Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Movie is the Message

Dear Faithful Reader,

In my last post, I lambasted George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck for being way too overt with its message. The film was little more than a string of lectures delivered by David Strathairn's Edward R. Murrow, broken up by the occasional piece of original footage from the McCarthy trials. I felt as though I were watching a very poorly executed powerpoint presentation.

As I wrote at the end of that post, I believe cinema to be a very potent forum for political expression, but, first and foremost, it is a visual medium. As such, a film should express its message visually. While it would be hard to argue that Good Night, and Good Luck did not contain a certain visual element, it consists of little more than talking heads; the most visual element of the film is its presentation in black and white, which is sexy, but signifies nothing. All it does is establish a certain cogency between the content of the film and the historical footage included within.

As a result, the message of the film is more than apparent on an aural level - Murrow repeats it over and over and over - but the movie doesn't actually communicate it. I understood, but I didn't care, because Clooney puts the message before the movie.

Ang Lee, on the other hand, gets it just right. His Brokeback Mountain is not - as many people have called it - a gay cowboy movie (as Clooney's is a news media call-to-arms); it's an unconventional love story that is so compelling and so credible that it communicates a message without ever coming close to putting it into words. The film spreads dialogue so sparingly across the plot that it comes off less as spoken words and more as a part of the musical soundtrack and ambient noise. Lee communicates the meaning and emotion of the film with lyrical, eavesdropping sequences that convey everything without saying a word, drawing the viewer deeper and deeper into the lives of the protagonists. The beautiful backdrop of the Texas and Wyoming landscapes does everything that Clooney's black and white photography doesn't and that Strathairn's Murrow does far, far too much.

Because Brokeback Mountain is distinctly not a film rallying for gay rights or equality, it's far more likely to convince any dissenters. Heath Ledger's Ennis del Mar (which, significantly, means "Island of the Sea" in a creative mix of Irish and Spanish) and Jake Gyllenhall's Jack Twist do not come off as crusaders for gay rights, but rather as a modern day Romeo and Juliet. The verisimilitude of their characters makes them universal, allowing any viewer - if he/she is willing - to identify with them very easily, regardless of his/her lifestyle. As a result, perhaps some of the people who would have quickly closed their ears and minds to the most logical of arguments for gay rights have come to see the humanity in homosexuality and the tragedy in its oppression. It's hard not to identify with a story so sad, so real, and so true.

Cinema is not the radio. It is the partnership of picture and sound, and sound is the junior partner. As such, verbal rhetoric must take a back seat, even - especially - in a movie attempting to communicate a message. Clooney and Lee's movies illustrate this point quite clearly. Maybe, in my case, one of Clooney's problems was that he was preaching to the choir, but the point remains that Good Night, and Good Luck does preach. Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, never preaches. Ang Lee shows us a story; he shows it sincerely and lovingly and the message finds its way on its own.

The movie is the message.


N.B. Many thanks, of course, to Marshall McLuhan.

Friday, January 13, 2006

In which I return from an extended absence to tell you, Faithful Reader, about a movie you've probably already seen.

Sometimes movies come out later here. So sue me. Ahem...

Good Night, and Good Luck uses the word "good" in its title twice. I dare you to count the number of times I use it in this review.

His first time out as a director, George Clooney pretty much hit the ball out of the park. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the alleged life story of Chuck Barris, the creator of The Gong Show and The Dating Game who claims to have also been a contract-killer for the CIA, was darkly funny, superbly directed, and distinctly engaging. It was certainly no masterpiece, but it was a solidly enjoyable film and distinctly better than most of its box office contemporaries. His sophomore effort, however, is disappointingly flat and I blame the writing, which, this time around, Clooney chose to do himself.

I get the point. Like Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck is an account of an historical event that also serves as an apt metaphor for contemporary times, ostensibly reminding us that if we choose to forget the past we will be doomed to repeat it in one form or another. The Salem Witch trials rose from the ashes of forgotten history in the form of Senator McCarthy's Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, and McCarthy's demagoguery, gross abuse of governmental power, and manipulation of a culture of fear have - at least to those of us who agree with Clooney's politics, if not his writing style - worked their way back into Washington in the form of George W. Bush, the Patriot Act, and his War on Terror.

The problem is, however, that Arthur Miller was a great writer and Clooney, it seems, is not. The beauty of The Crucible is that it teaches you the history you've ostensibly forgotten without letting you feel like you're being lectured. Good Night, and Good Luck, as one of the CBS executives in the film complains about Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts, feels more like "a civics lesson." There is no tension or excitement in any of the supposedly climactic scenes and, in a distinct touch of irony, this movie about the informative value of broadcast journalism manages to get a lot of important facts wrong.

The most potent part of the film, really, is when Murrow sacrifices his journalistic integrity and does a Barbara Walters-esque interview of Liberace (who, as all of us who have seen Austin Powers know, much later on announced that he was gay), asking mostly about women and the possibility of marriage. Watching Liberace (the actual stock footage from the original broadcast) squirm and avoid the use of gender-specific pronouns as he tries to answer Murrow's disinterested questions is one of the most powerful moments of the film, reminding the viewers of what an insensitive time the 50s were, and how unsafe it was to be different then, in any way, shape, or color. This scene lasts for just a moment and the film presents it as Murrow (played by David Strathairn with a deadpan that makes Bill Murray's performance in Broken Flowers look lively) simply doing penance for sticking the station's neck out by going after McCarthy, but it's the only real success of the movie. Murrow's didactic monologues go untempered by character development (although I suppose the man very well could have been just that one-dimensional) and the other characters (rounded out by a great cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Patricia Clarkson, and Frank Langella) never have enough screen time for us to ever learn to care about them.

It's important to make movies like this, movies that are socially responsible and aim to teach, not brainwash or distract their viewers, but it's equally important to make them well. As Murrow points out in his grandaddy of a lecture that starts and finishes the film, bookending all the other lectures that come in between, television (and, by extension, cinema) is a medium with a lot of potential, capable of informing the masses, hopefully making a more responsible citizenry and thus a better democracy. Murrow, however, also got poor ratings and so does Clooney on this movie. I appreciate the thought, but in a movie it's not just the thought that counts.

(N.B. The title of this post links to Ebert's positive review of this film. Note that even he slides in a characterization of the film as being a little bit claustrophobic.)