Screened over January 8-30, 2009 on Facets DVD on flight en route to Tokyo, Japan, in Taipei, Taiwan, on flight en route to Newark NJ, and in Weehawken NJ
It would be fascinating to see a compendium of landmarks in the history of television series from around the world, if only to discern any common themes or aesthetic approaches among them. Two qualities that I associate with television – intimacy and duration – lend themselves well to novelistic narratives that sprawl across time and space and yet stay trained on conversations and seemingly small moments that unfold into the next, and whose implications may take several episodes to fully register (yes I’m looking at you, The Wire). Such is the case with Heimat, a 15 hour series made for German television that covers a 63-year period from the end of World War I to the early 80s. Set in a quiet town in the picturesque pastoral Hunsruck valley, the film reconsiders – and ultimately renews – the heimat movie genre that celebrated a nostalgic German ideal of rustic home life, frankly depicting a provincialism among its denizens that compelled them to comply with the Nazi regime.
The film succeeds, especially over the first half of the series leading to World War II, in resurrecting a bygone way of life simply through quietly observed details – the sound of the blacksmith’s anvil, the cumbersome lugging of a phonograph to an outdoor picnic – that fill the frame with textural authenticity. Family members come and go, and – like most great television series – the evolution of their relationships with each other is a major source of captivation. As both individual and collective fortunes rise and fall, the response of each distinctly defined family member to the prevailing mores of each successive era accumulates into an awesome genealogical tapestry. While stuffed with dramatic incident, to its credit the series never succumbs to melodramatic excess, with nary a brawl or screaming match in sight; instead we get lingering resentments or quiet acts of abandonment, the accumulation of which leads to the spiritual disintegration of the clan and the way of life they’ve held dear. Its insistent focus on small, in-between moments is a key to its persuasive effect of life in the act of being lived.
At first it’s puzzling to think that, despite the vivid, meticulous detail of ethnographic reconstruction of early 20th century small town life to behold, one can criticize the film, as many have, for holding a blinkered view of German history. Reitz barely makes mention of the Holocaust, though he does obliquely depict pre-War anti-Semitism and one Marxist family member being rounded up for re-education. His aim is to show life as it was lived and perceived by everyday rural middle class Germans, who implicitly stand in for the soul of the nation. Not unlike Forrest Gump, this approach yields a narrow, even self-satisfied approach to understanding the social forces that shaped the world around these people.
My other complaint with Heimat is that in its last few episodes it loses its focus on capturing the fabric of everyday life, instead succumbing to a dour view of present-day society presumably corrupted by the disposable values of American capitalism (symbolized by one family member who runs away to the US to become a millionaire). In this sense it truly is a heimat film, marked as it is by a comforting, restorative nostalgia for a past; this despite initially cataloging the many shortcomings of that era. It’s just ironic that a film that ultimately declares itself as a statement on behalf of meticulous authenticity against superficial product ends up compromising its own claims to the former in trying to rail against the latter.
Would you like to learn more?
The China Institute and dGenerate Films
Friday, January 30, 2009
6:30pm – 8:00pm
125 E 65th St
New York, NY
SAN YUAN LI (45 min, OU Ning, CAO Fei, 2003)
Equipped with video cameras, twelve artists present a highly-stylized portrait of SAN YUAN LI, a traditional village besieged by China’s urban sprawl. Reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (USSR, 1929) and Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQATSI (USA, 1982), China’s rapid modernization is brilliantly presented, with fast-edited scenes choreographed to music. Commissioned by the Venice Berlinale, SAN YUAN LI explores the modern paradox of China’s economic growth and social marginalization.
DIGITAL UNDERGROUND IN THE PRC
(18 min: 6 episodes, 3 min each, Rachel Tejada, 2008)
On a mission to acquire films and seek out the best and brightest of the Chinese independent film scene, Karin Chien and Suyin So from dGenerate Films visited post-Olympics China in September 2008 Traveling from Shanghai to Nanjing to Beijing with cameras rolling, they found China’s OTHER film community. Join them as they visit the largest underground film festival in China, explore the spirit of independence in Beijing, tour film compounds, attend a government-approved film event, and discuss the future of Chinese cinema. Karin Chien and other members of the dGenerate Films team will lead an open discussion.
(Videos courtesy of Chunnel.tv and Berlin Cameron United/WPP)
ADMISSION: $5 for China Institute non-members, $3 for members.
This film series is made possible through the generosity of the public and private grantors, and the support of the general public. All proceeds will go to the Education Department at China Institute to support future programming.
FREE popcorn and refreshments will be served and an open discussion will follow the screening.
Seating is LIMITED. Reservations are on a first-come, first-served basis.
Please visit www.chinainstitute.org/edu/sinomatheque for tickets.
For further info, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-744-8181 x150
I got a lot of great feedback, and a lot of recommendations from my post pondering the merits of English-language cinema from the year 2000, and if there were any worth revisiting as I compile my top ten list of the decade. Unfortunately as time is tight and I don’t have time to rewatch everything, I think I can only commit to revisiting one or two films. To decide which ones, I figure I’d put it in the hands of the democratic process.
So here’s a list of the most likely English language films for me to rewatch from 2000, and some acknowledgements of those who’ve already endorsed some of the titles. Please vote for JUST ONE that you think is most worthy of being on a top ten list of all films from this decade. I’ll make a decision by the end of the week…
Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe)
- endorsed by Marcy Dermansky (about.com)
Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier)
George Washington (David Gordon Green)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears)
- endorsed by Christianne Benedict (krelllabs.blogspot.com)
The House of Mirth (Terrence Davies)
-endorsed by Keith Uhlich (The House Next Door)
Memento (Christopher Nolan)
Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky)
Traffic (Steven Soderbergh)
Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson)
You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan)
- endorsed by Matt Parker (moveease.blogspot.com)
Write-in votes are welcome as well (just list ONE, please)
Screened Saturday January 17 2008 on .avi format on Continental Flight from Tokyo to Newark
One of Kenji Mizoguchi’s most lavish productions, this chronicle of the rise of the samurai amidst the oppression of 12th century Japan is heavy on plot and crowd scenes, but strangely inert at the center. The Mizoguchi themes of class and authoritarian injustice, the burden of family legacies, and female bondage are all present to varying degrees, but seem at odds with an implicit samurai movie imperative to move the proceedings along briskly and noisily. The film isn’t stuffed to the gills with swordfights; the sparring takes place mostly in terms of political maneuverings between the samurai, the ruling court and a powerful order of monks, with screen-cluttering armies being mustered less to wage combat than to intimidate (the viewer as well as their opponents).
Perhaps in this light Mizoguchi is subverting the genre, shifting his emphasis away from bloodshed to the hero’s pseudo-Oedipal angst-ridden search for his true patrilineage involving the three factions. Most of the thematic richness that emerges from this scenario can be traced to the script, adapted from a serialized novel by Eiji Yoshikawa. For his part Mizoguchi seems to be preoccupied with making tentative forays in color (this being one of two color films he directed in his career; the other, The Empress Yang Kwei Fei [TSPDT #617], also from 1955, achieves a more expressive palette), and with keeping the proceedings lively through a brisk editing scheme and a variety of compositions and camera movements that animate rather than contemplate. An effective, meaningful effort by most standards, it registers as a kowtow to prestige picture impulses when considering the singular achievements of Mizoguchi’s earlier works.
Want to go deeper?
Screened January 23 2009 at the MoMA Education Center, New York NY
The current wave of art cinema in Latin America – featuring the likes of Carlos Reygadas, Lucretia Martel, Lisandro Alsonso et al – boasts as much boldness of vision and cinematic lyricism as the region has ever seen. But even the best of these films can’t match the breathtaking audacity of one of the earliest films from Brazil. Limite existed for decades as apocrypha, its only surviving print sequestered during a 20-plus-year restoration process interrupted by confiscation by the nation’s military dictatorship. The only film by novelist Mario Peixoto looks like a summation of 1920s silent avant garde techniques that Peixoto absorbed while in Europe, but launches into new dimensions of synthesis that carries the viewer aloft on the feverish velocity of its inspiration. Peixoto practically exhausts the lexicon of silent cinematography with every shot conceivable from the era, but arranges them in a cascading visual pattern of sharp angles, deceptively vast vistas and sumptuous close-ups of worldly surfaces. I can’t think of another film that savors its shots as much as this one, taking each one in long enough that even mundane images (train engines, spools of thread, telephone poles, a woman’s silk stockinged calves) ooze with sinister energies. It’s a world turned upside down: a woman set atop an endless hilltop view of the Brazillian shoreline swoons, the camera spinning wildly in vertiginous ecstasy; a roomful of cinemagoers laughing at a Charlie Chaplin movie achieves a nightmarish lunacy. Each shot hangs in the air before evaporating into the next; the ghostly traces of each image build a sinuous path resisting the limits of worldly logic with the assured intuition of a dream. I desperately need to see this film again, but upon first glance, comparisons to Sunrise [TSPDT #12] are not unwarranted.
Want to go deeper? Continue Reading »
I plan my next few screenings for the Best of the Decade Derby to revolve around releases from the year 2000. Looking at the films I’m most eager to revisit, there’s a heavy representation from Asia: In the Mood for Love, Platform, A Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors – and I’ve already revisited Yi Yi. In stark contrast, there are virtually no English-language films that I have an interest in watching. I’m wondering if I’m being biased and need to check myself, or if there really are no English language films that are truly worthy of considering for the decade’s top ten films.
Take, for instance, the five top ranked English language films of the decade, according to They Shoot Pictures Don’t They? They are: Memento (#18), You Can Count on Me (#27), Dancer in the Dark (#39), Almost Famous (#62) and The House of Mirth (#65). Nine years later, none of these films shouts at me for attention. Well, maybe Memento, if only because it inspired a very entertaining Bollywood musical remake that I saw recently. But at the time I found it gimmicky and ultimately slight. But I am open to be persuaded to re-watch it by anyone who wants to make a case for it (but only if you would personally put it on your own top ten of the decade).
But the film that kind of puzzles me is You Can Count on Me, which, to my surprise, I ranked at #7 on my 2000 list of films seen. What’s more, this quiet little character study has a startlingly high ranking on the TSPDT best of the decade list. I do remember finding it a remarkably precise portrait of self-destructive, self-abusive behaviors within a wounded brother-sister dynamic. Maybe it didn’t advance the cinematic artform in a significant way, but it was a powerfully acted and directed drama, and I’d probably put it on a list of the best films to come out of Sundance in this decade. But is it worth serious consideration for this project? Again, anyone who would put it on their own list is welcome to step forward.
Any other 2000 releases are also welcome to be nominated. Speak now, otherwise it’s looking like I’m stuck with Asia (with a side trip to France, to finally check out a 345-minute pseudo-documentary I’ve heard very good things about)
1. Don’t Take Services for Granted and Be Prepared to Defend Yourself
When someone has been uploading content to YouTube as much and for as long as I have – over 140 videos so far over the past 4 years – it’s easy to feel comfortable, even when the notifications of copyright violation start popping up in one’s inbox. For three years, up until the start of 2009, of the many videos I uploaded – some consisting of completely original material, some consisting of clips taken unadorned from existing material, and the majority a combination of both – I had only received one copyright violation notice through YouTube (ironically initiated by a company whose owners I know personally and consider friends!). Anyone who spends more than a few minutes surfing videos on YouTube has to wonder how seriously the company takes copyright enforcement, given how much copyrighted material is freely available.
But apparently in 2009, YouTube has adopted a firmer stance towards enforcing copyright claims, whether because more claims are coming from copyright owners (Warner Music being a biggie, having withdrawn all of its content from the site after failing to agree to terms with YouTube), or because YouTube has thrown more resources towards enforcement.
So for those of you out there who post work on YouTube or other sites that may possibly run into a copyright claim and be removed, be sure to have these links at the ready:
Instructions for filing a DCMA or International Copyright Counternotice: http://help.youtube.com/support/youtube/bin/answer.py?answer=59826&topic=10554
Printable online form for drafting and printing out a DCMA counter-notice:
Note that it may take between 10-14 days for this claim to be processed and your video to be put back up. I consider it the price one has to pay for working with YouTube. Despite the headache this ordeal has given me, I still think YouTube is a prime place to go in terms of reaching an audience, as it still has 10 times the traffic of its nearest competitors, Daily Motion and Veoh. If anything, content creators like myself who use existing content under fair use laws have as much of a claim to a site like YouTube as anyone else.
Additionally, there has been talk amongst my peers about setting up a self-contained online resource for multimedia works of film and media criticism that operate under terms of fair use. Should a site like this materialize, I would fully endorse it and have my own clips hosted by it.
2. It Helps to Have Passionate, Eloquent Friends
I give a lot of thanks to the dozens of friends and supporters who wrote to me via email, Facebook, or on this and other blogs in the past week expressing concern, outrage and solidarity. I especially thank the following people (and many others who I may not know of) who wrote about this issue on their sites:
- Catherine Grant at Film Studies for Free (amen!) devoted multiple posts to my saga, and more importantly took it as an opportunity to gather as many relevant links and resources as she could find to educate readers on fair use and user-generated online video. By all means bookmark this link and this link if you want a one-stop resource to understanding the rights and limits of fair use.
- Karina Longworth on Spout broke the news. I blushed when I read her assessment that “These videos represent the first real advance in film criticism as an art form in, at least, decades.” Now if I can just get her to record that and loop it on my iPod…
- Matt Zoller Seitz of The House Next Door, who wrote a long, eloquent post that’s perhaps been the article most cited by others about this imbroglio. My favorite passage opens quite a window to what wonders lie beyond Big Media’s narrow vision of the future of multimedia creativity and art:
For the first time ever, when someone says to a critic, “Show me the evidence,” the critic doesn’t need to unlock a film archive vault or even haul out a DVD player to produce it. He can call it up online anytime, anywhere, for anybody… The implications are astounding. The technology’s potential has only begun to be tapped. And as you know, there’s more to it than classroom-style argumentation. Digital editing software and DVD-ripping technology permits anybody with filmmaking skill and the right tools—say, Handbrake to rip discs, MPEG Streamclip to convert them to edit-able format, and iMovie or Final Cut to put the pieces together—to manipulate commercial media in all sorts of ways, then post the result on the Internet. Suddenly mass entertainment became as malleable as paper or clay.
- Aaron Hillis at the GreenCine Daily, who, in addition to writing an impassioned defense of my work, took the opportunity to combine some photos revealing my penchant for karaoke bars with his Photoshop-enabled wit. I can’t wait to get him back for this…
- Scott Macaulay at Filmmaker:
What I would point out is that these issues are not new — documentary filmmakers have been grappling with the limits of fair use for years. (And it’s why some clip-oriented docs, like The Celluloid Closet, have big budgets and an array of big traditional media funders while others, like L.A. Plays Itself, have no such backers and only play on the non-profit circuit.) The problem in most fair use cases is that while a creator may be legally right, in the absence of clear test cases partners on the distribution and exhibition end are usually uninterested in funding the massive legal fees required to embark on a fair use battle. The Center for Social Media at American University has done some work in this area. Particularly noteworthy is their “The Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education.” The document is intended for educators, and obviously an online essay outside of the classroom is slightly different, but much of the discussion in this document is still relevant. Issues surrounding fair use and our emerging “remix culture” are also at the center of Lawrence Lessig’s new book Remix, and Lessig is interviewed by Weiler in the upcoming Filmmaker article.
- Nate Anderson at Ars Technica, the first article to come from outside the admittedly insular world of online film and break fully into the realm where digital technology, arts and the law intersect:
It’s one thing to go after complete film clips that are five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes long, and complete copies of films are obvious and totally acceptable targets for DMCA takedowns. But given all that low-hanging fruit to pluck, it’s a mystery why the content industry continues to harrass these other sorts of use that, if anything, would drive more viewers to watch the films in question.
These kinds of short-sighted legal actions have the unintended effect of revving up opposition to all rightsholder complaints, legitimate ones included, and they encourage a disrespect for copyright. If the content industry is serious about abiding by its own set of UGC principles, granting far more leeway in areas that simply don’t matter would go a long way toward keeping people on its side when content owners protest far more offensive practices.
Thanks to these and other posts, and the lengthy threads of comments they inspired, YouTube finally took notice and send me a personalized email, four days after shutting down my account, advising me on what steps I could take to get it reactivated.
3. Fair Use Rights Isn’t the Same as The Ability To Enforce Them, or Why YouTube May Not Be to Blame
“One thing I’ve learned from this though that rights don’t mean jack unless you’re in the position to uphold them.” I wrote this to a friend the day after my account got pulled. I originally was referring to myself and my inability (or so I thought at the time) to defend my rights to fair use, but my friend’s reply assumed that I was referring to YouTube/Google! Thinking about it further, he was onto something. I’ve received many emails, some from US copyright lawyers, that have yielded some pragmatic insights (I hope they don’t mind if I share some of their comments anonymously, because I do think they are valuable):
[YouTube] is a private enterprise; they’re entitled to make the calculation that keeping his postings on their site, under threat from Big Media, is more trouble than it’s worth. That’s a completely legitimate business decision for them to make… It is not their mission or purpose to defend users’ postings against claims of infringement, and they have little motivation to do so…
YouTube is a website, privately owned, by a company that’s in business to make
money, not to guarantee the free speech rights of everyone who posts something. YouTube
is entitled to take down anything on there, for any reason or for no reason: because it’s
pornography, because it’s indecent, because it portrays Youtube in a bad light, or because
it creates a risk of monetary loss.
Matt [Zoller Seitz]‘s anger [in his article], and his [proposed] lawsuit, should be directed at the content owner(s) (in this case, the studios), who are sending frivolous takedown notices to Youtube. (I say frivolous because, from what I’ve seen, Matt’s fair use defense is a clear winner here.) It’s not YouTube’s policies that are the problem here — it’s theirs.
Another email I received, while agreeing that YouTube was well within its rights to act as an online “saloon keeper” mediating disputes between two parties taking place on its premises, also had words of caution for how YouTube should manage the impact of these incidents on its own brand value:
YouTube chooses to act conservative in a playing field that’s out-and-out progressive. They’re driving with the brakes on. Forward-thinking brought them where they are today and I very much doubt that this new taking-down policy will do their business any good. It goes against everything that made YouTube popular in the first place and, in the end, modern consumers will go wherever they get more freedom.
In the meantime, it may very well be true that all roads ultimately lead to Big Media (or as others have suggested, the copyright laws passed by Congress that Big Media has had no small measure of influence in writing). They’ve spared no expense in developing new technologies that can crack down on any possible acts of copyright violation. Witness this excerpt of an email I received giving background on INA, the party responsible for reporting the copyright violation to YouTube that triggered the suspension of my account:
“Here is an article I found from Dec 22, saying that the French INA pressed charge twice against YouTube, because of the presence of counterfeit videos on their site, containing copyright protected oeuvres, and because of Google’s unreliable watermark detection system (Video ID).
So it wasn’t against you personally, or that film in particular. It must be a global campaign to hunt down fingerprints undiscriminatively. And they can’t be bothered to look into the details of Criticism Fair Use, if they don’t actually watch the videos.
This war will continue to be waged so long as Big Media’s fear that they are losing millions of dollars to piracy overshadows their ability to comprehend how they could stand to benefit – and even profit – by utilizing user-generated appropriation of copyrighted materials to their own advantage.
4. How To Join the Fight for Digital Rights:
Throughout my travails, here are three of the most widely cited resources and authorities, among the many that are out there on the issue of copyright law and fair use – many of them, and many more, are also linked at Film Studies for Free:
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation confronts cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today. Thank you especially to Fred von Lohmann for his counsel. Here’s some information I received from him regarding one of EFF’s current campaign:
EFF has asked the Copyright Office to create an exemption to the DMCA to permit DVD ripping for fair use activities. Public comments supporting the proposal are due on Feb. 2, and it would be very helpful if content creators write a letter describing their work, and why DVD ripping is necessary for it (particularly why using alternatives like “video capture” is inferior — the movie studios always say that everyone should just use video capture cards instead of ripping).
If you’re interested, EFF’s proposal to the Copyright Office can be found here (the DVD ripping proposal starts on page 13):
Such statements, as well as inquiries or requests for help, can be sent to email@example.com
- The Center for Social Media at American University has a free and invaluable publication titled Recut, Reframe, Recycle: Quoting Copyrighted Material in User-Generated Video. I read this publication last year and it reassured me that the video essay work I was doing was strictly within the realm of fair use. (Of course, feeling that you’re within your rights doesn’t prevent other parties from violating them…)
- Lawrence Lessig is a Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and founder of the school’s Center for Internet and Society. For much of his career, Professor Lessig focused on law and technology, especially as it affects copyright. The newest of his many books on copyright is Remix, which discusses the evolution of youth “remix” culture, its many social benefits, and how copyright law is hindering its growth.
Also, on the issue of how free content is evolving online, here’s news from Scott Macaulay’s blog: “Lance Weiler‘s latest piece in the new Filmmaker… talks about the dangers of filmmakers aggregating too much of their data on social networks that can delete their accounts — and this data — at the blink of an eye. He’s mostly talking about social networking data, but his argument applies to content as well. In the piece he directs people to the Data Portability Project, and I’d recommend people check out this organization’s good work.”
You are welcome to contribute additional resources and links in the comments section.
Thanks everyone for your support.
Thanks to the Copyright Team at YouTube for getting into the spirit of Martin Luther King Day, and agreeing to temporarily reinstate my account while my counterclaim against INA over the fair use of “…And God Created Woman” is under review. And thank you EVERYONE for your emails and messages of support, and for those who wrote about my ordeal on their respective websites. The publicity surrounding this mess had everything to do with YouTube contacting me last Friday and offering guidance on what steps I needed to take to get my account back online (at the time I didn’t know how I could still file a counterclaim despite that I was shut out of my account).
This has been a very educational experience and I hope to blog about it after I catch up on jet-lag recovery sleep. In the meantime, here is the video that got me into trouble, now viewable courtesy of Veoh. Happy MLK Day, and Happy Inaguration Day, and Happy Brigitte Bardot!
In my previous post I referred to some cinemetrical analysis involving scenes and shots. I actually did this with all of Hou Hsiao Hsien films from the past 15 or so years, just to get a sense of any evolution in his career in terms of camerawork and montage. What I learned was that, in terms of shot and scene lengths, Hou has gone mainstream over the past decade.
Bear in mind that “mainstream” is a relative term, and certainly isn’t strictly determined by the number of scenes or shots in a film. Also, Hou’s filmmaking remains way on the austere side of the shot/montage spectrum. Take for instance this comparison of Flight of the Red Balloon with two prominent 2008 releases, one the most commercially successful film of the year, the other a critically and commercially popular foreign arthouse release. I took the first ten minutes of all three films and analyzed them for number of scenes and shots:
OPENING TEN MINUTES: A CINEMETRICAL ANALYSIS
The Dark Knight: (complex action sequence, dialogue scene, beginning of dialogue/action scene)
avg. scene length: 0.5 min
avg. shot length: 0.13 min (~7.5 seconds)
avg. shots per scene: 4.00
A Christmas Tale: (brief opening scene, expository montage, dialogue scene)
avg. scene length: 1.25 min
avg. shot length: 0.10 min (~6.2 seconds)
avg. shots per scene: 12.13
Flight of the Red Balloon (boy with balloon, balloon flying)
avg. scene length: 1.67 min
avg. shot length: 1.11 min (~66.7 seconds)
avg. shots per scene: 1.5
It’s interesting that a dialogue scene in A Christmas Tale actually has more shots (or cuts) than an action sequence in The Dark Knight. Watching the latter, I did admire the film’s use of relatively long takes interspersed with sudden cuts to mix up the pacing with a sequence (this despite all the smack being talked about the film’s action sequences as logically and structurally inchoherent). But in any case, in terms of the average length of each shot Flight of the Red Balloon stretches out by yards over both films, averaging over 9 times the shot length of The Dark Knight and 10 times the length of A Christmas Tale.
Having said this, though, Hou seems to be cutting more in his films over the past 10 years. Check out this cinemetrical analysis of his films from 1995-2008. The best way to read this data is by comparing average scene length, average shot length, and average shots per scene from film to film. (sorry, I don’t have time to put this in table format). Also, since Three Times can be considered three movies in one, I’ve separated the scene and shot data for each part as well as provided stats for the entire film.
HOU HSIAO HSIEN CAREER CINEMETRICAL ANALYSIS, 1995-2008
Flight of the Red Balloon (2007)
runtime: 115 min.
avg. scene length: 2.81 min
avg. shot length: 1.44 min
avg. shots per scene: 1.95
Three Times (2005)
Part 1: 1966
avg. shots per scene: 2.43
Part 2: 1911
avg. shots per scene: 2.23
Part 3: 2005
avg. shots per scene: 2.72
runtime: 120 min (US version)
avg. scene length: 2.11 min
avg. shot length: 0.87 min
avg. shots per scene: 2.42
Cafe Lumiere (2003)
runtime: 108min (Japanese version)
avg scene length: 2.20 mins
avg. shot length: 1.33 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.65
Millennium Mambo (2001)
runtime: 105 min (edited version)
avg scene length: 3.00 mins
avg. shot length: 1.94 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.54
Flowers of Shanghai (1998)
runtime: 125 min (US version)
avg scene length: 4.03 mins
avg. shot length: 3.38 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.19
Goodbye South Goodbye (1996)
runtime: 124 min (original version)
avg scene length: 3.18 mins
avg. shot length: 2.07 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.54
Good Men, Good Women (1995)
runtime: 108 min
avg scene length: 2.51 mins
avg. shot length: 2.11 mins
avg. shots per scene: 1.19
Taking all of this in, the clear trend has been towards shorter scenes with more shots. Three Times and Flowers of Shanghai represent opposite ends of Hou’s recent career; for all the comparison of Part 2 of Three Times with Flowers of Shanghai, there’s much less cutting and, dare I suggest, more integrity of the moment in Flowers. In that sense Flight of the Red Balloon represents a return to the masterful long take formalism that is in evidence in the earlier films. It may have been that Hou needed a bit of a break from that technique after trying (and some would say, failing) to apply that technique to good effect in Millennium Mambo. I revisited a bit of that film this past week and found it to be an exercise of style in search of substance – the central breakup story is pretty thin, and no amount of neon-lit nightclub long takes can cover up that weakness. Cafe Lumiere, with its relatively short scenes (at least compared to the Hou features that preceded it), may have been an attempt towards a more scene-heavy mode of storytelling, which Three Times built upon further. While these numbers don’t mean anything per se, looking at how much cutting there is in Three Times reinforces my feeling that it’s Hou’s most audience-friendly, conventional film – a good entryway into grappling with his formidable body of work, but not his best film by any means.
This post is dedicated to Chris Fujiwara, with whom I enjoyed a hotpot dinner and a morning double feature of Nikkatsu ’60s New Wave porn at the CinemaVera arthouse in Shibuya during my recent stay in Tokyo. During our time together Chris expressed disdain over the preponderance of film writing in magazines and blogs these days that convey a “look how cool I am to be writing about this movie that I got to see” snobbishness to it. His complaint is that the tone of these pieces convey exclusivity and snobbish possessiveness over the works being discussed, which in the end does these films a great disservice, as these films need and deserve to be made understood to a wider audience.
Chris’ concerns are those I’ve had as I’ve spent many years trying to vindicate the virtues of Hou Hsiao Hsien to peers who would often reply with a dismissive “Who Hsiao Hsien?” Now that Hou has unequivocably earned his day in the sun with American film critics, with Flight of the Red Balloon coming out at the top of the IndieWire critics poll (which seems to be missing from the new version of the IndieWire site), I find myself in a peculiar position of making a potentially snobbish argument questioning why Flight of the Red Balloon is so regarded while his earlier oeuvre remains fairly underappreciated. Perhaps I should just be grateful that the praise lavished on Hou’s latest film may carry over into proper DVD releases of his earlier work, such as his hands-down greatest film City of Sadness, which to date is not available as an English-subtitled DVD.
It remains to be seen whether Flight‘s prominent poll position will translate to a slot on many critics end-of-decade top ten lists. Thanks to its strong showing, it’s the highest ranking 2008 release on the freshly updated (and, interestingly, Dark Knight-free) aggregate list of the decade’s best films on They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?, debuting at #30. In comparison, Cafe Lumiere is at #152, and Three Times at #199. I’ve been of the opinion that Cafe Lumiere is Hou’s best film of the decade, the only one that comes close to being a masterpiece (in contrast, there are three Hou films from the 1990s that I consider masterpieces: The Puppetmaster, Goodbye South, Goodbye and Flowers of Shanghai), and I’ve stated before that Flight of the Red Balloon, while remarkable in many ways, strikes me as a European reconfiguring of much that can already be found in Cafe Lumiere – which makes me regard Flight’s commercial and critical success with some suspicion, especially when compared to the relative lack thereof wth Cafe Lumiere.
Maybe it’s snarky of me to come up with commercial reasons for Hou’s long-deferred success with Flight of the Red Balloon, but I’ll just get them off my chest:
- The breakthrough success of Hou’s Three Times (which, as accomplished as it was in many respects, could be seen as a high-concept, audience-friendly intro to his worldview recycling much of his previous films) set the stage for his subsequent release to continue his commercial success in the US.
- The baguette factor: Juliette Binoche + Paris. As J. Hoberman once said, if Hou were French he’d be selling out the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Turns out that J.Ho may have called this one right.
- Lastly, for Flight of the Red Balloon, Hou adopts an arthouse-friendly color palette of warm reds and oranges, and employs some masterful long panning takes which situate his style squarely within the conventions of contemporary arthouse cinema more than any of his previous films. Now, I don’t suspect that Hou was as calculating as “let’s shoot it this way so I can cash in on arthouse audience preferences.” The panning takes of Flight of the Red Balloon are indeed masterful (more on that in a moment) and aesthetically they make sense, as they mimic the whimsical swinging trajectories of the balloon (and once I realized this, the balloon seemed much more than just a gimmicky link to French cinema history).
Having said all this, I rewatched Flight of the Red Balloon during my trip, and on a purely cinematic basis, I was floored. Hou’s economy of filmmaking, the way he choreographs camerawork and staging to accomplish several things visually and dramatically in one take is astounding. The most brilliantly indisputable evidence of this comes at a dramatic highpoint in the film, when Juliette Binoche’s character suffers something close to a nervous breakdown trying to find the legal paperwork that would allow her to finally separate materially from her ex-husband and allow her literally to get a new lease on life. Look at how this five minute scene plays out and guess how many shots are involved:
The answer: one. Hou and cinematographer Mark Li Ping Bing achieve in one camera setup what would require at least five unique setups by a conventional production. And the fact that it is just one camera setup gives the audience a real-time sense of how a scene unfolds, how figures move through it and around each other, how the space itself affects the mood of the scene. Respect.
The only thing I could possibly say against this (and it’s not really against Flight of the Red Balloon, more against those who think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread) is that Hou’s been doing this for at least a decade. Check out the final scene of Goodbye South Goodbye, in which two parties negotiate the release of the lead characters. Granted here he’s working more with horizontal space than with the cool horizontal-vertical axis in the scene from Flight shown above, but it illustrates all the better how a space seems to continually unfold new manifestations, new wonders.
Notice how the two shots at the end of this one-take scene could be combined to form a master panorama view of the whole table – but dramatically the pan makes sense because the two shots depict the two sides of the negotiation taking place.
In Japan I also had hotpot with Shozo Ichiyama, the producer of so many of Hou’s great films in the 1990s, including Goodbye South, Goodbye. Ichiyama-san told me that Hou is concentrating of producing his next project, which will be a martial arts film. These long takes may give one an idea of what Hou has in mind.
I also rescind the earlier assessment I made that Flight of the Red Balloon is essentially a European rehash of Cafe Lumiere, in that it takes the incidental, in-the-moment, contemporary life-in-the-making project of Cafe Lumiere‘s Tokyo and recontextualizes it in Paris (which, again, proved to be a commercially wise idea). Having seen both in the past week, their differences are more striking than their similarities. Flight is shot voluptuously, with its rich warm hues, captivating panning shots, and busy interior scenes where anywhere between 2-5 characters will buzz around a space like bees.
When I think of Cafe Lumiere, the first word that comes to mind is “flat.” The second is “impassive.” The two words are closely linked, and I think have everything to do with not only how this movie looks, but what it thinks and feels about the world and about people, esp. its protagonist. In contrast the sequence shown above from Flight, where a single shot suggests many pockets of micro-spaces and dimensions within a scene, the shots of Cafe Lumiere are flat and direct. Part of this may have to do with the locations Hou shoots, such as the bookstore where Hajime (Tadanobu Asano – Japan’s actor of the decade?) works:
Looking at these compositions, it’s striking how Ozu-esque they are, shot at geometrically square angles – and maybe this has something to do with the resultant “flatness” of Cafe that I’ve described. But unlike Ozu, Hou doesn’t do a lot of shot-reverse shot cutting or decoupage of a scene; he doesn’t do much cutting at all, really. By my count, Cafe Lumiere has 49 scenes and 81 shots – that’s an average of less than 2 shots per scene!
By my count, the number of shots in Cafe Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon is almost exactly the same. Flight has 80, Cafe has 81. But Cafe has 10 more scenes than Flight. I think this means that Cafe moves more from scene to scene than Flight, while Flight moves more within scenes (look at the sequence above for a clear example of what I mean). While Flight is fascinated with the bustle of activity within a given space, Cafe follows one character on a mysterious journey of self-discovery that involves her friend’s bookstore, her parent’s house, various locations related to the Taiwanese composer she is researching, and any number of cafes and train stations in between.
Played by Japanese pop singer Yo Hitoto, Yoko is a remarkable character in that she manages to be appealing and engaging despite having her back turned to us for half the movie. Hitoto is dressed plainly compared to Juliette Binoche’s tussled blond dyejob and boho threads in Flight. Often times we don’t even see her face clearly – the above close-up is pretty much the only one in the film, though it comes at a key moment of emotional candor (well, as candid as this film of intentions veiled by common courtesies ever gets). One can see why this film would do poorly with audiences: not only does it lack the warm, charismatic presence of Shu Qi or Juliette Binoche, but it doesn’t even give much in the way of flattering closeups to bring us closer to its lead. Again, the overall effect is “flat” – she’s just there, on screen, living her life, her performance not giving much consideration to the audience watching her.
This intractability, I argue, is the gateway to understanding this movie. The plot, what there is of one, concerns a girl’s search for the historical remnants of a late Taiwanese composer who lived in Japan many decades before. The search may or may not be related to the girl’s own recent developments: getting pregnant by a Taiwanese boyfriend now living in Thailand, but deciding to break up with him and stay in Tokyo to have the baby. It’s quite a melodramatic situation when one thinks about it, though you wouldn’t guess it by the relatively placid way that the girl goes about her business (the only distressful moment she has is when she suffers morning sickness on the subway). But this quiet impassivity forces the viewer to look more carefully for slight clues or cues to the drama – and is the key to what’s truly special about this film.
Take this scene, where Yoko tells her stepmother over a late night snack that she’s pregnant. Compare the stepmother’s face and body language before the announcement:
These are the two most extreme stills, mind you – I tried to go for extremes because you have to watch the frames in motion to get a sense of the full scope of her body language, a series of slight movements backwards (once she hears the announcement) and then forwards (when she recovers from the internal shock to ask questions). It’s worth noting that the changing registers of people’s facial expressions was Ozu’s bread and butter – except that he would sandwich these two shots above around a reverse shot of Yoko making the announcement. Here we have the integrity of a moment preserved in real time, and we get to witness one second wash into the next, seeing how movements, feelings, registers of light unfold in a constant stream.
My favorite character in the movie is Yoko’s father, who never says a single word in the film, and whose rigid, mountainlike presence betrays a well of micro-emotions. Compare this shot of him sitting in his living room, enjoying a beer in front of the TV, his daughter just returned home:
The next afternoon we see him in a reverse shot of the one above – he’s sitting on the opposite side of the table, this time facing the pposite direction (the window instead of the TV), his eyes closed and anxious. You’d have to watch the movie to get a sense of how his emotional state has changed overnight – the difference is that this is the morning after his daughter told his stepmom that she’s pregnant. We never get a scene of the daughter telling the father – in all likelihood it wasn’t communicated directly – but the ever so slight change of the father’s body language is enough to tell us what he knows and feels.
Several scenes later, it’s the next day and the parents have come to visit Yoko’s apartment to discuss the matter of her pregnancy further. Father and daughter eat silently at the table – but you get a quick moment of the father putting a potato on Yoko’s plate. I didn’t even notice this moment the first time I watched the film. But if you hone in on it, it’s an emotionally tidal moment that means the world to both of them, given all that’s happened.
The feeling of connection is short-lived however, as the lunch leads to a discussion of the pregnancy, with stepmom now crowding the frame – a subtle way for Hou to suggest tension and discord through deep staging:
It remains to be seen whether Flight of the Red Balloon or Cafe Lumiere are strong enough to make my top ten of the decade. I’m not even sure which film I think is better – the question may be moot, as I’ve gone to lengths to show how different they are and unique in their own respects. But even though I’ve rewatched Cafe more than Flight, I’m still more inclined to revisit Cafe. It’s the rarer treasure, its mysteries seem more tightly packed underneath a seemingly banal surface, operating under a cinematic logic that in its own, quiet way, radically defies category or convention, reflecting the modestly willful, quietly independent spirit of its protagonist. It makes Flight look more ingratiating, like an amusement park ride in comparison – though don’t get me wrong, it’s a hell of a ride. I’ve come to appreciate that much…
For further reference, here are links to my original reviews to Hou’s films of the 2000s. Which one sounds like “best of the decade” material to you?