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Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Brokeback Mountain; Jarhead; Munich; The New World
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Brokeback Mountain

Once a film wins awards and is nominated for Oscars and expected to win, it sets up a whole different dynamic for audiences who go to see it. Expectations are generally far too high - which is worse if the film is different from the kind of film that usually wins. What makes response to Brokeback Mountain even more hazardous is the religious response to the film (or to reports about the film rather than the film itself). Various church groups in the US have been extremely outspoken in their condemnation and these reactions have been highly publicised.

Brokeback Mountain was originally a short story by E Annie Proulx (The Shipping News), of under 40 pages, that one could read in about a third of the running time of the film. It used a flashback structure where Ennis Del Mar remembered his time herding sheep with Jack Twist on Wyoming's Brokeback Mountain in 1963 and their relationship and infrequent meetings over twenty years. It was a story of loneliness and regrets.

Novelist and Pulitzer prizewinning author, Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove) and Diana Ossana have continued their screenwriting collaboration in amplifying the short story and have treated it in direct linear fashion, keeping the regrets and grief until the end. It is interesting to note that the setting is 1963, the year that McMurtry's novel Horseman Pass By was filmed with Paul Newman as Hud, a different look at the 20th century American cowboy.

The cinematography for Brokeback Mountain by Rodrigo Prieto is, using the cliché, absolutely stunning. The mountainscapes of Wyoming, the changes of the seasons, the rounding up of the sheep are very beautiful, giving a grandeur and dignity to the action. Ennis and Jack are enveloped by the power of nature.

And what of the theme? And its treatment? And how should audiences who hope they have a developed moral sensitivity and conscience respond? Especially in comparison with other issue themes in films which exercise moral conversations?

A safe principle for any storytelling is that there is no limit on what can be presented. Any kind of sexual relationship is a valid subject simply because it is part of human experience. To argue that would be a form of denial by suppression or repression. The issue for moral discussion is always how the topic is presented.

This means that Brokeback Mountain's presentation and exploration of the sexual relationship between Ennis and Jack is a legitimate subject for a film.

On the one hand, director Ang Lee says that his film is not a gay film. On the other hand, some American commentators have declared that the film 'glorifies' homosexual relationships. Lee says that his film is about two men, two lonely men, isolated from their families, who are drawn to each other. This develops into an intense love with sexual expression that continues for two decades despite each of the men marrying and having children. Lee presents it as something which does occur in all societies. He obviously presents it sympathetically rather than making a crusade for it.

This raises the issue of homophobia, especially in American society. Responders to the cries of outrage ask why this issue seems to evoke more outcry than many others, especially in the context of concern about representations of violence in the news and in the media, of the obscenities of exploitation, civil war, rape and famine in countries of Africa and of the experiences of war, soldier children and terrorism which does not evoke the same heartfelt reactions. Irrespective of the merits or not of Brokeback Mountain, this is an important question that the release of the film raises.

The major world religions have had to discuss the issues of homosexual orientation and behaviour and how these fit with their moral codes. Brokeback Mountain, because it is sympathetic but not crusading, contributes data to this continued discussion. And that is important. Catholic teaching is quite clear. Fr Richard Leonard SJ in his review for the Australian Catholic Film Office gives a key reference for this teaching: The Catechism is very clear about the official teaching of the Catholic Church as regards homosexual acts. They are 'intrinsically disordered' and the inclination itself is 'objectively disordered' (#2357). In the next paragraph, however, the Church instructs us that gay women and men 'must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity' (#2358).

It seems that the relationship between Ennis and Jack is being presented with sympathy, the image of the two shirts is a powerful symbol of the love between them. Heath Ledger's and Jake Gylenhaal's performances make their characters and their dilemmas very real. It needs to be stressed that there is a lot more going on in the films two and a quarter hours running time besides the relationship, many more characters, including wives and families. It also needs to be stressed that there are some brief and quite explicit scenes that could disturb some audiences. The film also shows the consequences of Ennis's and Jack's adulterous behaviour and choices not only for themselves and their secretive meetings but on their families. These are issues of fidelity and commitment. The treatment of Ennis's relationship with his wife and his children shows Ennis's inadequacies as husband and parent, with understanding and sympathy as well as criticism.

The plot of Brokeback Mountain is controversial, certainly, in today's moral climate and needs to be discussed with both discernment and compassion.

Jarhead

This is a very uncomfortable film to watch.

Everybody has a stance on the Gulf War and the reason for President George Bush going to the aid of Kuwait and attacking Saddam Hussein. Everybody probably has a stronger stance on the right and wrongs of President George W Bush and America and allies in the Iraq War and the subsequent events and insurgency. Jarhead is a kind of Catch 22/Full Metal Jacket/Platoon look at the Gulf War but, of course, in the light of the events in Iraq.

Based on a memoir by Anthony Swofford, the screenplay was written by William Broyles who career includes being editor of Newsweek and serving in Vietnam. He writes from the inside of the US. Director is the British Sam Mendes whose work has been mainly in theatre, who won an Oscar for his first film, American Beauty, and then made the gangster drama, The Road to Perdition. He brings the tone of an outsider who understands the American psyche.

The star is Jake Gylenhaal for whom 2005 was an important year. Besides being the lead in Jarhead, he featured sympathetically in Proof and received an Oscar nomination for his performance in Brokeback Mountain. He is convincing as Swoff, a fairly callow youth, alienated from his family, about to be disappointed and dumped by his girlfriend, who submits himself to training as a marine. The first part of the films is the Full Metal Jacket part, the training by humiliation and abuse (often of the crass and sexist kind), regimentation and hard physical slog so that the marine will be ready to obey any order in the line of fire. Not everyone can survive this formation. Those who do are so are loyal to the marine code, the code of the 'jarheads' (after their complete haircut), an ingrained aggressive outlook on life that is lethally adversarial (to put it politely).

Jarhead follows the old genre of the single platoon movie where the audience gets to know the men as they get to know each other, josh and clash, form rivalries and friendships and get ready to go to war. Audiences who are anti war and wary of the involvement in Iraq will watch open-mouthed as the grunts watch the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now and sing along with the Wagner, hyping themselves into a frenzy as the climax with the napalm drop approaches. They can see no humanity in 'the enemy.' It is at this moment that they are called to go to the Gulf.

The wait in the desert for action, the training under scorching conditions and their ignorance of the enemy (except that it is the enemy) means boredom and Catch 22 situations and behaviour. They eventually go into action but the war is very soon over. There are vivid moments: the platoon warily holding up some camel drivers in the desert, close-ups of latrine duty and a climax where Swoff and his friend Troy (Peter Sarsgaard) are keyed up for their first shot as expert snipers. And then it is back to the day-by-day ordinary US of the 90s.

Jamie Foxx has a strong role as the staff sergeant, both tough and humane, whose life is the marines. How war films have changed (and not) since World War II.

Munich

Steven Spielberg is, to say the least, prolific. Within six months of his War of the Worlds, he has released Munich. Munich has caused some controversy with its picture of Israeli agents in clandestine pursuit of the terrorist killers of members of the Israeli team at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Many Jewish commentators in particular have denounced the film as anti-Israel. This seems a strange accusation against a director who made Schindler's List and who invested so much of his own finances into setting up the video record of survivors of the Holocaust.

Whatever the stances of the Jewish critics, Munich is one of the most disturbing films in recent times.

Audiences can read global conspiracy novels like those of Robert Ludlum and be amazed at the intricacies and dangers of the plots, especially with fictional heroes who submerge themselves in alien worlds, survive undercover, risk lives and sanity for their righteous cause. So, we enjoy movies like the Bourne Identity and Supremacy. But, with Munich, this was real life. This is a 1970s world of terrorists and counter-terrorists who are paid assassins, at the will of governments but publicly distanced and disowned by these governments.

If this were a documentary, we would be looking more objectively at the situations, even as we responded emotionally. But, here, we have a drama with recognised actors playing the roles, inviting us to identify with them and their mission, making us complicit, however willing or unwilling we may be, in the search, the stalking, the violence and the killings.

Depending on our politics, on our consciences and moral stances, we can applaud the mission for vengeance or we can be bewildered by the world in which we live, by law, justice and morality, by the ethos of the eye for the eye. While the events took place three decades earlier, the final image is the New York skyline and the Twin Towers, an icon that evokes all kinds of emotions that can reinforce or cloud judgements.

The events in Munich recur throughout the film, the audience seeing ever more detail, the cumulative effect of the Black September violence. The film is really Post-Munich or Munich and its aftermath.

The screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, playwright of Angels over America, the drama critical of Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, linking this 'scoundrel time' with the history of America and, especially, the AIDS epidemic. Kushner ranges widely here in the realm of international politics and violence.

Eric Bana portrays Avner, a Mossad officer who is commissioned to form a squad to execute the Black September terrorists. Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Matthieu Kassovitz, Hanns Zischler are the crack squad who have various complementary lethal skills, who are committed to Israel. The screenplay traces their interactions, Bana's leadership, the gathering of information (Matthieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale are particularly impressive as the French apolitical sources), the travels to many cities of Europe and the killings, successful and unsuccessful.

Vengeance takes its toll not only on those who experience the violence but also on those who act on it. This is also a clear message of the film. Avner becomes more and more disturbed as the mission goes on. Fellow members are killed. There are serious demands on his marriage. The government distances itself from him.

Spielberg and Kushner take us on a very long journey (160 minutes), immerse us in the vengeance and leave it to us to try to work out what we feel and think.

The New World

For twenty years or more, director Terrence Malick's reputation rested on his feature debut, Badlands (1973) and the beautifully photographed Days of Heaven (1978). When he made another feature (although he had been writing and producing other films), The Thin Red Line, his Pacific war film which was released the same year as Saving Private Ryan (1978), responses were divided. Though there were some vivid war reconstructions for the battle of Guadalcanal, much of the film was a contemplation of war, the meaning of life and the beauty of nature and indigenous people.

Much the same comment could be made about his fourth feature, The New World, the story of an early expedition to establish Jamestown, Virginia, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, the encounter between the English and the Indians, referred to as 'The Naturals', the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, her marriage to John Rolfe and the visit to the court of James I. There are some fights, some personal confrontations but the action is subordinate to the contemplation. For this, the Oscar-nominated photography of Emmanuel Lubezki is a great plus. James Horner offers a score, incorporating Mozart and Wagner, that is in the vein of a Philip Glass suite.

Many audiences will be extremely fidgety during The New World which runs for 140 minutes (but was longer). Mallick is not particularly interested in the drama of his events. In fact, the film lacks a dramatic drive. We see that many incidents take place but there is practically no indication in the screenplay of why they take place. It is basically a juxtaposition of events and characters, leaving it to the intelligence and goodwill of the audience to make the causal connections.

Characters come and go, interact and move on in much the same way as John Smith himself does, leaving a message for Pocahontas that he has drowned while he goes on a further expedition, turning up at the end for a soulful meeting with Pocahontas in England. Pocahontas herself, played by newcomer Orianka Kilcher with great dignity and bearing, is the centre of the film changing from young Natural in the forest and with the tribe, to her commission to befriend smith and her loving him, to her rejection by the tribe and assimilation into the English community, her marriage to John Rolfe and the trip to England.

Colin Farrell looks soulful, mournful and sometimes anguished as Smith. It is Christian Bale as Rolfe who has the most substantial acting role. Christopher Plummer registers as Captain Newport and David Thewliss as Captain Wingfield. There are a lot of name actors in minute roles, almost unrecognisable, like Jonathan Pryce as James I. Mallick peoples his screen but is less interested in presenting their dramatic development. Much of the dialogue is the interior voice of the characters.

All in all, this is a beautiful mood piece that requires giving up ordinary expectations of action and drama, characterisation and development and contemplating the beauty of nature, the inhumanity of humans, the confrontations of cultures, the courage and pigheadedness of pioneers, the destruction of indigenous peoples, the foundation of a new but not always better world.
LONDON - 13 February 2006 - 2,597 words
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Tags: Brokeback Mountain; Jarhead; Munich; The New World


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