Sunday, July 27, 2008

Paranoid Park

I've seen Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (2007) twice and liked it better the second time, but I still can't embrace it completely. The non-linear narrative has its perks, but the first-person narration seems to me a step backwards in relation to Elephant (2003). And while it makes interesting use of Nina Rota's score for Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965), often the music in the film simply feels like overkill. In the context of American independent cinema, it towers over something like Jason Reitman's Juno (also 2007)--a far less interesting and accomplished film about teenagers--but really that's not saying a whole lot.

Adapted from a youth novel by Blake Nelson (which I haven't read), the story of Paranoid Park is recounted in flashback. The narrative is framed as a written confession authored by the movie's teenage protagonist, Alex, portions of which we hear in voice-over. Effectively, this framing device normalizes the movie's scrambled chronology as a reflection of Alex's thought processes as he writes his confession. In contrast, Elephant has no such framing device to justify its non-linear narrative, which obsessively replays the events leading up to a school shooting from several different perspectives as if the film itself--not the characters or Van Sant--were attempting to master the past by going over it again and again. That said, narrative can never completely exhaust form. Seeing Paranoid Park the second time, I noticed how the film replays certain shots, not to clarify their meaning but to aid the viewer in constructing a timeline of events. Similarly, the documentary footage of skateboarders performing tricks, shot on 16mm, and the film's appropriation of Rota's music both refuse narrative rationalizations.

Writing about the film in an earlier post, I complained that the Rota music appropriated by the film wasn't sufficiently tied to Alex's subjectivity. And while Van Sant and his sound designer, Leslie Shatz, do employ sound subjectively at times during the film (for instance, Alex's argument with himself), I don't think that's their intent here. For one thing, the first time we hear Rota's music in the film is over the first shot, an establishing shot of a bridge behind the opening credits, before we're introduced to Alex. Rather, one might think of Rota's music as a leitmotif that refuses obvious associations. Although this particular motif reaches a climax of sorts with an especially romantic piece from Amarcord (1973) that drowns out the audio of Alex's girlfriend, Jennifer, yelling at him, this motif isn't strictly associated with her character and could continue, theoretically, ad infinitum. Conversely, when Van Sant does employ music subjectively--particularly, a piece by Beethoven at one dramatic moment--the effect is overbearing.

At the end of last year, the consensus among American reviewers (notably, Roger Ebert and A.O Scott) was that, all in all, 2007 was a pretty good year for the movies in general and American cinema in particular. And I'd have to agree; although the critics' prizes mainly went to the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, my own half-dozen favorites were Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, Adam Shankman's Hairspray, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There., Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding, and James Gray's We Own the Night. However, with the exception of Haynes', all the films listed above are more remarkable for their content than their style.

Two notable, mainly unheralded exceptions are Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited and Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights, in which both directors refined and expanded their signature styles. Thematically, both filmmakers are on familiar ground even if, coincedentally, each is depicting a culture other than their own. However, in both films, the familiar content is enriched by the director's individual style. (Another coincedence is that, while Anderson's film appropriates music by Ravi Shankar from several films by Satyajit Ray, the star of Wong's film is Shankar's daughter, Nora Jones, whose own music appears on the soundtrack.)

Unlike Anderson and Wong, however, Van Sant doesn't have a distinctive style of his own. His early features--Mala Noche (1985), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1990), and presumably Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993), which I haven't seen--are distinguished by their focus on marginal characters and Northwestern setting, but they're more off-beat than singular. I can barely recall his first two Hollywood features, To Die For (1995) and Good Will Hunting (1997), they're so impersonal, and I haven't seen Psycho (1998) or Finding Forrester (2000). After making Gerry (2002), Van Sant started citing Béla Tarr as an influence on his work, and while I wouldn't hesitate to call Elephant or Last Days (2005) a masterpiece, neither one is as singular as Tarr's Damnation (1988), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) and The Man From London (2007). By imposing rigorous stylistic constraints on himself, Tarr has arrived at a style as distinctive as Bresson's or Ozu's. Paradoxically, in moving away from Tarr's influence, Paranoid Park is even more impersonal.

Still, one must concede that Van Sant's style does enrich some rather thin material. Its subtle repeatitions and musical leitmotifs repay multiple viewings. And even if Van Sant isn't as great a filmmaker as Tarr, at least we won't have to wait seven years for his next film.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Taiwanese New Wave Film Festival

For their Taiwanese New Wave Film Festival (which is still going on), the Cinématheque Busan was extremely liberal about what qualifies as a Taiwanese New Wave film. In addition to six films by Hou Hsiao-hsien and three by Edward Yang, they're also screening the first three features by Ang Lee, two recent works by Tsai Ming-liang and three documentaries made in the past few years. What made the line-up esspecially exciting for me is that, of the six films being shown with English subtitles, five have never been distributed in North America.

Hou's A Summer at Grandpa's (1984) has a two-part structure that recalls some of Yasujiro Ozu's films in the way it alternates comedy and drama. The first half is delightful. While their mother recovers from an illness in a Taipei hospital, a boy and his younger sister spend the summer at their grandfather's house in the country. The boy quickly befriends a group of local boys when he trades a toy car to one in exchange for a turtle. Soon after, the boys turn up at the grandfather's house, each one holding a turtle to barter with. However, unlike say Floating Weeds (1959), the film has a loose, episodic narrative, so the second half doesn't feel like a progression of the first but merely an accumulation of bummers: the mother's condition steadily worsens, the kids' uncle is disowned by the grandfather when he gets a woman pregnant, the sister looks to a retarded woman in the village as a surrogate mother. The Sunday afternoon screening Heather and I attended was full of little kids, which would be unthinkable in North America, where subtitled films--even ones as accessible as Indigènes (2005), Offside (2006) and Persepolis (2007)--are automatically distributed as art films regardless of their content.

Yang's Taipei Story (1985) begins and ends with the heroine, Ah-chin, in an empty white room representing the promise of a fresh start. In the opening scene, she's apartment hunting with her boyfriend, Lung, after getting a promotion. When the company she works for gets bought up by a conglomerate and her boss, Mrs. Mei, leaves to work elsewhere, Ah-chin is told by her new employer that, "Your job doesn't exist under our system." The film's final scene shows her in an office Mrs. Mei plans to use in starting up a new company, but by then it's become apparent (I think even to Ah-chin) that there's no escape. She moves in with Lung to get away from her father only to find that Lung is becoming more and more like him. The couple talks of moving to Los Angeles, but the film makes it clear that it would be the same for them there (for one thing, it's full of Taiwanese). I'd love to see it again since I suspect it would benefit from a second viewing, but the chances of that happening any time soon are fairly slim.

Yang's third feature, The Terrorizers (1986), is more playful. It has one of those plots where the characters initially have no connection to one another, but step by step are drawn closer together. The virtuoso opening sequence, which establishes all the major characters, may be the most audacious stretch of film that Yang ever directed. From the first establishing shot of a police car speeding through a Taipei neighborhood just after sunrise, Yang cuts to a couple in bed. The man, a photographer, awakes to find that his girlfriend's been up all night reading, then steps out on to the balcony where he hears police sirens. After a second shot of the police car, Yang cuts to a second couple. This time the woman is an author who's been up all night struggling with revisions of her latest novel. Finally the police car arrives at a gambling den where the photographer snaps a picture of a woman fleeing the scene with a broken leg. As this description perhaps hints, the connections Yang draws between his characters aren't exclusively literal, but also thematic (the two women who stayed up all night) and purely formal, creating rhymes through repeated actions, lines of dialogue and compositions. There's a lot more to say about the film, but I don't want to spoil any thing for those who haven't seen it.

Although Heather and I both had trouble following the plot of Hou's City of Sadness (1989), it's worth noting that the screening we attended drew a larger crowd than any of the Hollywood films in the Cinèmatheque's recent Fritz Lang retrospective, and it was one of Hou's biggest hits in Taiwan. In part that's because he's found a subject that resonates with a wide audience: the years between 1945, when Taiwan was returned to China after a half century of Japanese colonial rule, and 1949, when the Nationalist government retreated to Taipei following the revolution on the mainland. It focusses mainly on two brothers living in different towns--one a loud and burly man (Kao Jai) who's on familiar terms with the local gangsters; the other a timid deaf mute (Tony Leung) who hangs out with intellectuals--and the actors playing them (as well as Li Tien-lu as their crotchety father) give the most vivid and memorable performances I've seen in any of Hou's films. It's also a good deal funnier than anything he's made since. In one important scene, Leung does an exaggerated double take to show surprise. Filmed mainly in long and medium shot with a rich ambient soundtrack, it's more about atmosphere than plot, and although it runs for over two and a half hours, I wasn't bored for a moment.

This weekend we plan to see Tsai's Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) and Kuo Chen-ti and Chen Wu-ssu's Viva Tonal: The Dance Age (2004). I saw Tsai's film a few years ago on DVD but, more than most filmmakers, his work needs to be seen on a large screen. I know practically nothing about the latter except that it's a documentary about Taiwanese dance culture in the 1930s. It sounds like a fascinating subject, but whether it yields a fascinating documentary is another matter altogether. I thought about waiting until I'd seen them before posting this, but since neither is technically a Taiwanese New Wave film, I'd rather write about them seperately.