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By Kent Jones
Diagnostic fever, a modern intellectual constant, is rampant in movie culture, and it’s positively contagious in Cannes. Which is why the festival often resembles a medical convention run amok—I have a feeling that actual MDs don’t go around spouting their diagnoses so freely. The second a screening is over, you can bank on the fact that you’re going to run into a critic whose diagnosis is burning a hole in his/her brain like money in the pocket. The more gracefully you can manage this maneuver—which is to say, the more deftly you can give the appearance of having been asked for your opinion, rather than just walking up to the first person you meet and spouting it—the better.
For instance, I kept hearing that three of the American films in competition—Zodiac, No Country for Old Men and We Own the Night—were about crime and punishment, and that this was indicative of…what? Of course, given the fact that so much thinking is, to quote William James, the shuffling of prejudices, we more or less knew that it was indicative of American culpability over our failure in Iraq, and so on. No matter that American cinema has been spinning tales of crime and punishment with remarkable consistency since The Musketeers of Pig Alley. No matter that another film in competition (Paranoid Park) takes the crime-and-punishment idea and basically tosses it to the winds, or that it is basically immaterial to yet another (Tarantino’s extended Death Proof). No matter. Three movies, so it’s indicative. I saw this number performed by a parade of critics, and then from a middle eastern producer as I was leaving the Algerian party. So it must be true.
And many, many times, I was told how great We Own the Night was—by French critics—and how terrible it was—by Americans. I ran into one French critic of my acquaintance at a dinner and started raving about Zodiac (which I’ve been doing for months now). “Isn’t it incredible?” he said. “I’ve seen it twice. And wasn’t Joaquin Phoenix extraordinary?” Oh, I said, you must mean the James Gray film. “Oh, did I say the Fincher? Yeah, Zodiac was good—for Fincher—but didn’t you think We Own the Night was extraordinary?”
I did not see it twice, nor did any other American critic of my acquaintance. Conversely, it was difficult to find a single French critic who didn’t love it (although I managed to, among the staunchest Americanophiles). For my own part, I liked many scenes and moves in the Gray film (particularly a digitally modified shoot out between gunmen in three moving cars on an expressway in a rainstorm) but found that it started to lose dramatic sense early on and ended in a state of near-lunacy.
How do such divergent reactions occur? Obviously, it’s a question of cultural familiarity. Take the simple example of the aphorisms spouted by Robert Duvall’s aging police captain: “If you piss in your pants, you won’t stay warm forever,” and “If you marry a gorilla, don’t complain about the stench of the bananas.” American and British eyebrows were raised by the voicing of these maxims. Why was he saying them, what did they mean, and how long do bananas have to stay out in the sun before they develop a “stench?” After the initial shock of the crudeness of the language had worn off (it’s as if both remarks had been written by someone who had listened inattentively to a gathering of old men in a social club and then tried to duplicate their speech on paper several months later), one could divine that Duvall was referring to the sorry situation of his son, Phoenix, the black sheep of the family, who begins the film living the high life and consorting with drug dealers. Nonetheless, these maxims offered evidence of Gray’s tin ear, forever at odds with his reasonably sharp eye. They also offered further evidence of his weakness for undifferentiated male bluster, which has always struck me, rightly or wrongly, as the product of years of passionate movie-watching. It’s as if Gray’s memories of moves and moments from earlier films had converged and agglomerated into one unspecified mass of feeling. Gray speaks of his cinema as autobiographical but you’d never know it, apart from the intensity of feeling he’s continually trying to arouse—in his characters, in his viewers, and, I think, in himself.
On the other hand, I’m not going to chide anyone in France for loving a James Gray film. The cultural one-upsmanship card is played often, and mercilessly, in movie culture. “If you knew Chinese/Iranian/sub-Saharan African culture as intimately as I do, you’d see through this film.” You hear or read this kind of assertion all the time, and it’s an instant conversation-stopper. The closer we seem to be getting to culturally specific standards of judgment, the further we are from acknowledging the value of a plurality of responses— cultural, social, individual, experiential, intellectual, emotional, and so on. We all speak our opinions as if they were facts, which is entirely human. But recognizing that we’re part of a greater organism, always in flux, is the trickier part—in other words, to speak passionately, but to acknowledge that our judgments finally land on a scale of probability rather than certainty. After all, cultural exaggerations, blind spots, “mistakes” and “misunderstandings” have always been at the core of movie culture, for filmmakers and for their audience.
Are the divergent responses to We Own the Night indicative of anything? Yes—of cultural specificity as a standard of judgment when the culture is your own (as opposed to the “French weakness” for something or other). I’ve often been on the other side of the argument here, listening to a parade of French critics telling me that if I were French, I would see the failings of this or that Téchiné or Assayas film. Better to say, “There was a response, so it was to something,” rather than to infer mass cultural psychosis.
The responses to Flight of the Red Balloon and My Blueberry Nights, both made by Chinese filmmakers working outside their own language, were fascinating. I heard two complaints, consistently voiced, about Hou’s French-language debut. One was cross-cultural—“I don’t like the metaphor of the red balloon.” The second was specifically French—“The improvisations were very, very bad, and if I heard that Chinese woman say ‘D’accord’ one more time I was going to put my fist through the wall.” In the case of the Wong, the dismissal was more general, and universal. However, more than a few times, I heard the following, intriguing diagnosis: “It’s the proof that he’s always been overrated.” In other words, the challenge of working in a foreign language has exposed his shortcomings in a way that his Hong Kong films have not. From there, we can infer that the shortcomings of western critics have in turn been exposed: we are happy to listen to all kinds of nonsense if it’s subtitled, but become discerning only when it’s spoken in English.
Let’s look at the Hou, and that metaphorical balloon. Which struck me as anything but. In this film about an embittered single mother, her young son, his new nanny and her ex’s bothersome downstairs neighbors who refuse to pay their rent, I’m hard-pressed to understand exactly what the balloon might serve as a metaphor for. Rather, it strikes me that Hou’s abstracted homage to the Lamorisse film works in much the same way that the trains work in Café Lumière, as a sort of extended counterpoint, neither sad nor happy, to the principal drama (the mother’s manic bitterness, which threatens to overwhelm everything and everyone around her, the son’s barely nascent desire to be heard from, the escalating warfare with the tenants), accentuating the becalmed flow of time around the specific problems of the individual characters. If there’s a fault here, it’s one of excessive neatness and care, particularly when one looks at the film alongside Hou’s Taiwanese work. In Red Balloon, he makes triply sure that all his dramatic and thematic bases are covered—thus, the quiet calm of the sequences which feature the offending balloon is equated with the quiet calm of the Chinese au pair (in marked contrast to frantic neuroticism of the French characters), a filmmaker working in her spare time on a digital remake of The Red Balloon. Working in a foreign language and a foreign city, Hou either can not or will not do what he does so effortlessly in, say, the central section of Three Times—which is to convey the emotions and values of the story he’s telling on the most subtly expressive terms imaginable, through the means of his extraordinary camera eye, his apparently unerring sense of tone and movement within the frame, his remarkable ability to lay pace and structure in perfect harmonic balance with the narrative. In other words, he avails himself of two dramatic devices—the balloon and the au pair—of which he would have no need were he working on home ground. It seems to me that this is a forgivable shortcoming, and it represents the kind of adjustment made by many emigré filmmakers in Hollywood during the ‘30s and ‘40s, who had to find alternate means of conveying certain ideas, themes and emotions without the benefit of cultural shorthand. One might argue that Hitchcock made a virtue of exactly this type of aesthetic “conversion” throughout his entire American career.
The matter of improvisation seems a little trickier to me. As someone who speaks only passable French and who is touchy about improvisation, I will admit that I wasn’t bothered in the least by these scenes—neither by Hippolyte Girardot’s fulminations nor by all those “d’accords.” Conversely, I would say that the emotional geography and ecology of the scenes in question are so precise (son in the corner of unkempt apartment, silently receiving all the discord and chaos around him; au pair in the kitchen area as field of serenity to absorb and/or deflect the rantings of the mother on the one hand and the increasing threat from downstairs on the other) that they accommodate if not subsume any shortcomings in the improvisation. Once again, if these scenes are perhaps a bit more “strategized” than Hou would normally allow, it’s because of the language question. He’s ensuring that his t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted, and he acting entirely at the service of his characters. In that regard, it’s a wise decision, which pays off nicely in Juliette Binoche’s gutsy, impressively physical performance, and particularly during the intensely moving moment near the end where she proclaims her boundless love for her son. Many of the people who disliked Hou’s film spoke admiringly of Binoche’s performance, as if it existed in some kind of vacuum. On the contrary, it’s the precise emotional and physical layout, coupled with Hou’s subtle, seemingly discreet yet attentive long takes, that allows her presence to register with such force. If the cinematic syntax and grammar had been any less fluid, Binoche’s performance would have come off like a jewel in a rough setting. Conversely, if the action had been less precisely mapped, she would have been nothing more than the most dramatic in an array of flavors. As it is, director and actress have collaborated to create something extraordinary.
If there was one element of Flight of the Red Balloon on which everyone agreed, it was the utterly bewildering incongruity of the song by Camille over the film’s closing images. Exactly whose lapse in judgment this represented I have no idea, but it’s the one discordant note in a beautifully buoyant movie.
It seems to me that Wong Kar-wai walked into his first and perhaps last American film with the opposite attitude. Rather than cover his bases, he appears to have assumed that he could commune with American culture by osmosis. The problem begins with the title, which scans like an overly precious shot at poetry by an adolescent girl. Then, with our first glimpse of Jude Law running a restaurant (that looks like a coffee shop) somewhere in Brookhatten, a few more alarm bells go off. Once the characters begin to speak, we’re on high alert. There has always been a cutesy side to Wong, exemplified by the lovelorn voiceovers and the business with the dated pineappple cans in Chungking Express, a film of which many viewers were reminded as they watched My Blueberry Nights. Yet there’s a tinge of bitter self-awareness behind the voiceovers in earlier Wong films, a hint that the precious language or the obsessive games with eating pineapple or listening to “California Dreaming” mask a deeper pain. The reticence and decorum of his characters, even in Happy Together, doesn’t have an American analogue in the new film. Thus, there is a great deal of high-flown longing, over-verbalized in dialogue so flowery that it might have seemed excessive on an episode of Dawson’s Creek. And it is spoken in “archetypal” American settings (restaurants, cafés, casinos, at poker tables, in convertibles careening through the desert) removed from the cities and towns around them due to Wong’s usual play with restrictive geography (as in In the Mood for Love or 2046, we continually revisit the same restricted viewpoints in the same spaces). Which keeps the film interestingly off-balance, but which also renders it overly vague. Apart from a few attempted accents, the action could be happening in Memphis, New York, Nevada, or Minnesota, Alabama, or Kansas. By denying the necessity of a few extra quivers in his dramatic arsenal, of which Hou wisely avails himself, Wong short-circuits his own conception—such as it is. He also short-changes his actors. From my perspective, neither Law, Rachel Weisz nor Natalie Portman have much of a chance since they’re forced to fight through a morass of clichés at every turn, to play characters whose dramatic predicaments would seem tired to even the most devoted network TV fan. As for David Strathairn, who makes something viable out of an equally clichéd conception, I’m reminded of Mencken’s commentary on Warren Harding’s speeches and their punishing use of the English language, which put him in mind of “a rhinoscreos trying to liberate himself by mainstrength from a lake of boiling molasses.” I heard many complaints about Norah Jones, but for me, hers amounted to the most interesting presence simply because she had the job of listening and reacting to everyone else—she had the role of what Manny Farber dubbed the “eternal sideliner.” Wong has never had such a character at the center of his work before and probably never will again. The fact that the character sits at the center of this movie about an America that is barely glimpsed is all too understandable. Yet, as opposed to Hou’s careful measures, the creation of Jones’ likeably hazy character seems symptomatic of the overall haziness of Wong’s conception.
Having said all that, My Blueberry Nights was hardly the disaster is was cracked up to be. It is, as they say, “consistently watchable.” On a purely visual level, it’s a triumph, even prettier than the earlier Wong films it evokes (complete with the slurred motion effect he abandoned a decade ago). Wong’s sense of quietude and slowness, and his attraction to gentle but wounded humanity, have their own small rewards, even when they’re as abstracted from their material as they are here. But is the film truly “indicative” of the fact that he was never that great from the start? Of course not, and such judgments are nothing more than idle film festival chatter. However, it is indicative of something, particularly when seen side by side with the Hou. Hou’s film appears to have been made by an artist who went to another country, took in the measure of his surroundings and his own predilections and personal circumstances of the moment, and acted accordingly. Whereas the Wong is the work of an artist who brings his arsenal of obsessions, favorite moves and choices with him and imagines that they will fit all sizes. It’s important to remember that when he went to Argentina, he made a film about two men who worked hard to not adapt themselves to their surroundings—he made a film about cultural and emotional displacement. Unfortunately, for him and for us, he approaches American culture from the opposite direction. His vision of Paris might seem a little stilted and old-fashioned, but Hou went there with his eyes open. Meanwhile, just like Tony Leung in Happy Together, Wong went to a foreign country but couldn’t stop dreaming of home.