Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Item: Flowers of Shanghai better than Mad Max: Fury Road!

Hey I didn't plan to watch Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 1998) mere moments before I believed the hype and took in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). Blame the exigencies of teaching Flowers today for clouding my reception of Mad Max last night. But even if I hadn't bathed in Hou's masterpiece yet again, Miller's reboot still would've left me pondering Kracauer's "Boredom" (pdf here) and this terrific IMDb comment by one amirdash1 on Hou's Café Lumière (which I've pumped before but since learned permalink):

"You know how sometimes you see a film so big and full and immersing that by the time it ends you feel kinda empty (for most people it's the Lord of the rings or Matrix or Star wars type of films)? well, [Café Lumière] is so empty that in the end, it makes you you feel full. I remember feeling more refreshed and alive after this film, than any other film i had ever seen."

Mad Max is certainly so big and full and immersing. Devoting barely any time to explaining when and where (and why) we are, Miller dunks us into the freezing bathwater of his narrative with all the patience of a Centurions cartoon. In the opening sequence, the evil Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) seems to be conveying key story points to some sort of slave class. But he does so via microphone over a huge canyon, insuring that his speech becomes lost in the echoes. Max (Tom Hardy), a characterization of brilliant perversity, contributes little towards pushing the narrative forward. With five pages max of dialogue, much of it garbled, Max makes Ethan Edwards sound like Woody Allen. It shall join Warren Beatty's McCabe and Ralph Fiennes' Dennis Cleg (in Cronenberg's Spider) in the ranks of great mumble performances. And all the better to set off  Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) as a narrative agent with desire, a history, and a band of sisters who have no trouble beating down Joe's pack of pasty, perfectly chiseled goons (what, no carbs in this time/space continuum?).

But now that it's over, I'm at a loss for something to discuss. Well...that happened. More to the point, I'm left with no desire to find a way for it to resonate beyond its running time. I could praise Miller's expertise in directing action sequences. Like John Woo, he lays out the space in question before the action kicks in so we know what's at stake in all that velocity. And I could suggest that the film could've used more preposterous touches like the pasty goon dangling in front of a wall of amplifiers and playing a fire-breathing guitar in battle, a hilarious attempt to give a source to Junkie XL's chest-heaving score. But if I didn't get all that down now, I'm not sure I'd remember to tell the world about it a year from now.

In many ways, Flowers of Shanghai mangles storytelling even more, at least on initial viewing (it took Robin Wood six screenings to figure out Hou's scheme). Titles situate us in various late 19th-century brothels in the English Concession of Shanghai. But Hou does little to differentiate one Sternbergian hothouse interior from another. Important events are told not shown, sure to get lost in the endless roundelays of gossiping courtesans and their patrons. There are no cuts, only fades which fail to convey how much time has passed. Characters are difficult to tell apart. There's one point-of-view shot and one brief voice-over. The camera floats at a distance in long shots and long takes, never suturing us into the space. Our frustration at gaining any sense of firm narrative ground quickly turns into boredom. Nothing...happens.

But as Kracauer so perceptively pointed out nearly 90 years ago, boredom preserves the possibility that something genuinely new might still happen instead of a conveyor belt of new pummeling us at every corner of our lives. Watching Flowers of Shanghai may be an empty experience. But it continues to haunt. You can't shake it as you start to ponder how a Taiwanese viewer would receive this film set in China by the premier Taiwanese filmmaker. Or how a Chinese viewer would receive a film set in the English Concession of Shanghai. When Mad Max: Fury Road is over, it's over. You've had your fill and now the next new awaits.

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Saturday, May 02, 2015

I finished Middlemarch!

Reading George Eliot's Middlemarch was like being trapped in a well-appointed but claustrophobic room with an intimidatingly capacious mind for a looooooong time - in my case, many, many months. I had an easier time getting through Ulysses. The person who suggested it to me "compared it to a diamond: a pure, beautiful, brilliant thing that compels attention and admiration, but that is also somehow hard and icily cerebral. I[t] certainly never struck [him] as a warm novel." Attention and admiration it got. But I received not much pleasure in return, especially in the first half.

No doubt some of my agitation stemmed from Eliot's tough-mindedness, her disinclination to suffer fools lightly. She even says as much at the book's snootiest, if not deadliest, point: "I am less uneasy in calling attention to the existence of low people by whose interference, however little we may like it, the course of the world is very much determined. It would be well, certainly, if we could help to reduce their number, and something might perhaps be done by not lightly giving occasion to their existence." And how, pray tell, should we reduce their number? Is she getting all Raskolnikov on the minor but narratively crucial character Raffles here?

But maybe Middlemarch is supposed to remain pleasureless, like heavy metal. And like metal, maybe we're to use it to reveal the fool within, the fuckup in us all ('cept for Eliot) that we are loathe to confront but that the power of the riffs (literary and otherwise) are meant to whip into shape. The Middlemarch/metal connection reminds me of a recent exchange on ILM. Someone was whining about not wanting to start a zine to which Scott Seward (crucially, a metal expert) replied in a manner most Middlemarch-like: "duh, i'm not talking about you slackers. people with energy. and pep." Certainly, there have been times in my life when I could feel myself in Fred Vincy's "dead men's shoes" (where Idleness resides) with Mary Garth admonishing him/me for reneging on a loan guaranteed by her father Caleb. "What does it matter whether I forgive you?" says Mary, passionately, Eliot tells us. But also icily - her family will be now be in ruins. The utility of "I'm sorry" or "you're forgiven" evaporates in the need for action to make things right. I read much of Middlemarch at the gym, a locale that was holding me back, or so I was informed, from loving the novel. But in retrospect, it seemed entirely appropriate. Steel never forgives. But work hard and you'll get a six pack. And pay back that loan. And get through a 900-page behemoth.

And then you'll get rewarded in those moments where you feel as haughty and worthy as Eliot herself as when she drops a line that you muttered just yesterday about cell phones: "The bias of human nature to be slow in correspondence triumphs even over the present quickening in the general pace of things." Or when she quotes one Sir Thomas Browne to support your thesis that "back in the good ole days" dorks are forever with us: "It is the humor of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickedness of times present. Which notwithstanding they cannot handsomely do, without the borrowed help and satire of times past; condemning the vices of their own times, by the expressions of vices in times which they commend, which cannot but argue the community of vice in both." Or when Dorothea Brooke gives up her fortune for love, i.e., the hunky-you-just-know-it Will Ladislaw (I'd never been so elated at the formation of a heterosexual couple). Or when Eliot revels in the connectedness of the universe: "For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determine by what lies outside it." Or in the very last line when Eliot finally comes down to our level and gives it up to all the fools, fuckups, and slackers: "For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

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Friday, May 01, 2015

So you're curious about Joan Crawford's General Electric Theater work...

Well, don't be. All three are risible attempts to generate Twilight Zone-style suspense and godawful twist endings by having characters act in ways antithetical to their nature. In "The Road to Edinburgh" (1954), Joan gives a ride to a drifter who fixed her flat tire. He confesses to her that he has just been released from prison after 17 years for murder. But he behaves like a complete psycho, becoming belligerent and obsessing on her appearance. Naturally, Joan tries everything to get away, especially when she learns that the police are on the lookout for an escaped prisoner. She does 80 to attract the police but when she's pulled over, they inform her that the man in her car couldn't be the escaped prisoner since he's just been caught! The poor innocent guy just needed a ride. He even gives her the money to pay for her speeding ticket leaving a tearful Joan to admit in voiceover, "I've never been so ashamed in my life." So he acted like a psycho...why?
In "Strange Witness" (1958), Joan and her wiry boyfriend Tom Tryon (future horror novelist and partner of gay porn icon Casey Donovan) bump off her husband (John McIntire). But the husband's blind friend stops by for a visit before the couple has time to hide the body. They manage to maneuver him around the corpse before eventually shooing him away. But later, he calls her from a police station to inform her that, oh hai, he had an operation and can see! So he pretended that he's still blind...why?
In "And One Was Loyal" (1959), Joan is an abused wife who cannot speak. A poisonous snake is planted in her husband's bed. Thinking Joan is trying to kill him, he charges at her, falls off a balcony, and dies at which point Joan can suddenly speak again. But who planted the snake? Was it Joan? Or was it the art-loving visitor who fancies her? Or how about the Malaysian house boy? Much the best of the three but the least dramatic, one hopes Newton Minow had this in mind when he deemed television a vast wasteland in 1961

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