The 37 items on view in this package, which range from 30 seconds to eight minutes, include TV commercials and logos, music videos, abstract work, old-fashioned cartoons, and documentary bits that explain how several segments (the Amazing Stories logo, a sequence from The Great Mouse Detective, an ad for the National Canned Food Information Council) were made. Two disturbing aspects of 90 minutes of this stuff in one go are: an overreliance on the same formal devices and stylistic models (including the same tacky colors), and an obsessive thematic interest in either objects resembling people/animals or people/animals resembling objects. Anthropomorphism has always been a basic part of animation, and Tanya Weinberger’s Kiss Me You Fool is a nice classic example: a funny version of the frog prince story. But most of the other animation seems hung up on robotics of one kind or another; after awhile all that heavy metal starts to clank. The dehumanized climate even extends to the narrator’s voice in the documentary sections; and in Philippe Bergeron’s French-Canadian Tony de Peltrie–featuring a digitized pianist who resembles the Elephant Man–the posthuman tendency assumes truly nightmarish proportions. Three of the better works–Luxo, Jr., Red’s Dream, and Oilspot and Lipstick–were already shown in the last International Tournee of Animation, and many others may be familiar from TV. My favorite is John Whitney’s rock video Hard Woman, perhaps because Mick Jagger appears live, and the animation is truly imaginative. But for much of the rest, the use of the James Bond theme over the final credits seems grimly appropriate: ugly sound, ugly images, and “good” technology add up to interior decoration, not art. (Music Box, Friday, December 25, through Sunday, January 3)
Jose Alvaro Morais’s first feature, O bobo, winner of first prize at the Locarno Film Festival, is set in 1978 during the onset of the right-wing backlash against the Portuguese revolution. A group of friends are staging a play adapted from Alexandre Herculano’s novel The Jester–a mythic romance built around scenes from Portuguese history–in the abandoned film studio Lisboa Filmes. The film alternates between scenes from the play and intrigues among the friends who are putting it on–including the murder of the instigator of the project, whose body is discovered in the studio during the rehearsal of the final scene. Six years in the making, the film presupposes a certain knowledge about Portuguese culture and recent history that admittedly I don’t have; but even though I occasionally found myself at sea in following all the significations, the beauty of the mise en scene and Mario de Carvalho’s photography, and the grace with which Morais negotiates between different time frames and modes of narration, kept me entranced. Combining the meditative offscreen dialogue of a film like India Song with the use of a historical play to investigate national identity (as in Ruiz’s Life Is a Dream), The Jester offers a complex, multilayered view of revolutionary retrenchment that is worthy to stand alongside some of the best films of Manoel de Oliveira. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Saturday, December 19, 4:00, and Sunday, December 20, 2:00, 443-3737)
EMPIRE OF THE SUN
* (Has redeeming facet)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tom Stoppard
With Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, and Nigel Havers.
THE LAST EMPEROR
Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
Written by Bertolucci and Mark Peploe
With John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole, Ying Ruocheng, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
“The first major Hollywood studio production ever to shoot in the People’s Republic of China” and “the first Western production to be made about modern China with the full cooperation of the Chinese government” are the two blockbusters of the season, and the dizzying gulf that stretches between them has a lot to do with the conceptual ranges of the two filmmakers who stand behind them. While the two movies need to be considered separately before they can be meaningfully juxtaposed, one preliminary generalization seems in order: while both films attack difficult subjects, Bernardo Bertolucci’s spectacular is predicated on a number of self-imposed limitations–emotional, dramatic, visual, linguistic, historical, and (more broadly) conceptual; Steven Spielberg’s, on the other hand, sprawls in the same half-dozen areas.
Empire of the Sun is based on an autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, an English writer whose previous work is nearly all science fiction, much of it experimental in form and most of it dealing with the curious psychological adjustments brought about by disasters. Perhaps the most consistent trait in this varied and substantial oeuvre is a certain bloodless morbidity, a capacity to look at entropic horror–the end of the world, the collapse of civilization, assassinations, car crashes, diverse technological and sociological nightmares–without blinking or flinching. (Major formal influences appear to be William Burroughs and various pop and collage artists.) Ballard’s first four novels all chart the effects of worldwide natural catastrophes, with heroes who ultimately choose to go with the flow of these events rather than cling to vestiges of the normal lives they once knew.
My introduction to Ballard’s work came about 15 years ago when I was hired to adapt one of these novels, The Crystal World, into a screenplay; my strained efforts to climb into the mind of a writer whose major poetic thrust was a romanticizing of the death wish as a universal principle left me with a lot of uneasy questions. The powerful effect of reading Empire of the Sun recently was that it answered all those questions as lucidly as I could have wished. The experiences Ballard underwent between the ages of 11 and 15 in Shanghai, as World War II disrupted his idyllic family life there, clearly provided the scenario as well as the rationale for all his fiction to come. As Ballard describes it, it took him “20 years to forget and 20 years to remember those horrendous events,” and his entire output can be inscribed within that process, with Empire providing both the climax and the skeleton key.
Whatever personal investment Spielberg has in this material–and his adaptation of it with Tom Stoppard is anything but impersonal–it was clear at the outset, when he announced this project, that his own experiences were as remote from Ballard’s as they were from Alice Walker’s in The Color Purple. Perhaps that’s why he took them on, as a challenge to master the unimaginable–a more art-conscious version of imagining extraterrestrials, roughly comparable to Disney taking on Beethoven and Stravinsky in Fantasia after proving his mettle with the stories of Snow White and Pinocchio. But it’s a foregone conclusion that his methods would have to process out much of what gives Ballard’s work its focus and purpose, just as Disney had to wind up reorchestrating The Rite of Spring. (I would dearly love to see how Spielberg would adapt my two favorite shorter Ballard pieces, both of them included in Judith Merrill’s England Swings SF: “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” and “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy.”)
How, for example, could Spielberg grapple with these two characteristic sentences from Empire? “As Basie sucked at the chocolate cup with his sharp teeth, he resembled a white-faced rat teasing the brains from a mouse”; and, “A drop of blood fell from his nose into the water and was instantly attacked by myriads of small fish no larger than a match head.” And what about the thoughts of Ballard’s hero Jim, after he’s herded with others out of a Japanese prison camp and into an Olympic stadium crowded with cars, appliances, and furniture, just before he witnesses a flash of light from the atomic blast in Nagasaki? “Jim looked at the hundreds of prisoners on the grass. He wanted them all to die, surrounded by their rotting carpets and cocktail cabinets. Many of them, he was glad to see, had already obliged him, and Jim felt angry at those prisoners still able to walk who were now forming a second march party. He guessed that they were being marched to death around the countryside, but he wanted them to stay in the stadium and die within sight of the white Cadillacs.”
Needless to say, Spielberg doesn’t reproduce such thoughts, although he does dutifully reproduce both the contents of the stadium and the A-bomb flash–without clarifying whether it comes from Nagasaki or Hiroshima. And to sweeten Jim’s thoughts while retaining some of his wartime confusion, the film has him (Christian Bale) comment after the flash, “I thought it was Mrs. Victor’s soul going up to heaven.” Mrs. Victor (Miranda Richardson) is the married woman with whom Jim shares a room in the prison camp for most of the war, along with her husband, and who dies on her way to the stadium. In the novel, Jim likes and is attracted to her though he knows that “if he starved to death in his bunk she would find some polite reason for doing nothing to help him.” In the movie she’s merely cranky and unfriendly, and the press book describes her as a friend of his parents.
What, if anything, is the key to Spielberg’s bewildering adaptation? A friend once remarked that in The Color Purple the central house became at different times a mansion or a shack, depending upon the dramatic needs of separate scenes. In Spielberg’s Empire, World War II is blessed with the same magical elasticity–sometimes it’s fun (Jim loves airplanes), sometimes it’s horrible (people die), sometimes it’s picturesque (over 15,000 extras), but almost never, as in Ballard, is it all of these things at once. Ballard’s vision can be described as antiwar only because of the sustained ironic and psychoanalytic distance he keeps from his crazed younger self–something that understandably took him 40 years to achieve. Spielberg intermittently toys with traces of this irony, but is perfectly willing to chuck it out the window whenever it gets in his way (which is often–his passionate identification with Jim is paradoxically the reverse of Ballard’s detachment), so that it makes no sense at all for him to claim that this is “an antiwar story, not just of a single war but of all wars.”
Any moral vision, like any coherent style, demands the suppression of certain elements as well as the persistence of certain others, but Spielberg’s anywar or everywar veers in so many directions that it ultimately becomes any movie or every movie: “Spielberg” becomes the only persistent form of coherence, which means that everything else that the movie is about–including World War II and wars in general–becomes incoherent beyond the borders of a single sequence. There are undeniable scenic splendors in the portions shot in Shanghai (which took only three weeks–the remainder was filmed in Spain and England), but the overall lack of focus makes one understand Todd McCarthy’s remark in Variety: “Steven Spielberg delves deeply into the well of seriousness in Empire of the Sun and comes up with about half-a-bucket.”
Oddly enough, some of the best filmic ideas in the novel, which might have lent Spielberg’s scattered notions some poetic unity–most notably the silent “newsreel” war dreams that Jim has before the war, which are already mentioned in the novel’s second sentence–are completely bypassed. Instead, the viewer is provoked into wondering if life in a Shanghai detention center is all that bad if the place is blessed with Spielberg lighting–which resembles the starship at the end of Close Encounters more closely than anything in Shanghai in 1941. The point isn’t that Spielberg should have stayed at home; the fact is, he never really left.
One anomaly in Spielberg’s film is that there’s a fair amount of untranslated Japanese spoken between Jim and his captors in the prison camp. By ironic contrast, all of the dialogue in The Last Emperor–a film that goes much farther in introducing us to a remote foreign culture–is entirely in English. This requires some adjustment on our parts, but once accepted, it allows Bertolucci and his scriptwriter Mark Peploe to remain firmly in control of a story that covers over 60 years of modern Chinese history. And by following the life of a man who remained at once marginal and central to that history–Pu Yi (John Lone), China’s last emperor (1906-1967)–the film can deal with both our marginal relationship to that history as Westerners and the centrality of that history to world culture.
Pu Yi’s marginality and centrality to China both stemmed from the same fact: that he was designated a symbol of imperial rule, at a time when imperial rule was virtually out of date. In 1908 at the age of three, Pu Yi was named tenth Qing emperor by the empress dowager Tzu Hsui. From this point on he was to remain a symbol, even though his emblematic importance changed in relation to the major upheavals he lived through: the birth of the first Chinese republic in 1912 (which effectively brought an end to his rule, but kept him confined in the Forbidden City for 12 more years), his expulsion from the Imperial Palace in 1924, his installation as puppet emperor of Japanese-run Manchukuo in 1933 (which ushers in the decadence and art deco styling of Bertolucci’s The Conformist), his five years in a Siberian prison camp (1945-50), his “reeducation” in a Chinese prison (1950-59), his release as an ordinary citizen in 1959, and his last years as a gardener and researcher, which overlapped with the beginnings of the Cultural Revolution. (The film elides the research job, and on the whole is selective rather than comprehensive.)
As a passive victim and prisoner of his symbolic position for most of his life, Pu Yi does not make a conventional hero, and as a personal story, The Last Emperor is infused with a sense of loss and melancholy that reflects some of Bertolucci’s own alienation from present-day Italy, as well as the theme of a lost childhood paradise that has haunted much of his work since Before the Revolution (1964). But it is important to stress that one of the remarkable achievements of this uncommonly ambitious film, which might have been called After the Revolution, is to broach areas that exist beyond the personal–a reasonable enough notion if one acknowledges that no word for “privacy” exists in Chinese–and viewers who complain about the “narrowness” of the plot might do well to look through Pu Yi’s story rather than simply at it, to perceive the richness that lies on the other side. For Pu Yi’s function in the film is partially that of a conduit or lever into a broader social reality–a reality that the film mainly depicts through indirection, but which is nevertheless central to its subject and meaning.
Two fundamental keys to this conception can be found in aspects of the film’s respective handling of space and time. Our perception of the Forbidden City, which dominates the first part of the film, is largely predicated on Bertolucci’s refusal to show us a single all-encompassing view of it. This point was perceptively brought out by Pauline Kael, who uses it, however, as a strike against the movie: “Peter O’Toole has said that it wasn’t until the movie was actually being shot and he was riding on a golden palanquin, ten feet in the air, that he saw the Imperial Palace as ‘a sea of yellow triangular and rectangular loops,’ and realized that the whole Forbidden City was intended to be seen from the height of a palanquin–that it was a maze designed for lordlings, not earthlings. I don’t understand why the moviemakers didn’t get the camera up there. What better way for Bertolucci to show us the true meaning of a life of privilege?”
One could argue that the true meaning that Bertolucci is after concerns not that of a life of privilege–the subject of Before the Revolution–but of the historical fate of a symbol. A high-angle shot of the Imperial Palace would have invited us to share Pu Yi’s illusion of power and mastery over China–just the sort of Hollywood chutzpah that the film is at pains to avoid, and with good reason, though it still offers us the most ravishing color spectacle of any Western film made this year (with 19,000 extras–even more than in Empire). Significantly, Bertolucci does show us an overhead shot of a toy model of the palace, when Pu Yi is being instructed as a child, which is a good deal more apt. From the vantage point of today’s China, the palace is a toy, and any view that attempted to persuade us otherwise would have to come from an earlier period.
This brings us to the film’s handling of time. The story is mostly conveyed in flashbacks from the period of Pu Yi’s “reeducation” in a Chinese prison in the 50s, yielding a narrative of parallel and alternating plots, and a dialectical structure that shapes our whole reading of his life. The process by which the putative onetime ruler of nearly half the world’s population becomes an ordinary citizen can obviously be interpreted in a number of ways–as defeat or liberation, brainwashing or reeducation–and Bertolucci leaves it to us to decide whether Pu Yi ultimately breaks free from his symbolic identity or merely becomes a different kind of symbol. Conscientiously avoiding propaganda and attempting a balanced view, Bertolucci shows Pu Yi being dealt with harshly as well as humanely in prison, and there’s certainly some historical irony when, after his release, he encounters the kindly prison governor Jin Yuan (Ying Ruocheng) being victimized by the Red Guard–although one wishes that the film had clarified the fact that Jin Yuan’s persecution was provoked by his support of Pu Yi.
“In my view,” Bertolucci has said, “the brainwashing story corresponds to a sort of forced psychoanalytical itinerary.” Freud and Marx have both been percolating in his work for some time, often in competition with one another, but The Last Emperor combines them in the same fluid process, which translates psychoanalytical categories into social ones. The hero’s forced separation from his family as a child–an event viewed solely in traumatic terms in Spielberg’s film–anticipates the substitution of the state for the family that is part of China’s history, and seen from the vantage point of Pu Yi’s reeducation, it becomes a necessary stage in his social integration. When Jin Yuan observes that Pu Yi’s former servant is still dressing him, he moves the ex-emperor to another cell, and Pu Yi protests that he’s never been separated from his family before–an illogical statement unless one realizes that the servant is only the most recent in a long line of family surrogates that has also included his wet nurse, wife, and concubine. By the same token, Jin Yuan becomes a father substitute as well–duplicating the role formerly played by a Scottish tutor (Peter O’Toole)–albeit a final transitional one. (The real-life Jin Yuan, who served as a consultant on the film, is cast as the prison official who hands Pu Yi his release.)
The film is tightly and brilliantly structured around rhyming effects of this kind between imperial and communist, personal and social values–there’s even a relationship between the devoted study by eunuchs of the baby emperor’s excrement and Jin Yuan’s instructions to Pu Yi on how to urinate at night without waking fellow prisoners–and the hero’s reeducation implicitly becomes our own reeducation about contemporary China. One crucial stage in this development occurs in prison when Pu Yi sees himself as Manchukuo’s puppet emperor in a newsreel about the war, and two versions of the hero are literally brought face to face.
“You’ve saved my life to make me a puppet in your play,” Pu Yi asserts to Jin Yuan–echoing his comment as emperor after expelling thieving eunuchs from the palace: “The Imperial City has become a theater without an audience. So why did the actors steal all the scenery?”
“Is that so terrible?” Jin Yuan replies in the prison yard. “To be useful?” One might pose a similar rhetorical question about the Spielberg and Bertolucci films alike. Is it so terrible to question their use in teaching us something about the other side of the world? At best, apart from a few snapshots, Empire of the Sun teaches us something about the inside of one director’s brain. The Last Emperor incidentally and secondarily does that too; but it also teaches us something about the lives of a billion people with whom we share this planet–and better yet, makes us want to learn still more about them.
From the Chicago Reader (December 11, 1987). — J.R.
*** (A must-see)
Directed by Jon Jost
With Marshall Gaddis, Sarah Wyss, Terri Lyn Williams, Kristi Jean Hager, Dan Cornell, Hal Waldrup, Ron Hanekan, Alan Goddard, and Anne Kolesar.
The films I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality. — James Agee
1. Jeff Doland (Marshall Gaddis), a Vietnam veteran in Butte, Montana, sits watching a baseball game on TV. Passing through the kitchen, he tells his wife Cathy (Sarah Wyss) that he’s going out to pick up some more beer. Cathy continues to unpack groceries and switches on a tiny toy train that runs in an elaborate loop on the kitchen table. Jeff returns with a six-pack and resumes watching TV. Cathy comes into the room and announces that she’s leaving him.
Bell Diamond’s point of departure is about as ordinary and as banal as a plot can get — and not much happens after it, either. Neither Jeff nor Cathy is especially interesting or attractive or articulate, and the same can be said of the rest of the characters in this mainly eventless movie. We learn that Cathy leaves Jeff because she’s frustrated by their inability to have kids, although she also complains about his passivity and inactivity, including his failure to perform household chores. Much later, it’s suggested that Jeff’s apparent sterility has been caused by Agent Orange — a chemical spray used to kill vegetation in Vietnam with various adverse side effects, none of them acknowledged by the government — but the film doesn’t explain this, and nothing further is said about it.
Jeff drinks a lot after Cathy leaves him, and a lengthy middle sequence shows him wandering drunkenly and morosely with a couple of male friends around an abandoned copper mine called Bell Diamond. They climb up a towerlike structure, a “head-frame,” to watch the sunset, and Jeff starts to sob. Then, through a casual chain of events, one of the friends — another Vietnam veteran — leaves and tells a mutual friend about Jeff’s troubles. The latter phones a radio call-in show to report that Jeff is about to jump off the head-frame (which is when Agent Orange gets mentioned); then a friend of Cathy’s calls her to tell her that another female friend heard this on a radio show — but nothing ever comes of this, either, and the sequence ends with Jeff and another friend sharing a joint on the head-frame and hearing a distant siren.
Several months later, when Cathy returns to Jeff, she’s visibly pregnant, but whether the child is his or someone else’s is not spelled out: the film simply concludes with the pleased expressions of each of them in turn as she steps off the bus.
2. Not one shot of Bell Diamond is conventional, a cliché, or something we’ve all seen before. The first one shows Jeff in medium-shot watching an unseen TV with a glassy-eyed expression while chewing on something incessantly and taking sips from a beer can. The shot is held for a very long time, long enough to establish a certain tension about what or who it is we’re watching. He’s a spectator just like us, but is it possible to identify with him? Is he chomping on gum, or is it chewing tobacco? And either way, how do we feel about the fact that he’s guzzling beer at the same time — slightly nauseated, or indifferent? Are we watching an art film or an indiscriminate slice of life? Is the filmmaker making a comment on what he’s showing, or obliging us to do so instead? Should we keep watching, or listen to what the offscreen TV announcer is saying, or attempt some combination of the two? And if it’s the latter, how do we put that sound together with that image?
Then a reverse-angle of the baseball game is superimposed over the previous shot, and eventually the TV image takes over and Jeff fades away. It’s as if spectator and spectacle had merged into the same substance — as if a baseball game, a TV screen, and a man watching the former through the medium of the latter had all become identical, equivalent, or interchangeable. (Those viewers fortunate enough to have seen Jon Jost’s 1977 fiction feature Last Chants for a Slow Dance might be reminded of a much longer take there involving a TV screen — an extraordinary shot that runs for about 14 minutes, charting simultaneously the events and changes of light visible in a room over 12 hours, from night to morning, in black and white, and a continuous 14-minute segment of the Tonight Show on the TV set in the room, in color; when the characters in the room eventually walk past the TV screen, The Tonight Show shines right through them, as if they were transparent ghosts.)
The next shot in Bell Diamond shows Jeff watching the TV screen from a greater distance. Then there is a cut to an angled side view that allows us to see past the slanted TV screen, into the adjacent living room, and beyond that into the kitchen where Cathy is unpacking groceries. A closer, fragmented shot of Cathy, framed below her shoulders, is succeeded by an angle showing both the TV and Jeff, who gets up and leaves the frame.
So much for the film’s first half-dozen shots, if I’ve remembered them correctly; the ones that follow are no less inventive and unexpected. Even the slurred step-motion and freeze-frames that comprise our final glimpses of Cathy and Jeff, reunited at the bus stop at the end in separate shots, are not the kind of slurred motion and freeze-frames that we recognize from other movies.
3. My point in juxtaposing 1 and 2 above is not that the fascination of the shots triumphs over or transcends the banality of the plot, or that the plot’s banality defeats the images. In fact, if I gave enough thought to it, I could probably demonstrate with an equal amount of evidence that the plot of Bell Diamond is original and unpredictable, while the images and editing are stale rehashes of things found elsewhere in the narrative art cinema. My point, rather, is that Jost’s handcrafted movies, Bell Diamond included, not only raise issues but stage them, right in the spectator’s head, and that they don’t go down easily — nor are they meant to. “In all my films, I’m always testing the limits of the audience,” Jost told me in an interview about six years ago, referring to the five features and more than 20 shorts he had made since the 60s. He has held to this brief in the three features he has completed since then — Slow Moves in 1983, and Bell Diamond and Uncommon Senses in 1987.
With Slow Moves (which also featured Marshall Gaddis in the male lead), Jost inaugurated the practice followed here of developing the story and dialogue in collaboration with a cast of improvising nonprofessionals. He shot Slow Moves in three and a half days in the San Francisco Bay area, bringing together a couple who had never met before the film’s opening shot and creating their fictional relationship on the spot. Uncommon Senses (which Chicago Filmmakers plans to show next year, after they’ve moved into their new headquarters) is an essay film conceived as a sequel to Jost’s remarkable first feature, Speaking Directly (1974); each film is a sort of personal State of the Union address, articulated filmically through a variety of means.
4. All of Jost’s films are made with rock-bottom budgets and are conceived accordingly, aesthetically and otherwise. Bell Diamond was made for $25,000, which came from the National Endowment for the Arts, and if I’m not mistaken it’s the first Jost film funded by a grant in the U.S. All the others — including the staggeringly frugal Speaking Directly and Last Chants, which cost $2,500 and $3,000 respectively — have been paid for by private sources or European television, and during much of the time that he was working on them, Jost was living out of his car and distributing the films himself. As an independent, in other words, he makes Jim Jarmusch look like Sam Goldwyn. He works in 16 millimeter, a film gauge that is rapidly becoming extinct as far as most labs are concerned; he doesn’t expect to be able to continue in the format much longer.
5. Out of all the forms of conditioning that the legacy of Hollywood and TV has imprinted on our brains, perhaps the most enduring is the myth that realism is some sort of found object rather than a construction. The notion that whatever a camera catches is “real” is still very much with us, despite the fact that camera placement, choices of lens and exposure, and the kind of lab work done on the footage afterward — not to mention the recording and processing of sound, and the editing of sound and image — all represent aesthetic and stylistic decisions. We still speak of certain films being “stylized,” as if it were possible for any film to be otherwise.
Some of our confusions about this can be traced back to certain assumptions about the aesthetic differences between photography and painting, assumptions that are built into our language: we “take” snapshots, but we “make” works of art. In truth, of course, a photograph is as “made” as a painting is, and — to compound the confusion — our very notions of “reality” are as man-made and historically determined as the properties of screens and canvases (as well as cameras and paints).
One of the most striking sequences in Bell Diamond, when Cathy visits Laura (Kristi Jean Hager), a painter friend, in her studio, throws some of these issues into sharp relief. While the two women chat about a number of things, initially avoiding any discussion of Cathy’s recent separation from Jeff, Cathy leafs through a book of Thomas Eakins reproductions, and Laura’s comments about Eakins seem to point to various aspects of Jost’s filmmaking. “He did wonderful portraits,” she says, but goes on to note that a lot of people didn’t like them because he didn’t flatter his subjects; he showed people working at their various occupations, and he liked photography as well as painting.
While they speak, the camera performs an elaborate dance around the studio, picking up the characters only momentarily, and at times lingering on parts of the room after the women have left the frame. As if to cinch the relationship between photography and painting, the camera steadily approaches an empty canvas until its white expanse approximates the movie screen, and Jost cuts from this to archival footage shot in Butte around 1920, a 360-degree pan across a crowd of locals looking directly into the camera — another scene to match Eakins.
6. In some respects, the movement of the camera in Laura’s studio duplicates the movement of the plot in Bell Diamond – a form of wandering that actually takes us somewhere, even if that somewhere happens to be miles away from what we normally recognize as Hollywood narrative. A constructed realism that remains open to accident, and seems founded on a distanced respect for unexceptional characters, it is a handcrafted movie that won’t find many viewers in a universe of shopping malls. To represent such an art in a few words and pictures is no easy matter; certainly the beauty and originality of Jost’s camera style are inadequately served by the grainy still that accompanies this review. To wrestle with it on the screen is not always a picnic either. But unless or until this kind of filmmaking is ground underfoot entirely by high-priced fantasies that cost many thousand times as much, Jost’s cinema will convey truths about this country that won’t readily be found elsewhere.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s visually ravishing spectacle about the life of Pu Yi (1905-1967), the last Chinese emperor, is a genuine rarity: a blockbuster that manages to be historically instructive and intensely personal at the same time. Pu Yi (played by three children at ages 3, 8, and 15, and by John Lone as an adult) remained an outsider to contemporary Chinese history for most of his life, being confined to the Forbidden City for 12 years, seeking assistance from the Japanese after he was ousted in 1924, and winding up as the puppet ruler of the new state of Manchukuo in the early 30s; after Japan’s surrender in 1945, he spent five years in a Siberian prison camp and nine more as a political prisoner of the People’s Republic of China before he was released as an ordinary Chinese citizen in 1959, ending his days happily as a gardener and researcher. Interestingly, Bertolucci uses Pu Yi’s remoteness from China as an objective correlative of our own cultural distance as Westerners (virtually all of the dialogue is rendered in English), and, with scriptwriter Mark Peploe, brilliantly employs a dialectical flashback structure that shows Pu Yi’s life from the vantage point of his “reeducation” in the 50s. Working with an elaborate system of visual and thematic rhymes to tell his mainly melancholy tale of solitude, Bertolucci is interested in charting nothing less than the gradual substitution of the state for the family, which describes the history of today’s China as well as that of its central character–although two key agents in this process are the father figures of his Scottish tutor (Peter O’Toole) and the kindly governor at the Chinese prison (Ying Ruocheng), the latter of whom helps to effect what Bertolucci has described as a “forced psychoanalysis.” While the plot bears some resemblance to the late period films of Kenji Mizoguchi, the overall spirit is closer in many respects to the TV documentaries of Roberto Rossellini. The result is one of Bertolucci’s best films to date–a solid advance on the operatic excesses of his 1900, and a haunting meditation on the processes of history. (Biograph, Chicago Ridge, Oakbrook, Ridge, Old Orchard)