Part I

Just in case anyone was wondering, Trappings is not dead. I merely neglected to announce its fall quarter hiatus (probably out of some delusional, falsely optimistic notion that I would find time between my full-time employment and full-time coursework to eke out a blog post or two). Between September 26 and December 14, 2005, I took ENG102 (Second-Year Composition), ANT201 (Physical Anthropology) and HUM110 (Introduction to Film) at North Seattle Community College. The amount of work it took to be successful with that course load while simultaneously holding down my job meant dropping out of life for three months (a friend recently told me that I’m “like a different person” now that I’m not under the stress of 80-hour weeks), but that’s all over now. I’ve learned my lesson about being overly ambitious; just because I’m capable of doing something doesn’t mean I need to ruin my life, even temporarily, in order to do it. On the plus side, I now have those 15 credits under my belt, and after next quarter’s 10 credits (this, I have decided, is the tolerable amount), I will technically be halfway through the community college experience.

Although the most I could typically muster for extracurricular “cultural” experience was a stolen Simpsons or Will & Grace rerun here and there, I did manage to catch a few films during my three-month stress-a-thon (this is, of course, excluding the films I watched for film class—see appendix below). Early in the quarter, when the burden still seemed relatively manageable, I made certain to be there for Bennett Miller’s Capote. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a superlatively gifted actor, but Miller’s film (with script by Dan Futterman—remember when he played “Barry” on Will & Grace?) is in an important way unlike so many other films with outstanding performances (I’m of Charlize Theron and Monster in particular): the filmmaking itself is actually up to level of the performance, and the movie in its entirety is all of a piece, every element in harmony and coalesced. It’s simply a fine, intelligent, engaging film all around, with Hoffman’s truly brave performance at its center. It’s a rather profound, questioning contemplation of what, if any, obligation an artist and the artistic/fictionalized representations they create have to “reality” or “facts.” Miller and Futterman (with biographer Gerald Clark, upon whose book the film is based) are appropriately appreciative of Capote as an incredibly vulnerable person conflicted about that blurry line between life (responsibility) and art (freedom). In addition to the excellent, genuinely thoughtful work of Miller, Futterman, and Hoffman, the contributions of Catherine Keener (as Capote pal/conscience Harper Lee) and cinematographer Adam Kimmel also must be acknowledged as integral to Capote’s fineness.

I thought the most salient scene in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead came at the end, when the nonplussed soldiers (including Jake Gyllenhaal) of Gulf War I, returning from their frustrating anticlimax of a “war,” are congratulated by a Vietnam veteran, a participant in their homecoming parade who has invaded their bus. The words are congratulatory, but the feel of the scene is awkward. The impression is that there is some kind of shame or miscommunication on the part of one or both generations on the bus, and this affected me more than most of the rest of this long haul of a film, which was a good investigation of the grinding day-to-day mechanics of insular, masculinist-culture warfare, as well as a nicely done depiction of the unusually destructive shopping trip that was the Gulf War (which it depicts as an almost accidentally horrifying game that never gets to the “good” levels). But the film seemed to lack a point of view overall. Its mission of nonjudgmental observation is probably a noble one, and it is pretty to look at and interesting to watch, but it left me feeling empty in a way that more assertive war pics—Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now come to mind—have not.

I saw Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man the same day I saw Jarhead; the former is much less “serious,” but as good in its own magazine-spread style as the latter. The Weather Man has a compositional precision—and a grasp on the real economic and emotional lives of Americans—that could only have come from the world of advertising (before graduating to features, Verbinski graced our world with the Budweiser frogs). The movie is, in fact, too slick; it would’ve made an intelligent enough TV dramedy, but its aspirations to profundity never reach the bona fide cinematic level. Still, it’s a good show; Nic Cage makes a much more convincing loser than tongue-in-cheek Bruce Willis type, and the whole damn movie is made worthwhile when we get to hear Michael Caine’s patrician Pulitzer Prize-winning inquire of his adult son (Cage): “Why would someone throw a Frosty at you? [beat] What’s a Frosty?”

Together, I thought both of these films were reasonably optimistic examples of mainstream cinema—what the new “studio system” could offer when intelligent teams are given a chance to create the product. Neither film is anything that could ever change your life or be considered superlative in any way, but they aren’t banal or mediocre, either. “Solid” and “well-crafted”—not “subversive” or particularly “important”—are the kind of compliments I feel comfortable giving films like these, which I enjoyed and appreciated on several levels without exactly falling in love with them.

Speaking of superlatively gifted actors a la P.S. Hoffman, is there any better reason to see King Kong than the iconic Naomi Watts (I say this as a Peter Jackson fan—I adore Heavenly Creatures and find Lord of the Rings to be surprisingly acceptable)? My friend Gabriel from Portland once affectionately described my admiration of Judy Davis as a “gay crush” of the type we same-sex-oriented males seem traditionally to have developed for the Bette Davises and Joan Crawfords—the iconic women of the cinema from Mary Astor to Carole Lombard to Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina, Liv Ullmann, and Monica Vitti. My contemporary Hall of Gay Crushes includes Davis, Julianne Moore, and now Watts, and I hope Vanity Fair realizes it’s only enabling my feverish admiration by supplying it with eminently, wittily glamorous representations of Watts like the one on the cover of the January 2006 issue (though I do have to say my favorite-ever Watts glamour shot is the rather more Deutsch-style decadent caviar-smearing Interview cover from Dec./Jan. 2004). The accompanying article is a more or less craven puff piece (Vanity Fair, despite its adequate share of fine feature articles and columns by the smart likes of James Wolcott, is often predictably guilty of this), but who cares? Watts’s intelligence and complexity, positively blinding in her best roles (Mulholland Dr. and 21 Grams), are inimitable, unmatched, and emblazoned permanently on our cinematic memory, where they really count. Her natural aptitude for a supplementary body of sumptuous iconography is just icing on the cheesecake.

With the arrival of Brokeback Mountain, the oeuvre of Ang Lee can now be seen as comprised of analogous pairs (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the underrated The Hulk are unlikely to be anyone’s favorite pair, but that’s another post). Lee’s new film—the oft-repeated “gay cowboy movie” label of which seems almost obscenely reductive after one has experienced the epic melodrama of repression and loss that the film actually represents—is much less of a piece with Lee’s other “gay” movie, 1993’s The Wedding Banquet (which forms an easy pair with the light Sense and Sensibility), than it is with his other anxiety- (and eventually tear)-inducing opus of withheld feeling, 1997’s The Ice Storm. Aided by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s screenplay, from E. Annie Proulx’s short story, Lee picturesquely distills the simultaneous freedom and desolation paradoxically contained within rural life, a la Peter Bogdanovich’s sublime 1972 film of McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.

The objectively rather slight disparity in the respective attitudes of the film’s two lovers is what makes it almost unbearably sad—so close to bliss these two come, but how inevitable is their inability or refusal to grasp it! Ennis (Heath Ledger) is more reticent, stoic, than Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is at some points on the verge of acknowledging what exists between the two of them and might have been a gay liberationist had such a concept been remotely available to him. Ennis and Jack are like all melodramatic romancers in that, as a result of the verboten, impossible nature of their love, they are forced to be mutely dependent upon each other for their happiness. And that happiness rationed out in a cruelly stingy fashion at achingly prolonged intervals. The film makes it feel as though, in the 20 years of their relationship (which, as mentioned, is central to both of them), the two are allowed only a small handful of liberated trysts, during which they cannot even bring themselves to acknowledge what they are doing or what it might mean, despite the painfully clear fact that these moments are the only times when either of them feel truly alive.

To me, the most devastating scene in the film (the sum of whose scenes have a cumulatively devastating effect of their own) comes toward the end, when Ennis, who has been a well-intentioned but withholding father, finally sees his way to being openly supportive of and happy for his daughter when she announces her engagement. After an initial refusal, he relents and agrees to attend her wedding. His daughter leaves, full of joy, and Ennis is left alone in his little trailer (at this point, Jack is permanently gone from Ennis’s life). His daughter has gotten a reprieve from what she expected from her father—the impassive dismissal of her primary, most deeply felt romantic relationship. In stark and heartbreaking contrast, Ennis has suffered throughout the film from an internalization of what amounts to a blanket dismissal at best (and murderous hostility at worst) from everyone and everything in the world around him, which has rendered him unable to acknowledge the love of his own life until it is much too late; he’s not about to get a reprieve, either. The film is not directly political—instead, it is political in the most effectively indirect way, a la Douglas Sirk’s, Fassbinder's, or Todd Haynes’s films. The characters want so little and suffer so heavily for their desire that the audience is forced to ask themselves why. What Brokeback Mountain depicts is the arbitrary but ruinous way in which some people are “automatically” included as a matter of course, while others are just as automatically denied, shamed, and excluded (a Roland Barthes quote from a previous post bears repeating here: “. . .I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which. . . is hidden there.”). The rent, scorched, ultimately barren world of Brokeback Mountain, in which two people’s basic human feelings are blithely crushed, is precisely the same mythological, insidiously idealized world for which America’s currently dominant ideology has such a repellently glib nostalgia.

Appendix: Assigned Films, HUM110, North Seattle Community College - Fall 2005

Week 1: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Week 2: Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954); American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

Week 3: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976); Memento (Christopher Nolan, 1999)

Week 4: Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958); Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

Week 5: Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989); The Business of Fancydancing (Sherman Alexie, 2002)

Week 6: The Celluloid Closet (Jeffrey Friedman and Robert Epstein, 1996); Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)

Week 7: Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995); Boys Don’t Cry (Kimberly Peirce, 1999)

Week 8: Elephant (Gus van Sant, 2003); Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2002)

Week 9: Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

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