June 2022 Capsules

Flowers of Shanghai
I’ve never heard Shanghainese at such length before, and while I’m sure this film would be every bit as great in Mandarin or even Cantonese — it kind of sounds like Leung is dubbed when he isn’t speaking Cantonese, his voice is a little higher — it adds so much to the film. I have little knowledge of the mechanics of Shanghainese, but it sounds like it is either toneless or has tones that are much less pronounced than in other dialects. This creates a much more even-toned sound quality, an aural texture every bit as hypnotic as those repeated music cues, those tracking shots, those different yet similar narratives of decline and possibility.

April 2022 Capsules

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
I’m sure others have discussed the Céline and Julie Go Boating parallels/potential homage by Rivette, but it’s fascinating how Lorelei and Dorothy’s own pantomime relies on a relative interchangeability that Céline and Julie decidedly lack. Despite their differing viewpoints on the attractiveness of a man, they both share an unabashed openness about said views, and consequently are able to inhabit each other, whether in intelligence or lunacy, shrewdness or naivetie. Like so much of the film, the illusion is as alluring as the reality, and the space created to inhabit it is as immaculate and wondrous as they come.

March 2022 Capsules

Spirited Away [rewatch]
It’s a piercing testament to Miyazaki’s genius here that, for all the earned sentimentalism that flows throughout this, the film ends with Chihiro’s perspective of the tunnel receding into the distance. No view of her newfound friends, or her potential life partner, or even the mysterious gods is possible in the ultimate dichotomy between these worlds. As much as she was able to bring a great vitality to the bath house, there are forces greater than magic or love ruling over these realms, and so she must return to the living, and the sensations of the other side must remain a memory, just like the river that saved and nurtured her so long ago. It’s too far in both time and space, and that’s the way it must be.

Pom Poko
The interlude with the foxes, already comfortably assimilated into modern Japanese society, helps clarify and differentiate the plight and journey of the raccoons. It’s said early in the film that their nature doesn’t allow them to have the same focus as the foxes, too prone to sloth to be as convincingly for as long. While that may be true, that’s also exactly what allows them to produce such grand and beautiful feats: their community, their ability to feed off of each other’s energy to bolster each other. In their final decision to join Tokyo, it is still with that same compassion, a splitting up to keep as many alive as possible, an invisible community of bodies built up with each celebration, each humorous yet poignant transformation.

February 2022 Capsules

Who’s Stopping Us
There’s a scene in here that feels almost like a lo-fi version of the go-fast boat to Cuba in Miami Vice, two characters acting on an urge to kayak briefly across to Portugal. Though they have to return sooner rather than later, that spirit of freedom within certain limits feels so resonant with the experience of teenagehood, of all these characters moving in and out of focus as Trueba’s style shifts in response. Talking heads, voiceover, extensive hangout scenes, all of them feel integrated yet disruptive, a steady stream of insights and bullshitting that doesn’t aim to necessarily take any of the events (fiction or non-fiction) at face value. It is about the experience, the cross-section of life and vitality that gets at so much more.

Tree of Knowledge
The key moment early on (among many) is the journey of the dissected fox, first seen in long shot as the children, quiet and respectful for once, gather around the table in a circle. Gore is liberally shown but never gleefully, and the emphasis remains on the children, who have a certain awe at seeing this mini-spectacle. Two of the boys then take it, attempt to scare girls with it — only succeeding with the outcast Mona — then take it home to attempt to recreate the experience themselves. If Tree of Knowledge is as much a film about education as it is about the cruelty of children, this moment demonstrates it most clearly: a startlingly visceral punctum that breaches the bawdiness of its society that leads them to want to imitate their future selves. Unfortunately, some futures are more grown-up than others, and therein lies the essential, awful problem.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Everything comes forth from Pasolini’s early decision to convey the Sermon on the Mount in a seemingly endless series of forward tracking shots, framing Jesus the Anointed in front of a boundless and blank sky. It gets to the heart of what makes the New Testament such an oddly difficult collection of books to adapt to a different medium, even the nigh-universally known gospel. Pasolini’s great genius was to lean into that almost anecdotal quality, the procession of incident and teaching that the Book of Matthew provides, in doing so emphasizing the inherent integrity and value of each moment. The words spoken in each sentence of the Sermon function both in tandem and separately, and by placing them in formal conversation, by having them spoken directly to the viewer, their power is interpreted and conveyed with a stark impact.

January 2022 Capsules

In the Mood for Love [rewatch]
While it serves different purposes in different films, Wong’s voiceover has always been central as another layer in his characters’ and cinema’s means of expression. But while there are numerous phone conversations that hang over the film’s images, In the Mood for Love only contains two lines of true voiceover. They both come from Cheung, immediately after she and Leung realize they both know the secret that initially unites, then ultimately divides them: “I thought I was the only one that knew,” then “I wonder how it started,” both laid over a distant, hazy shot of the two of them walking away together.

Wong then cuts to black, then to what appears to be an innocent conversation, then an alarming upsetting of propriety, then a tentative and tortured reenactment. If cinema can be said to embody mindsets, to flesh out characters, then this may be among the greatest of examples: the decision to go down this path is not made on screen, but it is embodied in that brief strip of black leader, that ambiguous space between thought and action, made in an instant that haunts and grows in the mind.

Lincoln [rewatch]
Ten years and the nakedly obvious upheaval therein may have actually improved the fundamental politics of this, at least from my perspective. In the Obama era, Lincoln’s steadfast commitment to his principles could be seen as timely, a friendly reminder from an icon to continue the good work. Now, it’s the actual machinations that resonate; in a way it has matured, or perhaps its outlook has curdled, like some of the greatest historical films; it has come to take on the politics of its time, which is as much a testament to the unchanging undercurrents of America as it is to the total inhabitation from all here.

December 2021 Capsules

Benedetta
As a Christian, I’m naturally inclined to believe in the validity of Benedetta’s visions, but I was surprised the degree to which the film — and Verhoeven — seem to agree, or at least in the conviction of her beliefs. Many have rightly commented on the general primacy of power relations over the lesbian copulations that were supposed to be the backbone, and it’s important to situate that within how it relates to the central dilemma of faith: the belief in something that can’t be directly experienced. Numerous characters, even Rampling’s daughter, invoke this, twisting it for their own ends, and while the film can be said to be a critique of the Catholic Church, a central core of faith remains intact. The two characters who most fervently express a desire for faith, Benedetta and the Reverend Mother, maintain it to the end, and as such remains unchallenged in that realm, even by the forces of lust for sex or power. What they end up doing with that desire is where interpretation lies, and where purity is corrupted.

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.

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.