Great film is an illuminating thing: it shines its light into the dark recesses of humanity, revealing the greed, hatred, and hypocrisy that fester there. Bad film is often just as revealing: its existence and reception serve as a mirror reflecting the hearts of its intended audience. Saving Private Ryan is a classic example of the latter, in the flickering light of its propagandistic glow, the American people stand revealed for what they really are: stupid, self-absorbed, morally unsophisticated rubes ready to be fleeced by the first charlatan who comes along and tells them what they want to hear.
"Saving Private Ryan" is typical Steven Spielberg fare: a big budget spectacle, bereft of style, filled to the brim with childishly heavy-handed moralizing and peopled with facile "characters" who exist only as cardboard cutouts for the ensuing morality play. Even the film's underlying subtext is an old Spielberg standby - America GOOOOOD, Nazis BAAAAD.
The plot of Saving Private Ryan revolves around a simple moral question: is saving one life worth potentially sacrificing the lives of many? This fourth grade ethical dilemma is played out for nearly three hours over the background of the brocage of Normandy in the hours and days immediately after the D-Day landings, and is handled with Spielberg's usual wandering attention, ham-fisted lack of subtlety and babbling pop psychology. Spielberg being Spielberg, there's never any doubt how the question will ultimately be answered (hint: with saccharine sentimentality in front of a tombstone - because, obviously, the same scene wasn't manipulative enough when it was used to close Schindler's List).
The film opens with thirty minutes of unremitting carnage as US soldiers assault Omaha Beach. This opening scene has been hailed for its savage realism, but it is in truth one of the more cynically manipulative sequences in recent memory, full of irritating, disorienting jump cuts, pornographically Gibsonesque attention to gory detail, camera tricks and special effects artifices, all accompanied by a deafening soundtrack designed to overwhelm our capacity to think about what is being portrayed on the screen and to push us to simply immerse ourselves in its reductive US vs. Them POV. When I saw this film in the theaters, the audience cheered when the first German soldier was killed, then cheered again when American troops murdered surrendering Germans in cold blood: this, I'm sure, was Spielberg's intent.
Having bulldozed and buried any hint of the moral ambiguity of war, Spielberg gets around to the heart of the movie. It has been discovered by the War Department that one Private Ryan (Matt Damon) is now the sole surviving son of a family who has sent five sons to war. Unfortunately, Ryan was a part of the paratrooper drop that preceded the Normandy landings and is missing behind enemy lines. In a moment of supreme hokum (complete with a quotation of a letter by Abraham Lincoln that wouldn't feel out of place in a Ken Burns documentary), Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall (Harve Presnell) decides that an effort will just have to be made to save Private Ryan.
At this point, Saving Private Ryan becomes just another motley-crew-of-experts flick. A team of caricatures is assembled: the tough-as-nails seargent; the feisty Italian; the pious Southern sniper with Talent on Loan from God (if the historical setting had been Vietnam, I'm sure this character would have been replaced by Cuba Gooding Jr. as The Magic Negro); the REMF pussy - all led by Tom Hanks in the role of Tom Hanks, Captain Everyman. Call them the Sanitized Seven. Battles ensue. Some of the caricatures die (does anyone really remember which ones?). The Germans never miss an opportunity to remind us how EVIL they are. One wehrmacht man - having been saved from certain death at the hands our intrepid heroes by the earnest pleas of the REMF - returns only to slowly and sadistically stab an American to death. Oh those tricksy Krauts! In the end, Ryan is saved and Tom Hanks is dying. But it was all worth it. Cue the graveside maundering. USA! USA! USA!
The problem with Saving Private Ryan is the problem with everything Spielberg touches. More broadly, it is the problem of the American commercial cinema. Lacking the courage of any real conviction, it cannot offer any challenge to its audience. Instead, it panders to that audience with easy answers, impressive effects, a soundtrack that booms and tinkles in all the right places and a nice mom's apple pie pat on the back for every red blooded American. What's missing is even the faintest glimmer of awareness that the world doesn't break down neatly into heroes and villains, cowards and the courageous, us and them. In the place of subtlety, it gives us spectacle, in the place of art, it delivers technically proficient propaganda.
Wong Kar-Wai is the modern cinema's premier poet of loss and longing. His characteristically enigmatic films capture the erratic rhythms and ephemeral nature of memory and torment: fleeting, fragmented, wandering only to return obsessively to its central foci.
While Wong's debut, "As Tears Go By", was a relatively straightforward commercial riff on Scorsese's "Mean Streets" and the 'heroic bloodshed' style of Hong Kong street opera pioneered by action maestro John Woo, he would establish with "Days of Being Wild" and "Chungking Express" a signature style characterized by visual bravura mixed with interwoven and intensely introspective tales of emotionally isolated young people adrift in the shadow kingdom of urban postmodernity. Eschewing more traditional narrative formats for an elliptical self-referentiality that mirrors memory itself, Wong's films are rarely instantly accessible, but reward the patient viewer with intoxicating moods and contemplative brilliance.
"Fallen Angels" was originally conceived as something of a 'nightside' sequel/companion piece to "Chungking Express." Structurally and thematically it mirrors the latter with two separate plot lines, each centering on a pair of twentysomethings (a hit-man and his female 'agent' in one and a strange, mute confidence man and the girl he takes a shine to in the other) in search of love but unable or unwilling to find it in each other. Assorted camera tricks, fish eye lenses, slow motion sequences and the strategic use of a gloriously bittersweet pop soundtrack all help to capture a mood of frantic desperation and the distortions of memory and longing.
Wong also invokes the first of his 'art' films, "Days of Being Wild," returning to its concern with the loss and meaning of identity in an impersonal world. Leon Lai's hit-man and Takeshi Kaneshiro's petty criminal both try - and fail - to remake their lives on this straight and narrow. One of them manages a peace of sorts with his failure - the other goes out out in a bittersweet blaze of glory. Wong also explores the way in which longing (mis)identifies others: his characters view each other through the distorted lens memory and desire - what they see is not reality, but a projection of their own dreams - and when the truth is made manifest, it is always the cruelest blow.
The lengths which many are willing to go to provide some sort of intellectual justification of the existence of Starship Troopers never cease to amaze me. "Oh, it's satire," they say. "It is a subversive send up of fascism, the most brilliant since Dr. Stragelove." Well folks, I'm here to let the cat out of the bag. No it isn't. Starship Troopers is not subversive. Starship Troopers is not satire. Starship Troopers is just stupid. For all its smirking, in-on-its-own-joke faux camp and oh-so-ironic stabs at social commentary, Starship Troopers is nothing more than a schlocky sci-fi shoot 'em up aimed at adolescents (clearly demonstrating that the filmmakers knew all along that their 'subversive' film was a steaming turd) and directed with all the ham handed prurience which we've all come to know and hate from Paul Verhoeven (whose chief claim to fame is Showgirls, the movie which ensured that no one would ever be curious enough to see an NC-17 film again).
That's not to say that 'satire' and 'subversion' aren't attempted, just that they fail miserably (and how could they not with Verhoeven at the helm, not to mention a cast of 'stars' headed by the likes of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards?). Any satirical effect is lost in the stunning lack of context. So there might be a fascist society some time, for some reason at some point in the future, and it might not be pleasant? How interesting. Now get back to machinegunning four story beetles.
The moral of this story? In the future, Marines will take co-ed showers.
One of my favorite film viewing pastimes is going back to the early films of some of my favorite directors and getting a feel for where they've come from to get to where they are. In the last year or so, Wong Kar-Wai has firmly ensconced himself as my favorite contemporary filmmaker, and tonight, I treated myself to his 1988 debut feature As Tears Go By.
What makes this film fascinating is the startling degree to which Wong's instinct for visual poetry and his ability to translate the almost physical pain of longing onto the screen are both already finely honed, though the languid pacing and narrative inventiveness of his later works (like undisputed masterpiece In the Mood for Love) are notably absent.
As Tears Go By wears the clothing of a straightforward Hong Kong street opera of the type made famous during the 1980s by John Woo, though Wong also tips the cap to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. It features swaggering bravado and staccato violence one expects of such fare, and is both Wong's most accessible film and his only commercial success to date.
As Tears Go By centers on Wah (Andy Lau), an up-and-coming Triad gangster trying to balance his own ambitions against his loyalty to his feckless "little brother" Fly (Jacky Cheung), whose impulsivity represents a constant danger, not only to himself, but to Wah as well (though he also provides an otherwise tense film with much needed humor). Wah's life is further complicated by a growing love for his cousin Ngor (frequent Wong collaborator Maggie Cheung in her first major dramatic role), a beautiful girl whose existence he was totally unaware of before she came to stay with him while seeking medical treatment in Hong Kong.
Beneath the familiar aspects of genre film, however, lurk the seeds of Wong Kar-Wai's later mastery. As Tears Go By could have been just another bullet ballet, but it is instead a searing, romantic work of art, despite occasional clichés. Always something of an actor's director (and famous for leaning heavily on the improvisational talents of his stars, despite his own background as a screenwriter), he coaxes from his cast performances that are uniformly excellent. Jacky Cheung, in particular, stands out, and he imbues Fly with a reckless machismo that only serves to highlight the self-doubt that gnaws at his soul. The Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor trophy which Cheung won for this role was well-deserved.
But it is Wong Kar-Wai who really dominates As Tears Go By, as the visual and emotional style that characterized his later works is already in evidence. His signature thematic concerns of longing and memory, and the master iconography he associates with these concepts (slow burning cigarettes and torrential downpours, respectively) figure prominently in As Tears Go By, and while his mastery of the basic visual style he introduces in this film would increase with later films, he was already a powerful cinematic poet.
The only elements of his mature style that are missing are the characteristically recursive and self-referential narrative structures of his later work and the constant weight of emotional isolation that so perfectly captures the disassociative rootlessness of modern existence (though the latter is not completely lacking, and is especially apparent in the opening scenes of the movie). This has the effect of slightly lessening the impact of some of the imagery, but it cannot keep As Tears Go By from being an immensely powerful debut film.
Seijun Suzuki is one of the more polarizing and ambiguous figures in Japanese cinema. Genius? Madman? Something in between? Perhaps it doesn't matter, the differences between these positions are in any case, quite sleight. An amazingly prolific director - he directed over forty films in the 1960s alone - his very productivity helped lend credibility to those who dismissed him as B-movie man, preeminent among these to be sure, but a B-movie man nonetheless. In recent years, however, his work has been increasingly appreciated, particularly in the West.
In large measure, this uptick in esteem is can be traced to the film industry finally catching up to Suzuki. His classic mid-60s films (Youth of the Beast, Gate of Flesh, Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill) featured a powerful combination of brutal, explicit and often sadistic violence, morbid humor, a keen sense of the ridiculous and a visual and narrative style that is fractured and often hallucinatory, all held together (or, rather, defiantly not held together) by a totalizing nihilism that denies any higher or greater meaning to actions beyond the demonstrable consequences of action itself. This made for cinema that, at the time, was incomprehensible to many viewers, and Suzuki was famously fired by Nikkatsu in 1967 for making films that "make no sense and make no money." Decades later, however, the potency of his best films is keenly appreciated by many cinephiles raised on Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers (both almost completely derivative of Suzuki's work).
Suzuki himself identified Youth of the Beast as marking the beginning of his most creatively fertile period, and all the distinctive elements of his film-making are in evidence, and meshing perfectly. The basic story - a mysterious tough muscles into the center of a war between rival gangs, then begins pursuing ends of his own as he plays each off the other - is strongly reminiscent of Kurosawa's Yojimbo, but where Yojimbo is a period piece set in a down and out town of the Edo period, Youth of the Beast is a (post)modern gangster film set in contemporary (1960s) Tokyo. Mifune's iconic role as the amoral ronin Sanjuro Kuwabatake is here filled by Jo Shishido as disgraced ex-detective Joji 'Jo' Mizuno.
The film opens with police investigating the apparent double suicide of a detective and his mistress (we later learn that it was actually a double murder). The initial sequence plays at being a traditional police procedural, with middle aged men in rumpled suits and worn hats speaking clinically of the dead. The camera pans to a table and an incongruous splash of color, a single cut red flower in a vase. It is an image of fleeting life that is repeated as the film's closing frame.
Suddenly, the film jumps to full color with a blast of hard bop from the soundtrack, cutting to a crowded street in Tokyo and the maniacal laughter of a woman. The camera soon finds 'Jo' Shisado, who explodes into violent action, attacking three men, pummeling one of them to the ground and kicking him repeatedly before fastidiously wiping the blood from his shoe onto the fallen man's shirt. He then turns with an air of total indifference and strolls into a hostess bar.
His outburst provides an entree into the Tokyo underworld; the men he thrashed were low-level yakuza soldiers, and the ease with which he dispatched them attracts the attention of the local underboss. Soon, he meets the big boss, Hideo Nomoto, and becomes a hit-man for Nomoto's gang. It rapidly becomes apparent that Jo is playing a deeper game. He forces his way into the office of Nomoto's chief rival, earning a place on his payroll as well, this time by providing intelligence on Nomoto's activities. He plays the rivals off one another, eventually achieving the cataclysmic annihilation of both gangs.
The great strength of Youth of the Beast is its combination of superb visual flair and unremitting nihilism. Suzuki's shots are almost invariably dynamic in their composition, a riot of color and movement against a gritty background of corruption and decay. They create at once a hallucinatory detachment and a gut level immersion in the violence. Even the relatively static shots are intensely poetic and loaded with symbolism. Several scenes take place in the office of Nomoto's hostess bar. The entire back wall of the office is a one-way mirror, looking out into the nightclub. The floor of the office is set below the floor of the club. It is a perfect visual depiction of an "underworld" existing side by side with everyday life, but invisible to most people.
One aspect of the film will likely be extremely disturbing to many contemporary Western viewers. Suzuki's films were often possessed of a violent and virulent misogyny, and this is no exception. The female characters are invariably unsympathetic; prostitutes, addicts and murdering adulteresses. One scene features a pimp humiliating an addicted woman while she begs for a fix. In another, Nomoto beats a call girl with his belt and then rapes her. The movie reaches its climax when Jo leaves the woman who orchestrated the murder of his partner to the tender mercies of a straight razor wielding psychopath. It is a fitting end to one of the most relentlessly violent films of its era.