s Jack yearns for, and the didactic screenplay makes explicit. Your mother wouldn’t get offended.

It’s strange: in films like The Ice Storm and this one Lee subverts his gift for narrative by resorting to rather portentous symbolism (remember all those shots of frozen flowers?). For Lee, block-letter narratives bespeak his commitment to maintaining the integrity of his source material, and it lets the audience off the hook much too often. The contrast between the airy, green vistas of Brokeback (where Ennis and Jack did their foolin’ and fuckin’) and the dank rented rooms and trailers in which Ennis and his family live is reductive (to be fair, this hobbled the Proulx story too). The obvious answer is the old adage: if repression’s your theme, you probably wear a corset yourself.

Heath Ledger has generated a lot of acclaim for his ay-yup performance, and he’s certainly memorable: Ennis is like one of those men you meet casually on an airplane whose craggy sullen faces disguise a lifetime of sorrow. Ledger makes us understand that Ennis’ reserve is actually a distortion of his homosexual panic, as well as a shield which attempts (and fails) to hide the fact that Ennis is essentially a ne’er-do-well. Around his children he’s stagy and awkward, with a forced good cheer a lot like Ronald Reagan’s. He can barely muster the libido to nuzzle his wife (although with all those kids maybe he thought he didn’t need to). Even his relationship with the increasingly desperate Jack never breaks the harmless rhythm of a strong platonic attachment, and it’s here, in the picture’s last third, when Lee taps Gyllenhaal’s strengths to create something truly sad.

Given his weakness for characters of vaporous sensitivity that prefer the company of talking rabbits and Jennifer Aniston, it’s a relief that Gyllenhaal actually gives a performance instead of relying on those doleful and admittedly beautiful blue eyes. Brokeback Mountain is the first film in which he’s tacitly acknowledged that nothing gives us as an audience greater pleasure than to admire gorgeous people. He’s never been sexier than in the scene, barely five minutes into the movie, in which, leaning against a trailer, he sizes up Ennis as if thinking, This will do. It’s worthy of Montgomery Clift (who no doubt writhed in sodomic longing too). To the audience (and probably Ennis too), Gyllenhaal’s Jack seems the most obviously gay—at least that’s how Lee tags him. His father-in-law can barely conceal his contempt for the ex-rodeo star; he visits Mexico to pick up hustlers; and even, in a manner of speaking, comes out to his parents when he shares his dream of tending a ranch with Ennis. But essential to Gyllenhaal’s acting is the naiveté that is as much a tragic flaw as Ennis’ self-hate.

Brokeback Mountain ends with Ennis worshipping Jack, a memory now as worthless as the ashes of those fires they lit on the side of their beloved retreat. Everybody’s got his number now: his wife, his oldest daughter (a lovely performance of benumbed alertness by Kate Mara), the girlfriend he won’t marry. Earlier in the film Lee had shown us the wages of fear: Ennis, framed like a parody of John Wayne in the last shot of The Searchers, vomiting at the conclusion of his and Jack’s golden summer. This was most unconvincing; Ennis would as soon throw up as read Proust for solace. Brokeback Mountainis effective and hence affecting when Lee swallows his characters’ suppressed ardor in his austere conceptions and compositions. It’s a curious achievement, alright: a powerful film celebrating renunciation. On second thought, forget Mom and ask Pope Benedict XVI to be your date.

‘I was the same way when I was your age’: Blue Velvet

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Ben Brantley recalls his first viewing of Blue Velvet in 1986:

Much of the audience at the half-full theater that day appeared to be as unprepared as I was. As the final credits rolled, I heard a noise I had never before experienced at the movies: the sound of people hissing. Me, I was grinning like an idiot, and as I recall, I was trembling, too.

I went straight to the lobby, and started calling friends on the pay phone, telling them they had, but had, to see this film, and no, I wouldn’t say any more. Then I walked back into the theater, and sat down to watch it again.

The next day, I returned. This time the theater was full, and the audience applauded. Presumably, the reviews had had a chance to make their impact.

In my journal that night, I noted that my fellow theatergoers “did laugh throughout most of it, excepting the Hopper scenes, which seemed to confuse everyone with their aura of sexual menace gone over the top.” Only rarely have I encountered a work of art that rattles people in that way, as if they didn’t have the reflexes to accommodate it.

Yesterday I described the awful, wonderful sensation of realizing my homosexuality; but a brush with art can approximate these encounters, and, in my case, serve as proxies, a sense in which the art is a mirror. Harriet the Spy, Roxy Music, The Importance of Being Earnest. Blue Velvet produced the same effect one college summer several years after its first run. With its rich blues and immersive sound design, David Lynch’s movie flaunted its strangeness; it was the first movie I saw whose portrayals of sexuality depended on production design and color as much as performances. Laughter isn’t appropriate: it’s the laughter stimulated by seeing a body exhibited at a funeral home. And I did laugh at Dean Stockwell’s Ben. I didn’t laugh when Dennis Hopper, mouth thick and aflame with lipstick, covers Kyle MacLachlan’s face with kisses before punching the shit out of him. David Lynch suggested several ways his characters could have gone sexually. Imbuing MacLachlan and pink fresh-faced Laura Dern’s romance as its own kind of perversion is one of Blue Velvet‘s best jokes.

The stigma of sounding gay

Ignoring “gay-sounding” voices on dating/sex profiles happens often. I read these profiles every day. The binary: gay-sounding vs straight-acting. The former doesn’t sound like the latter. Acquiring credit in the straight world adds to your desirability; “passing off,” according to gay men who hold these noxious views, means not being “limited” by one’s sexuality. For a few years I was one of those noxious guys. Whether this phenomenon will survive the experimenting of a generation growing up in a battlefield on which victory was declared months ago remains to be seen.

A documentary by David Thorpe interviews the likes of Margaret Cho, Dan Savage,and David Sedaris to understand the stigma:

Thorpe says that even though LGBT people have made great strides politically and socially, “there’s still plenty of stigma to go around.”

“It’s going to be a long time before people stop bullying each other because of the the sexual orientation or gender expression,” he says.

Gay and bisexual women seem to be less concerned about how they sound.

“I have talked to many lesbians, many experts,” Thorpe says. “For lesbians, there is not significant stigma around sounding masculine.”

But many men, both gay and straight, “go to voice coaches to sound less gay.”

I’ve known men who’ve paid for speech therapy to extirpate what they think is a gay voice. To escape danger, kids will often take theater courses in high school. That’s the secret the straight world doesn’t know: gay kids are drawn to histrionics and the pleasure of playing a role, but they also relish the chance to speak in different voices, literally. In theater this is not only excused but encouraged.

The death of the Netflix DVD?

I still request them. If you watch movies made before, say, 1990, there are more of them available on DVD. That’s a fact. This article chronicling how Netflix has adapted to the times fails to mention it. Maybe it’s implicit in the argument:

“What’s interesting is that although the business is in a slow decline, there is still a huge demand there,” Mr. Breeggemann said of the DVD side, noting that Netflix had about 93,000 titles on DVD and next-day delivery service for 92 percent of its subscribers.

At its peak, Netflix operated about 50 distribution centers across the country. Now that number is down to 33. The introduction of automation technologies has allowed the company to process more DVDs and expand service areas. Netflix also has reworked its schedule to sync with new delivery standards at the United States Postal Service.

“Yes, we still do DVDs,” Mr. Breeggemann said with a laugh, responding to a comment that many people were not aware that Netflix still provided discs. “It is a completely different company.”

It’s a remarkable state of affairs when physical objects have lost their power to charm. Once symbols of acquisition and middle class values, they have been replaced by high speed internet (I expect moving to be a less onerous step these days). I look at my DVD rack and imagine it as a fax machine.

Farewell to an idea

Learning today that The Dissolve had joined the growing list of online publications whose ad revenue probably didn’t match its contributor enthusiasm was a blow. I started reading it seriously only a few months ago, and while the site leaned too heavily on recognizable Hollywood blockbusters and semi-popular hits its writers often scrutinized them with clarity and precision. Good criticism points to moments we’ve noticed but never said aloud. In a recent segment of the Movie of the Week forum, Genevieve Koski and editor Keith Phipps single out this scene from John Huston’s 1946 The Treasure of the Sierra for praise:

In Sierra Madre’s opening scenes, before Dobbs meets up with Curtin, I think some of Bogart’s inherent coolness still comes through; he’s down on his luck, but he still looks damn good down there. But I think the moment where his character crosses over from a potential antihero to pathetic specimen he turns out to be is the scene where he and Curtin beat the living hell out of McCormick, the shifty contractor who bilks them out of the wages he promised them. That’s an incredibly rough and violent beatdown even by modern standards, and a lot of that has to do with the way Huston stages it, with wide shots and no soundtrack except the smack of flesh hitting flesh. Even though McCormick is a slimy cheat, it’s hard not to come out of that scene feeling like the punishment may have exceeded the crime. It gives you a sense of what Dobbs is capable of when he’s been cheated, and that plays out across his descent into gold-madness.

All I can say is: yes! Watching it twenty-five years ago, I thought the fight stomach-churning, particularly the pathetic whinnies that come out of McCormack’s mouth when he’s hit.

The Dissolve was often this offhandedly good. In May, Tim Grierson wrote an appreciation of Kevin Spacey in Glengarry Glenn Ross that is also a lament for the recessive, intelligent character actor Spacey was before he won his first Oscar. I also loved Phipps’ conference-worthy “The Long Shadow of M,” almost all of the Performance Review and Essential essays. Demotic and learned, The Dissolve is every bar chat you’ve enjoyed with a friend knowledgeable about movies and performances. Good luck, ladies and gentlemen.

Screenings #3

What I watched this week. At this point My Man Godfrey is my drunk dial option, called up at a second’s notice when I want to watch William Powell’s poised, beautiful amble, Carole Lombard playing an airhead without telegraphing her superiority, and the screen’s great bullfrog Eugene Pallette croaking and glowering.

MR. BULLOCK: I’ve lost a great deal of money.
MRS BULLOCK: Well, maybe you left it in your other suit.

There’s a scene between Powell and Lombard washing dishes that’s a master class in two performers locking into sync despite different acting styles.

The Model Shop (1969, Demy) 6/10
* The Long Day Closes (1991, Davies) 9/10
What Happened, Miss Simone? (Garbus, 2015) 7/10
Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (2015, Gomez-Rejon) 2/10
The American Soldier (1970, Fassbinder) 5/10
Naked As We Came (LeMay, 2013) 4/10
* My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936) 9/10
* Rancho Notorious (Lang, 1952) 7/10

* indicates at least a second viewing

Screenings #2

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To see a packed theater with people of all ages watching Kiki’s Delivery Service is a joy, and so was noting the same delight and sense of wonder in their faces. It showed as part of a Miyazaki revival. My second viewing – the first in the original Japanese – confirmed that it was my favorite.

What I’ve watched this week:

* Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989, Miyazaki) 9/10
* The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, Demy) 8/10
Une Chambre en Ville (1981, Demy) 7/10
* Rio Bravo (1958, Hawks) 8/10
Inside Out (2015, Docter) 7/10
* Enter the Void (2009, Noé) 2/10
The 4th Man (1985, Verhoeven) 7/10
American Sniper (2014, Eastwood) 5/10

* A movie I’ve rewatched.

Screenings #1

I watch a lot of movies. For the sake of curious readers and to keep an inventory, I’m going to post these lists every Tuesday showing the movies I’ve watched and if Ive reviewed them.

* Bay of Angels (Demy, 1961) 9/10
Beware of a Holy Whore, (Fassbinder, 1971) 6/10
Love and Mercy (Pohlad, 2015) 6/10
Results (Bujalski, 2015) 7/10
* The Verdict (Lumet, 1982) 5/10
The Merchant of Four Seasons (Fassbinder, 1971) 9/10
* Amadeus (Forman, 1984) 5/10
The Color of Lies (1999, Chabrol) 6/10
* Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Benton) 5/10
Eastern Boys (Campillo, 2014) 5/10
* Mommie Dearest (Perry, 1981) 5/10
* Annie Hall (Allen, 1977) 9/10

* represents a movie I’m rewatching.

Let me hear your body talk: Results

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Filmmakers approach the world of fitness and health as if it were a poisonous snake in the road. Think Perfect, the John Travolta-Jamie Lee Curtis stinker from 1985. Results wants to change that. Andrew Bujalski, who helmed Computer Chess, is so low key about setting up jokes and situations that in the first hour Results plays like a mid nineties comedy: 40-watt Nicole Holofcener. Then it clicks in a thirty-minute denouement, a miracle of possibilities going from missed to realized, a series of cues picked up.

Despite ill-applied roseate makeup Kevin Corrigan is well cast as Denny, an unhealthy multimillionaire whose unfurnished home taunts his foiled ambitions. He visits an Austin gym for a personal trainer. Kat (Cobie Smulders) accepts the challenge. Expert in the patter of self-help, there is nothing that Kat doesn’t regard as a challenge. Even scarier is gym manager Trevor, in the midst of expanding operations and thus dependent on Kat’s wealthy clientele. Guy Pearce, skin leathery and drawn as tight as an iguana’s, doesn’t hide his Australian accent for once; it adds to the movie’s otherworldliness. When Denny pays for a couple years’ worth of training up front, Trevor knows he’s found the golden ticket. “I could take my philosophy and actualize it,” he pitches to potential investors, eyes gleaming with visions of juice bars and spaces in accordance with feng shui. Meanwhile Denny, freshly divorced, is loyal but not committed; he doesn’t stop smoking weed or ordering midnight pizza (at bars he sticks to popcorn). He’s also kinda horny. The “kinda” matters — he’s so dazed that his actions are closer to second takes. “You know I have a pool too,” he says to Kat after a session, apropos of nothing. He shares his weed. The fumbled come-ons work, to a point: Kat sleeps with him, in Results‘ only misstep. The driven Kat, expert at hiding quirks beneath a carapace of bright chirpy careerism, may not meet her goals now and again but Bujalski’s direction doesn’t suggest even a comma of sexual chemistry.

Chemistry is what she and Trevor have got, and while they were once and occasionally lovers they still think it’s a smart idea to work together. This is the point at which Results starts to match its title. The movie is about two people managing a business with the commitment they prefer not to expend on themselves. All Trevor can bring himself to say to Kat is, “I have a genuine longing for you” (his most intimate moments he shares with a bored bulldog, whom he of course takes jogging). The movie builds towards a visit to the boonies for the sake of wooing a celebrity endorsement, a Russian weightlifter with a younger wife. Trevor goes alone but is followed by Kat, who bumps into him as he leaves the Russian’s home (there are framed by flashing lights; Kat got a ticket for “gliding” past a stop sign). They reenter the home and try again. It’s only with Kat at the dining room table eating and drinking wine that the domestic arrangement becomes clear: the wife brings and clears the dishes, makes the coffee, smiles as if it would hurt not to. Without explaining it, as most movies would, this couple is a warning of what might happen to Kat and Trevor.

Taxonomized as a, ugh, “mumblecore” director, Bujalksi is like Joe Swanberg in that he has no interest in doing anything of interest with framing or dialogue. His editing decisions though lean towards the abrupt and startling; he ends scenes before payoffs or makes a scene all payoff, like a later amusing one in which Kat and Trevor jog past each other, her iPod blasting Jess Klein, his Split Enz. Bujalski also has an eye for the unpaved and ungentrified Texas: there are moments in hash houses and abandoned gas stations. Above all is a talent for catching the way we use platitudes as jui jitsu moves, treating people like potential enemies. Denny is the exception, the movie’s holy fool. Results‘ penultimate scene shows three girls hanging out in a TV room. Denny enters — they’d left the door open. Want to come to a party? Bring whoever you want. It’s an echo of an earlier, horrifying moment when he invited Kat over and greeted her with a formal poolside dinner, serenaded by live musicians. This time it works. As the characters dance to the Elizabeth McQueen Trio, Bujalski wants the audience to accept that no one would’ve minded Denny as a creepo; it’s a tribute to his accomplishment that I accepted this fiction. “Some girls are into that. Thing,” Kat says early in the picture. The most “normal” movie of Bujalksi’s career, Results coaxed me into rethinking normality.

Christopher Lee – RIP

Sometimes actors possess voices so singular that I’m apt to overrate the acting. Think Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Morgan Freeman, Vanessa Redgrave. The late Christopher Lee chose roles in which those sepulchral — no other word — tones could rumble from ten fathoms deep. I knew him as the best screen Dracula, projecting cool malevolence instead of the erotic need on which post-Freudian scripts relied. As a child I saw The Mummy on public television a lot. Next he terrified me as a bearded middle aged ’60 hair casualty on the cover of Paul McCartney & Wings’ Band on the Run. Cast as a pair of granite-faced villains in two of the highest grossing franchises in movie history, Lee was asked to stand over there and glower for paychecks that would have made Alec Guinness duel him with a magic staff.

Jonathan Rigby wrote today that Lee was “a thoroughly modern actor, yet also a throwback to an earlier age when actors loomed genuinely large.” Rigby mentioned Edmund Kean on stage. I think of George Arliss and Paul Muni, hoofers who loved funny beards and rolling their r’s. The Lee I want to remember played Sherlock Holmes’ imperious older brother in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (it’s impossible to imagine Lee in a less than imperious role). In the clip above listen to Lee asking the rather slow Watson if he knows where Waterloo is. British actors specialized in the acerbic insult; Lee provided menace.

The Great Insect War of 1998

My Woody Allen-loving friend Lizbeth and I saw Antz in 1998, in part because Woody Allen and Sharon Stone starred in a movie with a bigger budget than his last twenty-six combined, and because they played ants. It did well in the box office but A Bug’s Life, in production at the same time and released in the same season, outgrossed it. The latter is the better movie; the former has Woody’s buggiest lines since Crimes and Misdemeanors. I’m glad Forgotbusters mentioned the characters I remember most: “a pair of wasps, voiced by Saturday Night Live alum Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, who embody all of the stereotypes of human WASPs in insect form.” It’s not great, but the writers and animators paid attention their actors’ personae and physical features, and contra Dissolve, Gene Hackman as the villain and Stallone as Woody’s bro was shrewd casting, the latter even nodding towards the fraction of the audience aware of Stallone’s bit role in Bananas.:

If the film succeeds artistically, in addition to commercially, that’s probably because it sets the bar so low. Where Pixar set out to evolve and revolutionize the technology of animation and join it with the best storytelling in the world, Antz simply set out to use flashy new technology to tell an old but satisfying story of a common protagonist who finds the courage to embrace his destiny and stand out from the crowd. Antz isn’t quite as tacky as I remembered it, though everything about its cast carbon-dates it as a product of 1998, particularly the pairing of Stallone and his love interest, Azteca (Jennifer Lopez). Stallone yelling “You da ant!” at Z after his moment of ultimate triumph is thankfully the groan-worthy exception rather than the rule.

How Stallone and Jennifer Lopez date the movie but Kevin Spacey and Julia-Louis Dreyfus don’t he’ll have to explain it to me. Also, I didn’t know an animated film had the obligation to be The Magnificent Ambersons of animated storytelling.

‘Oh, wait, you’ve got to stop, there’s something wrong with this’

This still happens in Hollywood:

Guillermo Diaz, who plays Huck on ABC’s ‘Scandal,’ has “always been honest about being gay,” and although he’s never had any issues with casting directors, he told me that former managers and agents advised him to limit the number of gay roles he took. After filming Stonewall and Just One Time, both gay-themed films, he got a part in 1999’s But I’m a Cheerleader, only to have his manager pull him from the role. “I always found it interesting that my management had a problem with me playing all these gay roles, but they never had a problem with me killing people on screen,” he said. “I did a ton of movies where I was a thug, murdering people with machine guns. They never had an issue with that, but one gay role and then another one, and they were like, ‘Oh, wait, you’ve got to stop, there’s something wrong with this.’ ”

I’m glad Neil Patrick Harris got cast in Gone Girl as Rosamund Pike’s high school sweetheart but the character codes gay: meticulously decorated country home, surfaces as spotless as Harris himself (and Harris may not kill people with a machine gun but he scares Pike good). Ditto Zachary Quinto, playing a Vulcan.