Saturday, April 17, 2021

Mong Kok Carmen / As Tears Go By

 Cool Rules the Wild East

Wong Kar-wai's first film, 1988's Mong Kok Carmen / As Tears Go By, today plays like a glimpse of things to come ("FUTURE" reads just one of the Kowloon cityscape's thousands of neon signs) which indeed came to pass both in the way of a hyper-stylized Asian cinéma du look, and, more substantively, in Wong's body of work over the following three decades. It might not be out of order to alternately pair his films in a program with those of Leos Carax, for he and Wong are two contemporary directors who remind us that style, specifically that which was found in the studio pictures of yore, provides entry to the most sensitive of mises-en-scène — at the term's ontological bases of formal rigor, propagation of discourses, and intellectual-emotional insights. No empty style: if viewed as a 98-minute sizzle-reel, As Tears Go By suggests that WKW's career could have taken one route (the exploration of Longing) or the other (torture-picture). We got the infinitely richer of the two; we find Wong already working with a vocabulary of objects (drinking glasses, soda-pop, mustard-and-ketchup-colored Mong Kok transit), within a syntax of repetition, of time brought to a halt and the fleetingness of 'now.' The Wong of coming and going, staying and leaving, phone calls accorded no connection at 'the end of the line.'

Andrew Lau Wai-keung's cinematography can at last be seen at home in all its glowing splendor with the new 4K scan and restoration (although it's worth noting that in the case of this film and Days of Being Wild, Wong didn't oversee the work) included in Criterion's handsome objet-box World of Wong Kar Wai. A controversial release for a few reasons, which I'll touch upon as I write more in the near future on the films included therein. For now, I'd simply raise an eyebrow at (1) the exclusion of the films' on-screen Chinese titles' translation anywhere in the set, and (2) the inclusion of John Powers, charged with writing what turns out to be a staid, vapid essay that singly represents the main content of an otherwise lavish book that might have been found in the accreditation bags at Cannes. (One new, very interesting document which I'll address soon has also been commissioned: a director's statement by Wong.) Besides being the insufferably chirpy 'movie reviewer' for NPR's Fresh Air, Powers brings the credential of having co-authored in 2016 with Wong one of those Rizzoli books, titled WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai; if this piece is any indication, I'll never touch the tome. In the World of Wong Kar Wai essay, he likens the performance of Jacky Cheung Hok-yau in As Tears Go By to that of Robert De Niro in Mean Streets, perceiving in Cheung "an almost hysterical Method ferocity." — an absolutely foolish observation. Prior, Powers describes lead Andy Lau Tak-wah as "[k]nife-thin," which will come as a surprise to anyone who's seen recent images of the now-shred-ripped Lau and compared them to 1988's perfectly average physique — to my eyes, one not generally accustomed to aid in tearing phone-books. The whole thing enervates. Where were Charles Tesson, or Olivier Assayas, the editors of Cahiers' celebrated Made in Hong Kong special, as only two examples and who aren't even from Hong Kong? 

Assayas being, of course, the author of Irma Vep (Johnnie To citation aside) and the ex-husband of Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, so perhaps that answers that. But it would be remiss to finish without mentioning the now-publicity-shy Cheung, who with As Tears Go By launches her career. In the moment she asks Andy Lau how long he'll stay in town for, and he answers that he hasn't decided, her physical reflex-response — a certain smile, a certain glance off-frame — is worthy of the Ringo Kid's tracking close-up in Stagecoach. A star is born. •


Other writing about Wong Kar-wai at Cinemasparagus:


Monday, April 12, 2021

La strada

The Owl of the Tarp

I would venture to say that Fellini's La strada [The Road, 1954], one of the most famous "foreign films," gained its popularity through two aspects which remain indelible 'sousconscierie' for most who think back on this picture, the memory of which indeed matches the actuality of the story and the images onscreen: (1) simpering, 'simple' Gelsomina's (Giulietta Masina) and barrel-chested Zampanò's (Anthony Quinn) sado-masochistic relationship, replete with a chain that snaps before it is replenished once more; and (2) the totality of the landscape that looks as though Zampanò's motorbike-wagon-combo alone could traverse its mud-clumped topography. Emblazoned on one side of the vehicle's tarp: Zampanò's name. On the opposite: a naïve painting of an owl that might be a stand-in for Gelsomina... — no. The illustration predates Gelsomina's service to Zampanò — is the vestige, perhaps, of Gelsomina's sister Rosa's time with Zampanò, she who died in the 'care' of the vagabond. Sans toit ni loi — the chain is perpetually reassembled. 

Eternal return. The film begins where it will end, on the beach bordering Gelsomina's and Rosa's family home. "Gelsomina...!" sounds in the distance, sirened like a ghostly oath, echoed at the end of the film by Rota's famous theme sung by the woman at the clothesline. Gelsomina answers the call, reeds affixed to her back in an image not unlike something from Mizoguchi's Ugetsu monogatari. She will be sold to Zampanò for 10,000 lire. Mama reasons with her daughter: "It's not your fault you're not like other girls."

Zampanò will have his way with Gelsomina in the back of the wagon shortly after taking to the road. She awakens, smiles at him wanly, and wipes her eyes. Zampanò will later sleep with a bouncy donna following one performance, and another, more ravaged (if not necessarily older) lady in the aftermath of a wedding party, who seduces him in the most circumspect of phrases. The courtship of "il Matto" (the Fool, Richard Basehart) towards Gelsomina results in a deadly outcome. (The first time we see him is as a shade traversing a building in the midst of a tight-rope walk illuminated by projector lights and torches.) Some episode from Zampanò's and il Matto's past remains an open wound — Basehart's own death-wish or masochistic tendencies find him incapable of referring to Quinn as anything other than "Ciufile," a bowdlerization of "Fucile" (or "Rifle") and potential mockery of the old wolf's potency. One suspects un'avventura between il Matto and Rosa. 

Fellini will come full circle again when he parallels the ending of La strada with that of La dolce vita. As Scorsese might put it, both films conclude with a spiritual reckoning. One beautiful moment:

"Where are we?" "In Rome! That's St. Paul's!" On the soundtrack, a dove flitters by.  



Poemquotes 20: Three from Baudelaire's "Spleen and Ideal" (33-35)

 (my translations)

XXXIII. Remords posthume
[33. Posthumous Remorse]

When you will sleep, my beautiful dusky one,
At the bottom of a monument built of black marble,
And when you will have as alcove and mansion
But a rainy vault and a hollow pit;

When the stone, oppressing your fearful breast
And your flanks that a charming nonchalance softens
Will keep your heart from beating and from wishing,
And your feet from running their adventurous course,

The tomb, confidant of my infinite dreaming
(For the tomb will always understand the poet),
During those great nights in which sleep is banned

Will say: "What does it serve you, imperfect courtesan,
Not to have known why the dead weep?"
— And the worm will gnaw your skin like so much remorse.


 XXXIV. Le chat
[34. The Cat]

Come, my beautiful cat, onto my amorous heart;
   Hold back the claws of your paw,
And let me dive into your beautiful eyes,
   Mixed of metal and agate.

When my fingers at leisure caress
   Your head and your elastic back,
And my hand tingles with the pleasure
   Of palpating your electric body,

I see my woman in spirit. Her gaze,
   Like yours, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,

   And, from head to toes,
A subtle air, a dangerous perfume,
   Floats about her brown body.


XXXV. Duellum
[35. Duellum {"The Duel"}]

Two warriors rushed, the one upon the other; their weapons
Spattered the air with flashes and blood.
These games, these clangs of iron make up the din
Of youth in prey to mewling love.

The glaives are broken! like our youth, 
My dear! But the teeth, the biting nails,
Soon avenge the sword and the treacherous dagger.
— O fury of hearts ripened by ulcerated love!

In the ravine haunted by leopards and panthers
Our heroes, clasping each other viciously, rolled,
And their flesh will make blossom the aridity of the brambles.

This chasm, it is hell, thronged with our friends!
Let us roll there remorselessly, inhumane amazon,
So as to eternalize the ardor of our hatred! 


Thursday, April 01, 2021

Black Panthers

 Mind and Body

Varda's 28-minute documentary portrait, called simply Black Panthers [1968], is centered around the incarceration of Huey P. Newton for his alleged murder of Oakland police officer John Frey. Her film does not so much focus on Newton (who is interviewed on-camera from a cell) as it does on the "Free Huey!" gatherings that erupted in Oakland in the time surrounding his trial. Varda's portrait — shot obviously from the standpoint of a Frenchwoman and a mostly French crew — serves as an ethnographic observation of Black culture in America in general and within a specific moment of crisis. It's also a geographical account of the city itself: Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver, for example, took refuge in the basement of a house, shown, where fifty policemen fired a thousand rounds. Unassuming, clear as though it were 2021, this house, though obfuscated by its sheer normalcy.

Newton calls the Black Panthers (which he co-founded) "practical revolutionaries" that identify with anti-colonialist peoples and factions throughout the world — the Cubans, for example.

"We feel that Black people should be exempt from the army because they have nothing to fight for in Vietnam." A mix of desired rollbacks and restitutions, in the way that can only be born of a nascent revolutionary counter-movement, counter-majority (in contradistinction to the nefarious 'silent majority' bogeyman) made recognizable by uniforms that say: We belong to something and we are identifiable. 

Kathleen Cleaver says: "Separate the institutions from the citizens." 

Agnès Varda says: Turn the camera upon the historical moment and separate the citizens in discrete shots, in consecutive train, without hectoring voice-over (a voice-over presented herein only to ask a few rhetorical questions), and let Kathleen Cleaver speak. Only one white gets a shot at opining, and his state is one of befuddlement. "You know something's happening, but you don't know what it is..."

Newton is found guilty. The police in Oakland open fire on the thousands of placards themselves: as it's put, they "kill the posters of Newton and Cleaver."

This picture is not without smiling friends, but they're in black leather and powder-blue tees.

As a movie about the Black Panthers it's second only to Jean-Luc Godard's One Plus One of the same year. In her 2007 introduction to the film, Varda cites it as an historical document — but unlike in her look-back on Salut les Cubains, here offers no apologies.