March 2020 Capsules

High and Low
In essence, High and Low really is building entirely to the scene in the GI bar. Though there are numerous scenes of interaction with the lower depths and sequences with large groups of people, this is the first time that the viewer is truly presented with the masses that Gondo and the police have been insulated from. Of course, there is a great deal of narrative import that occurs, but even more important is the clash between texture — loud music, rapidly moving bodies — and the intruders: the groups of “disguised” police officers and the dark glasses-wearing kidnapper. Both implicitly stick out, and it is their in-between status that snaps Kurosawa’s concerns into place: high and low are impossible to bridge, but there’s a great deal of room in the pits in between.

2020 Reading Log

1. Zama (1956, Antonio Di Benedetto): 11/19/19-2/8/20 (on-off):
Comparing this with the film is practically unavoidable, seeing as how close to my mind Martel’s work has been during the past few end-of-decade obsessed months, whether while reading this book or not. But what Di Benedetto seems to emphasis above all else is, if not strictly atmosphere in the way that the film would have it, than the impossibility of fully comprehending or understanding it. The odd slips in quotidian time, the overwhelming horniness that possesses Zama, the way in which characters fade in and out of focus, all of this feels explicitly designed to displace the reader, to inhabit the total uncertainty that the main character lives in. All of this is tremendously successful, and the three-part structure serves to highlight the writer’s dexterity: when looked at in pure narrative terms, the three couldn’t be more removed, and yet when placed side-by-side and examined minutely, they proceed with the same purpose.

2. Black Wings Has My Angel (1953, Elliott Chaze): 2/9/20-3/14/20:
Like the best films noir, Black Wings Has My Angel rests upon its strange, resigned fatalism, all in the backwards glance of a man condemned to his vague yet inescapable fate. At the same time, it never feels so irreducibly simple: the details are so exacting that they imprint themselves in the reader’s head; Virginia is a combination of femme fatale tropes that becomes an impossible being, coquettish and proper one moment and ruthless the next; the past of Tim Sunblade/Kenneth is ironclad and thus makes it feel as though anything is possible for him. The result is something that both valorizes and warns against crime, a beautiful set of contradictions that adds up to something even greater than the sum of its parts; in other words, it has the ideal, horrible American spirit at every moment.

January 2020 Capsules

Like Someone in Love
There aren’t many imposed time limits in either this or in the context of Kiarostami’s sadly curtailed career, but throughout there’s the sense of the director and his characters running out of time. The need to complete a sordid assignment, to replace a drive belt, to translate a few lines: none of these are given specific deadlines, but the characters nevertheless rush forward trying to get them over with. In their midst is Takashi, who has nothing but time: time to drive around, to light candles, to move across his apartment. Their collision is between the old and the new, the societal and the interior, and the results are unbearably poignant.

December 2019 Capsules

Eyes Wide Shut (rewatch)
It’s crucial that practically the only sexual element that Bill doesn’t shrink away from is the actual centerpiece orgy. Be it the couple passionately kissing on the street, the Japanese businessman with the Russian daughter, the sexual desires of his wife, even the obviously gay hotel concierge: these all visibly upset him more than the slow accumulation of passionless humping that is more glimpsed than reveled in. This is almost to be expected: above all, Bill’s obsession is not with perversion or desire, but with the maintenance in his status quo, only pursuing his little threads as long as he can ensure he won’t get blood on his hands. In the “real world” (on the NYC city streets of a studio) he is constantly under threat, as various intimations of subversive or unconventional sexuality — not to call all of them equally moral — challenge his stalwart viewpoint. In the mansion, he is free to roam and observe, to float from room to room, with a mask on and personality off, without a waiting call from a wife or patient.

But in the end, he’s still wearing a rented tuxedo.

November 2019 Capsules

Jojo Rabbit
Let’s leave aside the extravagant vanity and stupidity of this, a project that seems as much an excuse for Waititi to clown around in Führer cosplay as to indulge his worst and most juvenile tendencies: the twee coming-of-age story, the playful mocking that ultimately coalesces into love. Let’s even excuse the utterly incoherent at best, downright fascistic approach to Nazism, which doesn’t so much dismantle the very real and very dangerous ideology as it presents it baldly and plainly, hoping that the viewer will find these hideous statements and behaviors from cuddly and/or blasé puppets hilarious. Jojo Rabbit would be utterly irredeemable if it just stuck to its proudly “anti-hate satire” formulations and its virtually nonexistent comedy, but it somehow manages to sink lower, into simpering, sappy romance.

Much of Jojo Rabbit is almost literally cloistered, as at least half of the film takes place solely within the eponymous character’s home, where he co-habits with both his vaguely antifascist mother and a teenage Jewish girl. Like with everything in this, Waititi’s approach comes off as maddeningly incoherent, going as far to employ a terribly overextended use of every horror movie trick in the book to accompany her first scene. But slowly, gradually, the true intent is revealed: despite her experiences fleeing the rot of fascist power, she is as flat and childlike as everyone, the object of affection — laid out oh-so-helpfully with paper-animated butterflies — and just another figure for Jojo to latch onto. In doing so, her inherent identity, which has caused the gassing of her parents and her present fearful existence, is all but erased, seemingly replaced uncomfortably with the role of both mother and lover. And in a film that refuses to reckon whatsoever with the horrors of fascism, that lies about the nature of ideologies, that closes itself off from any interesting or subversive view of the modern world, such a grievous conflation is just left there, as abject as anything in this monstrosity of a film.

Martin Eden
It’s crucial that, for all of the political rabble-rousing Martin does in writing and speech over the course of this film, his prose writing, which appears to be a true cornerstone of his success, is relegated in small snatches, only fitfully represented. As shown in his previous work, especially Lost and Beautiful, Marcello’s sensibility is never settled but always restless, and paradoxically the seeming strictures of a narrative format only amplify his tendencies. In this particular case, his penchant for archival footage is weaponized for a specific intent, taking on the immense task of capturing the undeniable power of Martin’s writing. By juxtaposing the bits of writing with longer, more abstruse moments of perhaps-found, perhaps-created shots of mundane life, Marcello both creates an emotional and an intellectual bond, reaching across class and time to conjure up an ever more complicated, beautiful feeling.

2019 Festival Dispatch #3 Show Notes

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Description
The third 2019 festival dispatch of the Catalyst and Witness podcast, devoted to exploring the films and format of the New York Film Festival, hosted by Ryan Swen. This covers the second half of the 2019 New York Film Festival, and features guests Graham L. Carter, Beatrice Loayza, and Dan Schindel.

0:00-26:36 – Part One
26:37-48:14 – Part Two

[A discussion of the New York Shorts program was deleted.]

Housekeeping

  • Hosted by Ryan Swen
  • Conceived and Edited by Ryan Swen
  • Guests: Graham L. Carter, Beatrice Loayza, Dan Schindel
  • Recorded in Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington D.C. on Zoom H4N and Sennheiser Microphones and MacBook GarageBand and Audacity and iPhone, Edited in GarageBand
  • Podcast photograph from Yi Yi, Logo designed by Dan Molloy
  • Recorded October 13, 2019
  • Released November 3, 2019
  • Music (in order of appearance):
    • In Vanda’s Room
    • Seventh Code
    • Belmonte

October 2019 Capsules

Mahjong
“In ten years, this place will be the center of the world. The future of Western civilization lies right here. And do you know what the odd thing is? We used to study history, the 19th century with the glorious age of imperialism right? Just wait ’till you see the 21st century.”

These words, said in English by an arrogant British industrialist in voiceover towards the close of Mahjong, of course shouldn’t be taken strictly at face value; Yang’s own Yi Yi four years later acts in many ways as a repudiation of a great number of the statements made in this and A Confucian Confusion, effectively the sister film to this. But it acts as a key signifier for Yang’s own intentions: in every work of his save perhaps A Brighter Summer Day, Yang sees the future of Taipei as its past and present, continually reflecting on the former as directly affecting and molding the latter. This is reflected most obviously in the familial relationships, which dominate practically all his films and especially this one, but it reveals itself in so many other ways: the scattered rock memorabilia (especially the Beatles), the past entanglements of multiple characters, and most importantly in language. Here, too, Yang gestures towards the future: Hokkien is phased further out, and English shares center stage with Mandarin. The effect is like a less overtly reflexive version of Mountains May Depart‘s third act: slightly uncanny, immensely focused on the minutiae involved in translation (skewed or otherwise), and eventually incredibly moving. It’s no accident that the two final definitive acts almost eschew language all together: Yang’s cinema is nothing if not at turns impossibly alienated and unbearably intimate, and Mahjong contains both of these impulses at their fullest force.

A City of Sadness
Even besides the obvious narrative and thematic implications that come with language and communication in A City of Sadness, its imprint on reinforcing Hou’s style feels paramount. Taking place at a much more contemplative pace than the naturalistic conversations found elsewhere (especially in scenes with co-writer Wu Nien-jen), the viewer is forced to consider not only what Tony Leung and Xin Shufen write to one another, but how they communicate by other means: the little glances, the manner in which they pass the pen and pad of paper back and forth. It feels so indicative that the words are not shown in inserts of the paper, but in intertitles: even their most inconsequential words are imbued with an additional, almost transcendent power. And the one exception, the message given by Leung to the widow, the words of a man who he never heard or spoke to, accrues its power from the materiality of his final statement, from the imprint of the ink.

Stray Dogs
The Taipei that Hsiao-kang grew up in has almost vanished. Gone are the motorcycle rides that acted as a reprieve from daily existence, the skywalks, the flooded apartments, the street stands. They’ve been supplanted by the high-end condos like Vive L’Amour‘s, only that the erotic potential is gone; even the streets feel sterile now. So Hsiao-kang can only go almost literally underground, with offspring in tow; they wander the construction sites and gleaming supermarkets, eating from plastic takeout trays and fitfully drawing mosquito nets around their meager living conditions. It’s not much, but it’s the home he knows, and the only home he can imagine.

September 2019 Capsules

Days of Being Wild (rewatch)
Wong’s characters’ obsession with time, which reaches its early peak here, fits so deeply into his overall aesthetic concerns because it’s at once concrete and yet subjective. Unlike a pair of earrings, a car, or a lighter, time isn’t something that can be contained, even by the numerous watches or clocks scattered around the relative ghost town of 1960 Hong Kong. Instead, it floats between them, suffusing the characters and their perceptions. For the male characters, it’s more concrete: Leslie Cheung means it when he says he’ll remember his minute with Maggie Cheung, even if he forgets everything else; Andy Lau’s existence is defined by being on the clock, first in vocation and then in tentative infatuation. For the female characters, it’s something more slippery: a state of constant reverie and remembrance, wondering exactly when their relationships went wrong. But no one can escape their own subjectivity, their own flawed commitments: even Tony Leung’s hustler has to glance at his watch before he brings the lights down.

August 2019 Capsules

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2
Pushes its insistent rhymings with the first film past any reasonable limit: this is no mere referentiality, but conscious inversion and recontextualization from the opening moments, a class-flipped take on the predecessor’s opening scene. That this transpires with the two new main characters, Yeung Yeung and Paul, lends a further unpredictable charge, and a few scenes pass before the original tripartite dynamic is even partially restored — Qi Hong, not coincidentally the most (relatively) stable and committed character of the madcap ensemble, only makes sporadic appearances, which only begin more than twenty minutes in. Instead, the love triangle takes place between the volatile Shen Ran and the two newcomers, yet parallels crop up: Paul spends much of the second half in a soused state heavily reminiscent of Qi Hong in his original state, complete with a penchant for Johnnie Walker; Shen Ran takes Yeung Yeung to the same restaurant where he botched his initial engagement, directly mentioning this fact and prolonging the inevitable conversation until after dessert; Paul cooks seafood for Yeung Yeung in his own relatively humble quarters. “I must have met you before” is said by the new characters multiple times, and in a sense it’s true; by the time the opening is reinvoked once more with Chi Yan sitting on the bus in tears and Shen Ran driving by her in a sports car, the viewer would be forgiven for a strong case of déjà vu.

And yet it feels all so new, or at least cyclical in a way that feels genuine. The economic aspect sets the tone: where the global crash acted as a plot catalyst in the predecessor, here the sudden downturns and upturns feel ultimately immaterial, as of little consequence to the viewer as to the characters, wrapped up as they are in their love affairs. And as lovely as Gao Yuanyuan is once more, and as hard Louis Koo pushes himself (to great and perfectly absurd effect), Miriam Yeung absolutely defines this film. The dichotomy between her severe “queen of the stocks” status and the devil-may-care attitude with which she throws herself into love couldn’t be clearer, and her acceptance of Shen Ran’s proposal halfway through somehow feels both so wrong and so right.

That paradoxical feeling resonates throughout this, a disquietude that intermingles with the euphoria emanating from To’s visual confidence and his ensemble cast’s overflowing charisma. In a sense, this is to be expected: both Chi Yan and Genie, the octopus acting as a feebler but still wonderful stand-in for Froggy, display a consistent sense of “reverse thinking,” predicting the exact wrong thing, which proves great for sports and stocks betting but only muddles the waters further in the games of love. The continual sense of things being not quite right maps onto the sense of entrapment or limbo here, as characters enact the same scenarios over and over. But at the same time there’s such joy, such genuine astonishment on display; the last shot suggests at once infinite heartbreak, bitter defeat, and a feeling that the war is not yet over, and may never be over. In that sense, it’s a perfect sequel, in the sense that it consciously expands the original, inverting and altering it to enrich both parts. It feels so carefully considered, yet so inventive and energetic in the undertaking, that it exists both separately and apart, inextricable and yet fully, gloriously alive.

Asako I & II
Obviously have much, much more to say about this heartstopping masterpiece, but one of the most important aspects seems to be the sudden intrusion of the March 2011 earthquake, only hinted at by iOS designs amid the almost timeless/fantastical quality of the romances. Rather than grounding its surprising, almost radical approach to this odd love triangle, Asako I & II restrains itself to bounding and locating it, all the better to bring forth the flights of fancy. In a film filled to the brim with little details, feelings, and gestures, this act registers as one of the most quietly powerful.

A Confucian Confusion
The pleasures and interests in A Confucian Confusion are perhaps best expressed in two contradictory, yet not necessarily mutually exclusive, statements made less than five minutes apart: the categorization of Taipei as a small town and as a big place. Coupled with the opening statements the unusually direct intertitle (which in itself is counterposed with the elusive, mysterious dialogue snippet intertitles interspersed throughout) calling Taipei one of the wealthiest cities in the world, the impression is one of a space in total flux, befitting a milieu in which everything, no matter how seemingly settled and predestined the existing structures are. As always in Yang, the mercurial and unpredictable flights of human emotion clash with the glass windows and steel buildings: a theater director makes a swerve from postmodern abstraction to comedy, people fall in and out of love with almost alarming regularity, and people decide to seek other forms of employment. Yang, incongruously but perfectly, plays this roundelay of absurdity as farce, but there is a surfeit of scenes pitched at his usual, startling emotional level; if this doesn’t quite aim for a comedy of remarriage, the implications of its overall narrative feel deeply in kinship with his past work, with the comedy tradition, with the state of the modern world.

July 2019 Capsules

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
The genius of Lang lies in his ability to make even the most abstract, most incomprehensible moments totally concrete, representing the total paranoia of a man pursued in a tilt down matched to an oscillating soundscape. Arguably the reveal of the metallic silhouette behind the curtain is already redundant; Mabuse and the figures he possesses have already transcended the normal form, and yet they retain a distinctly material existence: etched scribblings onto paper, a rigged record player, neatly typewritten memoranda. The feeling is of total entrapment, of narrowly escaping one room only to become confined within another; even the thrill of a car chase in the night is subsumed by the rear projection.