Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Two Films

I've seen two movies in the past week, "Brokeback Mountain" and "Syriana." Probably couldn't find two more different films - although I suppose "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Syriana" would be polar opposites. But I mean that both movies are pretty intense, serious dramas about somewhat controversial issues, and yet are nothing alike. "Brokeback Mountain" spans twenty or more years in the lives of two men, and every scene involves one or both of them. Scenes linger and move slowly with deliberation. The plot is very simple and straightforward: two men, in love despite themselves, live their lives trying to both overcome and indulge that passion. From that one connection, other lives are affected, spinning their loved ones in different directions.

"Syriana" covers a much shorter timeframe, maybe a couple of months although it's not clear (nor necessary to be so.) There are multiple characters and multiple storylines, played out in hundreds of short scenes, some of which are one single line of dialogue. Instead of two sympathetic characters to identify with, we are offered a handful of questionable ones - is anyone in this film a good person? The lawyer you want to root for has a complicated and angry relationship with his father. (Or, rather it's not complicated at all - it's an old story, and yet it's fresh because we get it in shorthand - little bits of interaction that resonate with the unspoken, unseen moments between them. We get it, we're smart, and the filmmakers are smart enough to allow us that.) The grieving father turns his sorrow into an opportunity to get rich. (Or is it to change the world? How much of his idealism is real and how much just meant to provide a need for his firm's consulting services?) That's just two of the four or five interlocking storylines, and you can already see how complex they are. Yet it's this complexity, more so than spending a long time lingering with any of the individual characters, which makes the experience of watching this film so rich.

I'd read Annie Proulx's New Yorker story that "Brokeback Mountain" is based on, and it came swiftly back to me as I watched the movie. I remember admiring how she managed to move effortlessly through 20 years in just 6000 or so words, without leaving the reader in the dust. I even tried copying that style, with little success. It clearly works well in a movie, with the benefit of allowing the actors to stretch a bit. I think everything about the film ultimately works - and I left the theater feeling I'd spent two hours in a very good place.

As "Syriana" ended, I wasn't even sure what had just happened, but I knew that I enjoyed it. That doesn't usually happen with me - I need to have a cohesive plot, even if it's somewhat complicated and requires my brain power to unravel it. (See "Memento.") But with this film, I get the sense if I try too hard to unravel it, I'll only get more confused. What matters is not how George Clooney's character gets out on a Middle Eastern highway waving a white cloth, but that he does, and some things happen because of that moment even as others happen despite it.

Short version? See both movies.


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