Saturday, June 29, 2013

Film #98: Ulysses' Gaze (1995)

Original Greek Title: To vlemma tou Odyssea

Director: Theo Angelopoulos

Initial Release Country: Greece

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary (no spoilers)

Successful, mixed-heritage film director takes a bizarre, dream-like journey through eastern Europe to track down reels of film. Looks awfully confused or pensive throughout.

Extended Summary (Spoilers included)

An American film director, unnamed in the film but credited as “A” (Harvey Keitel), goes to Greece to begin a search for three lost reels of film that were produced by the Manakis brothers in their earliest years as Yugoslavian filmmakers.

The first shot of the film, and the first of many sweeping shots that make effective use of negative space. On the left, "A" looks out over the sea at the beginning of his odyssey.

“A”s journey takes him from Greece to Albania, Macedonia, then Bulgaria, Romania, Belgrade, and finally Sarajevo. Along the way, various couriers’ and companions’ identities meld with “A”’s recollections of his own past in these areas, some of which he had spent time and emigrated from as a child. Relatives and lovers from his past emerge from his memory to interact with him once again. Within these dream-like moments, “A” relives past joys and sorrows, but never gives up his quest for the three Manakis brothers reels.

At the end of his journey, in a war-torn Sarajevo, “A” finds the man who has the reels – a film archivist who has nearly perfected the long-lost chemical formula that will allow him to properly develop the film. Shortly after he does this, though, he and his family are shot and killed in the middle of a firefight on the city streets. “A” sadly returns to the blasted movie theater to watch the films, only to find that they are blank, offering only vacuous white screens.

My Take on the Film (Done before any further research)

More than once while watching this one, the words “inaccessible” came to my mind. Not that I was completely baffled by Ulysses’ Gaze, but there was clearly much more going on than I was able to grasp on this single, first viewing. There are clearly many themes and elements of great depth presented in the movie, and there is a hypnotic quality to its presentation that is compelling enough for me to make the effort for its full three hours. On the whole, though, I’m not sure that I would watch it again, and I certainly cannot recommend it to any but the most patient and avid fans of film.

The story of “A”s quest for the reels of film is interesting enough, as it sets up the traditional “quest” plot device. The film’s title is the first clear indication that Homer’s grand epic, The Odyssey, is a major inspiration. Of course, “A” is not traversing the Aegean Sea and besting monsters or other mythological hazards to return home. “A”s journey is a metaphorical search for his psychological and artistic roots, and he has to move past very real dangers in the highly treacherous Balkan regions in the middle of war-ravaged 1990s. This grand theme is fairly interesting, as it is only revealed in bits and pieces as the film moves along.

"A" rows his "Circe" along the river. His interaction with her is one of the more bizarre among the several time- and person-warping interactions that he has along the way.

The pace and tone of the film are what will tax many a viewer’s patience. In a style that I can best compare to the films I’ve seen of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, Angelopoulos uses many slow, measured, and meditative shots to draw in the viewer. I found these quite effective, as it gave me time to ponder the ultimate meaning of “A”s actions and purposes, as well as mull over the stunning compositions placed within the camera’s frames. Like the Tarkovsky films Andrei Rublev, Stalker, and others, Ulysses’ Gaze demands that the viewer embrace the quieter, slower moments in order to allow a certain moody gravity to overcome him or her. Most of the time, it works very well. However, there were a few times when it seemed slightly pretentious or contrived to me. I have to admit to occasionally suspecting being hoodwinked by the notion that just because the filmmaker isn’t spelling it all out for you, you must be missing something. I’ve found that, in my case, this is actually true at times. Sometimes, I am missing something, and maybe that was true when I was watching this film. Whether for this reason or simple impatience on my part, I found myself trying to urge the film forward at times.

From what I could tell, the visuals are fairly amazing. However, there is a caveat here. This film is, oddly enough for the 21st century, extremely difficult to get a hold of. It has not been in print for several years, and there really has not been a well-produced restoration done to my knowledge, which does not allow the film to be seen in all of its majesty. From the mediocre-quality DVD that I was able to procure, it is clearly a film that would be best served by being seen on the big screen. The sweeping shots of the blasted landscapes, meandering rivers, and foggy streets of the Balkan regions convey a bleakness that seems part and parcel of the mental distress that “A” is battling through. Had I been able to watch a higher-quality copy, I might have even more praise for this aspect of the movie.

The acting is rather strange. I love Harvey Keitel, and he often shows a decent amount of range. However, I’m not sure if he was the best choice for this role. Whether through his own interpretation or at the behest of the director, he shows odd shifts in demeanor, posture, and emotion as the story moves on. At many times, it is clear that these shifts represent “A” psychologically shuffling between his present quest and his past memories as son, lover, and brother. During most of the “modern” scenes, though, he delivers his lines as if he were in a trance. I realize that this is probably what the story calls for, as an urge far greater than himself is pulling him towards the Manakis brothers’ film reels, but I found that it almost dehumanized him. This was especially the case when the other modern character around him were acting much more naturally. Added to this is that Keitel, in his many roles in U.S. films, is one of the greatest “naturalistic” actors of the past several decades. A final puzzling thing to me about Keitel’s casting is my question of “Why him?” For much of the film, he’s delivering lines in English or short phrases in Greek, while almost everyone else is speaking the local languages. I suppose that this is likely another layer of the story that I failed to grasp, but it was a bit disorienting.

This is often how Keitel looks in this film - staring off into the distance, while others try to interact with him in more natural, organic ways. It fits the tone of the movie at times, but during some moments, it simply baffled me.

I have to say that, if nothing else, Ulysses' Gaze is a novel film that suggests great depth. I have no doubt that there were more than a few elements and strata that were simply over my head, which led to a bit of frustration and impatience as I viewed it. Still, I enjoyed the process of attempting to piece together the different visual, narrative, and thematic elements in the movie. I certainly was not completely successful, so that I currently have a disjointed impression of the film. I hope that the next section of this review will remedy this…

Upon Further Review (Done after some further research on the film):

I did this portion of the review after reading this very thorough and insightful synopsis at the Internet Movie Database.

Well, it’s quite clear that I missed several key elements that the director implemented. In short, if you plan to watch this movie, there are two things that will help: (1) a general knowledge of Homer’s Odyssey, and (2) patience. When one keeps these in mind, it becomes easier to see why the list-creators at TIME decided to include this film on their “All-TIME Great Films” list.

While I was watching it, I was able to pick up several of the plot points and interactions that mirrored Odysseus’s epic journey to Ithaca. There are many characters who represent the long-archetypal roles of Penelope, Calypso, Telemachus, and many others from the Greek classic tale. However, there are even more that I did not pick up on. One such is how “A”s journey into Sarajevo represents Odysseus’s descent into Hades. Obvious really, when it’s pointed out to you. If a viewer has a rich knowledge and love of the source material, then watching this film would provide a very deep experience.

Another thing that the author of the review points out is some of Angeloupolos’ film style. Beyond just giving a mere synopsis, the writer explains some of the deeper meaning of the long periods of silence in the film, confirming my suspicion that these are meant for the viewer to contemplate far beyond the mere screen action. We are constantly reminded that the region of the Balkans has a rich and often sad history. The long, slow shots give ample time for the mood and weight to settle into our minds. These realizations also give “A”s journey more meaning, as he remains steadfast, despite every sign that tells him to turn back.

A scene from Sarajevo - the "Hades" of "A"s Odyssey. These scenes are obviously and carefully staged, which will put off some viewers. For those who look beyond the unnatural setup and focus on what things represent, the film becomes much more engaging.

As profound as this film is, I still cannot say that I would rush to watch it again. Knowing now much more about the symbolism throughout, I would consider it. However, I would only do so if it were restored to a very high quality. The settings are already dreary enough, without having to watch them on a low-quality print. This one would be a prohibitive recommendation.

That’s a wrap. 98 shows down, 7 to go.

Coming Soon: Kandahar (2001)

Another film that I know almost nothing about. I know it involves Afghanistan and the Taliban, two hot-button topics even today, over a decade after this film was made. We’ll see how it stacks up.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Film #97: Chungking Express (1995)

Original (Cantonese) Title: Chung Hing sam lam

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Initial Release Country: Hong Kong (China)

Times Previously Seen: none

Semi-Rapid-Fire Summary

In 1990s Hong Kong, young police officer #223, He Qiwu, is battling loneliness in the wake of a lost love. His girlfriend has broken up with him just a few weeks prior, and he tries to deal with it by leaving voice messages for her on a daily basis. He has also given himself a deadline of 30 days, which he counts using expiration dates on can of pineapples, within which to hear from her. He tells himself that if he does not hear from her, he will abandon his hope of a reconciliation.

When the 30 days is up, Qiwu devours all of the cans of pineapples and heads to a bar to drown his sorrows. After several drinks, he spots and comes on to a beautiful woman in a blond wig. Unbeknownst to Qiwu, the icy woman is embroiled in a drug smuggling double-cross and is in the bar for some quietude. Still, she eventually succumbs to Qiwu’s persistent overtures and brings him up to her hotel room. Any amorous hopes that Qiwu may have are dashed, though, as the woman promptly falls sound asleep, leaving him to eat room service food and watch movies on the hotel television.

Qiwu tries to move past his former love with booze and some pick-up moves.

The day after, Qiwu has left the woman in the hotel room, and he seems on the verge of mentally moving past his ex-girlfriend. However, he receives a birthday message from her, perhaps giving him some shred of hope.

At a short-order restaurant frequented by Qiwu, another police officer, #663, is battling his own romantic breakup. Between getting coffee and food at the restaurant, he reminisces over a romance with a beautiful flight attendant. He copes by simply doing his duty as a cop and making humorous observations to the inanimate objects in his apartment, many of which belonged to his ex.

Taking notice of 663 is Faye – a somewhat flighty young woman who works the counter at the restaurant. Very secretively, Faye’s interest in 663 grows. In a turn of events, she ends up with a letter and apartment key from 663’s ex. Rather than passing them along to the dejected officer, Faye keeps the letter and uses the key to explore his tiny apartment while he is away at work. At first, she simply looks around, but eventually she begins to clean and care for the dwelling. This seems to be the only way that the socially awkward young woman can try to connect with the object of her infatuation.

Cop #663, lost in his own thoughts as the love-struck Faye gazes on.

After a few weeks of her clandestine care-taking, Faye is caught in the apartment by 663. Though shocked, the man is not critical. In fact, he allows Faye to stay a while and the two fall asleep on his couch. The following day, 663 and Faye plan to have an actual “date” at a nearby restaurant and bar. However, Faye stands up 663, leaves her job at the restaurant, and actually departs Hong Kong altogether. In a perhaps not-coincidental turn, she becomes a flight attendant in order to see the world. One year later, Faye returns to find that 663 has bought and is renovating the restaurant. The two talk a while, though we cannot be sure whether they will have any kind of future together.

My Take on the Film:

Chungking Express is a good movie that certainly shows a lot of skill from a then-young director. It’s quirky, thoughtful, and stylish in places. I can’t say that I was blown away, though.

In telling the story of the two lonely police officers, we get some very heartfelt slices of life in the hyperactive East Asian metropolis of Hong Kong. The stories of He Qiwu and Cop 663 are ones that come across as very authentic, and you can’t help but feel for both men. They seem to represent two of presumably countless other people in the vast city that can’t seem to find the romantic connections that they crave. The ways that they deal with their loneliness are quite different from one another, but show them both to be very sympathetic in their humorous attempts to cope with their dilemmas. It all has a feel rather reminiscent of the French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut from the 1960s. In particular, Band ofOutsiders has the same genuine playfulness mixed with a tragedy that, admittedly, is more palpable.

Only being loosely connected to one another, the movie comes off as really two shorter films, stitched together only by the short-order food stand that they both frequent. The first story, that of Qiwu, I found to be the more engaging of the two. Qiwu is love-struck and pines away over his ex-girlfriend by marking off the days after their breakup by buying cans of pineapples, all of which will expire 30 days after his April Fool’s Day dumping. He tells himself that he will give his ex until May 1st to allow him back into her life. It’s a funny little system that reflects the little ways that we lie to ourselves in order to cling to past happiness. In Qiwu’s case, though, it clearly doesn’t work very well, as he falls in love with the mysterious woman in the blonde wig. The evening of unsatisfied amore in the hotel room is another slightly comical yet sad moment in his life. You end up feeling for him, though in a very realistic rather than classically romantic way.

Qiwu's loneliness is cast in a rather humorous light, through his pineapple can counting system.

The tale of Cop 663 is one of a different sort. It has its own feel, but it has some of the same lighthearted wistfulness of Qiwu’s story. 663 is a slightly older man who seems more controlled and world-weary than Qiwu. Tony Leung, who is phenomenal in this as well as Kar-Wai’s later film In the Mood for Love, has the amusing quirks of consoling his household goods while seeming oblivious to some of the most obvious things. Faye’s initial quiet interest in 663 is charming at first, but for me it lapses into disturbing stalker behavior – something akin to a more eerie version of the title character’s antics in the playful French film Amelie. I don’t know that this was Kar-Wai’s intent, but it is the impression I came away with. Nevertheless, the story certainly held my attention, even if I wasn’t left completely satisfied at the end.

Aesthetically, the film is rock-solid. Thanks to excellent camerawork, the film conveys Hong Kong as a vibrant, ever-churning mass of bodies, buildings, and colors. Some of the scenes in Qiwu’s story use an impressionistic, herky-jerky style of editing that I’m not a fan of, but it didn’t distract. A lot of the movie is simply enjoyable to look at, something that is also further honed in In the Mood for Love.

663's observations of and to the various inanimate objects in his apartment add a really warm, amusing layer to his seemingly passive demeanor.

One little nuisance has stuck with me since I watched this movie several days ago. In 663’s story, Faye is obsessed with the song California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas. The song is played no less than four times within a forty-five minute span, and it wore me out. Ever since I watched it, I can’t get the song out of my head, it was so firmly jack-hammered into me by the movie. I don’t care how appropriate a song is in a film story or even how good a song it is, no tune should be played this many times in any movie. It just wears thin.

Will I watch this movie again? I doubt it. I would, however, recommend it as a good one.

That’s a wrap. 97 shows down. 8 to go.

Coming Soon: Ulysses’ Gaze (1997)

I’ve had a hell of a time even trying to find a copy of this one. I have to be skeptical of a “masterpiece” that’s not even in print, in this day and age when everything you could imagine is at your fingertips. Maybe I’ll be surprised…

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.