Thursday, June 22, 2006


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Sometimes there are films that I consider "obsessions"---movies that, at least for a certain amount of time, I just can't seem to get enough of. When I was a horror nut, some of the Friday the 13th flicks counted as personal obsessions. Later on, I got into an action movie phase, inundating myself with a steady diet of modern action flicks like Die Hard, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Face/Off, The Negotiator, and probably some others. A few years ago, I bought the Pulp Fiction Collector's Edition DVD on a whim and felt like I had to savor Quentin Tarantino's dialogue every day. And recently, I've turned to foreign films: Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders and Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels chief among them. What all these films have in common is that it seems as if I can't tear myself away from these films: I'm so addicted to them that, at least for a little while, I couldn't imagine going a day without seeing a favorite clip. Whether it's Crispin Glover's gruesome death by meat cleaver in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter; Nicolas Cage's defying-the-odds escape from Erewhon Prison in Face/Off; Samuel L. Jackson's chilling final monologue at the end---or is it technically the middle?---of Pulp Fiction; or Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, and Anna Karina dancing the Madison in Band of Outsiders, all of these films, sometimes inexplicably, stick in my mind so much that every viewing of a certain film or film sequence is like one more attempt to get it out of my head for good. It's almost always a losing battle; time is usually the best way to let obsessions die down. (These days, for instance, my copy of Pulp Fiction barely gets touched, perhaps partly because I've become just a little less enchanted with that film, and with Quentin Tarantino in general. Tarantino may be energetic and original, but he's no Godard).

I think I may have found a possible new obsession in Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, that complicated-as-hell oil thriller that won George Clooney a whole lotta awards---including a supporting actor Oscar---ostensibly for his performance in the film as world-weary CIA agent Bob Barnes (although, really, he won it because of his newfound power within the industry as a movie star, producer, and director).

I saw this film in a theater towards the end of December, and I've had an interesting long-term reaction to the film. I found it entertaining enough when I saw it the first time, but I left the theater feeling a little hollow: what did Gaghan's Traffic-ish narrative puzzlebox really illuminate about corruption in the oil industry that would really rouse us to action? If anything, Syriana has the opposite effect: by engendering a feeling of utter confusion and cynicism, it left me feeling like throwing my hands up in the air and moving on in my life. Surely that's not what Gaghan, Clooney and co. intended. As a political film, I was left unconvinced.

And yet somehow, this convoluted film, for all these months, has stuck in my head in the same way that the alienated mood of Fallen Angels never quite allowed itself to dissolve from my memory. When I heard that the film was to be released on DVD in June, my impulse reaction was: Oh boy, I have to see the film again!

Well, today, thanks to my Netflix subscription, I did see it again on DVD. This second viewing hasn't banished my initial reservations about the film. As a narrative, it's a well-intentioned mess; and as an attempt at a '70s-style paranoid political thriller, it's probably way too complicated to rouse anyone into action at the end.

But even as I still found myself not a whole lot closer to understanding the conspiracies conceived of by Gaghan in this film, I did pick up on some new things. The score by Alexandre Desplat, for one thing: an understated yet powerfully effective score that underscores both moments of sadness, deep thought, or suspense in a consistently low whisper. The only moment Desplat really lays it on is the moment when Bob Barnes is abducted by a trio of Hezbollah militants (I think)---and even then it's not nearly as bombastic as someone like Hans Zimmer might have made it.

Some individual scenes made a stronger impression the second time around too. Particularly memorable is a small but chillingly tense moment when Matt Damon, as an advisor to Alexander Siddig's progressive Prince Nasir al-Subaai, says in response to the Prince's offer of key oil interests with a sarcastic "Great. How much for my other son?" (His son tragically drowned at a party thrown by the Gulf's emir.) I still can't say I'm closer to understanding every nook and cranny of the jargon Gaghan writes for these characters, but...

Perhaps Syriana will become a project for me in the future: a puzzle to solve. I may be deluding myself, but perhaps if I can decode how exactly everything is connected to this movie, I may be closer to decoding what, if anything, Stephen Gaghan is trying to say about the politics of oil other than "everybody is corrupt." If some people are still trying to figure out what exactly happened to the two technobabblists in Shane Carruth's Primer, maybe, one of these days, I'll try to figure out what the hell is going on in Syriana.

And if I don't figure it all out, at least there's always that infamous torture scene to return to again and again. I'd like to think that that scene grabs me because of George Clooney's genuinely scared reactions as he gets his fingernails ripped off and his face gets punched repeatedly. But who am I kidding? It's probably just because of the violence. I'm immoral and sick like that. Hehe.


Wagstaff said...

Kenjfuj, that's a wonderful article you posted over at The House Next Door. CHUNGKING EXPRESS is the only Wong Kar-Wai film that I've seen, but now FALLEN ANGELS is going to the top of my must-see list.

kenjfuj said...

wagstaff: Thanks! I hope you enjoy the film. I also hope I haven't inadvertently overhyped the film for those who haven't seen it; I wouldn't want to be the cause of disappointed feelings for those who have yet to see it, you know what I mean? But if you do feel a bit let down when you watch Fallen Angels for the first time...well, I'd say give it a few weeks or a few months and see if the movie either looms in your mind, refusing to disappear, or if it dissolves completely. Obviously, for me the former reaction occurred. But if it dissolves...then perhaps we'll have something worth debating in the future, heh.

For those who don't know about the article of mine that wagstaff is referring to, sit tight. I will explain it very soon.

Patrick said...

The first time I saw Fallen Angels, I was in awe of the cinematography, but not quite sure on the story. However, a couple of days later, I felt the need to go back for a second viewing, and there everything clicked and I really fell in love with the movie. I think it's easily Wong Kar-Wai's best film, and it's also the best shot film of all time. Every frame of the film is so pop, so exciting. And, the ending is just perfect.

Anonymous said...

Since you have Netflix, here are two Foreign, quite good, DVD's you might want to check out:

"Balzac and The Little Chinese Seamstress"

"Nobody Knows"

kenjfuj said...

Patrick: Yes that is pretty much the same experience I had with Fallen Angels. The only difference was, it took me a couple of months before I got a chance to revisit the film again. Not sure if I'd call it his best film---I'd probably say In the Mood for Love is his best feature overall, although Days of Being Wild runs it pretty close, imo---but I still think it's underrated among Wong's body of work. You just have to dig for it a little more than some of his other work, because the florid style can easily make the film seem mannered and slight. But the surface style distracts...

Anonymous: Thanks for the recommendations. I've heard a bit about Nobody Knows; heard it's devastatingly good.

The Great Swifty said...

Well, hope my insanely long comment on that article appear over at The House Next Door.

On the other hand, I seriously recommend you to check out some movies by HK director Johnnie To. Check out The Mission and PTU if possible. You might like it.