Brokeback Mountain – a Review

There’s a very good argument against reading any reviews before going to see a movie. How many times have you seen a movie and wondered if the reviewer had seen something completely different? Either the praise or the criticism just didn’t make sense. I made the mistake of reading too many reviews – both good and indifferent – before going to see ‘Brokeback Mountain’, and my mind was subsequently bristling with expectation. Before detailing my own impressions I’d like to correct a couple of misconceptions about the movie currently creeping into review pages.

Firstly, the sex scenes. I’ve read at least a couple of reviews that say director, Ang Lee, has somehow glorified the act of gay sex, that it has been rendered almost sacred. Well, I must have missed those scenes altogether, because the only sex scene I saw took place in the dark, and resembled wrestling rather than sex. There is also some kissing and hugging, but those preparing to be outraged by lots of naked man-on-man action are going to be disappointed.

I’ve seen the sorts of sex scenes described by these reviewers, and there are none of those in ‘Brokeback Mountain’.

Secondly, the hyperbole. ‘One of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen.’ ‘The best American movie of the last ten years.’ ‘It has restored my faith in cinema.’ How seriously can one take such comments?

Unfortunately, Hollywood particularly adores a certain kind of movie. A quick scan of the last 30 years of Oscar winners will give you an idea of what I’m talking about. It’s almost as though the movie is awarded ‘bonus points’ for daring to deal with such an issue. It’s a phenomenon that short changes both the subject and the movie.

So just how good is ‘Brokeback Mountain’?

It is certainly a beautifully filmed and directed film. The screenplay co-written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana is first rate, and adheres closely to the E. Annie Proulx short story from which it has been adapted.

The young cast – Heath Ledger (Ennis), Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack), Michelle Williams (Alma), Anne Hathaway (Lureen) – is impressive, particularly Ledger and Williams. Both roles demand that the actors articulate much of their hurt, frustration and anger by body language and facial expressions alone. There is a scene between the two where Alma confronts Ennis about his supposed ‘fishing trips’ with Jack, and the tension between them, previously expressed with minimal words, suddenly erupts into physical violence. It is a gut-wrenching moment.

Indeed, Heath Ledger’s performance is a revelation. Given his previous screen outings, one might have thought the task beyond him. But he inhabits the role, as all great actors do, and ‘becomes’ Ennis Del Mar.

The film’s greatest strength is its reliance on suggestion over explanation – the memory of a hug, a bloodied shirt, a phone call, a look, a smile. This comes to the fore particularly in the final scenes, when the story reaches its tragic conclusion, and Ennis is left alone with his few memories of a happier time.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ is, at its core, a tragic love story, filled with yearning and regret. Anyone – gay, straight, or otherwise – who has experienced such feelings will relate to the movie and its message. It is, indeed, a powerful film, and will, for whatever reason, walk away with a swag of awards at Oscar time.

Whether or not it is one of Hollywood’s greatest achievements is another matter altogether.

The Life Pursuit – a Review

Belle and Sebastian might have been born out of a love for 80s indie – The Smiths, Orange Juice, Felt, and the like – but deep down they are 70s pop kids. ‘The Life Pursuit’, the bands 7th album, includes dashes of glam and T-Rex boogie, bubblegum and country rock.

And maybe it had something to do with recording the album in LA, but it’s also a soulful affair, and the influences of the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Roy Ayers and Sly & the Family Stone abound.

But Belle and Sebastian are not simply trying to recapture the past; they use these sounds to embellish their tales of misadventure; stories about misfits, losers and those unlucky in love. We, therefore, have ‘For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea’ – as sunny as the Spinners – with its story of a woman ‘always exotic and aloof’ worried about village gossip; and ‘White Collar Boy’ – a glam beat, synth bass, and call-and-response vocals – with its account of small-time criminals.

In ‘The Blues Are Still Blue’, singer Stuart Murdoch might be doing his best Marc Bolan impersonation, but the lyrics are pure Belle and Sebastian.

‘Look at the kid from school
He’s teaching mamas and papas how to be a little cool
He’s changing fashion, the way he dress
The tracksuits are old, and the hoody’s way too moody
For a kid with the will to funk
He dances in secret; he’s a part-time punk’

We also meet ‘Sukie In The Graveyard’, the tale of another outsider, played over choppy organ, a shuffling beat, and churning bass:

‘Sukie was the kid, she liked to hang out at the art school
She didn’t enroll, but she wiped the floor with all the arseholes’

In a recent ‘Uncut’ article, Stuart Murdoch selected an early Orange Juice single as the most significant pop artifact of the last fifty years. In ‘We Are The Sleepyheads’ he gets to pay homage to his indie heroes with some very funky rhythm guitar (and, of course, Orange Juice were channeling their own heroes of Motown and 70s soul). The track also features a scorching guitar solo that wouldn’t be out of place on a Thin Lizzy album.

‘Song For Sunshine’ opens with some Stevie Wonder clavinet, before drifting into a chorus that references the Roy Ayers’ hit ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’. The lyrics here are very un-Belle and Sebastian, surprisingly naïve, with tongue almost certainly out-of-cheek.

‘Sunshine, we all see the same sky
Looking, learning, asking the same ‘why?’

Unfortunately, ‘The Life Pursuit’ doesn’t change the fact that there is no perfect Belle and Sebastian album. Opening track ‘Act Of The Apostle’ is unnecessarily reprised later in the album, and ‘Mornington Crescent’ is a drab closing song.

This is, nevertheless, a strong addition to the Belle and Sebastian canon – an increasingly interesting collection of material, from poorly recorded, sloppily played indie pop to the glossy, genre straddling fare of the last two records.

‘The Life Pursuit’ probably won’t change your life, but it’ll make it a little sunnier, and it might even get you dancing.

The Big Day Outsider

I’d arrived a couple of hours into the day and the ground was already littered with crushed beer cans, water bottles and prostrate bodies in various stages of intoxication. Rock ‘n’ roll rumbled from every direction. Every seat, path and scrap of lawn was crowded with music fans. I decided to wander around and get my bearings.

My first stop, the Boiler Room was, despite its name, a dark, cool and cavernous shed. In the distance, a small but enthusiastic crowd wiggled to Aussie electro-duo The Presets. They were at the end of their set, so I only saw about three or four songs. Between each song the singer said the word ‘awesome’ but little else. Here are a couple of observations about the performance: 1) People will dance to anything with a beat. 2) Watching other people play keyboards is not very interesting.

After escaping the Boiler Room I explored the stalls lining the walkways between stages. There was plenty of food to choose from – Indian, Mexican, Chinese. There were stalls selling t-shirts, hats, sunglasses – even ear-plugs (although I thought the point of the day was to let sound into your ears, not keep it out). I then entered the main arena and took a seat in one of the stands.

Aussie band, Magic Dirt, was in the middle of their set. I didn’t know much about them at all so looked in my ‘souvenir’ program. According to the entry for Magic Dirt, their last lp’s wall of sound ‘comprised 19th Century choral symphonies and 20th Century film soundtracks’. I didn’t hear much of this in the few songs played this afternoon, just a lot of clichéd rock star posturing and dull tunes. (Note: playing one’s guitar behind one’s head does not improve the quality of playing or the song.)

Unlike Magic Dirt, with their tats and leather, the Sleater-Kinney girls looked ready to go to tea rather than play rock ‘n’ roll. With an unassuming little wave, Carrie picked up her guitar, and away they went, straight into ‘Fox’, the opening track of ‘The Woods’. A reasonable chunk of the album followed – ‘Wilderness’, ‘Rollercoaster’, ‘Modern Girl’ and others. The guitar playing was razor sharp, with Corin and Carrie sharing solo duties, while Janet drummed up a storm. The shared vocals sounded great, especially Corin’s banshee wail, and more than a little like the B52s in the poppier songs.

It was a (too) short, tight set of songs, and the band exuded class, but the thing I’ll remember most about the event is the young girl who not only caught one of Janet’s drumsticks, but also acquired the set list. She was shuddering, and almost in tears, with excitement.

Back in the main arena, a Led Zep tribute band (Wolfmother, sorry fans) was grinding through lengthy blues workouts. I hid in one of the stands and ate muffin bars while making a few notes before heading off to find out to explore the ‘silent disco’. Hidden in a vast shed on the fringes of the event was an inoperative dodgem car rink. It had been transformed into a dance floor. It was filled with people dancing in silence. They listened to the music through headphones. Maybe next year they could expand that idea to the whole Big Day Out – a silent rock festival?

Back on the Green Stage, the Go! Team leapt into their brief, energetic performance. A multicultural, multi-instrumental group of three boys and three girls, they reminded me of ‘kiddy band’ Hi-Five or even a Christian group, such was their enthusiasm and wholesome youthfulness. All smiles and handclaps, they rocketed through a selection of songs from the debut album ‘Thunder Lightning Strike’.

Unfortunately, my initial enjoyment of the band was marred by the weather (it had started to rain) and a restless crowd. A pot-smoking scruff had positioned himself in front of me, and didn’t think anything of thwacking me with his backpack, or exhaling his mouthful of weed in my direction. Worse than either of those offences, however, was his need to chat with his friend. They didn’t seem at all interested in the band.

Oblivious to my discomfit, the Go! Team played on; led by the diminutive Ninja, whose energy was infectious – by the end of the set she had the whole crowd bouncing. The highlights were ‘Bottle Rocket’, ‘The Power Is On’ and ‘Ladyflash’, although the entire set was impressive.

It was then time to ‘bite-the-bullet’ regarding a much-avoided toilet break. I’d needed to pee since arriving hours earlier, but had taken one look at the intoxicated individuals staggering in and out of the toilets, and decided against the idea. But the situation was now at crisis point, and I imagined bursting my bladder and ending up the first Adelaide BDO fatality. I don’t know why people were still bothering to line up at the trough though, because the entire floor was dripping with urine, but I closed my eyes, held my breath, and joined the piddling ranks.

As evening approached, I made my way to the main arena. I’d intended spending the last couple of hours watching a string of acts on the Blue and Orange stages – Franz Ferdinand, The Stooges, and The White Stripes. The vast lawned area in front of the stages resembled a battlefield, strewn with garbage, vomit, unidentifiable liquid, discarded food and collapsed humans. And those that weren’t lying down were staggering dangerously. I began to feel like the only person at the party not pissed or stoned (or both). I set up an encampment in spitting distance of the main stage and waited patiently for Franz Ferdinand to appear.

But first I had to sit through an hour of The Living End. I didn’t imagine it would be so painful, but by the end I was almost beginning to hate the whole concept of rock ‘n’ roll. There must be something about the Australian environment that nurtures the spirit of the ‘yob’ and turns the majority of homegrown bands into entities that embolden that spirit. In the 80s we had Cold Chisel, Swanee and Aussie Crawl (among others). In 2005, we have The Living End. I thought the enlightened 90s might have cleared out this sort of rubbish. Obviously, this is not the case.

But the crowd loved them, and lurching, bellowing drunks soon swamped my little sanctuary on the grass. The music was a kind of pub rock/rockabilly fusion that seemed to celebrate, above all else (and appropriately) getting drunk. One song was introduced: ‘this is about getting’ pissed and goin’ out on a Friday night’. The fans roared, and off they stomped. I was forced to retreat to a safer spot beyond the crowd.

Forty-five minutes later and Franz Ferdinand took the stage. Amazingly, the folks who’d been bouncing around to The Living End’s ‘yob-abilly’ moments ago were now pogo-ing to Scotland’s version of indie-disco. I fought my way back through the crowd and found a good position from which to watch the band, only to find myself, once again, in the midst of a group of people with no obvious interest in what was happening on stage. Couples kissed, took photos of each other, others drank, told jokes. The guy next to me even attempted a conversation on his mobile phone.

Meanwhile, back on stage, Franz Ferdinand scratched their way through renditions of songs from their two albums – ‘Do You Want To’, ‘Take Me Out’, The Villain, ‘Matinee’ and others. Their music was less polished, more abrasive than their records, but the playing was tight, and the sound was mostly good, apart from the occasional moment when wind swept away the vocals or a guitar riff or two.

To combat the nuisance crowd in my immediate vicinity, I tried emitting extremely bad vibes, and, by the end of Franz Ferdinand’s set, I’d been able to clear a reasonable space around me. The fact that I’d also threatened to strangle the guy in front of me might have also helped. (He’d recklessly pogoed onto my foot.)

Iggy Pop started on the Orange Stage within minutes of Franz Ferdinand’s departure, and I wandered over to watch him for a while. By this time my enthusiasm was waning, and my legs and back ached. A few minutes of watching Iggy drag his emaciated 59-year-old body about the stage wearied me even more. The band chugged through a few Stooges’ standards – ‘1969’, ‘Loose’, I Wanna Be Your Dog’. They were lurching into ‘TV Eye’ when I decided I’d had enough, and left, seriously concerned that Iggy’s pants were going to fall down before the end of the night.

I’d missed The White Stripes, but decided I could listen to them on my iPod, in the comfort of my bed, far from the maddening crowd.

Notes:

1) If a pop singer asks the audience to clap or wave their hands, about 95% will do so.
2) Music fans are a generally good-natured folks, despite their over-indulgence in alcohol. But they are terrible slobs. I’ve never seen more rubbish on the ground than at the BDO.
3) For a great many people, the BDO is a social event. A chance to drink, dance and party. The music itself is secondary to the socialising.
4) According to the latest issue of the Triple J magazine, the Australian music scene has never been as healthy as it is today. If this is true, where were the good Aussie bands at this year’s BDO? Are Wolfmother, Magic Dirt and the Living End really the best we can offer? Maybe I just need to look harder.