SYRIANA (Stephen Gaghan, USA, 2005, 4)
This is a movie about a country that assassinates Arab leaders with car bombs. Because this movie was called SYRIANA, I assumed it’d be about the similar-sounding country Syria, which has a habit of doing this. But alas, this is Hollywood movie and so having Arabs as the main villains would be unthinkable. Remember when the book of SUM OF ALL FEARS had Muslim terrorists trying to nuke a US city. Hollywood decided that was stupid and so rewrote the movie script with the much more believable, hard-hitting, risk-taking and relevant story line of *neo-Nazis* trying to nuke a city. (Doesn’t everybody go to bed at night worrying about neo-Nazi weapons of mass destruction? I know I sure do.) That rewrite was so awesome that, since the notion of Arab states or Arab terrorists car-bombing each other’s leaders and leaving craters in each other’s highways is obviously equally stupid, the film-makers decide to make a movie in which the *CIA* does such things. And by push-button from an office in Washington, like in a long-distance video game.
The real CIA doesn’t even want to give the rubber-hose treatment to captured terrorists in secret prisons and is far more adept at overthrowing White House policies it doesn’t like (for any number of a-ideological, institutional reasons) than at assassinating foreign princes. But then, SYRIANA also takes place in that weird alternate universe where Arab princes need to be advised by a mid-level 30-ish American bourgeois oil-industry analyst (one who sees Mossadeq as an inspiration, BTW) that they should invest their wealth to create a real economy for when the oil runs out. (Hand slaps forehead.)
And by gum, if Hollywood is gonna show Muslim suicide bombers, then it’s ferdamnsure gonna contextualize and/or minimize them — by (1) making them exploited Pakistanis (not the typical suicide terrorist profile); by (2) making their target an oil industry installation (rather than, say, US jetliners, or European trains, or Iraqi mosques or Israeli pizza parlors or German discotheques or wheelchair-bound American Jews); and by (3) portraying the explosion by turning the screen to white light as the bomber closes his eyes and gets ready for his 72 virgins (rather than say, showing fire, mangled corpses, blown-up pipes, loss of wealth for Matt Damon’s idea of investments).
Actually, ideological beefs aside, SYRIANA has a far far FAR more basic problem — you can’t make nor tail of it while following it. Roger Ebert put SYRIANA #2 on his Ten-Best list (I will not, obviously). But his capsule on that list is actually revealing in ways I don’t think he intended:
Stephen Gaghan’s film doesn’t reveal the plot, but surrounds us with it … no one in this movie understands the big picture.
That about sums it up, I think, and in my book that’s a pretty good definition of bad storytelling. Ebert’s regular review is more of the same, and frankly it’s inconceivable to me that someone could write this way about a movie he liked:
Even then, the studio e-mailed critics a helpful guide to the characters. I didn’t look at it. Didn’t want to. I liked the way I experienced the film: I couldn’t explain the story, but I never felt lost in it … Already I regret listing all of these names. You now have little tic-tac-toe designs on your eyeballs. … The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem. The audience enjoys the process, not the progress. We’re like athletes who get so wrapped up in the game we forget about the score.
But the analogy in Ebert’s last sentence, about getting buried in stats and progress presupposes something not the case in SYRIANA — the intelligibility of the game itself. No sport is interesting if you don’t understand how it is played. To remember the score, we, the audience, at least have to know what the game is, what the rules are, how you score, whether high score or low score wins, etc. This movie is such a total mess, its action just tossed in media res in from nowhere — “surrounds us with the plot” — that it’s like PRIMER on a $50 million budget.
One of the all-time great Hollywood movies, and also one of the most popular and beloved, has an unintelligible plot about a man thrown into political and spy intrigue about which he doesn’t have a clue. It’s Alfred Hitchcock’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST — a film that stands in rebuke of SYRIANA as an example of how to make unintelligible intrigue into a coherent, watchable and exciting plot (but try reciting what happens in NORTH BY NORTHWEST off the top of your head).
First — concentrate on a single character with whom the audience identifies and give him a single role and aim (finding George Kaplan). SYRIANA juggles plot threads and has no central character.
Second, make him as clueless as we. SYRIANA is filled with characters who know stuff and withhold it from other characters and thus us.
Third, and this is the most important, don’t get bogged down in the MacGuffin. In Hitchcock’s terms, SYRIANA is a film that is not about the human beings, but only about the MacGuffin(s) they encounter, written by a man who thinks unraveling the MacGuffin matters. Coincidentally (or not), this was a tick Hitchcock, in his book-length interview by Francois Truffaut, said he always had to warn screenwriters off.
In the same interview, Hitchcock said NORTH BY NORTHWEST was his best MacGuffin because it was “nothing at all.” But imagine NORTH BY NORTHWEST if it followed James Mason and Martin Landau from the beginning, had a separate Eva Marie Saint plot thread, and was concerned with the business of every character at the meeting headed by Leo G. Carroll, where it’s decided that there’s nothing that can be done for Cary Grant without blowing Kaplan’s cover. And we could hear Carroll’s explanation of everything to Grant that Hitchcock wisely obscured with a roaring plane engine. That’s SYRIANA, in a nutshell.
I can’t make any reference to Ebert’s Top 10 listing of SYRIANA without noting this … remarkable … quote:
The movie has been called “liberal,” but it is apolitical, suggesting that all of the players in the oil game are corrupt and compromised, and in some bleak sense must be, in order to defend their interests — and ours.
If this act of “suggesting” is Ebert’s idea of “apolitical” … words fail me. As if “Oil = Evil/Oil Causes Evil/We’re Evil Because of Oil” isn’t the quintessential liberal stance on a host of issues (particularly for the Lifestyle Left, as distinct from the union hardhats who once formed the Democrat Party’s base). From climate change to automotive regulations to urban sprawl to Alaskan or offshore drilling to Bush’s personality to war and peace itself (as in “No Blood for —–“) … whatever side “oil” is on, liberals will be on the other as if it were a law of nature.
NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (Andrew Adamson, USA, 2005, 6)
“I am saying that there is no teaching of knowledge, but only recollection.”
– Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Meno
I made one Socratic discovery about myself when watching “Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”: That C.S. Lewis’s book is probably (no … certainly) the novel that has produced the strongest imprint on my mind, the one that I know as if from recollection. I have seen multiple movie adaptations of objectively greater novels (“Pride & Prejudice,” obviously) and objectively greater plays (“Hamlet,” obviously). But never, before “Narnia,” had I had so much recollection of the original novel when watching a movie. Never had I said to myself so often “no, that’s not right,” or “that’s not what happened,” or “why did they cut that out?” The amazing thing is that I hadn’t read Lewis’s novel for at least 15 years, though I’d seen an animated TV version about a decade ago. I have seen movie adaptations of novels and plays I had read more recently (again, the latest “Pride & Prejudice”) … without having that sort of reaction.
And yet, this is a very faithful adaptation. The plot points whiz by in the order and manner they should (the film is a short-feeling 140 minutes); the sibling rivalry that fuels much of the relationship between Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy is present, including the “reactionary sexism” in Lewis’s portrayal of boys and girls; the four siblings are as I had always mentally pictured them and they all give fine performances in the vein of “kids in a fantasy world”; there’s no “humanizing” or excuse-making for the White Witch this – evil looks and acts bad, first as temptation and carnal (Turkish) delights, then as the grotesqueries of the Witch’s army; the death and resurrection of Aslan are presented literally and objectively; a bunch of the Christ parallel details are there or added (“Behold the Great Lion”/”Ecce Homo”; “it is finished,” though not exactly at the right time; Susan and Lucy accompanying Aslan on the Via Dolorosa and weeping over his corpse like the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary Magdelene).
Like I said about “Pride and Prejudice” a couple of weeks ago, this is too good a story not to get an at-least-passable movie out of. In many ways, that’s all you can really ask for – gawd knows, there’d hardly be a point to a loose adaptation of this novel. But my recollection kept getting the better of me, even though I understand quite well that adapters can’t get everything on the screen. I still remember, like it was yesterday, being a 10-year-old boy at John Ogilvie Hall, looking forward to the last few minutes before all the breaks – for lunch, playtime and day’s end. Mrs. White would use those last few minutes to read to us (in that year, she went all the way through both LWW and Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”).
Even the smallest things, I noticed. Like how in the film we don’t find out until much later than we do in the book that the White Witch’s habit is to turn creatures into stone, until a new scene of Tumnus being thus “executed” in front of Edmund. But as a result, the filmgoer doesn’t get much of the eerieness of Edmund’s walk through the Witch’s “statuary,” or his taunting a lion that he wrongly thinks is Aslan.
The cinematic high point for me is probably Tilda Swinton’s delightfully fruity performance as the White Witch, the evil Queen Jadis. She isn’t camping it up, exactly – the Witch is too cold and precise for that. With her frozen face and self-possessed body language, Swinton was born to play a character with ice running through her veins. In an opposite-of-Judi-Dench sort of way, Swinton also seems like a Satanic parody of royalty – close enough to the real thing to see the deformities. Yet she also recoils slightly, as if afraid of what Aslan can do, when confronting him with her demand for Edmund’s blood.
As for the computer-generated effects, they are mixed in their specialness. On the upside, the animals look and act like animals. Aslan really is a lion saying his lines; the wolves leap like wolves. But on the down side, a scene of Susan and Lucy riding Aslan looks like bad back projection, like riding in a car in a ’40s movie.
For the last couple of years, film critics have noted anti-Iraq-war subtexts in a variety of commercial films not explicitly about the war – for example George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” and Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” Here, for the first time that I recall, there are clear pro-war subtexts, none of them explicit carryovers from the Lewis book.
For example, very early on, the Pevensie kids are at a London train station and there’s a quick shot of the adolescent Peter giving a longing look at Tommies going off to fight Hitler. This underlines what is only implicit in Lewis – Peter’s growing into manhood, as defined by his willingness and ability to use the sword that is a gift from Father Christmas. When Peter is first confronted by the White Witch’s wolves, Susan yells at him like a true isolationist: “this isn’t our war.” Later, she says “just because someone gave you a sword doesn’t make you a hero” and I was waiting for her to say “cuz A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” in the fashionable lingo of today’s books. But guess whose actions, right at the end, save Peter from the coup de grace? This construction of adulthood as leaving behind childish things and taking up arms is also present in Edmund, who is portrayed as having the worst vice imaginable for a British child of that generation – disobedience. “Why don’t you just do as you’re told,” Peter several times says to Edmund, who is portrayed (much more here than in Lewis) as the rebel, maybe even the most autonomous. But by the end he’s saying “I’ve seen what the White Witch can do. We can’t leave these people behind.” And we get the added line of Tumnus saying he betrayed the tyrant for “a free Narnia,” just as he’s turned to stone.
But there are several adaptation cuts which I just think were unnecessary or excessive. The changes in Edmund noted above made me regret even more the decision to basically delete the chapter where Lewis follows Edmund’s trip from the Beavers’ abode to the witch’s castle. There we get all of Edmund’s thoughts, including his decision to worship another god (“I expect that she is the rightful Queen really. Anyway, she’ll be better than that awful Aslan.”)
For another, the carefully considered conversation Peter and Susan have with the professor, which takes up a whole chapter in Lewis, is compressed into an accidental exchange of four or five lines about whether to believe Edmund or Lucy. Thus, we lose all of Lewis’ defense of fantasy and his whole understanding of his enterprise in writing the Narnia chronicles. In addition, Lewis has a whole chapter called “Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time,” explaining Aslan’s resurrection. The film makes no allusion to this at all, instead Aslan telling Susan and Lucy that the White Witch just hadn’t figured out the deep magic, which she cited to make her claim on Edmund the traitor’s blood, necessitating Aslan’s sacrifice. This undermines the Old Covenant/Deep Magic – New Covenant/Deeper Magic parallels, which deepen the Aslan/Christ parallels. I’d like to think the adapters (unnecessarily but understandably) wanted to avoid any taint of pure supercessionism, which many Jews consider anti-Semitic. But I think that’s crediting them with more theological sophistication than they have, since Aslan’s rebuke of the White Witch – “I was there when [the Deep Magic] was written” (a direct allusion to the opening of St. John’s Gospel) – remains. So I rather suspect they just didn’t get what the Deeper Magic was a reference to.
Probably the biggest disappointment for me was the role of Aslan. Nothing against Liam Neeson’s performance, which is quite good and quite “right-sounding.” But Aslan has little Providence here. There’s too little foreshadowing of him as the promised Messiah that half the Old Testament is about (and of course, no reference to the Father beyond the Sea). The Lockhornsesque marital quarrelling between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (well-played though it was by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) dominates the kids’ time with them, so there’s little of their conversation about Aslan, and the Hope that He represented even before His coming. Mr. Beaver’s line “of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good” is absent (except for a reprise at the end, shorn of its Providential meaning). In the same way, the transition from winter to spring is way too sudden and too complete. It all makes Aslan appear a bit arbitrary. When he walks away at the end in an extreme long shot, it was all I could do not to yell at the screen: “Come back, Shane.”
I got that kind of sense about too much in the film to give it an unqualified recommendation. The secular film-makers tried their darndest, and in good faith I think, to keep the allegory intact. Necessary to get those “Passion dollars.” But the effect is like listening to a singer who learned a song phonetically in a language he doesn’t speak. Or hearing, as a native speaker, someone who learned your language in a classroom. The “music” just isn’t there.
Still, to overextend the metaphor, at least be grateful that Disney is singing from a Christian song sheet to the limits of its abilities. And isn’t rewriting the music.
Originally published at The Fact Is.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ang Lee, USA, 9
On Dave Kehr’s blog last week, a commentator named Joe Baltake noted that Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a film that “will be both liked and disliked for the wrong reasons.”
The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in the romantic tragedy of a couple of gay cowboys who eat beans rather than pudding. It’s already received seven Golden Globe nominations, won several critic circles’ “year’s best” nods, and nabbed the top prize at probably the world second-most-prestigious juried film festival (Venice). In the coming weeks, it will be garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations and will probably get some wins. But a mere perusal of Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent “Fresh”) and the right Google search terms tells you that at least part of the stated reason for some of this is seeing the film as a commercial for gay “marriage,” “tolerance” and all the rest of it. Quick examples from Newsweek …
Brokeback feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships.
… and from Entertainment Weekly:
In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?
YEAH!! That’s the kind of praise I want to hear about a movie — “this is the blood of the lamb, which washes away the sins of the homophobes. Have mercy on them.”
And I like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A lot. But I don’t say that because I’m a priori impressed with gay subject matter, though I admit to not being absolutely turned-off by it either. I really don’t want to hear that sort of praise for it, since it turns the movie into a Cause. With some predictable (and equally wrong-headed) response from the other side of The Cause (the side to which I very emphatically belong).
There was a kerfuffle last week over the review by Harry Forbes, head of the Office of Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such conservative Catholics as apologist Jimmy Akin, journalist and expectant father (and friend, at least for now) Dom Bettinelli and the LifeSiteNews (here and here) went to town on the review, calling it in various ways an amoral whitewash that downplayed the Church teaching on homosexuality. As the editor’s note explains, the film was initially rated “L” — for “limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling” and is short of the “O” rating for “morally offensive.” That L-rating was quickly changed to “O,” but the review remained the same, to the chagrin of Dom, Mr. Akin and others, who began (or reiterated) calls for Mr. Forbes’s head.
Thing is, neither man nor the writers at LifeSite (ditto most of the people in their comment fields) have seen the film and so they are taking Mr. Forbes’s descriptions at face value. I agree that the review is lacking severely and that may account for the negative reaction (I’ll get back to that and some related issues after making my own case for the film as at least not O-offensive), but I have actually seen the movie.
Like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST last year, I’d like a first-rate film to be seen as something other than a Kulturkampf football and a measurement of one’s bona fides therein, much less as their Judgment Day Sheepness or Goatness. And I’ll say the following: reducing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to “homosexual propaganda,” as Lifesite does, and saying that “It is BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that this one is morally offensive,” as Mr. Akin does, is meaningless and ridiculously overstated coming from people who have not seen the movie.
Now … I’m not, not, NOT saying that one cannot say anything about a movie without having seen it, including (1) reasonable expectations about what it might be like, (2) judgments of the public discourse surrounding it, and (3) one’s decision whether to see it himself (which is, always and by definition, a decision made sight-unseen). But there are limits. And labeling something “propaganda” and insisting in ALL CAPS that something is “blindingly obvious” and calling others’ points “mere spin” are … to use Mr. Akin’s phrase … not borderline cases. Those are opinions to which the writers are not entitled, though in fairness Dom doesn’t “fisk” the review sight-unseen as Mr. Akin does (not to his credit) and is a bit more careful to say only what he can.
I had dinner at David Morrison’s house earlier this fall. His roommate “Dan” had read the Annie Proulx short story, but not seen the film. I had done the reverse. So Dan and I have this odd conversation, trying to figure out between ourselves what the adaptation was like, while trying to be spoiler-vague in front of David, who had neither seen nor read it. Dan was fairly emphatic that the story didn’t make the affair attractive, but rather was portrayed as a destructive force of nature. David was listening to us and (metaphorically) threw up his hands in frustration, saying something like “you guys are kidding yourselves. You both know perfectly well how this film will be spun. ‘How awful is it that the homophobic society and the constraints of the nuclear family got in the way of the happiness of these two nice well-meaning gay men by repressing their natural desires to marry each other.’ It’ll be taken as a commercial for gay marriage and that’s what all the Oscar night speeches will be about.”
I had to admit that the film doesn’t exclude that “read,” though I insisted (and insist) that this reduces and flattens the film and rides roughshod over some of its psychology. But I think David’s reaction is typical of the general Catholic suspicion of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The above-noted hosannahs (or as I put it elsewhere above, “the public discourse surrounding it”) — “I’m here. I’m queer, it was fabulous” — deserves suspicion. And they are indistinguishable from the outside from what would be said if BROKEBACK were in fact homosexual propaganda. But the film deserves better than to be reacted to, positively OR negatively, as an exercise in gay-lifestyle validation. It isn’t.
On the basis of his past work, I think Ang Lee is entitled to at least some consideration that he’s not making libertine propaganda. You’ll read very often, and sometimes from the horse’s mouth, that Lee’s movies are about “repression.” This is obviously true, but *how* are they about repression? As often as not, they’re about the destructive effects on the individual and society of willful characters and their destructive effects on the social and themselves — CROUCHING TIGER, where Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent pique and social-climbing bring ruin; the contrast between the two sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (remember Kate Winslet sobbing on the bed); and THE ICE STORM, where the sex is about as unrepressed as it gets — and ugly and destructive and (frankly) joyless.
The most important thing I have not seen noted elsewhere is what happens on the night of Jack and Ennis’s first sexual encounter. They were supposed to be keeping watch over a flock of sheep, protecting them from the wolves. When they wake up the morning after, they find out one of the sheep has been killed during the night. Their passion killed. You don’t have to be Harold Bloom to see the archetypes here — homosexuality as death force, as a passive destroyer of the soul, of innocence. In addition, the film certainly doesn’t portray the affair as viable as an alternative lifestyle, though each man thinks it might may be, for a time, after a fashion (Jack is the only one with the Massachusetts “marriage” dream). The relationship only “works” when it’s set apart from the social world — and this is the classic “homophobic” construction of homosexuality as outlawry.
Jack and Ennis’s not getting together has as much to do with the particulars of who they are as for social disapproval. Jack has a penchant for dangerous risk-taking; Ennis is a-romantic, period (if the second love had been a woman, the story would not have played out differently). As the movie went on, Jack and Ennis’s relationship became less sexual and more of an increasingly elusive “if only,” often tinged with jealousy and anger at each other. There’s even one scene where Ennis explicitly turns away Jack with the same “I gotta work” line that some woman hears from some overworked and unavailable man every second of every day of the year.
Nor does the film, contrary to Mr. Akin’s sight-unseen assertions and dismissal of noting this as “mere spin,” skimp on the affair’s destructive effects on others, with neither cowboy being a good husband or father, at least in part because the other is always a possibility. Jack marries for money and lives unhappily castrated. Before his divorce, Ennis even turns his wife into a man in bed one night. He becomes estranged from his children and even turns down a chance for custody of his daughter. And, most obviously — the film ends tragically and unhappily.
Now … I’m not going to oversell BROKEBACK on these grounds. It’s definitely not a Christian work, and one should approach it with caution. But if this story were about an illegitimate lisison between a married man and a married woman, maybe it would be far easier to see how comfortably BROKEBACK fits into the traditions and templates of romantic tragedy, and so (and this is what I care about here) not leap to conclusions about what the film is supposedly “endorsing.” It’d be easier, in some quarters, to see that its low-key elegiac tone and its bittersweet ambivalence about an impossible love come straight out of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But the essence of tragedy is that every option be costly. Nobody seriously maintains that David Lean or Martin Scorsese have constructed screeds against marriage or the breeder lifestyle — merely acknowledging that marriage involves some dying to self. (The most underappreciated film of this topic, though it’s not a tragedy, was 2003’s THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.) But all three of the tragic movies I’ve named are about people who choose family over eros, and from a mix of motives, not excluding shame and social disapproval. To acknowledge that such choices, even the right ones, have costs, and that some might not prefer those costs at certain moments or with a certain part of their soul, is simple truth-telling.
It’s also thoroughly Catholic apropos of homosexuality. Catechism 2358 says as follows:
(M)en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Now what “difficulties” might the Church be talking about? And what could be united to the Cross other than suffering? And a suffering that, because it is based on something “deep-seated,” may not end or be “cured” on this side of paradise. Sure, the right path is clear (and 2359 does offer hope for homosexual persons, albeit of a kind they tend to hold in contempt), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or painless, or, to steal a line I’ve heard, that it’s the broadest path.
Thus, potentially and in principle at least, the pain of homosexual repression (whether from without or within) can be the stuff of romantic tragedy without implying that homosexual acting-out is a preferable option. Only an Americanist pragmatism, an insistence on moral happy endings, or a willful desire to draw unsubstantiated pro-gay conclusions could say otherwise. And the USCCB guide goes astray in stating that the film includes “tacit approval of same-sex relationships.” Or rather, that’s true only if every stance other than explicit condemnation constitutes “tacit approval.” Under that understanding, yes, since BROKEBACK isn’t interested in approval or disapproval, it does indeed give tacit approval to homosexual sex. But that’s a crabbed, unidimensional and ultimately boring understanding of art, thought and discourse in the first place, one that owes more to Puritanism and other forms of religious purism than Catholicism. Surely reason and secular plurality offer some space to representation other than the 60s totalitarian-radical stance: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Now this “take” may very well not be Ang Lee’s or Annie Proulx’s. But there’s plenty in the film to support it and, more importantly, nothing in the film that excludes it. One of the things that needs to be made clearer about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its open-endedness and disinterestedness. Part of the reason the film’s widely-praised last image (a closet, a uniform, a window, a child walking away, and Heath Ledger’s face and body language all create a spine-tingling memento mori) is so brilliant is that it isn’t an overdetermined “moral” — it keeps open both BROKEBACK’s sources of loss. The film does nothing to “force” its audience into a conclusion about homosexuality, other than simply presupposing “homos is people too,” which is hardly heresy. The fact that secular film critics are cheerleading this film on (some of) the grounds they are is not surprising, but what is surprising is Christians taking their word for it. The film-critic community is one where theological illiteracy reigns (see 90 percent of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST criticism) and where opposition to gay marriage is understood only or primarily as “hate,” like when Scott Tobias at The Onion AV Club blog refers to “the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives” as evidence of “homophobic sentiment.” (And believe me, Scott is a friend who wouldn’t even enter my mind if I were asked to name the Top 40 Leftist Wack-Jobs in the Field of Film Criticism.)
But Scott makes a much more important point at the end of the conversation:
The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The “plea for tolerance” in Brokeback Mountain comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it’s raison d’être.
Even though I think (as Scott does not) that homosexual behavior is sinful and identifying oneself as “a homosexual” is dubious — in more than one sense of “dubious” — this is still a basic fact about how a work of art “works.” Scott distinguishes films that are propaganda, both implicitly and explicitly, from works that are not, but which may have effects that lead it to be understood in a certain way. But it is purely and simply not the case that people reacting to a text (by, say, calling it a great boon for gay marriage, yadda-yadda, etc.) has anything to do with the text. Though my meter is probably not St. Blogs’ most sensitive on such matters, I see a handful of “gay propaganda” movies every year and I can say definitely that BROKEBACK ain’t one, though it is certainly consumable (and is being consumed) as validation by gay-lifestyle propagandists, just as last year’s even better VERA DRAKE was equally bluntly and oversimplifiedly pushed into service as pro-abortion propaganda.
It is true that, like all movies, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does require of the viewer at least some provisional acceptance of its terms of reference. No thing can be about everything. Homosexuality as a public issue doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and homosexuality as a moral issue hardly does, though adultery and infidelity as moral issues very definitely do. What you simply have to accept provisionally is that some people have an erotic desire for the same sex, and (and this is the hard part) that this might not be the most important thing to say about their sexual behavior or their moral character. This shouldn’t be too hard for Catholics, since Catechism 2359 above says homosexual persons are called, like all, to sainthood.
That these two men have, at least somewhat, released the homosexual genie to destructive ends does not (a priori, at least) answer the question of whether the genie should have been let out the bottle in the first place or whether we should encourage everyone to rub as many bottles as they find, and call it good. Indeed I think, in a strange way, the liberal lovers and the conservative haters of the film are arguing from the same template — that a movie that treats homosexual persons as persons first (with the particulars of their sinful weaknesses being a secondary detail) is somehow implying something about either about the morality of homosexuality or about the public issues surrounding it. It doesn’t. The Entertainment Weekly reviewer (Owen Glieberman) immediately before the passage cited above, writes explicitly:
It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design.
Leaving aside the direction of the terms of approval and disapproval, this is essentially the same as Dom:
Is that all that the official reviewer for the US bishops can say about a movie that attempts to normalize homosexuality as just another lifestyle? From the beginning you detect an enthusiasm for the movie that seems a bit untoward.
As I’ve said, I think the Catholic reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has more to do with the Forbes review, which is freely available and appearing in the context of secular hosannahs, than to the film, which has not been widely released yet. And that review was, in fact, fairly pitiful and deserving of scorn.
As Mr. Akin points out, there are just a few sentences of “slight caveats thrown in as sops to those who would find the film objectionable.” Those sentences aside, the review was pretty indistinguishable from what one might read from a daily newspaper. Also, and take this from an editor, those sentences read like “afterthought” — that is, if an editor were of a mind to, they would have been cuttable instantly without making yourself as a result do any further rearranging or major editing. You wouldn’t get any sense from reading almost all of this review that the writer was writing for the US bishops office or for Catholic publications. When you look at what the USCCB did (eventually, and apparently after some kicking and screaming) and what Christianity Today’s movies page did, they look similar. That is, discuss and rate the film as a work of art, with a disclaimer about the subject matter.
But … CT’s review was much better and meatier, and had its moral concerns better integrated throughout. I don’t think Forbes did nearly enough of that, didn’t approach the film from a specifically and identifiably Catholic view from beginning to end, and the result was an oil-and-water effect.
When I wrote my reviews of IRREVERSIBLE and THE ARISTOCRATS, I knew I was writing about two movies I loved, but which had subject matter guaranteed to turn off most religious viewers.¹ I made damn sure that I communicated my knowledge of that fact from the start, leading with a volley of vulgarities in one case and some graphic descriptions in the other. I would do the same if I were to write about EYES WIDE SHUT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS — the questionable moral status of the film’s images and surface content would suffuse and be central to my claims about the films (i.e., that they’re masterpieces, and highly moral to boot). This is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to do real film criticism — according to a sensibility from a specific POV.
But then, this blog is the product of one man and wholly about what interests him. Nobody would (I hope) take anything I say as “The Church” in an official or even semi-official capacity. One reason I did not include “Catholic” in my site name was never even to hint at such, and so leave me freer to write according to my sensibility, which you either share (at least somewhat) or don’t. But surely, the only reason the US bishops, as opposed to one layman in Washington, should be writing about film is because they speak from *their* specific perspective (for those of you in Rio Linda, that would be “being successors to the Apostles,” not “adding a sentence of reservation to the NY Times’ stance”). Despite the Vatican list of “Some (45) Significant Films” (which is as good a “canon list” as any of its length), film criticism is simply not in the episcopal charism.
Which also speaks somewhat, if via a very different route, to part of what Dom and Mr. Akin wonder aloud about the value of this USCCB office. In Dom’s words: “Methinks that there is a corruption in the film office of the USCCBureaucracy and in the USCCBureaucracy itself.” Mr. Akin says “the quality of the reviews and ratings has declined — to the point that I no longer consult them as they are of little use.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have rarely consulted the bishops’ reviews (and never for critical input per se), as I’m confident enough in my own judgment on this matter. I did and do occasionally look up reviews from curiosity over the ratings. When I read in a diocesan paper that they rated PULP FICTION “O” and KIDS “A-IV” (the predecessor to “L”), I wrote a letter that I couldn’t bring myself to send. But my esteem could not be won back.²
¹ To be fair, compared to those two movies, BROKEBACK is much tamer in style and actual content. It has one fairly graphic sex scene; but only its being between two men makes it particularly noteworthy in this day and age. And a couple of other nude or half-nude bits and pieces. Granted, my subject-matter Sensit-O-Meter is perhaps St. Blogs’ least acute, but considering the subject matter and contemporary standards, BROKEBACK is a pretty restrained film (one cause for complaint by the “insufficiently radical” crowd, BTW). And thanks, Ryan and Scott, for noting that David Ehrenstein is … well, follow the link and to the comment field.
² Can it be any more obvious that Larry Clark is a nihilist perv getting off on drooling through the camera at half-naked teens, while Quentin Tarantino is telling a tale of a providential religious conversion, albeit one heavily salted with surroundings of rough language, violence, and pomo irony?
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Joe Wright, Britain, 2005, 7
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in possession of a good reputation must be in want of a film adaptation.”
Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice” (sorta)
Why do we need another adaptation of another Jane Austen novel? Particularly since this version of “Pride and Prejudice” looked so pedestrian and rote from the trailer and casting – Keira Knightley has never set my world on fire; and I love Judi Dench as much as the next guy, but must British casting directors be so unimaginative with the grande dame roles. The Internet Movie Database gives nine versions with this exact title (thus excluding the modernized “Bridget Jones Diary”), and with just a decade since the definitive 5-hour BBC miniseries with Colin Firth as Darcy, this film had “unnecessary” stamped all over it.
But really, that’s like asking “why marry” to Austen’s famous opening line about men in possession of a good fortune. After seeing this latest “Pride and Prejudice,” I was asking “why not?” After all, it’s only the greatest novel ever written in English and only the work that has pretty much defined the modern romantic comedy template for nearly 200 years. There’s nothing despicable about wanting to see our favorite novels dramatized and seeing what real-life actors and directors can do with (or against) the images in your mind. While driving, I often listen to an unabridged Books on Tape of Irene Sutcliffe reading “Pride and Prejudice.” Heck, I even liked the semi-Bollywood Aishwarya Rai film “Bride and Prejudice” from earlier this year. As for the novel itself, well, however little known its feelings or views may be, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adaptation teams that it is considered as their rightful property.
Austen wrote such a corker of a story, so rich on so many levels, that as long as you’re reasonably faithful, you almost can’t completely screw it up – there’ll at least be a decent plot as skeleton for whatever skin and muscle the film-makers choose to wrap around it. And it is another truth not-so-universally acknowledged that our memories of the original and other adaptations fool us by “filling in” gaps and firming up thin moments.
As for the story, it’s mostly all there, though obviously some things are minimized – we don’t get much of a sense of the three younger girls until Lydia follows her heart and the results become central to the plot. For about 30 minutes, in fact, “Pride and Prejudice” quickly slashes through the compressed plot events – Jane’s rain-swept trip to Netherfield is hardly seen and the whole illness episode takes about a minute. But the choices made are generally smart. For example, Austen’s immortal, yet completely uncinematic, two opening paragraphs are entirely skipped in favor of a lengthy track through the Bennet home, establishing their material circumstances (think the start of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”). The book’s first dialogue – Mrs. Bennet eagerly telling her husband about the arrival of Bingley – is briefly overheard and swiftly out the side of the camera’s eye as it wanders through the house.
This “Pride and Prejudice” is filled with this sort of shot – it’s easily the most cinematically flashy of the decade-long string of Austen adaptations. The camera is constantly moving, catching things – like Mary’s bad piano playing – on the fly. The film’s high point (I thought the same of the 1995 miniseries) is probably the dance between Darcy and Elizabeth, which becomes a serious sideways-accusatory conversation. Here, the camera twirls along with the pair, as if we’re dancing too and eavesdropping as Darcy and Elizabeth become more absorbed (and not in a good way) in each other and each other’s opinion. Director Joe Wright literally erases the other dancers – first in sound and finally in images until it’s just the two of them “quarreling” (to the extent that people quarreled publicly in Regency England) all alone and then taking their final positions. In visual look, this film’s scruffy gentility (and that’s the Bennets’ status as “poor gentry”) most resembles the Austen world of “Persuasion.” There’s more rain and dirt here than we often get in British period adaptations. The Bennets’ home is kinda drab (we see the shabby cracks in the walls and hear the squeaks in the floorboards) and not too far removed from people who worked the land – chickens in the kitchen, pigs in the backyard, and all that jazz.
There’s just no way around some of the ways “Pride and Prejudice” is unfilmable. It’s not just the felicity of Austen’s language – at least some dialogue is transferable (though much of the dialogue in the novel is irrelevant, if often funny or relevant via its irrelevance). It’s that Austen simply *told* most of the plot, often by describing people’s interior states, particularly the most important characters’ states. Austen’s characters also often wrote letters to one another, which are simply reproduced. Those are two techniques cinema resists, even the frequent attempts to reproduce the letter content as conversation. And inevitably, one will have disagreements with the characterizations as presented. Jane Bennet here is not as obviously good-souled as I see her; Bingley’s a bit stupider; I see Mr. Collins a bit more silly and flamboyantly self-absorbed than Tom Hollander’s loser with a constipated-face act; and Donald Sutherland just doesn’t fit the avuncular quality of Mr. Bennet’s weariness.
Other actors do much better, often simply because the casting is right. As Mrs. Bennet, Brenda Blethyn can play this kind of talkative “silly old biddy” role in her sleep. Jena Malone only gets a couple of scenes as Lydia, but she’s surprisingly effective as a pre-modern modern girl. Dench is just a compulsive addiction. I may groan at seeing her typecast (she’s Lady Catherine de Bourg, for those of you in Rio Linda). But those lips, those eyes – even those wrinkles – she just is regal imperiousness.
I had heard nothing but bad things about Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy, and his performance is definitely at the stiff end. But somehow that seemed right for Darcy’s proud diffidence, as if he can’t be bothered to be here. And MacFadyen does loosen up a bit toward the end – as he should. As for Knightley, she at least is the right age to play Elizabeth Bennet (for a camp classic, see 35-year-old Greer Garson in the 1940 MGM version). Knightley’s a bit gigglier than Jennifer Ehle was in 1995, but her Elizabeth is a woman so intelligent and such an observer that the outside world are mere characters in her own private joke. In other words, she personifies Austen’s ironic sense of humor, if a bit bluntly. But it also plays well against MacFadyen’s muffled Darcy. As if each performance, like a real marriage, needs the other to play off it well.
While the 1995 miniseries has entered the vernacular as the “Colin Firth” version, this one will be known as the “Keira Knightley” because it’s her joyful performance, and her joyful qualities as a person, that centers and defines the film. Which is why adaptations also, like marriages, need contrasts to play off each other.
So … that’s why.
Originally published at The Fact Is.