Brokeback Mountain revisited

Years ago we had a spirited discussion of the movie Brokeback Mountain. At the time I was blogging on another platform and the name was Perlocutionary,  which in time morphed into the current Blog: Episyllogism.

Our discussion began:

I just watched the DVD version of “Brokeback Mountain” and am wondering if some or all of you intelligent, sensitive members of Perlocutionary have seen the movie. If so, what did you think of it? Any discussion would be welcome. Have you seen it, Perlo? Do you have a philosophical take on it?

Dear SOB: I thought the movie was brilliant.

I was so intrigued with this movie I read the short story by Annie Proulx.

The movie follows the book very closely; and the book leaves no doubt that Jack was in fact beaten to death.

The book leaves unanswered what Innis meant in his final words..”I promise Jack…’

The following line from the book seemed to capture that sadness of this tale

‘ One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough’

Funny you should mention this movie; I saw it just last evening.

I read the E. Annie Proulx short story about a year ago and was surprised it became such a long movie, but McMurtry (the writer of the screen version) is a master when it comes to Westerns (Lonesome Dove remains one of my all time favourite books (…We don’t rent pigs!)) so I’m willing to forgive him for indulging my time.

I thought Brokeback Mountain was a terrific love story, well acted, and full of spectacular Alberta landscapes.

I also highly recommend another short story from the same book Close Range that has Brokeback Mountain: it’s called Blood Mare and is the funniest story I’ve read in quite a while.

I have seen it, SOB; also on DVD and also recently. It is an interesting movie and one certainly worthy of discussion. I wonder what people think the “theme” or “idea” of the movie is. Does it have a moral centre?

It is intriguing and it may be brilliant, but just what is it about? It is certainly one of those movies that reaches the “talk about it for two days” threshold that my wife and I use to evaluate film. So, yes, let’s talk about it.

Both stories are about love and hate. The sharp contrast of these emotions is reinforced by contrasting both characters and settings.

In Brokeback you have the shut down Ennis versus the outgoing Jack. The youth and sweetness of Romeo and Juliet versus the bitter rivalry of the adults surrounding them.

In terms of settings, with Brokeback, the beauty and freedom of the mountains versus the drab confining lives for both men back home In R and J the dreamlike timlessness when the lovers are together contrasting the harsh realities when apart.

By contrasting love and hate the audience is being asked to examine their definitions of love.

I wondered, moments into the film, why Ennis is so, taciturn. Perhaps it’s a result of that father. The ‘father’ impact is also reflected in Jake’s bull-riding (or bronco?) attempts. If women ‘become their mothers’, do men ‘become their fathers’?

social milieu as ‘character’, great notion Perlo.

Perhaps it’s because I read this story as one of many in Close Range that my take on it isn’t quite so focused on Brokeback Mountain as a stand alone social commentary as it is the exploration of another facet that lies beneath the culture of the stoic American West.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who called this theme “the love that dares not speak its name,” which, in Wyoming terms, roughly translates into “the love that comes with death by tire iron.” In other words, illicit love is tragic, not because love is sometimes a cruel taskmaster (As Jack laments to Ennis, “I wish I could just quit you.”) but because it is illicit.

The tragedy, and the question these stories ask us to consider, occurs when the acceptable social construct of what ‘proper’ love should look like (and the hate that is engendered when the form is altered) is held to be of greater importance than the love that drives these characters… and all of us.

One of the signs of a good work of art is its ability to carry on its back more than one reading. One of the themes Ang investigates is, as the other Lane puts it, The most crushing moment comes as Alma glances from the doorway and catches her husband kissing his friend, in a rage of need that she has never seen before. In their frustration, the men are spreading ripples of pain to others, and the others are women and children. Those are some of the consequences. These are not just self-regarding acts performed by Jack and Ennis. Love exists in a context beyond the lovers.

I think this is a good discussion – one of the best we have had.

I also want to say that I was very uncomfortable with the “sex” scenes. I realize that might be about me more than about the movie.

Again, though, the “ripples of pain” seem to me to be more about the tragedy associated by illicitness. If the love weren’t illicit, would the pain still be there?

The pain experienced by Ennis’ wife is about betrayal – having placed her belief, in spite of evidence to the contrary, in what Ennis’ love ought to be as she sees it and not the way it actually is. Ennis has obvious love for her and their children in many ways that she doesn’t see or refuses to see or disregards as valid expressions of his love because she wants the kind of love from Ennis as it ought to be – according to her beliefs. When her beliefs are neither justified nor fulfilled, she blames him.

If she truly loved Ennis, she would want him to be with the one he loves in the very way that she deems as so important to herself. But she doesn’t see it this way. She only sees Ennis’ illicit love for Jack as something that reduces her. She chooses to divorce him so that she can have the kind of marriage with her boss that she thinks that she deserves. Again, any pain from this choice experienced by the children is likewise blamed on Ennis. Maybe she is justified in her choice, just as the men are justified in their frustration, but the pain experienced by the children is due to the separation from their father and Ennis is not the one who made this choice.

So my point remains: are the men really spreading ripples of pain as a natural consequence of their need for each other or is it more of a consequence of how others respond to its illicitness?

taersker said…

I wondered, moments into the film, why Ennis is so, taciturn

One critic thought Ennis’ taciturn manner symbolized his repressed feelings.

This rang true for me since at the begining of the film one could barely understand his mumbling dialogue… but by the end he was speaking clearly and making different kinds of decisions, such as changing his mind and planning to attend his dtrs. wedding….maybe Ennis was trying to become more like his mother…and in doing so keeping his promise to Jack

Ennis’ taciturn ways of speaking are repeated in every story by very diverse characters. What is more unusual is how Ennis gains his voice, so to speak, as he comes to accept himself. Other characters in the other stories also gain their voices as the stories progress. I think the author sees this initial taciturn way of speaking as one of the fundamental (and perhaps flawed) characteristics of Western men (and women) getting to know each other as well as themselves.

Hey, ~B, what do you mean by illicit love? If Ennis crawled all over another woman it would be the same, no?

~B: Don’t forget that Ennis planned to marry Alma before meeting Jack. He might have cancelled that commitment, but chose not to. So, her disappointment is not her own fault!

I also agree with Anthony lane that it is not a Western, except that it depicts a little of what sheep-ranching entails (and it takes place in the West). I think A. Lane would also agree that Cabaret, though a musical, is not a frivolous film, but is a frightening depiction of German life under Nazism!

I think, ~B that you must draw a limit against this being a statement about the STOIC AMERICAN WEST. Perhaps you can expand on your views on SAW or enlarge on what you think SAW is.

Well, Perlo, not quite: think of illicit love more like that of a person from a taboo race, culture, creed, political family, that kind of thing. In other words (I say this far too often, I know) it’s not the _expression of love that is taboo but with whom, and not because of the person him- or herself but because of what the illicit joining of the two people represents (why the love is illicit). The illicit love is illicit because of what you describe as the third character – the social norms, the cultural barrier, and so on. These are criteria (criterium?) that are what I call artificial; it’s the illicit ‘clothing’, if you will permit me, in which the love comes dressed. That’s a significantly different plot than simply bonking someone outside the bonds of matrimony.

And Taersker, firstly please don’t assume (and you may not have) that I condon or agree with how these characters play out their tragedy. I certainly don’t. By not knowing himself, Ennis committed – at the very least – fraud with his wife and she has every right to feel cheated and disappointed at his dishonesty… whether Ennis intended to be dishonest (or arguably forced by his nature) when they first were married or later when he knew perfectly well he was being dishonest. I do apologize if I gave that impression (or have wrongly warned you of an assumption you have not made).

What I meant to say is that pain that came from Ennis’ expressed love for Jack could have been mitigated significantly – especially in regards to the children – if she had dealt with his ‘infidelity’ in the light of it being a natural and necessary _expression of his being rather than as an illicit act.

Secondly, the book of short stories that included Brokeback Mountain was subtitled Tales of Wyoming or Tales from Wyoming (I can’t quite recall). Each tale was a piece of what I have called the stoicism of the West and the human cost/benefit accrued from this cowboy culture – from the ornary old man who dies of exposure because he was too proud to ask for directions to his old homestead to the ranching woman who didn’t need any man to go shoot a wolf for her because she knew perfectly well that it must have been just a big coyote. All these stories involve the seasonal geography and wildlife of the West that allows certain tough human choices to be played out against the magnificent and unforgiving backdrop of a very tough environment. In this light, then, Brokeback Mountain is only one story in a bunch that describe the author’s understanding of what effect the West’s environment has been on some of the myriad of colourful people who have lived and died there.

To call this one story not a Western might appear to be correct if it is taken out of the book’s context, but taken within the context of the book I would think that this short story must be considered a Western. It is perfectly understandable that the movie’s audience wouldn’t necessarily know of the context except in how McMurtry used and added dialogue and geography to make it into more of a western movie than a social commentary set in the West. How effective McMurtry did his job is open to debate, but notice the clipped sentences already quoted in these posts: these kinds of comments (often edged with a very rough humour) only exist in the West and have become engrained in the way people talk “in these here parts.” It’s a very direct and tough way to communicate (and sets a difficult plate for using language to explore and settle differences) and it carries both a cost and a benefit as these stories explore. As the rabbit movie on the link shows, the story could be told differently but it certainly loses something fundamentally important in the change of locale. In other words (there I go again!) if it wasn’t a Western, then it would become a different story entirely.

I do not get some of what is written about this movie. I do not understand the concept of ‘illicit love’. To many on this earth, ‘illicit love’ entails “bonking” for any reason other than procreation!

This movie is about love…longing…& making choices. It is made more complicated because of the time…location & because it is love between two men. I don’t agree with you Perlo that it is less impetuous, because they are adults. Love is impetuous, because it is an emotion. One rarely thinks about it before feeling it. One has choices as to one will do with it, but I do not believe that one has a choice as to whether one should ‘feel’ it or not!

And yes, what a person does with this feeling has consequences. The passion that exists which Ennis’ wife witnesses when Ennis & Jack are kissing is not about feeling diminished, because her husband is kissing another man, but because there is sexual energy & passion between them, which is not part of her experience. I do not believe the feeling would be any less intense or hurtful if Ennis were involved with another woman.

I feel the brilliance of this movie, not only lies with the story of the main characters, but too, of the stories of those connected with them. Each supporting character has a story of his own.

I like too the I did not feel emotionally manipulated, by the movie. The ending had the propensity to be so. I feel the ending was gracious in its sadness.

“Illicit love,” I take it, is the same use of “illicit” as in “illicit drugs” – i.e., from some official point of view. Illicit drugs are listed in the Canadian Criminal Code. “Licit” ones are listed in restaurant menus and government liquor stores.

So, from the point of view of the Capulets and the Montagues, love between Romeo and Juliet is illicit.

The story teaches us that that point of view is destructive and immoral.

And it also teaches us that “virtue itself is vice if misapplied.”

I think that part of the problem in discussing LOVE is that we have only the one word to deal with all sorts of stuff:

  1. I love mashed potatoes.
  2. I love my wife.

  3. I love my grandsons.

  4. I love my dog.

To argue that love is just feeling would lead to the claim that love is like hysterical polydipsia! Love is an emotion, yes, but all emotions have a cognitive component.

SOB2 – I was uncomfortable with the homosexual love scenes too. And you’re right, nothing follows from that. That is, I don’t want to pass laws that enforce my taste in sex partners, go on a gay-bashing rampage, or join a gay pride parade.

I am uncomfortable with the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet too.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker:

The new Ang Lee film, “Brokeback Mountain,” is a love story that starts in 1963 and never ends. The first scene is a master class in the dusty and the taciturn, with gusts of wind doing all the talking. A cowboy stands against a wall in Signal, Wyoming, his hat tipped down as if he were falling asleep. Another fellow, barely more than a kid, turns up in a coughing old truck and joins the waiting game; both are in search of a job. There is something wired and wary in their silence, and the entire passage can be read not only as an echo of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” whose opening hummed with a similar suspense, but also as an unimaginable change of tune. Sergio Leone’s men were waiting for a train; these boys are falling in love.

 

At last, we learn their names: Ennis del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal). Both are hired for the summer, to tend the flocks on Brokeback Mountain, and that is where we follow them for the first, idyllic act of their story. This is the most gorgeous part of the movie, and the least successful, partly because an idyll is less an event than a state of being. Lee wants to suggest the savoring of time, yet the camera tends to alight on ravishing formations of rock and cloud, grab them, and then move on, as if we were shuffling through a pile of photographs. (Does any director still have the patience to let our gaze rest without skittering upon the Western landscape?) On the other hand, you could argue that such transience sets the tone—at once wondrous and fleeting—for the rest of the movie, and that, if Ennis and Jack have fashioned a rough and rainy Eden for themselves, it is a paradise waiting to be lost.

 

One evening, a drunken Ennis shares Jack’s tent, and, in the heat of a cold night, there is a breathy, wordless unbuckling of belts. Rumor had it that “Brokeback Mountain” was an explicit piece of work, and I was surprised by its tameness, although Lee’s helplessly good taste, which has proved both a gift and a curb, was always going to lure him away from sweating limbs and toward the coupling of souls. Not once do our heroes mention the word love, nor does any shame or harshness attach to their desire. Indeed, what will vex some viewers is not the act of sodomy but the suggestion that Ennis and Jack are possessed of an innocence, a virginity of spirit, that the rest of society (which literally exists on a lower plane, below the mountain) will strive to violate and subdue. If the lovers hug their secret to themselves, that is because they fear for its survival:

 

“This is a one-shot thing we got going on here.”

“Nobody’s business but ours.”

“You know I ain’t queer.”

“Me neither.”

 

American Rousseauism, with its worship of open plains and its dread of civic constraint, is nothing new. The erotic strain of it that unfurls in “Brokeback Mountain” may seem unprecedented, although, considering that womanless men, bedecked in denim, rivets, and distressed leather, have been pitching camp in the wilderness since movies began, it doesn’t take much of a nudge for the subtext to rise to the surface. There is little in Lee’s film that would have rattled the spurs of Montgomery Clift in “Red River.”

 

“Brokeback Mountain,” which began as an Annie Proulx story in these pages, comes fully alive as the chance for happiness dies. Its beauty wells from its sorrow, because the love between Ennis and Jack is most credible not in the making but in the thwarting. Duty calls; they go their separate ways, get married—one in Texas, one in Wyoming—and raise children. Ennis weds Alma (Michelle Williams), while Jack’s wife is a rodeo rider named Lureen (Anne Hathaway), whose knowing wink, from the saddle, is the most brazen come-on in the film. After four years, the two men—as they now are—hook up again, and from then on they meet when they can. The most crushing moment comes as Alma glances from the doorway and catches her husband kissing his friend, in a rage of need that she has never seen before. In their frustration, the men are spreading ripples of pain to others, and the others are women and children. The female of the species (think of Lee’s previous heroines, like Joan Allen in “The Ice Storm” or Jennifer Connelly in “Hulk”) suffers no less than the male, but she struggles to escape the suffering, whereas the male swelters inside his strange cocoon. That’s why, when Jack and Ennis part at the end of the first summer, Ennis slips into an alleyway, retches, and punches a wall—as if the only option, for the unrequited, were to waylay one’s own heart and beat it senseless.

 

In the end, this is Heath Ledger’s picture. There is no mistaking Jake Gyllenhaal’s finesse (look for the wonderful scene in which he can’t look—his jaw tightening as Ennis, still just a friend, strips to wash, just past the corner of his eye), but it is Ledger who bears the yoke of the movie’s sadness. His voice is a mumble and a rumble, not because he is dumb but because he hopes that, by swallowing his words, he can swallow his feelings, too. In his mixing of the rugged and the maladroit, he makes you realize that “Brokeback Mountain” is no more a cowboy film than “The Last Picture Show.” (Both screenplays were written by Larry McMurtry, the earlier in collaboration with Peter Bogdanovich, this one with Diana Ossana.) Each is an elegy for tamped-down lives, with an eye for vanishing brightness of which Jean Renoir would have approved, and you should get ready to crumple at “Brokeback Mountain” ’s final shot: Ennis alone in a trailer, looking at a postcard of Brokeback Mountain and fingering the relics of his time there, with a field of green corn visible, yet somehow unreachable, through the window. This slow and stoic movie, hailed as a gay Western, feels neither gay nor especially Western: it is a study of love under siege. As Ennis says, “If you can’t fix it, Jack, you gotta stand it.”

 

~B I appreciate your insights, and everyone’s. As I see it, this is the longest discussion on this blog (barring formal papers, etc.) I believe that written communication is one of the most difficult. I spent much of my time with my parents, once I became officially an ‘adult’, attempting to tell them that I had achieved adulthood. Of necessity, it was by letter as we seldom lived nearby. I blundered around, thanking, blaming, berating, forgiving–the emotional gamut!

I will, asap, read the other stories I will watch a version of R&J that I haven’t seen.

As Toby Keith might say: I love this blog!

Just a short post this time. I promise.

Several posters have asked what I mean when I use the term ‘illicit’ so here goes:

My take on an illicit love is one that can only exist behind the veil of secrecy because such an expression of love is taboo. Once the secrecy is breached by the greater public (and not just by a few trusted individuals) and the the love affair is brought into the open, the participants themselves are destroyed. The participants are not destroyed because they have been involved simply in a love affair that might be illegal or frowned upon or even immoral but because the affair crosses some invisible and intolerable boundary. It is this boundary that is assumed to be so important by the larger public that is the root of the tragedy like the one in BM or R&J. A love affair that crosses this line is a love that I call illicit.

Hope that helps clarify what I mean.

Thanks, ~B, but how is your “illicit” different from Perlo’s: “Illicit love,” I take it, is the same use of “illicit” as in “illicit drugs” – i.e., from some official point of view.?

After this discussion I am ready to watch the movie again!

SOB: Perlo’s got the general sense of what I mean and certainly has the right definition of the word itself. Without knowing the exact right word to describe what I mean, I’m trying to use the word ‘illicit’ (from the ~B-ish/English dictionary) to include the idea of expressing something that is forbidden in a social way, goes directly against an unwritten rule and social norms. Committing this expression has a severe social punishment, namely death, not because of love (the state is a virtue) but because of how it is expressed in a forbidden way (this particular expression is seen as a vice). This is what I mean when I say that the expression is taboo (intolerable) in the place, time, and social setting in which it occurs but not necessarily so when the time, place, and setting change (tolerable). This is also what I mean when I say that the result from expressing this kind of ‘illicit’ love is tragedy because the punishment does not fit the intent of the crime.

Bonking the neighbour or taking an illicit drug isn’t usually undertaken with the knowledge that doing so risks death if the action is revealed. Nor are these examples usually undertaken with a virtuous compulsion. These acts may be illicit but, until I come up with a better word – or someone offers me an alternative that does the job – to describe what I mean (so that it doesn’t exist only in the ~B-ish/English dictionary) I will use the contentious word ‘illicit’ along with my explanations and apologies.

When the Friar in R&J says “Virtue itself is vice if misapplied” what he means is that an excess of impetuous love can indeed be a vice. Virtue (love) becomes vice (destruction) when it is ignorant of limits. He reminds us of the stupid things we say and do and really don’t mean whenever we are bitten, smitten, or whatever. “I love you more than life itself” is always a line!

Perlo writes:

“To argue that love is just feeling would lead to the claim that love is like hysterical polydipsia! Love is an emotion, yes, but all emotions have a cognitive component.”

Hmmm…well I would not jump to the conclusion that “love is like hysterical polydipsia”! All emotions do have a cognitive component, but I think some more than others. Erotic love has an intense physiological component, which many other emotions do not. Understandably & justifyably so; we are still here as a species!

Martha Nussbaum writes, in ‘Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions’, “It seems plausible to say that erotic love is inseparable from some type of sexual desire, meaning by that some kind of desire for intercourse & other related bodily acts. This desire need not be conscious, and it need not take the form of an actual plan or project. (If one extends erotic love to nonhuman objects, as does Plato, then it cannot be linked to such projects, though there may be analogous fantasies of union or “being with”)

She argues that quite a few emotions are not linked to any action. “Grief, for example, or calm joy. And I suggested that even when an emotion type has strong links with a course of action-as does fear, say, with flight- this link is contigent, not an essential part of the definition. Although someone who fears the enemy will, other things being equal, flee, because, although afraid, he judges to flee would be shameful. I think that something is true of love. Although love is often linked with projects of possession & control, or with more beneficent projects of helping the loved one- and although some prominent accounts of love do make such projects a part of the definition of love- probably what ought to be said instead is that love is a particular kind of awareness of an object, as tremendously wonderful & salient, and as deeply needed by the self.”

Thanks for that, alexandra! So, “tremendously wonderful & salient, and as deeply needed by the self” fits my mashed potatoes example, eh? 🙂

It does indeed Perlo.

Another thought/question I have.

If Ennis & Jack had been Penelope & Rose, would the same viewer discomfort exist?

Would it, instead, be erotic?

I think a movie starring Penelope and Rose would have caused much less viewer discomfort. In our culture about the only place men can show affection in public is at sporting events. One only has to watch some World Soccer,when a goal is scored, to see men, both on and off the field, behaving in very ‘unmanly’ manner

I think North American men are slowly becoming more comfortable with showing affection towards other men. Young men today often greet each other with a hug, whereas when I was a young man, 30 years ago, that never happened.

Opinion: it’s crazy that Crash got the Academy Award for best picture! Its “moral” message was about as subtle as a 2×4 to the backside

I feel the same discomfort with any clear ‘love-making’ by same sex pairs–be they male or female. I celebrate that males can now show more affection/brotherhood than in the past. Even within families this has improved immensely. No more use of the archaic: “sissy”.

Perlocutionary said…

“Opinion: it’s crazy that Crash got the Academy Award for best picture! Its “moral” message was about as subtle as a 2×4 to the backside.”

Opinion: I liked ‘Crash’. I’m not certain if it deserved to receive the Academy Award over the rest, but I was not disappointed that it did. Compared to many other movies which deal with racism etc., I thought it showed the many faces of racism. The characters were round. In spite of my disgust for Matt Dillon’s character, in the beginning of the movie, as an audience we were allowed to see a different side of him. He is compassionate & caring with his ill father. The causes & effects of racism are as complicated as the characters in the movie. It made me consider my own social conditioning.

Although, initially I found the use of coincidence irritating, because I thought it was going to be predictable, but it was not. As in Thomas Hardy novels, it was an effective way to show how the characters were connected & thus the implication of how we are all connected.

I realize that many people disagree with my opinion and think that “Crash” is a good movie, but although I tried I could not see its virtues!

It is heavy-handed, manipulative, superficially emotional (the music itself drove me crazy), and it wears its message on its sleeve. “Oh, look, the racist, sexist pig of cop takes care of his sick daddy!”

Another opinion: I just read the short story “Brokeback Mountain” -which is backwards for me, I usually have read the book or story before seeing the movie. I think the story is pedestrian. I thank the cinema gods (Lee, McMurtry) for morphing it into a work of art.

Perlocutionary said:

“Oh, look, the racist, sexist pig of cop takes care of his sick daddy!”

Both those things are true. But I think in this we are asked to look beyond the “racist, sexist pig” & see that he does have some humanity. This is part of who he is in the world; I don’t think the intention of the director is to mitigate his actions, but instead to show how complex people are. We are asked to look beyond what he did & to at least know more about him; not to forgive him

Perlo, what is wrong or crazy for a movie to win best picture award for delivering a moral message with a 2×4 to the backside?

Memo To: Those who think I am wrong about Crash From: Perlo Nuanced Subject: Crash sucks.

Andrew, you will have noticed that I put “moral” in scare quotes. The Crash message is so trivial as to be risible. Hollywood teaches moral philosophy! in under 2 hours.

I agree with A. O. Scott in the NYTimes who wrote:

Mr. Haggis’s (Canadian!!!)evident sincerity and intelligence are reflected in the conviction of the cast, and may also leave an impression on the audience. So much feeling, so much skill, so much seriousness, such an urgent moral agenda – all of this must surely answer our collective hunger for a good movie, or even a great one, about race and class in a modern American city.

Not even close. “Crash” writes its themes in capital letters [just like a Lutheran minister]- Race, Class, Life, Fate – and then makes them the subjects of a series of speeches and the pivot points for a succession of clumsy reversals. The first speech, which doubles as introductory voice-over narration, is by Mr. Cheadle’s character, a detective named Graham, addressing his partner (and lover), Ria (Jennifer Esposito), after their car has been in a minor accident. He takes the event as a metaphor for the disjunctive, isolated character of life in Los Angeles, while she insists that it is merely a literal, physical occurrence that requires a practical response.

It does not take long to figure out whose side Mr. Haggis is on. Metaphor hangs in the California air like smog (or like the snow that is incongruously falling on the Hollywood Hills). The other major element in the atmosphere is intolerance. Ria, who is Hispanic, climbs out of the car and confronts the other driver, an Asian-American woman, and before long their argument has descended into racial name-calling. This sets the pattern for just about every other conversation in the movie.

In the next scene, which takes place earlier on the previous day, a hot-tempered Iranian shopkeeper is insulted by the owner of a gun store, who calls him “Osama.” And so it goes, slur by slur, until we come full circle, to the original accident, after which a few lingering questions are resolved.

In the meantime, quite a lot happens. Guns are pulled, cars are stolen, children are endangered, cars flip over, and many angry, hurtful words are exchanged, all of it threaded together by Mr. Haggis’s quick, emphatic direction and Mark Isham’s maundering electronic score.

Mr. Haggis is eager to show the complexities of his many characters, which means that each one will show exactly two sides. A racist white police officer will turn out to be physically courageous and devoted to his ailing father; his sensitive white partner will engage in some deadly racial profiling; a young black man who sees racial profiling everywhere will turn out to be a carjacker; a wealthy, mild-mannered black man will pull out a gun and start screaming. No one is innocent. There’s good and bad in everyone. (The exception is Mr. Pena’s character, a Mexican-American locksmith who is an island of quiet decency in a sea of howling prejudice and hypocrisy).

That these bromides count as insights may say more about the state of the American civic conversation than about Mr. Haggis’s limitations as a storyteller, and there is no doubt that he is trying to dig into the unhappiness and antagonism that often simmer below the placid surface of everyday life. “I’m angry all the time, and I don’t know why,” says Jean (Sandra Bullock), the wife of the city’s district attorney (Brendan Fraser), the day after their S.U.V. has been stolen at gunpoint.

Her condition is all but universal in Mr. Haggis’s city, but its avenues of expression are overwrought and implausible. The idea that bigotry is the public face of private unhappiness – the notion that we lash out at people we don’t know as a form of displaced revenge against the more familiar sources of our misery – is an interesting one, but the failure of “Crash” is that it states its ideas, again and again, without realizing them in coherent dramatic form.

It is at once tangled and threadbare; … well, you get the point. [Emphasis and parenthetical comments added.]

Perlo, I agree the themes in this movie of race, class, intolerance, isolation, and fate, are painted in broad stokes. And in doing some may say the movie trivializes these issues. However, I suspect for many other viewers seeing this movie might be the first time they began to consider and talk about these matters. I think that a lot of people ‘got’ the themes in this movie because they were written in capital letters and that is the movie’s strength.

I don’t know, Andrew, maybe you are right that the movie’s dumbing down of the main themes is a virtue. But if so then it is a sad commentary on the public’s level of discourse.

So, here’s my compromise position: as a piece of propaganda Crash works; as a work of art it sucks.

Hey SOB I share your concern about the level of public discourse.

Crash may be guilty of simplifying complex issues but not I think of expressing false or misleading information as is the case with propaganda. And judging something as not a work of art reminds me of critical judgements of works of art in the past which today those sames pieces are acclaimed as master pieces. Although I do not believe that sort of transformation will happen with Crash. So, I was left with trying to compare Crash to a good french fry but a terrible helping of Perlo’s mashed potatoes…with real butter of course.

SOB may have the positive sense of propaganda as a perlocutionary act in mind: Propaganda is a specific type of message presentation directly aimed at influencing the opinions of people, rather than impartially providing information. Literally translated from the Latin gerundive as “things which must be disseminated,” in some cultures the term is neutral or even positive, while in others the term has acquired a strong negative connotation. Its connotations can also vary over time. For instance, in English, “propaganda” was originally a neutral term used to describe the dissemination of information in favor of a certain cause. Over time, however, the term acquired the negative connotation of disseminating false or misleading information in favor of a certain cause. Strictly speaking, a message does not have to be untrue to qualify as propaganda, but it may omit so many pertinent truths that it becomes highly misleading. In that sense, I think propaganda perfectly describes Crash. And besides that The Constant Gardener deserved the Academy Award for Best Picture…..

My first words, at the finish of Constant G., were, “How did ‘Crash’ win the AA!

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