* Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's amazing WWII movie. I've got a few complaints, but it's really an astonishing filmgoing experience. I loved it!
* Ponyo, Miyazaki's latest (and possibly last) movie is geared toward younger kids, and as a result, will leave the adults only partially satisfied. Pretty to look at, there is more good than bad, but not the masterpiece his fans have hoped for.
* Taking Woodstock, a rare stumble for Ang Lee. I think it's the split-screen that does it to him. People don't like it when he gets all fracturous and fancy.
* Thirst, Park Chan-wook's vampire flick, is too long and often too slow, but some cool ideas, story twists, and a great performance by Kim Ok-vin in the female lead still make it worth seeing.
* 2X Catherine Deneuve: An excellent modern drama, Après Lui, and a terrible 1970s "satire," Marco Ferreri's Don't Touch the White Woman
* The Astonishing Work of Tezuka Osamu, collecting 13 animated shorts by the manga/anime legend.
* Big Man Japan, a confused mockumentary about giant monsters and giant monster fighters in Japan. See it for the fights, fast forward through the rest.
* Chinese Odyssey 2002, a romantic parody of martial arts films reteaming Chungking Express stars Tony Leung and Faye Wong. It's even produced by Wong Kar-Wai, and director Jeffrey Lau includes lots of subtle digs at the director. Too bad this U.S. disc is edited.
* I Love You, Man, one of my favorite comedies of the year, now on DVD.
* Pete's Dragon: High-Flying Edition, an old Disney musical that is pretty predictable, but still entertaining. Plus, you know, animated dragons are hep.
Comics fans and cinephiles should check out Scott Morse's hardboiled fusion, The Projectionist!
Monday, August 31, 2009
Friday, August 28, 2009
George Bird has been leading a content bachelor's existence, working as an agricultural machinery salesman in a quiet English town. He'd probably keep going on this way until retirement or death, whichever came first, and in a sense, he has. One morning, a stop off to the doctor about a minor complaint reveals a much more severe disease. According to this diagnosis, George has Lampington's Disease, a rare condition that will cause him to fall into a coma and die within a matter of weeks. The doctor's prescription? Take the money and run. He advises George to enjoy his final days, don't just sit around and wait to die.
This is the premise of Last Holiday, a light 1950 dramedy by director Henry Cass (Blood of the Vampire) and writer J.B. Priestley (An Inspector Calls.). George is played by Sir Alec Guinness, at his stoic and most dapper best here as the meek man who is suddenly forced to adopt a whole new outlook on living. George cashes in his savings and his life insurance, quits his job, and alights to a fancy hotel a couple of hamlets over. There he will let Lampington's take over while he luxuriates in everything the hotel has to offer.
Only it's not so easy to become a different person when the specter of death hangs about to make sure you remember who you are. George isn't entirely ready to relax. Decked out in second-hand suits bought off another dead man, he is seen by the other guests of the hotel as a bit of a mystery, new blood that is clearly more than he seems. For his part, George doesn't understand how to embrace idle leisure. He's too proud of being common to try to pass himself off as uncommon. Therefore, the first friend he makes at the resort is the head maid, Mrs. Poole (Kay Walsh), whose natural empathy causes her to wonder exactly what George is hiding. Her good sense is also affronted when George later disappoints her by allowing himself to be wooed to the other side. She can't understand why a good man would throw his money after bad rubbish, but that's because she doesn't know that he will have no other opportunity to spend it.
Life has taken a funny turn for George. By running out on him, it has given him newfound possibilities. Encouraged by Mrs. Poole, George speaks honestly to the other people in the hotel. He tells a blowhard politician what is wrong with his policies and a rich shipping tycoon how cheap materials have ruined British industry. He also inspires an old inventor to pick up a pencil again and helps a less refined couple (played by Sidney James and Jean Colin) gain acceptance amongst the upper crust. It's a whole lot of tough love, and George gives it in full to Sheila (Beatrice Campbell), a seemingly centered woman married to a real lout (Brian Worth). She's the one Mrs. Poole is worried about, the older woman perhaps seeing her own compulsion to come to the aid of those in trouble in George, the man she most wants to help. When George discovers that Sheila's husband can't pay their rent, he chastises her for not making the swindler get a job--but he gives her the money anyway. In turn, she gives him kisses on the elevator.
They aren't false kisses. I think Sheila really has affection for George. Everyone does, and it's genuine. They see George as a happy-go-lucky enigma. Lucky he is, happy not so much. Ever since he received his death sentence, George has found his fortunes have totally changed. He wins at the horse raises and poker, he's got more than one woman vying for his attention, he can predict the weather, and people are listening to him and offering him incredible opportunities. Of course, he can't take them, and that goes a long way toward why he isn't happy. Just about everything has started to remind him of death. Until he started to think this way, George never noticed how many mindless clichés referenced the big sleep. As if that weren't enough, Henry Cass regularly uses breaking glass--a window, a mirror--to transition from one scene to the next. It's a little too on the bull's-eye, both as a symbol of his emotional state and as foreshadowing, but it's effective nevertheless: life is fragile and can be shattered with a light touch just as effectively as with a meaty fist.
Cass and Priestly manage to balance the gravitas of George's predicament in Last Holiday with a light and breezy tone that makes this little fable of mortality peculiarly charming. The theme is that man should enjoy his time while he can because he never knows when it could run out, and even if it's too late, George still discovers what can happen when an individual stops accepting his meek and meager existence and reach for something more. With an actor as likable as Guinness, it's easy to believe that so many would take notice of him, and he's also able to give them all a piece of his mind without seeming like a beast or a know-it-all.
The best moments of the movie, especially in terms of acting, are not part of the comedy; rather, they are the handful of times when George can't maintain his brave face. There are multiple quiet scenes where one of those many reminders hit him, and Guinness sits and silently contemplates where he is going. They are subtle moments, and they pass almost imperceptibly, fitting too easily in with the rest of the narrative, which itself is handled with delicate hands. Well, for the most part. There is some broad societal comedy, particularly in relation to the elderly and the female, but that stuff is outweighed by the toned-down, more ordinary actions of the other characters as they bond. Likewise, the ordinary direction never insists itself and only ever enters with pleasant and polite gestures. It's hard to say if such simple workmanship is on purpose or if Henry Cass is merely a director who gets the job done too efficiently for his own good, but as far as Last Holiday is concerned, the level playing field he establishes is exactly what's needed. George remains the star of his own story, nothing else even tries to compete.
Well, that is, up until the ending. Given the nature of the picture, I never really expected Last Holiday to go the way I would have liked. My hope was that it would be a movie where a man, believing time is short, makes a positive impact on a new group of people and then nobly and happily goes to his deathbed content. My expectation was that the positive impact would occur, but that George would get some kind of reprieve, he'd find some way out of the disease.
What we get is neither of those things. Instead, Priestley and Cass have decided that there is not enough irony in George's turnaround, and so they have to take his newfound luck and twist it further. I'm not sure if it's the right ending for Last Holiday or its common man hero. I get that their goal is to show how quickly most people forget, and how as soon as he is absent, George's seize-the-day message is dropped, the rosebuds gathered having sprouted phantom thorns. (Further irony, the only two people who stand by George are the women, the maid and the crook's wife, who jealously coveted George for themselves.) I am just not convinced that's the conclusion Last Holiday needed. It's a good ending, and it basically succeeds at what the filmmakers want to do, but it takes George out of the action in a way that isn't really satisfying. Is it fair to George to give him the new life he thought he could never enjoy, and then pull the rug out? As gods of their invented worlds, writers and directors can be capricious and cruel--not unlike the stuffed shirts they seek to ridicule.
And perhaps that's the biggest irony of all.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Revisiting another old piece of writing, studying another favorite contemporary director.
When Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis came out on DVD in 2003, I reviewed it for the Oni Press newsletter we sent out every week. In keeping with the cheeky nature of the movie, I wrote a straight review, but then I ran it through Babelfish or some other online translator, and sent out the review in Portuguese, with only an English tag on the end:
Steven Soderbergh é quase como o equivalente do filme de um criador dos comics do indie. Escarranchando linha entre far-afield creativo anarchy de independente retrato gosta LIMEY e mainstream glitz como OCEAN'S 11, segura um ou outro lado do arco do retrato de movimento com aplomb igual, a maneira a, deve nós diz, Greg Rucka pode mover-se da RAINHA & do PAÍS e QUERER SABER A MULHER e fazê-la parecer tão effortless quanto pode ser.
Naturalmente, se todo o you'd visto for 1996's SCHIZOPOLIS, o you'd não tem nenhuma maneira de saber isso. Este é Soderbergh's a maioria de película do out-there. Compreendido de três seções que reapproach a mesma história dos pontos diferentes também de lançar view--while para fora dos apartes que critiquing a religião do consumerism e de um precursor à sorte do "extreme" comportamento que typify nossas fatias diferentes atuais dos culture—it's do entertainment do JACKASS arguably de Soderbergh's para possuir a mente. A natureza de It's muito mostra como louco é, portraying masturbating, moldando sua própria esposa como a mulher ele simultaneamente fraudes sobre e tem um caso com, aparentemente salpicando a saliência witless' dialogue com as linhas dos he's das notas começados dos executivos do estúdio do filme. Soderbergh ele mesmo introduz a película, e com o ar de hubris sly, double-edged, di-lo se você don?t o começar, it?s sua própria falha, não his. E em muitas maneir!
as, é direito. Você aren't que vai começar-lhe todos os primeiros it's do time--and sua própria falha se você tentar do sustento do don?t. Porque você deve realmente.
And, of course, when you see it, suddenly this will make sense, too.
I have since misplaced the original text. I might have it on a disc somewhere, but I am too lazy to hunt for it. Instead, I'll just run it through Babelfish again:
Steven Soderbergh is almost as the equivalent of the film of a creator of comics of indie. Sitting astride creativo line between far-afield anarchy of independent picture likes LIMEY and mainstream glitz as OCEAN'S 11, insurance one or another side of the arc of the picture of equal movement with aplomb, the way, must we say, Greg Rucka can move of the QUEEN & of the COUNTRY and FONDNESS TO KNOW the WOMAN and to make it to seem effortless so how much it can be. Of course, if all you'd seen will be 1996 ' s SCHIZOPOLIS, you'd does not have no way to know this. This is Soderbergh's the majority of film of out-there. Understood of three sections that reapproach the same history of the different points also to launch view--while for is of the aside remarks that critiquing the religion of consumerism and of a precursor to the luck of it "it distinguishes" behavior that typify our current different slices of culture-it's of entertainment of the JACKASS arguably of Soderbergh's to possess the mind. The nature of It's very shows as wild it is, portraying masturbating, molding its proper wife as the woman it simultaneously frauds on and has a case with, pparently sprinkling the salience witless' dialogues with the lines of he's of started notes of the executives of the studio of the film. Soderbergh he himself introduces the film, and with the air of hubris sly, double-edged, say it if you don? t starting, it? s its proper imperfection, not his. E in much maneir! , he is right. You aren't that it goes to start all to it first it's of the teams--and its proper imperfection if you to try of the sustenance of don? t. Because you really must.
Wow, you'd think if the internet did the original translation, they'd know how to put it back. No such luck. I am pretty sure "FONDNESS TO KNOW the WOMAN" is actually Wonder Woman, which Greg Rucka was writing at the time, but boy oh boy, talk about getting lost in the translation.
As a goof, though, I still think it fits well with Soderbergh's movie, a scattershot string of improvisations and formalist exercises that the director fashioned into a thought-provoking comedic narrative. A large part of the fabric of Schizopolis is about language as a tool of communication, be it honest or deceitful. The way people talk is warped throughout the movie. There are scenes of a husband and wife speaking in literal phrases of intent, breaking down their words to the meaning beneath the outward expression; multiple segments where an exterminator converses with his sexual conquests using random exclamations, the duos sounding like refugees from spy movies; the male members of a love triangle talk in Japanese and Italian (and later, a third member in French) while the woman between them speaks in English. They all understand each other just fine, and though the viewer's instinct is assume he or she is missing something, everyone watching really understands, too. There's no confusion about what is going down--which is just what Soderbergh was hoping.
These are intellectual pranks in a film full of egghead jokes and self-reflexive stunts. Schizopolis is a freeform experiment in smarty-pants comedy, borrowing its style and structure from Monty Python, the Monkees movie Head, and most obviously, the Beatles movies directed by Richard Lester. I say "most obviously" because Soderbergh--who wrote, directed, shot, starred in, and also composed some of the music this time around--names a character Lester Richards. This character only appears at his own funeral, another switch-up if you consider that Schizopolis is obviously more of a revival of Lester's filmmaking style than a eulogy. (Though, alas, a revival totalling only one film; you could possible count 2002's Full Frontal as a sort of spiritual sibling to Schizopolis, but the tone is radically different.)
Schizopolis was made off the beaten path after the one-time wunderkind had suffered a series of defeats following his much-lauded debut, sex, lies, and videotape. I'll admit, I had all but ditched Soderbergh after The Underneath, a film that I would later come to appreciate, but upon its release in 1995, I dismissed it as cold and self-important, reflective of a growing boredom in mid-90s indies (and perhaps best personified by Hal Hartley, whose films I can't stand). The director returned two years later with Out of Sight, one of the most accomplished pieces of filmmaking in his career, kickstarting a string of incredible pictures that has lasted more than a decade. One could theorize that Schizopolis shows Soderbergh dismantling everything he knew about cinema in order to get back to the kind of solid, classical filmmaking he would soon demonstrate an affinity for. Operating without a script, avoiding stars, chasing his whims. The movie opens with the director addressing his audience, insisting any lack of understanding is on the part of the viewer and not the creator, and urging them to pay the full ticket price over and over until they get it, a naked appeal for money in a film that so obviously rejects commercial concerns.
Throughout, Soderbergh deconstructs scenes the way he deconstructs language when the married couple speaks in intentions rather than accepted terminology. Some of the characters have names that sound like the descriptive credits of minor players at the end of movies, be they direct like Attractive Woman #2 or absurd like Nameless Numberhead Man. Soderbergh even correctly guesses some of the trends that would take over Hollywood, including Scientology (here called "Eventualism") and reality television. The exterminator, named Elmo Oxygen and played by David Jensen, becomes the star of a guerilla filmmaking project where he goes around beating on people and pulling mean-spirited stunts. Another mirror being held up to the movie we are watching?
More self-reflexiveness: Soderbergh plays the husband, Fletcher Munson, and the wife is played by his ex-wife Betsy Brantley; the real-life estranged couple playing a fictional estranged couple. This makes it more than a casual joke when a second Soderbergh character breaks through the illusion to realize he is having an affair with his own spouse. In a way, that's what's really happening. Schizopolis often doubles up on characters and concepts. The workers at Fletcher's office, which happens to be the local headquarters of Eventualism, believe that there is a spy and a mole within the company, despite being words for the same thing. The term "spy" was only introduced becuase someone was trying to explain what a mole was. Soderbergh slyly makes another movie joke and references the Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out
here by suggesting that the spy and the mole actually are one in the same, a dirty trick where the interloper will never be found because he is searching for himself.
Which could also sum up Schizopolis, especially since the transition between the first and second act (clearly numbered by Soderbergh) is a neo-Bunuelian device where Munson discovers his own doppelganger, the dentist Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, also played by Soderbergh; of course, he's the man that's having an affair with his own wife. That realization comes as the identities pass between the copycats, a kind of mind-meld where Munson knows he is Korchek and vice versa, two sides of one split personality. The editing in the sequence where Munson looks through Korchek's window is amazing, a series of cuts moving around Munson in a circle, capturing him at different angles and distances. There are other such realizations of self in Schizopolis, wherein movie montages make fantasy lives visible, Munson and Korchek seeing what their different possible choices would lead to, their potential lives flashing before their (and our) eyes. Adding further to the layers, not only does the director play his own characters, but Munson is also a speech writer for the head of Eventualism, and as he writes the words his boss will say, Munson becomes him, too.
Yes, it's confusing when you lay it out like that, but Schizopolis keeps up a breakneck pace that makes it nearly impossible to pause for reflection. It's a technique Soderbergh borrowed from Richard Lester: if the audience's main concern is just keeping up with you, then they aren't going to get caught up in how absurd everything is. I think if you did, Soderbergh could turn it back on your anyway. Schizopolis is its own moebius strip, a movie about itself by a filmmaker in conversation with himself. On the DVD, quite literally; as it turns out, Soderbergh has recorded a commentary where Soderbergh interviews Soderbergh. He plays the two distinct roles, interviewer and interviewee, asking himself questions and answering them. Granted, the information revealed is often dubious, but that's not the point, is it? Where else do you expect truth? In Eventualism's message of self-actualization? Not likely!
There's a famous quote about how writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Writing about Schizopolis is like that. Or maybe more like making a chef's salad with reel-to-reel tapes. Too many things misconstrued, not enough nutrition to be drawn out of an outdated mode of expression. Sadly, even with the bad translation of my old review, I'm pretty sure I got closer to getting at the essence of this movie the first time, back when I was younger and wasn't trying so hard. I got over my laziness and went looking for the original file, but that line of communication appears to be long gone. I found the back-up disc that I made literally the week before I wrote the review, but no other back-up for the next eighteen months. Clearly, that's just poor planning, a joke on myself but without a punchline.
Oh, and by the way, there ends up being a mole after the fact, but the term was really more of a clue of who they should have all been watching. Rearrange the letters in the name "Elmo." See what I mean?
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Every six months or so when DVD Planet has their biannual sale, I fill in the holes in my Criterion Collection, picking up whatever discs did not make it my way since the last purchase. Just last month I finally got a hold of Chungking Express, directed by my favorite contemporary director, Wong Kar-Wai. I'm surprised I held out so long. I guess since it was my fourth time purchasing it on DVD, the urgency was not there. My intention was to watch it and write a new piece on it, but it occurred to me that I had already written about the film once before. Three years ago, a Korean Region 3 double-pack of this film and Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels was released, I was lucky enough to receive them for review [original publication here], and I wrote the following piece on the films as a pair. I liked the essay well enough that, rather than write a new article, I decided to reprint it here and add some additional thoughts after.
* * * *
Wong Kar-Wai fans will debate endlessly about his films. Not just the strange and elliptical plots, but the meanings of images and even further, how those images are presented on DVD. Most of his work hasn't been given the best treatment in the DVD age, a real crime when you consider the singularly beautiful work he has done with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. So, even though in most cases one has cause to groan when a bogus upgrade edition of a given Hollywood studio picture tries to tempt us into a double dip, when a Wong Kar-Wai movie finally gets done right, it's cause for celebration.
This new Korean twofer combining 1994's Chungking Express and 1995's Fallen Angels is a real boon for Kar-Wai aficionados. Finally, these two movies look the way we've always dreamed they could, and the new packaging is sleek and affordable. Coupling these two films together also makes sense, as they are interconnected in the usual amorphous Wong Kar-Wai way. When he was first shooting Chungking Express, the auteur intended it to have three distinct stories. When the first two grew too long to accommodate a third, the remaining narrative was spun off and put together with some other ideas to make Fallen Angels. Thematically, the two films are simpatico, like lovers who are so well-matched that they finish each other's sentences. Revisiting them back to back was a real treat, I must say.
I would call Chungking Express Kar-Wai's best pop single. While later films were concept albums and symphonies, this one was a summer 45 that you can play over and over, learning every word and only loving it more, much the way Faye Wong's character never stops listening to "California Dreaming" in the film. Its two story lines criss cross at only a couple of points, but they play off each other in fascinating ways. In the first chunk, a man and a woman find love but are unable to connect, while in the second the couple shares a bond before they even know what is happening.
The front of the movie concerns itself with a lovelorn police office, He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers) who is pining for May, a girlfriend who has broken it off with him. Zhiwu dials his voicemail repeatedly in hopes she left him a message and buys a can of her favorite fruit every day hoping to somehow connect with her. Each pineapple can must be dated to expire on May 1, his birthday, a deadline for his heartache to expire, as well. When May doesn't come back to him at the start of the month that bears her name, he eats all the pineapple and then goes out drinking. At the bar, he meets a woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin, The Bride with White Hair). Ironically, the cop's new love interest is a criminal who has lost her drug mules and needs to get out of town before the property's rightful owners catch up to her. Though they both may find tenderness in one another for the night, she will have to be gone by morning.
The second story comes in as the day passes. Zhiwu goes to a food stand to get something to go, and the proprietor suggests he date his cousin, Faye (Faye Wong, 2046). Mistaking her for a boy because of her short hair, Zhiwu passes, but as his narration informs us, it's what was predestined, as Faye is meant for another man. All four main characters in Chungking Express have voiceovers, all of them in the past tense, emphasizing thematically that these are stories that have happened, that like the cans of fruit they have end points, and like many of Wong Kar-Wai's films, Chungking Express turns on the importance of memory.
The man intended for Faye is Cop #663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Infernal Affairs). He was dating a flight attendant (Valerie Chow, To Catch a Thief) who recently chose a different flight plan, and he orders endless cups of black coffee in an effort to stay awake in case her plane lands and brings her back to him. Intrigued by this sad gentleman, Faye takes advantage of an odd opportunity: the flight attendant left #663's spare keys at the food stall. Faye begins sneaking into his apartment, cleaning up after him and altering his life in subtle ways. Eventually, he will begin to notice, and we hope and pray it will be too late for him to resist her.
Chungking Express is a supremely romantic film, and I fell in love with it from the first time I saw it. Faye Wong, in particular, is enchanting. With her pageboy haircut and slim figure, I'd dare compare this debut to Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday. She has that kind of presence onscreen.
By comparison, Fallen Angels is a far more erotic film. If Chungking Express is the pop 45, then Fallen Angels is its B-side. It's a little darker, a little more weird, with Wong Kar-Wai both stretching his legs and thematically summing up his work to that point. Stylistically, there is a marked difference between the two films that you'll notice right away. The camera moves more in Fallen Angels, and it travels faster through the scenery. When it settles, Kar-Wai and Doyle favor extreme and distorted close-ups. They also blanket the movie in more garish colors, laying hot reds and bright greens over scenes. The result is a story that feels far less grounded. Fallen Angels takes place almost exclusively at night, and so it's concerned with the kinds of characters who are active while the rest of us are home resting. Their Hong Kong is more like an Earthly purgatory than a living society. Unsurprisingly, these people are disconnected and operating by habit, waiting for a change.
Kar-Wai connects Fallen Angels to Chungking Express by a couple of well-chosen echoes. The most obvious is the return of Takeshi Kaneshiro as another character named He Zhiwu. Rather than a heartbroken cop, this Zhiwu is a petty criminal. When he was five, he ate a can of pineapple that had passed its sell-by date and the resulting illness left him mute; being unable to talk, he can't run a regular business, so instead he chooses to break into other people's shops after they close and force passersby to sample his wares. By playing at usurping other people's existences, he can put his own on pause.
Another echo is in the female half of an assassin partnership. The unnamed girl, played by Michelle Reis (also in Takashi Miike's City of Lost Souls), is the advance agent for the team, finding the target and investigating the scene. Wearing fluorescent cleaning gloves, she goes through the target's trash to learn about him. Whereas Faye removed #663's rubbish to get closer to him, this girl embraces a man's trash in order to eradicate him. The same hands she uses to sift through garbage are the ones she uses to regularly pleasure herself, the only way available to her for unleashing her desire.
You see, the two killers have never really met. They don't want emotions getting mixed up in what should be a cold, calculated business. Only, it backfires on them and there is still a connection between the duo, whether they like it or not. Trouble comes when Ming (Leon Lai, Leaving Me Loving You), who does the actual killing, decides he has had enough and wants to get out. He attempts to change his habits, and even hooks up with another girl (Karen Mok, So Close), her dyed blonde hair a visual rhyme on Brigitte Lin's wig in Chungking. Such allegiances are fleeting, however, and Ming will inevitably be drawn back to where he belongs.
Zhiwu also attempts a relationship with a girl. Charlie (Charlie Yeung, Seven Swords) is a motor mouth, just like Ming's blonde, and we're never quite sure that the "Blondie" that Charlie is trying to hunt down for stealing her man isn't in fact Karen Mok. She, too, will move on, only returning later in a stewardess outfit, nearly unrecognizable and also not recognizing Zhiwu at all. In voiceover (employed here much like it is in Chungking Express), he refers to her as his first love, which means she is also his first heartbreak. How fitting, then, that she would leave him stranded in the same food stall where Faye and #663 fell for one another.
Forgetting matters of the heart, however, Zhiwu is the only one who is compelled to chase a real connection. He lives with his widower father (Chen Man Lei, In the Mood for Love), and by using a video camera to film the old man, he creates a roundabout mode of communication. He has also found something that all of Wong Kar-Wai's heroes are searching for: a way to preserve memory.
End of Fallen Angels with the Yaz cover song
Though often pushed down to the lower levels of Wong Kar-Wai's canon, Fallen Angels is one of his most visually exciting movies. It is also one of his most lusty, only rivaled by the director's segment in Eros and 2046. Even more important, though, I would posit that Fallen Angels may be Kar-Wai's most hopeful movie. Though some ambiguity remains at the end, the movie leaves the viewer with a sense of elation, buoyed by the doo-wop cover of Yaz's "Only You," a sweet love song. It's quite possible the characters that remain have found their connection at last, and maybe even the route out of purgatory.
* * * *
One of the two Criterion-added features for the Chungking Express disc is a twelve-minute segment from the BBC television series Moving Pictures. Shot in 1996, it was released in anticipation of the British premiere of Fallen Angels and fittingly focuses on both it and Chungking Express. In the piece, Kar-Wai takes us on a tour of Hong Kong to see many of the actual locations used in Chungking, including the store where Brigitte Lin gets in a shoot-out, the Midnight Express food stand, and Tony Leung's apartment, which just so happens to be Christopher Doyle's apartment.
There are two things besides this guided tour that make the program especially revealing for Kar-Wai fans. The first comes from seeing the Kar-Wai/Doyle style aped by people other than the artists that perfected it. In a misguided attempt to spice up the profile, the BBC crew tries to match the film exposure and the neon look of Chungking, and it doesn't work. In fact, it looks especially cheap when placed next to actual clips from the movie. It makes it clear that this aesthetic is not something achieved by accident, but requires careful choices and a clear knowledge of the technology and how to manipulate it.
The second revelation is connected to the first. Over the years, I've encountered several guys who have a chip on their shoulder about Wong Kar-Wai. For whatever reason, they've decided that he's a hack and the real talent is Christopher Doyle. Their theory relied on a hope--to them, a belief--that Kar-Wai would fall on his face without Doyle. When their partnership ended abruptly during 2046, it would be the end of the director's long con, and it would be proved once and for all that Doyle carries all the skill. This is, of course, a groundless assertion, and one that is not proven either by the completed 2046 nor My Blueberry Nights.
It's also not borne out in this BBC piece, where we see the two men together. In one way, they are a study in contrasts. Kar-Wai is a careful speaker, slow in manner, and not just because English is his second language. There is a serene aura around him, and also a reserve, as evinced by his ever-present sunglasses. Doyle, on the other hand, is quick to speak, a joker, and gregarious. As artistic temperaments go, it's no surprise that they end up being complementary, practically being two halves of one whole; likewise, it's not surprising that they would eventually clash. By various counts, their split occurred because Doyle was done with moving at Kar-Wai's speed. The director's meticulous and often contradictory capricious nature was no longer tolerable to the cinematographer.
To listen to them talk, though, it's clear that their working relationship at the time of Fallen Angels is very much in sync. The ideas generally originate from Kar-Wai, and Doyle finds the way to execute them. It's more than one man explaining what he sees, however, and the other figuring out how to make those visions a reality. By the time of this feature, it sounds like they were trading off, experimenting together, sharing one vision. Kar-Wai talks of lenses, Doyle talks of narrative symbolism as represented by shot composition. In a way, it reminds me of the classic comic book model, where the writer and artist are separate. In my own work, I know where my strengths lie, but just because I can't draw doesn't mean I don't have something to contribute to the visuals; likewise, just because the artist didn't generate the script, it doesn't mean she couldn't refashion the story in interesting ways. Neither of us could likely fill in for the other if our compatriot called in sick, we're still essential each to each, but we aren't as far apart as all that, either.
I suppose it's fitting that these two collaborators would eventually split and go their own way, and that time would be a factor. One side was unaware of time, seemingly believing he had as much as he wanted, the other side was too aware of how it could run out. One side was content where he was, the other had to go. Still, why they were together, they shared one way of seeing, and that was important to them, both in terms of how they got stuff done and how that affected the work thematically. Think about how many times a Wong Kar-Wai/Christopher Doyle film hinges on the way people see each other, how many shots there are of one person peering through a particular object to see the other. Like Faye Wong peering through soap-covered glass trying to make Tony Leung come into focus. They are on two separate sides but wish they were on the same. That's the yearning passion of a Wong Kar-Wai movie made simple, and it's what both pulls his characters together and ultimately, more often than not, pushes them apart.
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One day I'd like to do a project where I rewatch all the Wong Kar-Wai films in order and write about them again that way. One day. For now, most of the links in this review go to previous pieces I've done about his movies, so they will have to do for now. One not mentioned: Ashes of Time Redux.
Comics artist Adrian Tomine draws Faye
Sunday, August 16, 2009
When most movies claim to be "a day in the life," they don't really mean it. Or, at least, they don't mean what the phrase implies, that what we will see is an average day. There is usually something out of the ordinary, some kind of catalyst for change. In her 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman gets around this problem by depicting three days in the life: the first day normal, the second day harboring the shift, and the third putting a lid on it. It's an amazing study of one widow's crippling boredom and the humiliation of her day-to-day struggle.
It's the routine that is important to Akerman's portrait. Jeanne, played with a weary realism by Delphine Seyrig, has lived alone with her son Sylvain (Jan Decorte), now in his late teens, for the six years since her husband died. Still in the same apartment in Belgium, still sticking to the regular life of a housewife. Rise early, prepare breakfast, polish her son's shoes, send him to school, do the shopping, enjoy lunch and a coffee, prepare dinner in anticipation of Sylvain returning home, etc. It's the same day-in, day-out, and Jeanne approaches each task with a careful certainty. Perhaps the psychology is best revealed in how she sets out the dinner table, carefully retrieving each piece of dishware from the cupboard, placing them where they need to go. She says nothing, experiences neither joy nor pain, she just moves from one step to the next, fully aware that when the meal is done, she will put everything back, reversing the order, the circle complete.
Sounds normal enough, but I left out an important detail. Each afternoon, Jeanne has a different gentleman caller. They disappear into her bedroom together, spend enough time behind the closed doors for the sun to have changed positions, the once bright apartment having gone dark, and then they emerge, the man pays Jeanne for her services, and he silently leaves. Continuing with the ritual, Jeanne puts the money in a pot on the dinner table, which she will dig into the following morning to give Sylvain some cash for the day. Whether the boy has any inkling of how his mother has been earning their way since his father passed is not known. Perhaps he wonders, perhaps he has an idea, there isn't much communication between them, they are stuck in a routine of their own. Depending on his awareness, though, we can read the one frank conversation between them in a variety of ironic ways. He details how he first learned about sex at the age of 10, and how it seemed to him a violent and frightening act, so much so that he hated his father for it and contrived reasons to sleep with his parents so they could not couple. Jeanne tells him that he need not have worried, a loaded statement that itself could have a variety of interpretations. Perhaps in marriage she accepted no less unctuous a fate than she has accepted now. Maybe it was loveless, and her refusal to remarry--she claims she can't see getting used to another person at her age--is not to honor the deceased, but to avoid another boring non-romance.
This heart to heart is a crucial scene precisely because it is the only time either character opens up. Yet, it does little to bridge the distance between them, just as the viewer can't traverse the distance Akerman and writer Danae Maroulacou has put between their subjects and their viewer. We are mere observers here. Any internalization that appears on screen is not shared, all we have is external. We have the action and the unexplained reaction, and then we have our interpretation. Akerman has cinematographer Babette Mangolte always keep her camera somewhere in the middle distance. There are no close-ups, no emphatic zooms, no elaborate tracking shots following Jeanne from one room to the next. The best we can hope for is to be in a position where the camera can turn and watch her walk away and then wait for her to come back. (The apartment practically becomes an added character, hence the importance of the address in the title; also, note that Jeanne lives on "Commerce Street.")
Akerman favors long takes, letting us see each duty unbroken, the details piling on each other. It's not that each tiny action is important unto itself, but it's the cumulative effect. The director marks the end of each day with a title card. Jeanne going to bed is like punching a time clock at a factory, and then we jump to the next day, punch back in. The tedium of her labors, her lonely toil, these things add up. She and her son barely speak, nor does she exchange any words with her johns. When a neighbor drops her baby off so Jeanne can watch the child while she does her shopping, the woman on the other side of the door, whom we never see, talks Jeanne's ear off, but Jeanne barely responds. Yes, it's all rather boring, and it's meant to be so, so why the hell is it so riveting to watch? (And for more than three hours, no less!) I can only attribute it to the constant movement, that Jeanne is never really still. Even when she sits, Delphine Seyrig is still acting. We may not be privy to what thoughts are going through her head, but we can see that the thoughts are there. The actress gives a methodical performance, but it never appears as such. Delphine Seyrig is Jeanne Dielman. Some will say this movie requires patience, but for me, it passed without me noticing the time at all.
Through this, we come to understand how heavy Jeanne's existence weighs on her, and so it makes sense to us when a small break in the routine sets off a chain reaction the woman can't get out of. When a customer stays too long, Jeanne's potatoes for dinner are overcooked, and she doesn't have enough to make more. So, she has to hurry to the market to buy a new bag and get back in time to peel them and cook them before Sylvain gets home. Otherwise, they can't have the same veal dinner they have every week, each day having its own expected meal. More routine.
This small break from convention is enough, though. The predictability gives Jeanne something more to focus on than what she may be feeling, and when things get unpredictable, the wall crumbles. A simple thing like an empty bag of potatoes suddenly becomes the most important and tragic object in the whole world. It's a heartbreaking scene, Delphine Seyrig sitting alone with a pile of potatoes, fighting back the emotion as she peels them one by one. Jeanne Dielman has come unmoored, and now nothing is going to work as it's supposed to. She can't concentrate on any activity, and she tries to enforce the regular patter with Sylvain even though they are running late. She hasn't even had time to fix her hair, something the clueless son makes mention of. In fact, it's after this that he starts talking about sex as violence. It all keeps Jeanne off balance, and she stays off balance throughout Day 3, as well.
It's amazing to watch the way Akerman and Maroulacou break Jeanne down, and made all the more amazing by how Seyrig executes her performance. Eventually, Jeanne abandons her routine altogether and just sits and stares off into space. She has made two pots of coffee and neither of them taste right to her, she has searched all over the city for a particular button and could not find it, nothing is working. Her denial of her own unhappiness is no longer possible. So, she waits for that afternoon's appointment. Since we've now broken through, Akerman takes us to where we have not been allowed to go before: into the bedroom while Jeanne is working. Up until now, we have been spared witnessing that humiliation, and as a result, I think we've been able to accept it. Like Sylvain, we just don't ask, we only assume Jeanne is fine.
Seeing it now, though, we are witness to how decidedly unerotic the sex is. I guess that towel that we saw Jeanne clean, the one she puts under herself so as not to sully her bedspread, should have been a tip-off, but I don't think anything can quite prepare us for how flaccid even this routine has become. Again, though, we are left with more ambiguity. Stuck under today's hairy beast, who is practically comatose as he goes about his business (at one point I wondered if he had fallen asleep), Jeanne at first looks like she has checked out mentally, but suddenly, she starts to react. She screams and squirms underneath the john. She looks like she is uncomfortable and possibly in pain, but she also looks like maybe she is climaxing. It's another detail that is left up to us. Can she just not take it anymore, and this pig is too lost in his own endeavors to notice? Or has Jeanne's body betrayed her by reacting to his? Either way, something has gone wrong, and this can no longer continue. The sudden action Jeanne takes is shocking, and in so many other movies, would have been a cop-out left-field turn. Yet, all involved with Jeanne Dielman have been so careful in terms of building up to this moment, of chronicling how normalcy turns to chaos, of using the lengthy scenes and the extended running time to push Jeanne from point A to point B to point C, it's a stunningly acceptable move. We get it, we almost applaud it. I'll leave it to others to argue the feminist meaning of Jeanne Dielman; for me, any experience shared with such heartfelt accuracy is more humanist than anything. As one human to another, I empathize.
The final scene of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is another long take, this time of Jeanne sitting alone in the dark, contemplating what she has done. It goes on for several minutes, and Seyrig keeps cycling through this movement where her head lulls around in a hypnotic circle. As it goes around, the emotions on her face change. Acceptance, sadness, a hint of pleasure even? We're still outside, still witness to a breakdown, yet now we're in it, too. Once we stepped through that bedroom door, we became complicit, and now, despite how much we don't know, we feel it all. Somehow Chantal Akerman has transported us into Jeanne's chair, and as the credits come up, we find it's impossible to get up and leave. These three days have changed her, these three hours have changed us.
Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles comes to DVD via the Criterion Collection, and they have worked with Chantal Akerman to create a fantastic looking 1.66:1 image transfer. For a movie with such a limited set, it's fascinating that Akerman has chosen such a wide aspect ratio. She and Babette Mangolte likely did so in order to show us more detail, to let us see a whole room; at first, it feels expansive, but as the movie goes on, as we get to know the apartment more, it starts to feel claustrophobic. The place really is quite small.
Anyway, all of that would be moot if this weren't such a good looking disc. The image is cleaned up nicely, the colors look great, and there is only a hint of haziness in scenes of total darkness, the rest looks exceptional. The image has a little grain, maintaining the look of the original film stock, and I like how that adds to our accepting this as a time capsule of the period in which the film was produced.
The final extra is Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Village), Chantal Akerman's first film. This short, made in 1968 and starring the director when she was eighteen years old, is an antecedent to Jeanne Dielman in terms of its limited style and being a portrait of one woman; it is also the later movie's polar opposite. As Akerman notes in her video introduction, whereas Jeanne Dielman is about maintaining established routines, Saute ma ville is about tearing everything down. The short subject shows its youthfulness, it has an almost punk-rock energy and, while I wouldn't call it nihilism, there is an adolescent sense of tragedy at work here. The film's sole character is seemingly on some manic high, destroying her apartment in preparation for destroying herself. There is a much silly comedic business (Akerman calls it "Chaplinesque") that adds to the violent shock of the last two scenes. Even then, though, Akerman lets the movie fade out with an incongruous audio snippet of herself singing, followed by recited credits, suggesting perhaps a Godard influence coming to the fore.
For a full rundown on the special features, read the full article at DVD Talk.