Saturday, August 06, 2005

New Film: Broken Flowers and 2046

How much of Broken Flowers can be attributed to director Jim Jarmusch's contribution and how much to Bill Murray's? Though the auteur theory seems to have been made for corpuses like Jarmusch's -- as uniform as it is in style and point-of-view -- there can be no mistaking the consistency of Murray's performance in Broken Flowers with his recent work for directors as disparate as Jarmusch (also Coffee and Cigarettes, 2003), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003) and Wes Anderson (Rushmore, 1998; The Royal Tenenbaums, 2001; and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004). Increasingly, Mr. Murray looks as if he is little more than a Cossack away from starring in a series of lost Bresson features. Then again, performance style itself is meaningless without the manner in which the actors are framed and the quality of light that illuminates their gestures. Bill Murray may set a new standard for dead-pan in Broken Flowers, but without the over-arching structure and articulating style of the film, his performative restraint is meaningless.

So it is back to Jarmusch's contribution, which in terms of the work's style is unmistakable: typically, Broken Flowers features the director's use of fades to mark scene-changes, an often static camera, his frequent recourse to pillow shots -- especially in the film's numerous traveling sequences -- which once again mark the director as Ozu's clearest follower in the American cinema -- and even a Bressonian restraint which Murray brings flawlessly to screen. Collectively, these elements of style bring to life the story of Don Johnston -- not to be mistaken with, wait.. give me a second to catch my breath... Don Johnson -- an over-the-hill Don Juan (as we are told two hundred and forty-six times in the first ten minutes of the film) who discovers that he might have long-lost son from one of his many affairs. With Murray's Johnston being persistently brow-beaten by would-be private eye neighbor Jeffrey Wright, the former sets off in search of the mother of his potential off-spring, thereby mixing elements of detective fiction and the road movie, a favorite genre of the Stranger Than Paradise-auteur.

In terms of the women whom he visits -- played by Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton respectively -- Jarmusch tends towards schematics, producing something of a coiling miasma of Middle American banality: its not just that Jarmusch gets much of his financing from Europe, but no small portion of his perspective as well. Yet aside from this bit of slouching towards the Brothers Coen and a few flat jokes (including Sharon Stone's seductress daughter being named Lolita), the Director's typically-dry sense of humor remains in tact, which surely is a good thing given the work's dark denouement. In the end, Broken Flowers does offer a modicum of resolution even as it maintains the openness that has long signified the director's craft. Indeed, there is a fundamental relativity to his art which is best stated by Murray himself near the end of the film: "the past is gone... the future isn't here yet... so all there is is this, the present."

However, there does exist a fundamental flaw to Jarmusch's basic conceit: the present itself is the most unstable category of all, forever dying the moment it comes into existence. Wong Kar-wai's 2046 operates with this understanding, belying the impossibility of Jarmusch's philosophical gloss -- the present is never immune from the past, nor can the future escape an ever-constricting set of possibilities conditioned by what has already come into being. When Chow awakens to his feelings for Fei Wong's (Chungking Express, 1994) Wang, it becomes clear that they will never get together, not because she isn't interested, but rather for the fact that she is already in love. As the voice over narration states, "love is matter of timing; it is no use meeting the right person too early or too late."

Of course, Wang is not Chow's first love interest in 2046. She follows a series of one night-stands, her own incursion as a non-romantic presence, and Chow's fling with the incomparable Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi, House of Flying Daggers). In Wong's universe, nothing lasts -- people come into our lives, move out of them, and in some cases reappear, as with Faye Wong's character. In Chow and Wang's case, it is not a matter of lovers reuniting, but rather casual acquaintances who become much closer during a second go-round. In this second turn, she begins to assist Chow in his writing. He in turn pens "2047," named after the room in which he lives, and in which they now work. While this text is ostensibly concerned with her absent Japanese lover, the narrator admits that Chow is the true subject of this oblique take on his own feelings for Wang. Importantly, this same Japanese lover is the protagonist in a second novel, "2046," thereby establishing that the film of the same name is also about its author: Wong.

At the end of the film's prequel In the Mood for Love (2000), Leung's character whispers a secret into a wall. 2046 overtly instantiates the substance of his feelings -- or rather Wong's -- not only at the moment of confession but over the course of the director's entire career, even if he sustains the same degree of mystery that "2047" purportedly does: to everyone but (perhaps) those involved. In this way, 2046 is not only the most self-reflexive work of the director's career, but is in fact the fulfillment of a trilogy begun with Days of Being Wild (1991) and continued in In the Mood for Love. Wong shares the secrets of his deepest feelings -- and those of his art -- though with the same degree of abstraction as his fictional science fiction novel "2046." Significantly, this choice of genre is an organically-chosen means for referring to the same obliqueness with which Wong narrates his own feelings.

Lest all of this makes 2046 seem overly-intellectual, the reality is that Wong remains the most purely visceral filmmaker alive today. If Abbas Kiarostami's films pose the great formal questions of our time, Wong makes us feel as no other director can. He is the great aesthete of his time, attuned to the curve of a woman's hip and how the slit in her skirt rides up the side of her leg as no one else is. Then again, his films offer a form that is both original and that breathlessly express his own anxieties: just as people move in and out of other's lives, so do the narratives of his seemingly aleatory art emerge and collapse. 2046 becomes all the more essential for its role in the clarifying this very process.

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