Thursday, February 01, 2007

In Love and War

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This past week, NJ Transit allowed students to ride on their trains for free. They do this for one week every semester, so this wasn't some new thing (and sadly, it isn't permanent either). But this may have been the first free ride week which I took advantage of to the fullest. Last Monday I went to see Letters from Iwo Jima at AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street in New York City, and this weekend I took two more trips to NYC to see two more films: my second viewing of Hou Hsiao-hsien's beautiful Three Times (***½ out of ****) at the IFC Center, and my first viewing (finally) of Jean-Pierre Melville's highly acclaimed 1969 feature Army of Shadows (***½ out of ****), which was released for the first time in the United States last year and thus found its way into many a end-of-year Top 10 list. (Sidebar: oh yeah, wasn't I supposed to attempt one of those?) The latter played twice on Sunday at Symphony Space way the hell uptown (95th Street and Broadway).

Interesting thing about my experience with Army of Shadows: for most of the film, I found myself oddly frustrated by the thing. For some reason, I found much of it rather confusing on a plot level---I only figured out afterward when I discussed the film with someone that Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) was already a leader of the underground Resistance movement of the title when he's arrested and thrown into a prison camp at the beginning of the film. Is that a fault with Melville's storytelling, or was I just not in a particularly sharp and receptive mood on Sunday? And once again, detachment was pretty much what I felt throughout much of the movie. I guess it's intentional: these people are so dedicated to their fight that they've somehow become nearly automaton-like in the way they go about planning and executing---as if they've already been beaten down psychologically by the moral costs of being a French patriot during Vichy France in WWII. But that still meant that I barely felt I knew any of these people---if anything, it felt more like Melville deglamming the heck out of genre archetypes---the noir-ish narrator, the loyal sidekicks, the strong woman of many disguises, etc.---transplating them into this historical environment, and using a economical yet occasionally lyrical style to do the job of characterizing them. For Melville, so it seems, it's all about the looks the characters give to each other.

And then...bam! Something happens at the end of Army of Shadows---the same bam! I felt at the end of Fritz Lang's M (1930) and Francis Coppola's The Conversation (1974), two other films whose greatnesses only revealed themselves to me with a final sequence or image---that somehow puts a powerful spin on everything that came before. It's a gutwrenching, morally suspenseful finish that both shocks you and somehow sums up its themes and gets you to reflect deeply. I don't want to spoil it too much for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet: suffice it to say, the characters make a tough decision, but you're startled as to how quickly and near-affectlessly most of the characters (with one exception) seem to come to that decision. Even fighting for a winning cause, Melville seems to be suggesting, has its moral and personal costs; what's so different and devastating about the ending of Army of Shadows is precisely the realization that perhaps these people have already suffered that cost even before the movie begins. Most movies that tell this kind of story might try to dramatize some kind of arc; Melville seems to be going more for a regretful, elegiac tone suggesting that humanity has already been leeched out of these people. That's challenging---and it challenged me so much that I was deep in thought for a solid hour-and-a-half after the film had ended, and as I got onto the subway and made my way onto an NJ Transit train to make my way back to (snowy) New Brunswick.

What I definitely do know now is that I need to see this again. Perhaps a second viewing would reveal to me the meaning of little throwaway moments that Melville throws into the film. In one sequence, Gerbier, who is in England, walks into some dance hall, and Melville gives us point-of-view shots of Gerbier looking at the beautiful ladies in uniforms talking to other guys. What's profound about this seemingly arbitrary sequence is how suggestive it is: juxtaposed with shots of Gerbier himself, standing alone, looking at these women with his usual stoic look, you get the sense that perhaps Gerbier sees some kind of civilization that he's no longer a part of anymore. Maybe the whole film is about the death of this particular kind of underground civilization; I mean, it's pretty obvious in hindsight that none of these characters have really been a part of regular civilization for a while now. Perhaps there are other moments in this movie that, through something as simple as a mere image, implies waves of regret; I just wasn't able to pick them all up in my first viewing. Maybe, of course, that's a measure of just how much of a masterpiece Army of Shadows is. Hey, I think I'm starting to like this film more and more as I write about it...

No such ambivalence---at least, not as much of it---with Three Times, which is almost as much a meditation---albeit on totally different subject matter---as Melville's film is, but much more formalistic in nature. I saw this a couple of months ago on DVD, so this was my second viewing---but I had to put up with a solid but un-enhanced transfer on DVD, which of course made the film seem a lot smaller than it is. So when I found out that the IFC Center in New York was bringing both this film and the (effective but slightly overrated) Death of Mr. Lazarescu to its screens for a nine-day engagement (sorry readers, it ends tomorrow), I jumped at the chance. And, as I expected, the experience was near-revelatory.

I complained about the extravagant formalism of Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower detracting from the humanity of the characters onscreen, getting the uneasy sense that it felt like Yimou was more interested in creating pretty visual effects than with using form to express feeling. (Wow, don't those assassins flying through the air look cool? Wow, doesn't the blood splashing on yellow flowers look elegant?) Now, I won't deny that some of the characters in Three Times don't feel just as remote from us as the character's in Zhang's film does---heck, Hou Hsiao-hsien dares to shoot his whole second section as a silent movie (and a claustrophobically-blocked one at that), so perhaps a certain remoteness is inherent in such a fascinating artistic choice. But the difference between Hou's emphasis on form above character and Zhang's is that Hou's visual choices seem to organically come out of the characters and their respective milieus---it isn't sumptuousness for its own sake. That second section of Three Times---set in 1911 as the Taiwanese are fighting for independence from the Japanese---emphasizes the claustrophobia of its sets and the beauty of its costumes to suggest the cramped feeling its female character, a prostitute named Ah Mei (Shu Qi) who yearns for freedom, feels on a consistent basis as she remains quietly attracted to a self-proclaimed reformer (Chang Chen) who seems more interested in focusing on political reform than he is on helping the one person who loves him. Even its silent-movie conceit seems appropriate in this regard: none of the characters in Three Times are big yakkers anyway, relying more on looks and body gestures to express their yearning or disappointment (much like Melville's band of underground Resistance fighters do, in some ways), so taking out dialogue altogether forces us to pay more attention to those small gestures: the way Ah Mei looks at Mr. Chang, for instance, or the anguished moment when she realizes that she may be trapped in her societal position forever.

For those who haven't heard much about this movie: Hou tells three different stories---the first one set in 1966 in Kaohsiung, the second in 1911, the third in 2005---using the two same lead actors (Shu Qi, Chang Chen) and exploring similar themes: love, politics, history, the possibilities and barriers to human connection. Essentially, it's an anthology movie (one that, according to critics who have more experience with Hou Hsiao-hsien than I admittedly do, uses previous films like The Puppetmaster (1993), Flowers of Shanghai (1998), and Millennium Mambo (2001) as fairly obvious reference points), but it wouldn't benefit the viewer to simply see Three Times as three different films in one. What fascinated me, seeing this film a second time, were the thematic and imagistic connections among the three stories---example: when a pool-parlor girl reads a letter in 1966, it's framed the same way as when Ah Mei reads a letter from Mr. Chang in 1911; so it is with the various cell phone messages in 2005. But, of course, the differences are just as interesting to parse out as the similarities: if the 1966 story is infused with nostalgia (a nostalgia which borders on Wong Kar-Wai-ian, although Wong is much more operatic and stylized with his romantic mores), the 1911 story nearly beats you into submission with its sheer claustrophobia, and the 2005 story comes off as aimless as the gray modern society it depicts. Maybe love remains the same throughout the ages, Hou seems to imply, but the ways we do it in certain societies may be more different than we'd like to admit.

Three Times is not going to be for everyone, and I'll admit, there were moments in the second and third segments especially in which I yearned for characters to actually give voice to their obsessions much more than they actually do. And that constant pejorative "slow"? It applies here, even with three consecutive stories being told instead of one. If you check it out on DVD sometime soon, you're going to need a certain amount of patience, as well as a receptiveness to Hou's emphasis on small moments to tell big stories.

But a funny thing happened when I saw this film on DVD the first time: a few days later, I found myself actually thinking more deeply about love---how we fall in love, and whether Hou is right in suggesting that we do it in different ways, depending on different circumstances, whether political or personal. I don't know if I've experienced true love yet (ladies, I'm still unattached---wink wink), but Three Times comes close to suggesting, through its impeccably spare technique and fascinating performances, what it might feel like to be in love.

And its first segment is just so darned magnificent---an ineffable depiction of the stirrings of some kind of love, whether or not it's really true love or just one soldier's desperation to feel something romantic in a time of war---that it's gotten me thinking of the Platters' "Smoke Gets Through Your Eyes" pretty much every minute of every day these past few days. Since I'm not writing for a print publication, I think I'll indulge myself in a moment of movie ad-happy hyperbole: this may be my favorite film of last year other than Inland Empire.

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