Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Jia Zhang Ke’s The World, a realist rendering of contemporary Beijing youth, and Wong Kar Wai’s 2046, a romantic phantasia of late 1960s Hong Kong, stand at two distinct points on the aesthetic field of new Asian cinema. While both might be considered “art films” (with all the accolades and approbation the term implies) they couldn’t be more different in execution and affect. The World, like Jia’s previous films Unknown Pleasures and Platform, records an excessively present world, where time seems to have no future and the past is something that is only implied. 2046, on the other hand, manically tries to recapture a lost past (though not, I think, in a Proustian sense; memory in À la recherche du temps perdu is for the most part involuntary, whereas Wong’s characters recount and embellish their pasts voluntarily, even and especially when they try to escape their pasts). In 2046 only the past and future are represented on screen. The present is just a voice. The World in contrast is emphatically present, and proceeds in long, medium-shot takes that have come to typify they style of certain Asian filmmakers (one wouldn’t want to call them a school, for the style can be traced across cultures, from Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang to Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Shinji Aoyama…and perhaps even further afield to Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan). Single shots may last several minutes or more, with only the most minimal of movements taking place on the margins of the screen. Audience tolerance for this style can be very low. Several couples walked out of The World at my screening when certain scenes passed the minute mark with little or no dialogue. I find the languors rewarding, however, and view them as a generous invitation from the filmmaker to think about what we’re seeing and hearing, to trace the associations and ideas presented throughout the film, as opposed to the immediate reaction demanded from most mainstream cinema. My thought processes are so heightened during Jia’s films that leaving the theater and going outside into the real world seems like embarking on a long nap. 2046 is just as demanding, though it doesn’t ask the viewer to swim in the lake of long takes; rather, its asks that the viewer walk along a slowly-developing narrative path full of detours, backtracks, and imagined futures. Though many scenes in 2046 are certainly long, Wong employs a colorful, rich, mind-meltingly beautiful cinematography (thank you, Christopher Doyle – your cinematography moves me) that is something akin to liquid cinema. The effect is almost the opposite of The World’s: when the film ends (I’ve seen it twice now) I feel that I’ve awakened from a long, inspiring dream. These two films, so different in style and method, serve as a slap to the face of mainstream cinema’s universal cretinization*.

I’ve heard many critics claim that since The World is the first of Jia’s films to receive distribution in mainland China (i.e. the first of his films not to be censored by the nominally Communist government) it must have very little political dimension. Don’t listen to ‘em. Like 2046, The World investigates the various courses and discourses of desire under the sign of capitalism. Just as Platform critiqued the misery of the Cultural Revolution and the slow hope of economic liberalization, The World critiques the soulless simulacra (okay, I hate the word but it’s unavoidable in a film that takes place in a theme park replica of our small-world, complete with mini Eiffel tower and mini New York skyline) of neo-liberalism and globalization, where everything is on the market, including bodies and lives. When critics say the film is apolitical, they assume that most political Chinese filmmakers would only criticize the repression and world-view of the Chinese government, not realizing that it is the critics’ own Western-style economic system that is receiving the brunt of the barbs.

*Okay, not all mainstream cinema is terrible. Some of it is quite good. And all of it deserves serious critical consideration. But the bulk of it depends on an instant reaction from its audience that is the enemy of critical thought.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The French title to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard is Boulevard Crepuscule. I like the sound of that. Evokes the mood of the film.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Weeks of reading over at Fascicle.

UPDATE: Fascicle isn't live yet, so I've taken away the link to content. Will restore in time.
It was a little disorienting to turn on NPR this morning and hear Minor Threat and the Nation of Ulysses.
Jordan over at Equanimity writes:

Isabel Nathaniel's "The Beholder: A Tale" is given its own heading in the TOC, "short story in verse." If I'd noticed that distinction before I started reading the piece, I might not have been so irritated with its first three sections, which are tedious short story scene-setting.

But tedious short story scene-setting is tedious even in short stories, no? Why should it be less irritating simply because the form is a short-story-in-verse rather than a poem? Or if you're still irritated by the piece, only less so than if it were a poem, where does the reduction in irritation lie?

UPDATE: Jordan responds, fairly.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

I was pleased to see so many moviegoers under the age of eighteen at the Sunset Boulevard screening. A ten-year old sitting next to me laughed every time Gloria Swanson showed her face. His mother explained to him all the things he couldn't know throughout the film ("she's a famous gossip columnst, that guy was head of Paramount, etc."). When one of the actors mentioned "the West Side", the boy asked, "What's that?"
Mother: The West Side, that's where we live. Do you know where Hollywood is?
Boy: The North?
Mother: No, Hollywood is the East Side.

Yeah, well, I guess Hollywood is on the East Side if you live in Santa Monica. I've always thought of it as central. But if Hollywood is on the East Side, what's downtown, or East L.A.? Or Whittier?

Also pleased that the plot of Sunset Boulevard is set in motion in a manner true to Angeleno life: Joe Gillis doesn't want to lose access to his car. Thom Andersen must have made this point in Los Angeles Plays Itself, no? I can't remember. I only remember Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes in Chinatown (hmmm...Jake Gittes...Joe Gillis) described as "castrated" because he has no wheels.
I was flabbergasted to see the names Erich von Stroheim, Cecil B. Demille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton flash onscreen during opening credits to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which surprisingly, stupidly, along with Double Indemnity, I had never seen before last night (American films of the 1930s through 50s, noirs especially, are a blind spot in my film knowledge). Why have I avoided seeing these films for so long? I was instantly enraptured. Watching them, I felt little pieces of cinema history and pop culture fall into place (Oh! So that’s where “I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. Demille” comes from…Mulholland Drive makes so much more sense to me now…Barton Keyes…Barton Fink). It was the same feeling I had a few years ago hearing a fairly decent Beatles tune I had somehow never heard before ("Hey Bullfrog"). The mix of comedy and suspense in Sunset is masterful. With every line and every scene my jaw dropped a little lower. That there was a monkey-in-the-coffin bit was especially delightful. Double Indemnity, more straight noir, was also excellent, though I was initially disappointed to see the same story flashback structure used in both films. I suppose these films are old hat for most filmgoers, so please excuse my excitement, and slap me for my negligence.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I have a feeling this is a dream, but...Beck, Thurston Moore, the Arcade Fire, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Rilo Kiley, Devendra Banhart, Elvira, David Cross (!), Malcolm McLaren, Peaches, Roky Erikson, Postal Service, Sparks and others collaborate on a We Are the World style Halloween song with proceeds going to UNICEF. A link to Said the Gramaphone who has "Do They Know It's Halloween" on mp3.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I freely and somewhat embarrassingly admit that this thought (Slavoj Zizek, "Give Iranian Nukes a Chance") has more than once crossed my mind, only to be immediately rejected as absurd. I suppose this is a devil's advocate argument intended to make a larger political point (which is, what...America must be stopped?) but Zizek is floating in space here, and makes too many mistakes (Iran an Arab state?) to be taken seriously. Rewrite it and then we can talk.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Poet Jen Hofer (“like offer, not like gopher”) was kind enough to open her home Friday night to the Angeleno rabble by hosting and co-curating , with filmmaker David Gatten, an evening of cinema & poetry entitled The Moving Word.

Los Angeles, like most urban centers, has a fairly vibrant & diverse avant-garde/experimental/underground/what-have-you poetry community. The same can be said of the avant-garde film community, with the added twist that it operates in an industry town beneath (or along-side-of, or above) Hollywood, the dream factory, Babylon, etc. (Maybe it’s so energetic because of this fact; that is, only from such an embattled position at the apex of Hollywood money, power, & celebrity can such a community exist – similar perhaps to how the underground literary community operates in New York, surrounded by the big publishers? I suppose there are other reasons, the proximity of film & art schools like UCLA & CALArts being primary. For an interesting take on Hollywood & the avant-garde ("The distinction between 'pure' uncorrupted avant-garde and 'commercialized' Hollywood or mainstream cinema is a false one, and probably always was"), check out this post from Digital Poetics). Still, it amazes me that the cinema & poetry communities in Los Angeles are not brought into dialogue like this more often, especially because the communities tend to overlap significantly. Most of the poets I know are cinephiles, avant-garde or otherwise...

The evening began with a film by Janie Geiser, followed by Will Alexander reading from his latest book, Exobiology as Goddess. There were also films by Paolo Davanzo (who runs the Echo Park Film Center), David Gatten, Adele Horne, Lewis Klahr (with music by Rhys Chatham), Lisa Marr, and Lee Anne Schmitt, as well as readings by Haryette Mullen, Jane Sprague, Diane Ward, and Jen Hofer. Quite a lot to take in, and I didn’t even mention the pre-show impromptu musical performances (a group of people, I don’t know who, played incredible old-timey country & bluegrass music, two guitars & a fiddle). Sorry I don’t have specifics, I didn’t take notes. Jane Sprague read from “White Footed Mouse, Field Notes” which you can read online in a PDF document of the journal ecopoetics no. 3.

Also got to talk a bit with Ara Shirinyan, and finally got to meet Stan Apps & Mathew Timmons (at least I think it was M. Timmons...I didn't catch the last name, correct me if I'm wrong).

Oh yeah, I joined the Totally Obvious blog and will be posting there occasionally.