Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Talking points (and stars)

You are perfectly entitled to think that these weekly rants are so much cow dung. After all, how can a reader take seriously a self-described critic who has wasted zillions of pixels criticizing George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith on all sorts of different levels and still lists it (as of this writing anyway) as the fourth best movie of 2005? Or who spews a tirade, as I did last week, about fatuous Oscar race coverage and then indulges himself with an embarrassing table of his own Academy Award predictions, like this one? What can I say? Like everyone else, I want my cake and eat it too.

Still, I think I have a point about the Oscar race coverage. On Monday I heard a correspondent on National Public Radio, which used to pride itself on being a bit more sensible than the mass “profit center” media, report that, surprisingly, Brokeback Mountain received none of the various Screen Actors Guild awards for which it was nominated. The correspondent went on to explain that the SAG (pronounced “sag,” which is pretty funny, considering the amount of cosmetic surgery performed in L.A.) awards are a “predictor” of the Academy Awards because of a large overlap between the membership of SAG and of the Motion Picture Academy. The correspondent then concluded by describing Brokeback Mountain as the “favorite” to win the Best Picture Oscar. Huh? The favorite of whom? He had just finished saying that SAG, a great predictor of the Oscars, had just snubbed Ang Lee’s film? So, who decided that Brokeback was the favorite? (Of course, he was vindicated in that Brokeback did get the most Oscar nominations the next day, making it at the very least the mathematical favorite.) This is the sort of “reporting” that drives me nuts, if for no other reason than it spurs AM talk radio types to insist even more loudly that the “liberal media” are pushing the movie because they are actively promoting the “gay agenda.”

Which gets us to the other great movie spectator sport of this time of year. Last week, we dissected the Horse Race. The other is the Political Controversy. Most years there seem to be at least one or two prominent movies that work one or more community of political activists into a frenzy. But now, it seems as though nearly every movie pushes somebody’s hot button. As noted in this space previously, some conservatives were bothered by movies like Kingdom of Heaven and War of the Worlds (or at least by comments made by the talent behind the movies), and at least one liberal was disturbed by perceived touting of conservative issues in movies like March of the Penguins, The Island and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. More recently, there have been debates going on the op-ed pages about the politics of Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which seems to do for terrorism what his Saving Private Ryan did for conventional war: argue the futility of cycles of violence, while (not incidently) showing us plenty of violence.

But the two movies that have touched the deepest nerve of those on both sides of the trenches in the culture wars have been The Chronicles of Narnia and Brokeback Mountain. Groups on opposing ends of the socio-political spectrum seem to fear that one of these flicks will draw recruits to the enemy’s camp. Narnia is seen by some as thinly veiled proselytizing of Christianity and, by extension, values that posit of simplified world view of good and evil and just wars. Meanwhile, Brokeback is seen by its critics as drumming up support for the aforementioned “gay agenda.” Can we not just let these movies be an epic adventure yarn and a love story, respectively?

Nah, where’s the fun in that? But, more importantly, why should you pay attention to what I have to say about it anyway? Have I not already tipped my hand? Did I not give three stars to both The Passion of the Christ and The Chronicles of Narnia, while bestowing a mere two stars each on Fahrenheit 9/11 and Brokeback Mountain? Haven’t my true colors been exposed? Have I not shown myself to be a thinly veiled right-winger? Well, it’s a free country and you are free to arrive at any opinion you like about my opinions. Certainly the major factor in the ratings I give movies is how my heart responds them (as opposed to a cold judgment about the quality of the filmmaking art) and so how I respond to the message implicit in a movie is a big factor. But I don’t have, to coin a phrase, a litmus test for a high rating.

I gave Narnia three stars because it gave me what I look for in a movie: big special effects and mythical characters filmed in New Zealand. Okay, that’s a joke. But it’s true that what I liked about Narnia was similar to what I liked about The Lord of the Rings: magic, excitement, spectacle and some inspirational heroism. It didn’t do it as well as Lord of the Rings and so it didn’t as many stars as Peter Jackson’s epic. But I didn’t dock any points from Rings for having a pivotal character return from the dead, and I didn’t for Narnia either.

So what kept Brokeback from getting the vaunted third star? Fair question, but first let me turn the tables by asking everyone who has been heaping praise on this movie why they have been lavishing high marks on it. I am directing this question in particular at certain reviewers, who have been falling over themselves exalting it, when I know darn well that if one of the cowboys had been female they would have been dismissing it as a “chick flick.” I think Ang Lee is one of the best directors working today, and I will concede that Brokeback Mountain is virtually flawless in terms of craftsmanship and execution. But my heart remained cold to it, and I realize that makes me sound like pretty hard-hearted person. But a story about two men having brief, furtive getaways over a series of years doesn’t move me like, say, the real-life partnership between two ranchers that is shown in the 2004 documentary Tying the Knot or the two fictional young women in the 1995 movie The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (three stars!) Those movies show people taking incredible risks for love. Brokeback Mountain shows Heath Ledger being risk adverse. I know what we are supposed to feel in Brokeback. We are supposed to feel how terrible it is that society has made it impossible for Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist to be together. But compare this to Neil Jordan’s movie Breakfast on Pluto (three stars!), which overlaps the timeline of Brokeback Moumtain. It’s hard to think of a more socially repressive place than Catholic Ireland in the end of the 1960s/beginning of the 1970s. And Jordan’s film is not without its grimness about intolerance and repression. Yet somehow his protagonist Patrick “Kitten” Braden finds his/her way and keeps us interested in what happens to him/her.

At least one reviewer called Brokeback Mountain a “Romeo and Juliet” story, and that’s a good basis for judging it. What made Romeo and Juliet a good love story is that we could actually imagine Romeo and Juliet being happy together if everyone else would just leave them alone. I just couldn’t see the mopey cowpokes in Brokeback being happy, no matter how tolerant and enlightened their neighbors were.

I am not saying that I can never give a high rating to a movie that doesn’t give me a “feel good” high. But I refuse to give three stars to a movie just because its heart is in the right place and it is good for me. It can be pessimistic, but it has to make a connection with my heart that I can feel deep inside. It may be unreasonable, but that is the least I ask of a filmmaker in exchange for a third star.

-S.L., 2 February 2006

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