Saturday, May 22, 2021


Illegal acts of human cruelty.

That’s the reason the local sheriff gives when he shuts the carnival sideshow down. He’s specifically acting on a tip that the carnival has a “geek,” a human who will bite the head off a live chicken or eat whatever filth is tossed his way. But the cop might as well be talking about everyone in the troupe, and all the things they do to each other. And wait until hear hears about what happens when that kind of energy is sent out into the real world. 

Nightmare Alley is a story of double-crosses fueled by petty jealousy, and the price of ambition when funded by emotional pain. Tyrone Power stars in this freaky noir as Stanton Carlisle, a hustler who picks up tricks for the sideshow mentalist Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic partner Pete Krumbein (Ian Keith). After an accident involving moonshine and some potential jail time threatened by that same local sheriff, Stan reveals who he is to everyone in ways both intentional and unintended. He ends up being forced into a marriage with Molly (Coleen Gray), the carnival ingenue, but not before they have both learned Zeena and Pete’s system. It’s enough to break out of the rural confidence racket and go legit in big city nightclubs doing the blindfold act, where Molly tips Stan off using a verbal code so he can make the audience think he’s reading their minds.

I love the names in this movie. Stanton Carlisle just sounds like the name of a crook trying to be fancy. And then there’s Krumbein. Anyone else hear Nelson Muntz getting upset that Marge Simpson called him a “Crumbum”? And we haven’t even met Lilith yet, the psychoanalyst played by Helen Walker that inspires Stan to expand his racket to more personal cons involving seances and spiritualism. What his encounter with the confident professional ultimately shows him is that everyone is on the take. Shakedown artists work in fancy offices, too. And Liliths have a reputation for a reason.

Released in 1947, Nightmare Alley held a strange reputation for a while. Edmund Goulding’s film was one of those lost classics that one could read about in books but never find on video shelves. It was infamous for its bleak outlook, especially its shocking ending. Amongst film noir scholars, it was considered particularly weird, the rare noir that wasn’t all bullets and concrete, but just as cynical in the way it trades on mental games and “the other side.” When I finally saw Nightmare Alley, it was via a bootleg at my local arty video store. They had a copy someone had taped off of AMC. Same story with Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole [review]. True cult favorites left to languish even as their status amongst cineastes grew.

Even watching it via a faded and low-resolution tape, the genius of Nightmare Alley was not lost on me. Tyrone Power grafts steely determinism onto a fragile ego, inventing an incredible noir anti-hero, a fast thinker whose brain also had whatever the mental equivalent to a glass jaw might be. One hit, and he shatters. The actor is electric onscreen, possibly never better. Perhaps a veteran actor like Power understood too well the veil between performance and reality, how Stan was much better at reading other people’s cards rather than his own.

Cards are important in Nightmare Alley. Not just the ones that Stan and Molly use in their act, where diners write down the questions that open them to Stan’s fleecing, but tarot carts. Zeena does two readings in the movie, and each predicts the downfall of a man in her life. Being a noir, neither should be a spoiler, but I’ll let you guess. Just yesterday I watched Blondell as a side player to Barbara Stanwyck in Archie Mayo’s pre-code marriage drama Illicit, and despite there being fifteen years between the two movies, she was probably even more vibrant in this one than in the earlier role. Blondell makes Zeena a formidable woman, remorseful for her past sins, but unafraid of challenging Stan when he wrongs her. She steals the show from both the other actresses, who don’t quite have the chops she does. Then again, maybe Goulding and writer Jules Furthman are doing it on purpose, reducing the women that Stan ostensibly betrays Zeena for, by making Molly a nervous sap and Lilith calculated and unemotional. (Side note: Criterion includes tarot cards representing the main characters in their new edition, which also boasts a transfer that isn’t just light years ahead of the bootleg I rented once upon a time but also the Fox DVD from the ’00s.)

I make no secret of Nightmare Alley’s influence on my Archer Coe book series. There are nods to it in various names used in the comics, just as there is a major tip of the hat to Orson Welles. When wanting to find a way to do a private detective comic that wasn’t your standard riff on Chandler, Cain, or Hammett, it came to mind to make the character a stage hypnotist instead, someone whom people in trouble might ask into their lives and share their intimate secrets with in order to get help. Of course, the big difference is that Archer Coe is a former bad man trying to make good, and Stanton Carlisle is just plain bad. 

Should I let the man’s soul be lost forever, or should I stake my own to save it?

The change of routine and setting is freeing. Nightmare Alley doesn’t fall back on typical noir tricks. There is no gunplay or bag of money (though there is an envelope). The traditional hand of fate in most noir is now tied to mysticism, karma, and according to Molly, Stan is also tempting the hand of God. The charlatan’s problem is he wants to be a denier, but deep down he’s a believer. The hubris that will bring on the Godsmack is in trying to kid himself and Molly that there’s something good in his thieving, that he’s helping the people he harms. We know he knows it’s a trick, but he also knows the consequences of messing around with people’s memories of their lost loved ones, and like the criminal who pulls the heist even after one of the crew falls off, he chooses to ignore it.

Reassessing that in noir terms and examining how Lilith dresses him down in the final act, Stan is your typical genre screw-up but ultimately victim of memory. In this case, the memories he exploits causes the past he’s tried to disregard to catch up with him. The tuxedoed high society performer is exposed as a carnie in a wife beater. Maybe if he had taken the time to get an answer to some of his earlier questions regarding how a man could drop so low, Stan would have been wiser. It’s that damn hubris again. It was never going to happen to him. 

One final sidenote, in addition to the fine package Criterion has put together with the old show poster design, interviews, and porting over Fox’s critical commentary, they also commissioned a new essay from the incomparable Kim Morgan. It’s no coincidence that Kim is also the co-writer of the upcoming remake of Nightmare Alley with director Guillermo Del Toro. Just take a look at the cast – Bradley Cooper as Stanton, Cate Blanchett as Lilith, Toni Collette as Zeena – and this new version has a chance to be something. Look for Nightmare Alley later this year!

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021


This review originally written for in 2007.

I remember seeing the trailer for Paul Mazursky's Tempest when I was ten years old and thinking it looked like a really weird movie. It was clearly too adult for me, and it showed me things from the grown-up world that I didn't understand. It made some kind of impression on me, however, because I've never forgotten it. It was always one of those films I meant to look up, and actually did a while back when I discovered the movies of John Cassavetes. All I knew was that he and Gena Rowlands were in it and that it must have some kind of relationship to Shakespeare, but I'll be damned if I could find the video anywhere.

Well, it's only taken me twenty-five years, but I've finally seen Tempest. I've finally been able to take a gander at what that trailer was all about...

...and I'm still perplexed.

Cassavetes plays Phillip Dimitrius, a world-famous architect in the middle of a mid-life crisis. When we are introduced to him, he is waking up on an unnamed Greek island where he lives with a dog, a girlfriend (a very young Susan Sarandon), his daughter (an even younger Molly Ringwald in her first film role), and the crazy goat herder Kalibanos (Raul Julia). They have been living alone in Phil's idea of paradise for a year now, eating feta cheese and building an outdoor theater for reasons that never really get explained. It may not matter, as it's been long enough that they've all got a little bit of Island Fever. Don't be surprised if someone breaks into a song and dance number. They've got no entertainment, nothing to do. Kalibanos even dances with his goats.

Through a series of well-structured flashbacks, we see Phil's life as it stood eighteen months prior. He's in business with a gangster (Vittorio Gassman), and together they're building a casino. It's a hollow endeavor for a once proud, creative man. Phil can't take it anymore. Only, just as he wants to get out, his wife Antonia (Rowlands) wants to go back into acting. He wants to break free, but she's looking to stay put. They've reached an impasse.

Then one day Phil sees Antonia making woo with the gangster, and suddenly things are far more clear-cut. He and his daughter, Miranda, head to Greece for a little summer vacation, and that's where they meet Aretha (Sarandon), a free-spirited singer who is working her way back to New York. When the summer ends, rather than send Miranda back home to her mother, the three of them--along with Aretha's dog, Nino--agree to go into hiding instead, finding their out-of-the-way island and the freaky shepherd who lives there. Time passes, and paradise has started to lose its charm a little. Only, Phil seems to be waiting for something. He talks of recurring dreams and apparently has a plan for the future, but he has yet to tell anyone else what it is.

It's always a treat to watch John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands act together. In the independent movies they made together in the '60s and '70s, the husband and wife team developed a naturalistic acting style that delivered on all the promises of method acting and the Strasberg method. John directed more than he acted in those days, and so it's wonderful to see him take over the screen. He's a master with a subtle gesture, and he uses a distracted demeanor to bring a sense of vitality to Phil. Though he's very much in the scene, he often looks like his mind is elsewhere. He's walking and talking in the moment, but always dreaming of the future. Whether he and Gena are cooing at one another or having a heavy argument, they make every line seem spontaneous, like Mazursky snuck up to them in their home and secretly filmed what was really going on. If it's true that real-life lovers have no chemistry on screen, this pair is the exception that proves the rule.

Also fun to watch is Raul Julia, who may have been the perfect actor for Mazursky. The director has a pretty active cornball streak, and Julia is one of the best hams there ever was. Kalibanos is an outlandish character. He's lecherous and greedy and not very bright, more pitiable than sympathetic. Yet, Raul Julia is so likable, you adore him even when he plays unlikable.

So, what's my problem with Tempest? Well, it spends about two-hours building up to whatever Phil is planning for his island hideaway, and when his visions finally come to life, the remaining twenty minutes of the movie play more like a shortcut to the closing credits rather than a legitimate resolution.

Mazursky, along with Leon Capetanos, wrote a smart and complicated script that establishes a strong cast of characters and builds an intriguing scenario for them to inhabit, only to toss all that out and go for an easy wrap-up. Eventually, everything that Phil is running away from is going to catch up with him. That's inevitable. Rather than have it be a matter of convenience or lucky coincidence, Mazursky indulges in a little magical realism, suggesting that Phil somehow willed all of this, just as he also brings a storm to life in order to shipwreck everyone on his private chunk of rock. All of that plays fine, even hearkening back to the Shakespeare inspiration. If Phil is to be Prospero, then he is a wizard, after all.

Except now that everyone is gathered together, Mazursky stops short of confronting any of the issues. Though Phil greets the people he left behind with malice, all that anger and hatred melts away and everyone becomes friends again. Okay, maybe it's still magic at work, but nothing really communicates that. No one even acknowledges the quick change. Everyone accepts it as if it's absolutely normal, and that's that.

Except after such a lengthy build-up, after gathering so many dark clouds and priming us for a real storm of emotion, for Tempest to just drizzle out like that, it's not very satisfying. Back in 1982, at all of ten years old, my impression of the movie was an accurate one. This is a grown-up film that wrestles with issues that only make sense with age, but rather than deal with these issues in a real adult way, Paul Mazursky ducks out of the responsibility. Instead, he goes for a crowd-pleasing ending full of laughs and those cornball jokes he can't resist, and he lets the wind out of his own sails. There's a lot of huffing and puffing, but when Tempest is revealed as a house of straw, its coming down is more sad than impressive.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

TRANCES - #689

I watch a lot of concert films and music documentaries and found over the years, it doesn’t matter the band or genre, if the story is compelling and the filmmaking quality, I can get into it. 

This hypothesis holds true with the 1981 film Trances, a record of the Moroccan band Nass El Ghiwane from director Ahmed El Maanouni. Nass El Ghiwane is a quartet that draws on a variety of influences, including Western instrumentation, but with their roots in local trance music. Their songs have more drone than melody, and their poetic lyrics and updated arrangements of classic Moroccan songs draw on homegrown legends and history, with a focus on the political and the spiritual. 

That’s a pretty wild bouillabaisse on paper, for sure, but it’s not so hard to grasp once you see and hear the band work--which is right from the jump. Trances does what the best music documentaries do and puts the band out front. At least half of Maanouni’s edit is performance, giving the unfamiliar a true sense of what Nass El Ghiwane are like while also showing how they affect audiences. True fans are also likely to be pleased, as the camera captures the group at their peak.

While the music itself is plenty easy to understand, Maanouni expands his lens to capture the conditions of their home country and also a bit of their day to day. Nass El Ghiwane have many of the same concerns as any subject of a VH-1 “Behind the Music,” including creative vision, audience reception, and money. They also have familiar personnel dynamics, particularly between two of its founding members, Larbi Batma and Omar Sayed. The former is earnest, passionate, and caught up in creative impulses, and the latter is always there to poke a sardonic hole in whatever he is saying. More than one scene shows Larbi storming off after Omar refuses to take him seriously, followed by Omar laughing and telling his bandmates a story that illustrates why he is giving Larbi a hard time. It’s like watching Jason Lee drive Billy Crudup off his rocker in Almost Famous.

At the same time, Larbi’s seriousness is given its due. Nass El Ghiwane’s lyrics cover themes of oppression and struggle, while the transcendent nature of the music gives the audience a form of release. In Western terms, it allows them to rock out, though in the actual context of the music, the trance the songs inspire are more akin to the kind of letting go one gets from electronic dance music or gospel. 

Regardless of how you interpret it, though, the experience will be familiar to anyone who has gone to a concert and just let go. Again, that is the beauty of Trances, it tells a relatable story via a universal language. 

This movie is also available as part of the first set from Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project.

Note: This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


This review was originally written for the DVD release of the film in 2009.

Every once in a while, a movie drops out of the great film library in the sky and lands in my lap and I find myself at a loss for an explanation of why I haven't heard of it before. I consider myself reasonably well informed, and don't get me wrong, delight in stumbling upon such a surprise, but if I assume that my lack of knowledge reflects the movie's general reputation, then I can't help but think it's terribly unfair, especially given how much dreck survives at many another good movie's expense. The new "Universal Backlot Series" appears designed to rescue just such a movie from the dustbin of obscurity, the line's own mission statement claiming it to be "an ongoing collection of rare gems, overlooked groundbreaking work and films of historical and cultural importance." With its first couple of titles just coming to DVD, at least one of them--the 1962 Kirk Douglas vehicle Lonely are the Brave--is proof positive that whoever came up with this marketing concept is a man (or woman) of his (or her) word.

Lonely are the Brave is, for lack of a better descriptive, a modern-day western. Based on a book by Edward Abbey, it tells the story of Jack Burns (Douglas), a lone wolf with a roaming spirit. To Jack, "Don't Fence Me In" isn't just a song, it's a code of conduct. At the start of the picture, he rides his horse Whiskey through New Mexico, cutting through any wire that might block his path, crossing a busy highway on the way to where he's got to go. He's heard that his best buddy Paul (Michael Kane) has gotten himself into trouble, and he wants to see what he can do to help his pal out. Apparently Paul has been locked up for giving illegal Mexican immigrants shelter while they get on their feet in their new country. It's not that Paul has any political beliefs on the matter, it's the right thing to do. People should help other people.

The "right thing to do" is of the utmost importance, and though Jack jokingly phrases it as more "Do What You Want" (he says that's the name of Paul's mistress), it seems obvious that what he's really talking about is not a libertine approach to having his way, but a common sense idea. He represents an older way of doing things. As a cowboy, he still believes in the frontier, of a man getting by on his wits and what he can carry on his back. To him, modern life is about fences, about more than just the punitive prisons, but about regulating everything to death. Though arguably a virtue in a lot of ways, this existential stance also has its downside. By sticking to his guns, Paul is leaving his wife, Jerry (a very young Gena Rowlands in only her second film), and their child to fend for themselves. Likewise, we get the very clear sense that Jack and Jerry might have been the ones who were really in love, but even the idea of a house and family was too much for Jack. He's that scared of being tied down. Jerry rightly sees this as a refusal to grow up, a stubborn contrariness. As with any such decision, it's about what price the individual is willing to pay to stand by his beliefs.

Turns out that Paul has found out how high he's willing to go. Jack's plan is to get himself in a bar fight--against a one-armed man, no less, and he's played by Bill Raisch, David Janssen's quarry in "The Fugitive" series--and get arrested so he can join Paul in the pokey and the two of them can bust out. Paul doesn't want to add five more years to the two he's already got, so he refuses to go. Jack is not to be deterred, and if he must go it on his own, he will. This shifts Lonely are the Brave into its second gear, with the rest of the movie following Jack and Whiskey across the open wilderness, the police in hot pursuit. If the man and horse can just get over the mountains, they'll be home free. Leading the pursuit is the sardonically weary Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Matthau), a fellow who seems to be as individualistic as Jack, even if his job is to enforce the rules. It's a subtle characterization, and Matthau's performance is a devilish hoot. Look at it a certain way, and the rest of the cops, who are quite close to the edge of "bumbling," show what happens when a man has too much order, too strong a system, propping him up and keeping him from having to try as hard. Sheriff Johnson is the one guy on the ball, the one who uses the law as a tool but not as a crutch. Alternately, George Kennedy's sadistic prison guard games the system, hiding behind it as he pursues his own agenda. Modernity can be our best friend or our worst enemy. Likewise, technology fails when used as a blunt instrument. Johnson's jeep can't follow Jack all the way up the mountain, and the helicopter they bring in fails to capture the man. To go where Jack is going, even if just in pursuit, requires a different ingenuity.

The screenplay for Lonely are the Brave was written by Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood 10, a collection of writers who were blacklisted in the 1950s when Joseph McCarthy trampled all over the rights of the citizenry. (Don't get me started on the revisionist history that tries to reclaim Tail-Gunner Joe as a hero. Just because he was right and there were some spies in government doesn't excuse everything else; it's like letting Ted Bundy off the hook because it turned out one of his victims was a shoplifter.) Trumbo did jail time and found himself unable to get work under his own name, penning movies like The Brave One under various names. He was a friend of Kirk Douglas, who hired him to adapt Edward Abbey's novel and had already insisted that Trumbo get proper credit on Spartacus. It's just the kind of courageous act Douglas' character would do for a buddy in the movie, and it's also not a stretch to see where Trumbo's own experiences informed how he put this script together. Jerry means well, but her insistence to go with the way things are is detrimental to what Jack and Paul see as human decency; the government is full of thugs and idiots; a man is expected to conform, and if he doesn't, he is persecuted--all of these plot points parallel Trumbo's own experience. Yet, the writer resists any urge to proselytize, his skill lies in letting the story tell itself. The greater meaning is the blood that pumps through it, but just like the blood that keeps us all up and walking around, you never see it, you just know it's working.

There are many great touches throughout Lonely are the Brave. The relationship between Jack and Jerry, and particularly the performances of Douglas and Rowlands, is touching and full of deep, unexpressed emotion. The ethnic make-up of the town, and Jack's place in it, is progressive while still being honest--Jack may call the Mexicans "amigo" to their faces, but that doesn't mean he doesn't also call them "wetbacks" in private, nor does that make his friendliness and acceptance toward them any less genuine. The staging of the barroom fight is fantastic, and the verbal exchange leading up to it as hilarious as it is ultimately menacing. The staging of all the scenes is expertly handled. David Miller's best-known movie is probably Sudden Fear [review] with Joan Crawford, and that tense thriller shows a talent for establishing mood and a facile approach to mis-en-scene. Here the director is just at good portraying the man on the run, working with real environments, which in turn were photographed beautifully by Philip Lathrop (The Pink Panther, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?). The whole film has a naturalism that can look quite dangerous in some of the mountain scenes. The tumbling rocks lead one way, the open sky draws Jack toward the other, and both are very real.

I have to admit, though, the best stuff in Lonely are the Brave comes in the scenes when Jack is alone with his horse. Even Kirk Douglas is willing to admit that Whiskey upstaged him. I've always liked movies that had men alone with their pets. Jack keeps up a running dialogue with Whiskey that blurs the line between performance and authenticity. Is that really Kirk Douglas negotiating with a stubborn horse? Is the real-life Whiskey that good of an actor?

Lonely are the Brave isn't a perfect film, but it's damn close to it. If I could go in with scissors and snip out one element, it would be to cut down the scenes that take us away from Jack and over to Carroll O'Connor as a truck driver racing against a deadline to get a shipment of toilets delivered. Trumbo and Miller set up this plot element fairly early, and though they only cut to it a couple of times, its purpose is obvious and telegraphs the bitterly ironic ending of the film a little too early. The picture's finish is still effective, but the tragic turn would have even more impact if the filmmakers had more faith in the truth of the scene and didn't feel they had to resort to such a standard screenwriting set-up. In a film about not following the rules, it's the one time the writing succumbs to them.

It's such a minor complaint, though, it almost seems pointless to bring it up. I feel like I'm staring at a beautiful sunset and complaining because one cloud is shaped like a skunk instead of a bunny. Shouldn't there be room for all of God's creatures in a golden sky? Those final shots of a silent Douglas are powerful and the way Miller takes us out of the story and sends us on our way is visually poetic. It's one of those endings where you have to take a breath when "The End" comes up on the screen, because your heart has been in your throat for the last couple of minutes and it's been cutting off the oxygen. The story really couldn't have gone any other way, and how much small triumph is to be found in it is up to the individual.

Seriously, how did I go without having seen this movie for so long? Lonely will be the cinephile who has not seen Lonely are the Brave. This DVD is truly an unearthed treasure. Send it straight to the top of your "get" list.

Saturday, May 8, 2021


This review was originally written for in 2013.

Most of the time these days, when a filmmaker makes a documentary about self-discovery or digging into their own life and history, the style is to shoot a lot of personal confessionals while staring into the camera, as if every utterance he or she has is golden. These films (Tarnation [review], Catfish, to name a dubious two) end up as more diary than journalism, and a lot less insightful or revelatory than the subject assumes. Hey, there's a reason we don't feel bad when fictional characters with similar self-involved love affairs and a camera in "found footage" horror movies meet their ends.

Thank goodness, then, that Sarah Polley doesn't resort to such navel gazing in her examination of her own family's secret past, Stories We Tell. Rather than using herself as a focal point to uncover hidden truths she was not previously aware of, she goes to the people who were there and actually might know what occurred: her father, her siblings, and friends and colleagues who knew and worked with her late mother, Diane Polley. The information Sarah is seeking involves Diane, who passed away in 1990 when her daughter was 11, leaving behind questions of her youngest offspring's true parentage. Was Sarah Polley's biological father Michael Polley, the man who raised her, or was it someone Diane had an affair with while acting in a play out of town?

Though Sarah knew the answer to that question before she started making Stories We Tell, she still withholds it for much of the film, choosing instead to let the mystery play out. She begins each interview by telling the participant to start at the beginning and relate what they know as if she were hearing it for the first time. Sarah's intention is to find the many facets of the truth, all the contradictions and faulty memories and misconceptions that allowed Diane Polley to bury her own narrative, and by doing so, making Stories We Tell not just a tale about a mother or a daughter or even the clandestine love affair. Each individual account is treated as truth, and the finished documentary is about a group of people and how they relate to each other and how their shared experience informs who they all are separately and as a unit. Interestingly, only one person objects, seeking to wrest control from the director and insist the rights to the past are his exclusively. This declaration says a lot about how he feels and the effects the years of secrecy had on him; perhaps equally telling is the choice to end his participation there. The director is in control after all!

Sarah Polley has spent most of her life on film sets. She is known to many as the star of The Sweet Hereafter and Go, but she's also an acclaimed director, having debuted behind the camera with Away From Her in 2006. Her skills as a performer and scenarist yield many rewards in Stories We Tell, as she wrangles the disparate pieces of this fractured story to manufacture some kind of whole. Stories We Tell combines interview footage with her father's memoir (which he reads) and both legitimate home movies and convincing recreations of the same. The revelation that the latter segments are not all "legit" or "true"--and come on, how did you think there was so much convenient coverage of so many crucial moments?--further breaks down the author's thesis. Is the truth in the telling or in what is told? Are the facts more important than our expression of them? The results of the experiment seem to suggest that the real benefit of sharing stories is not what they reveal about events, but what they reveal about the teller and, in turn, the listener. In other words, it's the journey, not the destination--even if we kind of get the best of both worlds with Stories We Tell. Sarah Polley's destination turned out to be an excellent, enlightening motion picture.

Sunday, May 2, 2021


This review originally written as part of a full piece on the anthology movie Eros for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog in 2005.

Anthology films have never caught on. Like comic books, the audience always seems leery of the shorter structure and fearful of the mixed-bag mentality. Still, every once in a while someone tries.

The most recent is Eros, a three-part film about love directed by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and Michelangelo Anontioni--all three style heavyweights, all three favorites of mine.

Wong's "The Hand" leads the pack. Some things I had read suggested that Gong Li's character in this is the same as in 2046 [review], but that doesn't appear to be true at first. The self-assured, successful gambler in 2046 bears only a superficial resemblance to the neurotic call girl breaking down in "The Hand." Then again, it may be that she becomes the character we meet in the other film at the end of "The Hand," when all we are told is she's finally getting a shot at success. It could also explain the glove fetish in 2046, and her refusal to divulge her maybe they are the same after all. [2021 note: I clearly misread the ending on this viewing, as watching the extended cut on The World of Wong Kar Wai it was clear to me this time Chen Chang's character was lying. Not sure if it's just missing the point 16 years ago, a product of the original cut, or a fault of the Hong Kong translation.] 

In many Wong Kar-Wai films, people are wanting to connect and can't. Usually social mores are standing in their way, and things they intend to say go unsaid, leaving them woefully separate. In "The Hand," much of the same divisions exist between the hooker, Ms Hua, and her faithful tailor, Zhang (a barely recognizable Chen Chang, whose look here echoes Tony Leung's in 2046). Even when they do reveal their feelings, they can't go all the way: their confessions are played off with a laugh. Yet, in their first meeting, a bond is formed, and a way for them to have a connection. The "human touch" becomes more than greeting-card metaphor, it becomes a real thing. In the first meeting, Ms Hua uses her hand on Zhang, telling him he must know a woman's touch to make truly beautiful women's clothes. She becomes his muse and the great love of his life. Something passes between them every time he measures her for a new outfit. He becomes her protector, be it from eviction or the onslaught of age (oh, the subtle lies of the man with the measuring tape!). Even when they finally kiss, illness prevents it from actually being on the lips--Ms Hua's hand remains the focus of their desire.



This review originally written for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog in 2004.

If I could be Wong Kar-Wai, I would be. I would take that opportunity if it came. There are few people I respect so much in the world today, who follow their crazy ideas and somehow manage to make it work, despite all odds. He works his camera the way a novelist works with words, changing and diverging and revising. Most filmmakers can't afford to toss film away, but Kar-Wai will make three or four films on his way to the one he lets you see.

It goes without saying that as soon as his newest film, 2046, showed up on eBay, I was all over it. The discs came out in China within a week of the film opening, an attempt to combat rampant bootlegging over there. It turns out patience would have been a virtue. This was a Face release, and they are known for having their logo pop up at regular intervals (this time, unlike their more subdued product placement on their extended Hero DVD, showing up in three separate pieces coming from three separate corners), and since it is the mainland version, Cantonese speaking characters, including Tony Leung's Chow Mo Wan, were dubbed into Mandarin. But those are small prices to pay to see the movie I was looking forward to more than any other this year.

Thank goodness I wasn't disappointed! I am drunk with the love I have for 2046. As a narrative, it is a chapter in an ongoing project that now encompasses Days of Being Wild and In The Mood For Love [review]. It finds Chow after the failed affair of In The Mood. He has turned himself into a callous womanizer, escaping from his personal pain in the science fiction he now writes. As we watch him stumble through several relationships, we also get a glimpse of the literary world he is creating. In the future, there is a place called 2046. People take a train there to retrieve their lost memories, but no one knows quite how it works since no traveler has ever returned. 2046 also happens to be the number of the room in the hotel next to his, which is the room where he and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) would retire to in In the Mood to have their faux affair and write their martial arts serials. As a further nuance, it's the last year Hong Kong rules itself.

Kar-Wai has always been obsessed with time and how it weighs on people. In 2046, he creates three timelines: the late '60s world of Chow Mo Wan, the future world of his fiction (a fiction within a fiction), and the present world of the viewer. The third element is important, since Kar-Wai always demands a certain level of involvement of his audience. You can't be a passive viewer, you have to get completely inside the narrative and puzzle it out. Though 2046's lines are more clearly delineated than Kar-Wai's more ponderous efforts, it still shifts subtly. If you aren't giving it your full attention, you will rejoin the film in a completely different place than where you left it.

The other pervasive theme in all of Kar-Wai's films is the transience of human connections and the pain that comes from missed opportunities at love. Circumstance gets in the way far too often. In 2046, Chow engages in three significant relationships: the call girl played by Zhang Ziyi, the hotel owner's daughter played by Faye Wong, and the mysterious gambler played by Gong Li. Each encounter dissolves because the lovers can never get on the same page with one another. When Chow is loved, he plays the cad; when he is in love, he loses; when both participants are in love, it can never be thanks to ghosts from the past. They move in and out of one another's lives with a poetic sense of tragedy, and Kar-Wai's editing creates a melody of heartbreak. In much the way a novelist can create a symphony of emotion with words, Kar-Wai's camera delivers an impact beyond the action and dialogue.

The image that still resonates the most with me is when Faye Wong's character Wang Jing Wen asks Chow to rewrite his story with a happy ending for her. He sits down at his desk and days pass, his fountain pen poised above the paper like a needle waiting to come down on a record, and he can't write a line. He doesn't know how to write his way to happiness.