Brokeback Mountain
Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana, Annie Proulx, and Ang Lee, 2005

#3, 2005 Skandies

Okay, this one is good! I was actually dreading it, thinking that it was going to be two hours of taciturn cowboys in picturesque surroundings very slowly acknowledging that they love each other. But no — the film gets through that necessary sequence in a reasonable half hour, and then plows through twenty years in the remaining hour and a half, expanding its scope to encompass wives, children, in-laws. There's a lot of content here. It's not all long takes of meaningful glances.

Of course, the meaningful glances are there if that's what you're in the market for. As I've mentioned, my screenwriting apprenticeship has kind of ruined my ability to watch movies, and this was no exception. Having had the formulas articulated to me over and over, I see them everywhere and they throw me right out of a picture. In this one there's a scene in which one of the cowboys visits the other one's parents, and just through the actors' expressions and gestures and line deliveries you can tell that the mother knows that she's talking to her de facto son-in-law, and that he knows that she knows... it's really well done, but the entire time I was hearing sixteen months' worth of "unnecessary — that'll come through in the performance" and "no, you can say that with a look" ricocheting around in my head. Similarly with the dialogue — after years of writing intuitively, dashing off dialogue because, well, I know how the story goes and that's what the characters say, it's been quite a change having to explicitly build lines step by step. "Okay, worry about the text later, it isn't really important — what's your subtext? All right, now how can you convey that subtext while putting as little of it as possible out on the surface?" This way of working is still really foreign to me, but now I see the signs of this method in movie after movie, and this is one of them.

My discomfort with this sort of by-the-numbers craft has led me to become uncharacteristically interested in ideas. Roger Ebert says that what matters is not what a movie is about but how it is about it; I used to agree, but since the answer to the "how" question now seems to be "using the usual cinematic conventions," I've started to turn to the "what." So what's Brokeback about? I agree with those who say that one of the great things about it is that it's not so much about gay issues per se as about the more universal theme of reconciling love with practicalities. There's a scene in which one of the cowboys is explaining to the other that, yes, it sucks to have to cancel a meeting when they only see each other three or four times a year, but August just isn't going to work out because he's got a job lined up and the rent isn't going to pay itself. I'm in an international long-distance relationship and have had that exact conversation several times over the past couple of years. I mean, the specific months might have been different, and the cowboys didn't have to worry about coordinating meetings with their birth control schedule, but otherwise, yeah, I have been there. It's nice to think that love conquers all, but it doesn't conquer homophobia in 1960s Wyoming, nor does it conquer the need to maintain an income stream, nor does it conquer the reluctance of the American and Canadian governments to allow foreign citizens to move in without committing to the laborious process of establishing residency. A lot of the time it doesn't even conquer airline fares. Brokeback Mountain is about the frustration of wanting Happily Ever After in a world that, for one reason or another, gives you fake fishing trips and/or breakfast burritos in Albuquerque instead.

One question that occurred to me while watching the cowboys argue about the feasibility of starting a ranch together was: Why not just go to San Francisco? This movie may be a Western of sorts, but it's not set in the Old West — it's set in the 1960s and '70s. But that's a question that almost answers itself. Move to San Francisco... and do what? And avoid going crazy how? If you barely made it to ninth grade and all you know is ranching and rodeos; if you've spent your entire life in Big Sky country thinking of Riverton, Wyoming, as the big city; if you know nothing whatsoever of gay culture and don't really think of yourself as queer even as you bone another dude; are you really going to up and move to the Castro to wait tables or something? Brokeback is about lives being wrecked by a society full of hate, but really, they came pre-wrecked by an educational and an economic system that conspired to whittle down their options such that the best ones weren't even on the table.

Tropical Malady
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004

#4, 2005 Skandies

Too slow, gave up. I have since read that after an hour this movie turns from a slice-of-life gay romance into a nightmarish adventure tale full of mythic symbolism. But after a forty-minute cavalcade of nothing fucking happening I couldn't take it anymore. Now that I know that it totally changes style midway through... I'm even more glad I quit, because if there's one thing worse than nothing happening it's dream logic happening.

Let's see what the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes have to say:

"an exquisite taste of sensory cinema" DO NOT WANT
"more textural than narrative" DO NOT WANT
"leap from reality to reverie" DO NOT WANT
"induces a trance-like state" DO NOT WANT
"hypnotic head-scratcher" DO NOT WANT

I like the idea of going into a film knowing nothing about it other than that it's recommended, but this sort of result makes me think that maybe I should vet these ahead of time and drop from my list the ones that don't actually have, you know, plots. Especially given that apparently I have another Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie due to hit my hold shelf any day now. Uh-oh.

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