Brokeback Mountain

In the summer of 1963 a lone cowboy, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) walks into a tiny Wyoming town looking for ranch work. As he waits to be hired, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives in his old pickup truck. Both are hired to tend sheep at Brokeback Mountain by Joe Aguirre (Randy Quaid). One is stay at the main camp, and the other is to stay with the sheep – against National Park Service rules – though they are to take meals together.

 

Ennis is strong, silent and seems very lonely. His parents were killed long ago in a car wreck and he was raised by his brother and sister until they married. Now alone, he looks for work but plans to marry a girl names Alma (Michelle Williams) come November. Jack is more open, mostly works at his parents’ ranch and has been in the rodeo; he obviously prefers to be away from home. Jack is attracted to Ennis almost from the start and seems to have a sense that Ennis would be open to his advances. One night when it turns cold they share the tent and Jack makes his move. Ennis resists – at first.

 

As the days go by Ennis makes it clear it was only a one time thing for him. Soon after, Joe rides down to the camp, and from a distance sees the two men kind of wrestling together. He cuts short their summer work. Ennis and Jack go their separate ways. Ennis marries Alma and has two children. He struggles to make a living for them. Jack hits the rodeo circuit and about three years later meets Lureen Newsome (Anne Hathaway), the daughter of a wealthy man who sells farm machinery. Soon after, Jack sends a postcard to Ennis, rekindling their friendship – and more. Ennis responds and Jack arrives a couple of weeks later. Alma sees them greet each other with hungry kisses and is horrified.

 

For the next twenty years, the men keep up a relationship, meeting a few times a year to pretend to go fishing at Brokeback Mountain. Jack wants them to leave their wives and get a cabin and live and work together. Ennis cannot let himself do that. Jack looks for consolation in Mexico while Ennis considers remarrying after he and  Alma divorce.

 

Brokeback Mountain is a beautifully filmed movie; the natural landscape contrasting with what “the rules” consider the men’s unnatural relationship to be. It amazes me that director Ang Lee is able to enter credibly into so many different cultures to produce his films (e.g. Sense and Sensibility; The Hulk). I think the four main actors carry out their roles very well.

 

However, from the story perspective, I didn’t find the characters of Ennis and Jack or their highly romanticized relationship completely believable; their character development was one dimensional, that is, the here and now, on the surface only. What I did feel was empathy for Ennis’ loneliness, and even Jack’s at the end when we finally meet his parents in their broken down, barren ranch house. Jack’s father seems to have known his son was gay from the time he was small, and this is something for which he has not forgiven him. He seems to hate his son, and this sequence had an element of reality to it. When Ennis finds his old shirt and denim jacket in Jack’s boyhood room, I wondered if he missed Jack because of his great loneliness, or because of their relationship. Maybe we are not supposed to know for sure; perhaps people who have lived this experience have better insight to this story than I do.

 

As all media educators will tell you, entertainment media normalize behaviors. When did it become normal for men and women to live together before marriage? Did the media cause this phenomenon, or were they acknowledging something that was already a given, just that nobody talked about it? By telling stories about a subject that Christians and others believe to be immoral behavior, do the media promote it because of the implicit authority the media possess? Was this film produced because someone has an agenda? I don’t know.

 

But I would question, rather, whether or not there is a universal conflict in this film that would compare to the majestic landscape against which the story plays out (and providesthe obvious phallic symbolism throughout.) I think the film is representative of postmodern filmmaking because while Ennis seems to be conflicted about his sexual orientation, neither character wrestles with his conscience, or any objective sense of morality but rather with the culture – and not getting caught and punished by the culture (that Joe seems to represent.) 

 

The Church teaches that the joy and pain of all human living can be the subject of story-telling and drama. Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by E. Annie Proulx, certainly is about the search for joy and genuine pain, but I didn’t find transcendence here, mutuality, or authentic sacrifice, so dramatically and spirtually the film falls short for me. While a nod is given to the horror and injustice of hate crimes, and a father withholding love because of his son’s sexual orientation, the film, to me, was ultimately barren – and maybe this is the feeling the film wanted to evoke.

 

Brokeback Mountain is a difficult film. The important thing to remember, to me, is that Christ accepted everyone, and never mistreated anyone.  Also, it would be interesting to look at the theology of this film, because though Ennis and Jack do not seem to have a relationship with God or a church, there is frequent mention of God.

Memoirs of a Geisha

In the late 1920’s two young girls from rural Japan are sold by their father into indentured servitude because their mother is dying and he cannot care for them. A middle-man takes the girls to a town near Osaka, a major industrial center. One girl, the nine-year old, blue-eyed Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is left at one house of Geisha, the sister at another. The “mother” or owner of Chiyo’s house notices Chiyo’s blue eyes and says she sees much water in them – something that turns out to be true. She decides to send Chiyo and Pumpkin (Zoe Weizenbaum), another young girl, to a school to train to be Geisha. But Chiyo goes out at night to try and find her sister and is beaten when she returns. Mother makes her a servant to the house instead; Chiyo’s debt to the house mounts with each infration.

 

There is a Geisha in the house who persecutes Chiyo. Her name is Hatsumono (Li Gong), and she is threatened by Chiyo from the day she arrives.

 

One day when Chiyo is sitting on a bridge, crying for her sister, a man, accompanied by a Geisha, is kind to her. He gives her his handkerchief and buys her a sweet ice. The Geisha calls him Mr. Chairman (Ken Watanabe), and Chiyo determines that one day she will accompany him. It becomes her life’s ambition to gain him as her patron.

 

The Geisha Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) comes to Mother one day when Chiyo is about 16, and proposes that if she can get top price for Chiyo’s virginity, that both Mameha and Chiyo will be free. Mother agrees to the deal, and Mameha becomes Chiyo’s mentor and gives her a new name, Sayuri (Ziyi Zhang). All of a sudden, Sayuri must learn to be a Geisha in a matter of months rather than years. At her debut, Mameha takes her to a sumo match and introduces her to none other than The Chairman and his business partner Nabu (Koji Yakusho). Mameha insists that Sayuri get the attention of Nabu, who has a scarred face, so that Hatsumono, who is also present, will not find more reasons to spread lies about Sayuri and lower her value. The Chairman recognizes Sayuri but out of friendship for Nabu, lets her go. For Sayuri, the Chairman’s handkerchief is her lifeline to freedom.

 

This is really only the set-up for the main part of the film which is about Sayuri becoming a Geisha, and the conflict she must live with: her own desires for life, wanting to be with the Chairman, and the cultural constraints of her only option for survival as a Geisha, or as a prostitute if she were to ever run away from the house that protects her.

 

Based on the best-selling novel by Arthur Golden and directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautifully rendered film, filled with pathos, female ambition, cat-fighting, betrayal, and revenge – a hard world of women who powdered their faces to hide their faces, their real selves. The film teaches the audience about what it means to be a Geisha, a word that means art. Geishas were well educated and highly cultured young women who entertained married men; to find one as a patron was the ultimate security since this would give the Geisha an income for her house and a place to live out her life. Geishas, at least before World War II, were not prostitutes although losing their virginity to the highest bidder was their entrée into a culture of kept women who would only ever be “half wives.”

 

The film finishes before the novel does, which ends with Sayuri in New York. After viewing this beautiful film for 90 minutes or so the American soldiers who occupy Japan after World War II enter the picture and their rowdy, crass behavior clashes so badly with the refined tone of the film (as it is supposed to do) that I felt like someone was scraping their fingernails on a blackboard. Extremely effective.

 

Most film reviewers have already commented on the fact that most of the actors are not Japanese; unfortunately, most of us will not notice. What we do notice, however, is the fine, nuanced, felt performances of all the actors. Also, Arthur Golden is a man and not Japanese either and we wonder how he is an authority on this subject. I cannot answer that; but I did read the book a few years ago, and I think the film interprets it very, very well.

 

In a culture, in a world and moral universe that is far away, women in bondage struggled for freedom in any way they could. This film made me pray that women of all cultures be free to choose their own destinies, rather than only those made available to them by cultures controlled by men.

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