Friday, January 19, 2007

Form and Feeling

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Sorry, faithful readers, for not updating all that much in recent days. My winter break is over now and I'm back at Rutgers for the second half of this fourth academic year, and hopefully I'll get it off to a good start. But while I could be working on that thesis outline that I promised for my advisor for next week right now, I'm taking some time out of my morning to update this blog of mine---something I've been meaning to do for a while now, especially since I've seen a handful of films over the break (yes, I persist with moviegoing even with my free Megamovies tickets temporarily revoked) that I'd like to discuss here.

I'd particularly like to discuss both Dreamgirls (** out of ****) and Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower (**½ out of ****) in the context of a discussion of spectacle. Because to me, that's what both movies essentially are: lavish spectacles.

I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing, mind you. Spectacle has always been a part of the attraction of movies; every movie is a spectacle of some sort, really. But both of those films are spectacles of a particular variety: Dreamgirls is a musical drama that emphasizes slick surfaces and whizz-bang song and dance as much as it tries to highlight both raw emotion and a relatively truthful (at least for Broadway) look at the compromises inherent in Motown's rise in the '60s and '70s, while Curse of the Golden Flower---in keeping with Zhang's typically sumptuous aesthetic, especially in recent films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers---tries for an arty formalism as it emphasizes lush, intoxicating colors and operatic, near-Shakespearean tragic melodrama in its hard look at the implosion of a royal family during the Tang Dynasty in China during the 10th century.

Here's the question that popped up into my mind when I saw both films: at what point that does spectacle becomes simply that---spectacle---and crowd out the humanity of the stories the films tell and the characters the film depicts? In other words, at what point do films like Dreamgirls and Curse of the Golden Flower cease to involve on an intimate level and become...well, soulless pageants of sound and color? And---crucial question, I think---is that necessarily a bad thing?

I pose these questions to try to account for why I felt vaguely dissatisfied after sitting through both of these films---as if I had sat through beautiful museum exhibits without ever connecting all that much with what was happening onscreen. Actually, that's admittedly a bit of a distortion in both cases: Dreamgirls is too insistent on trying to entertain you, with its slick surfaces, its loud singing and its whizz-bang MTV-style editing, to feel much like a museum exhibit; and Zhang's film tries so hard to tell its story through its sets, its costumes and its close-ups of little bits of character business that it (thankfully) plays less like a historical pageant when you think about it afterward, and more like the kind of Shakespearean tragedy that it clearly wants to be.

It's too bad one can't really defend Dreamgirls as even an interesting formalist exercise the way one could conceivably claim for Curse of the Golden Flower, because unfortunately glitz seems to be the main order of the day in Bill Condon's film, as it is in other recent Broadway-stage-to-screen adaptations like The Phantom of the Opera, Rent and The Producers, to nearly as detrimental effect (disastrous in both Phantom and The Producers, barely bearable in Rent). Dreamgirls is slightly better than those hollow musical pageants mostly by virtue of Jennifer Hudson's impressive belting (as an actress, she seems initially awkward but improves as the movie goes on, but as a singer---as American Idol fans could probably testify---she could positive give you goosebumps, at least when she isn't making you close your ears when she's at her loudest) and Eddie Murphy's surprising depth of feeling as his character, to-be has-been R&B singer James "Thunder" Early, is on the decline commercially. Both actors occasionally come through with moments that powerfully illustrate the film's core idea---that black artists had to compromise their distinctive artistry in order to appeal to a wider (whiter?) audience, and that those who refused to do so were thrown aside---in ways that the music (perhaps mediocre on purpose?), the direction and the rest of the cast rarely do. (Perhaps it makes sense, then, that those two were honored with Golden Globes this past Monday; with such a lifeless cast, their occasionally transcendent moments were bound to stick out by default.)

Whether or not Dreamgirls accurately reflects the music and milieu of the time in American history that is its backdrop---the '60s and '70s---is something other critics have already grappled with, and is something I won't delve too deeply into here. (It becomes pretty obvious by the end of the movie---when Jamie Foxx's sell-out producer Curtis is slain by Hudson's narcissistic but still heroic Effie White and others---that we're dealing with pure, pat Hollywood fantasy anyway---good triumphing indisputably over evil---whether or not you're familiar with the period or with the history of the Supremes, whose story is often cited as the inspiration for Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's original 1981 stage musical.) Dreamgirls isn't all that interested in history anyway, although it throws in touches (shout-outs to Vietnam and race riots, including one odd scene in which an angry Effie storms out of a recording studio and into the midst of a riot happening in the street) to give the film a false aura of historical awareness. Mostly, it's just interested in spectacle: the spectacle of impersonal slickness (Tobias A. Schliesser did the cinematography), the spectacle of a clichéd rags-to-riches story that tellingly stints on the rags part (and when the rags do come---when we see Effie trying to make it on her own after she's thrown out of the Dreamettes---Condon makes even poverty look fairly slick as well), and the spectacle of people singing loudly---as if volume meant "INTENSE FEELING" (a common trait among many American Idol-ers like Jennifer Hudson). What's ultimately missing is much evidence of soul---the kind of soul that animated even the most commercial of Motown music---in this slick commercial package, and whatever interesting insights it has to offer about the black music industry during the '60s and '70s is blunted by the film's obvious desire to impress---a sign that spectacle has at least partly overtaken the human beings supposedly populating this musical landscape.

It might be harder to assess the extent to which spectacle dwarfs humanity in Curse of the Golden Flower if you subscribe to Zhang's notion that form equals feeling. Of course, that kind of notion has always held a certain appeal for me, because I often like movies that tell its stories sparely and through visuals: shot selection, lighting, sets, costumes, even sound. Stuff, in other words, that you can't necessarily get from novels unless you imagine them for yourself. Directors like Zhang, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (you must see Three Times, especially its opening section---even if the IFC Films DVD is sadly un-enhanced for widescreen TVs) or Terrence Malick, or perhaps Stanley Kubrick in his own misanthropic way, have proved that an interest in film form can intensify our intellectual and emotional responses to a particular story being told.

So perhaps this is my way of saying that, one of these days, perhaps I'll feel compelled to take a look at Curse of the Golden Flower again and discover the ways in which the film's awe-inspiring formal beauty---its Technicolor walls, carpets and curtains; its tight-fitting costumes; etc.---complement its thematic ambition---its interest in observing how a royal family is undone by madness, stubbornness, greed, and even such supposed virtues as honor and loyalty. Maybe there are depths to the film's formalism that I'm not comprehending right now, because, as I sat through the film, I couldn't help but feel detached from the whole thing: admiring its ornately designed (overdesigned?) mise-en-scène while feeling barely a thing for any of the characters onscreen: not the slowly-going-mad Empress Phoenix (Gong Li, looking as glorious as ever), not the rigid Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat, an interesting choice to play a rigidly controlling king), nor his sons. I felt the same way with House of Flying Daggers a couple of years ago, rarely feeling all that engaged in its soapy love-triangle story while admiring its beautiful look and some of its visual tropes (a tragic snowfall that ends the film, for instance, or a fight atop bamboo trees) from an emotional distance.

Maybe that detachment is meant to be point: perhaps the film's explosion of color is meant to be deliberately oppressive, to emphasize the feeling of constriction many of the characters feel. Maybe its blend of bright blood reds and eye-popping yellows are meant to serve as a visual expression of the swirling passions boiling underneath the characters' restrained surfaces. Or maybe it's all meant to simply be ironic counterpoint, much like the visual voluptuousness of Sofia Coppola's underrated Marie Antoinette was last year. Still, I was rather disturbed by the sense I got that this particular director seemed more interested in the way blood splashes on yellow flowers than in the way blood courses through a desperate woman's veins. To me, that seems...well, dehumanizing, to put it rather bluntly.

And yet, maybe such an approach is more appropriate to this particular story than in House of Flying Daggers, in which the passions of its characters wasn't matched by an equal passion for those characters on the part of the director. Perhaps, in the end, I'm suggesting that Curse of the Golden Flower is a movie that plays better after the fact than it does as you watch it. This means that the experience of watching the movie can be an off-puttingly remote and distant one for some, myself included. Of course, that doesn't mean the film is a bad one---far from it. (With such deliciously opulent set design and a few memorable action sequences, how could it be?) It may well be a formalist masterpiece of some sort, and thus perhaps it isn't really meant to be loved---just admired from afar. Like many spectacles of this sort.

Which brings me back to the questions I posed earlier about the nature of movie spectacles such as Dreamgirls and Curse of the Golden Flower. Maybe I've been raised too much on classical narrative expectations: the expectation that a movie should tell a good story and involve us in the lives of its characters. So what one could read as fatal detachment in Curse of the Golden Flower, others could read as one director's interest in using elements of film form to express feeling. (Dreamgirls is just plain careless.) This could be another case of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder": what one sees as simply visual decadence, another sees as cinema at its most visual, and thus at some kind of peak. Count me as still contemplating.


Jeffrey Hill said...

I haven't seen Golden Flower - or any since Hero - but your assessment drove at problems I had with Hero - ie - the detachment and the stifling colors, etc. You were dead on.

"...I was rather disturbed by the sense I got that this particular director seemed more interested in the way blood splashes on yellow flowers than in the way blood courses through a desperate woman's veins. To me, that seems...well, dehumanizing..."

Say it isn't so! He used to be great at blood coursing through a desperate woman's veins! Gong Li's, even! What happened?

Anyway, great post.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Thanks a lot, jeffrey!

I think I know what you're talking about regarding Hero; I felt some the same disappointment. I've only seen it once, though, and I feel like I should perhaps see it another time because some of the film's political content did strike me as a pretty interesting and provocative questioning of how far one should exercise great power for the sake of a supposedly greater cause (perhaps not a fresh question to ask, but nevertheless it's still a potent one). So, in hindsight, I feel like whatever detachment one might have felt with Hero, it seemed rather appropriate for the film's more cerebral subject matter. But House of Flying Daggers was clearly meant to be a romantic melodrama, and by the end, in spite of dazzling sequences and images and the obvious conviction of the actors, I personally found myself not caring all that much about what was happening onscreen---in other words, it struck me as visually breathtaking but ultimately trivial. Maybe Zhang Yimou never meant it to be anything more than that.

Perhaps I'm just not a formalist kinda guy---perhaps I like a little bit of an anchor in so-called "literary qualities": interesting characters, involving story, etc. I can appreciate when a film tries to take a totally different, wholly visual approach to telling a story, but that doesn't always mean I connect with what's onscreen in any personally meaningful way. Every frame of Terrence Malick's The New World seemed to radiate with spirituality for me, even though Malick is telling his story in a pretty daring, modernist way. I didn't always connect with Pocahontas or John Smith in ways I would in, say, a Renoir film, but nor did I feel like I was merely sitting through a grandiose pageant, as I felt when I watched both Curse of the Golden Flower and House of Flying Daggers. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that both of those films are bad---thus the crux of my internal debate between the regular-joe moviegoer and the faux-intellectual film enthusiast in me, a debate I tried to express in this entry.