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Monday, December 19, 2005
Depressing Romance Film Weekend
Pete and I made special trips to the movies this weekend to see both King Kong and Brokeback Mountain. Both films are spectacular, and well worth all the praise and accolades that have been given to them.
King Kong is particularly thrilling and beautiful. It's the kind of film that makes a lie of the notion that big, "event" films must by necessity by hollow and soul less. At the core of Kong is a surprisingly tender story, not so much about love but about the appreciation of beauty. The tragedy in Kong is about how that innocent love of beauty is exploited, and ultimately destroyed, by the love of money, of self, and by the wider world that is utterly incapable of appreciating that same beauty.
The performances of both Naomi Watts and Jack Black are outstanding. Watts imbues her character with a mixture of world-weariness and hope that blossoms into a deeper understanding through her experiences with Kong. And Black uses his image as a clown to make Carl Denham a character of tragic menace. He destroys everything he touches in an effort to prove he's not the clown everyone thinks he is.
Visually the film is amazing as well, and worth the price of admission just to lose yourself in the images it plays before you. And this is where the film really stands out. In the hands of almost any other director with such a large visual effects budget, I'd expect a story large on spectacle, but devoid of story, character or meaning. But Peter Jackson is able to use the visuals of the world to create a living, breathing space, a "real" space for a virtual world that allows the story and characters to live on their own.
Brokeback Mountain is a bit harder to pin down. The story is very spare, and is told through a series of vignettes. The bulk of the storytelling is placed squarely on the actors, who as often as not have to convey emotion through what they're not saying or doing as much as what they are saying and doing. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal more than prove their acting chops. If there are weaknesses in the acting, it's in the supporting cast, where talented actors and actresses are given very little to work with and come off as shallow and one-note.
In the end, though, I'm not quite sure what to make of the film as a whole. That it is good is evident. It is very good, in fact. But what I think has happened is that the film, by the very fact that it is film and therefore a primarily visual narrative, concretizes and pins down a story that, as written by Annie Proulx, had more of an emphasis on suggestion and ambiguity. The story takes in an in-between state; not quite the civilized world, but not the romantic, idealized West of myth either. And the two men occupy an in-between space as well; not quite gay, but not quite straight either.
What the film makes more explicit from Proulx's story is largely the character and fate of the doomed Jack Twist. Proulx suggests, but never quite pins down for certain, that of the two men, Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, Jack is most likely gay. He initiates the relationship and he wants more. And as played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and as built up in the script by Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana, is most definitely gay. It's Ennis who retains his sexual ambiguity in the film. Ennis seems straight, and the tragedy with Ennis is that, in Jack, he has met his soul-mate, but because Jack is another man, and because Ennis fears what it would mean about himself if he were to give in to Jack and start a life with him, Ennis denies himself any kind of happiness of fulfillment. His desperate unhappiness and loneliness drives everyone around him down with him; his wife, his children, his girl-friends, and Jack.
What the film also makes definite, and this is a more complicated change, is the eventual fate of Jack Twist. Proulx never provides a definitive answer. Ennis is told Jack died in an accident. He suspects he was killed for being gay. Proulx never says for certain. To Ennis, his answer would make the most sense, and is really the only possible solution. In his world, gay men are killed. It is simply how things are. In the film, Ennis is proven to be correct, as in a brief cut scene, the audience is made witness to Jack's death. Since the film, and story, are strongly from Ennis' viewpoint, this is a change that makes sense, if for no other reason than for letting the audience in to Ennis' head. But what complicates the matter is, and here I get on my Queer Politics soap-box, it turns the film, in the end, into yet another story about a gay man who dies.
And in the end, that may be what makes the film more than the "gay cowboy" film it has been so blithely dismissed as from so many corners. Neither men is, truly, as we would understand or use the term in regular context "gay." What they are, again, is something in that space in between. And in that sense, I can't really see this as a film primarily made for a gay audience. Frankly, it deals with themes and characters we've seen in "gay films" dozens of times. The point of the story isn't that "the cowboys are gay." The point of the story is that lives are destroyed and wasted because of the fear of not being what you think the world wants you to be, and of the pointlessness of wasted love. The story doesn't work with a mixed-gender couple, because what potential objections could society make to a man and a woman who want to be together. And coming up with a reason for society to object makes the story about that particular prejudice, not about what it is inside Ennis that keeps him from allowing himself happiness. It's a story of great humanity and insight, but it's not a "gay" story.