Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Madness! Madness!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I still have a bunch of films in my personal review queue, but hopefully, with the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, I'll have time to play massive catch-up. For now...

Face (2009; Dir.: Tsai Ming-liang)
The Box (2009; Dir.: Richard Kelly)

In Psycho, Norman Bates famously said, "We all go a little mad sometimes." That certainly didn't help Bates's victims in that film, but in the cinema, creative madness can be quite the tonic. There's nothing like watching a talented filmmaker push the boundaries of the medium in order to put across a boldly original vision on the screen; even when that filmmaker doesn't entirely succeed in realizing his/her ambitions, sometimes the sheer exhilaration of his/her effort can be enough. One example of this type of shoot-the-works filmmaking is currently playing in theaters right now (though not much longer, it looks like): Richard Kelly's third feature, The Box. Another is Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's recent, Louvre-funded foray into France, Face. Both are deeply flawed and self-indulgent, but both hit on moments of jaw-dropping cinematic ecstasy that will frequently make you say to yourself, in awed admiration, "Where do these artists come up with this stuff?!!" Wherever these mad visions come from, you surely won't find 'em anywhere else.

Of course, over a week removed from the delirious high of seeing both these films, I'm now put in the (self-imposed) position of actually trying to write something substantive about them. Individual images and scenes from each float around in my head, and those memories make me smile—but when it comes to trying to form my varied impressions into a coherent take on what their respective auteurs are possibly up to, I find myself at a bit of a loss. It could be that their visions come out of something so deeply personal—from their subconscious, perhaps—that maybe they can't even explain it themselves. That's hardly a criticism, as far as I'm concerned; it's just that that elusiveness can make writing about them a bear.

This problem is very much pronounced in Face, which premiered at Cannes earlier in the year to mixed reviews, and which I saw at a free preview screening a little over a week ago at the Asia Society in New York. How to penetrate it? How to even describe it? Tsai Ming-liang's film has only the barest outlines of a plot: it has something to do with recurring Tsai character Hsiao-Kang's (Lee Kang-sheng) attempt to film a modern version of Salomé with an actor named Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud, magnificently reprising a world-weary older version of his star-making role in François Truffaut's The 400 Blows), Fanny Ardant and model Laetitia Casta as Salomé. And yet, despite what sounds like a classic film-within-a-film scenario, Tsai consistently blurs the line between the worlds inside and outside the film, never defining which is which. The idea of art-as-life becomes wildly abstracted here. French New Wave references abound: Antoine and Hsiao-Kang playfully exchange the names of famous cinema directors—it's the only language they both know, probably—as they both handle a bird Antoine calls "Titi"; Ardant and Jeanne Moreau sit around a fancy dining table as Nathalie Baye suddenly pops out from under the table looking for some jewelry; later, offscreen, we hear Moreau's famous Jules and Jim song being played on the piano, with Moreau saying something along the lines of "What have I gotten myself into?" And much of Face has a kind of art-exhibit feel, of artworks coming to life and slowly passing us by, providing an endless feast for the mind and senses. And as with most art exhibitions, Face leaves us to ponder the implications of these various moving artworks after the fact.

Tsai calls his film Face, and perhaps there's a key to this film: The film practically swims in images dealing with the human face. Laetitia Casta is seen taping up windows, as if she had gotten tired of her own reflection and decided to cover it up with black masking tape. (This is especially rich considering who she is in real life.) Antoine's first scene is a striking close-up of his face, leaning sideways to his right, with his eyes closed, as snow falls and the wind blows in his direction; much later, he's looking at his reflection and lamenting at just how much he has aged. At one point, Antoine is seen in an extended close-up with a towel covering his face; the image itself makes for an oddly affecting still life. And another close-up: that of Hsiao-Kang's grieving sister after the death of her (and his) mother, trying to suppress tears as she cleans up the mother's refrigerator. If nothing else, images like these, and many others in this vast cinematic fresco, suggest that Tsai was most interested in celebrating the ways human faces can be posed and lighted to achieve beauty in various forms and environments.

I haven't even gotten around to the out-of-nowhere Mathieu Amalric cameo, or Casta's modern-day version of Salomé's dance of the seven veils, sans music (not even Richard Strauss!), but with meat hooks and tomato sauce. And Tsai's shout-outs to his own previous work can't be of merely passing significance: the random musical numbers, his obsession with water (turned into a hilarious extended gag as a faucet in Hsiao-Kang's Taiwan apartment explodes in escalating comic mayhem), his evocation of loneliness and alienation. Face may be an attempt at a career-summarizing work, or it may just be Tsai self-indulgently basking in all of his usual thematic fascinations, in a foreign country and with the financial backing of one of the premier art museums of the world.

As you can see, I think I've spent more time describing scenes and images than coming up with a coherent interpretation of how they all fit together. Do they even fit together? More to the point: do they need to? Face is forbidding and impenetrable...but it has the heat of a visionary filmmaker throwing caution to the wind and spilling out his palpable joy in the medium onto celluloid. Perhaps the whole thing really is just Tsai indulging in his every whim. And yet, its images are so inspired and rapturous, and its seemingly bottomless mysteries so fascinating to think about, that I find it difficult to be too critical. What is the cinematic medium—heck, what is any art—worth if it constrains artists from being able to let it all hang out? All I know is, I'm very much looking forward to getting inside Tsai Ming-liang's head again. (That, of course, will depend on whether there's an independent distributor out there bold enough to give such an enigmatic film a theatrical run. What say you, Anthology Film Archives?)

In its eventual zeal to explain the mysteries it sets up, The Box proves to be much less of an enigmatic folly than Face, and thus ultimately less interesting to think and write about in the long run. Still, like Face, it is a film that is deliriously alive with bold inspiration. What starts out as an intimately-scaled morality play gradually morphs into a creepy horror film before its horrors begin to take on sci-fi, religious and philosophical flavors. As with his previous films, Donnie Darko and Southland Tales, Kelly has no less than the fate of humanity on his mind, wondering whether humanity is indeed worth saving. Such grand ambition could easily have become oppressive in the soulless Dark Knight manner, but unlike Christopher Nolan in that film, Kelly locates a warm human center in his sympathetic central couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), thus cutting off any easy moral responses to the agonizing dilemmas they face at the beginning of the film and at the end. Meanwhile, Kelly's plot—based on Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," which was adapted into a 1980s "Twilight Zone" episode—tosses in alien life forms, water monoliths, a 2001-style trip into the afterlife, and many more insane plot twists and visual coups. Kelly may have more chutzpah than intellect, really, but its visionary audacity is nevertheless blissful.

Besides, any film that is imaginative enough to have a car accident hinge on a hypnotized man in a Santa suit ringing a bell is all right in my book. As far as I'm concerned, such moments of what-the-hell invention constitute the height of cinema.

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