Saturday, April 30, 2005

Ten Works that Changed My Life: Part I: 10-6

Here, I'm going to write about the ten works of art that made the biggest impact on me, the works that changed the way I look at the world, and the way that I created fiction. If I hadn't encountered these works, I would be a very different person.

10. The Beatles 'Magical Mystery Tour' - When I was young, about eight or so, I was watching a documentary on The Beatles with my parents and I heard this song called 'I am the Walrus,' which was just the most bizarre song I'd ever heard. The lyrics were nonsensical, but reallly vivid, and the music was really off beat. I'd say this was the first song I really loved, and I have a really vivid memory of hearing it for the first time and just falling in love with that sound, so I listened to the whole 'Magical Mystery Tour' album, and that was the first album I really loved. It's still one of my favorite albums, and 'I am the Walrus' still stands out to me as one of the best songs ever made. This is the album that made me open to older stuff and made me explore a lot of different types of music.

9. Batman Returns - I first saw this film when in 1992, at the Mamaroneck theater. I remember getting a little poster for the film when I went to see it, and I also remember loving the movie. A few years later, I bought the movie on VHS and watched it a whole bunch of times. When I was younger, this film was #4 on my top films list, behind only the Star Wars trilogy. At the same time, I loved both the original Batman and Beetlejuice, and when the film Ed Wood came out, I realized they were all directed by the same director, Tim Burton. A few years later, when I was in eighth grade, I decided to rent Edward Scissorhands, because it too was directed by Tim Burton. I watched this and loved it, and it gave me a greater understanding of the thematic development of Batman Returns, something I applied when I watched it again. I also started to really investigate Danny Elfman's scores, and I bought the soundtrack to Batman Returns, my favorite score of his. So, what this film did was set off my first investigation of a filmmaker's whole body of work. Tim Burton was my favorite director for a long time, I sought out all his films and read a bunch of books on him. Even my Nightmare Before Christmas shirt, which I always wear, was a result of this.

So, I guess what makes the film so special to me was that it was really the lynchpin for my love of Burton's work. It was the thing that I loved enough to seek out his other work. I always loved the film in a way that went beyond just liking the action, there was something deeper there. Subsequent to viewing all Burton's work, I've gone through a number of other directors: Gilliam, Lynch, Wong, Linklater, Tarantino, etc. but I don't think I ever was so immersed in one director's work as I was in Burton's. A few weeks ago, I revisited Batman Returns and was struck by how amazing it still was. It's Burton's best film, visually magnificent, thematically rich, and still #8 on my all time best films list. I wrote a 23 page paper on the film, which I finished last week, and I felt like that wasn't even enough room to say what I wanted to about it. The film was crucial to making me view cinema as not just a bunch of random movies, but instead as the product of a director with a unique vision.

8. Chungking Express - Last year about this time, I saw the film Chungking Express in class, and I loved it. I bought the DVD soon after, and enjoyed it even more the second time. I love this film, but perhaps more important, it really changed the way I view the medium. I used to view cinema primarily from a storytelling context, and, while I appreciated technique, I saw that primairly as an additional cool element, but what this film, and Wong Kar-Wai's subsequent work did, was to make me see how every single frame of a movie could be an amazing experience in and of itself. His perfect synching of music and visual produces moments that don't need to be understood in the context of a story, but instead stand alone as just dazzling images. When I was shooting Ricky Frost over winter break, I just imitated a bunch of Wong Kar-Wai shots, particularly with the so called 'Chungking effect,' aka using a low shutter speed. This sent me off to Wong Kar-Wai's other movies, and watching them really changed the way I approach and create cinema. I would argue since seeing this film I have been in the Wong Kar-Wai stage, where his was the dominant type of story that dominated my views, and I viewed things in the context of his work. More than most of the works on here, he's made a huge impact on how I want to create cinema.

7. Blade Runner - Blade Runner is a film that reignited my love for science fiction, in a way that no film since has done, it's a film that really showed me how cinema has the potential to create entirely new worlds. And, watching this film sent me down a number of intersting paths. After seeing the film, I began to seek out the work of author Philip K. Dick, and reading his book VALIS exposed me to a ton of new ideas, paving the way for The Invisibles. In addition, it sent me to the internet, where I became a part of the newsgroup, where I have been talking about the film for five years. I've never analyzed anything as long as I've talked about this film, and this paved the way for a lot more online participation in the film scene. Also, from reccomendations on the newsgroup, I found a number of my other favorite films, including Brazil and Leon: The Professional. Also, the work's primary theme, what is human, as well as its noir influences, has influenced a lot of what I've done. I guess what this film does is show me how well cinema can transport you to another world.

6. Magnolia - I think the moment Magnolia really clicked for me was when we see Claudia put an Aimee Mann song on, and quietly sing with it, then we cut to another character, and he's singing it too, and we cut to every character singing along to the song, a moment that could seem so goofy, but in the context of the work, is the most unbelievably heartbreaking moment, and that's when I knew that this wasn't just any movie, it was something so special. And, as the film was ending, I was wishing that it would go on just a bit longer, because I didn't want to leave its world, quite a feat considering it's a three hour film. As I said about Blade Runner, this is a work that creates a world, but this one is much more in our everyday world, what it does is take a bunch of individual dramas, and by weaving them together, makes it into a film that contains virtually the entirety of human emotion. I think that's what makes the work so special to me, the fact that by creating all these parallels, it makes simple stories into something so much larger.

I feel like more than any other work, I wish I could make something like Magnolia, something that's at once incredibly intimate and also epic. It instantly made me love multi-character films, with narrative weaves between the lives of many people. It made me want to make films like this, where we see many perspectives, and are able to compare them. The film I want to do over the summer is three different narrative strands that cross over, clearly influenced by Magnolia. In addition to this, the filmmaking technique completely changed my belief in what cinema could do. PT Anderson so perfectly used really showy technique to support characters' emotional development, and build an atmosphere around the film, so that even as we go through the lives of many characters, we feel like it's one unified story. This is largely due to the use of music, both Jon Brion's score and the Aimee Mann songs, which unite the characters. No matter how many times I see the film, I can't help but smile as Claudia does at the end of the film, because I feel like I've been through everything she's been through over the course of this day. One day I hope to make a film that is on the scale of Magnolia, and will have the emotional impact on other people that this film had one me.

Alright, that's it for the first five, tomorrow see what could possibly eclipse these absolutely brilliant works, and influenced me even more.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Days of Being Wild

Yesterday, I watched Wong Kar-Wai's Days of Being Wild for the second time. Days is his second film, and the first one I would really consider a Wong Kar-Wai film. His first, As Tears Go By, was a really typical late 80s Hong Kong gangster movie, that, despite some interesting shots, didn't quite work. When the best part of your movie is a montage set to a Cantopop version of 'Take My Breath Away,' you know things aren't going that well.

However, with Days, he makes a huge leap, and essentially creates the Wong Kar-Wai style that we know and love. Big cast, drifting narrative, episodic structure, voiceovers, great use of music, it's all here. The first time I saw the film I liked it, but I didn't love it. This time I loved it. In almost all his films, I feel like it takes until the second viewing to really appreciate things, because on the first viewing, you're so busy trying to figure out where you're going, you can't really appereciate the journey. If you have to worry about keeping track of character and plot arcs, it's difficult to just get lost in the amazing images and atmosphere of the film. The thing I find ironic about WKW's movies is that on the first viewing, you usually don't get the plot, you just get this feeling of what it is. It's not until the second or third viewing that you can really understand how the narrative works. This is so far removed from classical Hollywood tradition, and I think it's a big part of why his films have so much repeat value. It's almost like listening to an album, there is an overall progression, but it's not designed just for an end, each song or moment can sort of stand alone. So, like an album, you can watch the film a bunch of times and just get lost in the atmosphere of things

Days of Being Wild is the first part of WKW's 60s trilogy, which includes this, In the Mood for Love and 2046. The first time I watched this film I had seen In the Mood for Love, but I wasn't really aware of the connection between the two, and without 2046, I wasn't aware of the overall narrative arc of the piece. Seeing the three films as one story is so rewarding, and makes this already top notch film even better.

Days is almost like an overture to the next two films, introducing themes and character types that will be further developed in the two films to follow. Of all of WKW's favorite actors, Leslie Cheung is my least favorite, I'm not sure if it's him personally or just the roles he plays, but I don't like any of his characters. He always seems to play a quasi-abusive, very self centered character, and this film is no exception, but the film is an examination, and eventually, condemnation of this lifestyle, so it makes for an interesting sort of dance, as the film sees how far it can push him without making you outright dislike the guy. He's a tragic figure, and when he does die at the end, it's a sad moment, but when you see the way he treats Su-Li Zhen or Lulu/Mimi, it's tough to feel bad for what happened to him. He brought it on himself.

Looking at the overall narrative of the trilogy, York would seem to be who Tony Leung's Chow was in his younger days, and it's the personality he tries to reclaim in 2046. At the end of this film, we see Tony Leung combing his hair and getting ready for a night on the town, and he is clearly being set up as another York. The thing that changes for Chow is that he gets married, and settles down, and after that, he falls in love. York seems to be too emotionally distant to really feel anything for anyone, people get close to him, but he won't let them in. For Chow, the person he lets in is Maggie Cheung's Su-Li Zhen, who was previously in a relationship with York, which we see chronicled in this movie.

Perhaps Su-Li Zhen sees something of York in Chow, though at the end of this film, she claims to be over him. However, the last time we see her she is alone, shutting the doors on her ticket booth. So, despite having been successful in overcoming her attraction to York, and moving on from him, something that Mimi/Lulu is unable to do, she is still left alone, and it might be this loneliness that compels her to marry someone she doesn't love, and the same loneliness that leaves her open to the true love that Chow gives her.

One of the most heartbreaking scenes in this film is when we see the phone ringing, but Andy Lau isn't there to pick it up. The whole episode with Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau wandering around the city at night is probably my favorite sequence in this film. In many ways it ties into Fallen Angels, which was all about lonely people wandering through the city at night. It's an absolutely gorgeous sequence, the shadows of Andy Lau's policeman hat obscuring his face, and the same shadows leaping off of buildings onto Maggie. When I first saw the film I didn't think much of it visually, but in those scenes, you can really see the roots of WKW and Christopher Doyle's best work, and shots like the hitman and the agent sitting in the restaurant during Fallen Angels.

Anyway, this episode perfectly captures that feeling at the end of Fallen Angels, best said in the film's final words, "We didn't have far to go, and I knew I would be getting off soon, but at that moment, I felt such warmth." In Days, both Andy and Maggie leave to go their seperate ways, but they always have that night, and the connection they shared that deeply affects each of them. Andy, after not hearing from her, goes off to be a sailor, quite similar to Chow who leaves Hong Kong at the end of In the Mood For Love. At the end of the film, we see Su-Li Zhen calling the payphone, but no one answers. This is an exact parallel to the end of In the Mood For Love, in which she calls Chow, wanting to go away with him, but he has already left. It's heartbreaking both times, and to think of how much her life would have changed if either one of them would have answered those calls. Instead, Maggie remains trapped, and Chow and Andy wander aimlessly.

When we meet up with Andy again, he's clearly still thinking about Maggie, and wishing that she'd have called him. He goes along with York on his criminal exploits, and eventually is with York as he dies. I originally thought of Chow as being attractive to Su-Li Zhen because of his similarity to York, but I think it also has a lot to do with his similarity to Andy. Unhappy with York and her husband, Su-Li Zhen needs someone to confide in, in 1960 it is Andy, in 1966, it is Chow. Both offer her sympathy and genuine interest, which neither her husband or York did. Sadly for each of them, she is too late to realize how they feel about her, and by she does realize, there's no one on the other end of the phone.

2046 is a more obvious reprisal of Days of Being Wild, as Tony Leung's Chow moves into the York position, of having copious amounts of women, but not being able to connect with any of them, despite, at least in the case of Zhang Ziyi, their real love for him. Watching 2046 the first time, I was really surprised and moved by the sequence in which Chow runs into Lulu/Mimi from Days, and we get a reprise of the music, over photos of Leslie and Mimi. Just like Chow, she has been burned by someone she loved, and is now alone. The cycle continues when she does the same thing to Chang Chen, and he attacks her, almost killing her.

Just like York, we see Chow having a bunch of relationships which are meaningless to him, but mean a lot to the women involved. That said, I think Tony Leung does a great job of making us sympathetic towards his character, something that Leslie Cheung couldn't do. This is also due to t Also, I think York is just off in his own world, and never could fall in love, whereas Chow is lost because he can never find a love that matches what he had with Su-Li Zhen. But, this leads to similar results. The relationship between Chow and Zhang Ziyi is essentially the same as between York and Lulu, and things go bad for all involved.

The two films have similar endings, York is riding the train alone, and Chow is riding alone in the back of a car. York is dead, but I didn't feel too much for him, however what happens to Chow really got to me, as he longs for this past he can never get back. Because of his love for Maggie, he cannot enjoy living the bachelor life he used to live, and he ends up just trying to get back there, but forever unable to.

So, Days of Being Wild does a great job of setting up the stuff to come in the next two films, and is really interesting on its own also. I used to say this wasn't really essential to the story of In the Mood For Love/2046, but looking at it now, I'd say it probably should be watched because even if it isn't connected to the plot of the two latter films, the characters and atmosphere all start here.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Kubrick's Lolita and The Heroic Trio

As I mentioned on here before, my birthday is shaping up to be pretty ridiculous. I've had the release of Episode III at midnight for a while, then over break I found out the Doves were doing a show in New York on May 19, so between those two things, it seemed there was no room for things to get even better. But wait, I got an e-mail telling me that Aimee Mann was doing an in store performance and signing of her new album on May 19, at 6:30, so I can fit it in before the Doves concert, and I'll be in the city anyway, so it'll be free. So, not only am I getting a new Star Wars movie, I'm also seeing two of my favorite musicians back to back, all on my birthday. It's going to be such a crazy day, really the way to start my 20s.

Besides that, I saw a couple of interesting films recently. Over the weekend, I watched Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, Lolita. Now, Kubrick is indisputably one of the masters of cinema, and 2001 is one of my top ten films of all time, and now that I've seen Lolita, I've seen all except three of his films. However, while Kubrick has made some absolutely genius films, I would draw a clear line between his pre 1964 output and his post 1964 output. The films he makes post 1964, starting with Dr. Strangelove are all visually dazzling, really challenging films. 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut, all these are great films. However, his earlier films seem to be very much the products of the Hollywood studio era, whose strict regulations compromise his vision.

Lolita has the potential to be a great film, but the film that Kubrick makes, while entertaining, is ultimately a failure, largely because restrictions on content prevented him from telling the story. Obviously, even today, Lolita walks in territory that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and I can understand why people would be very wary about how to depict things in this film, but what ultimately happens is Kubrick is able to show so little that the film loses its emotional impact.

The film is about a middle aged guy who falls in love with the teenage daughter of his landlady, and the story goes on to explore the effect that relationship has on him. Considering the primary relationship in the film is between Humbert and Lolita, this is the whole reason the film exists, it's very unfortunate that the content restrictions means we don't ever really see what their relationship entails. The first chunk of the film is pretty solid, as we see Humbert caught in a love triangle with Lolita and her mother.

However, once he and Lolita go out on the road, things get really muddled. Picking up on some clues, you come to realize that he and Lolita have a sexual relationship, but you never get a moment in the film where he makes the choice to actually be with her in that way. How he could do this would seem to be the most interesting question coming out of this material, but the film just skips over that and we have to infer what's going on between them. I have no problem with not telling everything, but playing detective takes you out of the story, and I was too busy trying to figure out exactly what was going on to be emotionally affected by anything. You can't understand Humbert after a certain point in the story, and while the film never is boring, it's not emotionally engaging either.

Peter Sellers' performance is emblematic of this. He's great, and the scene where he is introduced dancing at the school is so 60s, great stuff. But then, as the film goes on, there are lengthy segments that seem to be improvised that are more about Sellers' performance than adding to the story. He is funny, but doesn't add anything to the main story.

Ultimately, this film is a victim of its time. Maybe in the 70s or 80s Kubrick could have made a great film of Lolita, one that really examined the relationship between Lolita and Humbert, but this one can't show anything, so we don't understand the characters, and as a result, it's not a successful film. And it's not just the content restrictions that feel outdated, this film feels very studio era, like it could have been made in the 40s or 50s. If you want to learn about how much movies changed with the end of the studio era compare this film to A Clockwork Orange, made a mere nine years later. There's a big difference.

Then today in action film class, I watched a very different film than Lolita called The Heroic Trio. It's a 90s Hong Kong action film that I wouldn't call a great film, but was incredibly entertaining. It's a really bizarre and over the top sort of superhero film about an evil guy who's kidnapping babies, and the trio of ladies who have to team up to destroy him.

The most notable thing about this film for me was Maggie Cheung. She's one of my favorite actresses, and arguably the best actress in the world today. Her work in 'In the Mood For Love' is astonishing in how little it takes for her to convey huge emotions, and in ten minutes of 'Ashes of Time,' she steals the movie. Other than Wong Kar-Wai, she was also great in 'Irma Vep,' playing a fictionalized version of herself. In that film, we see clips from the film that inspired the director to cast Maggie, and as I soon found out, those clips were from The Heroic Trio.

Her role as Chat the Thief Catcher in The Heroic Trio is very different from everything else I've seen Maggie Cheung in. Other than Irma Vep, I'd only seen her in more serious films, and my image of her is from the suffocating world of In the Mood for Love. So, I was surprised to see how funny she was in this film. She provides the comic relief, and is at such high energy throughout the film you almost feel bad that she has to hold back so much in her recent films. She just looks like she's enjoying making the movie so much, and that sense of fun is contagious.

The film is really bizarre. The main villain is really bizarre looking, and his underworld dungeon is a nasty environment. The changes in tone are quite drastic. One minute Maggie Cheung's motorcycle is spinning across a room, the next imprisoned children are eating the flesh off a dead man. But, throughout it, there's this sense of pop irreverence, that they're all having fun, making this wacky film. There's a lot of interesting angles and off kilter stuff throughout the film. My favorite shot is Chat riding her motorcycle in front of the two other trio members on horses.

It's not a film you watch expecting it to make sense, it's a film you watch for some bizarre, over the top fun.


I figured since I've got so many posts on here, I might as well put together an index, so that people can figure out exactly what I have talked about over time. And that page is now available here at, so bookmark that and you can read all these great articles any time.

The index is not complete yet, I've only got through January, but in the next couple of days, I'll finish it up, and also add a link to the side of the page, so you can get to it easier. And also, on the index page, I'm going to make a list of the posts I think are the best reading. So, look forward to that, and in the meantime catch up on some classics you might have missed.