Saturday, April 19, 2008

Wong Kar-Wei's My Blueberry Nights: A strange familiarity

I know, it's been a month. I've been working on my thesis. That's my excuse. Here's a post with some substance, though, and hopefully these will become more regular very soon.

Wong Kar-Wei directs aesthetically. His films are not designed for your twenty-first century American ADHD sensibility... you’re going to have to give up your explosions and sex scenes and learn to appreciate long pauses and pregnant looks, drawn-out emotional revelations, and stares into the uncertainties of characters’ souls. You may come out of his films feeling like there’s suddenly a lot of random overstimulating shit going on in the world, but at the very least, you’ll find the beauty in the mundane interstitial moments, standing alone in the city streets.

My Blueberry Nights is Wong’s first American production, and he seems to be pushing the "American" aspect pretty hard. He casts Jude Law, Norah Jones, Natalie Portman, and Rachel Weisz in the primary roles, and he follows his main character from neighborhoody New York to dive-bar Memphis, Tennessee, and then to the dusty flats and flashy personalities of Las Vegas. In keeping with the American-made aesthetic, My Blueberry Nights is faster-paced, and has more closure, than Wong’s other work, though it’s not a Bruckheimer film by any means.

Wong is sort of an eighties futurist, from what I can tell. Take a look at his commercial for the Phillips Flat-Panel TV... the neon lights and the fiber-optic sensibility, complimented with oceans of reflective glass and plastic, are what we probably thought the future would look like back when we were first being introduced to ergonomic product design and artificial polymers. Wong experiments with other atmospherics, of course... much of 2046 took place in gilded-age classical architecture, just slightly run down, so that it integrated the epic sensibility of an old city with the pseudo-normalcy of tragic, emotional everyday life. He did something similar with the Nevada desert in My Blueberry Nights, providing a well-rendered vision of an empty Southwest, where his characters could be alone with their emotional dynamics. Despite these breaks, however, it’s always that nightlife neon decadence that runs through Wong’s films.

Wong’s New York and Las Vegas seem like the ideal locations for his stylistic tastes. They both have that neon thing going on, and you’re likely to find those avant-garde fashion tastes and shiny, artificial cars in both cities. However, Wong rarely actually visits the most hyperstimulating parts of the cities he's trying to depict. He never depicts Times Square or Wall Street... he shows a neighborhood café in New York, and he provides a number of long shots of subways traveling above-ground. In Las Vegas, he depicts some small-time casinos and a lot of deserted outdoor landscapes, but I don’t remember seeing much of the strip (I may have been in the bathroom at the time, though). Even so, his visuals seem replete with those ghosts of neon lights reflected off wet pavement. Is he displacing the stylistic center of the city into its margins? Did he see the outskirts of New York and Vegas as containers for the spirit of Times Square and the strip?

Even if it seemed abstractly appropriate in New York and Vegas, Wong’s Memphis, Tennessee definitely doesn’t seem like the right place for his sensibility. His characters... particularly Sue Lynn and her boyfriend... looked like Manhattan fashion models, and all their cars... even Arnie’s truck... look like they've just been picked off a lot and waxed to perfection. The bar where Elizabeth works glows like a downtown nightclub. This isn’t the Memphis of the popular imagination, and though it may be a worthy spin on it, it doesn’t seem to jive with the Southern mythology we’re all so familiar with.

These slight missteps make Wong’s United States seem a bit alien. Perhaps he sees Hong Kong wherever he goes, and perhaps those neon lights are just the optics of Wong’s dreams and imagination.

The city compliments the characters, though, and these really are figures of American mythology. Jude Law’s Jeremy is a perfect Brit turned small-town romantic, charming and well-adjusted in a little neighborhood café. Norah Jones’s Elizabeth is an icon, as well, an innocent, trusting girl who devotes herself to exploring the world in the aftermath of a personal romantic tragedy. Arnie, Sue Lynne, and Leslie are all equally iconic pieces of American character mythology. These are the compliment to Wong’s slightly alien portrait of the landscape – his American characters are so familiar that they almost seem abstracted and imaginary... archetypal... even stereotypical, though that word is probably too harsh.

So it’s largely a mixed bag of traditional, mythological Americana... why does it work so well? It works because those settings and characters are really just a framework for Wong’s characteristic storytelling. The settings are nice, and the characters are endearing, but what makes it a good movie is the obsessive attention to the emotional intersections and turbulence between these characters, all of whom are still clearly discovering themselves. This is the ripple of confusion that underlies all of the established rhythm of Americanism. Even your most artificial settings and your most recognizable characters are the products of their own issues, desires, and failures. Even the most familiar building becomes fascinating when its framework is laid bare.

It might also be a little narcissism talking. In each of the on-screen characters I saw fragments of my own experience of New York, and this is probably why them seem so recognizable. In a sense, I recognize them wherever they go, and I identify with their hope and sadness. That's the mark of a good director -- it’s Wong’s skill with nuance and uncertainty that makes the movie possible.

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