Asian Cinema Month – In the Mood For Love



In the Mood For Love (2000, dir. Wong Kar Wai)
Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung

In writing poetry or prose you have a toolbox called language. This toolbox contains things like grammar, syntax, meter, rhyme, etc. Film has a toolbox as well, but is much much larger. And the idea of having more to work with sounds like it would be easier than writing, however more does not equal easier. In the film toolbox you have elements like sound and images. And subsets of sound would be dialogue, character’s accents, soundtrack, sound effects, sound mixing. Under images we find art direction, costume design, lighting, and the most vital of all cinematography. For even the most seasoned artist, misusing these tools is an easy thing to slip up and do. With this feature from director Wong Kar Wai every single tool is used perfectly and produces a flawless example of how rich style can blend with very clear, stated substance.

The film opens in Hong Kong in 1962. Chow (Leung) is renting a room in an apartment building on the same day as So (Cheung). They pass in the hall, barely acknowledging each other. Cut to a few days later and they happen to both be moving in on the same day. Chow’s wife is seen only from behind, her face intentionally not revealed. So’s husband travels abroad to Japan almost every other week and is glimpsed in a similar fashion. The months roll on and both Chow and So become convinced that their spouses have begun an affair. Not knowing how to deal with this they attempt to recreate the circumstances that led their spouses astray with themselves to understand what happened.

The plot is very loose and is carried mostly by the atmosphere created by Wong Kar Wai and his cinematographers, Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee. You rarely see cinema filmed so beautifully and with such delicate craft. I found this to be the kind of film where I don’t remember scenes of dialogue or action, rather I remember images like paintings. Chow sits over his typewriter working on a story and the smoke from his cigarette billows up above his head. The rich detail of every gray tendril of smoke is captured on screen and I felt excitement at such a profoundly beautiful image. The film’s simple theme (a longing tune played on violin) is used repeatedly in scenes where Chow and So are navigating past each other, both physically and emotionally. The camera peeks around door frames, into crowded rooms of neighbors gathered to play cards. We see Chow and So separated by these people who are caught up in raucous laughing, and the tension bleeds off the screen.

The film is able to convey the conservative social pressures of the time. Chow and So meet in his bedroom, merely to share food and must be cautious of Chow’s landlord. They are unable to touch, made clear in a scene where So reaches for Chow’s hand after being caught up in a rare moment of happiness and then quickly withdraws. The film is greatly concerned with absence: the absence of the spouses, the absence of companionship or love, the absence of the spouse’s full identities. A title card that introduces the film reads “the past was something he could see but not touch”, a phrase that sums up what this lush film is all about.

Advertisements

Charlie Chaplin Month – Limelight



Limelight (1952)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Norman Lloyd, Sydney Earle Chaplin

During Chaplin’s trip to Europe to promote this film, he had his re-entry to the Unites States revoked (he always legally remained a British citizen). It was the height of Red Panic at the time in the US and Chaplin had never been shy about voicing his personal opinions on the treatment of the working class. Chaplin’s long standing tensions with J. Edgar Hoover led to his re-entry papers being revoked and he decided to set up his home in Switzerland. This would be where he would live for the rest of his days and this film (while not his last) would stand as his symbolic goodbye to cinema.

It’s 1914,  and Calvero (Chaplin) is a former performer on the East End stages. He now comes home drunk out of his mind in the middle of the day, slowly weathering away in his flat. One afternoon he returns and finds his downstairs neighbor, Teri (Bloom) unconscious holding a bottle of pills and letting gas from her stove fill her apartment. He saves her life and afterwards learns she became suicidal when her dreams of performing ballet were slowly crushed. Calvero nurses her back to health as she suffers from psychosomatic paralysis. Eventually, she regains her confidence and becomes the prima ballerina of a great company. Teri meets and falls in love with composer Neville (played by Chaplin’s own son, Sydney Earle). She goes onto secure a part for Calvero in the show as a clown and he eventually gets his own showcase which is to be his final, great performance.

1914 is an incredibly significant year in the life of Chaplin. It was in that year he made a small appearance in the Keystone short Kid Auto Races at Venice. The character he played was called The Little Tramp. The birth of one of the most iconic film characters means the death of the stage variety that brought Chaplin up. As Calvero he recognizes both the twilight of his own career and how his rise to fame was responsible for the end of many East End performers’ careers. It’s made even more significant that Buster Keaton plays Calvero’s old partner who joins him in the final stage performance. Here we have the two men who birthed cinematic comedy taking one last bow in an era that no longer had room for their style.

Despite the symbolic significance of much of the film it is still a very self-indulgent picture. Chaplin made his film’s independently meaning he got to make final cut. Limelight clocks in at 2 hours, 11 minutes and it is a real stretch. Much like The Great Dictator, another over 2 hour picture, the middle sections sag painfully. The bits Chaplin performs are never all that funny either. The two man piece he does with Keaton at the end of the film is pretty decent but never lives up to his old films.

Import Fridays – The Lives of Others



The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
Starring Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme

What if we were able to see Big Brother not as a faceless entity, but as a series of human cogs that make up the machine? And, what if we could see each of those cogs, doing their duty in the name of the state, as an individual human being who possesses empathy and compassion. This is the scenario this Academy Award winning German seeks to explore the humanity of a “Statsi Man”, one of the grey men who did the dirty work of the German Democratic Republic so that the authorities could successfully arrest and detain suspected dissidents.

Wiesler (Muhe) is the best the GDR has to offer in terms of surveillance and interrogation. He’s a natural pick to monitor the playwright Dreyman and his live in girlfriend/actress Christa-Maria. Dreyman has been associating with a number of dissidents and secretly an East German official covets Christa-Maria and wants to ruin Dreyman. Wiesler’s crew wires Dreyman’s apartment and begins his ever constant vigil listening to the daily life of the couple. Slowly but surely Wiesler finds himself becoming captivated with Dreyman’s joy and sadness. The death of a close writer friend cause Dreyman to become inspired to write an expose on the GDR’s efforts to cover up suicide statistics and this puts him in a lot of danger. Wiesler is compromised and must make a choice between his duty to the state and his duty to his fellow man.

Wiesler is comparable to Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Harry Caul in the similar wiretapping film The Conversation. Both men are trapped in a world of paranoiac seclusion. The nature of their jobs planted seeds of mistrust and now they live lives of solitude, only feeling safe when they are alone, yet simultaneously feeling empty. Wiesler is glimpsed mostly sitting alone in the attic above Dreyman’s apartment with headphones on, transcribing what he hears through his typewriter. He finally breaks when Dreyman receives a phone call telling him his friend has killed himself. Dreyman grieves by playing a piece of music this friend gave him and its inter-cut with images of Wiesler weeping.

The film comes to a dark conclusion but emphasizes its hopeful message through its series of denouements. The film wants to remind us that even in the most oppressive of times and the most tightest chokeholds, that human compassion can never be predicted. No matter how loyal a person has become to an authoritarian body all it takes is a brief moment of human connection to forever change that instrument into a full human being.

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Great Dictator



The Great Dictator (1940)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Reginald Gardiner

The comparison was all because of the toothbrush mustache. That little flourish is what linked Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler at the time. Chaplin was disgusted by Hitler, and the way the American and British governments tried to keep him happy or ignore what he was doing at the time. It was also noted that Hitler was jealous of Chaplin’s popularity during a Berlin visit the actor made. To further rub it in, Chaplin wrote, directed and produced The Great Dictator, a send up of the Nazi actions in the build up to World War II.

The Little Tramp is now a Jew living in the fictional nation of Tomainia, fighting against the Americans in World War I. He’s clunked on the head and ends up in a military hospital unaware that on the outside dictator Adenoid Hynkel has come to power and is blaming the Jews of his nation for the post-War depression. The Tramp is eventually released from the hospital and is disheartend by the world he discovers on the outside. He eventually falls in love with fellow resident of the ghetto, Hannah and is spared execution by a Tomainian whose life he saved in the War. All along the way the film bounces back and forth with the Hitler parody of Hynkel, leading up to a Prince and the Pauper-esque role reversal.

This was probably the least funny of all Chaplin’s films I have seen, and most definitely the longest, hitting the two hour mark. I can see the challenge Chaplin would have making this picture, because he wants to make a comedy but he also wants to skewer Hitler and convey some sense of the pain being inflicted on the Jewish people. Later Chaplin admitted if he had known the extent of the treatment of the Jews and in particular the Holocaust he would have never made this film. Interestingly, the Jewish community was very welcoming to the film and its portrayal of their people despite Chaplin’s injection of comedy into the proceedings. The jokes in the film never create the sense of hilarity of early works because they typically involve the Little Tramp being brutalized by Tomainan storm troopers.

The film has a lot of heart and that hurts its comedy in comparison to the earlier films. The chief redeeming moment is one where Chaplin is playing the Tramp and completely drops the persona and it is Chaplin speaking. He conveys his concerns with the direction of humanity and reaffirms his belief that we are capable of so much more. While definitely harmful to the picture as a film, it is a very strong and well thought out political statement.

Seventies Saturdays – Little Big Man



Little Big Man (1970, dir. Arthur Penn)
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George, Martin Balsam, Richard Mulligan

At the height of the conflict in Vietnam, American filmmakers were ensconced in counter-cultural material. The 1970s were also a renaissance period in American cinema as well, influenced particularly by the French New Wave of the 1960s. Both social and aesthetic revisionism is at the heart of Arthur Penn’s adaptation of this novel, which results in a film that is both clever and funny, and at other times muddy and unsure of itself.

As a young boy, Jack Crabb’s family are massacred by Indians, however he and his sister are rescued by the friendly Cheyenne. Jack grows up amongst the Indians and eventually is pulled into the white man’s world, where is to be properly educated in good Christian morals. For the rest of Crabb’s life he goes back and forth, between being a “civilized white man’ and a “savage Cheynne”. A sort of Western Expansionism Forrest Gump, Crabb runs across historical figures like Wild Bill Hickok and General Custer, the latter of whom he serves under three separate times.

Penn allows the Cheyenne to speak in plain English, but within the rules of the film, its their native tongue translated so that we may hear. This was a big change in film at the time, as Indians had been portrayed as speaking in broken English and using tired, clich├ęd phrases. However, the film does fall into some common cliches of another kind when dealing with the tribe’s single homosexual member, who’s portrayed as a limp-wristed effeminate dandy. It would have been more interesting to have a common brave amongst the tribe end up being attracted to his fellow warriors.

The film is infused with a biting sense of humor, and definitely plays up the common myths of the frontier for laughs. General Custer, historically known for being pompous and grandiose, is played wonderfully by Richard Mulligan. Dustin Hoffman does a very convincing job as Jack Crabb, and shines particularly in the physical comedy gags. At one point he operates as a gunslinger (The Soda Pop Kid), and has a nervous encounter with Wild Bill, which highlights the small stature of Crabb. It’s a very fun film, that rushes over so much, and that it keeps it from becoming a true classic.

Seventies Saturdays – The Great White Hope

The Great White Hope (1970, dir. Martin Ritt)
Starring James Earl Jones, Jane Alexander, Lou Gilbert, Joey Fluellen

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Great White Hope is a “names changed” version of the career of Jack Johnson, an African-American boxer during the early 20th century. Johnson was the first black heavyweight boxing champion and was known for patiently waiting for his opponent to slip up, then barraging him with a series of incapacitating blows. Johnson was a figure of great controversy, not just because he was a threat to the white male ego in the boxing ring, but because all of the women he became seriously involved with were white. Johnson showed little sense of humility about his dealings and was one of the first public figures to really use controversy as a way to promote his own celebrity.

In the film, Jack Jefferson (Jones) has just defeated the heavyweight champion and is celebrating this achievement with much bravado. The African-American community is divided about Jefferson though. While those around him immediately after the fight revel with him and dance in the streets, there are others who see Jefferson has creating negative image for their people because of his brazeness. Another group see Jefferson as being nothing but an “uncle tom” by consorting with white women and embracing what they see as a white way of life. Jefferson has an interesting take on all of this. In a scene early on, after he is weighed in before the big bout, an older black gentleman mentions that the young men will be inspired and “proud to be colored” when Jefferson wins. The boxer replies that they should already be proud and his winning or losing should have nothing to do with it. An interesting idea when thinking about the role of athletes as “role models” in contemporary society.

Jefferson and his fiancee, Eleanor’s relationship is played very well, but we don’t get enough background to understand how they came together. They are very much in love, but we’re never shown how, despite the social stigma of their relationship, they would defy it and stay together. The film also has some problems with how broadly a lot of characters are played. The white establishment villains literally “bwahahaha” at one point in the final scenes, and it would have been interesting to see them played with more internal conflict. Jane Alexander’s performance as Eleanor is also ruined by the pointless turn her character is forced to take, mainly to serve as momentum to move Jefferson forward to the finale. The one standout performance is James Earl Jones as Jefferson; he plays the character as incredibly multi-layered. Jefferson is charming and intelligent, but also selfish and arrogant. He loves Eleanor deeply but is resentful when he realizes she’ll never understand the limitations put on him.

Wild Card Tuesday – Hunger


Hunger (2008, dir. Steve McQueen)

Starring Michael Fassbender, Liam Cunningham
The fight between Catholic and Protestant sides in Northern Ireland has devastated that country since the late 1960s. Each side has visited monolithic brutality on the other in of the greatest displays of community inflicting such cruelty on itself. But the cruelty that was the worst, was that of employees of the British empire on IRA members imprisoned in facilities across the country. Director Steve McQueen never give support for the terrorist actions of the IRA, but advocates that all prisoners, regardless of their crimes, deserve humane treatment.
The film’s focus is real life IRA soldier Bobby Sands (Fassbender). While the film doesn’t explicitly cover his activities with the IRA, he was no saint. He helped ferry weapons for the movement and was involved in the bombing of a furniture store in 1976. The film chooses to portray Sands as a figure unwilling to budge an inch for the brutal authority crashing down around his head. In this effort he has allowed himself to become dehumanized. Simply put, he has been caged and treated like an animal, so he will behave like one. Sands smears the walls of his cell with his own feces, allows the daily meals to rot and mold in a corner, and funnels his bed pan (synchronized with the other prisoners) out into the hallway. Is it vile? Yes. But there something innate within us that despise authority that wishes to break us, so it comes off as bizarrely admirable.
Bobby’s most memorable, and final, triumph came when he began a hunger strike in 1981 which took his life after several painful months of starvation. Michael Fassbender destroyed his body through malnutrition to take on the gaunt, sunken appearance of a Holocaust victim. He become the specter of death with additional help from an incredibly talented makeup department. His back is covered in open sores, he’s unable to urinate for the prison doctor’s physical, and he stains his sheets with black, acrid blood. The moments before Sands passes are truly powerful. The film moves into his consciousness as hallucinations of his younger self appear and his mind travels back to long distance race where he and both Prot and Catholic youths ran together, in fields of golden amber. Director McQueen doesn’t want you to take the IRA’s side, he wants you to realize how irrelevant any side is, and simply see a man dying.
The aesthetic choice made by McQueen are magnificent. For the first 30 minutes of the film there is little or no dialogue. Only 50 minutes in is there an actual conversation between two people for extended amount of time. Here Sands and a priest from his community debate the point of standing in defiance of authority. The priest tells Sands he must submit to the uniform being enforced on the prisoners and Sands simply won’t budge. Once again, neither side wins in the debate. They simply come to the conclusion that neither of them will change their ideas about it. Hunger is one of the best examples of director using the language of cinema to tell a visceral and moving story. There is no maudlin sentimentality, yet there is a deep emotional core. Not for those lacking a strong constitution, but one of the most amazing British films I’ve ever seen.