Great Quotes on Film #3

“Tarkovsky was sitting in the corner of the screening room watching the film with me, but he got up as soon as the film was over and looked at me with a shy smile. I said to him, “It’s very good. It’s a frightening movie.” He seemed embarrassed but smiled happily.
Then the two of us went to a film union restaurant and toasted with vodka. Tarkovsky, who does not usually drink, got completely drunk and cut off the speakers at the restaurant, then began singing the theme of Seven Samurai at the top of his voice. I joined in, eager to keep up.
At that moment, I was very happy to be on Earth.”

-Akira Kurosawa, on watching Solaris with Andrei Tarkovsky

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Flutters and Stutters: Time and Again in “Chungking Express”

In his essay “Time Pieces: Wong Kar-Wai and the Persistence of Memory,” critic Chuck Stevens summarizes Wong Kar-Wai’s approach to film-making perfectly: “Passionate about ideas, possessed by the errant flashes of whimsy and misfortune that haunt modern loves, [Wong Kar-Wai] transforms emotional free-fall into infectious rhymes and deliberate coincidences, willfully missed signals and capricious possibilities for romance.” The quote refutes the criticisms of Wong as an auteur of style over substance, as someone who can’t think of anything meaningful to say so he just finds interesting things to shoot. And while Wong’s approach may seem frenetic and romanticized, a closer look at his 1994 film Chungking Express will uncover a director who utilizes the expansion and contraction of time, as well as a progressive sense of repetition, to create meditative works about relationships and individual’s natures within them.

possessed by the errant flashes of whimsy and misfortune that haunt modern loves, [Wong Kar-Wai] transforms emotional free-fall into infectious rhymes and deliberate coincidences

As a swift introduction, Chungking Express‘s plot can be summarized as follows: the film contains two stories about two cops who separately experience the breakdown of their relationships and wander around similar patches of Hong Kong until they each meet a (different) mysterious, inscrutable woman who challenges their sense of self, both independently and in a relationship. The first story features Takeshi Kaneshiro  as Cop 223 (aka He Qiwu) and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia as “Woman in blond wig” (though I call her Blondie), while the second story stars Faye Wong as Faye and Tony Leung as Cop 663. Both intersect at the Midnight Express eatery, as well as a few other minor locations. Neither relationship between the pairs end up “working out,” but each player ends up in a fruitful location, if physically if not emotionally.


Oh my life, is changing every day
in every possible way

The distinctive, kinetic style CE is lauded for is the work of Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau, the cinematographers for the film (who handled the first and second story, respectively). While they actually vary their techniques widely throughout the film, producing patient-yet-inventively framed shots one moment and feverish, blurred shots the next, the film’s reputation was built on the frenzied sense established in the latter, as can be seen in the choice of opening shots in the trailer.

As the film begins, we follow Blondie through shady hallways and streets while classical music with a noirish languor plays along, before cutting to Cop 223. He brushes past Blondie before chasing a criminal through the crowded streets of Hong Kong, an effect Wong amplifies via a stutter-step technique that at times is kinetoscope-esque. The effect, postulated by Mike D’Angelo to be the removal and duplication of certain frames, is used throughout the film in different ways, but always to the same effect: to dilate and contract time. Here it represents the contraction of time, the bodies blurring by in a way to make both them and the criminal 223 is chasing indistinct.  Cop 223 failed to catch his mark, and so the moment plays as a memory best forgotten. In addition, 223’s sense of disconnection from the people around him (his girlfriend dumped him, his childhood acquaintances have moved far beyond him) is ingrained in him that others appear literally indistinguishable to him, such that the contraction of time serves to get them “out of his way” quicker.

The chief moment of time dilation, however, comes when 663’s ex, a flight stewardess,  stops by the Midnight Express, but on his off day, and leaves a note the Express owner (and every other employee, including Faye) is quick to read. Unlike the others, who only find humor in its brief message, Faye sees the heartbreak it will cause, which makes it tough for her to reveal it to 663 when he comes by. She does, and is surprised by his refusal to see the letter (“after my coffee,” he claims), at which time begins to dilate in distinctive ways in the same shot: in the foreground, people flash in, across, and out of the midnight express.pngscene as colored blurs, nebulous figures sped up in the shot. In the background, Faye and 663 are at the counter of the Midnight Express, 663 leaning his left side on it and staring through space, Faye leaning on the counter and staring at him. Unlike the figures in the fore, however, Faye and 663 seem to be moving in slow motion, their actions choppy and deliberate compared to the chaos in front of them. What results is a shot that perfectly embodies how senses of time are subjective, and can deepen and chasm for one individual (663, his world coming apart as he realizes this is the relationship’s true end), stretch for another (Faye, anxious to read 663’s reaction to the letter’s contents), and remain unaltered/appear hyperextended for other (everyone else in the shot, whose own lives are unaffected by this minor drama).

The narration also often dilates time to great effect. 663’s heartbreak over his  ex-girlfriend is undercut by the ways in which Faye influences him, as she used the key his ex left behind to sneak into his apartment and clean in it, daydream in it, and eventually redecorate it. But a new level of nuance is then added when 663, suspecting things are being tampered with around his place, starts returning home at unorthodox times to catch Faye. While he’s physically trying to confirm Faye’s appearance, and transpose her from dream to reality, a distance is kept by the way his voice-over narrates this discovery, with scenes seeming to imply he’s crying apt.pngabout to catch Faye, but which are really about little routines he performed with his ex. What seemed to be a synchronous moment is
either ironically asynchronous or a projection/reflection of 663 over the moment as-it’s-happening. A similar technique occurs when Cop 223, after a jog on his 25th birthday, places his pager on a chain link fence, the voice-over informing us that he left his pager behind because he knew ‘no one would call him anyway.’ As he walks away from both the camera and the pager, presumably providing closure on the scene, it beeps, and he immediately runs back to check it. Either the voice-over is out of sync with 223’s emotional state, or it is withholding information it finds to precious to share; either outcome proposes a temporal disconnect that adds nuance to the character.


I want more, impossible to ignore
impossible to ignore

Besides modulating time, Wong utilizes repetition in Chungking Express to great effect. The most obvious example is structurally, as the film is two halves connected by a location, the Midnight Express, an all-night cheap eatery in Hong Kong’s trendy Lan Kwei Fong district. While the title gets its second half from that location, the first half refers to the Chungking Mansions, a den of dilapidated hotels and vindaloo joints in the city’s Tsimhatsui district. (At least at the time. Apparently the Midnight Express is now a 7/11.)

Pulling backwards from the film and looking at its production, repetition also abounds. Chungking Express (CE) was created during a hiatus in the filming of Ashes of Time, Wong’s wuxia film. It was originally intended to have three parts but Wong ran out of time, and instead expanded the excised section into its own film, 1995’s Fallen Angels. He did this by employing the same technique he used in CE: creating two stories that echo each other thematically and intersect each other physically.

final shot

The final scene of the film is awash in repetition of intention, but with a sense of progression, like a spiraling point that maintains momentum and direction but finds itself further and further out with each revolution. Near the end, Faye has returned from California (she spent most of the film accompanied by “California Dreaming“) an air hostess, but rather than mirror his past relationship Cop 663 quits his post and ends up buying and renovating the Midnight Express. Faye, not thrilled with the reality, rejects her California dream while 663 embraces his, the boombox playing “California Dreaming.” While she failed to show the first time, here it is her seeking him out, and while she again leaves him, she reconnects as a way to both affirm and reinforce change. Similarly, though Cop 223 leaves his own apartment as a way to let Blondie leave without confusion or embarrassment, it is she who ends up reaffirming 223’s commitment to staying connected with people, as signified by his instant about-face on his decision to leave his pager behind. The reason? A simple ‘Happy Birthday’ message from her.

Audrey Yue, in her essay “In the Mood for Love: Intersections of Hong Kong Modernity,” notes that Wong has a tendency for dual narratives, and compares their form to tête-bêches. The connection is readily apparent: the stories cover the same ground, with characters that could be considered interchangeable. And yet the direction is unmistakably altered, Faye and wig lady.pngleading to new approaches, new discoveries that seem almost alien to the previous version’s concerns. The “paired” characters embody this: while Cop 663 is clean-cut, dignified (if boring), and in uniform, Cop 223 is sloppy and emotional, willing to call childhood schoolmates to allay his loneliness. Blondie, meanwhile, wears obscuring clothes (and of course the wig) to conceal herself, and is reserved in nature, though cerebral in effect, while we meet Faye with a sleeveless undershirt and pants, bobbing her head to The Mamas and The Papa’s “California Dreaming” and losing herself in the music so she “doesn’t have to think so much.” The slight variations continue in ways big and small, from eating habits to how characters are predominately framed within a shot, and paradoxically amplify the sense of distinction between the stories, while tying together their similar themes of progression and connection.


And oh, my dreams, it’s never quite as it seems
cause you’re a dream to me
dream to me

In a way, relationships seem like excitement, untarnished ebullience, yet they often mellow into routines, and if the players involved come to rely too much on those routines, the relationship can break its back over them. By evoking reality but staying tantalizingly out of reach, the relationships in Chungking Express are transformative: they impel stasis into action, ask to reconsider the spaces around which life happens, or the ways they are navigated. The refracted stories of 223 and 663—jilted cops loosed from physical paralyses—and Faye and Blondie—unconstrained women whose dreams are at odds with their realities—create resonances that reward the patience, the observant, the conscious. For all the stylistic flourishes of the film,  it’s really about how people change and are changed.  Like the pop songs it recycles throughout its running time, it’s about seeing the distinctions amongst the repetitions. Tired lines may seem trite in one moment, revelatory the next. Rhythms may entice toe-taping one moment, a twinge of pain the next. The essential question Chungking Express asks is not which one you prefer, but if you’re willing to get to one from the other.

 


NOTES

  • This post is an entry in the Criterion Blogathon, graciously hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Check out these sites, and all of the blogs contributing to the blogathon, today!
  • I didn’t have time to get into it in the essay, but Chungking Express does a lot of interesting things with diegetic/non-diegetic music. If you’d like to learn more about interactions between diegetic and non-diegetic music, check out my essay on sound in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

Heathers (1988): A “Wobbly” Kind of Beauty

(This article was originally published at www.thefocuspull.com)

It’s like, they’re people I work with and our job is being popular and shit

There are dozens of formative teen films, and each takes on the trappings of its individual generation not only to frame the story, but to more often be the essence of the story. Dazed and Confused’s ambling, unmoored approach echoed both the 70s cautious and bewildered look to the 60s and the 90s’ similar look back to the 80s. American Graffiti achieves similar effect but in the opposite direction, with the characters’ crazy adventures on that night in ’62 about to be made naïve as the decade progressed.

But rarer are the teen films that capture their own generation as it is happening, and while the most recent may be Dear White People (reviewed on this very site), undoubtedly the most well-known is Mean Girls, the 2004 film written by Tina Fey based on the Rosalind Wiseman book. And, whereas the previous “generation films” focus primarily on the male protagonists, and their efforts to “score” or “make sense of their lives,” Mean Girls provides a compelling, hilarious, and truthful look at high school’s effects on its inhabitants. Far from ‘one wacky last night outside the school,’ in Mean Girls the school itself is the liminal space, akin to a nuclear power plant in that it fosters and induces cramped conditions and, therefore, chain reactions. Because while communities and cities have their own ideological, political, cultural, or spiritual groups, high school throws all of that into a pressure cooker, sets a timer, and then leaves the kitchen while it boils over.

Heathers Review

But Mean Girls was not the first film to achieve a female-centered narrative that didn’t devolve into trite cliché, and it arguably isn’t even the best at what it does. I’d argue that title goes to Heathers, a 1988 dark comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater. Both films feature an exaggerated clique leading the school, a smart girl who can move in, out, and among their grasp, and a high school as the battlezone. But while Mean Girls doesn’t pull any punches about how cruel the high school experience can get, it fails to get as dark or hilarious as Heathers.

The film takes place in Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio and centers on the eponymous Heathers, a group of rich, pedigreed girls whose popularity equals power over the rest of the school. While Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) is the adopted fourth member of the group, it’s clear she yearns for something more, or at the very least a return to her prior life and friends. (Perhaps this is what drove her to the Heathers in the first place, as the lead Heather, Heather Chandler, tells her that she teaches people “how to spread their wings and fucking fly.”) This impulse is tested when J.D. (Slater) arrives in town, a new student with a penchant for the psychotic. He befriends Veronica, and they develop a relationship that gets pushed to the extreme when J.D. seems willing and able to put Veronica’s teenage whims, captured quite eloquently in her diary, into action. This means a series of deaths made to look like suicides, most notably Heather Chandler’s. Any illusions Veronica had that Heather’s death would change the dynamic of the school take a turn for the worse when, upon discovering her forged suicide note, the school begins eulogizing Heather. Among this craziness J.D.’s psychotic nature emerges, forcing Veronica to save the very school she is by-turns enamored, frustrated, and fed up with.

Mean Girls by no means retreads the ground Heathers walked over, as you can tell by the crazy second and third acts, but they do share some plotting and characterization similarities. And the debts the former has to the latter aren’t totally formal, either; they’re also direct: the writer of Heathers, David Waters, has a younger brother named Mark, who just happened to direct a film called Mean Girls. David himself wanted his film to be seen as “the final word on high school films”—a pronouncement audacious in scope until you learn that he also wanted Stanley Kubrick to direct it. While neither happened (and, let’s be honest, Mean Girls might very well be supplanted in the next decade), Heathers nonetheless leaves an indelible mark of satire, teen angst, and infinitely quotable lines (which I’ve lovingly used as section headers in this essay).

Heathers Review

What’s Your Damage, Heather?

Like any good diary, Heathers gets better the more you read into it. And it starts with the names: among the leads, Veronica Sawyer combines Archie’s Veronica with Twain’s Tom Sawyer, and J.D. (Jason Dean here) is obviously a corruption of James Dean. The main Heather, Heather Chandler, takes her last name from the Middle English term for a “retail dealer in provisions and supplies or equipment of a specified kind,” the assumption being that, as group leader, this Heather is dealing in coolness and popularity. Second rank is Heather Duke, which in Latin derives from ducere “to lead,” although a duke is understandably lower than a queen. Finally, we round out the gang with Heather McNamara, probably the strangest name as it leads us to JFK’s and LBJ’s Secretary of Defense, a man who wasn’t the chief one in the spotlight but nonetheless knew how the strings were connected. Even the town, Sherwood, Ohio, alludes to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short stories about a town whose inhabitants make high school students look like trained show dogs.

The names matter because, while the characters are well-developed and their predicaments are (for the most part–but we’ll get to that) believable, the film functions as a dark comedy by way of satire. The Heathers are chiefly distinguishable by their color-coded dresses, the jocks in the film are meat-and-potato-heads, the reaction to the suicides is ludicrous and borders on a perverse hero worship, and one needs only to look at Slater’s vice grip-squinted face for a few seconds before they convulse into conniptions. It’s never explicitly shouted, but the problems here, however real, are upper class ones: in between existential questions in a diary or public shamings in a cafeteria, the characters reside in posh houses with patios and marble statues, playing croquet because, in suburban Ohio, that’s about as close to a royal hunt as you can get.

Heathers Review

And then there are the politically incorrect lines, which date the movie, but maybe not in a bad way. Lines like “Does Africa have Thanksgiving?” or “Save the speeches for Malcolm X, I just want to get laid” probably wouldn’t fly these days due to the casual way in which they’re thrown off in the film. The suicides, shootings, and near-bombing of a totally-full school also would draw ire with the seemingly careless way they’re handled (not unlike another similar humorist who tackled a similar subject faced…), but they work in Heathers to place the drama in both ludicrous and logical terms. It makes sense that, for a girl like Veronica who can eat pâté and casually deride her father in front of him, the only thing that would really shake her up is her vicissitudal social standing in her immediate surroundings. (Yet another reason it’s set in small town Ohio?) The scene where Veronica and J.D. bicker/flirt over how to punish Heather Chandler for taking Veronica to a college party, with Veronica going for the classic milk-and-OJ-combo while J.D. favors an electric blue Drano-type liquid, is borderline Lynchian in how its implications bash up against the Play Date-esque way it’s handled and, indeed, framed. It can’t be surprising, then, that Heather dies from the mixture, with both the shocking (she falls through a glass table that shatters resoundingly) and the silly (her last words? “Corn Nuts“) colliding.

Perhaps Heathers would have been even more groundbreaking had the original ending been retained. Known as the “prom in Heaven” ending, it also features Veronica killing J.D., but, upon seeing the little good it does in stopping the status quo of cliques eating each other alive at Westerburg, she then decides to let the bomb that J.D. planted go off in the school, killing both herself and everyone else. Cut to a reverse fade to a bright light, then a scene coated in white, with poppy music playing and everyone from Westerburg High, regardless of sex, race, creed, or social standing, dancing together in Heaven. And upon all this Veronica looks on approvingly, while a banner unfurls overhead proclaiming “What a waste, oh, the humanity.” That great equalizer, however intriguing, is probably too dark of an ending, even for a dark satire like Heathers, and it leaves the film in a less complicated place: everyone’s dead, but happy. With the original ending, we get most of the people living and happy—with the lingering sense that said happiness won’t last forever, and that the goodwill of purging the school will lead back into distrust, conflicts, and cliques. Whether it will return to that status quo before or after Veronica graduates (Stanford or San Quentin?) is another question. 

Heathers Review

Fuck Me Gently With a Chainsaw

Finally, a confession: part of my love of Heathers stems from my infatuation with Winona Ryder. I had an irrational crush on her since I saw her in Beetlejuice, it became serious when I saw her in Edward Scissorhands, deepened (and maybe even matured) with her roles in Mermaids and The Age of Innocence, became a little edgier in the mid-90s with Reality Bites and The Crucible, and then kind of petered out in the early 2000s when I remembered she was in Mr. Deeds.

Seeing Heathers for the first time in college, I remembered that my fixation on her stemmed not only from my crush on her, but due to her penchant for picking up complicated-yet-grounded roles in films that otherwise would whirl out of control. What I appreciate most in Beetlejuice, for example, is not Michael Keaton’s manic performance (though, come on, it is brilliant), or the plain darkness of the plot, but the grounded nature of Ryder’s performance. The same goes for her turn as Kim Boggs in Edward Scissorhands: she doesn’t have the silent movie affectations of Depp, but she also isn’t cartoony and buffoonish like the rest of the town.

Yet if you’re confusing her unabashedly individual roles for that of the bland foil, think again. Kim Boggs is a deceptively simple character, yet the whole conceit of the film, that it is Kim bookending the film by telling her granddaughter the story of Edward, would fall apart if Ryder weren’t able to suffuse it with a trenchant and approachable melancholy. Abigail in The Crucible is wild-eyed girl who treads the line between demonic and sexual. And, in Heathers, it is Veronica’s ability to oscillate between the different cliques, and the ethical dilemmas this causes, that gives her character. Ryder can imbue her characters with this depth due to her own seeming contradictions: she has big, shiny, 1940s movie star eyes and lips, yet the mannerisms and inflection of a Gen X’er, resulting in an alluring beauty, or a beautiful acerbic. In an appraisal of her role in Heathers, writer Waters called it “wobbly,” which I think is great for the way it catches the range of her work, and the inherent instability and flux of her very best roles.