Thursday, February 28, 2013

#411: Berlin Alexanderplatz

(Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980)

Episode 1: Oh, Jesus, this could be a long trip. We're only 2 hours in and I already know I have to watch 13 more hours of a man who raped one woman (who subsequently decided she liked it like apparently happens in quite a few movies) and murder another by beating her to death with his bare hands. This is the protagonist of a 15-and-a-half hour movie.

Episode 2: It's clear now that this is really more of a season of, say, an HBO show, as the story has a nice arc in this episode similar to the previous one. So I guess really Franz is not so different from Tony Soprano, and he does want to go clean. Obviously it's not Fassbinder's intention to glorify what his character has done - and I doubt all of this is going to end very well for Franz - but this sort of thing is a lot easier in a book (or even a regular-length movie) than in a massive epic which revolves around one protagonist.

Episode 3: I had very little idea what the hell was going on in this episode. In fact, I had to go to Wikipedia to read the synopsis to make sure I had gotten the necessary info - turns out I had understood the broad strokes, it just seemed like there was a lot more going on under the surface than there really was. The whole interaction with the woman in her house was very strange - I couldn't quite understand if he had indeed had sex with her or made it up or what. And then when leaves at the end it seemed like he was making a bigger deal out of it than it was. That other guy was a real sleazeball, though.

Episode 4: What the fuck. This was dull as shit. I'm starting to get really worried that I have to watch ten more hours of this. How is this an hour long?

Episode 5: Lina appears to be gone, which is odd, but this episode was loads better than the previous one - in fact, it might be my favorite up to this point. The story is kind of strange and a little unbelievable - who is to say all these women are going to be attracted to both of these men anyway? Actually, why are they attracted to either one of them at all for that matter? Do women have extremely slim pickings in pre-WWII Germany? Still, it's nice to have an actual plot after the last episode, and I enjoyed Franz's arc and the way he handled everything, even if he is still pretty damn unlikable. I'm six hours into this thing and I have yet to really see why this needs to be so long or what people see in it. It's so intently focused on this guy who is totally nowhere that I wonder if I'm just missing a lot by not knowing much about German history between the World Wars. So far there have been some Nazi references (along with a reference to this guy - I think at the end of episode 4 - who I had never heard of before and I find pretty interesting), but nothing that really stands out.

Episode 6: We seem to be getting into a little more plot here, and it looks like Franz will be heading back into crime if I'm not mistaken. His inadvertent association with a robbery all seemed a little too ridiculous to be entirely behind his back, but I do think he is still trying to stay clean. I will also mention that I had a bit of the same reaction to this episode that I had to episode 3, which was that I was pretty sure I wasn't following what was going on, but looking back I got all the essentials. This is certainly a very dense work that is a reflection of its source materials and its ambition - I just wonder if the surface story is appealing enough to convince most people to take a second and third 16 hour journey.

Episode 7: This felt like a transition episode. Franz has lost an arm, yeah, but all that really means is he'll be slightly fatter on his right side for the rest of the series. Really, this feels like the turning point where Franz tries to hold off from descending back into his previous lifestyle and eventually succumbs in the good old red light district, which is rendered here as a kind of Pirates of the Caribbean meets Douglas Sirk aesthetic (only, you know, more prostitutes). I'm more intrigued than I have been at the end of previous episodes, but I'm not on board yet.

Episode 8: I hate this. Seriously, what am I doing with my life? Why did I watch this? Can someone tell me what happened in this episode that makes it need to exist? Why does anyone like this movie? What is happening?

Episode 9: You know what would be a good idea? They should show the murder that Franz went to jail for more. They should show it over and over. That would be good.

Episode 10: So this one was at least moderately interesting. The dynamic between Franz and Mieze is getting more complex, and the way he handles her new long-term client is engaging and somewhat suspenseful knowing what we know about his ability to inflict damage on his women. But I have a hard time believing anyone would think episodes 8-10 (and I suspect 11, too, since this didn't really end with a clean cut) wouldn't be better condensed into one hour - perhaps even less. It's been a long Criterion journey to get to this film, but through 450-some posts I never once suspected that most people who liked a movie did so out of obligation or pretense. But I am honestly at a loss to explain why this film is so well-liked, or really why anyone would like it. When compared to other Fassbinder, it feels lazy and largely incomplete. I'm certainly going to reserve my final judgement until after the notorious epilogue, but at this point I'm not convinced anything can be worth the hours I've spent on this.

Episode 11: Somewhat better than what's come before in that things actually happened, but the big climactic scene was so horrific and awful to watch that I hate to praise it any more than previous episodes. Perhaps following a character like Franz in a book can be bearable, but once you've seen the things his character does to women, it's hard to care at all about the minutiae of his life. This was also the episode where the homoerotic undertones of Reinhold's and Franz's relationship became most apparent. This is still quite the chore.

Episode 12: The second half of this episode, in which Mieze and Reinold walk through the woods, culminating with her murder, is superb filmmaking of the highest order. It also makes absolutely no sense as a television program in the early 1980s, when broadcast technology must have rendered some of the shots virtually indecipherable. It's the best indication yet of just how poorly this must have come across on the small screen before HD and screen sizes that went beyond 30 inches. I wouldn't say the last 12 hours before this were worth it, but I am glad I watched this scene. Still, the characters' motivations are so unbelievable - I really have a hard time understanding how Mieze could have been so stupid as to think she could use Reinold to get information without him wanting something in return, and I don't understand why she would be attracted to Franz in the first place. Most of the interactions in this movie remain a bit of a mystery to me.

Episode 13: Most of this episode could be cut - I would say this could have easily been five-ten minutes of a typical film. Very little is gained by the increased running time except for more opportunities to have Franz say Mieze is dead over and over. This is a pretty disappointing way to end a 14 hour movie, but it's also quite indicative of the film as a whole - overlong, totally self-indulgent, and depressing in an insignificant way. I've heard a lot of interesting things about the epilogue, so I'm not completely checked out at this point. But I am thankful to have most of this ordeal over and done with. I've started reading just about everything on this film I can find online, and this article most closely approximates my own feelings at this point, both in its headline and its full text. I would love to talk to someone who found this film engrossing, or even worth seeing.

Epilogue: Um. OOOOOOOOOOOOkay. I'm not sure this could have been more German if they had tried. I had no idea what to expect going into this, but it was certainly just as weird as people said it would be. There were definitely some cool parts, especially as it related to pop music. But most of it is pretty indecipherable, and just as overstuffed with ideas as the previous fourteen hours were overkill.

Honestly, I don't get the appeal of this movie. I'm really hoping someone can help me out here. Why does anyone think this approaches Fassbinder's finest work (The Marriage of Maria Braun, World on a Wire, or Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), let alone surpasses them? It's just so long. So very very long, and unnecessarily so. And the idea that anyone would spend 16 hours with this unlikable, unappealing character is a total mystery to me. Has anyone ever watched this a second time? How can that be possible? That is nearly a full day of your life that you never get back.

The way women were treated in the film also really bothered me. I'm not necessarily calling the film itself sexist or misogynistic, but these moments just felt excessive and depressing. I like a lot of Fassbinder, I really do, but I'm just at a loss here. Obviously, at fifteen hours, it's not a film I'll be giving another shot, but I would like to come out of it with a greater understanding of what people see in it. I just don't have that yet. In fact, this is the first time in over six hundred and fifty titles that I've thought to myself "Do people just like this movie to say that they like it?" This is a question that typically repulses me, but here we are.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

#17: Salò

(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)

There is a truly harrowing moment in Salo, but it's not any of the moments often cited as difficult to watch. Unlike those scenes, it doesn't involve excrement, knives, or gruesome torture. Instead, a handful of victims is found to be in violation of the rules and, rather than deal with their inevitable punishment, they rat out other victims for breaking the rules. They do this even most likely fully aware that it will not save them, but in a last ditch attempt to have power over someone else in the way they themselves have already been dominated.

Salò is undoubtedly the most notorious film in the Criterion Collection, and arguably the most notorious film made by a serious filmmaker in the history of cinema. Watching the film is a rite of passage into that most daring (and insignificant) group of cineastes who are willing to go the extra mile to satisfy the urge to complete their cinematic education. It's also sought-out by viewers with a thirst for the extreme, those who would group it in with The Human Centipede and Cannibal Holocaust as a graphic ordeal that is unafraid to explore the limits of exploitation and extreme violence.

Though I understand the latter group, I generally reject the appeal of that sort of movie, so, apart from simply wanting to have a fully finished list of Criterion movies with no cheating, any desire I would have to see the film would stem from my allegiance to the former group. Either way, I think both groups would and should be dissatisfied with Salò. As a film, I don't think it's especially impressive, and as a piece of horror-slanted torture porn, it's rather awkward. Salò neither delivers a compelling political or cinematic case for its existence, nor treats its most disgusting and shocking moments with enough reckless abandon for horror fans to enjoy it. The lack of story, the disappointing way in which homosexuality is treated (especially infuriating since Pasolini himself was gay), and the thin line between the horrors of fascism being exposed and the thrill of fascism being glorified makes the film a somewhat meaningless viewing.

Still, the enormous reputation of the film, combined with my own long journey toward viewing it (or even being ready to view it) seems to demand an evaluation. Like so many visceral films, Salò must be evaluated on two separate levels: the experience of watching it, and what is actually on the screen. Pasolini's most beautiful shots (essentially all of which come in the first half of the film) can not conceal the emotional dread this beauty invokes simply because we know what's going to come next. Similarly, the repulsion that is unavoidable in what Pasolini so accurately dubs "the circle of shit" cannot be overlooked when attempting to place these moments in a political context. Without fully bisecting the two, I'd like to address them separately.

As an emotional experience, Salò will tell you a lot about your relationship with movies, specifically violent movies. Nearly 40 years on, the film has lost little of its power to repulse audiences, but the film is not nearly as shocking as it must have been at the time. If anything, Salò is a reminder of how low we've sunk - regardless of your opinion of the film, you have to assume Pasolini was saying something here, even if it was just to elicit some sort of response. The most violent movies today (e.g. Saw, Texas Chainsaw, the above-mentioned Human Centipede) are created for the passive viewer in hyper-aggressive ways. Salò, for better of worse, toys with your feelings. Movies today assume you have none, and are in it for the kicks. Would anything here truly be above being used almost exactly in a contemporary horror film geared at squirming teenagers and their dates? The final horrific torture scene, in which victims are tied to stakes with every limb, seems to have been transposed directly for use in The General's Daughter, a procedural crime film starring John Travolta which made over $100 million at the box office with hardly a peep from offended parties.

On a personal level, much of your ability to stomach the film will depend on how easy it is for you to separate what is on screen from the reality of the production. For some viewers, the fact that what is being done to these human beings is not real, that they did not suffer, and that the poop is most likely chocolate is no consolation, and those people really have no business watching the film. Without this ability, I can only imagine what seeing this movie would be like. And yet, with this ability, I fail to see the worth in seeing these things done. Am I supposed to be proud of myself for being able to stomach reenactments of the true horrors humanity can inflict on one another? Perhaps I am supposed to internalize the violence to ensure that I will treat real acts of a similar nature with more gravity? Neither self-congratulation nor humility seems worth the experience - one is an intellectual circle jerk, the other, preaching to the choir.

Technically, Salò is an extremely well-made film. Pasolini only made films for a decade and a half, but his chops were already on full view in Mamma Roma, and this film, made a decade later, shows his maturity and steady hand. His musical juxtapositions might come off as too obviously ironic, but the classical framing during the story telling and the near-documentary style of the opening sequence in which the victims are rounded up seems absolutely essential to presenting what comes afterwards with the necessary weight. Of course, some shots do seem entirely designed to disgust for the sake of being disgusting (a certain close up of an unappetizing dish being the most obvious), and moments like these reminded me of the wasted talents of directors like Gaspar Noe and often Michael Haneke. There is certainly a "sound and fury" effect to Pasolini's films when viewed from outside of the cultural context against which Pasolini believed he was raging (and which arguably did him in). Furthermore, the narrative is so simple, the characters so spare, and the philosophical discussions so haphazard, that any knowledge of where to put the camera becomes irrelevant pretty fast.

Beyond the actual process of watching the film, Pasolini's political take on the film seems to be dependent upon how seriously he intended to connect his fascist antagonists with his modern day "neo capitalist" targets, and whether the shots fired were intended to be directed specifically at them or were instead meant to be all-consuming. Fascism has become such an easy target that any rejection of its supporters feels like beating a dead horse, but even if Pasolini had used some other example it wouldn't have changed much - this isn't exactly a subtle film. But if the argument becomes whether or not Pasolini intended to express a counter-philosophy or simple nihilism, the film makes for a more interesting jumping off point.

Inevitably, that discussion must come back to that moment when victim turns on victim. This seems to me to be the heart of the film (if it can have a heart), and challenges the simplistic construct of the narrative to make a more complex point about humanity. But there is a second moment which demands evaluation: the pianist's suicide. This character, hardly noticed before her final moment, is the clearest stand-in for the viewer, not necessarily in their role as a viewer (after all, this position is taken much more clearly by the fascists as they sit with binoculars and view the torture below), but in their role in society, serving the powers that be as they stand by allowing evil to continue. From this perspective, her fate can be taken in two ways: surrendering to the inevitability of the evils she has just witnessed, or rebelling against that evil in the only way she could manage to assure they would no longer control her. I honestly can't say what Pasolini's intention was in this scene, but it does read to me as the most important scene in the film, and I am somewhat surprised it is not discussed more frequently when Salò is considered. Of course, it is quite possible Pasolini simply intended to show one more shitty thing, which leads us back to the great mystery of the film.

I've written a lot about Salò at this point, somewhat ironically despite the fact that I ultimately don't think the film is worth intense examination. Perhaps assuming many viewers would feel the same, Criterion has included more essays in this release than in any other release I can recall. None of these really changed my mind about the worth of viewing Salò, although Catherine Breillat's essay is a wild ride. I think the thing I will remember most about the experience of seeing this film is the impossibility of meeting expectations. No film is as horrifying as your imagination can make it seem, none is so explosive as its reputation (although House really is that weird). This renders shock cinema somewhat impotent. Removed from its notoriety, the fact that film is banned in multiple countries, has horrified numerous unsuspecting filmgoers, and maintains a reputation as the most daring and disturbing film ever made, Salò is a mean little movie that says a lot more about its creator than it does about society. You already know if you can stomach Salò or not, the question is, should you really even bother?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

#648: Chronicle of a Summer

(Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1960)

I feel asleep on two separate occasions while watching Chronicle of a Summer. This doesn't mean it's a bad movie or I didn't like it (I have a one-year-old, so late nights are anything past 10), but I bring it up because I expected to be totally enraptured with this movie, and was quite surprised when it ended up causing me to drift off. Part of this was the pacing, but a lot of the problem was simply that the people in it were not as interesting as I expected them to be.

There were still a few moments that kind of blew my mind. The first happened towards the beginning of the film when an old man is interviewed. He tells us that he was born in '82, the same year I was born - only 100 years earlier in 1882. This of course immediately made me think about the fact that I will be 78 in 2060 - if I live that long!

The second moment occurred later during a conversation that was initially about race. It was a somewhat uncomfortable conversation, both for the viewer and the people having it, and it was a reminder that while racial politics have changed enormously in the last half-century (something that's quite obvious in the conversation), this  awkwardness when addressing the topic has not diminished much. However, partway into the conversation the facilitator asked two of the men if they knew what the numbers on one of the women's arm referred to. Here was a woman who was probably around my age who had survived the Holocaust! In a lifetime of watching movies, I don't think the proximity of that most horrifying of events to my own time had ever seemed more real to me. It made me immediately recontextualize all of the films I had seen about the Holocaust from the 50s and 60s. Works like Night and Fog, The Two of Us, and The Shop on Main Street were connected to real people who went to see them, people my age who couldn't look at them as works addressing a generic "history" but as works speaking to their own histories. It's not a thought that is easily reconcilable with an innocent view of the world, and it's impossible for me to understand what it would be like to have to shape a world in which that was your introduction to what humans are capable of.

Both of these moments were, of course, unintentional. But they affected me much more than anything the film did with purpose. This is an inevitable product of a documentary, and it's not even an undesirable one - in fact, it might be the most powerful thing about the format. But without a sense of purpose that feels inspired and impressive, the movie felt a little flat to me, like they were stumbling in the dark and occasionally hitting something worthwhile. It makes for an interesting viewing, but not necessarily a memorable one.

#495: The Golden Age of Television

(Various, 1953-58)

It's nice to know as I come to the final five films that have been released by Criterion up to this point that there are still major surprises to be had. The Golden Age of Television is certainly one of those - a great boxset that makes a powerful case for its grandiose title. The whole set is brilliant and powerful stuff, both in what's on screen and the context surrounding it. We wouldn't even have these remarkable stagings if it wasn't for kinescopes, essentially films taken of a monitor showing the broadcast in action, since these live performances were not shot on film and were simply broadcast over the air to affiliates all over the country. With only a couple of networks at the time, virtually everyone in America was watching these, making them the cultural equivalent of a super bowl every night.

Of course, unlike the super bowl and most universally watched shows these days, all of the episodes that make up The Golden Age of Television were fictional, essentially plays put on television and written by major talents, the most notable of which was Rod Serling, most famous for creating and writing most of The Twilight Zone and still one of the great television writers in history. Serling wrote three of the eight teleplays that make up this set, and they are probably my three favorites (though Marty, written by another great, Paddy Chayefsky, is also spectacular). Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and The Comedian all take on major cultural institutions of the 1950s (big business, boxing, and television, respectively) and have no problem tearing them down and forcing the viewer to question their mindless consumption and acceptance of each. But they are most impressive for their vivid characters, the way he manages to make even the most heartless person in each a three-dimensional person with believable and even somewhat sympathetic motivations. Serling also benefited - as did the other writers in this set - from a group of memorable and at times brilliant performances, particularly from Jack Palance, who is heartbreaking in Requiem, and Mickey Rooney, who is a bit of a revelation for me in The Comedian.

Still, it is hard to believe that this was mainstream art in the 1950s, especially when you add The Days of Wine and Roses, a pitch-black story about alcoholism that pulls few punches, to Serling's three. There are sexual elements and subversive themes in many of them; most obviously Patterns runs so counter to what we perceive of today as 1950s American values that it's hard to believe that the teleplay was so popular that they actually "reran" the performance a year later by getting everyone back together and putting on another show (fortunately, the performance included here is the original).

The other three telecasts included here, The Wind from the South, Bang the Drum Slowly, and No Time for Sergeants, were still very good, but fail to transcend their time. The Wind from the South is a beautiful romance story, but tilts toward the era's melodrama a bit too much to maintain its freshness. Similarly, No Time for Sergeants is hopelessly dated now, even if there are bits and pieces that stay funny. Comedy is a difficult genre for aging, especially on TV, and Andy Griffifth's "aw shucks" routine has seen better days, even if he was clearly an influence on Kenneth the page from 30 Rock. Bang the Drum Slowly is another melodrama, made more interesting by the inclusion of a young Paul Newman, but the film just doesn't have the same crackle of energy Serling's work does.

Overall, this is a spectacular box that makes a strong case for its title (even if I do think the golden age of television is really the last decade or so). Like so many box sets from Criterion, this is an historical document of invaluable relevance in both television history and film history (many of these plays went on to be filmed, while cast members, directors, and writers also went on to big-screen careers). I can't really recommend it highly enough.

Monday, February 11, 2013

#475: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

(Peter Yates, 1973)

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is one of the great finds in Criterion's catalog. I first saw it when Criterion released it four or five years ago (it had never been available at home before) and was totally blown away that this film had slipped through the cracks. Along with being a great Boston movie, it also features one of Robert Mitchum's best performances and some great supporting actors to surround him. But the real elements that make this such a lost gem are Yates's direction and the intricately constructed and nuanced script. This type of unsparing crime drama set the stage for the best of the genre to come, including the greatest television show of all time, The Wire.

The film is combination of dense and perfectly toned conversations and intense, nail-biting suspense sequences. The script doesn't bother with exposition and bets instead on the viewer's willingness to keep up as best they can. The first time I watched the film I was somewhat lost for the first half hour or so, but quickly caught on to what I needed to know. Coming back to it, the plot is much simpler and it's easier to sit back and enjoy the dialog, particularly between Mitchum and his gun-runner both in the early coffee shop scene and the chilling bowling alley scene in which Mitchum threatens him more overtly. This script should be taught in schools - the dialog is that well-constructed. Interestingly, there have been comments to the effect that there were a healthy amount of scenes left out - though it would be interesting to see these moments, I have a hard time imagining what would be needed.

These editing decisions seem to me to be just another indication of how in control Yates is here. The director made the excellent Bullitt a decade before and would go on to make Breaking Away and a handful of other well-received movies, but he never really gained much recognition and his death a few years ago did not usher in the reappraisal his work deserves. This movie's bank robbery sequences are quite simply terrifying and as taut as can be. Yates avoids most of the dated techniques of the era and presents the sequences simply and with a cold eye, making for total uncertainty and realism. The movie is most successful as a human drama, which is of course its main intention, but the way Yates uses these moments to highlight the calculation and nature of these characters and the terror they force onto innocent people both underscores this drama and makes for riveting suspense.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle has a huge following, as illustrated by the passionate comments on Criterion's essay page. Part of this following comes from a regional pride that I know all too well living in Massachusetts, but much more of it come from the film's combination of suspenseful direction and dense plotting that rewards multiple viewings and the effort it takes to unravel the various dynamics. It's also a remarkable look at mid-level crooks and their very real struggles to reconcile their careers with their identities. Mitchum's tragic Coyle is a man playing at one thing or another, but whether it's gangster, loyal father and husband, honorable crook, or scheming snitch he's not sure. It is always clear that the film's sympathy for him will not save him from his inevitable fate, and even if it is surprising how it came to be, the cards were dealt long before the film began.

#654: Repo Man

(Alex Cox, 1984)

Alex Cox's first movie is long overdue on Criterion - it's a cult classic that is one of the definitive films of the Reagan era made by a filmmaker with three other Criterions under his belt (he co-wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It's also extremely strange and really, really funny in a off-kilter way.

The basic story is a simple, timeless combination of the path of a young man becoming a repo man, a sly profile of underground LA in the mid-80s, and a secret alien conspiracy that could tear it all apart. None of that matters a whole lot beyond being used to zero in on the humor that can be drawn out of mainly playing against convention. Cox sends up conventional portrayals of punks with brilliantly awkward dialog ("Let's go do some crimes") and the Circle Jerks doing lounge (the soundtrack here is great, by the way), but holds out most of his bite for capitalism, most notably and impressively with his generic packaging that is the hallmark of the film. There are also some great one-off jokes - one of my favorites is the recording in the hospital hallway that says "Please be quiet in the stair wells."

Possibly the weirdest thing about the whole movie, though, is the Universal logo that opens it - this has to be one of the strangest movies released by a major studio, and I think it's a testament to Cox - and an indication of what was to come with his follow-ups - that this movie exists. It's a shame the director has not managed to stay relevant over the last twenty years - most of his movies these days aren't even available on DVD. Despite his obvious "punk" sensibilities and somewhat dated 80s aesthetics, Cox is clearly a talented filmmaker who must have something left in the tank. Whether he ever finds it again or not, we have Repo Man to remind us of the potential and shine a bit of light on a quirky moment in American history.

Monday, February 4, 2013

#339: Yi Yi

(Edward Yang, 1999)

Yi Yi was the second-to-last "feature" film in the first 650 Criterions I have to watch. Unlike the final movie, Salo, I was not putting off Yi Yi because I had little interest in seeing it. Instead, I was waiting for an opportunity to fully digest this three-hour epic on my LED TV in blu-ray without any distractions - a stretch that does not come along every day when you have a one-year-old - because I had a sneaking suspicion I would love it and I didn't want a casual viewing to get in the way of my appreciation.

Well, I found that opportunity last night and I was totally right: Yi Yi is an unquestionable masterpiece. I love making grand statements, but I try to make them only when I really mean them, so I don't take it lightly when I say that I think (think) Yi Yi might be the best movie of the last 25 years. At the very least, it's up in the stratosphere with In the Mood for Love, Fargo, Blue, and the string of 2007 masterpieces that can go toe to toe with the all-time greats.

This statement is kind of an awkward fit for a movie that is as unassuming in its storytelling as Yi Yi, even if the film is three hours. But the basic premise of following a middle-class Taiwanese family over the course of a few months hardly gets at what the film is really about, and it belies the extraordinary ambition of Yang's visual approach. What's most impressive about both the simple but profound storytelling and Yang's camerawork is how effortlessly - and often seamlessly - the two complement each other. Yi Yi is a movie about families, modern living, and love in ways that are both specific to Taiwan and universal, but it's also about these individual characters and their quiet emotional journeys just as much as it is about cinema and its ability (or lack thereof) to emulate reality. Yang's elevation of this unremarkable family calls into question our own experiences both in and out of a movie theater and asks us to evaluate the value of both. Like many of the greatest movies ever made, Yi Yi speaks to the human condition without forgetting the experience of viewing a film, and Yang manages to incorporate all of this into his film's aesthetic and narrative equally.

I could spend quite a bit of time talking about things I loved about this movie, but one point I really want to make is how thoughtfully varied yet unified Yang's compositions are. As noted by the beautifully mysterious and accurate Criterion cover, Yang uses the flat, straight-on shot with both people and objects (and even incorporates it into the story of the young boy and his camera) but contrasts this with side angles of urban spaces - both interior and exterior. His rooms are small but connected to a series of others, forming a maze-like perception of Taiwan's buildings that are cluttered with walls and doors keeping people apart even as they live in tight quarters. Conversely, his exteriors are often balanced with human reflections on the pristine glass of the towers that make up city living. We are constantly reminded of the intimate moments and emotions contained within what other directors have dismissed as cold and inhuman. Yang does not do this to draw contrast between the characters' lives and their surroundings, he does it to achieve unity and highlight the indivisibility of our modern lives. His camerawork is emphasized by the score, which subtly invokes classical music to balance between the modern and the timeless. The film is not flashy, but this impeccable craftsmanship is a reminder that the typical style of American directors in particular - who so often pick one specific style for a film and insist on seeing it through to the end - can often render a movie lifeless. Its effect is often the opposite of what was intended: the film's thematic thrust gets in the way of the storytelling that is key to its success at generating any real meaning. The movie is rendered an experiment in style instead of an exploration of reality.

Of course the balance of Yang's technical prowess is his storytelling, and the film is just as successful in this regard. Yes, this is a three-hour film and, yes, a lot of people are going to be put off by the rhythm and pacing of the storytelling. Although Yi Yi begins at a wedding and ends at a funeral, the moments are somewhat arbitrary cutting off points. And while the film encompasses at least two stories in full (the core couple's marital waverings and the daughter's first experiment with love) and is framed by another (the grandmother's coma), there are threads that never receive full attention and a handful of unresolved relationships. Of course, that is exactly what life is - but doesn't that sound cheesy when it's written down! Yi Yi defies description in this regard. It's a rare movie that can't be described in prose without losing most of its message. Certainly there are truly moving scenes and storylines here that would work in any medium or context - for me, the most intense were certainly the scenes between the father and his video-game-designer prospective business partner and the scenes with his lost love, especially their last encounter which is so unbearably heartbreaking that it's hard to think about. And the final twist in the daughter's story is probably the only moment in the film when the story feels manufactured, even if it's believable enough and compatible with the rest of the movie. But really there aren't any stories here that are less appealing (unlike other similarly sprawling films) and the way Yang overlays their developments - most clearly with the father's reflections on early love being spoken over his daughter's first date - strengthens each in kind (and further deepens his visual layering). I would say the movie rewards the effort required to maintain attention throughout its running time to pull in viewers who might be turned off by the pacing, but I have to be honest and say I was totally enraptured from the start. Within five minutes I could see that I was in remarkable hands.

So yeah, I really liked Yi Yi. I could probably go on and lead myself down the path towards an understanding of the film's real message about life and family and the individual, but I won't because I think the effectiveness of the movie lies not in the specifics of what Yang is saying but in how it speaks to you personally. There's something gracefully beautiful about Yi Yi's ineffability that can only be dissolved by translation. I think that's often what makes art in any medium great, but Yi Yi shows just how powerful film specifically can be.