Brokeback Mountain vs. Wuthering Heights

Deep in the comment section about Heath Ledger’s death over at Althouse, the discussion has turned into a debate comparing Brokeback Mountain to Wuthering Heights. The “Brokeback” fans are claiming that it’s exceptional in the way that it shows Ledger’s character’s complete confusion about his attraction to Gyllenhall’s character. Althouse parried with the point that Cathy’s attraction to Heathcliff (Merle Oberon and Lawrence Olivier) is as completely alien, that Heathcliff is like a different species to her.

Now, you could argue that her idea of Heathcliff is just fanciful, and that Wuthering Heights is just another cheating spouse story. But then, the same logic can apply to Brokeback Mountain.

When we relate to stories strongly, we want to feel like they’re exceptional, and we rarely want to step back and realize that we relate to triteness. (That’s how things become trite in the first place.)

I haven’t been in the mood for Ang Lee–well, since The Hulk–and Brokeback struck me as pretty trite. As Ace pointed out, if the same dialog came from a traditional cheating-on-spouse movie, it would be roundly mocked. And the concept really didn’t seem that shocking (or interesting) when Kate Jackson and Harry Hamlin did it in 1982.

I should point out that I didn’t (and don’t) get Wuthering Heights, either. I haven’t read it since I was a kid but my fallback for a lot of the romantic angst stuff is that scene in Moonstruck when Nic Cage tells Cher he loves her, so she slaps him and yells “Snap out of it!”

Everyone has one. Or is one.

Just got through looking at this piece of Onion A.V. snark and reminding myself why I don’t read stuff like this more often. Internet lists are the lowest form of life. The title is the sole setup (“Unbreakable: 18 film stars impervious to box-office flops”) and the rest of the article goes on to name actors that one presumes one or more of the five writers feels isn’t worthy of their ongoing successes.

It switches seamlessly between criticizing the actors for being in flops, to being in movies the article writers just didn’t like, to not following career paths the writers feel they should, to never deserving success in the first place. This allows them to keep up an unrelenting stream of disdain without ever having to say anything of merit.

For example, it might be interesting to ask if any screen actor had an unbroken string of successes through their whole career. Certainly not Jimmy Stewart. (It’s A Wonderful Life, his first post-War film, was a flop. Maybe he should have just crawled into a hole.) Cary Grant? He made some real stinkers in between Hitch films, and he retired twice. John Wayne? Inconceivable.

They also get to make unfounded suppositions. Like, the success of the film The Break-Up was due to Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn’s romance at the time. Apparently they had access to the moviegoers’ exit polls where people admitted going to see the movie just because they’d read something in the tabloids about Aniston and Vaughn. (That must be why Gigli flopped: Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were never in the tabloids when that movie came out.)

For sheer sloppiness, they throw around “bankable” and “big box-office attraction”–both of which refer to an ability to draw tickets–not what sort of salaries they command. And yet the whole premise of the article is that these people aren’t bankable and are (presumably) overpaid.

Forbes did a similar article bang-for-the-buck stars which, while stupid for a number of reasons, at least backed up its premise with some solid facts. Not surprisingly, they came up with different and contradictory results. Brad Pitt movies return $24 for each dollar he is paid. Jennifer Aniston, $17. Angelina Jolie, $15. Sandra Bullock, $13. Nicole Kidman, $8 (before Golden Compass, ouch).

So about the only one they agree on is Nicole Kidman. And, frankly, an $8-to-$1 return would be considered pretty good in most businesses. Except of course there are all the other production costs, but that just reveals the stupidity of the whole premise: Popular actors can ignite good movies that might not otherwise be seen, or push so-so movies into profitability, and they can power home rentals/sales even for bad movies. They can’t save a movie that no one wants to see (and that’s independent of quality).

I’ve never seen Angelina Jolie in a good movie. She won me over as an actress with her portrayal of Lara Croft–I can’t think of a modern (or maybe any) actress who could pull off the insouciant adventurer without seeming ditzy, plastic or otherwise as lifeless as the computer character is. (Well, okay, Helen Mirren or Judi Dench could do it, but I don’t think they’d fit into the costume, and that’s high company to be associated with anyway.)

Just because I’m not lining up to see The Good Shepherd doesn’t mean that’s her fault. I’d like to see her in a good movie, really! I’m sure if I did see Shepherd, I wouldn’t think, “Man, Jolie is awful.” But you know, if I did think that, I’d probably know how I felt going in, and would just avoid the movie in the first place.

Keanu Reeves, for example. People hate this guy, apparently. But he was perfect for The Matrix movies, and adequate in a lot of his other roles, and most people concede that while simultaneously arguing that it doesn’t take much talent. Let’s accept that premise; the follow-up has to be something like “So what?” Don’t like it? Don’t go see it. But don’t go see him–don’t give the guy your money, for crying out loud, while simultaneously bemoaning the taste of those who go see him.

For myself, I have a low tolerance of Nicholas Cage. I don’t begrudge him his success, and I enjoyed him in Peggy Sue Got Married and Moonstruck. Odd films he was appropriately odd in. And, hell, Raising Arizona! Great! But somewhere in the early ‘90s, it wore thin. So I’ve seen only a few of his movies since, mostly on cable.

Actors do what they do. A great many have one character they use for all their roles, like John Wayne or Owen Wilson. Some have a little more range. Some have a lot of range. But except for the occasional star who’s just phoning it in–something that doesn’t happen all that often, and certainly not very frequently for any particular star, given how fast bankability declines–most of them acquit themselves in fairly predictable fashions.

If big-budget big-star movies are tanking today, it’s really not the actors’ fault. But just as most people are probably not all that aware of the the producer, director and writer’s impact on a film, most internet articles on the subject are going to be predictably shallow.

Of Indian Burial Grounds and Killer Satellites

Ace makes this point in his review of Cloverfield:

Any explanation they could have provided would have been trite or stupid or both anyway, so what’s the point?

Bingo.

You’d think Stephen King could figure this out after 35–no 45!–years.

The Overlook Hotel in The Shining? Indian burial ground. Pet Sematary? Indian burial ground. Tommyknockers? Haven’t read it or seen the movie (did they make a movie out of it yet?) but I’m told it’s that old Indian black magic yet again.

The ancient indian burial ground was such a cliché back in 1979 when Kubrick’s movie version of The Shining came out, that grade schoolers were mocking it. King keeps trucking along, though, happily trotting that out as the “explanation” for whatever horror is being visited on his poor characters.

Speaking of trucking along: Maximum Overdrive? Army experiment gone wrong. The Mist? Army Experiment Gone Wrong. There are probably more but I haven’t read much King since the early ‘80s.

And, of course, “the government” is the villain of other King novels, whether it be the army or a CIA type group or what-have-you. Who could forget Firestarter’s evil “The Company”…or “The Business”…or maybe it was…“The Co-Op”…“The Shop”! That’s what it was! (“The Shop” had a super-secret hideout with horse stables! That’s right: The guys cleaning out the stalls had to be thoroughly vetted for mucking! But I digress.)

Explanations aren’t always bad. In horror fiction, they can create atmosphere. Lovecraft formed a very suggestive background out of the snippets he put into his Cthulhu story. For horror movies (which are really quite separate from horror fiction in tradition and style) the explanation can serve as a plot hook.

In Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy’s roots as a pedophile provide a satisfying base for the attacks, and a hook for the heroine to ultimately escape him. (Said hook thoroughly trashed by the tacked-on ending designed to facilitate sequels. But that’s another subject for another day.)

The horror movie Unearthed tries for meaningful explanation, both to sort-of explain the why and provide a hook for the heroine to kill the monster. It’s not well handled but it’s not tacked on.

There’s a reference to satellite-caused radiation in Night of the Living Dead but it’s never verified and comes as part of what would be inevitable discussion about causes on TV or radio. By contrast, Maximum Overdrive, which used the exact same explanation (killer satellites), does so as a groan-inducing tacked on post-script to an already groan-worthy film.

Someone (presumably King) had to sit down and say that, “Yes, this post-script makes the movie better. This will make sense of the previous 90 minutes of abuse we’ve inflicted on the audience.” The audience will say “Oh! That wasn’t as bad as we thought while we were watching it!”

The rule should be very simple to follow: If the explanation wouldn’t matter to your characters in the course of the story, it won’t matter to the audience either. Just skip it.

The Problem With Potter

I’m not into the Harry Potter thing. I imagine I’ll read all the books one week in the future, now that they’re all out. I tried to read Azkaban but got bored real fast. I had been reading a lot of pulp at the time (Tarzan, Conan, etc.) and almost anything is slow by comparison.

I have seen the movies, and even enjoyed the most recent three (Azkaban, Goblet and Phoenix).

We’re all aware that these movies make no sense, right? (I understand that’s not limited to the movies, but since I haven’t read the books, I shan’t comment on them.) Putting together a believable fantasy world is probably harder than putting together a believable post-apocalyptic world. It just doesn’t happen, not in the movies. (The “Lord of the Rings” movies made mincemeat out of Tolkien’s universe. Very pretty mincemeat, but nonetheless.)

Goblet opens with the wizard equivalent of the World Cup. Fans from all over the world, and athletes for that matter, gather to watch The Big Game. The entire crowd–of hundreds of thousands, judging from the stadium–is busted up by a handful of Voldie’s minions.

Everybody in the crowd–presumably everyone 11 or older–has a wand, the witchly equivalent of a taser. Yet they’re rousted by a few goons.

I would bet you couldn’t roll a tank into a World Cup audience–unarmed though they be–safely. Yeah, you’d kill some, but they’d be on top of that sucker in no time, pulling you out and beating you to death.

Dopey.

Think I’m nitpicking? In Phoenix, a handful of kids–self-taught kids who haven’t EVER had a decent “defense against the dark arts” teacher for a full year–hold off Voldie’s entire re-constituted crew, and Voldie is fully restored (unlike at the beginning of Goblet).

Dopey.

You forget these things at the time. Or you overlook them. But if you’re subjected to the whims of a Harry Potter fan, they can grate on you.

Like in Goblet, we’re introduced to the three unforgivable curses, the first one being “imperio”, which blithely ignores the distinction between controlling something physically versus controlling it mentally. And we’re introduced to it by the professor performing those curses, so I guess there’s an educational exemption of some sort. Or maybe the poor insect-like creature he does them on doesn’t count. Whatever.

But right after being introduced–almost immediately!–the professor performs the very same curse on a student (who has it coming, granted) in front of a bunch of other people with no repercussions. First of all, if it’s a “one-way ticket to Azkaban”, why would you risk it? Second of all, I guess there’s no risk, since he’s caught doing it by a professor and she merely scolds him.

I dunno, maybe she didn’t see it. But everyone else did. Unforgivable?

I’m not trying to do a James Fenimore Cooper/Mark Twain thing here. And good on Rowling for tapping into something (whatever it is) that excites people.

But it is awful dopey.

Documentaries

Documentaries are sort of treacherous things. Even the most honest intentions can create a false image simply due to what materials are accessible to the filmmaker. As a result, I tend to favor documentaries that don’t try to make some overarching point but rather honestly tell you a particular part of a particular story from a clearly stated point of view.

For example, I enjoyed Supersize Me not because it was a startling exposé on the dangers of fast food but because Spurlock set the–clearly biased–ground rules in advance. He told you up front he was going to overeat, under-exercise, and otherwise skew things toward their gruesome conclusion. (He dropped that honest in his “30 days” series, unfortunately, making it unwatchable to me.)

I used to be a big fan of Michael Moore, watching “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth” quite dedicatedly, up until the point I realized that, in his world, nothing is more important than the point he’s making. He treated people quite badly on his show–people who did nothing other than allow him access to their world and dare to differ in their opinions. Later I found out how terribly he had slanted his seminal Roger and Me.

Sicko is sort of fascinating, I admit. It’s apparently technically accurate while at the same time, such a blatant insult to the intelligence, one wonders why anyone would bother. When he cites a survey stating that the USA is 36th in world health care, just slightly ahead of Slovenia, one wonders why Americans aren’t flocking to the slightly higher ranked Costa Rica. Or why Canadians, at #30, would so much as dream of coming to the USA for medical treatment. (A touching fictional characterization of this is shown in The Barbarian Invasions.)

He even extols the virtues of Cuba. Cuba! Castro sets up a glossy free health care clinic and a bunch of “useful idiots” flock down and say how wonderful it is, without ever bothering to notice how few Cubans actually get to use it and are relegated to dumps. Cubans come to American on freakin’ doors! And even with the sham front, Cuba still manages to get a lower rating on that survey Moore tries to shame America with.

Besides which, Farenheit 9/11 (the title a stupid and horrible rip-off) stayed in theaters so long a bunch of good indie films and docs never had a shot locally. It’s up there with What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? among films that annoyed me just by being successful enough to take up valuable cinema space. (And you just know they hung on because true believers were dragging their poor friends to see these “life-changing movies”.)

Anyway, the great documentaries aren’t political. Or rather, the great documentaries that ARE political tend to be viewed through a different lens over time. I go to the movies for a lot of reasons, including escaping politics. I’ll take a little movie like Paper Clips or Murderball to show me places and lives I’ve never known, or a Bukowski or Divan to show me people from different walks of life.

This all brings me to the latest documentaries I’ve seen, both wonderful, and both very different: The King of Kong and In The Shadow of the Moon. Reviews coming.