Thursday, September 28, 2006

Brokeback Mountain (A. Lee, 2005)

Though some have claimed that the appeal of Brokeback Mountain is the way in which it presents a love that is ‘universal’ – invariably a troublesome descriptor – it is, in fact, the film’s focus on the particular challenges of living life as a gay man that makes it so special, so moving and -- perhaps most importantly – so persuasive. The premise of a hidden love affair between two cowboys was ridiculed well before the film had been completed with the derision continuing through award season. The word ‘brokeback’ became a punch-line and predictably the parodies came fast and furious. Some were funny. Some were not. But perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Brokeback Mountain is that a year later the film retains its dignity and offers an experience that, when experienced in full, is impervious to juvenile tittering. Brokeback’s reception only serves to demonstrate and underline the thesis that Ang Lee presents so effectively.

Although it initially seems like merely a provocative conceit, it soon becomes clear why Brokeback’s characters need to be cowboys. Writer Annie Proulx has provided her tale with a setting that magnifies the masculine expectations that have been heaped upon Ennis and Jack. By watching and observing how their lifestyle conflicts with our pre-conceived notions of homosexuality, we begin to see the way that society tends to define maleness. This is particularly evident in Heath Ledger’s admirable performance as Ennis. Having been taught to despise homosexuals at a young age, Ennis has grown into a withdrawn, mumbling tough guy who is quick to pick fights and terrified to be caught weeping. Once we get to know Ennis, it becomes painfully clear that he is acting a lifelong role and has successfully masked his true self from even his wife and children. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jack is somewhat less convincing, particularly as the story moves him into middle age. However, the important thing is that the two are convincing as a couple.

With the great expanse of Wyoming as their backdrop and not a soul to interrupt their interaction, it is difficult to imagine an argument against the consummation of their attraction that approaches the level of coherence. Naturally, things do not go so well when the two return to domestic life and spend literally years pretending not to feel the things that they feel. The film’s conclusion is not so much predictable as it is inevitable; however, Lee handles the events in a way that is much different than we might expect, placing the emphasis squarely on love rather than wallowing in images of hate. The final scene, with its subtle yet cruel irony, is an absolute stunner and a haunting conclusion to a great modern tragedy that will continue to resonate long into the future.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Shortbus (Mitchell, 2006)

Early on in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, the director makes a critical decision that impacts the rest of the film and, despite all the fun it offers, gives it a deep undercurrent of sadness. After soaring over and around a 3D-animated version of New York City and peeking in various windows to find characters engaged in sexual encounters that are enthusiastic, yet ultimately unsatisfying, Mitchell lingers momentarily over the gaping hole that remains in the midst of the city where the World Trade Center once stood. While most films that can be found in your local video store’s ‘adult’ section offer promises of enacting your fantasies, Mitchell makes it clear early on that his film featuring scenes of explicit sexuality will be grounded in reality. Although his name is never mentioned, Shortbus is very much a product of the George W. Bush era. Indeed, Mitchell’s most palpable success is the way he captures the ever-present feeling of dread that has been a part of living in America for the past five years as we have been encouraged to fear the boogeyman that might strike at any moment and have watched as bombs have been dropped on innocents in our name.

Given these circumstances, is it really any wonder that Sofia, our central character, has never been able to achieve an orgasm? Living just blocks away from America’s enormous open wound, how does one go about seeking the kind of pleasure that is unapologetically selfish? For many of us who despair about the Bush policy of perpetual war, the ideals of the sixties come to mind and a retreat into hedonism seems like just what the doctor ordered. However, we also know that the sixties cannot be repeated. Our awareness of AIDS and the harmful effects of drug use, as well as the drastic impact of an increasingly large media and the internet have contributed to our collective sense of cynicism. We see that a large amount of money and power can buy you exactly the kind of news you want broadcast. We see that the current administration has successfully linked activism and terrorism in the minds of many Americans. Under these circumstances, how is it possible to really dive into life and experience without guilt the pleasures that make it worth living?

In his deeply emotional (and hilarious) ensemble piece, Mitchell suggests that there is at least one ideal from the sixties that is still attainable and still has the potential to make the world a better place: connectedness. It is connectedness that James lacks when he feels that he must communicate with his lover through a homemade video. It is connectedness that is lost when Sofia attempts to communicate with her husband through cheesy psychiatric exercises. For Severin, disconnectedness means being separated from her own identity and being trapped playing a fictional role that has little to do with who she actually is. And it is connectedness that these characters seek at Shortbus, the underground salon where politics, art, fashion and sex collide.

Although Mitchell’s film contains thin plotlines that betray a work put together by actors rather than writers, the unconventional method of creation also allows for moments of startling honesty -- in particular a key scene where a character is confronted with the cold reality of his self-worth. There are memorable lines aplenty in Shortbus as Mitchell once again displays his sense of wit. Occasionally the film becomes a mite too enamored of its own cuteness -- but because of the charisma of the cast and the daring of their good-natured enterprise, these moments are easily forgiven. Perhaps best of all, this is a film that is aware of the decade’s sense of dread, yet does not consume itself with criticizing those who are responsible. Instead, it offers an alternate path and suggests that it is through understanding, accepting and, yes, loving each other that we find strength and satisfaction. Though some may try to convince you that we are destined to travel in different directions, we are, in fact, all dying together. Under these circumstances, the petty divisions that bring so much misery to our lives are nothing short of nonsensical. As with his first feature, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell has created a film that is passionate, vibrant, insightful and truly one of a kind.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Wet Hot American Summer (Wain, 2001)

The defining moment for Wet Hot American Summer comes late in the film during the summer camp’s climactic talent show. Predictably, this production is filled with acts that are extremely incompetent -- so bad that the filmmakers hope we will be amused by how dreadful they are. Periodically during these acts, we are shown the audience which is laughing uproariously – not in derision it seems, but genuine pleasure. And so, here is the choice given to us by the filmmakers: laugh at the idiots on stage, laugh at the idiots in the audience who are amused by their incompetence or laugh at the idiots who put this film together and hoped to pass it off as legitimate entertainment. Notably, a few moments later, the only earnest performance of the show is performed – an amateurish but heartfelt rendition of a song from the Broadway musical Godspell. How is this effort received? It is met with a loud chorus of boos. It is here where the film most clearly asserts what it stands for. It ridicules aspiration and commitment in favor of half-assed wisecracking. And as it does so, it also strives to deflect any responsibility from itself to be creative or inventive. It hopes that we will be content to mirror the mindless idiots laughing along to nothing in particular. The joke’s on us.

Wet Hot American Summer is a film that we know to be a comedy mostly because it contains a cast composed largely of people who have been known to be funny in other situations. David Hyde Pierce, Janeane Garofalo, Molly Shannon, Michael Ian Black and Amy Poehler have all made me laugh heartily at other times. Their presence together should theoretically guarantee an enjoyable time. However, in this case, they have been given an aimless script that seeks to satirize a small, forgettable group of films that hardly need to be knocked down a peg. Do we really need someone to make a film pointing out the tired clichés in Meatballs? All of these actors have worked with better material – hell, a few of them have written better material – and their desperation in trying to breathe life into this turkey is evident in virtually every scene. When they are not mugging shamelessly in an effort to squeeze any sort of humor out of a largely incoherent script, they are performing with a wink and a nod in order to let us know that they are above it. Whole subplots and characters go absolutely nowhere. We find out that two characters are gay and … that’s it. They’re gay. The smelly kid who won’t take a shower? Well, guess what happens to him! Set-up after set-up leads to an eventual payoff that was a lot funnier when we imagined it in our own minds at the beginning of the film. Some of the absence of wit could be forgiven if it were at the very least fun and raunchy; however, despite the use of words “wet” and “hot” in the title, this film is certainly not going to leave the viewer feeling either.