Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together (1997)

I'm a story person.  Reading, thinking about, writing about, talking about stories is, no joke, my stock in trade.  And so it's probably inevitable that my default approach to films is as stories.  I guess I see filmmaking as, essentially, dramaturgy.  As far back as history records, humans have acted out stories to one another;  film is simply what has replaced live theater for most of us in the modern era.  I know that doesn't do film justice - that it doesn't account for what's unique and specific to cinema as an art form - that film doesn't have to tell stories - but in practice, almost all films do tell stories, and so my approach serves me well almost all the time.

But every once in a while I encounter a film that doesn't tell a story, or tells it in such a way as to make it clear that dramaturgy is the furthest thing from its mind, and I'm reminded that there are other ways to look at film. 

Like Happy Together.  I mean, it does have a story, but two things about this film convinced me that the story wasn't quite the point.  One of these things is a legitimate reason for me to think this, the other not quite so much.

The legitimate reason is what Wong's (and Doyle's) camera is interested in, which is not always, maybe not even usually, the story.  It's interested in textures, patterns, views.  Like the tiles in the guys' apartment - they're having a knock-down drag-out, but the viewer's eye is caught less by the action than by the oddly lush concatenation of colors and patterns and textures in the tileage on the bathroom wall.  Or like the scene of Tony Leung riding around on a boat in the harbor feeling depressed:  we start out feeling his pain, but the camera lingers so long on odd angles that before long we're just captivated by the black water, the blank sky, the looming shapes of boats and face.  It's abstract.

The film is abstract.  And, in case it's not clear, I'll say that I found it quite beautiful.  Maybe the most amazing thing I've seen by Wong so far.  It's just an unexpected beauty:  he goes to all the trouble to film in Buenos Aires but we get virtually no cityscapes, no local color of the kind one might expect. This could have been filmed anywhere - but maybe not.  Those tiles. 

The second thing is not contained within the movie proper, but in the documentary on the DVD.  It must be watched.  If you've seen In the Mood for Love you know Wong Kar-Wai's method:  he shoots far more material than he could ever use, almost all of it improvised, and settles on the story in the editing room.  Here the documentary gives us nearly an hour of unused footage, and it's basically an entirely different film.  New characters, new storylines for familiar characters - familiar characters being redefined.  It's almost as good as the film we have.

Which was really fucking disconcerting, to tell you the truth.  Because, the foregoing notwithstanding, I liked the story I thought Wong was telling:  it was a moving depiction of a relationship, made all the more powerful by the fact that it was a relationship between two gay men.  Like, that mattered and it didn't matter:  the specificity of it, but also the universality of it.  Despite the disjointedness of the narrative, you really felt like you came to know these guys.

Then you watch the doc and realize that the story you just saw was, basically, accidental.  Like, depending on how you cut it, maybe these guys aren't even gay, maybe they're in Argentina for completely different reasons, maybe they're not even the main characters... 

On one level it's genius:  it demonstrates the illusory nature of storytelling in film.  We always think we're seeing an organic story being acted out before our eyes but in fact we're only ever seeing a collage, disparate pieces that were assembled to make us think we're seeing a story.  (Ever have one of those moments when you see an over-the-shoulder shot of someone talking and you remind yourself, oh yeah, that shoulder probably belongs to a stand-in?  Or when you realize you're watching a stun double?)

This is Cinema 101, I know, but it's particularly easy for me to forget it.  Happy Together reminded me of it. 


Matt said...

Hypothesis: Wong Kar-Wai is to filmmaking as Miles Davis (okay, okay, and Teo) is to jazz.

(Corollary: Tony Leung is Joe Zawinul, and Maggie Cheung is Wayne Shorter.)

Tanuki said...

In a silent way, baby!