*Written for the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience*
Singin’ in the Rain shares a lot of DNA with Sherlock Jr., the previous subject in “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” They’re both movies about movies. They celebrate the fantasy — the dream — of cinema. Most importantly, they emerge from an examination of their art with joy and enthusiasm. These films feed our reveries about what movies can do. The pleasure and warmth we associate with Hollywood is stored in the images of Singin’ in the Rain. And below the bold colors, blasting brass, and exuberance, there’s a very nuanced art at work. It’s easy to get lost in the whirlwind, but Singin’ in the Rain is a carefully calculated Hollywood production. The reason it is still considered one of the greatest examples of cinematic expression has less to do with its joyful abandon and more to do with its immaculate craftsmanship.
The film, directed in 1952 by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, is an account of Hollywood’s shift from silent pictures to talkies. For a film with such a gleeful veneer, it is surprisingly frank in dealing with the roughest period in filmmaking history. It finds great comedy in what had to be terrible headaches — look no further than the scene where Lina is incapable of speaking into the microphone — “Well, I can’t make love to a bush!” While a number like “Make ‘em Laugh” is meant as an hommage to silent comedians like Buster Keaton, Singin’ in the Rain can cut sharply, not unlike its distant cousin, Sunset Blvd. — Lina is a distortion of Buster’s (and so many others) ghost, incapable of surviving the switch to talking pictures and studio hierarchy. It’s impossible to ignore the ecstasy of Singin’, but it takes movies very seriously. Otherwise, would we ever accept the ludicrous pretend-plot of The Dancing Cavalier? Most of the magic that we immediately associate with Singin’ comes from its deconstruction of filmmaking. The overwhelming joie de cinéma that we all remember is attributable to the film’s ability to acknowledge and illuminate the history of movies as a product without fully recognizing itself as one. Musicals that keep themselves contained — the ones that don’t say “Gee, isn’t it crazy that we’re all dancing and singing?” — are the ones that access the enchanting power at the core of the genre.
So, after that dense preamble, my vote for “best shot”:
Don (Gene Kelly) has fallen for Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) and they share a sublime love scene on a Hollywood stage. This is only one image that exemplifies the energy Singin’ in the Rain knows how to access — it just happens to be the most beautiful. Don is working through Hollywood’s toolbox and, at this point, has turned on the lights to reveal a sunset and a little bit of mist that you can see creeping into the left side of the frame. He’s not done with the tricks — there’s still more light to be added and you can expect him to switch on the giant fan. But here, the two of them exist in a half-world twilight. Don is showing his love for Kathy by giving her a dream. She’s experiencing the same miracles as the audience. Silhouetted against a fake sunset with fake mist, their love is made to feel very convincing because the film takes itself seriously. Singin’ in the Rain succeeds because it positions itself confidently between awareness and illusion — like a magician still in awe of his own tricks.
Above is another spectacular image showing Singin’ at its best. Don and Cosmo chat as they walk by a series of active set pieces. The camera embraces the deep background and the audience gets to see a director (positioned between Don and Cosmo), a batch of extras being sprinkled with fake snow, all the way back to the ladders and walls of the stage. The sausage being made in this film is organic, free-range, no-antibiotic, happy, and probably inedible, but it is precisely what makes it so exciting and enjoyable. Problems and repercussions involved with this attitude are for a different post.
About 20 minutes before the end of Singin’ in the Rain, something remarkable happens. It throws everything out the window and hunkers down for a 10-minute Gene Kelly fantasy ballet. Some have condemned this segment, some have embraced it, and most have walked away just assuming that it was great. It’s a vital part of the film and, in my opinion, the climax. As I’ve been discussing, the movie’s success depends on its ability to deconstruct several aspects of filmmaking without fully acknowledging itself as a product. Singin’ in the Rain loves to pull back and reveal enormous stages as if showing the limitless force of cinema.
It pulls back to reveal the stage but also preserves a close-up on Kelly. This is both the climax of the ballet and the climax of the film. It rounds out some important symmetry with the opening by using the mirror of the device that accompanied Don’s initial flashback. Most importantly, it inserts the chaotic background behind him. This image is the runner-up for Best Shot only because it lacks the sensuality and warmth of the other. Not only does this frame capture the ecstatic spirit of Singin’, it demonstrates how the movie is able to come so close to recognizing itself as a film without spoiling the illusion. Singin’ in the Rain portrays film as a fantasy or a dream, much like Sherlock Jr. The entire ballet takes place inside Don’s imagination and we allow acknowledgment of the camera to happen because it isn’t interested in the Meta Wink. By taking itself seriously, it becomes a legendary example of comedy and one of the most joyful expressions ever set to celluloid. In a time when there’s an awful lot of winking going on, it feels great to see a film rely on craft rather than cleverness.
***As a final note, make sure to check out the special features on your new Singin’ in the Rain Blu-ray’s. They have all the original filmed performances of these songs — taken from movies between 1929 and 1939. It’s a remarkable insight.
Over at The Film Experience (a marvelous blog), there’s a series called “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” where, each week, some writers pick their favorite shot within a given film and explain why. This week’s movie is Sherlock Jr., which reigns supreme over so many other movies that I just couldn’t not give it a try. Special thanks to Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr (an equally marvelous blog) for tipping me off on the opportunity. My vote for “Best Shot” goes to:
This is the best kind of Buster image. At its heart, it’s a gag. Buster, who works as a projectionist, has fallen asleep on the job. In his dream, he hops out of his corporeal body and begins to see his own life projected on the screen. At the precise moment of this frame, Buster is trying to deal with the fact that he sees his nemesis and heartthrob on screen together. It’s a gut reaction to seeing our imagination on display.
While the gags and giggles will always be the heart of Buster’s work, there are a number of intellectually satisfying things happening that form the brain — and the heart can’t work without the brain. Keaton’s genius relies on this hierarchy. He used his filmmaking skill to inform and enhance the gags, rather than the other way around. So often we see filmmakers try to use film as a highway for jokes. Unfortunately, the wit doesn’t always translate to visual facility. This is one reason I feel Tati is so often compared to Keaton — they were kindred spirits who knew that comedy is dependent on craft.
Let’s think about the numerous things Keaton manages to accomplish in this single frame. First of all, it is a fine image. The foreground is out of focus, but crucial (more on that in a moment), the two Busters and a projector fill out the middle, and there is a clear backdrop. That’s at least three levels of depth established without multiple angles. Especially in Sherlock Jr., Keaton brings an outstanding sense of depth to his imagery — and for good reason. The film has as much voyeurism in its blood as Rear Window. Observe how Keaton designs the foreground. It looks like a picture frame hanging on our living room wall. So, not only are we watching Buster practice awareness of his own voyeurism, he is inviting the audience to be aware of the same. A common motif in Sherlock is that of passing through things. Many times, Buster makes a joke by moving through something that appears to be a solid object — a mirror, a wall, movie screens, even a person. Other times, he plays a simple variation on the theme of the above image. Look at this incredible composition.
Whoa depth. This picture goes on forever, tracing the power lines until they disappear with Buster’s tails wiggling in the wind and the inexplicable Washington portrait. But the image is really accomplishing the same thing as the other. It is Keaton’s way of showing us the business of looking at and through things. Here, it’s a bank vault door — and doesn’t the door frame still look like a picture frame?
Like The Cameraman, another great Keaton picture, Sherlock gives us an account of his own personal thoughts on the cinema. I’m a sucker for movies about movies, but there’s some real meat here. The image at the top of the page shows us two Busters. One of them is staring at the screen, dumbfounded and mystified — enchanted by the impossibility of his imagination. But the other is just taking a nap. Keaton was one of the filmmakers who understood the intimacy between movies and dreams, he proves it here. In fact, the “awake” Buster is really just a dream version of the sleeping one. Over all of the variations on voyeurism taking place in Sherlock, it’s heaviest power lies in its belief in human imagination. Keaton knew that cinema was the key to letting us reproduce our dreams, our fantasies, and our nightmares. That’s probably the source of the confusion on “awake” Buster’s face. In a way, he’s seeing into the future. He’s seeing his own life projected in front of him. And he has the balls to actually hop in and play along. When he does, he becomes a rakish gentleman in tails who destroys all threats to his honor at the billiard table. I’m not sure, but Sherlock might be the most earnest thing Keaton made — and it’s done by being outrageous, fantastical even.
There’s one more thing about the top image. Visually, it establishes that “frame” motif that comes back again and again, holding the picture together. The end of the film has some iconic imagery that echoes the same moment.
Finally, Buster’s got the girl and he has risen from the dream. He awkwardly (read: charmingly) enacts the love scene that plays on screen. The visual symmetry between the two moments is obvious, but its message is more subtle. In the image at the top of the post, Buster is looking at his exaggerated impression of his own life being played out in front of him. Here, he is trying to bring elements of the imagined film into real practice — he’s being more proactive. But even through this flipped circumstance, he still wears a mystified expression. It’s of a different kind than the other, but it is an acknowledgment of cinema’s ability to beguile us whether or not we think we’re the ones in control.
The image of the two Busters remains a key to Sherlock. We see so much of the film distilled into a single frame — the dreams, the wonder, and the extra layers. Most importantly, I feel Mr. Keaton might say, he’s making a funny face.
Today, Sight & Sound released a new iteration of its “Greatest Films of All-Time” list. This is a silly game that we cinephiles are only allowed to play once every decade, so it’s a special occasion. Sight & Sound‘s list is by far the most respected and celebrated of its kind. Each decade on the deuce since 1952, critics have sent in a personal top ten. Directors have done the same for a few decades now, creating their own lists. Since 1962, the second poll, Citizen Kane has managed to “win” without fail. This year, things changed a bit. Here’s the rundown:
- Vertigo [Hitchcock, 1958]
- Citizen Kane [Welles, 1941]
- Tokyo Story [Ozu, 1953]
- The Rules of the Game [Renoir, 1939]
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans [Murnau, 1927]
- 2001: A Space Odyssey [Kubrick, 1968]
- The Searchers [Ford, 1956]
- Man with a Movie Camera [Vertov, 1939]
- Passion of Joan of Arc [Dreyer, 1927]
- 8 1/2 [Fellini, 1963]
- Tokyo Story [Ozu, 1953]
- 2001: A Space Odyssey [Kubrick, 1968]
- Citizen Kane [Welles, 1941]
- 8 1/2 [Fellini, 1963]
- Taxi Driver [Scorcese, 1976]
- Apocalypse Now [Coppola, 1979]
- The Godfather [Coppola, 1972]
- Vertigo [Hitchcock, 1958]
- The Mirror [Tarkovsky, 1975]
- Bicycle Thieves [De Sica, 1948]
BFI has the Top 50 listed for now, with more things to be revealed as the issue becomes widely available.
There’s a reason to be excited about all of this nonsense. Over 1,000 people voted and over 2,000 movies were mentioned — by far the most in the poll’s history. In a time when film criticism is said to be struggling or declining, it’s important to remember that it also owns a very important corner of the Internet. For example, many expected that the wider inclusion would increase the potential for a Pulp Fiction or Tree of Life to crack the Top 10. Not so. In fact, the critics chose three silent films and the average release year was pulled down by 6 from 2002′s poll.
There are going to be a lot of headlines saying “Is Vertigo Really That Great?” and “Vertigo Dethrones Kane” and “Citizen Kane No Longer Good Movie.” Indeed, the most obvious change in the poll comes from the top — Hitchcock’s Vertigo defeated Citizen Kane by a healthy amount of votes. Does this say anything about the actual value of those movies? No, it doesn’t. They are both incredible works of art and occupy a level of genius that is remarkable in any circle. It seems clear that the critical pendulum is swinging, as usual. Vertigo isn’t necessarily enjoying a renaissance and Kane isn’t getting any worse. Rather, a new generation of film lovers is beginning to establish itself. It doesn’t seem difficult to imagine some critics intentionally leaving Citizen Kane off of their list, not because it isn’t worthy of it, but because it has enjoyed a healthy half-century as the recognized King of Cinema. Brilliantly, Kristen Thompson once suggested that we “retire” films (as jersey numbers are in The Sports) after they appear in the Top 10. That methodology would give us a constantly growing canon as opposed to the Sight & Sound poll where we mostly watch for minute changes and try to apply some zeitgeisty commentary to them. Surely, a headline somewhere will be, “Vertigo Tops Poll; Internet Fracturing Consciousness” or “Internet Eating Apples” or “Internet Changing Babies” or some other nonsense. As the Sight & Sound poll functions right now, it celebrates the juggling of a couple established essential titles and bickering over the small cracks in their overwhelming genius instead of finding greatness in all the unexpected nooks in which it presents itself.
That said, there are a couple very satisfying and unexpected shifts in other parts of the list. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera has supplanted, thankfully, Battleship Potemkin as the Soviet Constructivist representative. No segment of The Godfather cracked the critic’s list, their chances probably injured by being rightfully separated. Perhaps most important and thrilling, Tokyo Story won the top spot on the Director’s poll. It’s not the representative I would choose for Ozu, but seeing him celebrated in any way is exciting — especially among the men and women actively moving the art form ahead. The Searchers, absent from the 2002 list, takes number 7 — marking my biggest qualm with the list. I deny that The Searchers is the best representative of Ford’s catalog or even a great film, for that matter. I could be a crybaby about 2001 as well, but that’s all for another day.
The bottom line is this — we should be happy that we are so in love with a medium that somehow encourages, or sometimes requires, us to engage in childish games. In that way, I’m glad to be a cinephile today. But Sight & Sound should also take a page out of some architecture, painting, or opera magazines and try to find a way to allow a broader canon. The lists above contain only 15 different movies. They’re all essential films. For any of my readers who are a little less obsessed with movies, don’t start here, but I implore you to work up to these films someday. Diving into the top of the heap can be confusing. That’s often the reason I think Kane is thought of as “not that great” or whatever — these movies, at this point in history, ask us to contextualize them with history and, most importantly, other movies.
The most beautiful thing about these lists is that they’re so small. Ten films to define a medium? It’s hard to argue with the brilliance atop these lists. But the important part is that we recognize the wealth of greatness below the surface. For every film on this list, there are 100 films worth seeing immediately. Every director represented on those lists has another masterpiece waiting around the corner. Howard Hawks, the single greatest filmmaking human in the history of Earth, isn’t anywhere to be seen in the Top 50!!! That’s how big this world is. That’s how amazing it is.
Because the best thing about lists like this is that they encourage us to make our own and to always be on the lookout for new contenders and to always reconsider the rubric. It’s a childish game, but one that I’m glad we’re all playing.
Screenwriting has always been a thick game. Despite the dalliances of Faulkner and the curiosity of Fitzgerald, major literary figures have – to some degree – distanced themselves from Hollywood business. Most of the active filmmakers who consider the medium capable of art both write and direct — P.T. Anderson, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Terrence Malick to name a few popular examples. So rarely is the cinema greeted by self-sufficient literary genius. Enter Charlie Kaufman. Now, I don’t want to suggest that he is a genius yet. He has written and made a few extraordinary films, but time is necessary to judge the type of thought and ambition that Kaufman has begun to practice. Charlie Kaufman is without comparison in contemporary popular filmmaking — a screenwriting auteur and an artist willing to confront literature and creativity as the object of his own literature and creativity. It is easy to get lost in a forest of postmodernist nonsense when considering his films and I’ll do my best to avoid most of that.
Kaufman is responsible for writing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. With his script for Synecdoche, New York, he made his first attempt at directing. Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both clearly Kaufman’s scripts, but they are also his most juvenile. They are dense stories that attempt to assess how our memories shape personal relationships. They also use gimmicky business models as a way to justify their density. To be relative, though, either of these films has room close to the top of their respective years. Juvenile for Kaufman is 300 level philosophy for us. But it is in Adaptation. and Synecdoche that he lets go of those tricks. We’ll focus on those two pictures as examples of Kaufman’s importance in keeping the movies vital.
Adaptation. is, among other things, about the process of adapting a novel into a screenplay. Kaufman was tasked with turning “The Orchid Thief,” a book by Susan Orlean, into a movie. When he became blocked, he wrote himself, a fictional twin brother, and his own experience into the film. Nicholas Cage, in his finest screen appearance this side of Face/Off, plays both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie is trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief” and, in combatting his writers block, comes to terms with the demands of Hollywood and his twin brother. We can imagine that the film is really just a grand fictionalization of Kaufman’s own experience writing it. Adaptation. gives us immediate evidence towards Kaufman’s importance. Since he is actually willing to write himself and a make-believe brother into a screenplay, he brings the audience closer to the artifice of movies. This ties in with an even more critical point that I’ll get to with Synecdoche, but Adaptation. allows the audience an additional layer of awareness. He inserts Cage into behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Malkovich and constantly references previous events in the film (like the creation montage) as Cage’s character writes them into the fictional screenplay. The astonishing thing about this is that the film doesn’t lose mobility with this awareness. Kaufman isn’t asking us to just be aware that we’re watching a movie — he’s asking us to see how dirty the process can get, but still deliver an engrossing, beautiful product. That’s why, in the final image, we pass through a week of time on the L.A. street while watching a single bed of flowers stay the same. He’s drawing an important comparison between the creative process and natural process. And much of the film is really about his own adaptation to the “rules” and “principles” of Hollywood. Many critics claim that the final 30 minutes destroy the entire movie, but it seems like, shrewdly, Kaufman intended it as a sly send-up of the way so many Hollywood films jump off the ledge. Unlike others who have tried to reveal this extra awareness with cheeky nods to the camera, he uses it as a way to dissect creative experiences and capitalize on his own writers block.
With Adaptation., Kaufman first allowed himself to experiment with creativity as the actual subject of a narrative. He wasn’t trying to answer the existential questions people believe him to be obsessing over. I don’t believe it is fair to say that Kaufman is obsessed with a subject any more than any other writer. The difference is that he doesn’t stop himself where most writers decide to stop. What does it mean to “put it all on the page”? With Synecdoche, Kaufman still seeks truth in the creative process, but uses death instead of Hollywood as his “portal.” Phil Seymour Hoffman plays an aging theater director (Caden Cotard) who engages in a number of relationships and marriages during the second half of his life.
Synecdoche, Kaufman’s directorial debut, is full of more visceral and emotional moments than Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were ever able to pull from his scripts. For instance, Caden watches his estranged, grown-up, tattooed daughter dance naked in a glass box — he screams her name but she can’t or won’t listen. Much of Synecdoche works on a simply cinematic level, ignoring intellectual pursuits for a moment. It functions as a moving portrait of parenthood with Caden’s relationship with Olive. It does not ignore the way men float through marriages, often choosing very similar women. And the finale is a gripping abstraction of a moment in life that no viewer can have experienced. Just recognizing it as a movie reveals some decade-defining performances from Hoffman and Morton and a dynamite make-up job as well.
But the magic of Synecdoche is derived from its astonishing intellectual ambition. No words can relay the gravity of what Synecdoche attempts to accomplish. With death as its obsessive motif, the film is more clearly an illustration of all life and the way we try to process it. After his wife and daughter leave him, Caden receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant and decides to make a “truly uncompromising” theater piece that shares the same ambition as the film. In a massive warehouse, Caden and his enormous team slowly erect a life-size facsimile of New York City — ultimately, it even contains the warehouse in which the facsimile is built. Caden’s theater piece functions in the same way that the script does in Adaptation. Both are attempting to discover larger connections while deconstructing creativity. Synecdoche does make some progress in demonstrating how we compartmentalize all the people in our lives. It’s really a window into the narcissism of which we are all guilty. We all build our own warehouses and store our relationships in them. We expect certain things from certain people. But we don’t stop to understand that they have built their own warehouse, too. We can’t share that space.
Caden’s theater venture does reveal the greatest strength in Synecdoche and Kaufman’s most profound cinematic revelation — the binding intimacy between art and life. We watch Caden search for the meaning of his life through art. His wife’s work becomes infinitely smaller as his becomes infinitely larger. Most potently, Caden casts a man who has been following him for 20 years to play himself in the play. Some scenes are acted out, only to eventually be revealed as a rehearsal for the play. Ultimately, there is no difference between Caden’s art and his life. We can easily quote Shakespeare here, but Synecdoche is something else.
As the film relates to Kaufman himself, it is really a continuation of the subject he began to pursue in Adaptation. – creativity. The film sometimes reads as a criticism of the very questions it seems to be asking, balanced so confidently between pretense and unintelligibility. Synecdoche is what happens when a writer “puts it all on the page.” It doesn’t solve any of the riddles that Caden sets out to understand. In fact, it’s as much of a movie about the limits of genius as it is about the capabilities of one. Kaufman is saying that rabbit holes exist. Endless loops exist. Dead ends exist. He is beginning to understand that some of these questions we all want to ask are really just too much. There’s no answer.
And it’s Kaufman’s audacity to confront his own creativity and its limits in clear sight that makes him vital to Hollywood’s literary climate. Instead of just settling for sly self-reference or fleeting moments of meta-textuality, he fights the creative battle on the page and for everyone to see. His grace reminds me of David Foster Wallace, a martyr of 21st Century literature who was able to transcend “postmodernism” by confronting it without an attempt at irony or wit. Kaufman, likewise, is capable of great literary accomplishments. Thankfully, he makes movies.
In a time where many are reconsidering the shape that violence takes in the media and entertainment, Natural Born Killers makes a statement. Directed by Oliver Stone in 1994, it’s a stylized road movie with a startling amount of violence – even for a contemporary audience. Though Stone directed and manipulated the script, it was originally conceived by none other than everyone’s darling, Quentin Tarantino, which couldn’t be more obvious. NBK tells the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox, newlyweds who become mass murderers. The film is not for the weak stomached for two reasons: 1) it’s a two-hour bloodbath and 2) it’s filmed in a way that despises right angles, celebrates the psychedelic, and rejects the tripod. It offers a strong visceral experience with almost no emotional or intellectual payoff.
Natural Born Killers tries very hard to join the lineage of You Only Live Once, Bonnie & Clyde, Pierrot le fou, and Badlands. Stylistically, it is under the influence of Arthur Penn and some other drugs. The edits are like lightning. Some sections play in bold, tinted colors – like we’re seeing the film through Mickey’s red glasses. The second half is not as relentless as the first and the style becomes more palatable. However, the intellectual aim of NBK never blooms. Drawing broad connections between the media frenzy surrounding violence and the act of violence itself resonates especially well today, 8 days after the massacre in Aurora, CO. But NBK is a commentary so far removed from reality that it loses strength. This is a common problem in Tarantino’s films. There’s no danger. There’s no vigor. In fact, there’s nothing in them that hasn’t already happened in a movie, which is how QT has come to understand the world. As a result, his own movies fail to communicate anything except as a vague meta-commentary on cinema. I can only pray that this changes someday.
The troubling thing about NBK is that Oliver Stone’s involvement should have been the perfect ingredient. A veteran of the service, he has proved himself able to translate the terrifying realities of violence to a rewarding cinematic experience in Platoon and Scarface. But here, it is so wrapped up in its own intoxicating style and inertia that it follows through on Tarantino’s ailment. There are so few moments of genuine danger in NBK. It could be argued that this exactly is the point – to make a film of enveloping psychosis that we actually buy into the populist frenzy surrounding Mickey and Mallory. But all of that has already been said with eloquence and grace in Malick’s astonishing debut, Badlands. NBK shares a lot of DNA with that film. We can imagine someone handing the same one sentence premise to a Harvard philosophy graduate and a video store clerk with Badlands and NBK as the products. See the difference? NBK is also in the deep shadow of David Lynch — specifically Wild at Heart. Tarantino makes no effort to conceal Lynch’s influence and it lies heavy on this film. There’s plenty of shade in Lynch’s shadow, but NBK is definitely in it.
NBK does have a spectacular ability to reveal how trauma influences memory and experience. Through the radical style that Stone develops, he is allowed to engage in visual surrealism that would be taboo in most other discussions of the subject. The predictably damaged pasts perpetually haunt Mickey and Mallory, most often during moments of sex or violence (which also happens to be the entire movie).
By the end of the film, it is clear that the authors are trying to comment on culture more than violence. But what good is it to show violence as a plaything in order to comment how violence is a plaything? Natural Born Killers lacks contact with actual consequence or fear and it fails to reveal anything that we didn’t already know. When we’re done congratulating ourselves on understanding that the media has a negative impact on the plague of violence, we can work on getting that to stop. But hey, maybe I’m just really missing the boat on this one.
After a dizzying initiation to the world of Wong Kar Wai with his portrait of urban isolation, Chungking Express, seeing In the Mood for Love almost felt like watching a different filmmaker altogether. Thematically, these pictures are not far apart. But Wong proves himself capable of shifting his style dramatically while retaining his magnetic pull on the eye and his impeccable taste for composition.
In the Mood for Love has a simple narrative. Two neighbors discover that their spouses, who are often away on “business,” are not faithful. They develop feelings for each other. Wong is right to only give them one fleeting moment of physical contact. In doing so, it has the impact of an atom bomb. Much of the romantic gestures — glances, smirks, subtext — are imbued with seismic force by making the relationship impossible in the context of 1960′s Hong Kong. The ending of the film is a poem of politics, architecture, romance, and loss. We aren’t necessarily heartbroken — life goes on. But we understand these characters.
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung turn in brilliantly repressed performances. Their hushed tones and calm gestures are in direct contrast to the surprisingly urgent visual textures created by Wong. Netflix reviewers might praise its slowness, but there is nothing slow about In the Mood for Love. For example, one sequence where Cheung’s Su attempts to visit Leung’s Chow in a hotel before backing out at the last minute is comprised of a series of startling jump cuts. It adds to the romantic haze. These characters are in love and we know because the camera tells us. As in the enamored mind, time is an elastic band. Some moments seem to skip like a record while others are slowed like lunging molasses. There is a whole series of musical interludes featuring a few repeating tracks. The music starts — Chow and Su slow down.
It is essential to recognize the outstanding employment of negative space and framing. Wong is capable of moving the camera while maintaining excellent composition in a way that recalls Ozu or Ophuls. And his keen eye for depth is a crucial element in his organization. In the scene where Chow and Su acknowledge their feelings for each other, standing outside in the street, we only see Chow’s back as he talks. And Su, only feet away from him, is just barely obscured by shallow focus. When Chow turns and directly faces her, orienting his erotic yearning, she becomes clear — no longer an obscurity.
In the Mood for Love is particularly indebted to a pair of filmmaking masters — Hitchcock and Kubrick. Wong has acknowledged the influence of Vertigo on his film, seeing a kindred darkness in Scottie and Chow. The screen makes it clear. Hitch’s belief in the erotic magnetism of cinema translates well to Wong’s evocation of his understanding that the best love scenes are played with little contact. And Kubrick’s influence inhabits every corner of this film. Released just after Eyes Wide Shut, it shares many common themes — a narcotic, dreamy intoxication; sexual repression; infidelity and its psychological impact; repetition of only a few, small musical cues. Kubrick’s plastic perfection is represented in almost every frame, tamed by Wong’s capable eye. In the Mood for Love takes great risks in imitating these inimitable styles, but Wong proves himself as a skilled apprentice en route to his own masterly touch.
La Nuit Americaine was an inevitability. Like its big brother, Godard’s Le Mépris, it allowed a fixated cinephile to decompress. It reveals some sour opinions. It airs cheeky grievances. Above all, it is an exuberant investigation of the filmmaking process.
In more ways than one, La Nuit Americaine is a cop-out. The film sometimes hides behind thick meta revelations that lead down the road to nowhere. In addition, Truffaut, visibly tired and possibly even jaded, throws himself into a substantial acting role. It is hardly a surprise that he took a two-year sabbatical immediately after its release. Neither is it a surprise to believe that it is some sort of culmination for Truffaut. Spending his entire life ensconced in cinema, he must have been relieved to finally open a parcel full of books on Buñuel, Hawks, Lubitsch, and the rest. He even gives them a healthy close-up, as arbitrary as they are.
To be fair, it’s hard to think of a disingenuous movie in all of Truffaut’s oeuvre. No matter the age, he brings such a youthful exuberance to the screen. Where Godard strikes some viewers as cold and theoretical, Truffaut fills the same space with a wistful longing to remake the films he saw during his childhood. One of the most striking moments of La Nuit Americaine comes when Truffaut’s director is dreaming of his younger self stealing Citizen Kane stills from a local exhibit. Certainly, he is one filmmaker who understands the psychological power of cinema at the most basic level. It’s not merely an element of his existence, it’s a dream that he tried to find. This may be exactly what makes La Nuit Americaine so recklessly spotty at times — made by a man who loves and understands film so deeply that he overestimates its potential. Nevertheless, Truffaut manages to breathe ecstasy into a film even when he is ready for a break.
Portions of the film succeed with silly but ambitious deconstructions of the filmmaking process. One scene deals with a troublesome actress and her trouble with memorization. Not only does the sequence dissect various levels of the cinematic fantasy, it also makes earnest acknowledgments of the hyper-emotional world of acting. The second half of the film is particularly astute in washing away the line between fiction and reality in regards to actors and their relationships and connections with one another. Visually, La Nuit Americaine demonstrates the absurd talent in Truffaut to make pivotal decisions the same way that we decide to wake up in the morning. It’s in his nature to effortlessly block scenes and choreograph camera work that is essential to the storytelling. At the same time, it also shows us how easily he is sucked into an exclusive reality. There is little evidence of a universe outside of Truffaut’s film.
If there is one word to describe La Nuit Americaine, it’s playful. An always-youthful tribute.