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.


Blogger Quimby said...

First of all dude Good Night and Good Luck is absolutely a visual movie--please note the Oscar nod to its cinematographer (also responsible for the undeniably visually-dominated (the dialogue and narrative are clearly secondary and at times nearly incoherent) Punch Drunk Love). Don't you think it evokes Manhattan?

Secondly, while I am not as steeped in film history and theory as you, I am steeped in the history and theory of theater. While I understand comparing GNGL to Brokeback Mountain (certainly a movie driven in greater part by its visual elements) it perhaps makes more sense to compare the Clooney film to plays like "The Crucible" or "Inherit the Wind."

I happen to find these plays, as you find GNGL, tiresome and pedantic. But they serve a purpose.

A broader discourse on the theater and film is perhaps for another day--or the other blog.


February 01, 2006 1:33 AM  

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