Monday, January 24, 2022

Farewell for now

Dear readers of this blog,

For quite some time, this blog has been stumbling along, in spite of my failure to keep up with it properly. Then, just as it seemed that it was almost finished for good, a certain pandemic came along and gave me a lot of unexpected free time to watch movies. My tenure writing reviews for (check them out!) around the same time also helped revitalize my writing for the blog.

However, I feel that the time has finally come to call it a day, at least for the current incarnation of the blog. For a long time, I have felt like I should start transitioning to something other than a text based capsule review format, and I might still do that some day if I can get it off the ground. In the meantime, you can follow me on Letterboxd, where I will continue to post brief reviews on films from the quest for posterity.

In any case, the quest is not over yet! Thanks for reading, and continue to watch this space for any new updates.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Vive L'Amour (1994, Tsai Ming-Liang)

Quest Status: 762 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #752

In the opening shot of Vive L'Amour, we see a young salesman (Lee Kang-sheng) steal a key. The camera focuses on the door where the key has been absentmindedly left in the lock, because everything that happens from now on will essentially revolve around this room. The salesman soon visits the empty apartment and seems to be turned on by being there. Another man (Chen Chao-jung), who sells imported goods on the black market, seduces the real estate agent (Yang Kuei-mei) in charge of the empty apartment building. Conflicted about her feelings to the handsome stranger, she takes him back to the empty apartment rather than her own, leading her seducer to frequent the apartment in hopes of meeting her again.

Like all "slow cinema," Vive L'Amour features many long takes filled with silence. This makes it difficult to learn anything about the characters apart from what we see on screen. The initial theft of the key is the spark that brings the three characters together, but their relationships to each other remain perpetually ambiguous. Why does the black market rebel set his sights on the real estate agent? Why is he so attached to the apartment where they had their one night stand? And what about the salesman, who tries to kill himself one moment and makes out with a melon the next?

Instead of giving us the information in a typical narrative fashion, Tsai Ming-Liang gives us time to ponder these questions and examine the characters and their motions, as well as the setting. The most stylistically daring shots come at the end of the film, as the camera follows the real estate agent walking through a park for close to two minutes in tight close-up, only to abandon her and pan out to a wide shot of an endless stream of cars bustling past the park. What moments like these mean is open to interpretation (the easy one being social commentary on urban alienation), which is what makes films like this a valuable alternative to the mainstream. But if you're looking for answers, you won't find them here. More than anything, slow cinema is a vehicle for solitary meditation.

--- 238 films remaining ---

Saturday, December 18, 2021

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967, Jean-Luc Godard)

Quest Status: 761 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #250

Oh boy. Let us begin with this quote from the Criterion Collection's official description of this film: "In 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle), Jean-Luc Godard beckons us ever closer, whispering in our ears as narrator. About what? Money, sex, fashion, the city, love, language, war: in a word, everything."

"Jean-Luc Godard beckons us ever closer, whispering in our ears as narrator. About what?"

You barely have to read between the lines to realize that even the person who wrote this copy was hard-pressed to know what Godard was talking about most of the time with this movie. I have to be honest - the more Godard films I see, the more I dread seeing the next one. After the first few I saw - Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Pierrot le Fou, Contempt (with some reservations) - everything thing else has felt stifled by varying degrees of pretension.

And in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the pretension level is through the roof right from the start. Jean-Luc Godard whispers about the demoralizing effects of capitalism, two chain-smoking bourgeois Frenchmen drone on ironically about the Vietnam War, a mother (the mind-numbing Marina Vlady) has a deadpan conversation with her son in which both philosophically analyze their dreams without a hint of authenticity. The son (a kid of about 8 or 9) stares into the camera and drones on in a monotone about how he dreamed that two twins merged into one and that represented the reunification of North and South Vietnam. The mother's braindead veneer seems to be on the verge of showing emotion for a split-second... until Jean-Luc Godard's omniscient whisper chimes in with another comment about industrial society.

At this point, I started to feel that ripping my fingernails out one by one might be more pleasant than sitting through another 80 minutes of this nonsense. But about 30 minutes in, there were some extreme close-ups of a man stirring coffee, while Godard intoned pensively about the wide gulf between our subjective opinions of ourselves and the objective views of others. While looking into the deep dark black of the coffee and watching the bubbles form fascinating patterns on the surface, it all seems to make sense for a fleeting moment.

By this point, the tone has been set, and there are more interesting comments like this one if you stick around for the ride. Not to mention some hypnotic color imagery which does its best to emulate the three-tone style of comic strips, 1960s color TV, and the French flag. All in all, it's a slightly more pleasant than the anti-cinematic journey into intellectual hell that Godard unleashed on the world with Weekend, the last of the three Godard films to be released in 1967. But it still feels more like a university lecture than a film - which is all the more disappointing considering that its director started out as one of the world's foremost cinephiles.

 --- 239 films remaining ---

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Salvatore Giuliano (1962, Francesco Rosi)

Quest Status: 760 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #377

Usually when a person's name is the title of a film, it means that that person is the film's main character. But in Francesco Rosi's multi-genre, quasi-neorealist magnum opus Salvatore Giuliano, the titular character is often talked about, but seen only as a corpse. Giuliano's dead body opens the film, as a crowd of detectives stares vacantly on, examining and describing the position of the "male corpse" as if it were an object on display at some corpse auction.

Giuliano, as we soon find out (in a complex series of flashbacks), was an influential outlaw leader who ruled a small Sicilian town from a mountain outpost. He was involved in everything from political revolution to communist massacres, from petty theft to big time Mafia rackets. Those without a firm grip on the Sicilian societal structure of the time period will be hard-pressed to keep track of all the various groups and individuals who play a part in the convoluted series of events surrounding the elusive Giuliano. This is not a simple world of cops and robbers. In this world, Giuliano's outlaws might work together with the Mafia, but that doesn't mean that these two organizations are not interchangeable. There are soldiers fighting for independence, soldiers fighting for the Italian authorities, and outlaws fighting for the revolutionary soldiers. Then, once independence is finally achieved, not only are there the police to contend with, but also the local vigilante police who wield the real power.

Rosi's style has something in common with the neorealist masters like Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, particularly in his use of non-professional actors from the Sicilian town where the film takes place to tell the film's real-life story. In a title card that precedes the macabre opening scene, he even tells us as that the courtyard where Giuliano's body is found is the actual location! At the same time, while some sequences have a documentary feel, Rosi doesn't confine himself to any one particular style. After the documentary-style flashback detailing Giuliano's involvement in the Sicilian independence movement, the film becomes a mix of neorealist-style crime thriller and courtroom drama - often alternating between the two. Martin Scorsese is a fan of Salvatore Giuliano because of its rich portrayal of his ancestral Sicily, but it's also a vital piece of Italian cinema history, blending various styles to create a whirlwind snapshot of a time and place that is now all but forgotten.

--- 240 films remaining ---

Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Naked Island (1960, Kaneto Shindo)

Quest Status: 759 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #876

Kaneto Shindo is primarily known in the West for his classic samurai horror films Onibaba and Kuroneko. But this earlier film shows that he also single-handedly created the Asian slow cinema genre three or four decades before it became a bona fide cinematic movement. The Naked Island is an almost completely dialogue-free portrait of a farming family who are the sole inhabitants of a small island. The lack of inhabitants is likely the reason that the title describes it as a "naked" island, although I'm guessing that more than a few people have gone in expecting something a much different film.

As for myself, I was expecting more dark or suspenseful elements, based on my knowledge of Shindo's other films. But the first 30 minutes, a ravishingly shot but slow-moving sequence of a man and a woman transporting heavy buckets of water from the nearby village by boat to water the steep slopes of their mountain fields, soon establishes that we are not watching a film that plays by the established rules of narrative cinema. These scenes are reminiscent of anthropological documentaries like Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran, but The Naked Island turns out to be brilliantly structured as well, conveying a narrative that's as simple as it is elemental.

The first section of the film shows us a normal summer day in the life of the mountain family, which mostly consists of grueling field work in the hot sun. The second section speeds things up considerably, giving us a glimpse of the family's activities over the course of an entire year - fall, winter, spring, and finally back to summer. This also gives us a glimpse of the family's camaraderie, which will be tested by a major catastrophe in the final act. But while the structure allows for a story to be told without the use of dialogue, I often found myself wondering why the decision was made in the first place. It feels unnatural for the characters to remain silent when greeting or thanking someone, for example, since this isn't a silent film.  In many ways, it feels like an experiment undertaken just to prove a point. But no matter how you feel about the film's experimental tactics, there's no denying that this was a groundbreaking film, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography in all of Japanese cinema.

--- 241 films remaining ---

Friday, October 15, 2021

Bad Lieutenant (1992, Abel Ferrara)

Quest Status: 758 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #907

Most movies involving copious drug use tend to try to recreate the experience for the viewer, with trick shots emulating the rush of cocaine or the surging pleasure of heroin. This is meant to put you inside the main character's head and vicariously experience their state of ecstasy without actually having to do drugs yourself. However, Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, a brilliant film about a drug-addled police lieutenant in a downward spiral of vice and spiritual guilt, shows us what it feels like to watch someone do drugs. Rather than a vicarious head trip, it's a voyeuristic nightmare.

When Harvey Keitel shoots up in some unknown woman's room, smokes crack in a tenement hallway after handing off a package of cocaine to his dealer, or snorts cocaine after dropping his sons off at school, the camera usually stands static, intently focused on Keitel's staggering self-destruction. And it's not just drugs. He sexually harasses women at a routine traffic stop even as he's supposed to be investigating the rape of a nun. He drinks from the bottle and wildly fires his gun while driving in broad daylight. He dances naked with prostitutes while moaning in primal despair, only to stumble out in the street to happen upon an officer arresting two convenience store thieves and make off with the money himself.

Other directors making normal films would focus on Keitel's gambling problem, which proves to be even more dangerous than the many drugs coursing through his system at all times. However, this is little more than background noise in the context of the big picture. The cop's desperate attempt to come out on top over the course of a heated Mets vs. Dodgers series propels him through the film, but much more prominent is the spiritual torment that he experiences after the nun who has been raped insists on forgiving her assailants. Never has there been a more vital film about Catholic guilt and the question of whether its possible to go past the point of forgiveness. Ferrara goes straight for the gut and hits you with the truth, with dizzying clarity of purpose. There's so much depravity on display that most casual viewers would probably look at this movie and see nothing but smut, but make no mistake: this is a profound work of art. If anything, it deserves to be much higher on the list than it currently is.

--- 242 films remaining ---

Monday, September 20, 2021

Floating Weeds (1959, Yasujiro Ozu)

Quest Status: 757 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #966

The films of Yasujiro Ozu are a rare breed. Heavy with emotion, but moving along with a light touch much like the momentum that prods us along with our lives, day in and day out. Still, every time I start to form an idea of what "typical Ozu" is, the next Ozu film I see always confounds me in some new way. This was one of Ozu's first color films, shot by the master cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa. Miyagawa's involvement results in some unusually daring visual moments (most notably an argument during a downpour between people on opposite sides of the street), although Ozu's trademark floor cam is still there - watching the characters from the vantage point of a tatami mat as usual.

Rather than the Tokyo-based family dramas (and comedies) that were Ozu's standard fare, Floating Weeds is a sultry summer film set in a sleepy seaside town, which becomes host to a broken-down Kabuki troupe hosted by the surly patriarch Ganjiro Nakamura. Those who have seen Ozu's original 1934 silent film A Story of Floating Weeds will know the basic story. That film was more theatrical, whereas this remake focuses more on the details of setting and season which define Ozu's later films.

There's also a much harsher take on the main character, whose plays are criticized for being hammy and old-fashioned. This is even more true off stage, as he abuses the women in his troupe and hypocritically attempts to exert control over his son, who grew up thinking of him as an uncle. The drama is more heightened than usual, the characters more grating and desperate, but Ozu's tender sense of humanity still shines through - especially in his warm treatment of the younger characters, whose innocence and sincerity provides the perfect foil for their pathetic elders.

--- 243 films remaining ---

This review is part of my new Tumblr blog Cinema Cycles, which can be found here.