Friday, June 1, 2012

Now I Notice the Streetlamp's Hum

Trying to keep intros brief, for a change! This is a list of movies that capture a very specific mood I enjoy, in art and otherwise: feeling alone in the midst of a giant, bustling city. If you too enjoy that feeling (or stories about that feeling), you should watch these movies. There, that was succinct. Now I may devote my shapeless ramblings to the films themselves. I has the focus! (Or something resembling it! Or maybe not. You tell me! Oops, I've fallen into a tangent and I refuse to get up. It's very shiny down here!)

In the Mood for Love

Wong Kar-Wai's visual metaphor for love is breathtakingly simple: he films couples as if there's no one else in the world. His practically subconscious tragedies unfold in giddy, hazy urban haunts, most notably 1960s Hong Kong, yet crowd shots are few and far between; close-ups inevitably trap characters in corners, on the other side of windows, at the end of a seemingly endless corridor or alleyway. From Happy Together's simmering dance to Fallen Angels' final motorcycle ride (the latter seized upon and expounded in the last third of Hou Hsiao-Hsien's magnificent Three Times), Wong's obsessive yet fatally timid dreamers increasingly see no one but each other, ignoring the big city around them even as it hems them in. In the Mood for Love's central pair, Maggie Cheung's Mrs. Chan and Tony Leung's Mr. Chow, spend more time trying to carve out a space of their own than they do actually inhabiting it. Mrs. Chan is always ducking her nosy neighbors (with whom she is crammed in a terrifyingly claustrophobic apartment) and Mr. Chow can't help living vicariously through his perfectly honestly sleazy friend Ping, who doesn't bother, as the protagonists do, trying to emote purely through his eyes. Even as their romance builds, it falls apart, the shiny '60s surfaces (which Mad Men totally stole, because as Wilde said, that's what great artists do) turning more and more self-critical, more pointedly superficial. Wong's star-crossed lovers are only in love with the idea of romance, like the feverish fantasies they capture in their co-written pulp novels (the only lasting legacy of their time together, appropriately fictional, as Wong's sequel 2046 would make painfully clear). Neither is willing to make the dream real, to expose their romance to the city's invisible (but implicit) crowds, and that's always the catch in Wong's restless signal-crossings. His lovers inevitably fade back into their perfectly framed and artfully lit context, hardly putting up a fight, happy to be trapped in their time and place. Reality returns (witness the jarring documentary footage near film's end signaling the self-obsessed Mr. Chow's re-engagement with the outside world), though never entirely. Artist-in-his-own-right cinematographer Christopher Doyle inevitably recaptures each of them alone, posing as if for a self-portrait, as if aware of the camera and trying not to betray any emotion for it, and failing miserably.

 Eyes Wide Shut

Every plunge back in to Stanley Kubrick's last stand reminds me just how inexhaustible it is, constantly hinting at another interpretation, another way in to its bizarrely self-negating existential drama/patriarchal nightmare of stunted rituals, withered relationships, and infinite hallways (see also: The Shining). Of course, the joke of the title is on us. We'll never "get it" completely, because the characters, complicit in all the film's many sins, are all too willing to hide the story from us, tuck it away behind bland movie-star faces, wish it away like a passing fantasy or a dream that fades upon waking. (Of course, not all of them get to wake up: HIV-positive Domino, possibly-murdered Nick, almost-definitely-murdered Mandy.) At first, Doctor Bill Harford seems eager for a classic quest for truth, driven from his glittering apartment into the mysterious streets by his wife's confession to enjoying fantasies about other men more than she does the reality of him. Indeed, Bill's whole odyssey turns out to be a cautionary tale on the fallout between instinctively idealized images and queasy opaque reality, and Kubrick perfectly illustrates this dilemma in his claustrophobic vision of turn-of-the-century New York. Or rather, "New York," because as few critics failed to complain, Kubrick recreated Manhattan whole on set rather than filming on location, fitting the director's reputation for meticulousness. But there's a point being made here, too: Bill never finds the "real" New York he's looking for, just as he never solves any of the mysteries his journey confronts him with, just as he fails to save any of the aforementioned casualties of this New York's carnal black market, just as he wretchedly gives up trying to understand his wife's repressed desires (or his own, hidden even deeper), just as his smugly flawless identity falls to pieces when he can't get laid. There is no truth here, no answer to the film's endless implicit and explicit questions, just an empty man wandering an empty city, reflecting nothing back to him but his own handsome, famous, empty face, even when he goes masked. The film's closing reconciliation is the most hollow void of them all: they're back together, but only because they can't face the world alone. What can they do but hope to forget, shut their wide eyes, and fuck?

25th Hour

 So, how do you put a city on screen? Spike Lee tries for the outside of it and the inside of it at the same time, and refuses to acknowledge any contradiction; thank New York for delivering him. America's most undervalued filmmaker tries on an endless array of microcosms, metonymys, and metaphors (an astonishing majority of which work) for his fiercely beloved hometown recovering from the searing trauma of 9/11, but he nails it straight from 25th Hour's first sound: the snarling of a wounded dog, beaten and left for dead by the side of the road, in desperate need of help but ready to savage anyone who comes close. Hell, I was eleven on 9/11 and I still knew that's who we were as a country now, and we have since gone on to prove it, again and again. For all his reputation as an overblown grandstander, Spike finds a synecdoche for this national wake-up call in the intimate struggles of a lonely man wandering through NYC on his last free day before seven years in jail. Edward Norton's Monty Brogan is more ghost than flesh and blood, seeing wistful memories on every street corner, finding only regret and despair in his old high school, his father's bar, his friends' suddenly unfamiliar faces. The film's primal scene remains his stunning bathroom rant, condemning whole a montage of every given New York archetype, but the outward-bound rage inevitably circles the drain back to him, his alienation from and abandonment of his life and the people in it. Yet Spike avoids any one-for-one analogy between his protagonist's individual trauma and the collective horror of the terrorist attack; instead, the two feed off each other in unsettling and constantly surprising ways tying both Monty and Spike himself back into their wounded city even as they pretend to hate it. In Interpol's words, addressed to that same city in that same dreadful time: "I know you've supported me for a long time, but somehow I'm not impressed." New York has been a reservoir of so much fierce adoration and stubborn pride for its inhabitants for so long; it's heartbreaking to learn that it can't love you back, nor protect you from the wolf at the door. Our only hope is to reach out anyway, as Monty finally does near the film's end. As his dad drives him to prison, a kid in a school bus next to them smiles and writes his name in a fogged-up window pane. Monty responds in kind (as pictured above), just as his car pulls away; his future, like his city's and country's remains unknown, but this dog ain't dead yet.

Miami Vice

There's a moment (at 0:20 in the video below) in Michael Mann's stunningly gorgeous and sensual full-length adaptation of Miami Vice, when our heroic crime-fighting team is confronting yet another sleazy crook in yet another penthouse apartment about yet another crumb of plot exposition (the story tends to blur in Miami Vice, which is absolutely the point), when pseudo-protagonist Sonny understandably loses interest in all this talk and glances out the window. Mann fades out the conversation in the background, and we see what Sonny sees: an endless horizon, cinematographer Dion Beebe's DV ocean swallowing blue-purple pixels whole, a realm of infinite possibility and eternal emptiness. Miami Vice is dominated by such moments, when the gritty, hazy South Florida setting seems less a real city than a collective daydream, a gleaming aesthetic wonderland blown apart by impressionistic violence and reanimated by softly glowing sex. As Ryland Walker Knight notes here, Mann encapsulates his film's liquid whole in an early nightclub scene, "each body pushing its neighbor, everything tactile and in flux," but the subtle melancholy of Mann's digital landmark fully blooms when Beebe catches these recalcitrant cops and robbers alone, even when they're together, caught in the middle of thoughts and feelings they clearly never expected to have (and which Mann admirably refuses to spell out, blending the best of both observational and impressionistic cinematic techniques, always showing rather than telling). These are stolid professionals in an ostensibly stolid, professional movie, but their hips don't lie, and neither does the camera. Miami Vice is still a crime flick (easily the most genre-oriented movie on this list) but it doesn't look, move, or feel like one, and so the popcorn framework melts away, leaving behind image after image of bodies in motion against a malleable made-up Miami. It's a film of visceral moments, a masterpiece of the medium that is (for better and worse) the future of "film," yet Miami Vice is past as well as present and future. It feels most like a bittersweet memory, standard hidden-identity tropes refracted as a tribute to lives not lived, to the pleasures and pitfalls of walking alone in a city (and a cinema) that refuses to stand still.

The Tree of Life

Okay, this is cheating; the city scenes in The Tree of Life are brief. But the film resolutely refuses to stay still, to its benefit. Which of its many leaves (the death of a son and brother, the Big Bang, sense-memories of childhood in West Texas, the basic mechanics of family, the continuity of evolution, the inevitable mythologizing of everyday life, the release of accepting the unknown, the extinction of the dinosaurs, etc.) can possibly said to be central? What matters is the force, 2001-like, with which this vision of Creation (and Destruction) is evoked, and the unabashedly poetic approach that the ever-transcendental Terrence Malick takes to his first-ever urban setting sears the mind, I tell you. Those liquid skyscrapers and hazed windows are at once frozen monuments to human achievement and fragile testaments to time's march, and Sean Penn's Jack seems almost happy to lose himself in the stream. Critics and audiences who complained that his character lacked "depth" inadvertently got the point: for all Malick's deserved hippie reputation, he has increasingly confronted his characters with the cold light of clarity, making sure that Cap'n John Smith (The New World) and the various soldiers of C Company (The Thin Red Line) understand their smallness, as well as their potential to accept their part in some greater pattern. Malick habitually, obsessively (auteur-istically) represents this pattern as Nature, but by giving us just a glimpse of Jack's utter confusion and distraction in his high-rise labyrinth, the director reveals that the revelations he traces extend universally, from country to city, from raptor to human, from the beginning of time to its end. A crystalline tower is shot the same way as a humble sapling in the courtyard outside: from below, splayed against the sky, reaching and yearning and never quite getting there, as all Malick's spiritually restless wanderers have been from Badlands forward. We may feel alone at the top of a tower, its mirrored surfaces reflecting back nothing but our own blurred, confused faces, but we are still always carrying out the next fold in one of the film's many massive spirals, in water, in light, in stained glass. I'm a non-religious man myself, and I usually bristle at attempts by the devout to humble me and mine before their Ur-Father in the clouds, but Malick's unearthing of the divine in the eternal brings to me my knees, even if cinema is all I ever pray to.

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