Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
One of the most subtly yet immediately poignant moments in this masterwork comes midway through the film, when Jeanne is drinking coffee in a café. After she finishes and pays, she puts her elbow on the table and pauses, looking to her right with that placid yet fundamentally unreadable expression that she wears for nearly the entire film. It is the first — if not the last — time that the next step in her routine is not readily apparent to the audience, when she is given the chance to stop and ponder. Its brevity (it lasts less than twenty seconds) and its placement both within a larger shot and a larger sequence (she has just bought some yarn to continue knitting a sweater for her son) is emblematic of everything that this film accomplishes, everything that it evokes and embodies.
A Star Is Born
Yes, “The Man That Got Away” might be the greatest musical number ever committed to film, but one sequence seems to capture the spirit of this extravagant, devastating masterpiece even better: “Born in a Trunk.” (Complicating this of course is the fact that “Born in a Trunk” was filmed after Cukor had finished his involvement with the film, though this only strengthens its connections to the machinations of Hollywood.) The medley of songs from numerous genres indulges in all the abstraction and expressionism possible in the American film industry, lunging through vividly contrasting set after set, with the only connective tissue being Garland’s voice and physicality. It is blatantly, gloriously unclear whether this is some part of Vicki Lester’s star-making role or a mental projection of her thinking on her past life through said role – notably, the Academy ratio of the film-within-the-film expands to CinemaScope in the span of a cut. Comparisons to Gene Kelly’s repeated intonations of “dignity, always dignity” or even “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain are there, of course, but the lines between role, performer-in-a-role, and performer are even further blurred. And throughout, it is so clear that Vicki Lester is the real deal, that she must shine and diminish all around her. This is the film in less than 15 minutes; what makes it what is is the two and a half hours left: not one second is anything less than vital.
I can’t say if this technique is totally unprecedented in film, but Hong’s decision to render Hahaha‘s present-day scenes exclusively in black-and-white stills – à la the “previously ons” in Out 1, interestingly enough – and voiceover is at once a remarkably and counterintuitively lovely choice and so indicative of the general playfulness that marks his entire work. Though Moon-kyung says that he and Joong-sik stick to the pleasant parts of their scattered recollections, the film frequently goes down the thornier and more melancholic avenues that characterize Hong’s work, often within the same scene. In this light, and given the connotation that black-and-white and voiceover often have in more conventional films, the present almost function as the memories in this film, fragmented and constructed more out of sensations and glances than anything else. Though it will likely be the last time these friends meet for some time, it feels as if it is already passing into the recesses of their minds; what matters more is the small city of Tongyeong, and the people and places that inhabit it. A faintly ridiculous dream with a long gone admiral-hero, a piano piece, numerous scraps of poetry, the sensation of holding someone close: these are the good things in life.
1. Stoner (1965, John Williams): 7/29-8/2
Difficult to accurately judge just how much this is colored by my absurd absence from reading for these past few years, but this is almost impossibly expansive and moving, covering such an expanse of time (almost cradle-to-grave) in both expanses and skips. Williams’s sense of conveying the almost compartmentalized nature of Stoner’s existence is so cannily divided into focusing on different characters and the events that transpire with them, and yet his approach can’t be reduced to as simple a statement as that. Characters are introduced and then reappear in a startling different context – Finch rather unexpectedly becomes perhaps the fifth most important character, Katharine is introduced in an almost curt manner – and throughout it is apparent that all involved in Stoner’s life are intertwined, perhaps in the most subconscious and buried ways. Stoner’s parents are (to the best of my recollection) not mentioned past the halfway point, and yet the indelible impression that their decaying, dirt-caked lives made on their son and the reader endures. And through it all, art is couched as both salvation and damnation, altering Stoner’s life (for better and worse) at every turn, defining his way of existence while ensuring its continued state of quiet desperation. Stoner is at once devastating and fulfilling, tracking the development and sustained intellect of a singular mindset, observing as it ebbs and flows according to the rhythms of a life that is at once ordinary and extraordinary. Nothing short of revelatory.
2. Tropic Moon (1933, Georges Simenon): 8/8-8/23
Perhaps the most destabilizing element of Tropic Moon is Simenon’s preference for plunging the reader in media res at the start of more or less every chapter, then doubling back to give some context (necessary or not). This happens with regularity, true, but it never fails to dole out a few jolts. Indeed, this tendency is emblematic of the whole book’s careful, more than a little horrifying approach, taking as a given its sweltering setting and organizing an examination of both milieu and intruder. What most stuns is that Timar’s (and Adèle’s, and Bouillox’s) character never truly changes past his first introduction; rather, he deepens and becomes more complex as the heat forces his character to evolve to the atmosphere – that is, until he can’t bear it anymore. He is no coaster; where others survive, he falls.
Ashes of Time [Original]
But first time with the original cut, which feels like another beast entirely; where the Redux felt as if from another world out of time, this feels rooted in a specific cultural and geographic context. What stay the same are the faces, the ruminations on memory and figures.
The Grandmaster (rewatch)
The key to The Grandmaster lies in the photos, in those moments where time comes to a total standstill. If, as Ip says, once a move – whether it be on a chessboard, in the flurry of fists, in the grand scheme of history – has been made, it cannot be taken back, then these act as the concrete points of delineation. Color fades to black-and-white, and though the participants may then leave, their trace cannot be erased. So it is with their destinies. Gong Er has no choice but to fight Ma San, her father must pass on the torch, Ip can never return to Foshan: they are defined as much by their actions, their lot in life, as by their skill in combat. All eventually reach this state of acceptance, where they become resigned to their fates; that Ip is the last one that remains vertical is no accident.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
Perhaps most startling, among so many of the elemental parts that combine to form The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, is Lau Kar-leung’s sense of editing, especially during the training sequences. Once Liu finishes the strength courses and moves into learning the forms of kung fu, Lau moves into almost an entirely different vein of conveying his narrative. Neither strictly montage (in the sequence definition) nor the entirely step-by-step mode in which the film had proceeded prior, the chambers flow into each other: hands into legs, legs into sword, sword into staff. These delineations are clear to the viewer, but Lau cuts so fluidly on movement that the viewer is constantly brought anew into another discipline. So it is with the rest of the film, so dedicated to laying out every step with clarity, and yet accomplishing it in a way that feels essential to not just Liu’s training, but the possibilities of the human form at large.
That Day, on the Beach
Yang’s sensibility and perspective eventually becomes unmistakeable throughout That Day, on the Beach, but, aside from perhaps “Expectations,” this is the first work I’ve seen from him where the perspective is so heavily colored by a single character’s viewpoint, whether it be Jiali’s or someone else’s. For a director so otherwise forthright in his storytelling – though, of course, the rapid changes in character focus are a key component of his expansive and all-encompassing vision – Yang goes for a full-bore elliptical approach. Memory slips in and out of the viewer’s headspace, some “flashbacks” (although clearly the past is meant to be fully present) lasting mere moments and others lingering for seemingly close to an hour. Incredibly, all this happens while the film operates on an emotional register that manages to evoke melodrama while ostensibly remaining within the restraint and distance that Yang deployed even more skillfully in the films to come.
And what makes this structure – which folds in on itself to access the most formative moments – so vital is this feeling of transience. To say Yang’s films are fundamentally about modernity is far too general, but it manifests itself even in the moments that are meant to be past: society and the codes of conduct (in the home, in the workplace, in the city) are never far away, and they bear down on the individual and the marriage in ways both plainly visible and achingly invisible. The prospect of escape is tantalizing, but even with a triumphant final image the viewer (and Yang) is all too aware of the cost, the long, meandering, jumbled journey required to get there. And in that, seemingly all of human emotion and experience can be found.
My Blueberry Nights
Rather than, as I feared, a simple recapitulation or dilution of Wong’s trademark themes and style, My Blueberry Nights feels almost like a doubling down or an elaboration, transplanting his concerns and slightly but noticeably modifying them. This is as much a film about outsiders trapped in their own orbits as his other movies: a café owner who uses keys, pies, and videotapes as totems of memory; a cop who drinks like every day’s his last; an impulsive, confident gambler who seems to traverse the same landscapes that Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung crossed. It’s not an especially difficult task to assign certain roles – Norah Jones as Faye Wong (down to the use of their respective music), Jude Law as an exceptional mirror of Takeshi Kaneshiro – and indeed the three sections almost seem to follow a progression from Chungking Express to Fallen Angels to Happy Together. And the look and the music, the repetitions and the way images jump and flow into each other, the loneliness, the often intentional goofiness; all of these are universal, captured by Wong in a look, in a glance, in a frame.
If a summation of what makes Les Vampires such a pleasurable experience inevitably devolves into a description of just a handful of its most indelible moments, this is by no means a weakness on the part of the film. Even more than most of the great directors, Feuillade seems to think in terms of the scene, plotting out all of the possibilities of drastic narrative change within this discrete block of time and then executing any number of them. The suspense aspect most associated with a “crime thriller” such as this is quickly replaced with the pleasure of the unexpected, and the even greater pleasure of seeing so many twists and turns executed so flawlessly, with such a skillful restraint in technique matched with the most outlandish developments imaginable.
Also everyone is superhuman in this.
In the Mood for Love (rewatch)
Wong Kar-wai’s films are full of ambiguities, little moments of languor or frenzied motion that don’t so much stick out of the dense textures as infuse them with an odd charge. But I can’t recall anything in his filmography quite like Mr. Chow’s and Mrs. Chan’s spouses, in both their exclusively back-facing appearances and their place in the emotional narrative. Aside from a few direct, curt but not impolite interactions, they function as structuring absences, fitting into the abbreviated scene structure of the first third of the film with furtive phone conversations, often comprised of single lines that convey a whole world of feeling, just outside of their spouses’ – and the viewer’s – comprehension. Chow’s wife, and perhaps Chan’s husband towards the end, leave them so suddenly that I didn’t even notice it on first watch, and yet they are brought to life by those reenactments, those attempts to subsume identities that can’t help but become something more real, more mysteriously captivating.
Inevitably, the most traditionally Wongian sentiments and dialogue come in the final interactions between Chow and Chan, almost sounding like the voiceover of one of his other film’s protagonists, when the emotional connections and bittersweet recollections of missed romances come to the fore. All else is cloaked and yearning, which the filmmaking makes almost unbearably heartbreaking.
The Day After
“…a rare art that utilizes concrete human forms to reveal the phenomenal disposition and attitude of humans.”
Ever since the introduction of the zoom, Hong’s filmmaking has relied to some palpable extent upon the conspicuous, the emphatic gesture of a tripod-mounted camera. But I can’t recall him utilizing his main outlet for stylistic flourishes to the degree that he does for most of the conversations, panning back and forth, never holding on one face for more than ten seconds at a time. This suits The Day After, undeniably fractious and heated even by Hong’s standards, and especially the frazzled headspace in which Bongwan (Kwon Hae-hyo) is in. But what makes it so much more effective are the “bookend” conversations, both of which display a deep well of disappointment, in which the camera holds on the two figures for the majority of the shot. At one end of the film, there is total deceit and a stubborn lack of clarity. At the other, genuine change and a willingness to embrace a new beginning. In the middle lies every emotion, every obsession, everything that comprises the films of Hong.
I feel like the conceptualization of Close-Up – both in the general film cultural sense and specifically in my recollection – as a seamless docufiction runs counter to the actual experience of seeing the film. In truth, it is a true hybrid, with something more than half the film taken up by the “real” courtroom scene, shot in 16mm, and the rest by “fictional” reenactments, shot in 35mm. Of course, Kiarostami’s touch in this is such that both take on elements of the other – in particular, the chronicling of certain moments (like the conversation in the taxi) that takes on a whole new charge when considering that real people are telling their own stories. But a key factor in what makes the ending so overwhelming is the long-awaited fusing of these two impulses. The real is shot with a clarity that nevertheless is interrupted; the viewer strains to hear what ultimately cannot be spoken, and can simply be expressed with universal languages: music and vision.
Sansho the Bailiff
A man is not a human being without mercy. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others.
That the practitioners of these words are both empowered and powerless, torn asunder by the forces of evil in this world and yet brought back together in the most elemental ways, is the great mystery and the great beauty of this film. A fable, yes, but one with a direct conduit to the heart of human emotion.
Dragon Inn (rewatch)
Among the endless amount of perfect things that Dragon Inn does, perhaps the ending is the most telling. If the ending is abrupt, it is so because the elemental perfection of the scenario and its execution is such that there simply cannot be a continuation. The heroes ride off into the sunset, but it is almost an afterthought: what matters is the completion of the task, the visceral, punctuated triumph of motions.
Though Fallen Angels certainly has a dialogue in both narrative and production with Chungking Express, it’s important to stress just how exaggerated, how forceful so much of this film feels in comparison to even the glorious excesses of its predecessor. Especially for the almost purely sensorial opening fifteen minutes, where all narrative aside from the Wongian fundamentals of longing and disaffection is cast aside, every single shot feels nearly as revelatory as Takeshi Kaneshiro running through the blur of Hong Kong. Fallen Angels doesn’t settle down so much as overheat, but Wong running on the fumes of narrative still allows for some of the most sublime image-making I’ve witnessed. A film that feels like the Most version of itself, which means that it ranks among the Most films, for good and ill.
Woman in the Dunes
During perhaps the most primal scene among a film composed almost solely in a primordial key, the visages calling for physical titillation are concealed behind a multiplicity of masks, deliberately contrasting and jarring in their almost anachronistic qualities. In the grand sweep of surveillance on the part of both tribal masks and gas masks, an entire film’s sensibility is unlocked.
Woman in the Dunes, in its sparseness and yet its overpowering sensuality, in the perfect opacity of its central metaphor and structuring landscape, aims to capture something of both the distant past and all-too-present now; in other words, all of humanity. That it does so without ever once explicitly saying so is but the tip of its achievements.