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

Prenom Carmen [1983)

If Jean-Luc Godard had never made another film after 1983, this one would have been his best ever.  It is that good.  But perhaps you doubt?  Let me tell you why I believe this to be the case.

This may have been the film where Godard really nailed down his mature style.  Really, there is no putting a date on such things.  He has continued to progress to the current day.

But let us focus on a few salient elements.

Beethoven.

The sea.

One might expect a French (Swiss) director to pick Debussy and call the elements connected (we refer here to the orchestral piece La Mer).  But Godard was always very analytical.  And so Beethoven is a more natural choice.

But what Beethoven?  Which Beethoven?  It is the string quartets.

Must it be?  It must be.  It must be.

Godard began (continued?) to make films more like a composer than a movie director.

The art film genre allowed him to do this.  And in many ways he formed and shaped this genre from the beginning.

To call art films a genre is generally not in keeping with standard film criticism practice.

But I don’t care.

If it helps to call it a genre here, then so be it.

But does it help?

It makes no difference (as Rick Danko sang).

But let us not neglect the ocean…the sea.

“I salute you, old ocean,” as Lautreamont said in Maldoror.

Indeed, Godard has some of that proto-Dadaist perversion in this movie.  Perverse, as opposed to perverted.  Both.

What is remarkable beyond Beethoven and the sea is Godard as an actor.

That’s right, Godard himself plays a prominent role as (what else?) himself.

It is really a caricature of himself.  Or is it?

To wit, Godard plays a director who has gone crazy.

Early on we see him in an insane asylum.

There is something slightly frightening and menacing about him from time to time, but generally he is hilarious.

Humor.

This film is replete with humor.

But it is not a comedy.

Sometimes a comedy of errors.

And so, Carmen?  Yes, like Bizet.  We remember Brahms being so taken with this opera.

Was it the music or was there perhaps an attractive alto in the production?

Alto.  Viola in French is alto.

And who is our alto?  Only one of the greatest actresses to ever live:  Myriem Roussel.

I must at this point beg forgiveness from the universe for not even mentioning her in my review of Passion.

I blame Wikipedia (as I always do).

I admit laziness (as per usual).

Frankly, I knew it was her in Passion by the poolside.  It is a small-but-striking role.  Mainly because she is nude.

It is all very artistic, yet I see why Godard would cast the beautiful Roussel in revealing roles over the course of several films.

Yet here, Myriem is merely a violist.  The viola in my life.  Morton Feldman.

But it is neither Godard nor Roussel who carry the bulk of the dramatic action here.

For that we must credit Maruschka Detmers and Jacques Bonnaffé.  The acting from these two players is outstanding!

Detmers plays the titular Carmen.¬† Indeed (keeping with the hanging sonority), it is Detmers who spends a fair portion of this movie nude.¬† But, to Godard’s credit, so does Bonnaff√©.

But this is not just a gratuitous European pseudo-art film.  This is the real thing.

The most beautiful moment occurs during a bank robbery.

A struggle for a gun.  A man and a woman.  Carmen.  She has robbed the bank with a band of professional thieves.

And Joseph (Bonnaff√©)…the gendarme responding to the violent robbery.

He leaves his post in front of the bank and exchanges gunfire with the trigger-happy gang.

And so it is that Carmen and Jo (Joseph) struggle for an automatic weapon.  Both having been shot.

They crawl over each other.  Win at all costs.  To lose is death.  High stakes now.

And climbing over each other in spurts of faint energy, they abruptly stop and begin passionately kissing.

They give up.

It is the moral.

Ah, but they DON’T give up!¬† They join forces.

And so Joseph goes from cop to thief.  All for love.

Lust.  Love.

Oh no, I’ve said too much (as Michael Stipe once intoned).

But no…

Carmen needs to pee.¬† Joseph has tied her wrist to his using his necktie.¬† [What kind of gendarme doesn’t have handcuffs?]

And so they stop at a shitty roadside gas station.

The moral of the stop:  even France and Switzerland have shitty roadside gas stations.

Away from the tourists.  Off the beaten path.  Where people actually work for a living.

And we have the most poignant scene.¬† The most bizarre.¬† A fat man has pocketed a jar of baby food (?) and proceeded to the restroom to eat it lustily with his fingers.¬† Put another way, here’s a poor schmuck whose life at this moment (for one reason or another) has been reduced to shoplifting to sustain his life force.

And the poor schmuck gets a treat.¬† Carmen needs to pee.¬† So does Joseph.¬† Joseph won’t untie her.¬† And so she uses a urinal.¬† And the shoplifter continues to make slobbery sounds as he licks his fingers while eating baby food in front of the bathroom mirror…nonplussed by the action.¬† But he sneaks a peak…ah, whatever.¬† He is entirely involved in his “meal.”¬† Somehow this scene makes sense of the whole universe.¬† It is hilarious, disgusting, and believable.¬† The mark of genius is on this film throughout.

I must add one last thing.¬† Just when the strains of Beethoven have become commonplace–just when the crossfaded splosh of waves has been drowned out by our psyches…it is at this point which Godard throws us the most gut-wrenching curveball:¬† “Ruby’s Arms” by Tom Waits.¬† Bonnaff√© hugs the TV…resting his weight on the crappy 80s hotel console…and the screen is tuned to snow…static…fuzz…phasing lines of nothingness.¬† Between channels.¬† And as the song plays, Bonnaff√© caresses the screen…caresses what might have been.

It is a most touching evocation of lovesickness.

Carmen is fond of repeating the line from the American movie, “If I love you, then that’s the end of you.”¬† She may not work at a cigarette factory nor dance the habanera, but she is still the prototypical femme fatale.¬† Yes, Jo…love is a rebellious bird.

-PD