November 2021 Capsules

Shanghai Express
It’s so crucial here that none of von Sternberg’s characters fundamentally change, perhaps not even Dietrich. Despite their harrowing journey, they are either too enmeshed in China (Wong and her quiet patriotism) or too set apart from it by their foreign mindsets to be truly shaken. What matters here, and what von Sternberg so vividly conveys in his structure, which treats the entire upheaval of a vicious power struggle, is how events shed new lights on preexisting perspectives. Carmichael, previously the butt of most every joke, emerges as a guiding light, a conduit towards a deeper understanding. And it is with a great, unexpected tenderness that Dietrich rises to receive it, while keeping her luminescence intact.

The Souvenir: Part II
Aside from its clear purpose as an elaboration of an artist’s vision liberated from the strictures of a threadbare film school student’s budget and limited sets, the climax’s imagined short film acts as a synecdoche for Hogg’s larger vision. The Souvenir: Part II itself cycles through styles, throwing in privileged moment after moment, with the metafilm conceit helping the viewer to cast a different glance on each successive shot: is this Julie’s film? Garance’s? Patrick’s? Of course, it’s all Hogg’s film in the end, but there’s a productive tension of reality and unreality, most evident in Julie’s amusing but honestly painful attempts at communicating messy interior life to well-meaning but confused actors. In general, there’s a fitting sense of instability and tentativeness, thrown into further relief by the greater time spent with Julie’s mother and her own modest burgeoning artistic practice. And the very ending acts as a strange hall of mirrors, both an entrapment and a liberation, a closing of a chapter.

Round Midnight
I keep coming back to the moments where Gordon talks about his reeds. He seems to be playing on a single reed at a time, specifically requesting a Rico 3. I don’t know what the reed market was like in 1959; now reeds come in boxes of five (for tenors) and aren’t all that expensive. Moreover, Ricos are the starter reeds, the ones that come gratuit with your new horn. I play Vandoren Java 2 1/2s, designed specifically for jazz; I wonder if Gordon opting for the stronger reed helped with the richness of his sound, which regains its former luster over the course of the film. That Round Midnight can carry and sustain that detail only goes to show the key role experience should play when it comes to the creation of art.

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