Sunday, March 23, 2014

Le Voyage en Occident + Need for Speed

Tsai Ming-liang's LE VOYAGE EN OCCIDENT and Scott Waugh's NEED FOR SPEED visualize highly individual experiences of movement through communal spaces. The juxtaposition of hyper slow and hyper fast with pedestrian speeds informs the style of each film.

LE VOYAGE EN OCCIDENT is mostly a series of shots of a Buddhist monk (Lee Kang-sheng) moving through public spaces in a deep meditative state. Each movement is deliberate, slow, and exact. His concentration keeps his eyes down-turned or shut; he is not "experiencing" the locals around him in the touristic sense. Why travel if you cannot see? Why be somewhere if you cannot take pictures? The monk is alone in this pursuit. Passersby stop momentarily to gawk, but not long enough to upset their routine, with the exception of a little a girl and a homeless old woman. Eventually Denis Lavant follows the monk, but the monk is still alone. The viewer can only assume the monk's thoughts or sense of self. He is dependent only on himself for his endeavor.

NEED FOR SPEED is a street racing genre picture about secret races that take place in public spaces. The cars and their drivers, primarily working class underdog Toby Marshall (Aaron Paul) and wealthy urban nemesis Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper), embody a rare form of speed and control that is literally illegal in the spaces that they traverse. Their movement is facilitated by prototype racing cars that cost millions of dollars to import and are kept hidden in secret garages. The races cut through 'normal' traffic and the film constructs two entirely different worlds suddenly coming into contact. 230 mph speeds in 55 mph zones. Bystanders are left in awe or their lives are violently upset by the collateral damage of the racers. At one point a car destroys a homeless person's shopping cart; a sequence that is given more reflection from the drivers than countless crashes that might have killed people. Only the destruction of the shopping cart is a gag. See how funny that riled up hobo is?

LE VOYAGE EN OCCIDENT's depiction of the individual is of poverty and isolation, but perhaps as a deliberate choice. The monk has only his robes and his thoughts. The hero of NEED SPEED, Toby, is facilitated by a team of mechanics, a helicopter lookout, and financial backers to drive from one point to these next. Not to mention a sexy babe to boost his spirits.


Both films play with expectation: you always know what is going to happen. LE VOYAGE EN OCCIDENT establishes shots of the monk moving from one direction to another and the viewer observes the entire process of this movement. The film's center piece is a twenty minute shot of the monk descending stairs into a subway. The destination is no longer a plot point (a crude term for describing such a film). The viewer is given time to look where she wishes, to draw conclusions and even to doubt those conclusions. For one critic (that I've found) this is a point of contention, as it is a generic Buddhist lesson that takes a long time to basically end on the text that its meaning is derived from (x).

NEED FOR SPEED has a similar mode of adjusting expectations. The film belongs to one of the most popular, yet critically maligned genres of American cinema: the car film. As such it is operating through tropes and stock characters, which is never a bad thing unless you write for or read THE NEW YORKER. NEED FOR SPEED is mediocre at best, not because of its genre, but because it plays it too safe. FAST AND FURIOUS 6 this ain't. But its use of expectations feels deliberate. We know who the hero is, we know he's going to win and defeat the bad guy, exact revenge for his murdered friend, and get the girl. By establishing these points so early on, the film allows the viewer to relish in the moments of the action, in feeling its sense of momentum and movement. To wallow in the time it takes to get from point A to B. Despite the generic narrative conventions, NEED FOR SPEED lives primarily in the moment, which is why its race sequences are breathtaking, while the rest is rather dull. It's often not about the race itself, but in experiencing the momentary pleasures.


In radically different ways both films give the viewer time to recognize their structures and directions, even perhaps their meaning, providing instead visual experiences instead of narrative ones.

images: LE VOYAGE EN OCCIDENT (Tsai Ming-liang / 2014) + NEED FOR SPEED (Scott Waugh / 2014)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ambivalent Experiences

I saw AMERICAN HUSTLE in a novelty theater that serves dinner and has a full bar. The experience was pleasurable: I ate too much, got a little drunk, and laughed with loved ones when the movie told me it was time to laugh. I walked out thinking 'that was alright.' But a week later when someone asked me what I thought about AMERICAN HUSTLE I blurted out that it was mediocre, forgettable, a poor-man's GOODFELLAS.

Is there a term for a film that you enjoyed during the act of viewing, but the more you think about it the more ambivalent you become towards it? I would suggest "red herring" movies: they are captivating when initially revealed, but yield diminishing returns on contemplation and become useless as other things are revealed. The category of 'other things,' which is tenuous at best, can be other films, written experiences, or dialogues with friends. For the sake of this post, I will call them red herring movies/experiences. But I'm not wholly satisfied with the term. I want something more...mysterious.

I had the good misfortune of several red herring experiences in the last few weeks, and while I have unearthed no conclusions about this phenomenon I felt the desire to put fingers to keyboard and parse this experience out. David Fincher's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and Denis Villeneuve's PRISONERS qualify for me as the type of cinema I am attempting to describe. Both films are enjoyable, in the pedestrian sense: technically proficient, well paced, expertly acted genre exercises. There is a garish, entrancing visual quality to both films that matches the deliberately unfolding plots of these thrillers. These are films I recommend seeing.

But the next day and the day after I felt less than empty about the experiences of seeing them. How do I qualify this as a critical argument? Feeling empty or apathetic about a visual experience is a legitimate reaction, and shouldn't be discounted as an intentionally produced one. The problem for me is that I retained a handful of compositions from each film and dumped the rest in the recycling bin of my mind's eye. I say compositions, because I barely register them as images, in the grandiose cinephilic sense of the word. I remember them as technical achievements, not as something that penetrated me.

This affective response could be the result of watching too many movies. As a close friend once said to me: "I don't know how you can watch five movies in one sitting. How do you process what you've seen?" A fair point, and one that shouldn't go unconsidered. It's certainly worth considering the role of consumption overload in the formation of red herring experiences. One should also consider mood, but if we open that door we cannot discount phenomenological experiences and personal taste (always taste!). To counter anecdotal evidence with anecdotal evidence, I recall powerful experiences of films that I watched in marathon sessions (Bruce Baillie and Gunvor Nelson for example) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was my sole viewing experience of the day.

I don't know what to do with these experiences. How do I translate them into the rating culture that overwhelms me? Are they worse than films I actively detested? The fact is, I care more about awful films than forgettable decent ones, but this isn't a revelation. The fact is, I've spilled more ink and wasted more breath on garbage like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and GRAVITY than GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO or AMERICAN HUSTLE. Perhaps the meaning or purpose of these films lies in their social existence: GRAVITY is more important to me because I can and want to talk about it. I have almost nothing to say about PRISONERS other than it has some cool compositions, ones that remind me of better films.

image: LANDSCAPE SUICIDE PRISONERS (Villeneuve / 2013)