Video Essay – Paris, Texas & Five Easy Pieces

An attempt to detail a contrast of two films that resonate deeply.

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Millennium Mambo (Hou, 2001)

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The arc for character in Hou’s work is one you become accustomed with. They progress through life while dealing with the tribulations and ever growing moral quandaries that the society they inhabit brings: the boy in Dust in the Wind (1986) who works from job to job in order to make way through a path he believes is set; the man seeking out the woman he once encountered in order to have a sense of fulfillment in Three Times (2005); the woman struggling with the ideology of a higher power while attempting to determine her own sense of self in The Assassin (2015). These are specific scenarios that through acceptance of the viewer provide insight into the universalities of a way in life.

It’s most fitting that Hou’s first film of the century, Millennium Mambo, is more of an anthesis for the auteur. The film examines the fleeting nature of Vicky (Shu Qi), a woman that lacks ambition for her life and places her values on whoever is willing, whether it be her “boyfriend” that constantly expects the worst of her or an older man that provides the illusion for a life that isn’t possible. The people that surround her seem to acknowledge her state by exemplifying her worst tendencies. It is clear, however, no matter how off putting these people may be to the viewer, they themselves have their own personal arc that is closed off from Vicky. They have goals, aspirations, and ideas, no matter how dubious. Vicky, on the other hand, would prefer to live only in the moment, as evidenced in the feverish opening sequence where she strolls down a neon-lit bridge and acts as if this is all there is to life. This sequence is accompanied by a voice over from Vicky fifteen years from now, informing us with the slightest melancholy of what’s to come.

Vicky’s life is built up of moments that are not defined by her: the “boyfriend” who is being questioned by the police; the older figure that constantly has to deal with the problems of his professional life. The beats are not a result from her, but from those that orbit around her. She has her place in the frame, but doesn’t make use of it. Hou’s camera captures these moments exquisitely, as expected, but one gets the sense that this appeal is all we and Vicky have, that this vibrant frame will soon dwindle and result into the melancholic happenings of the Vicky fifteen years from now.

If there’s one sequence of objective happiness, one that can provide her use in order to move forward, it’s not during the club sequences of Taipei or within the modern apartment of her “boyfriend,” but on the outskirts of town in Yubari, where film posters drape the walls and lush snow is covering every potential step. It’s the only time where Vicky is genuinely happy. She may not realize it at the time, but we do, and that’s what makes the moment where she imprints her face into a body of snow with the people she’s with all the more painful. It’s a moment that can only be temporary – destined to be erased by time and forever to be left as a memory. Vicky is greeted with a glimpse for what can be potentially beneficiary for her, but because she refutes the notion of one’s own self, she remains in the rut, waiting to return to the never-ending cycle of her city life.

It isn’t difficult to understand why Shu became Hou’s muse after making this film. She recalls the ways of Monica Vitti, where the star effortlessly adapts to the sensibility of the auteur, as if every gesture is not from direction but instinct. Often times with a specific voice, actors seem as if they’re on the verge of breaking. They can’t quite mesh with what the auteur is providing. Not so with Shu. She is everything the character needs to be. Illusive while being present. Gullible without seeming foolish. A woman that belongs on the edge of a new beginning.

Towards the end, Vicky is given an offer of false hope, one that initially remains clear with its intention to us but not her. Her reaction isn’t one of aggression when she realizes the motive, but solace. The possibility of something healthier this far into her life no longer seems likely, and she must accept where her actions have led her. We don’t judge her for her predicament, but acknowledge the notion that her position in life is an easy and initially desirable one to attain. The film’s closing moments revert back to the snowy scenery of Yubari. “Even years later, she still remembers it,” Vicky says in the voice over. Within the consecutive rhythm of her ennui infested life lied a moment of determination and meaning, only its impact to her wasn’t possible at the time. Where she is now, we don’t know, but the narration in third person, tone of voice, and motif in music leaves us with a possibility.

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Top Films of 2015

Here we are with the obligatory task to organize the best of what 2015 cinema had to offer into a list of ten. It was a good year that provided plenty, but didn’t contain as many highs as last year. It is interesting to note that eight out of the ten films I chose featured prominent female characters. Not really trying to make a point. Just saying. It’s also worth nothing that my favorite film from each year of this decade released outside of the Oscar season.

A few films that were close to making their way on here: Brooklyn, Cobain: Montage of Heck, and Carol. Now, onto the list.
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Brooklyn (Crowley, 2015)

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Oscar season is upon us and that means the Important films will be flooding the theaters. Actors acting with a capital “A” in period pieces that cover broad emotional beats in order to be serious contenders. It’s easy to see why I approached Brooklyn, a story that could be considered by some as Oscar bait, with slight trepidation. My heart began to sink during the first five minutes with the slight shake of the camera and musical cues indicating certain reactions, but the film began to impress once it established its central arc more thoroughly.

The central character is immigrant Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who has been arranged to leave her hometown in Ireland to live a better life in Brooklyn. We’re greeted with the familiar when she arrives – sassy roommates, somewhat stern but comforting adult figure, breathing-down-your-neck boss. It’s conventional stuff that makes one think this will be nothing more than a fish out of water picture that we’ve seen time and time again. It isn’t until Eilis meets Italian fellow Tony (Emory Cohen, ridding himself for his cheap Brando imitation performance in Place Beyond the Pines) at an Irish dance that the film begins to shine with what it sets out to do. What proceeds is a love story of sorts that takes the expected detours while always maintaining the integrity of its lead.

This is standard material, and in other hands, it would be chalked up as nothing more than Oscar bait. But director John Crawley handles the material just right, never over-emphasizing whatever struggle Eilis is enduring, and holding back, for the most part, on treating the material with a safe approach. The palette is livelier than its counterparts, with colors that actually breathe life into the frame (the final shot in particular), forgoing the drab and dreary look we’ve come to expect with this kind of material.

All of this, to be quite frank, seems rather inconsequential when discussing the film’s clear, undeniable strength: Saoirse Ronan, an actress that will no longer be known as “that little girl from Atonement.” The character’s transition is handled with such precision that you question why Crawley even bothered with the emotional musical cues or mirror sequence in the climax when Ronan is such a gifted performer at conveying every single shift in character. She truly shines when she’s on screen with Cohen, demonstrating a chemistry that instantly clicks (and Crawley is well aware of this, always putting them in single medium takes during conversation) and only forces the viewer to feel anxious when they’re apart.

Brooklyn is a film that can find its way into the most cynical of souls. Its warmth rarely feels manipulated, and its intentions, whether you question them in the back half, are always in the right place. It has the kind of charm that makes you feel grateful for this time of year. You smile because it could have so easily failed had it been anyone else feeling seasick on that boat.

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Bridge of Spies (Spielberg, 2015)

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This prevalent notion that filmmakers lose their ability to put forth strong work due to longevity has always been absurd. It’s often less to do with the work itself and more to do with circumstance and context. If we are to accept this, however, and take notice of the directors that are haphazardly cited as shining examples, we can probably come to the conclusion that the reasoning for such rash judgment is a result from one’s eye developing past a point of welcome acceptance and into a territory that can only belong to them. This can lessen accessibility (see: Terrence Malick) with those who have latched onto the more renowned, familiar work. But not providing proper context with the films that have seemingly derailed the directors can only halt one’s appreciation. It helps in cases such as these to link the threads that have come before it, whether it be thematic or stylistic, in order to provide an understanding – and perhaps answers – to what may initially be considered a blemish with a career that has left a mark.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to lump Spielberg into this mix. The man has gone from grand spectacle to period pieces that are considered by some to be nothing more than polished history lessons. Both eras, however, do not represent a questionable shift from a man with deliberate sensibilities. War Horse is undeniably from the same man that claims the original ending to Close Encounters of the Third Kind is inconsistent with the rest of the narrative. His sentimentalist sensibilities have been apparent from day one; it has only progressively evolved into something that could be a breaking point for some.

Spielberg’s latest, Bridge of Spies, is a fitting showcase for this. The film almost reaches a tipping point with its desire to be safe that it makes you question whether the inner child that has been running throughout a majority of his work will ever return. The fascination with a certain moment in time combined with a sentimentalist touch makes it so the entire piece feels reminiscent of a Frank Capra picture. Having your main man Tom Hanks as the Jimmy Stewart every man also helps.

The film is part courtroom drama (emphasis on drama) and part wartime talkie. James Donovan (Hanks) is handed the task to defend recently detained KGB spy, Rudol Abel (the standout Mark Rylance), with little inclination from those around him that he’ll actually do his job. The back half is connected in a way to this thread, but clearly attempts to be its own thing with tone and genre convention. The outcome is what you’d expect, particularly if you are at all familiar with the broad strokes of the Cold War. On paper, it seems it would be comprised of mismatched pieces that have ambitions in their own right but don’t work together as a single piece. This is never the case. Thanks to the classical style Spielberg has honed in and the pitch perfect cast (even some of the real minor players feel just right) – it consistently succeeds in what it sets out to do. Where the film begins to feel wonky, however, is stitching those two threads together with a beat that confirms Spielberg’s tendencies for the epic are still in tact. It’s unfortunate that it feels so loose, that it could have been conveyed with a few lines of dialogue or moments of action without sacrificing its low-key dramatic current.

Whatever faults there are a result from a director that has always been keen on traditional storytelling. The aesthetic is in line with what he’s been doing for the past decade or so, with longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski as the DP, employing what is arguably a monochromatic palette that has been plaguing period pieces since director Clint Eastwood became super serious. The anamorphic lenses help to make the world Donovan inhabits feel bigger than he can imagine, although on occasion it can feel more like a distraction. The details within design that are familiar with modern American period pieces are rampant, from the cars drifting down the narrow streets in the rain to the flashing of camera bulbs. Spielberg creates a world that we’re too familiar with.

What we’re left with is a film that is representative of a director that has leaned towards a certain path over the years. Maybe Spielberg’s true strength lied within his ambition for the epic. That his more engaging work intended to entertain without engaging you in a lesson of sorts. But his more interesting work has always been the ones that put forth character and conflict – Richard Dreyfuss and the obsession in Close Encounters, Christian Bale and his circumstance in Empire of the Sun, three men and a shark in ­Jaws. It’s the degree to which the aspects are expressed that is important. With his latest, it results into a piece that is channeling an era long before him.

 

 

 

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Vive L’Amour (Tsai, 1994)

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The opening shot to Ming-liang Tsai’s Vive L’Amour is key, both literally and figuratively. The shot consists of an untouched key locked in an apartment door in the foreground. A hand reaches into frame to observe the key for a moment, only to be interrupted temporarily by action in the background. The observer retreats out of focus to do what needs to be done in the moment. He proceeds to ding the elevator, eying the key that just happens to be sitting in the lock of an apartment. A beat goes by and, just like that, the key is gone. We don’t know the context of the situation, nor do we even know the specifics. Tsai forces us to come to our conclusion through composition. We can easily gather that this apartment doesn’t belong to this man and curiosity has gotten the better of him. What we don’t know is who lives in that apartment and what the repercussions will be from this decision.

This scene kicks off the happenings of the film, but it also clues us in on how the film will operate. For those newcomers to Tsai’s work (I, to my great misfortune, am included in that bunch), we witness a stylistic choice that simultaneously represents the Thai New Wave while being noticeably distinct. Representative in the manner of length and distinct in the manner of which that length is used (I’m not as familiar with the movement as I’d like, but I cannot recall other films that put such emphasis on shallow depth of field in a specific shot.) It eases one into a picture that will not once share similarity to the kind of Altman-esque structure this film could be (wrongly) lumped in with. One has to accept the fact that Tsai isn’t aiming to please in the conventional sense, that his camera will hold with purpose on the three central characters and that those characters may not even meet face to face by the film’s end. Once this is acknowledged, the thematic current of the picture seeps through and, to our surprise, almost forces us with a desire that it doesn’t resolve with the climax we’ve come to expect.

Tsai’s intentions aren’t to show the when and where these characters will intersect, but why we’re witnessing them in the first place. These three characters exist in their own little world, and Tsai makes it so that we witness them behind walls that belong to no one. This is a place for three people to take full advantage of its emptiness, allowing them to express what cannot be on the outside, whether that be in the form of love making or bowling with a large piece of fruit. What happens outside of these walls is a consecutive process to get one throughout the day that results as more of a necessity with little to no satisfaction. It’s a draining, mundane exercise, contrasting a space that doesn’t evolve with what cannot be altered.

Silence is an integral form of development here, allowing the characters to react to only themselves. We see their habits, quirks, and patterns, and how that, to some degree, relates to the prevalent sadness of their lives. It almost comes as a surprise when we find this isn’t a piece consisting of only action once words are finally spoken at the twenty-minute mark. It could be called something of a disappointment were it not for the fact that a few moments of dialogue lead us to one of the film’s strongest moments of action – action that is surprisingly humorous with its tone and nifty with its character development.

Each character differs in terms of social status, yet remains connected with their inability to be fulfilled in modern culture. The commonality that links Tsai’s work with his counterparts, notably Edward Yang, is the display of alienation within a society that is constantly developing. The closing sequence particularly represents this, with a pan from a figure of importance to objects that diminish that importance, and repeated use of action that seems to suggest an answer to the film’s central theme, one that isn’t easy to sit with but admirable with its sheer audacity to be honest.

Vive L’Amour is an extension to the thoughts we have on a daily basis. What is it like behind those walls? What are those people doing? Are they content? The space that is inhabited is never defined, a mere placeholder for people that have found relief from the outside world. But that relief cannot last. We can smoke as many cigarettes as we’d like, but the life outside that vice moves on and we must be apart of it.

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Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, 1975)

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We are defined to an extent by routine, a routine that develops with time and action. The development is not a conscious process, but one that forms from necessity within specific lives. What can be seen as obvious and deliberate to an observer can be taken as a simple step of progression for the subject. It’s a pattern of sorts that can give our life some meaning: brewing a cup of coffee for the day to come; making the bed for your inevitable return; walking out the driveway to grab your morning paper. It’s an accumulation of minor beats that are assembled in a consecutive path in order to get one from point A to point B.

It seems to be accepted that this is a pattern that’s firmly set. We may take assessment with our lives, altering its structure here and there, but more often than not we let this control whatever path we may be on. Chantal Akerman used this very notion to structure her second feature, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It depicts three days within the life of Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig). Akerman’s focus isn’t on broad strokes, but specifics. We become accustomed to this woman’s entire routine for one single day. Akerman’s camera captures actions from beginning to end in real time, forcing us to note details within a moment. By the time the first day ends with an intertitle, we’re taken aback by how long it took to there, and thus, in that moment, understand its purpose. Our familiarity with a specific pattern in this one woman’s life is set. We’re aware of what needs to be done, the manner in which it’s done, and why it’s being done.

The first day makes one think this film is solely an observational piece, witnessing this woman live out her life in the most mundane fashion. It isn’t until day two that we are jarringly introduced to Akerman’s intentions. A disrupt in the foundation itself, gradually tugging at structure to unhinge a woman that has dedicated her life to what’s to come. It disrupts our observation and forces us to question reason and outcome. We notice details – maybe before Dielman herself – that do not fit with what has been deliberately laid out. Details that disrupt the natural flow of routine – soap on a dish, a light being turned on, etc. We gradually become aware of why we happened to be dropped into this woman’s life on these three specific days.

Not only do we become accustomed to process, but also craft. Each camera setup that accompanies this daily routine becomes familiar. The composition – with the exception of a few key scenes – is seen almost always more than once. Just like the step-by-step process of Dielman’s day, we become accustomed, and eerily comfortable, to a composition that makes one feel at home. Forcing us to witness Dielman’s actions in real time makes us anxious for a shot that we know is going to follow it. We know what’s to come because it’s apart of her day. Until it isn’t. Just as this pattern is altered ever so slightly, our understanding of what we thought is set is becoming redefined.

Akerman’s eye is transfixing. Her form refuses tradition, instead adhering to a sensibility that is entirely its own. Her goal isn’t to entertain, but to showcase her mind, her way of thinking, and how this can be conveyed through cinema. Our very concept of time becomes distant as the film progresses. We’re settled into Dielman’s life, where our focus on trivialities is what matters. The film’s ways are so set and accomplished that the current state of modern cinema feels fabricated.

The film has been read as a critique of the bourgeoisie, and it certainly is that. But Akerman’s display applies to not just those dedicated to a certain mindset of life. Dielman’s routine is no different from ours. The specifics of her process are not what’s important, but the universality and the redundancy within it. We see people every day – roaming the streets, sitting inside cafes, driving in their cars – and give quick acknowledgement. We leave it at that and get on with our day. Akerman paints an answer to a question that we rarely ask.

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