2018 Reading Log

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-

July 2018 Capsules

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.

June 2018 Capsules

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.

April 2018 Capsules

Les Vampires
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.

March 2018 Capsules

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.

Close-Up (rewatch)
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.

February 2018 Capsules

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.

Fallen Angels
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.

Taipei Story (1985, Edward Yang)

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One important, vital aspect of my heritage that took me far too long to understand was the role of the Taiwanese dialect, specifically Taiwanese Hokkien. For many years, my parents spoke to each other semi-frequently in a language that sounded similar to the Mandarin that I knew, but which was generally unintelligible to me. I must confess that I still know very few words of Hokkien, but more important to me is the context in which my parents used it. Whether they intended it as such or not, I always felt as if they were keeping some form of secret from me, discussing things in front of my sister and me that we couldn’t understand, whether we wanted to or not.

Taipei Story, Edward Yang’s second masterful feature, doesn’t traffic in this level of a language barrier, but its use of language is no less revealing. In its portrayal of two estranged partners – Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien) and Chin (Tsai Chin) – living in a rapidly modernizing Taipei, the film switches frequently and consistently between Hokkien and Mandarin Chinese. Without perhaps no exceptions, the conversations that only involve Lung, whether it be with childhood friends or elderly acquaintances, utilize Hokkien, while all conversations involving Chin – except those, crucially, with her parents – use Mandarin.

Though it is never stated outright in the film, my general impression of the role of Mandarin in Taiwan is that of the language of modernity – notably, Hokkien was banned in schools until roughly around the time this film was made. Accordingly, the business world of Chin and the deadbeat society of Lung are carried out in entirely different manners of speaking.

Yang is wise to never make Taipei Story a simple story of the struggle between the memories of the past, which Lung is never able to shake off, and the promises of the future. The conflict is complicated by both parties: Lung constantly tries to move to the United States, in a way not dissimilar to that of my own father, while Chin falls in with the youthful biker gangs that her younger sister hangs out with. Both members of the couple, to put it plainly, strive to capture and retain something of their youth while still prospering in the modern capitalist society of the mid-’80s.

In Yang’s vision of Taipei, this seems to be little more than a fantasy, as one has to choose between one or the other. But of course, this is never approached in a didactic or obvious manner, allowing for, as the film puts it, fleeting moments of hope to linger. That the film is maybe the most tragic of the Yangs I’ve seen is a testament to this sense of latent fatalism, of people too caught in the past, whether they realize it or not.

Through these inextricably entwined journeys, Yang shoots with his particular combination of intimacy and distance that never fails to surprise and move me. A shot from the other side of a mammoth office building, two perfectly rhymed tracking shots, numerous gazes down onto the busy streets of Taipei, all coalescing perfectly with the immaculately posed figures quietly discussing troubles in an apartment, or on a playground, or at a bar.

Those figures move inexorably towards their ends – one trading the world of physical architecture for the digital architecture of big data, the other beaten in a final attempt to prove his own sense of self-worth over the generation already overtaking him – but they do so with an inordinate sense of care on the part of Yang. Not one interaction, one small gesture ultimately feels out of place, and what resonates is the forlorn face of Lung, the implacability of Chin, each equally conveying an overwhelming sadness.

January 2018 Capsules

Millennium Mambo
“Dream of a dove flying.”

Always on the cusp of something but stranded in the moment, many beginnings but no endings.

A Man Escaped
There’s something very vital about the subtitle of A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, which I can’t recall reading before I actually saw the film. Lifted from a scene almost exactly at the midpoint of the film, it is one of the points where the film becomes its most clear and removed from the (terrific) abstraction that otherwise characterizes it. Through the words of Jesus through John, as spoken by our hero Fontaine, the escape that he succeeds at is directly equated with spiritual salvation, even as his predecessor is being shot at that very moment. This divergence between the realm of the spiritual and the realm of the actual is key, layering ideas of transcendence that never distract from the intense, slow procedure of escape but rather enhance and contextualize them. Without more than a hint of background given to Fontaine, the viewer must draw the reason, the emotion from the struggle to survive itself, and the cell becomes its own crucible. Whether it is faith, chance, sheer will, or a combination of all that enables Fontaine to make his escape, there is no way to describe that feeling of cathartic release other than overwhelming grace.

The Hole
Yes, those musical sequences. Even if they weren’t so delightfully varied, so transcendently effervescent and yet grounded in the dilapidated Taipei that traps the protagonists, their programming alone is nothing short of masterful. I hadn’t noticed the placement of them at ~15 minute intervals, but what matters is their complete harmony with the emotional tenor of the film’s development, coming just after what would be considered an emotional crescendo in a regular movie and acting as the logical extension of that.

But, of course, this is still the realm of Tsai Ming-liang. The overtly apocalyptic tone and scenario feels like his trademark vision pushed to a kind of breaking point, and it’s remarkable to see his locked-down perspectives open up to no small degree, boasting pans, extended tracking shots, and even what appears to be a handheld shot, hurtling through a mall as it follows a squad of exterminators. But these don’t disrupt the stasis so much as heighten it, fleshing out the spaces so as to render them all the more claustrophobic yet cavernous. Decay and madness come hand in hand, the malaise is literalized, and any method of escape, no matter how fleeting, is what matters.

December 2017 Capsules

A Touch of Zen
The rare film whose greatness is both totally, utterly assured and constantly daring, pushing and probing at its own ambitions to create something more. The opening section alone evokes this seeming contradiction: Hu’s constant camera motions, cutting judiciously to closer and closer views of the central fort, tease out so much of the haunted textures that define roughly two-thirds of the film, but crucially never come close to spelling out the layout of the structure. It is a metaphysical realm even before the priests take the center stage, one defined by the delineation between standard society and the mystical forces that swirl just outside of the town square. Ku moves between these freely, defined by his indecision and complacency, serving as the perfect conduit and viewpoint from which to marvel at these barely superhuman figures. Methodical, explosive, eerie, A Touch of Zen seems to contain all of humanity’s attributes for good and ill, and then goes beyond in its final foregrounding of the mystical, the fundamentally unknowable.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Establishes itself from the outset, with the tactical equivalent of a prank call, to be an exceptionally perceptive, playful and loving subversion of practically every single convention of the closest thing post-20th century culture has to a modern myth. At times, Star Wars: The Last Jedi almost feels like a series of constantly escalating dares that Rian Johnson is issuing over the span of two and a half hours, willfully bewildering and perplexing the viewer with totally unexpected events, structural conceits, and even performance choices. But to reduce such a textually and aesthetically rich film to gambits is foolish: it is as much invested in reinforcement as it is in subversion, and the journey to the former while balancing the latter is rendered expertly.

Like its predecessors (and especially The Force Awakens), the galactic struggles are consistently cast in terms of the personal, focusing on individual reactions and motivations as reflections of a wider movement. The whittling down of the Resistance makes this register even more strongly, but the decision to fracture the narrative into roughly four parts (so jarring at first that I nearly missed just how carefully the movie was edited together, especially in those oh-so-crucial Force conversations) means that the viewer’s grounding must be, even more than normal, in the characters. Their essential uncertainty, their hesitation to stand in the face of monumental events, is what defines them, and the film is willing to lean into these flaws in order to access something deeper, more painful than I could have expected.

November 2017 Capsules

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
By no means a slow burn, and yet the kills come in swift and brutal fashion only after the atmosphere has been totally, completely set in place. Scenes are elongated and yet completely compact – the scene with the hitchhiker, conducted entirely within the confines of the van, contains its own taut, visceral fear even before the razor blade comes out. And Marilyn Burns’ perpetual screaming, at once continuous and unchanging and always impactful, the editing and score combining to create something utterly inhuman. The ending, with its brief hint of hope amid the horror still visible in the rearview mirror, still provides an overwhelming moment of catharsis, a small triumph that still registers.

Unfriended
Looking at Unfriended from the vantage point of three years into the future, there have already been some drastic software changes that put me at a slight remove. The Facebook interface is overhauled, OS X is sleeker, just about every program or website here is reconfigured in some way. And there’s the fact that, though I watched it on my computer and am a contemporary of sorts with these teens if they existed in real life, I only sparingly used Skype in the same way, and my own desktop/browser/application dock/etc. are entirely different and less cluttered. But that doesn’t take away from the experience, and in some ways enhances it: the rapid blur of the cursor, the slightly-too-quick typing (even if it includes some extremely apropos typos), the excessive lagging all create a truly uncanny atmosphere, a disconnect between the way I look at my screen and the way Blair looks at her own. What exists on the screen is a heightened replica; there’s an odd sort of mise-en-scéne and blocking at play here, often cutting off half of the central Skype call and inadvertently creating two different reaction shots (creating six different reaction shots to a default profile icon is ingenious), and in general creating an almost 3-D feeling with the numerous layers of apps. The effect is natural enough that it feels spontaneous, but it’s still immensely striking. Gabriadze doesn’t need music, cuts, or unconventional cinematography to do this; it’s already created in the comfortable and familiar dimensions of the laptop screen, in our ingrained reactions to the sounds of notifications twisted by their contents. When even Google and Facebook aren’t functioning in the expected manner, it’s already too late.

The River
Tsai has obviously used stasis to extraordinary lengths and effects throughout his oeuvre, but halfway through I wonder if he’s employed it elsewhere in such a specifically patient manner. The style here isn’t vastly removed from that of, Vive L’Amour, but it’s applied to a much more specific and ostensibly insular societal institution. In Tsai’s world, the family is as amorphous and free-floating as the individuals that inhabit it, and part of the fascination that I had watching The River was seeing just how they would come together. Of course, the movie goes down immensely dark and upsetting paths, realized with some extraordinary plays with light and shadow, but the core images – rain, Lee Kang-sheng’s pained face, the decay of urban Taipei – remain the same. And Tsai (and I) wouldn’t have it any other way.

Night of the Living Dead
Almost certainly one of the most productive examples of a film effectively split in two. The first third or so – “They’re coming to get you Barbra” included – establishes an immense tone of melancholy and paranoia, buoyed by the dueling insular intensities of Jones and an effectively mute O’Dea. With both communicating the most fundamental fears and emotions with furtive glances and odd movements, Night of the Living Dead could conceivably have stayed in this vein for the entirety of its running time, especially with the radio providing clarification and more mystery in equal measure. But with more characters and the television comes necessary, even vital complications. Romero seems to be entirely truthful when he says that Jones wasn’t cast because of his race, but it adds a log to the raging fire that is this movie, only highlighted by the newsreel-esque footage playing under the credits. Primal tension is replaced by all-too-human tendencies towards self-destruction, so much so that the eventual resurrection by zombie bite is almost an afterthought.