Blowing It

The final two stops on the Culture Snob tour of 2005 Best Picture Oscar nominees are striking for their similarities. Both Brokeback Mountain and Munich are patient, well-made genre movies that strip most of the politics out of charged subjects. Sadly, both are also botches.

As it winds down, Brokeback Mountain unwisely injects narrative ambiguity and politics into what was before simply a romance between two men. Munich, on the other hand, pulls out a hammer near the end to beat the audience with the idea that, yes, killing other people — even for a good cause — exacts a heavy toll. No shit, Spielberg.

These are not mere lapses, easy to overlook. Because of their careful approaches to loaded topics — marked by tightly circumscribed scopes and deliberate pacing — both movies are fragile things. Any mishandling can corrupt the films’ integrity, and Brokeback Mountain and Munich become damaged goods.

The irony is that had Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg consulted each other on their movies, one could easily imagine these flubs being corrected. The austere Lee would have suggested that Spielberg cut out the hilariously overplayed sex-and-murder juxtaposition, while Steven would have recommended that Ang clarify a key bit of information.

Alas, we’re left with the flawed works. As a result, the hierarchy of Best Picture nominees is clear: Capote was the class of the bunch, followed by the compelling but bungled Brokeback Mountain and Munich, with Crash and Good Night, and Good Luck unworthy companions.

Brokeback Mountain

Michelle Williams and Heath LedgerWho killed Jack Fuckin’ Twist?

More accurately: Was he murdered, or did he die after an accident?

I wish I could say definitively, because the answer would decide for me whether Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is a good movie marred by martyrdom or an excellent, aching, ambivalent exploration of the ramifications of sexuality on a small group of characters. It’s the difference between being a cheap and easy polemic and crafting a specific, personal story. But the movie remains unclear, stranding Brokeback Mountain in some purgatorial landscape.

As many writers have expounded, the movie is frequently lovely, sensitive, and sharply observed. In one scene, Ennis and his wife Alma are having sex, and she says that she’s concerned about not using protection. “If you don’t want no more of my kids, I’ll be happy to just leave you alone,” he says. “I’d have ’em if you’d support ’em,” she replies.

This exchange is bursting with subtly articulated truth, all the more amazing considering that Ennis mostly communicates in grunts and mumbles. Brokeback Mountain is full of beautifully rendered moments, yet it ultimately goes off the rails.

Late in the movie, Ennis finds out that his fishin’ and huntin’ buddy (or, as I heard it — twice — “humpin’ buddy”) Jack Fuckin’ Twist has died. He calls Jack’s wife, and she slowly, coldly tells the story of a tire accident. Images flash on the screen of Jack being kicked and beaten.

Are these Ennis’ projected fears — his constant worry that men who have sex with other men will be killed for it? Or is it the revelation that Jack’s wife is lying, that she’s offering a cover story? Or is it both?

The film offers no answer. Because the violent visuals could come from any of three sources — objective reality, Ennis, or Jack’s wife — several readings are reasonably supported. You can see Jack as another Matthew Shepard, or you can see his accidental death as just one of those random things that happen.

Regardless of your perspective, the sequence is problematic for its incongruity. The movie had been straightforward, plain, and clear in its storytelling previously — with direct action and realistic dialogue conveying all the important information — but here gets coy and vague.

The source story, by Annie Proulx, employs a similar complexity, but it offers a clear answer. The omniscient narrator says:

“Ennis didn’t know about the accident for months ... .”

In the story, Ennis doesn’t believe the wife:

“No, he thought, they got him with the tire iron.”

Yet despite Ennis’ doubt, the narrator’s matter-of-fact statement is unequivocal and unrefuted.

It’s worth noting that Proulx’s story was published in The New Yorker in October 1997 — a year before Shepard was murdered. It’s hard to tell from the film whether Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Dianna Ossana consciously made the cause of Jack’s death uncertain, or whether it was simply a failure of translation.

Either way, this small, intimate movie can’t handle the weight of all that political context. It’s a story about two people who fell in love, not a cultural movement to end discrimination and violence against gays. It’s about struggle, not Struggle.

That issue is exacerbated by the baggage that Brokeback already brings with it by now. It’s an all-purpose one-sentence joke (“I wish I knew how to quit you”), a litmus test of a person’s sexual openness and film judgment, and a watershed for its portrayal of gay-ish characters. The movie’s cultural ubiquity makes the first 30 minutes nearly interminable, because the union of Jack and Ennis is so inevitable.

To put the body of Jack Fuckin’ Twist — and, by implication, Matthew Shepard and thousands of other beaten or murdered people — on top of that is too much.

Munich

Steven Spielberg’s Munich could have easily been a great thriller, but like Brokeback Mountain, it fumbles its emotional climax.

It is, for the most part, an expert espionage thriller with a historical context that lends it authority and weight. The use of real events is a ruse, though. Munich belongs with Spielberg’s entertainments, not his “serious” movies such as Schindler’s List, Amistad, and Saving Private Ryan. In other words, ignore the debate about whether Spielberg has been fair with Israel and its antagonists.

The movie is not about Israel, or the politics of the Middle East. Although it raises moral questions, it is at heart about people beyond ethics. They have two interests: Doing what they’ve been told to do, and staying alive.

Eric Bana and Ayelet July ZurerReally, it’s not much different from The Bourne Identity, except that Eric Bana’s character is a lot greener at the secret-agent game than Matt Damon’s. After Israeli athletes are taken hostage and murdered at the 1972 Olympics, Bana is tapped to lead a team of assassins charged with retaliating.

Bana’s Avner is soon to be a father, and as someone making some powerful enemies throughout the world, he’s more trusting than he ought to be. He’s bland and mostly blank, yet his relative naïveté and innocence give the audience a rooting interest; we hope that he’ll complete his tasks with some of his decency and humanity intact.

But Spielberg doesn’t trust his script, by Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, and, with music swelling, contrasts shots of violence with shots of sex, as if we’re too stupid to understand that Avner’s actions have stained him.

In content, Munich is no delicate thing, but its construction is frail. For more than two hours, Spielberg was in control of his material, balancing his instincts as an entertainer with a respect for his material and his audience’s intelligence. But by blowing this late scene, he shows himself to be much like the toy-maker enlisted to build bombs in the movie: He doesn’t know how much is too much.

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