Friday, December 31, 2021

My Top 3 Films of 2021

(3) Annette [Leos Carax, 2021]

(2) Licorice Pizza [Paul Thomas Anderson, 2021]

(1) The Beatles: Get Back [Peter Jackson, 2021]


Friday, December 24, 2021

Special Guest Blog: Marianna Ellenberg

Top Ten List, Film and Live Performance: Marianna Ellenberg, 2021

In no particular order, these were the flicks and live shows that wowed me during this darkest of years. These thoughts are dedicated to the brilliant artists and thinkers we lost this year, including bell hooks, Lauren Berlant, Joan Didion, Alvin Lucier, Stephen Sondheim, Greg Tate, to name just a few.

(1) “Sun and Sea”

Direction and set design by Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Libretto by Vaiva Grainytė , Music and musical direction by Lina Lapelytė


An opera on climate crisis and late capitalism, Beckett meets German arthouse theater, with hints of Roy Anderson. Painful and beautiful to watch. A tableau of vacationers sing morbid songs of consumer desire on a beach tableau. There is an existential dread in their plastic joy. It made me think of “Cruel Optimism, ” by the late visionary author Lauren Berlant. Global greed leads to a Sisyphean beach holiday that slowly goes sour.

(2) “The Lehman Trilogy,” written by Stefano Massini and directed by Sam Mendes.  

With Set Design by Es Devlin. Video Design by Luke Halls.

Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Adrien Lester  and Adam Godley

Nederlander Theater, NYC

The Lehman Trilogy, as staged by Mendes blew my mind with the potential that contemporary theater (developed by the National Theater in London) can still accomplish. It was both live and cinematic, dark as the colors of Wallstreet and joyful like a Chaplin skit. What does a brilliant family of Jewish German emigres do with the American Dream? In Mendes' hands, they create it, but also suffer from its false promises and all consuming alienation. Did the playwright have a socio-political perspective? Maybe not, but what Massini lacked, Mendes provided. In Mendes’s direction and Devlin’s gray, brooding set, we get another story on top of the rise to Wallstreet success, alienated men imprisoned by their own successes and endless desires. The set, a minimalist rotating office/glass box, created by Es Devlin, alongside the direction by Sam Mendes was sublime. And each actor was a show unto itself, as they performed every character in their lives, from babies to first loves. Even while I was being seduced by the incredible video design and acting I thought, wow, another piece about smart Jews making a lot of money, oof. But, to my surprise, the writer is an Italian of Jewish descent, and potentially too removed from the harsh realities of inequality and structural racism that titans of American capitalism, like the Lehman brothers, consciously or unconsciously have been a part of in building today’s USA. Anyway, Mendes and the set design far surpassed the obtuse non-message about the ultimate model minority and the American dream. This was pre-omicron, and I was lucky enough to experience the power of the live to illuminate visions of possibility.

(3) Brother to Brother, Rodney Evans, 2004  

An Independent Black film from the early oughts weaving a coming of age tale of young, black queerness via re-enactments of Langston Hughes' inner circle, intercut with interracial dating and its various complexities in the New York liberal arts and art scene of the late nineties. The flashbacks to Black Poets and artists making a name for themselves in the early days of the Harlem Renaissance was beautifully rendered, without sentimentality. I was inspired by Evan’s  synthesis of  seventies neo-realism, kitchen-sink melodrama and authentic queer coming of age vision. Hoping Evans gets more attention for his brilliant work with this Criterion Channel Release.

(4) Succession

Why do we love watching rich white men tear each other apart? I don’t know, but Jeremy Strong’s performance in the final episode blew my mind. And Brian Cox, Matthew Mcfayden and J. Smith-Cameron take my nod as top television actors of the year. Maybe it’s masochism, British wit or a continued fantasy of being in the backseat of the foils of the 1%?

(5) The Passion of Anna, Ingmar Bergman, 1969 

Getting to see Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow mourn past relationships, the droll pain of existence on a gray, bitter isolating Swedish Island is wonderful. The stalwart pain that each actor can exercise in a gesture, look or turn of phrase is incredible to watch. The black and white and reds are like watching a 16mm Brakhage film projected for the first time: pure cinema, pure color, pure Bergman.

(6) Genealogies, Amie Siegel, 2016 

Finally I get to see a brilliant film essayist humorously deconstruct the sexism in Godard’s Contempt, with a subtle eye and brilliant editing style, connecting Pink Floyd’s concert in Pompeii with a Beastie Boys video, Sympathy for the Devil and the Malaparte Family’s indulgent mansion. 

(7) Watermelon Man, Melvin Van Peebles, 1970 

The most brutal, caustic satire of race relations made in 1969 by the brilliant iconoclast, Melvin Van Peebles. With a searing screenplay, Peebles puts the lens on one man’s journey to accept and love his new found race. Inspired by Kafka’s Metamorphosis, with a pointed performance by Godfrey Cambridge.

(8) Ace in the Hole, 1951, Billy Wilder. 

American greed, capitalism, and “Making It”, all in beautiful black and white. The horror of capitalist hubris has never so beautifully been rendered before. Wilder’s undersung film foreshadows the media circus of the 24 hour news cycle with its tale of a has-been journalist’s cruel drive for fame and fortune at any expense. 

(9) Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay, 2021

Idiocracy for the age of climate crisis. Or a dark comedy for the age of Endtimes. Either way, Leo was sexy for the first time since The Departed or maybe Titanic! Watch out for Cate Blanchett in a scene stealing role as a Laura Ingraham type. Did I feel sad at the end? Yes, but I also felt that McKay was telling us to wake up, stop whining and fight like hell, or maybe that in endtimes, all you need is a Beatles tune?  Either way, it was surprisingly brilliant, brought up both Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove) and Haynes (Safe), and contains a superb cast. 

**(Mary Rylance as the Peter Thiel villain was timeless if not Oscar worthy.

(10) The Souvenir Part II, 2021, Joanna Hogg, 

My most anticipated movie of the year, yet to see, but betting, if it’s anywhere as good as Part 1, she’s going to convince me that feminist arthouse cinema still has a few lives left.


Thursday, December 23, 2021

Joan Didion (1934-2021)


"Imagine Marion Morrison in Glendale. A Boy Scout, then a student at Glendale Higih. A tackle for U.S.C., a Sigma Chi. Summer vacations, a job moving props on the old Fox lot. There, a meeting with John Ford, one of the several directors who were to sense that into this perfect mold might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost. "Dammit," said Raoul Walsh later, "the son of a bitch looked like a man." And so after a while the boy from Glendale became a star. He ddid not become an actor, as he has always been careful to point out to interviewers ("How many times do I gotta tell you, I don't act at all, I re-act"), but a star, and the star called John Wayne would spend most of the rest of his life with one or another of those directors, out on some forsaken location, in search of the dream."

—from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), from "John Wayne: A Love Song" (1965)


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1932

These are my Top 10 films of 1932, as requested by Jack Miller. Special mention for two Universal directors in their prime: Tod Browning for Freaks, and James Whale for The Old Dark House.

(10) Ootona no miru ehon: Umarete wa mita keredo [A Picture-Book for Grown-Ups: I Was Born, But...] [Yasujirō Ozu, 1932]

(9) Blonde Venus [Josef von Sternberg, 1932]

(8) Nasanu-naka [No Blood Relation] [Mikio Naruse, 1932]

(7) Fanny [Marcel Pagnol with Marc Allégret, 1932]

(6) Scarface [Howard Hawks, 1932]

(5) Shanghai Express [Josef von Sternberg, 1932]

(4) Trouble in Paradise [Ernst Lubitsch, 1932]


Vampyr: The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray [Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932]


Boudu sauvé des eaux [Boudu Saved from the Waters] [Jean Renoir, 1932]

(1) La nuit du carrefour [Night at the Crossroads] [Jean Renoir, 1932]


Tuesday, December 21, 2021

My Top 21 Films of 1968

These are my Top *21* films of 1968, as requested by Jeffrey Gardener.

(21) Targets [Peter Bogdanovich, 1968]

(20) Vargtimmen [The Hour of the Wolf] [Ingmar Bergman, 1968]

(19) Teorema [Theorem] [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968]

(18) Actua 1 [Philippe Garrel, 1968]

(17) Mandabi [The Money Order] [Ousmane Sembène, 1968]

(16) Un film comme les autres [A Film Like Any Other] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1968]

(15) Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One [William Greaves, 1968] 

(14) Belle de Jour [Luis Buñuel, 1968]

(13) Toby Dammit [Federico Fellini, 1968]

(12) La hora de los hornos [The Hour of the Furnaces] [Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas, 1968]

(11) Je t'aime je t'aime [I Love You I Love You] [Alain Resnais, 1968]

(10) Maxwell's Demon [Hollis Frampton, 1968]

(9) One Plus One [Jean-Luc Godard, 1968]

(8) High School [Frederick Wiseman, 1968]

(7) L'enfance-nue [Naked-Childhood] [Maurice Pialat, 1968]

(6) Faces [John Casssavetes, 1968]

(5) Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach] [Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1968]

(4) The Immortal Story [Orson Welles, 1968]

(3) Le gai savoir [Cheerful Knowledge] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1968]

(2) Baisers volés [Stolen Kisses] [François Truffaut, 1968]

(1) 2001: A Space Odyssey [Stanley Kubrick, 1968]


Sunday, December 19, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1947

Here are my Top 10 films of 1947, at the request of Kevin Orloski.

(10) The Fugitive [John Ford, 1947]

(9) Fireworks [Kenneth Anger, 1947] 

(8) Lady in the Lake [Robert Montgomery, 1947]

(7) Quai des Orfèvres [Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947]

(6) Nightmare Alley [Edmund Goulding, 1947]

(5) Daisy Kenyon [Otto Preminger, 1947]

(4) Secret Beyond the Door... [Fritz Lang, 1947]

(3) Monsieur Verdoux: A Comedy of Murders [Charles Chaplin, 1947]

(2) The Woman on the Beach [Jean Renoir, 1947]

(1) Build My Gallows High, aka Out of the Past [Jacques Tourneur, 1947]


Saturday, December 18, 2021

My Top Films of 1999

These are my Top 10 films from 1999 — requested by Jordan Clifford.

(10) The Straight Story [David Lynch, 1999]

(9) Magnolia [Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999]

(8) Charisma [Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1999]

(7) La Commune (Paris, 1871) [Peter Watkins, 1999]

(6) Small Notes Regarding the Arts at Fall of 20th Century: The Old Place [Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1999]

(5) Beau travail [Nice Work] [Claire Denis, 1999]

(4) julien donkey-boy [Harmony Korine, 1999]

(3) Sicilia! [Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1999]

(2) Bâd mâ râ khâhad bord... [The Wind Will Carry Us...] [Abbas Kiarostami, 1999]

(1) Eyes Wide Shut [Stanley Kubrick, 1999]


Friday, December 17, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1931

And here are my Top 10 of 1931, as requested by Lucy Sante. (Not sure if she requested '21 or '31, thanks to my handwriting.)

(10) On purge Bébé [Baby's Getting His Laxative] [Jean Renoir, 1931]

(9) Tōkyō no chorus [Tokyo Chorus] [Yasujirō Ozu, 1931]

(8) Die 3groschenoper [The 3penny Opera] [G. W. Pabst, 1931]

(7) The Public Enemy [William A. Wellman, 1931]

(6) Marius [Marcel Pagnol with Alexander Korda, 1931]

(5) Limite [Limit] [Mário Peixoto]

(4) Tabu: A Story of the South Seas [F. W. Murnau, 1931]

(3) La chienne [The Bitch] [Jean Renoir, 1931]

(2) M [Fritz Lang, 1931]

(1) City Lights [Charles Chaplin, 1931]


My Top 10 Films of 1921

These are my Top 10 films of 1921 — I can't read my handwriting so I'm going to list my 1931 list directly following this one. One or both (or neither??) come via request by Lucy Sante.

(10) Körkarlen [The Coachman] aka The Phantom Carriage [Victor Sjöström, 1921]

(9) Blade af Satans bog [Leaves from Satan's Book] [Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1921]

(8) The Haunted House [Buster Keaton with Edward Cline, 1921]

(7) Manhatta [Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921]

(6) Die Bergkatze [The Mountain-Lion / The Wildcat] [Ernst Lubitsch, 1921]

(5) The Play House [Buster Keaton with Edward Cline, 1921]

(4) High Sign [Buster Keaton with Edward Cline, 1921]

(3) The Boat [Buster Keaton with Edward Cline, 1921]

(2) Der müde Tod [Weary Death] [Fritz Lang, 1921]

(1) The Kid [Charles Chaplin, 1921/1972]


Thursday, December 16, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1928

These are my Top 10 films of 1928, as requested by Neil Bahadur. There's one I left out and would have made some room, but it's here as a straggler marked Number 11. It could fit anywhere in between 10 and 6.

(11) Potomok Chingiskhana [The Heir to Genghis Khan] [Vsvelod Pudkovin, 1928]

(10) The Last Command [Josef von Sternberg, 1928]

(9) The Docks of New York [Josef von Sternberg, 1928]

(8) Four Sons [John Ford, 1928]

(7) La chute de la maison Usher [The Fall of the House of Usher] [Jean Epstein, 1928]

(6) The River [Frank Borzage, 1928]

(5) The Cameraman [Buster Keaton with Edward Sedgwick, 1928]

(4) Steamboat Bill, Jr. [Buster Keaton with Charles F. Reisner, 1928]

(3) Oktyabr': Desyat' dney kotorye potryasli mir [October: Ten Days That Shook the World] [Sergei Eisenstein, 1928]

(2) Spione [Spies] [Fritz Lang, 1928]

(1) La passion de Jeanne d'Arc [The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc] [Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928]


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1936

These are my Top 10 films of 1936, also requested by @nletore.

(10) Naniwa elegy [Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936]

(9) Arigatō-san [Hiroshi Shimizu, 1936]

(8) Le nouveau testament [The New Testament] [Sacha Guitry, 1936]

(7) César [Marcel Pagnol, 1936]

(6) Mon père avait raison [My Father Was Right] [Sacha Guitry, 1936]

(5) Faisons un rêve... [Let's Make a Dream...] [Sacha Guitry, 1936]

(4) Le roman d'un tricheur [Novel of a Cheat] [Sacha Guitry, 1936]

(3) Hitori musuko [The Only Son] [Yasujirō Ozu, 1936]

(2) Partie de campagne [Country Outing] [Jean Renoir, 1946]

(1) Modern Times [Charles Chaplin, 1936]


My Top Films of 1933

Here are my Top 10 films of 1933, as requested by @nletore.

(10) Dekigokoro [Passing Fancy] [Yasujirō Ozu, 1933]

(9) Yogoto no yume [Every-Night Dreams] [Mikio Naruse, 1933]

(8) Hijōsen no onna [Dragnet Girl] [Yasujirō Ozu, 1933]

(7) Liebelei [Max Ophüls, 1933]

(6) Minao no nihon-musume [Japanese Girls of the Harbor] [Hiroshi Shimizu, 1933]

(5) Design for Living [Ernst Lubitsch, 1933]

(4) The Bowery [Raoul Walsh, 1933]

(3) Doctor Bull [John Ford, 1933]

(2) Zéro de conduite, jeunes diables au collège. [Zero for Conduct: Young Devils at School.] [Jean Vigo, 1933]

(1) Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse [The Testament of Dr. Mabuse] [Fritz Lang, 1933]


Tuesday, December 14, 2021

My Top Films of 1996

These are my Top 10 films of 1996. Once again, whoever sent this eludes me, try though I might have to rummage. 1996 was a formative year for me at school and in my movie-life, though I don't think I saw any of these in the year they were originally released. They were in the air, especially Scorsese's Casino, which as great as it is didn't make the cut.

(10) Kansas City [Robert Altman, 1996]

(9) Adieu au TNS [Farewell to the TNS] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1996]

(8) Sydney aka Hard Eight [Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996]

(7) Gabbeh [Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1996]

(6) France Gall: "Plus haut" / Plus oh! [France Gall: "Higher" / More, Oh!] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1996]

(5) The Funeral [Abel Ferrara, 1996]

(4) Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore [Sarah Jacobson, 1996]

(3) For Ever Mozart [Jean-Luc Godard, 1996]

(2) Nanguo zaijan, nanguo [Goodbye South, Goodbye] [Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1996]

(1) Irma Vep [Olivier Assayas]


My Top 10 Films of 1989

Here are my Top 10 films of 1989. I have it written on my list but can't find who submitted it, so please step forward for credit and apologies for omitting your name for now...

(10) Visions in Meditation 2 [Stan Brakhage, 1989]

(9) Visions in Meditation #1 [Stan Brakhage, 1989]

(8) L'enfant de l'hiver [Winter's Child] [Olivier Assayas, 1989]

(7) Cat Chaser {Longest-Extant Non-Ferrara's Workprint Cut?} [Abel Ferrara, 1989]

(6) Cézanne, dialogue avec Joaquim Gasquet [Cézanne: Dialogue with Joaquim Gasquet] [Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1989]

(5) Mašq-e šab [Homework] [Abbas Kiarostami, 1989]

(4) Recordações da casa amarela, uma comédia lusitana [Remembrances of the Yellow House: A Lusitanian Comedy] [João César Monteiro, 1989]

(3) Les sièges de l'Alcazar [The Seats at the Alcazar / The Sieges of the Alcazar] [Luc Moullet, 1989]

(2) O sangue [Blood] [Pedro Costa, 1989]

(1) Les baisers de secours [Emergency Kisses] [Philippe Garrel, 1989]


Monday, December 13, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 2006

These are my Top 10 films of 2006, as requested by @eliu_abel.

(10) Young American Bodies: Season 1 [Joe Swanberg, 2006]

(9) A Prairie Home Companion [Robert Altman, 2006]

(8) Vrai faux passeport [True False Passport / Real Fake Passport] [Jean-Luc Godard, 2006]

(7) Prière pour refuzniks (1) [Prayer for Refuzniks (1)] [Jean-Luc Godard, 2006]

(6) Prière pour refuzniks (2) [Prayer for Refuzniks (2)] [Jean-Luc Godard, 2006]

(5) Old Joy [Kelly Reichardt, 2006]

(4) Miami Vice [Michael Mann, 2006]

(3) Quei loro incontri / Ces rencontres avec eux, les cinq derniers 'Dialogues avec Leucò' de Cesare Pavese [Those Encounters of Theirs / Those Encounters with Them: The Five Final 'Dialogues with Leucò' by Cesare Pavese] [Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 2006]


INLAND EMPIRE [David Lynch, 2006]


Juventude em marcha [Youth on the March], aka Colossal Youth [Pedro Costa, 2006]


Note: If I had "gone to 11" Resnais's Cœurs [Hearts] and/or Apichatpong's Syndromes and a Century would have made it — ditto my 1978 list for Malick's Days of Heaven. 


Sunday, December 12, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1987

These are my Top 10 films of 1987, as requested by Gerard-Jan Claes. 

(10) Armide [Jean-Luc Godard, 1987]

(9) 4 aventures de Reinette et Mirabelle [4 Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle] [Éric Rohmer, 1987]

(8) Intervista [Interview] [Federico Fellini, 1987]

(7) China Girl [Abel Ferrara, 1987]

(6) Comédies et Proverbes: L'ami de mon amie [Comedies and Proverbs: My Girlfriend's Boyfriend] [Éric Rohmer, 1987]

(5) Sous le soleil de Satan [Under the Sun of Satan] [Maurice Pialat, 1987]

(4) Soigne ta droite, une place sur la terre [Keep Your Right Up: A Place on the Earth] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1987]

(3) Khane-ye doust kojast [Where Is the Friend's House] [Abbas Kiarostami, 1987]


King Lear [Jean-Luc Godard, 1987]


Full Metal Jacket [Stanley Kubrick, 1987]


My Top 10 Films of 1976

These are my Top 10 films of 1976, requested by @soheilchivaee.

(10) Je t'aime moi non plus [I Love You Me Neither / I Love You I Don't] [Serge Gainsbourg, 1976]

(9) L'innocente [The Innocent One] [Luchino Visconti, 1976]

(8) Comment ça va [How's It Going] [Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976]

(7) Numéro deux [Number Two] [Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976]

(6) Die Marquise von O... [The Marquise of O...] [Éric Rohmer, 1976]

(5) I Messia [The Messiah] [Roberto Rossellini, 1976]

(4) Scènes de la vie parallèle: 2: Duelle (une quarantaine) [Scenes from the Parallel Life: 2: Duelle (A Quarantine)] [Jacques Rivette, 1976]

(3) Six fois deux, sur et sous la communication [Six Times Two: On/Over and Beneath Communication] [Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, 1976]

(2) Scènes de la vie parallèle: 3: Noroît (une vengeance) [Scenes from the Parallel Life: 3: Nor'wester (A Vengeance)] [Jacques Rivette, 1976]

(1) The Killing of a Chinese Bookie [John Cassavetes, 1976]


Saturday, December 11, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1963

Continuing the exercise. These are my Top 10 films from the year 1963, requested by Ray Pride.

(10) Il nuovo mondo [The New World] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1963]

(9) Os verdes annos [The Green Years] [Paulo Rocha, 1963]

(8) Donovan's Reef [John Ford, 1963]

(7) Shock Corridor [Samuel Fuller, 1963]

(6) 8-1/2 [Federico Fellini, 1963]

(5) Les carabiniers [The Riflemen] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1963]

(4) Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour [Muriel, or: The Time of a Return] [Alain Resnais, 1963]

(3) The Nutty Professor [Jerry Lewis, 1963]

(2) The Birds [Alfred Hitchcock, 1963]

(1) Le mépris [Contempt] [Jean-Luc Godard, 1963]


Friday, December 10, 2021

My Top 10 Films of 1978

A few eons ago I posted my Top 10 films from a variety of years across the history of cinema. Subjective, and always subject to change: by no means have I seen every movie ever made in every year. For the end of 2021 I'm going to revisit the exercise. I've reached out on social media to take requests for specific years. This first in the series serendipitously marks my year of birth, and comes via request by Nicky Otis Smith.

(10) The Last Waltz [Martin Scorsese, 1978]

(9) An Unmarried Woman [Paul Mazursky, 1978]

(8) Halloween [John Carpenter, 1978]

(7) Prova d'orchestra [Orchestra Rehearsal] [Federico Fellini, 1978]

(6) Burial Path [Stan Brakhage, 1978]

(5) Drunken Master [Yuen Woo-ping, 1978]

(4) American Boy: A Profile of — Steven Prince [Martin Scorsese, 1978]

(3) Höstsonaten [Autumn Sonata] [Ingmar Bergman, 1978]

(2) Girlfriends [Claudia Weill, 1978]

(1) Perceval le Gallois [Perceval the Welshman] [Éric Rohmer, 1978]


Sunday, December 05, 2021

The Hand

If the Dress Fits, Kill 'Em

Wong Kar-wai's The Hand [Shou, 2004/2019], made for the omnibus film Eros, which also includes Michelangelo Antonioni's final work and final masterpiece The Dangerous Thread of Things, wears a title that suggests three meanings — (a) Hua's (Gong Li's) hand that masturbates Zhang (Chang Chen) to provide a mnemonic that reinforces the beauty of the dresses he must sew for her; (b) Chang Chen's handiwork in creating the dresses Gong Li is to wear; (c) in the English, the hand that gets dealt in the gambling craft we already saw at play in 2046

Plot in Wong can take a fantastical turn (e.g., canned-pineapple expiration dates, close to a magical realism that, ashamed of itself, seeks to dispel itself) or a quotidian turn (e.g. Chang hides Gong's expanded waist size of 25cm to tell her she's just below 24, at which point she says use the old measurements and she'll just lose weight). 

To tend to the dresses of Gong/Hua, who gazes at herself in the mirror ensorcelled, whose midsection fights to pass tight corridors, is to tend to her clothes worn as the definition of the woman.


Tuesday, October 26, 2021


Destination Unknown

What is 2046 [Wong Kar-wai, 2004]? The third in a trilogy that begins with Days of Being Wild and passes significantly through In the Mood for Love before arriving at this final destination to date. A summation of all Wong's fetishes from costume to variation of romantic proposition to future-leaping when time ticks short. You can enjoy watching this film as a stand-alone, but given all the streaming options and the Criterion World of Wong Kar Wai box set why wouldn't you watch the preceding elements? (I wonder if the no-hyphen in "Kar-wai" is now his preferred stylization... Like the South Korean Hong "Sangsoo" or the Chinese Jia "Zhangke"....) Especially since 2046 opens on the shot of a metal... gong?... mandala physical subscript?... that not only picks up from the Angkor Wat crevice at the end of In the Mood for Love but also suggests the circularity and cyclical nature of All being à la ouroboros and omphalos and female sex. That can be energizing to cinephiles, paintophiles, theory-philes... The same image in greyscale even 'closes' the movie (before the fine end credits)... Searching ourselves, the image becomes the interiority and the exterior of the will and the drive to create, as much for Mr. Chow (again, Tony Leung) as for Wong himself.

I saw this film for the first time in 2004 on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. It had arrived a few months prior at the Cannes festival with much fanfare because Wong had to fly the print in for the festival while the celluloid was still wet and the SFX were not yet complete, running to the Palais. The SFX? The train lines and exteriors of a supposed future Hong Kong, all on the outskirts of the mysterious "2046" (in the year 2046 no less), appeared as wireframe graphics. The final post-Cannes result was that the polished exteriors exhibited much of a Fraggle Rock aesthetic, and look more beautiful now to me than they ever did in '04 (even then, complete as I recall); they skip over the so-called Renaissance of computer-graphic-imagery to instead become something closer to Studio Ghibli. I watched it intensely in BK, it held me more than any Wong film has before or since in a theater. But I could only until now, when I've watched it 7 times on the Criterion disc, and before that the lame Sony DVD with yellow subtitles, remember more than the high-heels that clicked blue, than the unsettling train ride, than Faye Wong and Carina Lau and finally in the late-1960s era, Zhang Ziyi, Wong's most stunning actress ever put to film.

After the movie ended, I walked down the sidewalk imagining the concrete lighting at every step and I had a drink at the pub with a book. When I still read English-language film publications (I mostly don't anymore, because I generally hate them) I was shocked that no-one else seemed to see this as the Supreme Masterpiece of Wong Kar-wai. Little did I know, years later in 2021 this would still be the case, with the proponents of the master's body of work zeroing in mostly on Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love — both masterpieces but both offering something less than the ambition and sprawl of 2046. (In holding on to this as a fetish film, I even remember once that Wong declared it should be pronounced "Two - Oh - Four - Six," and I've always called it that. On a supplement in the Criterion box he pronounces the title "Twenty-Forty-Six.") In fact, the problem with film critics is they're like mosquitoes dazed by CD-Rs dangling off a Seguaro cactus: They appraise a movie, they love it or hate it, then it sinks into their tar-pit subconscious, and they go on to review the next movie by the Larrieu, Safdie, or Dardenne brothers and the cycle repeats. The treatment of 2046 over the years has been disgusting. (But not as bad as My Blueberry Nights, though we might come to that below.) Much of this is because Sony Pictures Classics has held it in moratorium until Criterion (via Wong) were able to fish it out for the box set, and even then: no fanfare, and the weakest 'restoration' among the other great films in the box. They were unable to license it for the theatrical roadshow. But as a farmer once told his wife standing beneath the rise of the harvest moon: "At least we've got this, Fatty..."

"A mysterious train leaves for 2046 every once in a while." — The basic premise of this film is that it is framed by Mr. Chow writing a sci-fi tale called "2046," where the future year represents a place in which his characters are largely confined to a hyperspeed train that takes them to some 'place' represented by an end-hotel which houses an end-room 2046 (that which he and Mrs. Chan [Maggie Cheung] would occupy during In the Mood for Love; in Days of Being Wild, a hotel room is numbered "246") —here the travelers can capture lost memories and intentions, but the caveat is that nothing ever changes in 2046... And no-one comes back. "Except me." — Takuya Kimura is the stand-in for the author Tony Leung, who is reimagining the tale of the hole from the end of In the Mood for Love.

"All memories are traces of tears." We cut to Gong Li (known here as the Spider Woman) under droplets of soundtrack — she's pursued by Mr. Chow in Singapore; on her way back to Hong Kong, the same overhead shaded bulb weathers the rain, as we saw in In the Mood for Love — but now Chow is a moustached gambler, picking up from his appearance in the small studio at the epilogue of Days of Being Wild. That was when he was still a bachelor before Mrs. Chow; here he is one once again. He gently pleads with the Spider Woman that if they draw cards and he comes up high, she must join in. He pulls a king. She pulls an ace. Cut to a tracking shot of Gong walking away, her lipstick smeared in the mess of a kiss.

The end of 1966: Chow returns to Hong Kong, and moves into the Oriental Hotel. His newspaper journalism on the wane, he's making shit for money, writing stories in the martial-arts vein, until he's inspired to switch over to a sci-fi setting in which he can more clearly, or hazily, transpose his life events to something more aching and disguised, as is his wont. "I became an expert ladies' man..." — for the gratification of his life or for the satisfactory ring of his stories? Wong has constructed a narrative in which we can't rightfully question the casus belli for Chow's apparently sudden change. Yet despite being a logical move it's the cinema of cuts and time and carries-over from one movie to the next that suspends, no, negates, the disbelief of such a matter of fact. To complicate things further, and to leave you the reader maybe high-and-dry, I suspect that part of Wong's innate metaphysics or even deep-core (not necessarily deep-held; yet: quasi-religious) beliefs acknowledge the existence of parallel universes, as patly as that might seem without a larger exploration. Consider it, on my part, an inkling.

December 24, 1966: Chow asks a woman at a club: "Weren't you in a show in Singapore in '64?" This is Carina Lau, or Lulu — now Mimi. She was with "a Chinese Filipino from a rich family," again a call-back to Days of Being Wild. Memories of her, which will return.

At the Oriental Hotel, Chow rents the room "2047" because he can't get "2046" next door — a recollection of his and Mrs. Chan's negotiations with the Suens and the Koos in In Mood for the Love. It turns out that 2046 is being — not squatted in, necessarily, but — occasionally occupied by Ms. Wang (Faye Wong), as a practice space for her Japanese-language recitations in order to ingratiate herself with a traveling businessman (Kimura) with whom she's in love. Chow spies through the filigreed grating that separates the spaces. She pivots on her black high-heels with every "Ikimashō!" and variation thereof, which will of course inspire the blue-glow clicks of the heel in his "2046" short story, and which together will trounce Tarantino's literalist filming of women's feet in all, all those films of his inferior to Wong's. Wang/Wong is the daughter of the hotel owner.

In Chow's/Leung's story: Takuya Kimura says to Faye Wong Android: "Come away with me," just as Chow said to the Spider Woman. Around this moment it occurred to me: Which is the Chow-short-story and which is the real? Of course it could be said that the former supersedes the latter, but is there any negatory sense that proves or posits it shouldn't be the other way around? Remember the circle and the hole... What if In the Mood for Love were itself a story, as much as 2046 — the pennings of either, the leaps in character development and transformation, time...

May 1967: Bombs in Hong Kong. 

"Some didn't take to the science-fiction angle..." This in voice-over as we catch a first glimpse of Maggie Cheung shot from overhead on a bed... Why did Wong pare Cheung from the film in such a manner? It's a mystery, and so she remains a mystery in 2046 itself. We'll see her in a couple more shots, but the emotion of her presence is not lacking. Particularly since this initial glimpse is soon supplanted in the viewer by the arrival in room 2046 of Ms. Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi).

December 24, 1967: The film now speeds up, and a relationship between Bai and Chow manifests. Chow has been thinking of the Spider Woman's hand. Chow and Bai fuck, and afterward, this new mustached Chow offers Bai 200 dollars. "I wasn't selling..." Chow's attitude is that of a shadow figure throwing shadow pots and darts. There is a perversion to the severance. 

He will go on to take Ms. Wang (Faye Wong) practicing her Japanese again under his wing upon learning she's been writing martial-arts stories. He recruits her as an "assistant" (dictatee-secretary) and then as a full-fledged ghostwriter, avoiding any recognition of her own aspirations. Vampiric? "So I started imagining myself as a Japanese man on a train headed for 2046... falling for an android with delayed reactions." — The android Faye does not love Chow-Kimura...

December 24, 1968: Chow takes Ms. Wang to his place so she can make a long-distance call to her Japanese boyfriend. The film soon shifts to the future again, but now not into the realm of Chow's narrative: Wang Jing-wen (Faye Wong)'s father has relented and is allowing the marriage to the Japanese boyfriend... in Japan... and the father will attend.

Every time Chow hovers the pen-tip over a blank sheet it's like waiting for a needle to drop.

18 months later, which is mid-1970 and thus a short flashback from the next sequence: Bai and Chow are out for a drink and declare themselves "drinking buddies."

December 24, 1969: Chow kills times in Singapore to gamble but the Black Spider / Spider Woman isn't there. "In '63, my life lost most of its meaning — I started gambling every day." The Black Spider offers to win for him, with a 10% commission. 

18 months later, again: 

The hole, the mandala.

My friend Sheila Lobo said watching 2046 over and over is like a dream, which is probably the highest commendation that can be given to any film, but is especially appropriate when the film is 2046. Beyond the causal plot-escalations (I'm reading George Saunders's recent book on the Russian short story) there's also that indescribable outward burst that lurks latently in quiet plenitude throughout and seems sentiently to wish for something beyond its immediately perceptible measure. Its surfaces alone kindle a joy lacking in the bulk of the modern cinema, whether we are to find these pleasures in Zhang Ziyi's eye makeup or the repetitive use of Nat "King" Cole's "The Christmas Song." The question in the wake of 2046 was only what would Wong do from here. The proximate answer is The Hand, and that is the film we will next discuss. After that came My Blueberry Nights, which we not only will eventually but MUST discusss. Then there is, as of writing, his latest feature: in its Chinese cut, The Grandmaster —a film buried by Weinstein in America, which exists in three regional versions all supposedly endorsed by WKW, but the aforementioned Chinese-cut being the greatest, and not just because it's the longest. 

In sum, please watch Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and then 2046. It's Wong Kar-wai's greatest film, besides Ashes of Time (Redux) and The Grandmaster (the Chinese cut).