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Afterthoughts

Movie

Days of Being Wild ***

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Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, in his second feature, paints a portrait of an indolent, amoral, apathetic lady-killer and his poisonous milieu, ca. 1960. Wong's camera is both very close and very mobile: overfamiliar, nosy, nuzzling, liberty-taking. And although the focus tends to be extremely shallow, the impression is of great precision (e.g., only the keys in clear, not the hand that holds them). Every now and then the camera removes itself to a startling high angle or low angle, as if to break free and regain some perspective. There are brief bits of voice-over narration from varying characters: another startling way to shift the perspective. And everything is uniformly, seamlessly cinematic: the incidental detail, the ambient sound, the kinetic cutting, the musical counterpoint. All of it proclaims an assured and audacious stylist. And then suddenly it all goes to pieces: abruptness, choppiness, sensationalism, incoherence. (A different man entirely is credited as Action Director, so maybe it was out of Wong's hands.) The total experience might be confusing and frustrating, but the five-sixths experience is marvelous while it lasts. Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau.

Find showtimes

Maybe it's mean of me, but I was pleased that Martin Scorsese failed, for the fifth time in five tries, to get his coveted Academy Award. If they gave out statuettes for Best Overdirector, he should have a shelfful. The outcome on Oscar night was particularly pleasing -- in what was touted as the hardest-to-handicap race of the evening, and one which afforded a clear alternative to Scorsese and his methods -- in that the award went instead to Clint Eastwood, his second. I dimly remember saying at the time of his win for Unforgiven, twelve years ago, and I could certainly be saying it again now, that it seems almost unfair, unjust, unnatural, that Eastwood is able, while not being in the least esoteric or elitist, to make exactly the kind of movie he wants to make, in exactly the way he wants to make it, without kowtowing in any fashion to popular taste, and without (so I'm told) test-screening it for a kibitzing crowd of commoners -- and yet also to receive an Academy Award for it! Unforgiven was simply not the "type" of movie that collects an Oscar. Nor is Million Dollar Baby, notwithstanding any impression, in conjunction with the triumph of The Sea Inside in the foreign-film category, of rabid Academy support for the cause of euthanasia.

Scorsese on the other hand, in his increasingly obsessive pursuit of Oscar, has been turning himself wrong side out, attempting desperately to impress other people, making outsized Prestige Pictures of the "type" that traditionally woo and win Oscars: The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New York, and now The Aviator, with its added lure of holding up a mirror to narcissistic Hollywood. He, in short, has sold his soul. In that sense, he probably "deserves" an Oscar, but I personally will be content if he has to settle for one of those lifetime-achievement, career-contribution deals that Sidney Lumet, this year, had to settle for. And frankly, in my view Scorsese still has a ways to go to match the résumé of Lumet.

In all the anguished reasoning of the handicappers (Clint had already won one, Marty was overdue, etc.), I never heard any whisper of the possibility that a nod to Million Dollar Baby would serve as a sort of make-up (a standard line in handicappers' reasoning) for the bypassing last year of Eastwood's Mystic River, when it, and he, lost out to Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, really a collective award to three movies in one, an award to monumentalism, an award to money, a "typical" award. I like to think, all the same, that some kind of recompense may have factored into the vote. Mystic River must be one of the very best movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture in the entire seventy-seven years of Oscars. Million Dollar Baby, good as it is, isn't that good.

Speaking of recompense: the suspense of Oscar night, for me, was doubtless diminished by my dragging in from the airport after the finish of the show and having to watch it later that night on videotape, fast-forwarding through commercials, Beyoncé, and acceptance speeches by sound technicians and such. But I was amply compensated for this by having been in Wichita, Kansas, on a family errand, the very day of BTK's arrest and only one day after I had taken a tour of all the known murder sites. There cannot have been a better day in all of recorded history to be caught alive in Wichita.


Determined at all costs to avoid a repeat of last year, when I saw only one new movie more than once, I herewith disclose that I prodded myself to go back for a second look at Million Dollar Baby. I cannot say I got much more out of it, although it did mean more to me when Eastwood mutters to himself, and to no one else, the words "Mo Cuishle," a short while before he spells these out on the back of his fighter's new silk robe. Even the first time through, however, it struck me as inconceivable in this day and age, even in as marginal a sport as women's boxing, that a fighter could ascend all the way to a title bout without some enterprising journalist digging up the meaning of those words, and spoiling the lovely moment when Eastwood finally reveals it.

As accomplished and polished a director as he is, or has become, Eastwood still is not the most distinctive visual stylist -- not a Hitchcock, not a Welles, not even a Scorsese -- and Million Dollar Baby is more toned down, more levelled off, more straightened up than usual: his customary diagonals, more precisely, are a bit closer to parallels and perpendiculars. This filmmaker lacks, all through his output, what we might call a theoretical base, or what we might otherwise call intellectual pretensions. If he thus never quite inspires my complete confidence, he all the more inspires my admiration. Every step is a potential misstep; he proceeds on instinct, not on doctrine. An example of a lapse, rare though it may be, would be his switch into slow-motion at the turning point in the title fight. That's not the stamp of a master. Ninety-nine out of a hundred other Hollywood directors would have done the same thing, the conventional thing, the trite thing, although admittedly those other ninety-nine directors, Scorsese included, would have been switching into slow-motion in the earlier fights as well. And while I have my quibbles with the dreamlike ease and convenience of the final scene at the hospital, I am compelled to point out that the Eastwood character's vanishment into oblivion -- into the mists of guesswork and rumor -- carries powerful reverberations of the ending in Unforgiven. I ought to have pointed it out in my initial review.


I also went back for a second look, albeit after an interval of twelve years, to the first Wong Kar-wai film I had ever seen, Days of Being Wild, retrieved from the vaults for national circulation now that Wong commands a following. I will save myself some effort if I reprint in full my remarks from May of 1993 after seeing it in a previous incarnation of the San Diego International Film Festival:

"I thought I had run up against the Real Deal last week in the UCSD International Style series.... The movie was entitled Days of Being Wild, the second effort by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and featuring some of the same big box-office names (Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung) featured in the recent Festival Hong Kong at the Ken. [Where, you might have guessed, Days of Being Wild has been booked for the coming week, starting Friday.]

"It paints a portrait of an indolent, amoral, apathetic lady-killer and his poisonous milieu (ca. 1960), all lacquered over with a scummy green monochrome. (I generally don't like monochromes, but I have seen a lot of reds, browns, yellows, and blues, not a lot of greens.) Wong's camera is both very close and very mobile: overfamiliar, nosy, nuzzling, liberty-taking. And although the focus tends to be extremely shallow, the impression is of great precision (e.g., only the keys in clear, not the hand that holds them). Every now and then the camera removes itself to a startling high angle or low angle, as if to break free and regain some perspective. There are brief bits of voice-over narration from varying characters: another startling way to shift the perspective. And everything is uniformly, seamlessly cinematic: the incidental detail, the ambient sound, the kinetic cutting, the musical counterpoint. All of it proclaims an assured and audacious stylist. I had not been so pleased to be introduced to a new moviemaker since I made the acqaintance of Hou Hsiao-hsien.

"And then suddenly it all went to pieces: abruptness, choppiness, sensationalism, incoherence. (A different man entirely was credited as Action Director, so maybe it was out of Wong's hands.) The total experience left me confused and frustrated, but the three-quarter or four-fifth experience was marvelous while it lasted. And now I have a new name to remember."

On rereading, or anyhow retyping, this, it all sounds reasonably accurate, except that (a) Tony Leung is actually Leslie Cheung, though not the Leslie Cheung who was in Wong's In the Mood for Love; (b) the going-to-pieces fraction is somewhat smaller than I estimated, more like one-sixth; and (c) I would appear to have made too much of the green monochrome. I have two possible explanations for that. One is that there could have been something a bit off about the print at UCSD. The other, and more probable, is that the color may have been tinkered with, readjusted, "corrected," for the film's reissue. (The color now looks a little soft, a little powdery.) Of course I know better than to trust my own memory, yet I must trust what I wrote when the memory was new. Be that as it may, I think I am permitted to pat myself on the back for my quick recognition of a true talent. Five films later, I don't place Wong on the same level with Hou, but I put him within hollering distance.


Today, the Tenth, signals the kickoff at Hazard Center of the eleven-day San Diego Latino Film Festival, which currently I think of as our most festive film festival, celebrating Hispanic language, culture, community, and thereby lightening some of the burden on the films themselves to celebrate cinema. With those, you're on your own. (Go to www.sdlatinofilm.com.) I did look at the first few minutes of half a dozen screeners, plenty of time to reassure myself that the best place to see movies is in a theater. The Brazilian film, The Man Who Copied, which I stayed with for a good fifteen minutes, looked especially promising. This year's festival continues last year's innovation of a Guest Director, replacing Arturo Ripstein with Luis Mandoki, whose credentials as a Latino filmmaker, outside of his Mexican origins, are less convincing: Trapped, Angel Eyes, Message in a Bottle, When a Man Loves a Woman, et al. He will be represented in the festival, however, by an authentic Spanish-language feature, Voces Inocentes, or Innocent Voices, on the Salvadoran civil war of the mid-Eighties; and he also, like Ripstein, has been invited to curate three films of personal importance to him. Although The Battle of Algiers was recirculated just this past year, it will be good to have Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition: No Greater Love (Part One of a massive anti-war trilogy) and Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers back on a big screen. As usual, if thankfully a little less than usual, the festival will overlap with the NCAA basketball tournament, a/k/a The Big Dance, presenting the always tough choice between art and life.

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Movie

Days of Being Wild ***

thumbnail

Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, in his second feature, paints a portrait of an indolent, amoral, apathetic lady-killer and his poisonous milieu, ca. 1960. Wong's camera is both very close and very mobile: overfamiliar, nosy, nuzzling, liberty-taking. And although the focus tends to be extremely shallow, the impression is of great precision (e.g., only the keys in clear, not the hand that holds them). Every now and then the camera removes itself to a startling high angle or low angle, as if to break free and regain some perspective. There are brief bits of voice-over narration from varying characters: another startling way to shift the perspective. And everything is uniformly, seamlessly cinematic: the incidental detail, the ambient sound, the kinetic cutting, the musical counterpoint. All of it proclaims an assured and audacious stylist. And then suddenly it all goes to pieces: abruptness, choppiness, sensationalism, incoherence. (A different man entirely is credited as Action Director, so maybe it was out of Wong's hands.) The total experience might be confusing and frustrating, but the five-sixths experience is marvelous while it lasts. Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Carina Lau.

Find showtimes

Maybe it's mean of me, but I was pleased that Martin Scorsese failed, for the fifth time in five tries, to get his coveted Academy Award. If they gave out statuettes for Best Overdirector, he should have a shelfful. The outcome on Oscar night was particularly pleasing -- in what was touted as the hardest-to-handicap race of the evening, and one which afforded a clear alternative to Scorsese and his methods -- in that the award went instead to Clint Eastwood, his second. I dimly remember saying at the time of his win for Unforgiven, twelve years ago, and I could certainly be saying it again now, that it seems almost unfair, unjust, unnatural, that Eastwood is able, while not being in the least esoteric or elitist, to make exactly the kind of movie he wants to make, in exactly the way he wants to make it, without kowtowing in any fashion to popular taste, and without (so I'm told) test-screening it for a kibitzing crowd of commoners -- and yet also to receive an Academy Award for it! Unforgiven was simply not the "type" of movie that collects an Oscar. Nor is Million Dollar Baby, notwithstanding any impression, in conjunction with the triumph of The Sea Inside in the foreign-film category, of rabid Academy support for the cause of euthanasia.

Scorsese on the other hand, in his increasingly obsessive pursuit of Oscar, has been turning himself wrong side out, attempting desperately to impress other people, making outsized Prestige Pictures of the "type" that traditionally woo and win Oscars: The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Gangs of New York, and now The Aviator, with its added lure of holding up a mirror to narcissistic Hollywood. He, in short, has sold his soul. In that sense, he probably "deserves" an Oscar, but I personally will be content if he has to settle for one of those lifetime-achievement, career-contribution deals that Sidney Lumet, this year, had to settle for. And frankly, in my view Scorsese still has a ways to go to match the résumé of Lumet.

In all the anguished reasoning of the handicappers (Clint had already won one, Marty was overdue, etc.), I never heard any whisper of the possibility that a nod to Million Dollar Baby would serve as a sort of make-up (a standard line in handicappers' reasoning) for the bypassing last year of Eastwood's Mystic River, when it, and he, lost out to Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, really a collective award to three movies in one, an award to monumentalism, an award to money, a "typical" award. I like to think, all the same, that some kind of recompense may have factored into the vote. Mystic River must be one of the very best movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture in the entire seventy-seven years of Oscars. Million Dollar Baby, good as it is, isn't that good.

Speaking of recompense: the suspense of Oscar night, for me, was doubtless diminished by my dragging in from the airport after the finish of the show and having to watch it later that night on videotape, fast-forwarding through commercials, Beyoncé, and acceptance speeches by sound technicians and such. But I was amply compensated for this by having been in Wichita, Kansas, on a family errand, the very day of BTK's arrest and only one day after I had taken a tour of all the known murder sites. There cannot have been a better day in all of recorded history to be caught alive in Wichita.


Determined at all costs to avoid a repeat of last year, when I saw only one new movie more than once, I herewith disclose that I prodded myself to go back for a second look at Million Dollar Baby. I cannot say I got much more out of it, although it did mean more to me when Eastwood mutters to himself, and to no one else, the words "Mo Cuishle," a short while before he spells these out on the back of his fighter's new silk robe. Even the first time through, however, it struck me as inconceivable in this day and age, even in as marginal a sport as women's boxing, that a fighter could ascend all the way to a title bout without some enterprising journalist digging up the meaning of those words, and spoiling the lovely moment when Eastwood finally reveals it.

As accomplished and polished a director as he is, or has become, Eastwood still is not the most distinctive visual stylist -- not a Hitchcock, not a Welles, not even a Scorsese -- and Million Dollar Baby is more toned down, more levelled off, more straightened up than usual: his customary diagonals, more precisely, are a bit closer to parallels and perpendiculars. This filmmaker lacks, all through his output, what we might call a theoretical base, or what we might otherwise call intellectual pretensions. If he thus never quite inspires my complete confidence, he all the more inspires my admiration. Every step is a potential misstep; he proceeds on instinct, not on doctrine. An example of a lapse, rare though it may be, would be his switch into slow-motion at the turning point in the title fight. That's not the stamp of a master. Ninety-nine out of a hundred other Hollywood directors would have done the same thing, the conventional thing, the trite thing, although admittedly those other ninety-nine directors, Scorsese included, would have been switching into slow-motion in the earlier fights as well. And while I have my quibbles with the dreamlike ease and convenience of the final scene at the hospital, I am compelled to point out that the Eastwood character's vanishment into oblivion -- into the mists of guesswork and rumor -- carries powerful reverberations of the ending in Unforgiven. I ought to have pointed it out in my initial review.


I also went back for a second look, albeit after an interval of twelve years, to the first Wong Kar-wai film I had ever seen, Days of Being Wild, retrieved from the vaults for national circulation now that Wong commands a following. I will save myself some effort if I reprint in full my remarks from May of 1993 after seeing it in a previous incarnation of the San Diego International Film Festival:

"I thought I had run up against the Real Deal last week in the UCSD International Style series.... The movie was entitled Days of Being Wild, the second effort by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and featuring some of the same big box-office names (Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung) featured in the recent Festival Hong Kong at the Ken. [Where, you might have guessed, Days of Being Wild has been booked for the coming week, starting Friday.]

"It paints a portrait of an indolent, amoral, apathetic lady-killer and his poisonous milieu (ca. 1960), all lacquered over with a scummy green monochrome. (I generally don't like monochromes, but I have seen a lot of reds, browns, yellows, and blues, not a lot of greens.) Wong's camera is both very close and very mobile: overfamiliar, nosy, nuzzling, liberty-taking. And although the focus tends to be extremely shallow, the impression is of great precision (e.g., only the keys in clear, not the hand that holds them). Every now and then the camera removes itself to a startling high angle or low angle, as if to break free and regain some perspective. There are brief bits of voice-over narration from varying characters: another startling way to shift the perspective. And everything is uniformly, seamlessly cinematic: the incidental detail, the ambient sound, the kinetic cutting, the musical counterpoint. All of it proclaims an assured and audacious stylist. I had not been so pleased to be introduced to a new moviemaker since I made the acqaintance of Hou Hsiao-hsien.

"And then suddenly it all went to pieces: abruptness, choppiness, sensationalism, incoherence. (A different man entirely was credited as Action Director, so maybe it was out of Wong's hands.) The total experience left me confused and frustrated, but the three-quarter or four-fifth experience was marvelous while it lasted. And now I have a new name to remember."

On rereading, or anyhow retyping, this, it all sounds reasonably accurate, except that (a) Tony Leung is actually Leslie Cheung, though not the Leslie Cheung who was in Wong's In the Mood for Love; (b) the going-to-pieces fraction is somewhat smaller than I estimated, more like one-sixth; and (c) I would appear to have made too much of the green monochrome. I have two possible explanations for that. One is that there could have been something a bit off about the print at UCSD. The other, and more probable, is that the color may have been tinkered with, readjusted, "corrected," for the film's reissue. (The color now looks a little soft, a little powdery.) Of course I know better than to trust my own memory, yet I must trust what I wrote when the memory was new. Be that as it may, I think I am permitted to pat myself on the back for my quick recognition of a true talent. Five films later, I don't place Wong on the same level with Hou, but I put him within hollering distance.


Today, the Tenth, signals the kickoff at Hazard Center of the eleven-day San Diego Latino Film Festival, which currently I think of as our most festive film festival, celebrating Hispanic language, culture, community, and thereby lightening some of the burden on the films themselves to celebrate cinema. With those, you're on your own. (Go to www.sdlatinofilm.com.) I did look at the first few minutes of half a dozen screeners, plenty of time to reassure myself that the best place to see movies is in a theater. The Brazilian film, The Man Who Copied, which I stayed with for a good fifteen minutes, looked especially promising. This year's festival continues last year's innovation of a Guest Director, replacing Arturo Ripstein with Luis Mandoki, whose credentials as a Latino filmmaker, outside of his Mexican origins, are less convincing: Trapped, Angel Eyes, Message in a Bottle, When a Man Loves a Woman, et al. He will be represented in the festival, however, by an authentic Spanish-language feature, Voces Inocentes, or Innocent Voices, on the Salvadoran civil war of the mid-Eighties; and he also, like Ripstein, has been invited to curate three films of personal importance to him. Although The Battle of Algiers was recirculated just this past year, it will be good to have Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition: No Greater Love (Part One of a massive anti-war trilogy) and Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers back on a big screen. As usual, if thankfully a little less than usual, the festival will overlap with the NCAA basketball tournament, a/k/a The Big Dance, presenting the always tough choice between art and life.

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