Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Once More, With Feeling, Or Not

Norah Jones in My Blueberry Nights

Every time I watch Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's (arguable) masterpiece In the Mood for Love, I get a ravenous desire for cheap Asian noodles. Not a craving, mind you--a ravenous desire that if not satiated will last days, days I spend in anguish just thinking about, obsessing over, how I will get my hands on some MSG-laden noodles. I'm like a junkie in need of a fix. Experience has taught me to watch that film with some good take-out--or at least a cup of ramen.

This is strange since I can't remember that many shots of really appetizing-looking food in the film at all (for food porn, see The Vertical Ray of the Sun or Big Night or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman.) That's how transportive Wong Kar-Wai's filmmaking is; he films an encounter at the noodle stand, and I feel like I'm there: pushing through the crowd, yelling to have my voice heard, feeling the heat from the steaming pots of noodles, smelling them. If I had to pick one word to describe his filmmaking, it would be "sensual."

However, "sensual" is not a word I would ascribe to WKW's latest (and first English language) film My Blueberry Nights. Case in point: Despite all the money shots of gooey vanilla ice cream melting in blueberry pie, I not once craved--nor got a sensation of--blueberry pie. I just thought, "ice cream melting in pie." I also thought of how sexual the shot was, but that thought was unaccompanied by desire or feeling as well. There was no depth. The film wasn't an experience so much as a bunch of pretty pictures tenuously held together by a threadbare plot. (This coming from someone who, generally, likes her plots threadbare.)

Actually, compared with most WKW films, My Blueberry Nights has a fairly concrete and identifiable plot. (Can you imagine trying to write plot summaries for his other films? In the Mood: Two cuckolds become friends, are bereft about their marriages, fall in love, maybe. Chungking Express: a fast-food-stand server pines for a regular who is pining for his ex; meanwhile, another regular pines for his ex but finds a diversion in a smuggler with a blond wig. Ashes of Time: martial arts masters do very little fighting, a lot of pining for one another. Fallen Angels: who even knows.)

Here's Blueberry Nights: a young woman (played by a wooden Norah Jones), spurned by her lover, finds solace in the company of a café owner (a really appealing Jude Law) and then goes on a cross-country road trip to forget about her ex-lover, where she meets many "colorful" (read: stock) characters. I miss all the pining.

Jude Law in the classic Tony Leung role

I'm not being glib. One of the problems with Blueberry Nights is a lack of urgency that characterizes WKW's other films. That feeling that if you don't get the girl, your life is not worth living. To a non-romantic, or to anyone who hasn't seen a WKW film, this sounds a bit ridiculous and melodramatic, and it is, but who hasn't felt this way at some point? And every time I see a WKW movie and am overwhelmed with longing or loneliness or romantic feelings or even hunger, I feel like this is why I watch films. His films aren't just meditations on these things, they are these things. It’s the whole experience thing I discussed in my last post.

So, why does Blueberry Nights lack this urgency? First, there's Norah Jones (who isn't a cringe-inducing actress, but just has no presence); she doesn't so much act as react, though that's partly the script's fault. She's supposed to be a heartbroken mess, but she just seems like a perfectly well-adjusted girl who just was dumped by a guy whom she wasn't that crazy about to begin with but was accustomed to and so thus feels a little lost. This is not the stuff of WKW movies: No ambivalence allowed.

Jude Law's character, I thought, should have been the protagonist. A man with an interesting, not quite mysterious but maybe a little intriguingly hazy or murky past, who is pining for a lost girl who comes to his café and cries about her broken heart while gorging on his leftover blueberry pies. Law's is the classic Tony Leung part--he's also as dreamy as Leung. And he seems real, unlike Natalie Portman's character (a spitfire gambler) or Rachel Weisz and David Strathairn's fraught couple with a penchant for drinking and fighting.

Another reason why I think Law should have been the protagonist is because WKW doesn't understand women, completely. This isn't a bad thing; WKW does not usually pretend to understand women but tends to look at them--and film them--with a mixture of bemusement and awe. (The one exception I can think of is Faye Wong's character in Chungking Express, who plays a lovesick fast-food worker, and who is more empathetic than mysterious and seductive.)

Repression is also missing. One of the characteristics that make WKW's films so unbearably (in a good way) heartbreaking is the compulsion--or expectation--to repress one's desires or feelings. For this reason, his films aren't very talky, and this has made him find other ways to convey characters' thoughts and motivations. Here, though, everything is much more open (I don't know if this is merely the way he views American culture, in contrast with his own). People just talk, talk, talk, but there is no subtlety, and, because characters can just talk, talk, talk, there is not this urgency and longing to reach out to someone, this hunger for human connection that drives my favorite WKW characters to despair. I'm not saying I want characters to be despondent--I love, for example, Chungking Express, which is this sweet romance between lonely, inarticulate, crazy romantics--there's just no sense of struggle, of self-doubt, of repression in Norah Jones "journey," and there's really no obstacle keeping her from her destined love.

Of course, there are a bunch of other problems with Blueberry Nights: The camera work is jarring without serving the themes or narrative; the dialogue is, often, awkward; I miss WKW's regular cinematographer, Chris Doyle. But I could take or leave those. The romance--gut-wrenching, heartbreaking romance--is what I can't live without.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

It's Not a Puzzle

Before I get to the fun stuff--ie. the film stuff--I want to take the time for some shameless self-promotion. (Those who read my other blog have surely seen it by now.) I got a piece published in about perfumes. It's a fun little trifle. I knew almost nothing about (and, in fact, for many years, hated) perfumes. But I found the topic quite fascinating and now have the urge to begin--maybe--wearing one or two. We'll see.

Okay, now that you have read--or bookmarked, or chosen to ignore--my piece, we can proceed.

I guess I'll start with a question: Why do we watch films?

I have been asking myself this question because lately I feel like I watch films for completely different reasons than most people do.

I was thinking about this after watching Last Year at Marienbad, a 1960s French film by Alain Resnais (who had previously directed Hiroshima, Mon Amour). Last Year at Marienbad is notorious for being "difficult," impenetrable, divisive. People who love Marienbad say something like "I've watched Last Year at Marienbad X amount of times, and I still have no idea what happened last year at Marienbad" (as if obtusity gave the film some sort of artistic cred); people who hate Marienbad say they hate it because they have "no idea what it's about" (as in, they think after seeing it, "What the hell just happened?").

Somehow, I think, both are missing the point.

First, I don't think the film is meant to be a puzzle. I think it's a meditation on the past, memory, how memory distorts reality, idealism, madness, obsession -- with some social commentary thrown into the mix (those 1960s French auteurs loved to poke fun at the bourgeoisie).

Basic summary: An unidentified man (X) meets an unidentified woman (A) at a summer retreat in Marienbad and claims that they have met before (last year). The woman insists she has never seen him before in her life, and he tells her again and again, upon every subsequent meeting, the details of their affair last year and how they had promised to meet again this year at the same place. Of course the story goes through several variations and permutations, flashbacks and the present are conflated, and there's not so much conversation as there are cryptic utterances and stream-of-conscious rambling. (Sounds like a film snob's wet dream and various other people's movie hell, doesn't it?)

Since the events of the story keep changing with everyone of X's re-tellings, it's clear that X, himself, doesn't really know what happened. He's played a romanticized version in his head so many times in the past year, slightly tweaking details, that he has obliterated the truth. (There's an interesting moment where he's telling A of their romantic rendezvous in her bedroom, and then, entirely unprovoked, as if trying to convince himself, he insists that it wasn't rape, that she was willing, that the act was pure.)

Perhaps the only one who knows what actually happened is A, but she remains tight-lipped, she's not telling anyone--not X (the narrator), not the director, not us.

But it's not the fact that we will never know the plot that makes Marienbad an interesting film--it's its handling of tangible themes that make it interesting, and, ultimately, relateable. It's also its sumptuous cinematography, its gorgeous shot compositions, its eerie mood and the impossibly beautiful Delphine Seyrig (who plays A)--and her covetable wardrobe, designed by Coco Chanel--that makes us watch, that makes us appreciate the beautiful artificiality that somehow can convey truths of cinema.

Which brings me to my second point, why do people feel the need to understand a film in order to like it? I don't know what happened last year at Marienbad, but that doesn't prohibit me from enjoying what is transpiring before me on the screen. The same goes for, say, Mulholland Dr.. I hate when I tell people I liked that film and they respond with "Well, can you explain it to me?" or "Did you understand it?" Can we ever really truly understand film--or any work of art--anyway? I mean, we can't know what the director intended when he or she made a specific film. We can only interpret, experience. And interpreting is different than explaining. Who wants to have art explained anyway? Isn't it much more fun to ruminate and discuss and argue anyway?

And isn't it much more fun to experience? To let the images move you, to yield to them and let them take you on some sort of little journey? I think solving the puzzle of a film like Marienbad--or trying to solve the puzzle--is missing out on the film itself.