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The Mild Mild West

  • March 22, 2006
  • 138 Views

By Benjamin McKay

In a lovely article for the British press, Annie Proulx, the author of the short story that the Oscar-nominated film Brokeback Mountain is based upon, had this to say in an uncharacteristically bitter, but amusingly succinct rant:

“We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-­iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good.” 1

Ms Proulx was lamenting the failure of Brokeback Mountain to get the Best Picture gong. She is one of a few lone figures at present accusing the Academy and its members of conservatism. There otherwise appears to be a general assumption that Tinseltown has moved again back to the left (a place it often likes to see itself traditionally placed) within the divisive American political firmament. The media has been quick to congratulate Hollywood on its stoic shift to represent alternative subcultures and alternative political sentiments (alternative to the current regime in Washington at least) and for being bold in the “issues” it has been treating on screen.

Last year, Hollywood did not shy away from representing the rest of the world on screen – as it has always done. After all, American cinema is our cinema. We all consume Hollywood motion pictures as part of either a leisure engagement or an intellectually challenging part of our own discourse with global culture. Therefore, we have the right to see the broader questions of critique and ownership and dissent as our own. If this is global culture – then let us speak to it. So what is Hollywood perhaps saying to us about the rest of the planet – the planet that takes place outside of the gated luxury of Bel Air and Santa Monica?

A world horribly mismanaged

The major, “serious” films in competition at the 78th Annual Academy Awards telecast live globally from the Kodak Theatre “dealt with” some indeed serious contemporary “issues”. Ranging from racial disintegration in urban America to the pernicious evil inflicted upon the third world by multinational pharmaceutical companies to the understated and beautiful pathos in the love affair between two itinerant male American agricultural workers – Hollywood appears on the surface to have embraced a socially and perhaps politically rigorous approach to servicing global mass culture.

But let us look briefly at some of these films. Paul Haggis’s Crash, which won Best Picture, is a messy chaos of celluloid pulp held together by nothing more stylistically novel than unrelenting pace. The film is supposed to be an intelligent examination of the horrors of racism in modern LA, but is rather more a disjointed assemblage of archetypes – a parade of intersecting characters – complete with the now jaded good cop/bad cop dichotomy thrown in for good measure. Los Angeles does appear to be a horrifying place, but is Haggis exposing the dark heart of American racism or revelling in it? The racism, like the ever-present traffic, is heightened, and in that process the examination of it remains largely uncritical – and at times even absurd. Haggis offers no hope, no possible redemption, and by the end of the film an almost sinister acceptance of the tragic status quo. In this regard I believe that Crash is a profoundly conservative film dressed up to look hip, but never failing to move forward from a position of blasé self righteousness. If it is not actually trying to be intentionally fascist, then it is simply just a stupid film.

Fernando Meirelles, fresh from his outstanding Brazilian feature City of God, moves into the realm of Anglo-Hollywood with The Constant Gardener. Shot in a jagged, pastiche documentary style that serves the narrative a nice and necessary immediacy, The Constant Gardener is a neat fusion of murder mystery, thriller and romance. It does explore the horrors inflicted upon modern Africa by the greed of multinational corporations and the moral emptiness of late capitalism. The film’s great strength is the very moving, neatly crafted and understated performance by Ralph Fiennes – an actor who always looks like his pain needs to be stretched out across the broad sweep canvas of a very foreign and remote Africa. The now mandatory firecracker rapidity of post-MTV editing sees us negotiating our own relationship with Africa through a jumble of cuts and sudden close-ups.

But it is in the end an earnestly Anglo affair – the horror of contemporary Africa as experienced by a motley array of Brits as they endeavour to maintain either a post- or neo-colonial presence in a world they have horribly mismanaged. The Kenyans here are helpless to the systemic failure that surrounds them and for this alone I concur with Michael Atkinson of the Village Voice, who questions the formal difficulties inherent in liberal narratives and ascribes the status of “ambitious third world tourist-­cinema” to The Constant Gardener.2 ls it at all possible to avoid this in mainstream Hollywood films? Or is every earnest and politically charged critique of the third world going to look and feel and think just like another film by Richard Attenborough? Those reservations aside, I do believe that this is one of the better offerings from Hollywood last year.

Matinee idol turned social consciousness

In its defence of liberal democratic values George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, about the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s, is a sober, but engaging work. The luscious use of black and white and the ubiquitous wafts of sinewy cigarette smoke make this an elegant and evocative hymn to a period and to two strong men – broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The period piece atmosphere is muted however by this so obviously being an allegory of our own times. The cold war of 50s America is the current war on terror – albeit clouded in a now politically incorrect shroud of nicotine. The film also quietly laments the loss of responsible, incisive and reasoned media coverage as well as the pop crassness of trite sound byte analyses in our own time. The Malay Mail editors need to see this movie! Clooney’s film does show some evidence of defending liberal politics in an age when America is at war with both itself and Iraq under the lame but horrifying stewardship of Bush Mach 2. Allegory is of course a safe zone to explore the state of the contemporary world – but in the end Hollywood often does these allegorical self-­reflections quite well.

The former matinee idol turned social consciousness that is Mr Clooney again confirmed his “committed actor” status with his quite beguiling performance in Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana. In an intricately plotted thriller that shifts between the murky milieus of global oil, Middle Eastern politics and espionage, Syriana weaves its complex strands together in a blisteringly critical look at modern America’s place in the geopolitical mess of our times. This film does not shy away from humanising terrorists nor fails to reveal to us the horrors of the neo-Darwinism running rampantly across the political, social, religious and economic realities of our times. Again a style of jumpy rapidity ensues, but it is employed well in the dual service of social and political critique and the conventions of a good old-fashioned Hollywood thriller. Gaghan and his team have largely relied on the intelligence of their audience to read this film as they see fit – it prompts responses rather than preaches ‘truths’. This film is perhaps Hollywood’s most capable attempt last year of leaving the cultural certainties of the continental United States and going out into the world that it shares with the rest of us.

I have alas not seen yet Steven Spielberg’s Munich or David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence and from what I have read about these two films their absence in this critique may make this assessment incomplete. But from the films briefly alluded to above I have discerned an uneven and patchy commitment to socially progressive and left liberal cinema from the United States in the mainstream choices of the Academy with Crash standing apart in all its glib reactionary slickness. So I now wish to talk about the two films I believe to have been the most truly radical and innovative from Hollywood in the last year – and neither of them for their commitment to any obvious social, political, economic or racial issues.

Not queer cinema

For all the hype and supposed controversy surrounding the onscreen depiction of a gay relationship between two cowboys, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is fundamentally not a piece of queer cinema. It is however a film of great artistry. It is the most evocatively intelligent and truthful cinematic rendering of the pathos of love and the incapacity of people to truly connect that I can recall seeing on screen in a very long time. The wilderness landscape is both a sanctuary and a nemesis – a place of escape and a prison. It is difficult to recall a film that so painfully articulates the great loneliness and isolation at the heart of working class rural society – gay, straight or otherwise.

This is complex story telling on a scale that is at once grand as well as minutely human. The emotional pain and intensity builds as the audience is coaxed into identifying with all of the main protagonists. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal both give astonishingly accomplished and richly felt performances, but so does the supporting cast, no less the achingly realised performance of Michelle Williams who as Ennis’s wife quite profoundly captures her descent into brittle anger and an unconquerable sense of failure following the discovery of her husband’s betrayal. The scene at Jack’s parents home after his death where Ennis discovers his shirt hanging in his former lover’s wardrobe is a lesson in the visual power of cinema and the intelligent use of mise en scene in evoking for us the depths of human emotions.

So what of the queerness? Hollywood has only ultimately reflected its innate conservatism by harping on about how daring a film this is because it shows gay love and gay sexuality on screen. Other films have done it more graphically and more politically. Is it just that it is actually mainstream? Brokeback Mountain is actually daring on so many more levels than its depiction of gay sexuality anyway. It has a harrowing story well served by bold writing and performed with poise and humanity by a cast that any screen culture would be proud to call its own. Ang Lee has made a hypnotic, brilliantly paced cinematic poem to the hollow but painful heart of modern American emotional existence. You do not need to be gay to get this. It says more as a film by exploring with artistry these deftly personalised universalities than by staging any well meaning, but ultimately flawed essay in Hollywood social progressiveness.

And I leave until the end my choice of the most radical film to actually come out of Hollywood last year. When I talk of Bennett Miller’s Capote as being radical I do not mean in the manner in which Philip Seymour Hoffman literally metamorphosed into Truman Capote on screen, as astonishingly polished as that was, nor do I refer to the rather more in your face camp of Capote and the beau monde of the 1950s New York literati – camper and queerer than anything in Brokeback Mountain, by the way. Rather I speak of the radical capacity for this film about a work of art and its artist to be perhaps better than the original work of art itself.

As we journey with Mr Capote into the creation of his groundbreaking “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood, documenting the senseless murder of a perfect American family, something of the obsessiveness of the creative process is revealed. The obsessiveness is also matched by a remote and perhaps dangerous detachment in the creative process – this says more than any Hollywood film has yet managed to say about the ambiguous tensions within art and within the artist. The obsession and detachment is also reflected in the manner the film itself treats the subject and broader narrative of its own engagement – a perfect marriage of form and content that in itself speaks volumes about art.

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s marvellous and intelligent display of his talents as an actor is aided here by the subtle underplaying of the supports who accompany him on his journey into the American heartland in search of the evil that lies within it. Catherine Keener as Harper Lee (author of To Kill A Mockingbird) is not only Capote’s on-hand moral conscience but she appears to personify another type of artist in the spectrum of creativity and therefore she is a perfect foil for the deep, but anguished excess of Mr Capote. The short scene between Capote and Harper Lee on the train where she accuses him of having bribed the black conductor into complimenting him says more about the dimensions of race relations in America than all of the turgid hysterics and banalities of Crash.

Think penguins

Hollywood wants to believe in its daring capacity to critique – that was evident in the award for Best Supporting Actress. Rachel Weisz received her gong for her performance in The Constant Gardener I feel because her on screen character personifies how Hollywood wishes to see itself – a shrill, vocal, relevantly earnest middle class player in the broader madness of our times. This is after all an award show that has a red carpet parade of gowns and accessories that combined in value may indeed alleviate the third world poverty that the models cum actors who parade across it always seem so desperately concerned about alleviating.

So, is there any truth to the claims of a liberal, leftist, socially progressive realignment having taken place in movies by the dream merchants of southern California? And does this reflect a change within Hollywood itself?

Largely the answer must remain no. As an industry it proved its resolute commitment to the mainstream and the ordinary in a number of things it did at the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night. Forget the Brokeback / Crash ‘controversy’ and rather think about the award for Best Documentary Feature. By awarding this gong to an amiable nature documentary on penguins instead of the searing and insightful horror of say Rupert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare or the timely look at the rotten core of US late capitalism in Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room only confirms the safe conservatism of the Hollywood establishment and beggars belief in light of their own claims for progressiveness.

But what riled me most must be the decision to award a number of gongs to that visual orgy of orientalism that is Memoirs of a Geisha. This says more about how Hollywood really sees the rest of the world than any well-meaning efforts in films such as Syriana, The Constant Gardener, Good Night and Good Luck and the like. So now when someone again tells me that Hollywood is rebelling against the horrors of contemporary American politics, moving itself increasingly to the left, and that it is no longer ashamed to make socially progressive motion pictures, I can’t help thinking of the fluffy penguins and the geishas and the putrid waste of Crash.

In the end what Hollywood may in fact really be doing is what it always does best – tapping into its own market research. The sentiments it pays lip service to are in fact increasingly the sentiments of its targeted market demographic – both at home and abroad. Perhaps it is a reflection of how far to the right America and the rest of the world has moved when a town displaying its traditional political allegiance to the US Democratic Party and white middle class liberalism makes the place appear somehow radical.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Annie Proulx, Blood on the red carpet, The Guardian, Mar 11 2006
  2. Michael Atkinson, Cold Comfort Pharm, Village Voice, Aug 30 2005

First Published: 22.03.2006 on Kakiseni