Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Written by: Larry McMurty and Diana Ossana Directed by: Ang Lee

Brokeback_mountainThere are various reasons I take films off the the shelf at the video store or library. Sometimes I systematically try to watch certain works. Other times I go for the oddball covers. In the case of finally seeing Brokeback Mountain, I suppose I was chasing a memory. 2006 was the first year in which I was broadly aware of what films were nominated for the Oscars, even though I was too young to have seen any of them. While my interest was admittedly peaked because a movie about one of my favourite singers (Johnny Cash/Walk the Line) was part of the conversation, I nonetheless retained memories of the names of actors and movies that were not necessarily atop the tabloid world: actors including Brokeback Stars Heath Ledger, Jake Gylenhaal, Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway,

So what did I think of Brokeback Mountain? I enjoyed it, though perhaps I felt it did not live up to the mystical stature it held as the first “great” (modern) movie to have slipped into my consciousness. In drama classes, a common piece of advice is “show not tell.” Clearly, I think this is good advice, as I regularly find myself using “subtlety” as a near synonym for quality when discussing film. When storytellers, “show and not tell,” they make more powerful statements about the issues they are dealing with, than if they name the issue head on: they allow the issue to emerge in a raw, more natural form.

Brokeback Mountain, literally speaking, is a subtle film. Its protagonist, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) doesn’t say much, and his silence certainly plays a role in shaping the film’s trajectory. Upon deeper examination, however, Brokeback Mountain is not a subtle work. It’s quite plainly “the gay cowboy” story, even if the word “gay” is never used in the script. Brokeback Mountain straddles the line between “mainstream” and “alternative”: it is realist and lacks (with one brief, but significant exception) action, yet at the same time is dramatic and unambiguous in its messaging.

An obvious way to think about Brokeback Mountain is as a piece of gay (or queer) cinema, a lens which for me evokes, the memory of recent releases Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight. Moonlight is a story that takes place in this modern era, one in which “gay rights” enjoy broad support (even as homophobia can clearly still take a violent toll on society). Call Me By Your Name is slightly pre-modern as far as the gay-rights conversations goes, however, since it is set in a small world populated by liberal intellectuals the significance of this time difference is somewhat negated. Brokeback Mountain thus, in a way, feels different than those two works. It opens in rural America in the 60s: a world which we can assume is predominantly homophobic. What is interesting about the film,, again, that “gayness” is rarely explicitly mentioned. As such, the degree to which it influences the plot’s dramatic tension is left at least somewhat ambiguous. Yes, we can assume that a gay couple probably couldn’t be out and proud in the world of Brokeback Mountain, but does this homophobia go so far as to prevent its characters from being out in the small world of their family and social groups? This second question is left unanswered. We never get to know whether the film’s protagonists are entirely victims of homophobia, or whether it is their internal fears and self-hate that prevent them from finding happiness.

I suppose it can be said that this ambiguity is the feature that gives Brokeback Mountain its reputation. It’s this feature that allows the film to run on, even where dramatic events are few and far between. Ennis may not have enemies, but he does have his own personality to conquer: a personality that silences him no matter who the listener is.

The film is also a joy aesthetically. It’s score is simple, but interesting. It consists of acoustic guitar riffs: plucked strings breaking out with the Brokeback mountain sunrise over the fresh morning dew. To anyone who ever over-generalizes and says they hate country music, I dare them to see this movie, and take in country as it emerges from its natural habitat.

Unfortunately it is not 2006 and I cannot appreciate how Brokeback Mountain would have come across when it first came out. Perhaps at the times its politics were more revolutionary, making its theme feel richer or at least more original than it does today. This vague gripe aside, I thoroughly appreciated the modern classic. Just remember to put on the subtitles: That Heath Ledger sure can mumble.

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Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (2017)

imagesDirected by: Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maioran 

Perhaps you’ve heard the narrative that rock and roll music was born when a teenage truck driver by the name of Elvis Presley did an upbeat cover of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mamma.” Perhaps you’ve also heard the criticism that this story erases the degree to which rock and roll was a black invention developed by figures like Crudup, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. The seeming ambition of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, is to look at where another of America’s defining racial groups fits into this story. It is unsurprising, therefore, that this documentary opens in the 50s. We see black and white footage, a dance hall, side burns, and Link Wray, the Shawnee rockabilly who wrote the film’s titular song.

After telling some of Wray’s story, the film goes on to explore the likes of other indigenous musicians from the 20th century: we hear the rhythmic blues guitar of Charlie Patton, the drums of Randy Castillo, the jazz vocals of Mildred Bailey and the rhymes of Taboo. The films biggest success, can thus be said to be the scope of who it covers. The film spans decades and genres and in doing so makes visible numerous indigenous icons in American musical history. This itself is a feat worth commending: representing members of marginalized groups in popular media is one way of making that media become even more inclusive in the future.

On the other hand, the film is plagued by serious narrative and pacing problems. Part of this stems from the fact a number of the featured artists were instrumentalists. As compelling an artistic choice it was for the film to open with Wray, an indigenous Elvis-figure of sorts, there are only so many interviewers one can hear about the sound of his power chords before losing interest. While Wray had a lengthy career as a vocalist and lyricist as well as a guitar player, the film made the odd decision to reduce his legacy to one, albeit iconic, instrumental track. Similarly, Randy Castillo and Jesse Ed Davis come across as having interesting, and tragic stories, yet their segments are underwhelming to the film’s over focus on snippets of their instrumental work. I say this, I must emphasize, not as a non-connoisseur of music, but out of the realization that music is a language of its own that can’t always be readily described with words. Davis’ solo in “Dr. My Eyes,” is indeed phenomenal, but even hearing the reliably cool and articulate Jackson Browne talk about it, does not make for good entertainment.

The strongest moment of the film comes when it discusses artists from the 60s: Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Peter La Farge (and by extension Johnny Cash). These artists were not simply indigenous musicians who produced hypnotic sounds, but radical lyricists and storytellers. Their presence in the film therefore is more dynamic than that of their peers. Not only can Sainte-Marie and La Farge be celebrated for being representation of indigenous peoples, but also as ambassadors of indigenous causes: singers whose lyrics terrified American authorities with their calls for a just, decolonized world.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World is replete with interesting information and has the potential to intrigue popular music fanatics. Unfortunately, it is still a bit lacking as an artistic work. Perhaps the presence of a narrator, unifying the film’s many figures could have made it more engaging. Alternatively, the film could have covered fewer artists but with better depth. Regardless of its shortcomings, Rumble’s release is still a cause for celebration: a reminder to fire up the old turn table and give tracks like “The Weight,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and “Rumble,” a spin.