Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild (1990)

The most impressive shot is an amazingly long tracking shot down a Manila street, up some stairs, and through the second floor of a railway station. It's a tour de force, but me and the Mrs. disagreed on its effectiveness: I thought it was so amazing that it crossed the line into stunt territory - by the end I was just wondering how they did it, imagining how they must have cued the actors to start moving and speaking when the camera entered the room, etc. Mrs. Sgt. T just thought it was an amazing shot.

That was the only thing I thought overdone about the movie, though, and I can forgive it as a moment of exuberance by an artist just starting to glimpse his potential. Days of Being Wild is, as everyone seems to agree, where Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai; I'm not sure I completely agree (I certainly enjoyed As Tears Go By, and saw a lot of Wong's trademarks there, I think). But it is a great film, and a departure from his last, and the thematic and stylistic connections with In the Mood for Love are obvious.

No doubt a lot of what makes it the real arrival of Wong Kar-wai is that it's the arrival of Christopher Doyle. I now realize how much credit he deserves for Wong's success. I liked the visuals in ATGB, but they're nothing compared to this: instead of the steroidal neons of the earlier film, we get bled-out browns and grays and greens that manage to suggest both passion and confusion. The Philippine jungle seen at the beginning and end of the film is a great example: instead of lush, tropical colors we get an almost sickly washed-out green, simultaneously suggesting the milky richness of nephrite and a kind of spleeny bitterness...

The look of the film I don't find nearly as stylish as In the Mood for Love, but the themes here don't call for that anyway. Instead of tidal passions barely repressed, here we have outpourings of emotion with nowhere to go. So instead of opulent, entrancing surfaces we get confusing mixed hues and textures. Combined with the frequently odd camera angles and perfectly unbalanced compositions we have a a perfect visual representation of passions too strong and untamed to be dressed up. It's a monsoon movie. The best scene is the first one between Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau, at night in the rain, her heart aching so bad she can barely think, her face shining between thick black shadows of buildings, his face barely visible under his shiny black policeman's hat...

Doyle's visuals serve Wong's new narrative technique perfectly. I'm not sure if it's a technique; abandonment of narrative is what I want to say, but that's a little too extreme. It's just that he's decided that he's really only interested in the emotions, and he jettisons all the realistic story details that a normal movie would include, but that are really irrelevant to understanding the emotion. We know next to nothing about Maggie Cheung's character: we get only the barest bits of information about her background, and the passage of time in the movie is so murky (despite the camera's obsession with clocks) that we don't know much about how she gets from one emotional state to another. What we know about her is mostly how she feels: tentative love, passionate heartbreak. The same goes for all the characters.

To me this meant that the movie struck me as melodramatic, in the best possible way: its emotions (not just Maggie Cheung's, but Carina Lau's and of course Leslie Cheung's as well) are almost operatic in their intensity and abandon. Mrs. Sgt. T, however, said she was impressed by how emotionally dry the film was - certainly it depicts strong emotions, she said, but with a curious distance. I can see that, too, kind of: it's almost as if the radical foregrounding of the characters' emotions at the expense of the realistic details of their lives objectifies those emotions, rendering them static icons of emotion, rather than states of feeling that people pass through.

Thoughts On Stuff's Patrick-san accounts for the movie, and its place in Wong's ouevre, much better than I can. His post is worth a read.

Bye-bye HMV Shibuya, 'kay?

David Marx at Néojaponisme has an informative lament up about the closing of HMV's Shibuya branch, complete with a run-down of the store's cultural significance. (Short version: it helped foster Shibuya-kei bands, including one or two I absolutely love.)

I never spent as much time or money at HMV as I have at tower, but I spent enough. And at Wave, which he also mentions; Wave in Roppongi was my first brush with Japanese music-store nirvana, so I always had a soft spot for that chain, too. ...I rather think HMV's financial problems might have been entirely due to me moving back to the States. Like Willie Dixon says, "I never said I was a millionaire - I said I spent more money than a millionaire."

Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer (2010)

This is a perfect movie, certainly one of Polanski's best, and I'd even say it's the equal of Chinatown. It'll never be as influential, both because Polanski's not the man for this cultural moment like he was for Chinatown's and because it's not as innovative. But in its look, its feel, its expertise, its acting, and its emotional and political depth, this is just as strong. (I even think Polanski cleverly alludes to Chinatown in the characters of the Chinese gardener and cook - it's a meaningful allusion, too, suggesting that here, too, things are not as transparent as the glass walls suggest.)

That's a huge claim, but I'll stand by it. I loved every frame of this film, right down to the magnificent ending, with what happens happening just off-screen, handled with an understated grace that only accentuates the horror.

Just as he did with Chinatown and Frantic, Polanski manages to create a sense of noirish dread without resorting to the deep shadows associated with noir. There's a lot of black and gray in this film, but they're clean, oceanic hues arising organically from the film's setting (I know it wasn't actually filmed on the Vineyard and the Cape, but he perfectly captures the look of the Massachusetts coast in winter), and the dignified, impenetrable blacks of security vehicles. Instead of hidden corners of dark houses we get huge picture-window vistas. And still we get things sneaking up on us - the news helicopter made me jump out of my seat.

The performances are pitch-perfect, too. Pierce Brosnan's ex-PM is a great creation, making cunning use of all Brosnan's Bond charisma (and in a possibly metafictional way - does Brosnan's resumé predispose us to believe the ghost writer's suspicions about him?). Ewan McGregor is perfect as his anonymous eponymous (or is he?) character. Olivia Williams, so brilliant in Dollhouse, is devastating as the ex-PM's wife - sympathetic and scary in turn. Her character, of course, may actually be who the title refers to, in a number of ways (the figure of the political spouse has been getting some excellent fictional coverage lately - I've been quite enjoying The Good Wife, too).

I guess it helps if you're a bit paranoid about the National Security State(s). Someone I saw this with was skeptical that the CIA had that much reach. If only.

Jim Emerson has two excellent posts about the movie here and here (the first one is actually commenting on someone else's praise, the second one is hardcore analysis - awesome).


It's worth mentioning, I think, that I missed this in the theaters but caught it at the David Minor Theater here in Eugene, which is a theater pub, the first I've ever been to. It's a small one, and at least this film was actually a DVD (Blu-ray, I think) projected on a big screen. I was apprehensive about this experience, but as it happened, I loved it. The picture quality was excellent - I can't say I noticed any difference from an actual projected film, and within minutes I forgot I was watching a DVD (and as Roger Ebert has repeatedly pointed out, the picture quality in your average multiplex can really suck - I've seen things projected on dim bulbs, out of focus, with lousy sound).

And showing it from a DVD meant we were blissfully free of commercials, PSAs, and previews. We payed a low price to watch a movie, and that's what we got.

What about the pub thing? The deal here is that you can order before the movie or during (you step out into the lobby to order). Once or twice during the screening, therefore, a waiter came in and called, quietly, somebody's name to deliver their order. Distracting? Certainly, and that's probably why, despite the fact that it was dinner hour, only a couple of people ordered anything. But to be honest, my impression was that this was a movie-loving group of people: quiet and attentive, and so even with the food deliveries it was a much less distracting environment than your average multiplex, with its texting teenagers and people talking to the screen.

We'll probably go back.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Walter Mosley: A Red Death (1991)

I like this one as well as the first one, I think, which is saying something. In some ways I might have enjoyed it more because I came at it innocent of any expectations set up by a movie.

It intrigues me that Mosley jumps ahead in time five years for the sequel. It surprises me, because I thought immediate postwar black LA was such a rich milieu - I was ready for four or five more books exploring that particular moment, its fleeting promise and fresh disappointment. Mosley seems to have decided to go broad rather than deep, though: by jumping up five years and setting this in the middle of the Red Scare, he seems to be setting himself the task, not of sketching every nuance of black life in one time and place, but of showing how one black life interacts with larger historical trends. It's a good trade-off, even though I'm apprehensive about future volumes that take the series into the '70s; Wattstax-era LA would seem to offer such a radically different aesthetic that I just don't know how Easy'll fit in. But then, I imagine that's part of the point.

I also like how compromised Easy is at the end of this book. He's made deals with two or three devils, broken any number of promises he half-made to himself. Is this a subversion of the knight-errant theory of noir? Or is it an established part of the genre that the hero can't remain untouched by the moral corruption of the world he lives in? Whichever, I found Easy's compromises pretty emotionally affecting. However tough Philip Marlowe had it, Easy's got it tougher - because he's black, so (for example) cops are not just obstacles, they're antagonists. It's like the old line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who, etc.

I think I've mentioned before that one of the bloggers I read on a daily basis is Ta-Nehisi Coates. Since I also read Andrew Sullivan, that means that two of my favorite bloggers write for The Atlantic. And both of them are on vacation right now, and both have turned their blogs over to guest-bloggers in the meantime.

I'm of two minds about this. I sympathize with what is no doubt considerable pressure from their employer to keep generating new content during what is a well-deserved break; and I sympathize with their desire to take a well-deserved break from what is undeniably, at their level, a grueling demand for new writing. The guest blogger idea is not a bad one, considering the alternative is darkness or reruns. They used to do this on late-night TV: Carson used to have guest hosts when he went on vacation. Letterman doesn't do that, usually; he just shows reruns. But he's brought in guest hosts when he's been sick, and I've enjoyed it then. So why not try the same thing on blogs?

Unfortunately I have to say that for me, the guest bloggers are largely failing. In Sullivan's case it's because he's chosen guest bloggers based on his own old tribal allegiance to the right: his guest bloggers (and his underbloggers) are moderate right-wingers, but they're still farther to the right than Sullivan is, even if he doesn't realize it, and it means that I (and I doubt I'm alone) end up rolling my eyes at what his guest bloggers write far more often than I do at Sullivan himself.

Coates has gone a different route; this time around he's drawn about equally from the ranks of his most eloquent commenters and from other bloggers he likes. The effect is interesting, because each guest seems to be representing a different facet of what Coates does - there's the Civil War history blogger, the hip-hop blogger, etc. And I'm sure each of them is good at what he or she does - but even taken collectively, they aren't TNC. What I'm learning about a good blog (at that level: mine doesn't even count) is that it's about the personality behind it, as much as it is about any particular viewpoint or expertise. I have no interest in some of the things TNC writes about, and I'm unsympathetic to some of the points of view Sullivan airs, but in each case I'm fascinated by how a personality I feel I've come to know (yeah, yeah, impossible: but still) handles even issues I don't care about. I'm not interested in hip-hop, but I'm interested in what TNC thinks about hip-hop, if that makes sense.

That said, Lorin Stein, one of TNC's guests this week, had an interesting post up the other day about beach reading, the history and subtext of the concept. I was interested to see it because I just got through a couple of weeks of almost nonstop immersion in Stieg Larsson's bestselling trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo who Played with Fire while Kicking the Hornets' Nest. I picked up the first one as a total impulse buy while getting in line at Powell's, and the whole time I was reading them, "beach reading" was the phrase that kept running through my head.

Beach reading as both excuse and ideal. FWIW, I agree that beach reading as a marketing tool is bogus (and Stein has some more interesting things to say about marketing and contemporary literary fiction here and here), but at the same time I do find that there are certain kinds of books that are better suited to reading on the beach (or wherever you're spending your summer outdoor leisure time: for me it's the balcony of our apartment) than others. Easy to read and immediately engrossing are qualities that help; note that those qualities aren't exclusive to either "popular" or "literary" fiction. I can only think off-hand of two books I've actually read on an actual beach, and one was one of the Harry Potter books, while the other was To Kill a Mockingbird. (Which one is pop lit?)

I try to read my share of serious books, but at the same time, as should be obvious by now, I also crave the feeling of being sucked into a book almost helplessly - and "beach reading" carries that connotation for me as well. That's what I was hoping for with Larsson's books. And that's what I got, although not the way I expected.

I did find them impossible to put down. One of them I literally stayed up all night to finish. And yet I never felt like it was impossible to put it down - in the first book especially I mostly felt like I was waiting to be grabbed. I couldn't stop reading, and I couldn't figure out why. The prose reads fluidly enough, but it isn't as drum-tight as some thrillers I've read. It's actually kind of gray. The characters are intriguing, but it takes us so long to really get to know them that I don't think it was them who kept me going. The plots are intriguing and garish, but they take so long to unfold that I didn't find myself wondering what was going to happen next so much as when anything was going to happen at all. And yet, I hasten to add, I couldn't put them down.

Which isn't to say that I feel like I wasted my time with them. I felt like that with The Da Vinci Code, which swallowed me the same way when I read that a few years ago. That was an amazingly satisfying read, but the minute I finished it and realized that Brown was basically lying about his sources, not to mention pandering to the worst prejudices of his readers, I felt like I'd been had. Abused.

These books ended up growing in stature as I read them, and after I'd finished. And I think the reason for that, the themes, is connected to at least one thing I can identify as something that kept me immersed in them.

I'm a liberal: I often admire the achievements of places like Sweden and wonder why we can't do the same. I'm not ashamed of this. And I recognize that one thing Larsson was trying to do was show that maybe not everything in the welfare state is as awesome as it seems, that maybe there is room for abuse, or a tendency to control the life of the individual too much. I recognize that, and yet at the same time the Sweden in his books is still incredibly attractive: it's a society that works, that's basically at peace, that has its values in the right place. Larsson may be trying to say that this is no longer true, but even in the fallen state he presents, it looks like a pretty nice place to me.

Which is what makes his central theme - pervasive, insidious, hidden misogyny (the first book's Swedish title, acc. to Wikipedia, translates to Men who Hate Women, and it's a perfect title) - so powerful. Many of the characters, and certainly the institutions, seem to have, as I say, the right values - and in spite of that, Larsson suggests, misogyny still manages to survive, and maybe even to thrive. He's at his strongest when he's showing how the worst motives can disguise themselves as the most respectable, and how the most sociopathic urges can lurk within the most nondescript of people. And how women, so often, are the ones who pay the price. And you know, if it can happen there...