2021 Reading Log

1. The Crying of Lot 49 (1965, Thomas Pynchon): 5/1/21-6/7/21
The structure threw me off, and while I’m not attributing my repeated failed attempts to begin reading this book to anything except my current living situation, it only became more inexplicable the further I read. The central enigma of the muted post horn and the Tristero only truly emerges around the halfway mark, and a great deal of this is spent in the weeds, the minutiae — not only Pynchon’s numerous historical and literary inventions, but the actual interactions. Indeed, that totally remarkable aspect will stick with me as much as the frightful paranoia that Oedipa eventually undergoes, and the two are inextricably intertwined after a certain point, especially in that nocturnal series of encounters in San Francisco, so utterly dreamlike, yet initially launched into with such a sudden lurch. The irresolution was maybe expected after a certain point, but the way it’s carried out, especially after maybe an overabundance of syntactical curlicues, is unbelievably impactful.

February 2021 Capsules

PTU
The apartment raid, with the slow staggered ascent of Yam and his team with manually flickering flashlights, is at once one of the great summits of To’s ethos and its antithesis, with all that elegiac cool in service of a pointless raid that terrorizes a few women. Such is the greatness of PTU, a film that totally embodies everything masterful and terrifying about To’s filmmaking, where the wanton police brutality combined with the assuredness of the filmmaking could be repugnant if it weren’t for the interfering elements: a child riding a bike, an unexpected stabbing, an invitation to mahjong. Truth is subjective, bound to be written by the forces in charge, and it doesn’t matter who gets caught in the crossfire.

October 2020 Capsules

Beginning
Seems to fully inhabit the material and the supernatural, which isn’t to say that the two continually coexist at all moments within this. Moreover, religion here is less the constant, forbidding presence that one would expect for a film all about the subjugation and degradation of women, and more a force that can be siloed off, that can be ignored for a time in one’s own solitude. For what Dea has internalized is an intensely focused, and just plain intense, approach to compartmentalization as evoked by composition. The innovation is less in the actual frames themselves, which tend closer to a de rigeur arthouse style (albeit even more beautifully executed than normal), and more in the context created around them, where a potent cocktail of quotidian and nightmarish tones and narrative throughlines is evoked at all times, even when the film focuses on a much different aspect of Yana’s life. By design, Beginning is a slippery film in multiple senses, where a brief respite in the woods can turn into something far more worrisome just by the elongation of the same shot, and where a pivotal location revisited ten minutes later can radically recontextualize an innocuous activity. Perhaps what’s strongest about this film is its deft balance of clear thematics with a certain inscrutability: ultimately motivations matter less in the face of such a distinct mood, which never lets up and only grows more thorny, more piercing.

September 2020 Capsules

Days
Even more than most of Tsai’s films, Days is in effect all about the body and its interaction with the surrounding environments, and while Lee Kang-sheng is deservedly getting much of the attention, it’s just as important to recognize exactly what Anong Houngheuangsy is doing here. It’s tempting to liken him to Lee in youth, and indeed at certain moments they appear quite similar even in the present day. But his situation, and thus the way he carries himself, is completely different. He lacks a Miao Tien or a Lu Yi-ching to surround him, cook for him, and govern the way he lives, and thus even when he appears more innocent, less prone to the acting out or pseudo-prankster behavior that Hsiao-kang indulged in, he has a responsibility to himself to uphold. His existence is thus one of a certain discipline, something that Kang never had and, as a result of his infirmity, can never have. It would be too much to suggest that Anong is some alternate vision, a way of life that Kang could have had, but Tsai’s renewed fascination, his fetishistic interest in the way this young, well-built man moves about his affairs, has its longing resonances that go well beyond the second half’s unity and separation. May we be able to continue watching alongside them.

August 2020 Capsules

Dirty Ho
Both Wang and Ho face two fights that test different aspects of their kung fu abilities before they come together for the finale, and while Wang’s, cloaked in niceties and explicitly designed to be as dazzling as possible, deservedly get all the love, Ho’s feel equally vital to Lau’s framework. Whether it’s the “cripples” or the imagined con artists, he fights a succession of enemies, each with a different ability that in turn forces the untrained Ho to adopt a complementary kung fu style, often complete with otherwise unseen weapons, makeshift or not. That these are with more obviously “different,” even dangerously stereotypical foes who then reveal themselves to be phonies, speaks to the unbridgeable divide between Wang and Ho, separated as they are by class and wealth. Yet they share a sense of purpose, a talent for disguises, and a drive for fighting perfection, and even if it’s only for the span of a film, it’s more than enough to unite them.

April 2020 Capsules

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon [rewatch]
While I fundamentally agree with Sean that the ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t especially make sense, it carries a thematic resonance that squares with a lot of the film’s more direct import. Like with perhaps the film it most tries to emulate, A Touch of Zen, one of the greatest of all wuxias, the fundamental aim is self-betterment in favor of transcendence. For the warriors at the end of their prime, it’s to discover love while fighting the desire for revenge; for the desert bandit, it’s to recapture the one treasure that he had to let go of; for the poisonous thief, it’s to try to learn the art that she could never even begin to master. Jiaolong is caught between all of these places, and indeed wants on some level to achieve them all simultaneously. Accordingly, she is able to access these differing experiences and worlds, shifting in class stature and appearance; it’s surely no coincidence that she’s the only character to have substantially differing attire, and there’s a direct citation of the many wuxias where women disguised themselves as men just by wearing their hair up. Zhang’s all-time performance echoes this too, shifting between wide-eyed excitement, sullen discontentment, and hungry attraction in a way that still communicates the very core of her being. Crucially, she’s the youngest: she says that she’s “just playing” a number of times, and there’s a refreshing unseriousness and untestedness to her character that allows her to shift between these roles, to explore without getting stuck in her ordained place like the rest. (The near-mythic import that all of the other main actors, even Chang Chen, carry in comparison to Zhang’s still-ascendant star can’t be underestimated either.)

So while the essential nature of the ending, taking all of the stories and wishes spread throughout into account, may not necessarily work, if there’s one person who could both exist in the real world and among the clouds, floating forever, it’d be Jiaolong.

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.