Viewing Diary: Abhijan (Satyajit Ray) & The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger)

May 29, 2015

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Abhijan (Satyajit Ray, 1962)

Purely by coincidence, I notice that I’ve recently watched quite a few films with taxi driver protagonists: Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror, Ning Ying’s I Love Beijing, and now this atypical Satyajit Ray film that he only stepped in to direct after the assistant he’d written it for pulled out. When we consider Taxi the recent Berlinale winner by Jafar Panahi, Michael Mann’s Collateral, or that rather well-known Scorsese-Schrader collaboration, we begin to see that cabbie and their vehicle have, as profession and metaphor, been particularly well-served by the cinema. There’s something about the urban marauder looking at the city life through their windshield (itself not unlike a movie screen), while potentially interacting with any of its denizens across the back of their cab, makes the taxi-driver cinematically potent.vlcsnap-2015-05-06-23h32m37s155

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Abhijan though, the taxi belonging to Singhji (Ray regular Soumitra Chatterjee) works on different symbolic levels. Singhji is a proud descendant of the Rajput caste, a once impressive breed of warriors now scattered around India and without any of they bygon prestige. His beloved 1930 Chrysler may be his pride and joy, but it is also a constant reminder to Singhji of what troubles him the most: his ‘lowly’ status. The ancestors he romantically wishes to aspire to, and even hangs pictures of up on his rear-view mirror, had noble horses and commanded admiration. He on the other hand has a mechanical machine and an unglamorous job that others look down on. Singhji is thus torn between his excessive pride over his background and the shame of being no more than a lowly driver himself.

It won’t surprise anyone that the film eventually ends up teaching him the lesson that one’s actions are more defining than ancestry, but Ray takes a long scenic, and never less than engrossing, route to get there. For an unusually melodramatic film by his standards, complete with tautly edited car chases and a fight scene (albeit not the most convincingly staged fist-fight you’ll ever see, but we can blame that on the heat and fake beards), Ray enriches what would have been a conventional film into a rich character study. The narrative is meandering in the best way, taking enjoyable detours with events that don’t have ‘Crucial Plot Development’ marked all over them. The film also adds up to a convincing portrait of the diversity of life near in North-East India, taking in a host of multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-caste characters orbiting around Singhji, some good, some bad. There’s a pair of women, one a Christian teacher whose brother Singhji knew as a boy, and the other a forced prostitute, played by the beautiful Waheeda Rehman, who in their own way will afford Singhji a chance at redemption. This after his temptation by the threateningly malevolent Sukharam, who sinister smile and portentous gun-shaped lighter, are already signs that Singhji may be better off rejecting his propositions for making quick money. Then there’s also Singhji’s sidekick Rami, played by another favourite of Ray, Rabi Ghosh, who offers plenty of comic relief and monkeying around along the way, part of Ray’s easy-going narrative mode.

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A man of many talents, Ray also composed the fantastic rhythmic score himself for this. His mastery is indicated throughout by the way he has raised a formulaic plot, taken from a pulp piece of fiction, and made it into an entertaining, engaging character study. As is usually the case with Ray there’s a ‘message’, but it’s never didactically over-emphasised, and there’s some touches which it’s easy to tell he added in himself, which were not present in the source text. Most significant are the two large rocks in the badlands outside the town, which recur twice throughout the film, and where the action takes place. We are told their meaning, and that the locals have attributed to them the names of ‘Uncle and ‘Nephew’, making them redolent of the symbolic weight handed down through the generations, be it the burden of Singhji’s caste background or the intolerant prejudices society continues to foster. It might not be Ray’s greatest film, but if Abhijan is only ‘minor Ray’, as most scholars deem it, then no doubt his filmography has many more treasures left for me to discover.

 


 

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The Man with the Golden Arm (Otto Preminger, 1955) 

Determined to show off his acting credentials after losing out the part of Terry Malloy to Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra delivers a performance of Method-esque intensity as Frankie Machine, a likable junkie just out of rehab and set on going clean in order to become a drummer. Tackling the topic of drug addiction may seem blase today, but in 1955 it was bold indeed and Preminger was pushing the boundaries set by the now antiquated Hays code of moral guidelines, and helped tear them down altogether. The word ‘heroin’ is never actually used (only ‘score’ or ‘fix’) and never do we quite see a needle, but Frankie being presented as an all-too-human sufferer, a victim of his addiction, is what makes The Man with the Golden Arm a groundbreaking Hollywood treatment of its theme.vlcsnap-2015-05-06-23h11m44s154

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ol’ Blue Eyes aside, it’s the incandescent Kim Novak and her mix of strength and vulnerability who steals the show. Even in her scenes opposite Sinatra, your eyes gravitate towards hers, scintillating with emotion and intelligence. It probably doesn’t hurt that she’s such a beauty too, a short-haired blonde exuding authentic feeling as well as sex appeal – much like another screen icon who’d also become a Preminger muse just a few years later, Jean Seberg.vlcsnap-2015-05-06-23h11m38s113

 

 

 

 

 

 

Novak plays Molly, a positive influence on Frankie’s life, in some ways his good angel. The two are in love, but must remain apart due to Frankie being tied to Zosh, his infirm wife now wheelchair-bound due to an accident for which Frankie feels responsible. In contrast to Molly, the needy, unreasonable Zosh is a drag on Frankie’s mental state, consuming him with guilt, and offering no encouragement in him or his hopes for a new start in life. When he relapses, it has as much to do with him needing escape from Zosh’s negativity, as his frustration in not finding a drumming gig. Molly and Zosh are like the angel and devil on either side of his soldiers (as seen in countless cartoons though the archetype itself is taken from a Central Asian legend), enacting the tug-of-war that is his moral dilemma.

Usually, a central character in the midst of an internal conflict, and a host of supporting players orbiting around him representing different facets of his tormented personality, are signs the theories of our old friend Sigmund Freud are of potential use. Indeed, and even more so than was the case for the comparable schema of characters around Singhji in Abhijan, we can fit a Freudian blueprint on Man with Golden Arm. Frankie is the conflicted ego, on one side pulled towards the characters representing the super-ego’s order and righteousness, namely Molly and his affable but simple-minded sidekick Sparrow. Sparrow is his Jiminy Cricket, his conscience (not unlike Rami is to Singhji in Abhijan), the one whom he’s most ashamed to face at his lowest ebb. On the other side, Frankie is drawn in by the characters representing the id, tempting him to sink back into his base desires so they may better control, and profit from, him. Zosh fits into that category, as do two slimier characters: Louis, Frankie’s supplier, and Schiewka, owner of an illegal gambling den who pays Frankie to deal his card game. Both exploit Frankie, but with different strategies, like a good cop, bad cop of temptation into self-destruction. Schiewka is aggressive and bullish, but Louis, the more sinister of the two, is slyly sophisticated in the tricks he uses to lure Frankie. The 1950s was the decade when Hollywood went full Freudian, and this movie can be read as a fascinating exemplar of this.

The cast of supporting parts never feel too schematic though, thanks to a string of fine character actors. That said, I’m not sure the finale hit the right tones for me. The characterisation of Zosh is slightly clumsy because, as tragic a character as she is and though there is ample room to empathise with her, the film tries too hard to make her unlikable in order have us siding with Frankie and Molly.

In any case, the film oozes with the aroma of vintage Hollywood, not least for its Saul Bass credits and jazzy Elmer Bernstein score. Preminger’s mise-en-scene and fluid mobile camera, sweeping through the sets rather than relying on cuts, are also notable. One knockout scene, of Frankie’s first relapse, epitomises Preminger’s strategy: the camera tracks right into a close-up of Frankie’s eyes twice, once before and then after his fix. His pupils are first massively dilated and then reduced to a dot when his craving has been satisfied, with Bernstein’s brass notes swelling accordingly.

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Viewing Diary: Xiao Wu (Jia Zhangke, 1997)

May 21, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Xiao Wu (played by Wang Hongwei) is the eponymous character of Jia Zhangke’s 1997 feature-length debut. He’s a small-time thief with longish floppy hair and wide-framed glasses, a diminutive frame and a rather reticent demeanour, not exuding much confidence except when picking pockets. This particular form of handiwork is his one skill and, in the absence of any other prospect in his desolate, half-decrepit hometown of Fenyang, it defines his social status and ultimately it defines him too. Fenyang is also Jia’s own hometown, so altered upon his return after studying at the Beijing Film Academy that he felt compelled to make his first feature film there. But it can stand for any small provincial Chinese town, the maligned backward cousins of the affluent Eastern metropolises. Unable to adapt to China’s breakneck transition from Maoist regime to a state where the capitalistic drive continually increases the urban-rural wealth gap, Xiao Wu, like Fenyang, has been left behind. Over the course of the film, he’ll tentatively grasp, with more desperation than he’d care to show, for a new social role, a new definition beyond ‘pickpocket’, but will each time come up empty-handed. He is a character straddling a fine line between pathetic antihero and tragic figure. His is a journey of loss, each act in the three-part structure seeing him lose crucial ties; first his former partner-in-crime and closest friend, then his fleeting romantic hope, and finally the already damaged relations with his family are severed. Xiao Wu as ‘friend’, ‘lover’, ‘son’ or ‘brother’: none of the tags stick. On his return to Fenyang after an unexplained absence (it presumably involved picking pockets), Xiao Wu soon finds that the times they are a-changing. Not only are old buildings being demolished to supposedly make way for updated constructions (“I don’t see any new buildings in the city yet” one evictee tellingly complains), but the police are also making a big deal of their politically approved and much publicised crackdown on criminals. The petty criminals that is, the scapegoats of the kind Xiao Wu belongs to. Meanwhile the new breed of socially acceptable law-breakers, traffickers and black marketeers, are opening up clubs and restaurants where illegal activities take place, and becoming local celebrities as shown via the TV news reports periodically punctuating the film. Xiao Wu’s former gangmate and best friend Xiaoyong has evolved with the times and now belongs to this category, a now more sophisticated and respectable form of criminal. Utterly ashamed of all past connection with Xiao Wu, he neglects to invite him to his wedding. Ironically, it’s only through the fatherly police chief (who did get an invite) that Xiao Wu finds out about the imminent wedding at all. Here, Jia’s impeccable observational eye for detail, already in evidence throughout his debut, reveals through purely visual means a whole depth about the bond between the two men. Two shots of their respective arms, half an hour apart, are enough. In the opening scene, the ink on Xiao Wu’s arm is inconspicuously revealed as saying “In times of hardship share the burden”. Later, Xiao Wu visits Xiaoyong on the eve of his wedding, to uphold a promise to his former friend. Xioayong’s frosty reception forces a frustrated Xiao Wu to angrily remind him: “Take a look at your tattoo”. Again, Jia makes no big show of it, no zoom-in or close-up, but repays eagle-eyed attention by showing that Xiaoyong’s arm bears a tattoo with an epigraph closing the couplet: “In times of happiness share the good fortune”. Two simple rhyming shots are thus so eloquent in creating the backstory of these former brothers-in-crime, and in informing us of the romantic notions of gang loyalty Xiao Wu adheres to – sadly for him, nobody else does it seems.

Dejected, Xiao Wu seeks solace in a brothel, where he encounters Mei Mei, a pretty working girl, who tells her parents she’s a jobbing actress, and a glimmer of hope for our pickpocket who duly falls for her charms. Going to meet her first in karaoke rooms, where he resolutely refuses all Mei Mei’s attempts to make him sing, and later in her small lodging which she shares with other brothel girls, Xiao Wu stakes emotionally in this budding romance. He doesn’t seem to realise however that such a relationship built around monetary payments can never be more than illusory, and before he knows it the ambitious Mei Mei has left town with another, richer, client. vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h06m17s114 Jia would later be regularly referred to as displaying the influence of Antonioni in his films, but in the way the environment and landscape mirror the internal malaise of Xiao Wu, we can already see some connection. Just as the run-down town is in a process of transformation, so are the interpersonal relationships, and Jia knows how to make use of the locations to reflect the mood of Xiao Wu. Early in his courting, Xiao Wu, irked at being teased over his short stature, goes up a staircase to walk up one of the town’s decades-old elevated walkways and literally tower above Mei Mei. Xiao Wu’s mock bravado and insecurity blend into the crumbling architecture of the town. Later, in a scene coming after a high point of Xiao Wu’s romantic hopes, we see him at his most intimate and for the first time, at ease. Alone in a run-down but vast bathhouse, Xiao Wu relaxes in steaming water and, at last, sings – at which point the camera gently tilts up to take in the capacious interiors above his head, partly as if his own spirit is finally temporarily soaring, and partly to allow him this personal guards-down moment in privacy. Yet, that Xiao Wu can only sing when alone, potentially says a lot about his position in Chinese society, when we consider the long-running theme of life in China being like social performance. Survival in the political climate of China, under Mao and beyond, is shown to be dependent on your theatrical ability to outwardly present the socially accepted doctrine and opinions, no matter what you truly think inside. This is seen in films like Farewell My Concubine (1993), To Live (1994) or to return to Antonioni, his own China doc, Chung Kuo (1972), as well as all of Jia’s later films, immersed as they are in the theme of public performance and the link between performance and life. The fact Xiao Wu cannot sing in public is another symbolic reminder of his stunted social status. vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h07m24s14 With Mei Mei out of the picture, Xiao Wu has few places left to turn and heads back to his family, traditional agricultural workers. We soon get a sense of what he was running from all along, of the dead-end life of banal labour he escaped in favour of an altogether different kind of manual work. His familial relations fare no better than his previous failures. Caught in the midst typical family gossiping and one-upmanship caused by the preparations for his elder brother’s wedding (yes, another one Xiao Wu probably won’t be invited to), it only ends in petty arguing before his father chases him out the house. Just in time for a typical ironic Jia touch: as he leaves home more forlorn than ever, a nearby radio announces the reunification of Hong Kong with its own ‘parent’, mainland China (we’re in July 1997). As it initiated the ongoing comparisons with Antonioni, so Xiao Wu also prompted critics to trace a lineage to another European master Jia discovered during his studies at the Beijing Film Academy: Robert Bresson. No doubt Jia had watched Pickpocket (1959) and embraced the pared-down style. He also goes some way towards emulating the great French director with frequent close-ups of hands, visually representing Xiao Wu’s means of living, of earning his bread, but also the process by which materialistic exchange occurs. The thread of seemingly mundane objects exchanging hands runs through the film, a role quite fitting in the story of a handsmith stuck in China’s transition towards object-driven consumerist capitalism. There’s the lighter which Xiao Wu absent-mindedly pockets off Xiaoyong’s table and then shows off to Mei Mei. There’s a ring he buys for Mei Mei, but after she runs off he instead gives it to his mother, who much to his anger only gives it to her other son’s fiancée. There’s the stolen ID cards Xiao Wu picks out of the wallets he thieves and (somewhat ironically as he is returning the symbolic identities of his victims while he remains bereft of one) slips into mailboxes, only for them to make their way into the hands of the bemused police chief. Most crucial of all, there’s the pager Mei Mei bought him so she can stay in touch but which will only be his downfall, when it rings mid-wallet-snatch, makes him lose his guard in the forsaken hope that Mei Mei is back contacting him and allows him to be caught red-handed. In fact, as he later finds out at the police station, the beeping was no more than an automated weather report (overcast for our Xiao Wu, for whom a humiliating demise awaits). vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h04m42s193 But never mind Antonioni and Bresson; Jia’s films are deeply rooted within a Chinese context. Throughout his increasingly impressive body of work, Jia has cemented his status as chronicler of the internal hopes and dreams of his generation’s compatriots, without ever losing sight of the wider social circles they inhabit, and with a definite soft spot for those neglected, and abandoned by the forces of change. Xiao Wu was just a first step down a path that would be followed to its logical conclusions in The World (2004) and Still Life (2006), but what a first step it was. Armed with a 16mm camera, Jia and his cast and crew consisting of friends, non-professionals from in and around his hometown, and like-minded artistic renegades, shot this picture without any state permission. As a result it was only ever available within China via the underground world of pirate bootleg DVDs, where word quickly spread and a crucial boon to the Chinese independent filmmaking scene took form. vlcsnap-2015-03-15-19h09m20s164 Post-script: Xiao Wu would also retrospectively be seen as the first part in what came to be a thematic triptych, Jia’s ‘Hometown Trilogy’, completed by Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002), both also set in his home province of Shanxi. In the former, the changing lives of a travelling opera troupe are chronicled over a decade spanning from 1979 to 1989, placing the characters in a period of great transition during Deng’s reform years and ending with total loss of idealism in the bloodshed and symbolic hope-crushing at Tiananmen Square. In Unknown Pleasures, we return to the present day and a pair of young men who never had idealism in the first place. They are of the first generation to be born in the post-Mao years, are stuck in a dead-end city with no aims or goals, and possess only the second-hand allure of Western and Hong Kong films and pop culture to afford them any hope of transcending their monotony. Not unlike two other trilogies made by heavyweight auteurs from Asia  who also emerged to worldwide acclaim in the 1990s, though just a bit before Jia, namely Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy (Where is the Friend’s Home?, Life and Nothing More, and Through the Olive Trees), and Wong Kar-wai’s trio set in 1960s Hong Kong (Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, and 2046), Jia’s Hometown Trilogy is full of self-reflexivity and self-reference. While the Koker trilogy had an intricate Russian doll structure, with each film being about the making of the former, and Wong Kar-wai deftly made his group of characters recur through Proustian memory-holes across all three films, Jia inflicts his own brand of sly knowingness. Indeed Xiao Wu is not the last we see of Xiao Wu the character, hence the need for this footnote. As doomed and tragic as he appears at the end of the first film, he makes an unexpected return in Unknown Pleasures, to very different effect. Now, out of prison and a seemingly less romantic(ised) small-time crook looking to bully others, he no longer elicits our sympathy, which in Unknown Pleasures mostly sides with the out-of-luck Bin Bin anyway. But here’s the punchline, in Unknown Pleasures, just as the character of Bin Bin is forced by desperation to become a seller of pirate DVDs, back returns Xiao Wu once again for his final of three short appearances in that film. He looks through Bin Bin’s catalogue and asks the young man if he has the DVD of the film Xiao Wu. When Bin Bin replies in the negative, Xiao Wu reacts with disdain, asking Bin Bin what kind of DVD seller he is anyway if he doesn’t sell that particular title. The self-reference of seeing the character of Xiao Wu reappear and ask for what we know to be ‘his’ film, as if within the world of Unknown Pleasures both the character and the film can co-exist, is both startling and playful. It plays on Xiao Wu’s own notoriety as a film following its success, while also commenting on the difficulties Jia’s films face in breaking ground within their domestic market, without official recognition. In Platform, though also rife with small in-jokes and references (another radio announcement is heard, this time denouncing the ‘dangerous dissident’ Yu Lik-wai, who is none other than Jia’s regular cinematographer), Xiao Wu doesn’t make an appearance since Wang Hongwei is already playing another character. However as the minutiae of pop culture infiltrates Chinese everyday life slowly over the decade, Jia does stage one more deliberate act of self-reference through a cinema screening which the members of the troupe attend. This is the early 1980s, so no Hollywood imports in China yet, and instead they watch a rerun of the 1951 Raj Kapoor classic Awara, very popular over many years in China and supposedly one of Chairman Mao’s personal favourites. But, to come full circle, it also won’t be missed by anyone that Raj Kapoor’s protagonist is nothing other than… a pickpocket.

Some musings on… biopics

May 12, 2015

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Biopics, biographical films based around the lives of famed figures, started almost as soon as the cinema itself did. Even before movies became talkies, there had already been silent-film versions of the lives of Cleopatra, Jesus, Ned Kelly, Richard Wagner and Joan of Arc (more than once), among many others. The biopic has never quite left us, becoming a sort of genre in its own right, intermittently in or out of fashion. But today, one glance over the latest batch of English-language releases in any given month is enough to show they consistently represent a huge chunk of mainstream cinema’s output, and ergo a particularly bankable section of it.

The last couple of years alone has seen the high-profile biopic treatment meted out to Abraham Lincoln, Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock (twice if we include a TV drama), J. Edgar Hoover, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Nelson Mandela, Julian Assange, Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, and Steve Jobs. If you can name them, there’s probably been a film made about them. Or at the very least there’s one in the works. Because one look at the roster of in-production projects shows no sign of the factory line of biopics easing up. You can soon expect Marilyn Monroe, Edward Snowden, Lance Armstrong, Maria Callas, Freddie Mercury, and Steve Jobs (again) coming to a biopic near you.

But why this trend? Is the demand for biopics a matter of cycles, this era being one of the crests for that genre until we get bored? Perhaps, but there must be more to it. Do biopics reflect something about audiences today, and the era we live in? What do these forays into the past of hallowed celebrities tell us about our present? Clearly something about biopics draws audiences in, since they keep making money and press producers to green-light more of them in the hope of repeated success.

Today big corporate-owned studios flood a market they themselves created, be it for superhero franchises or the more critically respectable biopics, in a sort of feedback loop of demand and supply. But any lack of adventure in audiences today is also a reflection of our modern world at large. In the frantic 21st century age of Vine and Twitter, of media-saturated dwindling attention spans, time is a precious commodity. Two hours sat in a cinema is a long time, and potential film-watchers want to know a good deal about what kind of experience they’re giving that time up for. That means watching trailers, checking Rotten Tomatoes, maybe reading a few reviews and articles to see what the buzz is like for the film, and only after having had practically the whole plot divulged to them will they make an informed decision.

Hence the first major advantage of the biopic as a genre. Biopics represent a safe bet in economic and film industry terms, because they tap into a recognisable brand: that of its subject character, presumably a celebrated figure audiences will instantly identify, know something about, and from whose biopic they’ll have a rough idea of what to expect. Even more handy, many of the icons which recent biopics set themselves the task of bringing to life have pre-existing fanbases, seen as ready-made audiences in waiting. Even if some die-hard fans of Jimi Hendrix or Ian Curtis may leave disappointed, sheer curiosity and personal investment in the subject means they’ll still watch their idol’s movie biography.

Curiosity hints at one obvious appeal of the biopic: witnessing how the transformation of a well-known actor into a well-known figure is carried off. The voice, the accent, the tics, the look of the subject are all (when it goes right anyway) accurately copied to give a sometimes uncannily believable representation of that famous person. Many actors have perfected this into an art, becoming specialists of the biopic-style impersonation: Michael Sheen seems to do little other than them, from Tony Blair to Nigel Clough; lately Benedict Cumberbatch as Assange, Turing and ironically enough a few years ago as Stephen Hawking in a BBC drama; and even Anthony Hopkins who’s played notables as varied as Pablo Picasso, C.S. Lewis, Richard Nixon and, most recently, Alfred Hitchcock.

Audiences aren’t the only ones impressed by these impressions, they’re also major awards-bait. Since 2004, eight of the Best Actor Oscar winners went to starring roles in biopics. The dominance is slightly less pronounced in the Best Actress category, partly because female-driven biopics are less common, but still, six of the last thirteen winners were playing famous figures. At this year’s awards season, we only need look at the contest between The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, both accounts of English scientists (Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking respectively) shaped into tales of one man versus adversity – the kind of material the Academy has quite the soft spot for. These films are safe, simply eliding all the messy stuff like cosmology, black holes, early computer science, and other fascinating fields these men dedicated their intellectual lives to. Now don’t get me wrong, a film needn’t turn into a science lecture, but it is possible to make an appealing narrative film at least touching on essential questions at the heart of big topics like science and philosophy. These biopics simply never get close to trying.

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Instead they orbit around two typical biopic performances, by Eddie Redmayne and Cumberbatch, who unsurprisingly battled it out for the Oscar. They embody their inherited famous figures, becoming them or at least a mythologised vision of them we can believe, and all but carry their respective films in the process. Without Cumberbatch in Imitation Game for example, the film’s TV-movie standard screenplay would be exposed. Every screenwriting choice within it has been made in favour of middlebrow tired cliches and dubious subplots rather than authenticity or complexity. So we’re served a version of Turing as a caricature of the maths genius, aloof and arrogant, not unlike Cumberbatch’s most famous screen-persona, Sherlock. Turing’s entire work on the still incredibly relevant theory of ‘machines’ (which paved the way for A.I. and computer science) is tritely summed up as the result of losing his first love, Christopher.

As for Theory of Everything, it may be light years ahead if compared with Imitation Game, but it too has its problems, soon descending into another story of man vs. adversity streamlined into story-telling devices. The film is weighed down by cramming in five decades of Hawking’s life, and even more by its timid awe before its prestigious subject, making the film fearful of depicting any of the man’s rough edges (yes, great theoretical physicists who overcame tremendous physical difficulty have them too, just like the rest of us). These movies provide mere cardboard cut-out versions of their subjects, presumably in order to serve a crowd-pleasing truffle rather than a multifaceted portrait, and digesting the lives of complex people into a conventional arc, sanitised and simplified.

The narrative arc is, besides the acting, the other key to the biopic genre. Seeing the famous subject materialised on screen is not enough, we need to get a sense of their overall life being conveyed to us. But many are the pitfalls of reconstructing a life through film. Do you condense several decades, covering early life to old age (the two British scientist biopics essentially stick to this format), or stage a mere slice of that life which can evoke for the whole (Lincoln being one of many examples)? This is a tricky balance to gauge and now has itself become a formulaic part of the biopic. Nobody’s life story is as neat and tidy, nor as linearly dramatic, as a two-hour movie package. We all know this, and yet we still remain partial to such reductive biopics. Why?

Can it be linked to our era of celebrity culture, typified by the countless (auto)biographies on the bestsellers book-shelves, and general obsession with the most sordid confessions of famous people? The majority of biopics imply a personality-based outlook on history, revolving around key figures, important people rather than looking at collective actions and communities as a whole. (Here Selma while nominally a Martin Luther King biopic offers up an intriguing counter-example however). For the sake of clarity, Turing’s Bletchley Park entourage in Imitation Game is reduced into a handful of antagonistic geeks (and one Soviet spy, who in reality never met Turing!) just so we can all empathise with our main character all the more, and appreciate that he somehow won WW2 alone. It seems we want stories of individuals, towering above all and singular in their genius, without worrying about the overall structures in scientific work (or whatever field the biopic is based in) that allow it to happen.

It’s a personalisation of history, and to me there’s only a small step from this to the huge success of celebrity autobiographies and fame culture generally. A biopic faces a fine line between creating a believable, fleshed-out representation of a character we all know, and depriving them of the mystique or genius which made them special. At their worst, biopics shed no new light at all on their famous figure subject. They only look to condense, and in the process unveil hidden-spots of their subject so we can feel something akin to fellowship with them — hey look, they have secrets too! This extends to offering cheap psycho-analytic hypotheses about their hidden motives. One of the most absurd examples came in Hitchcock (2012), where the master of suspense is caricatured as a lascivious, voyeuristic old man, with a proclivity for night-time fridge raids. The implication that such a portrait can in any way illuminate Hitch’s working method or genius is beyond preposterous, so clearly the only explanation is that his image is tarnished for the sake of this biopic’s tacky appeal.

Yet, having said all this, there’s another side to the biopic. The truth remains that some of the great masterpieces of cinema are biographical films: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Andrei Rublev, Raging BullThe Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Edvard Munch, Young Mr Lincoln. We can even include Citizen Kane as a loose unofficial biopic of William Randolph Hearst, but in any case it certainly covers a man’s entire life. Then, there are other gems of the genre: Clint Eastwood’s loosely episodic, free-flowing Bird about Charlie Parker; Spike Lee’s epic and detailed Malcolm X; the revisionist and innovative biopics by British eccentrics Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway; Steven Soderbergh’s two-part Che with its kaleidoscopic first half and more process-dominated conclusion. Even in the last year, alongside the banalities, we also saw several idiosyncratic biopics, cleverly freeing themselves of the shackles of that tag, like Mr Turner, Pasolini, or even Selma. A biopic done well can be memorable, engaging, rich, complex and multi-layered. A few bad examples, as prevalent as they are, shouldn’t spoil a whole category of films.

So what did these films do right? For one, they don’t pander to hackneyed conventions of turning a whole life and life’s work into a facile life-story in movie form. They go beyond the constraints of what a mainstream biopic is, in terms of acting style and of narrative structure. These biopics stay longer in the memory because they preserve some of the secret, irreducible force and fascination of their subjects, without fear of introducing ambiguity and complexity.

No person’s life is ever fully knowable, least of all in two hours. So the great biopics don’t look for that hidden secret that will be the key to understanding their subject’s entire predicament, like a Christopher in Imitation Game. Remember even Rosebud does nothing in summing up who Kane really was, his enigma remaining whole to the end. A great biopic can and should offer some understanding of the biographical subject, but while amplifying the mystery behind their aura, behind what made them and their life special, not reducing it. Too many are the feeble attempts at a movie version of sensationalist bestselling memoirs. We should demand better from the biopic genre if it wishes to continue to see itself as the more prestigious, awards-hungry fare that mainstream cinema floods our screens with.

Viewing Diary: Two films by Ning Ying

April 28, 2015

Part of the 1982 class to graduate from the Beijing Film Academy alongside the likes of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, Ning Ying took longer to make her mark than her more prestigious classmates. After a spell studying in Rome, and a stint as Bertolucci’s AD on The Last Emperor, her own directorial career finally took off in the 1990s. I recently watched two films of hers, one a fiction and one a documentary, both highlighting her humanism and her wish to provide an outlook on contemporary China.

i-love-beijing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Love Beijing (Ning Ying, 2000)

Dezi is a twenty-something Beijing cabbie, with the habit of using his taxi to pick up women. Recently divorced, emotionally immature, and unready for any serious commitment, he wanders from one short-term relationship to another. The women he meets (a depressive waitress burdened by her family, a student with materialist dreams of moving abroad…) fare no better in coaxing responsibility out of him than his ex-wife did. His is a lonely existence moored in urban disconnection; if there was a touch more nostalgic longing about him, he’d be right at home in a Wong Kar-wai movie.

This meandering character study, however, is an excuse for a portrait of the film’s true main protagonist: the city of Beijing itself. Through Dezi’s vehicle, Ning Ying has the perfect medium to navigate the capital. Its rapid transition into capitalist metropolis is glimpsed through ubiquitous construction sites outside the car windows. Despite his own alienation, the back of Dezi’s cab is taken up by all kinds of Beijing residents, from all walks of life. The camera often lingers on the backseat for various montages of Dezi’s passengers, including radio hosts, penniless migrant workers and restaurant employees revising an English-language speech for a group of presumably important foreign guests. (“We hope you love Beijing as much as you love our Peking duck” he recites to himself.) At bottom, the taxi is a metaphor for Dezi’s generation and the new Beijing, their increased mobility giving them a false sense of freedom yet only enabling the most superficial kind of human interaction.

Ning delivers flashes of style to this mosaic of modern Beijing. Nouvelle vague jump-cuts abound, adding an effervescence to otherwise long takes. There’s also a pulsating jazz-funk track scoring the driving scenes, adding real energy and momentum to the film’s portrayal of Beijing (for all its irony, the title can be taken on face value too, Ning clearly has fondness for Beijing). As for Dezi, his trajectory may have begun with a divorce, and ends with a second marriage, but his life is going round in circles, just like the newly constructed ring-roads he drives on. A shock dealt to him by the action of one of his ex-girlfriends might have roused him from his standstill, but it feels like little changes in him. The kite he once gave her, and which they flew on Tiananmen Square, is returned to him. It is a symbol of stunted hope, which cannot help but recall those lost hopes for a freer democratic China quashed in tragic circumstances on that same site.

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Railroad of Hope (Ning Ying, 2002)

If Ning Ying shot a picture of the urban experience in I Love Beijing, she showed things from the other side of China’s urban-rural divide in her next film, Railroad of Hope. Every year, the growing inequities across the many regions of China causes the internal flow of millions of migrant workers. They leave behind hometowns and families in search of better employment opportunities and to then send money back home. These displacements are a perennial theme across Chinese history (I wrote a bit about this in my piece on A Touch of Sin), and Ning’s one-hour documentary neatly gives a micro-portrait of this wide-scale social phenomenon.

Hundreds of passengers queue up in Sichuan province, central China, to take a 3000km train journey to Xinjiang in the north-west. Xinjiang is more hospitable to agriculture, and more in need of workers, than mountainous Sichuan, so most travellers are heading for a few months of labour to boost familial revenue as best they can. Many have never been on a train before, or even ever left their villages. There’s a frantic rush as they desperately scramble to the platform in fear of missing the departure, and thereby wasting their pricey train ticket. It vaguely brings to mind the masses of dirt-poor peasants, living hand-to-mouth, arriving to Texas on trains in Malick’s Days of Heaven. Except that was in the 1910s while this is the 21st century.

Admittedly, it does feel more than a little uncomfortable watching the process of a camera filming these people, especially as a privileged ‘Westerner’ in comparison. There are a few moments that border on awkward voyeurism – a 14-year-old girl in tears as the camera operator asks her questions she’s barely interested in answering, for example. Your throat chokes up as some poor woman trips up over the weight of her bag while running on the platform. You feel bad for ever having complained about public transport rush-hour when you see these long-haul commuters climb in through windows, into overflowing carriages. The plainness of the questions asked at first seems intrusive, but eventually it all sinks in. Ning Ying’s documentary is simple, but it gives its subjects a platform and voice, and that is its beauty. Us outsiders looking in and feeling sorry or uncomfortable are not the point at all. The point is to get the women, men, and children in front of the lens to open up and talk, and the blunt questions perform that function. The candour is quite incredible, especially as the train starts off and the stress eases temporarily.

One woman tells of being duped into a marriage under the false pretense that she’d be offered work; she never was, but still remains with the husband who tricked her, purely because of the son they had together. One teenage boy goes from cheerful to teary, in a matter of seconds, when asked what his hopes for the future are – evidently a question he himself chooses not to think of. Another woman blankly states she’s not even sure what ‘happiness’ means when the voice behind camera asks her if she is happy. When asked why they go Xinjiang for hard work and little pay, the same answer recurs: for their children. Theirs are deferred lives, sacrificial and toiling through the motions in the hope they can hand down a better-off existence to the next generation. Being faced with their previously undocumented stories, from their own point of view, is a poignant experience.


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