Out On The Prairie Cowboys fall for each other in Ang Lee’s riveting, landmark “Brokeback Mountain.”

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Out On The Prairie

Cowboys fall for each other in Ang Lee’s riveting, landmark “Brokeback Mountain.”

by Thomas Peyser

Ang Lee’s sumptuously shot, heartbreaking “Brokeback Mountain” is at once a meticulous homage to countless Westerns and an unflinching move into new territory that its forebears keep hidden in the subtext: love between men on the range. As a result, the love story of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) at times feels as ancient and familiar as any well-worn piece of American legend, even if its content could set John Wayne spinning in his grave. “Brokeback” is arguably the first Hollywood picture that focuses steadfastly on a gay relationship, but in spite of this novelty, the mythic trappings give the story of Ennis and Jack an almost classic feel, as if the pair were ready to take their place with Bogie and Bergman’s Rick and Ilsa from “Casablanca” as screen icons. The effect is exhilarating. The film, based on a story by Annie Proulx, opens in 1963. Ennis and Jack are thrown together by chance when a rancher (Randy Quaid) hires them to summer his sheep on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Jack is the more effusive one, a rodeoer with a chip on his shoulder, while Ennis emits only monosyllables — and only with the greatest reluctance. When, encouraged by some whiskey, he strings several sentences together, Jack is pleasantly stunned. One cold night forces them into the same cramped tent, and, as if out of nowhere, they throw themselves at each other.

Of the two, Jack is the most emotionally equipped to deal with this situation, but they’re both bewildered by what has overtaken them. They assure each other that they “ain’t queer,” then promptly strip and retire back to the tent. There’s not much sex on screen, and what is there is, by current standards, discreetly filmed. But in these scenes, the men are so conflicted that you can’t tell if they’re about to make love or beat each other up. It’s as if they’re trying to convince themselves that all this is nothing more than an unusual kind of manly roughhousing. Barely out of their teens, they lack the assurance to act decisively and split up at the end of the summer with shoulder slaps and mumbled goodbyes. They don’t even trade addresses.
They both marry, have children and settle into routines that eat away at them. When, four years after their summer on Brokeback, Jack tracks down Ennis, they’ve wised up enough not to waste a moment kidding themselves; within minutes they’re in a motel. The die is cast. What follows is two decades of furtive, sporadic “fishing trips,” from which they return to crumbling marriages and increasingly embittered reflections on the life together they don’t have.
Some critics have been bending over (backward, of course) to insist that “Brokeback Mountain” is a moving love story whose protagonists just happen to be men. However refreshingly open-minded that judgment may be, it’s a little like saying that “To Kill a Mockingbird” involves the story of a wrongly accused man who just happens to be black, or that Matthew Shepard — who died in the beautiful high country in which the film is set — was a murder victim who just happened to be gay.
This is not simply a movie about love denied, but an exploration of the particular traps, emotional and social, waiting for gay men of a certain background and disposition. In “The Ice Storm” (1997), Ang Lee masterfully demonstrated his ability to expose what was toxic in the now exotic-seeming milieu of 1970s suburbia, and he brings the same rigor, and the same painstaking craft, to the deftly observed particulars of “Brokeback” — the trailers, shacks and combine dealerships against which the tragedy unfolds. The power of these movies comes from their refusal to deal in hazy universality.
The fine screenplay by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry admirably fills out the middle section of Proulx’s story, and the stunted lives chronicled in the film often call to mind McMurtry’s superb script of “The Last Picture Show” (1971). Gyllenhaal’s Jack is a study in poignancy, but ultimately it’s Ledger’s Ennis who most devastatingly captivates our attention. Having witnessed as a child the aftermath of a ritualized murder of a local gay man, he’s turned his quiet, stoic nature, a traditional value in a Western, into an elaborate mechanism of repression and self-torture. The movie’s triumph is showing us how events can conspire to turn a man within a hair’s breadth of happiness into someone who, in Ennis’ words, is “nobody, nowhere.”


Towers of Babble

“Sketches of Frank Gehry” explores the airy realm of the media-architectural complex.

by Thomas Peyser

With “Sketches of Frank Gehry,” longtime Gehry pal Sydney Pollack goes way out on a limb and more or less declares the biggest celebrity in contemporary architecture a genius. Gehry, whose massive, spaceship-like 1997 Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao seemed to secure his place in the pantheon of supreme 20th-century artists, emerges as a charmingly rumpled, folksy Everyman, somewhat bewildered by his own powers to revitalize not just architecture but whole cities (Bilbao, a local official assures us, is enjoying a Gehry-invoked renaissance).
Adoring beauty shots of Gehry’s projects and sketches vie for screen time with the praise of clients, colleagues and cronies. It all goes down very easily — too easily, in fact. By sidestepping both the wide divergence of opinion about Gehry’s achievements and, surprisingly, even the logic of his stylistic development, “Sketches” comes across as something of a documercial for Gehry Partners, the architect’s Los Angeles design firm. Pollack has wasted an opportunity to turn the Gehry craze into a “teachable moment.”
At the start of the movie Pollack rather anxiously admits that he knows little about either architecture or making documentaries. He may be right. Gehry’s early work often played with L.A. vernacular styles, and we’re treated to fleeting glimpses of these sometimes-whimsical structures now and then. But we never hear a word about how or why Gehry transformed himself from an offbeat regionalist into the purveyor of a style that so disregarded its surroundings that his buildings are at home (or out of place) anywhere in the world — anywhere, that is, where a mammoth foundation, corporation or government can pony up his fee.
Lacking interest in the shape of Gehry’s career, Pollack more often contents himself with a tried and true staple of such films: the search for the origins and nature of artistic genius. Naturally, nothing much comes of this enterprise, although Gehry’s onetime therapist shows up to take credit for letting Gehry access his previously untapped talents, in part by giving him the go-ahead to dump his first wife. “There’s something in there, in that right brain, that allows him to take free associations and then make them practical realities,” he avers. Given the film’s flat-footed conception, it’s a miracle that Pollack doesn’t cut to an MRI image of that scintillating hemisphere.
What the movie lacks in depth, however, it makes up in star power. In fact, what’s most interesting about the movie is its exposure of the media-architectural complex. Paramount’s and Disney’s ex-CEO Michael Eisner waxes lyrical about the Gehry structures he’s commissioned. Barry Diller, the father of Fox Broadcasting, explains his role in inspiring a Gehry project this way: “Frank and I started talking about water, because he likes boats and I like boats.” Guess what the building Gehry designed for Diller looks like. That’s right, a boat. Rock star Bob Geldof? Big-time Gehry fan.
The one dissenting voice comes from Princeton art historian Hal Foster, who allowed himself to be interviewed in a wood-paneled, book-lined room that proclaims his debilitating distance from the cheerleading hipsters and business celebrities the movie pits against him. Shots of skeptical articles by Foster and others briefly flash across the screen like faded newspaper headlines tracking a string of gangland slayings.
What drama there is in the movie derives from Pollack and Gehry cagily using each other to burnish their images. Sporting a leather jacket and yellow Livestrong bracelet, Pollack praises his old friend for finding a way to be creative in an industry that makes such “stringent commercial demands.” Gehry, taking his cue, notes that Pollack, too, has accomplished much the same thing in pictures. They agree to agree.
Money, in fact, rarely comes up, but a documentary about architecture that doesn’t dwell on money is like “Hamlet” without the prince. Gehry’s meteoric rise owes something to the debt-financed boom of the 1980s. This film, however, makes little attempt to place Gehry in either an economic or cultural context. As someone in the movie admiringly wonders, Why is it that we’ve fallen in love with an architect whose buildings project an aggressive, glitzy monumentality, Egyptian in scale? Gehry explains his style in a single word: democracy. Maybe so. A more adventurous film might explore this question, but this coffee-table book of a movie is satisfied to gaze wonderingly.


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