Monday, January 28, 2008

2007 in Review: The 21st Century / Uncle To / Free Women

Frame from Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien, a filmmaker from the 20th century, has become, like David Lynch, a filmmaker of the 21st century at a time when so many 21st century filmmakers still make 20th century films with 20th century ideas. He's 60, but old people are always putting the young to shame. It's what they do best.
In Flight of the Red Balloon, he floats around 2007 with his camera and his microphone and turns the concrete into the vague and the vague into the concrete. Like People on Sunday, it's a memoir of the present: proof that cinema is greater than poetry. It is only as nostalgic for Albert Lamorisse's film as the present is for the past; an impossible gulf separate the two, and yet the latter is always inescapable, present in the form of places, memories, connotations. In the 21st century, we are always reminded that there has been so much history as now.

The main characters pose for a picture in Exiled (2006; released in the States in 2007)

Fred Camper is braver than most of us. He dared to write about Johnnie To in terms we secretly wanted to use. In the language we wanted to apply: not in misleading Peckinpah and Leone comparisons, but in sacred words reserved for Grandpas Ford and Hawks, for classical cinema.
Exiled is the marriage of To, the pulp dramatist and comedian, and To, the poet of gangs and personal histories. Sympathetic critics compare the film to a late western, but only because westerns and film noir are the only genres to no longer carry a stigma--they've become sacred cannon. Others meekly say the movies is "more than an action flick," as if a work in that genre is incapable of greatness by default--to be good, it has to be similar to something else.
Exiled is certainly an action film, nothing more, and that is more than enough. It's a gun operetta, with choice solos by Anthony Wong's austerely jowled face, one of the most beautiful in modern cinema.
An actioner is as much about shootouts as a western is about horses and Indians or a film noir is about criminals. Most reviewers need new glasses; they mistake a ricocheting bullet for nihilism. Do they still mix up musical numbers with escapism?

A promotional still for Death Proof (2007)

Why is Jackie Brown Quentin Tarantino's most lasting film? Because it's his least ironic. It's the work of a lover, not an expert. Of a friend, not a taxonomist. Most importantly, it's a movie by someone who believes in the exploitation film, not someone trying to sell their knowledge of the genre. Coincidentally, it's one of his least popular and commercially successful projects.
The extended cut of Death Proof, shown abroad and available on DVD in the US, will last, too. It treats the world of genre movies and general business of commercial filmmaking unironically. It emulates rather than imitates. It has a secret ambition: to move beyond Kill Bill's brand of Jack Hill "sexy feminism." Liberation through transgression: Tarantino's sexual fetishes are no longer suggested, but are instead lingered on; the abrupt, violent conclusion doesn't bring closure--it creates possibilities. Death Proof's free women are in the imagination of a free man.


Daniel said...

Really lovely write-ups. I still need to see the longer cut of Death Proof, but I certainly agree the film is more in tune with the Tarantino of Jackie Brown than of Kill Bill, which is a welcome relief.

Bobby Wise said...

I agree with you completely on "Jackie Brown". However, I don't think "Death Proof" will last. At the end of the day it's just not that good a film. "Jackie Brown" and "Kill Bill" are the great exploitation films that Tarantino thought he was making with "Grindhouse". In "Death Proof" Tarantino is at his weakest in an area where he has actually proven to be a master: telling a story. Not to say that one must do that in order to be a great filmmaker.