I’ll never understand why Shunji Iwai’s films never caught on in the States. He’s been immensely popular in Japan since the 1990s, repeatedly scoring a string of dreamy, moody hits that includes Love Letter (1995), Picnic (1996), and All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001). Iwai’s movies are the cinematic equivalent of shoegaze and dream pop: quiet, sentimental puzzles that build their powerfully cathartic effects through the combination of atmospheric music, dramatic and unabashedly sentimental plots, and Norobu Shinoda’s peerless cinematography, an endless swirl of handheld camerawork, diffuse light, and backlighting. They give the impression of being emotion made manifest, the very essence of “haunting” and “bittersweet.” I have to believe that Sofia Coppola was thinking of them when she made Lost in Translation (2003); these films would also appeal, I think, to fans of Wong Kar-Wai, Krzysztof Kieslowski, or Andrei Tarkovsky. (Do you know any?)
I can never decide which of Iwai’s films is my favorite. All About Lily Chou-Chou is a long, complex tale—half soap opera, half manga—of a middle school class and their vacation and their relationship to an extremely ethereal pop star. (She comes across like a Japanese Björk.) It took me about three viewings to even begin to understand the plot, which is presented a-chronologically and with few clues as to which scenes are happening when. It also periodically interrupts itself to insert shots of the central characters standing in a field, listening to a discman:
I plan to steal that idea for one of my own films, someway.
Love Letter is much simpler in comparison, though still audaciously intricate. A woman who’s recently buried her fiance writes him a final love letter, then receives a reply. No, it’s not a ghost movie, although it teases us for a while that it might be. The woman continues the correspondence, leading to the telling of a fairly complex story within the main story. It’s kinda like … if Jacques Rivette adapted Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine Trilogy? (Also somewhat related: Lovers of the Arctic Circle, and Sans soleil.)
The full movie appears to be online (see below). If nothing else, I encourage you to watch the amazing opening scene. (And the trailer.)
It took me a while to catch up with this one, but when I did, I saw it projected at the Siskel. The experience was utterly beautiful and overwhelming, so see it in a theater if you can. It’s one of the greatest love stories I know.
Parajanov is frequently mentioned in comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky, but he’s sadly not gotten anywhere near the attention. The two were friends and fellow rebels against Soviet Realism. Tarkovsky ended up exiled. Parajanov got sent to Siberia, 1973–7. (He was later imprisoned again in the early 80s.) Despite this, both men continued making films until they both passed away (Tarkovsky in 1986, Parajanov in 1990.)
Parajanov’s work is in some ways similar to Tarkovsky’s, but also extremely different. Like Tarkovsky, he was a master of composition, and made extensive use of it. (I initially came across both Parajanov and Tarkovsky due to my interest in other composition-based directors, like Jack Smith, Peter Greenaway, and Derek Jarman.) That’s not to say that Parajanov didn’t use montage—he did—but that you have to read the mise-en-scène to know what’s going on. (Pay close attention, for instance, to Shadows‘s use of color.)
That makes Parajanov sound like work, but he’s really quite fun. All of his films, even the much more sober Color of Pomegranates (1968), are pretty silly. His work often reminds me of Calvino’s, being similarly rooted in folktale and folk poetry, and heavy doses of the supernatural. (He’s also not unlike Wes Anderson, I suppose—though giddier, and with fewer Stones tracks.)
As an artist limited by his circumstance in the warring, emaciated USSR throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, Andrei Tarkovsky did well to establish himself as one of cinema’s greatest masters. In some sense, his works represent grand acts of imagination against the pressures of reality. Faced by an increasingly philistine world enveloped in the struggles of aggressive international politics and the constant threat of nuclear war, he felt it his duty as an artist to help reintroduce the poetic essence as a vital part of humanity. He imbued his cinema with an element of poetry that stuns the viewer both visually and emotionally, and with his vision as an artist he invented—as legendary Swedish film maker Ingmar Bergman said—a new language. It is no surprise that Tarkovsky’s father was a much-loved Russian poet with nine collections of poetry. As evidenced in his film Stalker, where one of his father’s poems is recited near the threshold of The Room (a place where one’s innermost desire is alleged to be granted upon entering), Tarkovsky used his father’s poetry as a source of inspiration for his cinema. You could say that he found poetry to be one of the highest forms of art, and wanted to instill the essence of it in his films. But what is the essence of poetry? Some might say it’s intangible, or that it simply doesn’t exist. Others might say that the essence of poetry is its unique presentation of ideas. Tarkovsky would likely say, however, that it is the art form’s ability to inspire a state of rational and irrational bliss through language. Continue reading
[By now it was late. The three stars were dimpling the sky. The baby raccoon was crying for its milk (I’d taken in an orphan the week before). But Jeremy and I weren’t finished yet discussing the movies we’d just watched.]
A D: You had a rather serious reaction to this one, Jeremy. Were you crying afterward?
Jeremy: Yes. Crying because I realized how much of my life I had wasted watching movies. What George Lucas did for his own franchise with the prequels, Malick did for all of cinema with The Tree of Life.
Snow: Kubrick style
Having just reread William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid” yesterday morning, I decided to do a study of associations–what my brain does as I read, what I think of, what I take away–though right there I sally and this Heraclitus quote, used as an epigraph in W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, drips back into my consciousness:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
Is this nugget saying that which we can’t understand stays with us? Maybe. But more and more I take with me what is mysterious. The trove of Wallace Stevens poems that I’ve examined recently has somewhat sunk into me as what I write now leaks his influence. But really the conglomerate of Gass/Gaddis/Rilke/Stevens via John Madera has been instrumental in boosting the language quotient and destroying a quasi-plain style I took on after a few months with Lydia Davis. So lines or formations like, “She wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and this frustrated him,” become “There is a way you carry yourself, he said, quickly breaking off because evening drew on, evening and everything evening measures. Our pace, the space between canyons, this leaf living in the book on the chair.”
NOTE: This was written in the infancy of my knowledge about cinema. Surely, eight is not enough. John Ford, Carl Dreyer, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard are names that must be there as well.
I love film.
I want to pay tribute to eight film directors who have changed the way I see life.
Robert Altman 1925-2006
While writing my previous post, I grew aware that I wasn’t mentioning any women filmmakers. So I’d like to add something addressing that (because of course one can find numerous examples). And along the way, I’ll also try to say more in general about the power—and limitations—of the long take.