Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Two Films by Wong Kar-Wai--Fallen Angels (1995) and In the Mood For Love (2000)

Fallen Angels (1995)--4.5/5
In The Mood For Love (2000)--5/5

I read an interesting article by A.O. Scott of the New York Times several months ago about De Palma defenders/detractors. One of his best points, among many, was that it is really De Palma's formal command that excites his fans--his wondrous sequences of purely visual storytelling, where he carries the film without often needing expository dialogue--but to say that De Palma is the only director who can be so purely visual is really to ignore other greats, including Spielberg and Wong Kar-Wai.

My knowledge of Spielberg is enough that I can think that, yeah, okay, Raiders of the Lost Ark has all those playful sequences that are purely visual jokes--such as Indy pulling out his gun to pop off the flamboyant swordsman--but about Hong Kong based Wong Kar-Wai, I knew absolutely nothing.
Four or five months later, after finally hunting down a couple of his films, I can say with confidence that Wong is probably the most exciting director working in East Asia today (though apparently he made an English-language film in the States, which flopped a couple years back, in large part because some aspects of his style were lost in translation--hopefully he's back in China working on something new.) His filmmaking technique seems rather extraordinary and extraordinarily like the working method of Jean-Luc Godard and his disciple Krzystof Kieslowski--Wong improvises with his actors on set with a bare-bones script that he writes during or shortly before filming. Unlike Kieslowski, who can sometimes feel a little contrived, and Godard, who is undeniably great, but can sometimes grate on you when he has some forceful political point to make, Wong Kar-Wai, judging from what I've seen, is naturalistic as hell, even at his most stylized.
Comparisons with Spielberg and De Palma are also apt, on the level of technique, because all three directors are known for their small sequences dispersed across their broader narratives, sequences that wouldn't feel out of place on the silent screen. But somehow Wong's sequences are more ingrained in his overall narrative technique, which is often quite experimental--Spielberg and De Palma are arty pop, but Wong-Kar Wai is pop art.

Fallen Angels is the more immediately exciting of the two films and feels like a 90s equivalent of one of Godard's earlier gangster-themed films like Breathless or Band of Outsiders. In Fallen Angels, two parallel plot lines deal with a hit man who displaces his affection for his business partner by sleeping with a girl he meets at McDonald's, who is Hong Kongian, but has bleached her hair platinum blond, and another with a young man who is mute and breaks into shops after hours and forces people to be waited upon and served by him with his fists to make a living.

There are many gunfight scenes that seem like arty allusions to John Woo and mainstream Hong Kong action cinema--these scenes are basically throwaway compared to the themes of love, longing and loneliness, which are treated in this film and in In the Mood For Love with romantic gravity without being fake or sentimentalized.

My only problem with Fallen Angels, really, is that the style of it is so over the top and overwhelming that sometimes it can be disorienting--a problem that Eisenstein, who was also very styilized, solved with some more normally shot and paced scenes in his otherwise rapidly cut, fast-paced films. It doesn't help that the picture quality of the edition I watched was somewhat poor, making film look like grainy video at times. Perhaps if I see the new Kino DVD my feeling about this film will jump from 4.5 (fucking amazing) to 5 (masterpiece.)

In the Mood For Love, though, is an out and out masterpiece. Five years and two features later, Wong is here considerably toning down his style, though his use of colors and slow motion is quite voluptuous. In the Mood For Love deals with a Shanghaiese couple living in Hong Kong in the early sixties, who find out that their spouses are cheating on them with each other and get together to discuss and sometimes re-enact the conversations that they assume their estranged husband and wife are having. It wasn't really until the second time I watched this, after seeing Fallen Angels and seeing an interview with Wong Kar-Wai on the second disc of the Criterion Edition of this film that I fully appreciated the attention to detail and emotional subtlety of it, which is a far cry from Fallen Angels on a surface level, but actually only serves to reinforce Wong's auteur status, showing him repeating and developing his same thematic concerns, while also demonstrating that he is completely capable of tailoring the style of his films to whatever he needs to tell the story.

Some things to pay attention to and think about when watching In the Mood for Love, an experience that I highly recommend:

1. Think about the placement of the camera, what is shown and not shown. You will notice that either Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung or both are almost in every frame of the film, whereas you never see the faces of their spouses.

2. Notice how spatial relationships are played with in the editing. Often, the editing conveys Tony and Maggie being close together, while your sense of the geography of each scene may prove that they're not... physically.

3. Notice Maggie's costume changes, as you can judge the passing of time by the dress she is wearing, which is often the only indicator.

4. In the interview with Michel Ciment, Wong mentioned a few details which he regretted were probably lost on Western audiences: the food that is eaten in the film, which would be familiar to Chinese, changes with the passage of time in the narrative because certain things are eaten in certain seasons--another time marker; and the characters in the film are exiles to Hong Kong, which was a British Protectorate until 1997, from Shanghai, having fled Mao, and they all speak Mandarin, whereas the Hong Kong natives speak Cantonese. It's interesting to note that too, although these are both considered "dialects" of Chinese, they are not mutually intelligible languages the way British English and American English are mutually intelligible. Thus, this is really a film about members of an ethnic minority within the Cantonese Hong Kong milieu.

All in all, Wong Kar-Wai is a filmmaker worth watching and watching again. Concurrently with my Bunuel project, which I plan to finish before November, I plan to write from time to time now about more films by Wong and forcefully encourage all my friends, film nerds or not, to give him a shot.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Surreal Picture of American Racism, Circa 1960--Bunuel Review #6

4/5 The Young One (1960, available through Lion's Gate in a boxed set with Gran Casino)

A wonderful small film. This is one of two Bunuel films done in English with American actors and it's definitely a worthwhile endeavor. A black man flees a Carolina lynch mob by boat and ends up on a small island game reserve which is run by a racist game warden. Evie is a young girl--about fourteen--who had lived on the island with her grandfather, who never cared to get her baptized or show her any of the "feminine ways," and when he dies, the game warden takes her under his wing, although he obviously desires her.

The film takes a little while to pick up speed, but when it gets going, it's a hell of a time--there are plenty of reversals and rounds fired, even some hand grenades. The warden ends up raping the girl and when a preacher and an even more psychotically racist local show up, the local and the game warden hunt down the Traver, the black man, and hog tie him. The girl cuts him free and the preacher finds out about the rape and uses it against the game warden to stop him from killing Traver, who was falsely accused of rape. There is a bizarre redemption sequence for the game warden and an exciting knife fight between the local and traver, ending with the line "I ain't gonna give them a reason to lynch me white trash!"

Bunuel certainly shows an aptitude for black humor (the African-American kind, but also the other) and culture--you feel that he, in the brutal yet sympathetic tradition of his Las Hurdes and Los Olvidados, is a natural fit for telling the stories of the dispossessed. His characterization of racism in America is psychotic and even surreal (at one point the local, who drops the n-word in about every bit of dialogue he has, says "there are some soft people who think blacks are men. You'd have to be a man for me to hate you") and I honestly can't think of another American film as radically pro-black until Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing was released almost thirty years later.

Yet you don't feel that Bunuel is trying to be didactic here either--he's not a propagandist and he lets Traver be a human being who can admit that when a white lady asked to have sex with him, he just wasn't that attracted to her, because she was old and smelled too much like whiskey and cigarettes. Although the preacher is a sympathetic character, Bunuel makes some little jabs at his pretensions too--when he promises the girl a "Golden Key" and then baptizes her, she yells at him and says that she would have preferred the silver plated revolver the warden promised her.

The only reason I can't wholeheartedly endorse this film is its use of child rape, actually. I know that for Bunuel, it's all just a sick joke--the racist white American turns out to be the real rapist, not the black jazz musician. This is all good and fine--even a little funny--and I'm up for showing this racist guy as a complete hypocrite. The game warden's pseudo-redemption is fine (he makes up with Traver, though the preacher may still turn him in for rape), but what I'm not okay with is showing the girl recovering so easily. Admittedly Bunuel gives the girl some time--she is really upset the day afterward, obviously so--and this is more than someone like De Palma would give a rape victim, but I have to bend over backward to find justification for her being cheerful at the end of the film (is she repressing it?) All in all, it's just a little tiresome to see rape portrayed lightly over and over again in film and literature. Bunuel was definitely ahead of his time here and in 1960 there must have been a lot of shock value in showing something like this at all, but for a modern viewer like me it's kind of a turn-off. Check out Belle de Jour though--Bunuel has made a film about women as dispossessed, in keeping with his other films about oppression, and his empathy there is astounding.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Resnais' "Night and Fog"

5/5 Night and Fog (dir. Alain Resnais, 1954)

Available to watch here.

The best film ever made about the Holocaust is 32 minutes long and makes a partial, fictionalized and hopeful film like Schindler's List seem like something akin to Holocaust denial. Resnais blends found footage and photographs with technicolor tracking shots of the empty camps, shot by the interminable cinematographer Sascha Vierny. There is no diegetic sound, just narration and music. See it, see it, see it--shocking, smart, tragic, educational. Whether or not you have any interest in French New Wave cinema or not, I cannot emphasize this enough--see it! It still feels urgent sixty years later and the urgency has rubbed off on me.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Jean-Luc Godard's Band Of Outsiders--Poet of Boredom?

5/5 Bande A Parte (1964)

I'm taking a little furlough from Bunuel to write about that other favorite of mine: Jean-Luc "Cinema" Godard. I've been recently working my way again through some of his sixties movies concurrently with my Bunuel watchings and rewatchings. Recently, I've seen Alphaville again, Pierrot Le Fou, Masculin-Feminin, Breathless again, and Contempt. But really what I want to write about is Band of Outsiders, which I've watched twice in the last two months after seeing it for the first time about a year ago.

There are some Godard movies that I've instantly liked--Breathless, Pierrot Le Fou, Week End, and La Chinoise (the name of my blog is an attempt at punning with this name, which is itself a pun on the French words for "Chinese" and "foolishness")--and others that have taken awhile to grow on me, especially Alphaville and Band of Outsiders. Band of Outsiders, compared to Godard's works with weightier (sometimes ponderously weightier) subject matter and style, feels like a fluffy, puff-ball of a movie. At least that's how it felt the first time around. And I can't help but feel sometimes that Godard's more political movies, which he made after Pierrot Le Fou (65), up through Week End (67), after which he, by all accounts, went all the way to become a batshit-crazy Maoist "guerrilla" filmmaker, have been the less popular of his productive 60s period because people don't like the questions Godard is exploring and find his politics undesirable (I, on the other hand, have a healthy appreciation of 60s social revolution and tend to really dig these movies.) Band of Outsiders is solidly in the earlier half of Godard's sixties' filmography and thus is more "romantic," as is often the term for the first phase in his work.

What I've realized on repeat watchings of Band of Outsiders, though, is that it really isn't a fluff picture. Sure, this may be Godard at his most playful, but he's still playing with some fairly serious stuff--kids so obsessed with old Jimmy Cagney movies that they decide to commit a real crime and who are borderline unsympathetic characters because of their abject cruelty and stupidity.

I got my girlfriend to watch Band of Outsiders with me last night, and as always, since she's so smart and literate, she inevitably had ideas about the film that were surprisingly perceptive, although she only sort of liked it (I busted her French New Wave cherry awhile back with Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black and The Wild Child, both of which she loved, but this was her first and only (?) Godard movie.)

Some intelligent comments from Anna:
Before watching it, she said, "[Band of Outsiders] sounds interesting--kind of like Crime and Punishment."
And afterwards, her main criticisms: "What did they even do for that whole first half of the film? They didn't do anything!" and, "Arthur was a total dick and I wanted to like Franz, but he was a dick sometimes too. I felt bad, because the guys kept making fun of her, but Odile [Anna Karina's character] really was stupid."

Somehow, it wasn't really until this third viewing with Anna that I really fully (?) understood Band of Outsiders. The first time I perceived it as enjoyable fluff. The second time it was starting to dawn on me that this was really a movie about boredom and media-saturation. The third time, I finally saw that although this film has some of the most poetic/romantic sequences in any film I've ever seen--the English teacher reciting Romeo and Juliet as Arthur passes Odile notes in class, the cafe scene with the "minute of silence" and the dance, Odile singing on the train as Godard segues into montage (my favorite) and the scene of running through the Louvre and beating the record of "Jimmy Johnson of San Francisco"--"romantic" is really an incorrect term for the film, because Godard is obsessed with the same things here that he always is, namely how culture, technology and especially pop-culture (be it 60s pop-Marxism, pop music or old American crime movies) mediates our perception of reality and how we deal with the absolute boredom--I can't think of another way to put it--of being modern and having more time on our hands than maybe ever before in the history of the human race. Shit! Godard is a film artist if ever there was one--these are themes suited to a great novelist or an epic poet, but also, curiously enough, there may not be a better way to express this state of being than by making a film in the characteristically off-the-cuff turned-on style that Godard adopts here. Tarantino may admire Godard, I admit, but he has nothing on him either--although he borrows some characteristically Godard-like themes of media saturation, Tarantino obviously plans out his films as much as Hitchcock ever did, using closely honed scripts and a lot of storyboarding, though his latest film Inglorious Basterds evidences a little more (and enjoyable) improvisation.

I recently remarked to a friend that I felt like Godard had no real descendants besides the music video (Odile's singing scene here seems like a precursor) and reality television (i.e. interviews and confessions straight to a camera in an essentially unplanned way.) I guess I can see throughout film since the late 60s, though, some of his jump cuts and, especially since the 90s, some of his jittery post-modernism, carried out in America by Tarantino, the Coen brothers, etc. But nobody, except maybe Altman, who for some reason I can't really get into, has been as wholly off-the-cuff and improvisational as Godard--this, to me, is the most important possibility that he revealed in cinema. Despite their obvious stylistic differences, maybe it's really Kiarostami who most makes films like Godard used to--his films feel similarly unscripted and similarly post-modern (especially in Close-Up.) As Jonathan Rosenbaum has remarked more than once, Kiarostami's rural explorations of Iran in the 90s and 2000s, which are invariably poetic and strangely modern, having relevance far beyond the Islamic Republic, may have an analogous relation to Godard's 60s movies, which often feel like chunks of 60s urban modernity, not merely taking this as their subject.

In any case, Band of Outsiders is a great film. The kids seem to commit the crime out of boredom. They're horrible and hilariously witty at the same time. Godard's inventiveness here is intimidating--something interesting is happening in every sequence, and as with me, you may not pick everything up on the first viewing. As always, his sense of shot composition is awe-inspiring--you could watch this film, as I talked about in my article about art films and Lynch's Inland Empire, just for the shot composition alone and have a hell-of-an-enjoyable time. Watch it, rewatch it, dig his experimental use of sound, dig the love triangle, dig the comment on modernity, dig the silly gangster plot, just watch it!