Dispatches: Some Thoughts Inspired by “My Blueberry Nights”

There’s no getting around it: My Blueberry Nights wasn’t good.  As impossible as it is to deny that Wong Kar-Wai is a powerful and important filmmaker, it is equally impossible to deny that My Blueberry Nights is tone-deaf, spaced-out, and derivative.  Strangely enough, one of the things it’s derivative of is Wong’s own film In the Mood for Love, which was a pitch-perfect, zoned-in original–My Blueberry Nights even reuses the piece of music that’s burned into the memory of anyone who saw the earlier movie. 

The other thing Blueberry is derivative of is the semiotic universe of American film, and David Lynch in particular.  The movie conjures its world with the following elements: diners, pie and ice cream; hardbitten but kind proprietors; ingenues on the run from painful pasts; cuckolded alcoholics with good hearts; huge Nevadan landscapes in telephoto with suns gloriously setting; a superficially multicultural (read: multi-racial) but culturally unspecific set of characters; whooshing New York City elevated trains used as scene transitions; a score by that living piece of American film history, Ry Cooder.  Each element the film uses feels drawn from other movies rather than from the observation of life; the charming moments that do occur are drowned in a feeling of being observed themselves, looked for and wished for rather than found and delighted in.

It might sound unfair, simple, and even xenophobic to call Wong to a filmic tourist.  But his imagery, usually utterly assured, here feels just off, just clumsy; the sharpness of his cuts slightly dulled; his direction of actors unfocused.  I think it’s essentially right to group My Blueberry Nights with a general class of films we could call lost director.  Filmmakers, after doing great work in a particular locale, often make an inexplicably tinny movie elsewhere (often, the U.S.).  They have a tendency to lose their ear.  An example would be Danny Boyle, who, after producing such sharp portrayals of young Glaswegians in Trainspotting and especially Shallow Grave, came to America and made the laughable A Life Less Ordinary.  Martin Scorcese’s movie about Tibetan monks?  Emir Kusturica’s attempt to make an American movie, with Johnny Depp and Vincent Gallo?  Lost director.

Think of films that really work: they tend to emerge from near-ethnographic knowledge, from a profound feel for a time and place.  This is true of the best films I’ve seen this year, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, The Band’s Visit, No Country For Old Men.  Actually, make that the best new films; the best one I’ve seen at a cinema this year is an old one, Le Mépris, rereleased–which is about a film production in Rome and Capri, with beautiful French starlet-kittens; vulgar, potent American money men; and elderly, cultured European directors.  Talk about a world Godard knew well.  (If it is being screened near you, see it immediately.  IMMEDIATELY.  Even if, no, especially if you’ve seen it before.)

Two objections.  Number one, since you mention Godard, what about A bout de souffle, with all its allusions to American noir and police procedurals?  Well, exactly: they are allusions, not the direct subject matter.  The movie’s about a beautiful French man and a beautiful American ingenue in Paris, and it’s loaded with allusions and references and non-diagetic stuff concerning a French cineaste-auteur’s fascination with American film–entirely the right way of going about things.  The fantasies are based in and stem from realities.  If Godard had, in his love of John Ford or Howard Hawks, decided to come to America to make Westerns, then: lost director.

(A point of clarification here.  I liked Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate quite a bit, despite its superficially seeming like a classic case of lost director: French director makes a film about an American man and an Italian woman starting in London and ending in Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Here’s the difference: the characters in Boarding Gate are simply contemporary globalists, multilingual frequent flyers.  Assayas gets them.  The characters in My Blueberry Nights are romanticized creatures, idealized archetypes; Wong doesn’t know them so much as fantasize them.)

Objection two: Isn’t this whole thing simply a long-winded way of saying, shoot what you know?  Not quite.  The interesting thing is, the slogan seems quite obviously true for films, but quite untrue for its close relative, photography.  That is, photography as a discourse or a formal language has from the very beginning seemed to encourage the documentation of what is foreign rather than the communication of the familiar.  Consider Henri Cartier-Bresson, with his ability to snap off perfect compositions fifteen clicks out of twenty.  We don’t complain of his lack of empathetic understanding of the ice skaters or Indian train porters he so magically resolves into visual chords; his art is more formal, more spatial than that.

Or to take a recent, favorite example: Wolfgang Tillmans.  Maybe the thing that impresses me most about him is that, unlike filmmakers, whose ear and eye tend to be keyed to particular psychogeographic locations, his work produces a sense of unity despite subject matter of great variety.  He is able to impose his particular way of looking on clubgoers, bowls of fruit, bunched clothing, astronomical eclipses, trees, the Concorde, photographic paper bent and photographed.  There is, in Tillmans, a kind of opposite tendency to that which plagues Wong in My Blueberry Nights: Tillmans turns everything into a photograph, forcing us to mediate on representation, on himself as a maker of images.  You may remember one feature of his beautiful still lives: the grocery-store stickers that are occasionally visible on an orange or an apple.  Those unremoved stickers suggest an immense amount, more than I can type, about the relations between the world and artwork, aesthetic tradition and social duties, the real and the ideal, and the twin roles of the artist: to imagine and to reproduce. 

Yet where still photographs remain essentially formal and non-narrative, the motion of motion pictures introduces narrative, in the form of time visibly elapsing.  And when time visibly elapses at roughly the speed we tend to experience it elapsing in the real world (yes, I believe in it!), there emerges a fuller form of another representational aspect: character.  The observation of character, in the sense of human behavioral particularities, is required of the narrative filmmaker in a way that the still photographer does not confront.  (Please don’t think I am claiming that filmmakers are thus more comprehensive in some way than photographers–if anything, the implication may be that photographers are better able to take on subject matter beyond the level of humanism, as with the structural analyses of Gursky or the conceptually rich dialectics of Jeff Wall.)  But back to character, which emerges when pictures move: hence the need, I believe, for a filmmaker to understand a locale not only visually, compositionally, but characterologically–dare I say it, emotionally.  Which is what Wong didn’t do, this time out.

P.S. If you happen to visit Mexico City before June, I highly, highly recommend seeing the Tillmans retrospective at the Museo de Tamayo–he helps us make sense of modernity, while remaining highly idiosyncratic.  And if you are in Mexico City this spring (and I think you should be, the jacaranda trees are in full bloom… go now and thank me later), please go have the exquisite black beans, stewed with oregano, onion and bacon, at El Califa.  Please do.  (Black bean information courtesy of 3qd lurker Alan S. Page.  Thank him later.)

My Blueberry Nights (2007)
dir. Wong Kar-Wai

Le Mépris
dir. Jean-Luc Godard

Wolfgang Tillmans
Museo de Tamayo
México, D.F.
14 February-25 May 2008

El Califa
22 Calle Altata
México, D.F.
tel. 52 55 52 71 76 66

See the rest of my Dispatches…