Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang [2014)

I bet you thought I stopped writing about film, right?

ūüôā

Me too.

Sometimes.

I think…

“Am I still a film critic?”

With all this Trump this and Trump that.

With these tableaux.

This lazy poetry.

But I am back with an actual film.

And it is a masterpiece.

But I don’t know what to call it!!!

It’s a Chinese film.

Sort of.

But not really.

Because it’s by a Brazilian film director.

But not just any Brazilian film director.

Someday I will get around to reviewing one of the best exemplars of¬†na√Įvet√© ever made.

Yes, one of the best FILMS ever made.

Central do Brasil.

Central Station.

A formative episode in my filmic life.

But back to this Chinese film directed by a Brazilian.

I didn’t even get to his name yet ūüôā

Walter Salles!

Yes…two masterpieces are enough to make an auteur!!

But we can’t use the Chinese title here.

For the film.

Under consideration.

Because that would be disingenuous (and we will get to Trump).

[Or we will try.]

{so much…stuff…in the world}

Let’s paint the picture…

Three Gorges…no.

We must wait.

Central Station was a fiction film.

A beautiful masterpiece which stretches even up into the sert√£o.

But¬†Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang¬†is a documentary…about a guy from Fenyang…named Jia Zhangke.

Messrs. Baggini and Fosl (Julian and Peter) would call that a “spectacularly uninformative sentence”.

And Kant, the less-colorful–less-candid “analytic proposition”.

But we hit an impasse.

The film I am reviewing is so little-known (apparently) that it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page.

Worse, it has a strange, butchered title on iMDB.

There it is called Jia Zhang-ke by Walter Salles.

Hmmm…

I must admit:  it appears some people in marketing over at Kino Lorber are dicking around.

But we press on…

Just who the fuck is Jia Zhangke?  And why should you care about him?

Well, first: ¬†he’s a film director.

And second: ¬†he’s as good as Jean-Luc Godard.

Did I just say that???

Yes.

I just put someone on an equal level with my favorite director of all time.

What’s more, a Chinese guy you’ve probably never heard of.

Of whom.

And what about this Fenyang business?

Well, let’s get out our maps.

First, we must find Shaanxi Province.

Northern China.

The capital is Xi’an.

But we must get to the more obscure.

Fenyang.

Home of our subject auteur:  Jia Zhangke.

So we don’t exactly know the title…here to there…from this platform to the next.

But we will say this.

If you are in the U.S., this film is currently streaming on Netflix under the title Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang.

Or something like that.

This is the confusion of a lack of standardization.

Where’s ISO when you need them…or Zamenhof!

Ok…so why should you watch a 105 minute documentary about a filmmaker of whom you have likely never heard?

Because Walter Salles compels you.

He says, “Watch my story… ¬†Pay attention to this little self-deprecating Chinese man. ¬†He’s a cinematic genius.”

Wouldn’t it be great if all artisans and artists helped each other out in such a way?

A filmmaker, age 57, decides to make a film about another filmmaker, age 46.

Actually, that is quite an honor.

That an older filmmaker would help in the career of the younger one.

So we heartily praise Salles for his mise-en-scène as well as his morals.

But then we hit another impasse.

Because words cannot express the brilliance of Jia Zhangke’s grasp on cinematic language.

And so, why should you watch this film?  I ask again.

Because it gives you an introduction (not dumbed down in any way) to the works of a contemporary film artist who is leading the cinematic medium into this new century.

Likewise, it gives you an introduction to Chinese film at the same time.

These aren’t kung fu flicks (for the most part).

These are art films.

Similar to Breathless

Born of the French New Wave.

But also born of Raj Kapoor.

Indeed, as a young boy…Jia Zhangke remembered an early film which extolled thieves. ¬†And it was this Indian film shown in China. ¬†And the Chinese kids remembered the melismatic melodies for decades…to rip off a shred and a few threads of a melody which bound them as enfants terribles.

Jia Zhangke, a Guy from Fenyang is a bit like Cinema Paradiso.

The big director returns home.

And there’s a sadness.

Maybe you can see your childhood home.

And hit the wall one more time.

You can imagine the family bed and the father’s desk was there.

And the books on shelves along here.

So many books.

That there is a sadness of being from Fenyang.

I feel it being from San Antonio.

And Jia Zhangke, all throughout this film, ideates thoughts which have now and then wisped in and out of my dreams.

Jia is very calm.  Thoughtful.  Serene.

A true artist.

And as he talks about the process of creation, I find him to be an exceptionally dedicated artist.

We hear about Xiao Wu (1997).

Pickpocket.  Starring Wang Hongwei.

I mean, this bloke…Wang… ¬†His clothes hang on him in almost a magical way.

He’s a good-for-nothing bum in the Chaplin mold, but still puffing away like Belmondo in¬†Breathless.

But Jia was right.

It’s the gait.

The way Wang Hongwei walks.

Body language.

Brilliant!

And the shots we see of Platform are really moving.

It’s like being from a place like Kiruna, Sweden.

Gotta get there by train.

Up past the Arctic Circle.

And the kids…they don’t have a lot of entertainment.

Maybe even the sight of a train.

But in China…………….far more vast.

These remote places.

Like the Three Gorges area where Jia made Dong and also Still Life.

But the joke’s on me.

Because the whole world knows Jia Zhangke.

The whole world of cinema.

And me, with my insular approach, not so much.

Because Jia won the Palme d’Or in both…wait.

We have the wrong envelope.

Ok…so maybe he’s not that well know.

His films have been screened in competition at Cannes, but no hardware yet.

With the exception of his Golden Lion from Venice.

But none of that matters.

What matters is that he’s making great films.

What matters is that he has the potential to best us all.

This was a very moving film for me.

Because it speaks to the obstacles of life.

Of the unhappiness.

Of the solitude which must be for creations to ferment properly.

To mix metaphors, we need the darkness in which to screen our masterpieces of light.

We cannot screen them in a glass house…at 2:30 p.m.

Finally, this film will give you invaluable insights into the recent history and current state of China.

All the people on Weibo (like Twitter).

The market system which has been kicking ass since the 1990s.

And crucial periods such as 1976-1989.

The restructuring period right after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

WE NOW JOIN PAULY DEATHWISH NEWS NETWORK…IN PROGRESS: “…

Xi Jinping.  His father purged in 1963.  His father jailed in 1968.  Xi was sent without his father to work in Shaanxi Province in 1969.  [The remote province from which film director Jia Zhangke hails.]

This was a time of immense violence in China.  Being purged.  Being jailed.  Being sent to the countryside to work and be re-educated.  All of this was suffused with violence.

So when President Xi got the message from President Trump himself that the U.S. had just launched 60 Tomahawk missiles into Syria minutes earlier, President Xi was met with the shock of surrealism…a perfect steak…beautiful ladies…the glitz and glamour of Mar-a-Lago…and the throat punch of an actual tiger. ¬†No paper.

“Get North Korea in line, and fast!” ¬†Would have been the message.

So that, in these times, to truly appreciate that which is unfolding around us, we need directors like Jia Zhangke.

These are our new philosophers.  Our new poets.

Thinking about social media.

Fooling around with it.

Inventing new artistic forms.

And finding new types of loneliness.

And desperation.

Jia came from a very poor area.

He loved his family very much.

The Chinese don’t like violence.

We Americans don’t like violence.

See this film.

Then get back to me on¬†Dereliction of Duty¬†ūüôā

-PD

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial [1982)

I’ve been unmercifully harsh on Steven Spielberg over the years.

But this is the first time I’ve written about one of his films.

And, of course, it doesn’t really matter what I think of this movie.

The director couldn’t care less what I think.

And that is fine.

But there is a more profound lesson in all of this.

This situation.

I know the psychology of it.

And I can trace the genesis.

So let me start by saying that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a good film.

Not great, but certainly good.

That is, of course, a statement of opinion.

That’s the nature of what I do.

As I wrote recently, I don’t like to belittle films.

In the end, it hurts me as much as anyone.

It’s simply a poisonous activity.

So I watched this blockbuster from my youth.

Tonight.

A film I hadn’t seen in a looong time.

It almost holds together as a great film.

But Spielberg seems to be the chess prodigy who can’t win a game.

He has the beginnings down.

That’s important.

And his middle game is decent.

But his final approach is a maudlin catastrophe.

Or, put another way, he gives the audience exactly what they want.

But put more precisely, he gives the audience what he THINKS they want.

There is a lot of guessing here.

The old formula ending in, “…you can’t please all of the people all the time.”

There is a lot of good filmmaking in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

Some truly special scenes!

A great concept!

But some parts haven’t aged so well.

And it’s not just because the special effects seem dated.

At issue is the artfulness of Steven Spielberg.

My guess is that he’s just not a very artful fellow.

But I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

So we might say, in 1982 he was still not a mature filmmaker.

That is, I think, a relatively fair statement.

This was, of course, Spielberg’s second “space” film.

Indeed, perhaps this was the watered-down, family version of¬†Close Encounters…

And I respect Spielberg for making a family film.

But there is something profoundly grating about his mise-en-scène.

It’s not a pandering of genuine¬†na√Įvet√©.

It’s more of a director trying to get into your wallet.

And he did.

Almost $800 million (!) at the box office.

In 1982.

That’s about $2 billion today (inflation-adjusted).

Let me make it very simple.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial goes astray the first time the bike takes flight.

And completely goes off the rails when the BMX bandits flock to the friendly skies.

But what is most excruciating is the melodramatic “hospital” scene.

Makeshift.

Henry Thomas is really good in this film.

He’s from my hometown (for Christsakes!).

But an 11-year-old boy needs some direction when he’s in a $10 million movie.

He either got bad direction at certain points, or (even worse) no direction.

Sure.

I admire Spielberg for getting in the wallets so deftly.

But poetic pickpockets will be found out sooner or later.

And¬†E.T….,¬†as a whole, has not aged well.

Look…Spielberg is not a bad director.

I always insult¬†Schindler’s List.

That’s because there are some serious problems with how Mr. Jaws took on the Holocaust.

As overwrought as it is, it’s still a popcorn affair.

We will get to it eventually.

But the dead deserve a poet.

The Holocaust is not blockbuster material.

And the daft pickpocket, no matter how good his intentions, will never recuse himself from such a haul.

But more specifically…

I’m sure Spielberg’s motives for making¬†Schindler’s¬†List¬†were as pure as the driven snow.

Really.

I’m not being facetious.

But he was not prepared to make such a picture.

Indeed, the picture he made is not possible.

But that is a different matter for a different day.

The Terminal is a very fine film.

E.T. is a good one.

The most troubling part is that this was Spielberg’s seventh feature-length film.

That’s really not a promising sign.

But we will give him a fair chance.

The guy has immense talent.

It just seems that his puffed-up reputation is disproportionate to the largely mediocre films he’s made.

 

-PD

Pickpocket [1959)

Writing about film makes you appreciate the film.

You think.

What will I say about this picture?

This succession of pictures.

Sounds.

And so silently you ponder the ways to express true genius.

And how lucky we are to witness true genius.

It’s true.

The Criterion Collection has brought us many films which otherwise might have been forgotten.

Film didn’t begin with The Godfather.

It doesn’t end with Citizen Kane.

And so we need to see the other stuff.

We need to hear voices from outside of America.

Hollywood is international, to be sure, yet everything which enters there leaves marked.

It is a sentiment which Godard expressed in his magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinema.

And this is the other stuff.

Robert Bresson.

You might only know Henri-Cartier Bresson.¬† Don’t stop there.

Robert Bresson was the master of taking non-actors and capturing their vitality on film.

Pickpocket does justice to Uruguay as much as did Isidore Ducasse (which is to say, completely).

Martin LaSalle, a young Urugayan-French actor in his film debut, plays the lead role here of the pickpocket Michel.

LaSalle’s eggshell acting is essential to this masterpiece.

Yet, it is director Bresson who brings the ballet of crime to life.

Yes, it is like Orson Wells doing his magic tricks in F for Fake (his magnum opus).

Indeed, everything has an art.  Even crime.

And as paper currency disappears from the industrialized world we see the migration of subway thieves to the ether in an attempt to pilfer Apple Pay “money”.

Yes, I’m afraid that soon everything will need quotes around it.

Perhaps I just don’t understand.

But, there is an art to everything.

Take accounting, for instance:  the most boring subject invented by human beings.

And yet, there is an “art” to it…I’m sure…somewhere…deep, deep down inside.

But Pickpocket is of a different era.

Perhaps computer hacking and financial calculator operations require a certain finger dexterity, but nothing like the prestidigitation which Bresson brings to life in this film.

It is a noiseless ballet of lifts, drops, catches, exchanges, etc.  Buttons flicked.  Buckles finessed in one motion.

It reminds me of the one true line in Goldfinger…perhaps the only genuinely cinematic moment in that film (though I love the other 99% pulp)…

Delivered by the title character, as played by Gert Fröbe, it goes a little something like this:

“Man has climbed Mount Everest, gone to the bottom of the ocean. He’s fired rockets at the Moon, split the atom, achieved miracles in every field of human endeavor… except crime!”

Ahhh…the rolled Rrrrs of that final word.¬† Like H.W.’s brief year at Langley.¬† Like Kissinger at Iron Mountain.¬† Ah!¬† But here we run into a problem.

Hoaxes.  Like Sandy Hook.  Like Hani Hanjour.

And will Donald Trump have the balls to read a book?¬† Perhaps Webster Griffin Tarpley’s 9/11 Synthetic Terror:¬† Made in USA?

I doubt it.

Is Trump a provocateur or merely provocative?

Because if he shot his mouth off a little more pointedly he’d have my vote.

And I would stand with my immigrant brothers and sisters every day to see Dick Cheney take the stand.  Under oath.

And Philip Zelikow.  Under oath.

And Donald Rumsfeld.  Under oath.

And Larry Silverstein.  And Rudy Giuliani.  And Richard Myers.

Somebody else did it?  Then you got nothing to worry about.

Unravel unravel unravel.

Because Trump is wrong about immigration.

And Bernie Sanders is right about Snowden.

And I don’t like Trump or Sanders.

But Trump is the only one even tangentially touching on the real issue:  truth.

////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

Off the rails. Film review.

C’est la vie.

Conspiracy.

Don’t mind me.

I will just go back to watching films.

Go back to sleep.

Nothing to see here.

-PD

Champagne [1928)

Music changes everything.  How do we start?  Mahler.  I doubted myself.  Barber.  But I was right.  It is that one dissonance which should have convinced me.  The notes rubbing against one another.

And then I slipped.¬† Like Betty Balfour.¬† Dvorak?¬† Berlioz?¬† No, it’s Sibelius.

A music scholar doesn’t need Shazam.¬† But I’m a shabby music scholar.¬† Rags to rags.

Betty Balfour gets to mingle with the ragpickers for awhile, but for her it is riches to riches.

This is a silent film.  Which is to say, it is not silent.

That is the history of cinema.  A misconception.

And music changes everything.¬† If it’s Giorgio Moroder providing the soundtrack for Fritz Lang…that makes a big difference.

I really lost my way at some point.¬† I thought I was hearing Mozart…

We thought he wrote a requiem for his pet starling.  Perhaps not.

Yes, at some point we became very lost.  Flying over the Atlantic.  Like the Mary Celeste.  Bermuda Triangle.

It wasn’t the Flying Dutchman.¬† I think we would have recognized Don Giovanni.¬† Maybe not.

Betty doesn’t know when to stop.¬† Lots of seasickness in these early Hitchcock films.

There’s no missing Bolero.¬† Ravel’s worst piece.¬† Worlds ahead of most music ever written.

But nothing beats the Piano Concerto in G.

When Betty is weightless…remembering the good times…champagne.¬† And now she is merely a wage slave.¬† Trading places.

No talking.¬† Some intertitles.¬† And prominently (most prominently) that music!¬† A choice…by someone.¬† It makes a difference.

Put a murder to the tendresse of Beethoven.  A birth to Schoenberg.

The orchestra makes a difference.¬† That flat, unwieldy oboe line…

Yes, I know it’s polytonal, but the intonation is rubbish.¬† Like the Salvation Army rendition of “Abide with Me” at the beginning of Fist of Fury.¬† Makes Monk and Coltrane sound absolutely polished.

No, I can’t stand it.¬† Gordon Harker is great…just as he was in The Farmer’s Wife.¬† Without italics that sounds positively lascivious.¬† Thank god for capitalization.

Did Hitchcock predict the stock market crash of ’29?¬† A case could be made.¬† Yet here it is charade.

Betty falls prey to Bresson’s predecessor…pickpocket filmed from the waist down.¬† Rage Over a Lost Penny.¬† Op. 129.¬† I’m just venting.

Gordon Harker parenting.  Like Gregg Popovich.  Pride in the name of love.

Nothing’s going very well for Betty.¬† Taken literally, this is a nihilist coup.¬† But just ask Bert Williams:¬† nothing don’t put food on the table.¬† Nobody.

More like “nothing to see here”…¬† Hitchcock would lament to Truffaut.¬† Nevertheless, the particular transfer I have (and the Romantic soundtrack) made this an interesting journey.¬† Most of all we learn that the auteur theorists were right:¬† geniuses never make bad films.

-PD