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

SNL Season 1 Episode 15 [1976)

Starring Jill Clayburgh!!!  Who???

Yeah, kinda like the Jimmy Hoffa Memorial (?) High School.

This is one of those episodes which reminds me that I know a lot more about music than I do about anything else.

Leon Redbone I knew.¬† Had a record of his as a kid.¬† The one with “Sheik of Araby” on it.

But back to Jill Clayburgh.

Twice nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.¬† Ok, see…this brings up my claim to be a film critic.

It’s kinda, “Fake it till you make it.”¬† I know I’m not a realll film critic, but I take pride in what I do.¬† I’m an amateur.¬† It’s a passion.¬† I’m always seeking to learn.

Well, here’s a great opportunity.

The two films for which she got an Oscar nod?¬† An Unmarried Woman (this goes back to the play on words I was discussing in an earlier piece…the French word for woman [femme] being the same as the French word for wife [femme]…hence the wordplay of Godard’s Une Femme est une femme [not to mention Une Femme mari√©e]) and Starting Over.

Please excuse the momentous interpolation.

That is, An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over.  Those career highlights were ahead of Ms. Clayburgh when she hosted Saturday Night Live in 1976.

The auteurs in question were, respectively, Paul Mazursky and Alan J. Pakula (the latter having a surname which is, perhaps, the only conceivable rhyme with Dracula [not counting Blacula]).

Ok, so…apparently this is going to take a lot of parentheses and brackets.

For all of you conspiracy theorists (I usually fall into that category), Clayburgh starred in a 1970 Broadway musical about the Rothschilds (!) called, appropriately, The Rothschilds.  The libretto was by Sherman Yellen.  No easibly-identified relation to Janet.

The end of 1976 would see her in Silver Streak with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor.

One further C.V. note:  Clayburgh won (in a tie with Isabelle Huppert) Best Actress at Cannes for An Unmarried Woman.

Ok, so that’s who she is.¬† A charming lady.¬† I had no idea who she was.¬† I’m an idiot ūüôā

Sadly, Ms. Clayburgh passed away in 2010 after a 20-year battle with leukemia.

Well, she was pretty great in this episode!¬† And I must say…SNL once again reached a new height in intelligent writing with this installment.

One really senses that the writers were toying with the censors.¬† It was dangerous.¬† It’s impressively counterculture.

One of the funniest skits is Clayburgh as guidance counselor Jill Carson (a fictional personage).¬† She is the overly-optimistic crusader for social justice.¬† It is quite a complex, multi-staged piece.¬† John Belushi plays a delinquent whom Carson (Clayburgh) is attempting to rescue from “squalor”.

The opening sequence of the show, however, really sets the tone for what’s to follow.¬† Chevy Chase shows up in Lorne Michaels’ office insistent that the pratfalls and “newsman” stuff should be retired.¬† Chase’s subsequent weave through the studio audience is really priceless.¬† The comedy is just so damned smart!

Speaking of which, we finally get my hero Andy Kaufman back.¬† [On the hero worship scale he’s nowhere approaching Jean-Luc Godard (for me), but he’s definitely the comedic actor who (along with Peter Sellers) most got into my head.]

Well, Kaufman here does another lip-sync piece with immaculately-memorized dialogue.¬† The song is “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and the special part is Andy in a cowboy hat directing the traffic of four audience participants.¬† It is a sweet piece, and yet it still shows off Andy’s genius as resplendent and unique.

Leon Redbone is really fantastic in his two songs…particularly the first (“Ain’t Misbehavin'”) where he conjures the “me and the radio” loneliness at the heart of a usually-raucous song.

One of the weirdest sequences is a visit by The Idlers (a singing group of the United States Coast Guard Academy).¬† The show’s producer (Michaels) and writers take the opportunity to remind the viewing audience that dolphins are definitely smarter than The Warren Commission.¬† No doubt!

It’s a strange, bold sequence.¬† Chase’s Weekend Update is similarly racy (particularly the bit about the Mattel anatomically-correct male dolls…in white and black…the former $6 and the latter $26.95 or something).¬† Good god…

Most necessary was the political prodding.¬† Michaels begins the show with a photo of Nixon on his desk.¬† By Weekend Update, it is the People’s Republic of China which is pardoning Nixon for Watergate (and Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, of course).

But I must admit my ignorance once again.¬† I had no idea Gary Weis’ (sp?) film featured William Wegman (!)…¬† The dog should have given it away.¬† Duh!

Well, anyway…thanks to Wikipedia for a generally informative blurb about this episode (though I have expanded upon that information quite a bit).

The running series Great Moments In Herstory punctuate this episode at various intervals.¬† Particularly risqu√© is the Sigmund Freud (Dan Aykroyd) and daughter Anna (Laraine Newman) dream interpretation featuring a titillating banana.¬† A later episode highlights Indira Gandhi and father Jawaharlal Nehru.¬† It is a bit of a clunker…

Walter Williams’ famous Mr. Bill debuted on this episode as part of the solicited home movies from viewers.¬† Williams and Mr. Bill would become a significant part of the show in the coming years.

Once again, this episode is not to be missed.  It was an essential step for a show on the rise.

 

-PD

 

 

 

Game of Death II [1981)

And now we ostensibly enter the schlock of true B-movie Brucespoitation.  Eight years after his death, producer Raymond Chow and distributor Golden Harvest were still trying to milk money from the cutting-floor scraps of their cash cow.  But someone kept things fairly interesting:  director See-Yuen Ng.

Though there is little to no continuity between Game of Death and Game of Death II, both films share a watchable quality which teeters on the edge of this viewer’s incredulous ennui.¬† Put simply, this film is better than it has any right to be.¬† Which is not to say this is a great (or even good) film.

The most hilarious midnight movie aspects are the contrasts between film fidelity and definition circa 1973 (the actual footage of Lee) and 1981 (the footage of everyone else).¬† I almost feel sorry for director Ng for the sleight-of-hand editing and shooting necessary to even attempt this picture.¬† Back to the film stocks not matching…much of that is also evident in the lack of deft color correction.¬† Occasionally a background matches and we must hand it to the technicians who found just the right shade of puke green to provide a shred of matching in the shot-reverse-shots.

Fortunately for all involved, Lee’s character meets his demise about halfway through the film.¬† It’s smooth sailing from there regarding the different eras of film stock.

This film is not without messages.¬† Some, apparently, have not been interpreted the same by all viewers.¬† Whereas I distinctly heard the Ginza district of Tokyo mentioned as Lee’s (and his on-screen brother’s) destination, English Wikipedia tells us that the action moves to Korea.¬† Of course, the astute spectator who added this bit of plot synopsis to the aforementioned site seems to have been oblivious that another contributor has Lee active before the end of the paragraph (the initial contributor giving away Lee’s character’s death along with the Korea location).¬† So to clarify, Lee does not resurrect during the course of the film.

Roy Horan plays a significant role as a raw-venison-eating, deer’s-blood-drinking, bearded kung fu nut.¬† As the name implies, Horan’s character is of white European lineage (not Chinese).¬† There is a subtle undercurrent which implies that Lee’s friend (and consequently his own character as well) died for teaching kung fu to non-Chinese.¬† This, of course, has some parallels in Lee’s actual life story.

For all of the professional attributes in this film, the “lion” attack (obviously a human in a lion costume) does not pass muster.¬† It is, again, the stuff of midnight movies.¬† Perhaps they were over budget by that point…

Tong Lung is actually pretty darn good as Lee’s brother (the hero of the film) Bobby Lo.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that a multinational organization turns out to be the ultimate culprit of the two film murders in question.¬† There are all sorts of strange strings waiting to be pulled here…fake deaths, the aforementioned cartel (this particular multinational is illegal in nature), etc.

The most interesting takeaway (take out?) was the revelation (somehow…perhaps due to the less than enthralling screen drama) that one political entity would have stood to gain from the actual Lee’s real life death.¬† That entity would be China.¬† Made before Hong Kong rejoined the PRC, Bruce Lee’s films and fame might have posed a significant threat to China in that (had he lived) he might well have been a unifying figure which could have fired the flames of revolution for those residents of HK not particularly excited about joining a country with such a totalitarian approach to dissent.¬† But then again, any country which blocks the Internet (not counting Hong Kong and Macau) has far less to worry about.¬† No information dissemination, no 21st-century speed of dissent.¬† And it would just happen that today was July 4th…

-PD

La Chinoise [1967)

Even geniuses make mistakes.¬† That’s how I thought I’d begin.¬† And then…viewing again.¬† It is like “Heroin” by The Velvet Underground.¬† Was Lou Reed, the songwriter, promoting the use of this drug in the song of the same name?¬† Not necessarily.¬† It boils down (no pun intended) to something I learned in economics:¬† positive vs. normative.

And so, we have a film by Jean-Luc Godard which is very difficult to sum up.¬† On the surface it is easy.¬† The Situationists called Godard a Swiss Maoist (a sort of double insult).¬† Even in that, they were only part right.¬† Yes, Godard today lives in Rolle…in the canton of Vaud:¬† Switzerland.¬† But he was born in Paris.¬† He didn’t move to Switzerland until he was four years old.¬† Of course, he would return to Paris for university (and eventually to make a name for himself as critic and director).¬† Actually, it was a back and forth:¬† la France, la Suisse, la France, la Suisse…like a tennis match.

Back to my point:¬† this film does not necessarily “prove” that Godard was a Maoist.¬† But was he?¬† And what would that mean?¬† Let’s investigate.

First, I should mention that I have read four books about Godard, one more which is a book-length interview, an additional collection of his writings, and finally an actual book by Godard which was published by Gallimard.  Of the first category, two were biographies (by Richard Brody and Colin MacCabe respectively).

In my opinion, a short review of Jean-Pierre Gorin and the Dziga Vertov Group are needed.

First Gorin.  Wikipedia (in English) is typically terse when it comes to Jean-Pierre.  For our purposes, it is enough to say that Gorin is nowhere called a Maoist in this short entry.

Next…Dziga Vertov Group.¬† Again, no one is called a Maoist in this similarly curt Wiki reflection.¬† The closest thing is a non-hypertext mention of the film(s) British Sounds/See You at Mao.

This may seem like laziness on my part (and it is), but it is important to note that the “Dziga Vertov” period of Godard’s oeuvre is the most unknown (and, one might say, mysterious).¬† This would be roughly 1968-1972.

And so we are brought to the man at issue himself:  Mao.

What ideas are pertinent?¬† Anti-imperialism.¬† The Long March.¬† The People’s Republic of China.¬† The Great Leap Forward.¬† 45 million dead?¬† The Cultural Revolution.

One must wonder whether it is a coincidence that the Dziga Vertov Group disbanded the same year Nixon visited China:  1972.  Was this seen as weakness by Maoists?

Let’s recalculate:¬† 40 million dead?¬† 70 million?

Just as in the Holocaust, how much about China’s “dark side” was known outside of the country during Mao’s tenure?¬† For young idealists, the concept of radical revolution might have an appealing luster, but when deaths are counted in millions and tens-of-millions the appeal should (must!) become appalling.

What were the nature of these deaths?  Mao bragged about burying alive 46,000 scholars.  One thing is certain:  there is a persisting battle between those who seek to rehabilitate the tarnished image of Mao and those who perhaps feel that the extent of atrocities for which he was responsible has not yet fully been made evident to the world at large.

Mao is a strange figure…to whom just about every superlative and, equally, insult has been applied. Just as in a criminal investigation, we must scrutinize the sources and their authors with cui bono:¬† what do they stand to gain by promulgating such theories?

Were 3 million tortured to death during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962)?¬† If even one was tortured to death, isn’t that too many?

Yes.¬† We do not hold torturers and terrorists to be our heroes.¬† They forfeit our respect at that point…no matter how great their theories are.¬† It is solemnly inexcusable.

No, rather we uphold the nonviolent masters:  Gandhi and King.  Obama is no King (nor king).  The end does not justify the means.  We who torture lose our humanity.  We are only torturing ourselves.

And so even Nixon himself was a Maoist in a cynical, Machiavellian way.¬† Anything to counter what Reagan would later normatively call “the evil empire.”¬† Yes Mao, it is still the imperialists who are the true axis of evil in this young century.¬† But China is learning how to project its influence.¬† It would be wrong to call the China of today anti-imperialist.

Enough about Mao.¬† That is the freedom we have…at this late moment…to still express such a thought.

Godard’s dalliance with Maoism didn’t last long (in terms of his career as a whole).

Perhaps it was Dostoyevsky.¬† No doubt Paul Nizan.¬† Most importantly it was the ravishing Anne Wiazemsky.¬† Godard was doubtless smitten…you can tell by the camera’s loving gaze.¬† He would have gone to the end of the earth for her.¬† A revolutionary goddess!

Veronique Verkhovensky.¬† Her eyes are wild in their tranquility.¬† She is no paper tiger.¬† Juliet Berto is the brunette…Wiazemsky the redhead.¬† Such a beautiful revolutionary group!

Henri Shatov.  He endures the brunt of human stupidity here.  No, he cannot entice Juliet to abandon the radical cell as they dive headlong into terrorism.

Kirilov adds a dash of Peter Max color before his inevitable demise.

Will the Maoists in power continue to struggle on two fronts (ISIS and Ukraine) while fronting like sucker MCs?¬† Yeah, oops:¬† Nemtsov and Nisman worked for you…32 was 23 (if 6 was 9).

Francis Verkhovensky.¬† Like Jimmy Stewart in Rope.¬† Should we contact Arthur Lee or Althusser in regards to all those little red books of Aden Arabie?¬† I’m inclined to believe that Love is all you need.

-PD