Saturday, January 07, 2006


Are Fiction Films Dead?

By Edward Copeland
As a lifelong movie buff, I've noticed in recent years that documentaries are grabbing my interest much more consistently than features do. I rate movies on a 4-star scale (or did until this blog allowed me the freedom to dump ratings entirely) and I have not given that top score to a fiction film since House of Sand and Fog in 2003. In contrast, in 2005, I've handed out three 4-star ratings so far — and they have all gone to documentaries: Murderball, the great depiction of the players on quadriplegic rugby teams; Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's haunting look at a man whose love affair with bears ends with his own demise and uses the man's own footage; and Tell Them Who You Are, an extremely personal documentary by Mark S. Wexler about his relationship with his father, the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

There was also Martin Scorsese's excellent two-part PBS documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, which is really the best movie Scorsese has produced since 1993's The Age of Innocence. These documentaries and others seem to have a knack for summoning up better characters and often more suspense than their fictional counterparts.

This isn't to say I haven't seen some good fiction films this year — Crash, Downfall, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Batman Begins — but I wouldn't give any of them a perfect score and none of them have grabbed me in a way that reminds me why I fell in love with movies in the first place.

Yesterday, I also watched 2005's most highly acclaimed film, Brokeback Mountain. It's a good film, but not great. I'd only go three stars on it, namely because it starts too slowly and I think Jake Gyllenhaal is very noticeably a weaker actor than the rest of the cast and, as a result, I never quite believed that he and Heath Ledger's characters were truly in love.

I still have faith that I'll see great fiction films in the future, but for now, documentaries seem to be where it's at.

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I don't take quite as dim an outlook on the current state of fiction-based films as you do, but having now seen Brokeback Mountain, for which I had very high expectations, I can now state that your assessment of it is pretty much spot-on.

I think the reason that it may be difficult to fully buy into the notion that Ledger & Gyllenhaal's characters are locked in the grips of an epic passion is that the filmmakers handle the issue of their homosexuality with a certain degree of reticence. I found it somewhat ironic, given the film's reputation as a breakthrough of sorts, that the most explicit and erotically charaged sex scenes in the film were of the heterosexual variety. Of course, you can communicate love and passion without graphic depictions of sex (Casablanca, anyone?) but the two characters don't really have the opportunity to express much emotion of the non-sexual/romantic variety towards eachother either. The fact that they're repressed doesn't entirely excuse this - look no further than The Remains of the Day to see how much erotic tension and/or romantic yearning can be telegraphed through the very inability to express oneself. The scenes that are supposed to communicate the strength of the characters' bond have a rather obligatory quality, as if the filmmakers knew they had to be there but didn't want to push their luck. The film relies too much on understatement when a little overstatement might have been called for.

As a gay man, I found parts of the film to be quite moving, even though a lot of it never rang entirely true. I hope Brokeback does well and hopefully challenges the pre-conceived notions of those who go to see. Surely, that's the ultimate purpose of a gay film made for a straight audience.
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