Friday, 30 March 2012

Chungking Express

A film about time and coincidence.

In this sense, a continuation of themes already established in Wong Kar-wai's second feature-length film, the sweltering melodrama Days of Being Wild (1990), and a springboard to the deeper meditations on memory and place that occur in the masterworks Ashes of Time (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). These are films that slip between layers of memory and actuality; between how it is and how it could have been, either as a projection of the character's wants or needs, or through the accidental nature of existence; the significance of chance encounters, misheard declarations of love, or unlikely coincidences that occur when characters stumble across one another at a particular point in time.

In Wong's films, the situation that is established as a facilitator for these wider considerations is simple, if not wholly mundane. Two characters meet: either they live across the hall, or they work in the same part of town, or they share the same thoughts and feelings that compel them towards inevitable junctures and conclusions. These are characters on a collision course: fated, marked; existing on the fringes of a society, not because they're incapable of living any other way, but because the requirements of a lifestyle - the job or the social situation - dictates it. The loneliness, the desperation, the tedium of places all inspire a particular attitude that leads these characters into these situations in the first place; these locations that we return to again and again, always in some new manifestation of the same old routine, regardless of time, place or generation.

The small take-away restaurants, bodegas and bars give good cover for those meetings between inarticulate strangers with nothing much to say but a need to share a moment (or two) with someone other than themselves. Let the music drown it out before the soul starts screaming; take a walk through the lonely backstreets where characters can saunter, alone with their dreams and their shadow as chaperone.

Chungking Express directed by Wong Kar-wai, 1994:

In Chungking Express (1994), the two characters - inner-city cops battered and bruised by an aching loneliness - wander a labyrinth of these backstreets, alleyways and market places, converging in bars or convenience stores, but never really speaking; just taking the opportunity to soak in the spectacle of a life that eludes them, before it's back to the lonesome apartment buildings or the late night city streets. Both characters spend the duration of each segment sifting through old memories; living like revenants in a world that can't recognise their emptiness. Their paths cross on two separate occasions, but never intersect. Instead, their two stories are presented separately, one after the other, with each story offering echoes and variations of a theme that ripples throughout, uniting them through grief.

At the end of the film, after both threads of the narrative have reached their inevitable conclusions, the essential themes, of time, coincidence and displacement, come full circle, with the allusion to California - replayed by a character sitting in a bar called "the California", and with the song California Dreamin' on the soundtrack - highlighting the central idea of two entities existing at the same time in different places, connected, but at the same time, apart.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Black Ice

The title seems appropriate. The experience of the film suggesting the slow slippery slide of an unseen hazard as it catches the light of a clear December morning, just seconds before our feet slip out from under us, or the car drifts into the break. This light, burning bright beneath the surface of the screen, throws shapes into our periphery. Shapes that might exist as mere markings on the celluloid - like a living collage of daubed paint, dead leaves or spilled ink - but which, on closer reflection, can be interpreted by the viewer on an emotional or psychological level. Not so much as a Rorschach Test as an attempt to find meaning in the abstract. Like the refracted glare of the sunlight flaring off the camera lens on a holiday snapshot, or the dappled spots of rain on a windowpane that turns the world outside into a shimmering mosaic, this, as an effect, is something powerful enough to transform the mundane into the extraordinary.

Like in Mothlight (1963), or The Garden of Earthly Delights (1981), the presentation of the film, when looked at, straight-on, as a moving canvas, creates an interpretation that is further established in the mind by the connotations of the title. Here, it's that slow forward-journey through the void that makes Black Ice (1994), as a motion-picture, more immersive, more captivating, than any 3D blockbuster. The illusion of depth, of movement, created, not by multi-million dollar "FX", but by an optical illusion. Something that is formed within the mind; the act of viewing transforming it into whatever we want it to be, but at the same time, exactly what the filmmaker intended.

Black Ice by Stan Brakhage, 1994:

When I was a child, I'd play this game where I'd press the palms of my hands hard into my eye sockets and hold them there for several minutes. After a short while, the impression of the force would form against the retina and create the illusion of movement. A trip into the unknown, like Avatar (2009), but less expensive. At first the experience was like a slow descent into the depths of a jungle canopy. The tops of trees, enormous - green, blue and purple - covering the forest floor (which seemed endless), would blur and blend all around me. I'd dare myself to keep my hands pressed as hard against the eye for as long as I was able; to stay on this path, this trek, down into the abyss that my imagination was creating, to see what else I might discover. Eventually the whole thing would merge into a collage of colours, all melting and dissolving into a series of amorphous great blobs, like the shapes in a lava lamp, or a B-movie assimilation of the 'stargate' sequence from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

I was sure that this activity was damaging my eyes but it was worth it to experience all that the mind could conjure. Like interpreting abstract art, it was something that I could claim as my own. It wasn't defined or restricted by what others suggested, but open to my imagination. The same is true of Brakhage's films, which are there to be looked at, intently, closely or from a distance, at the changing shapes that create images, ideas, emotions, stories and room for contemplation. Watching a film like Black Ice in the dark of this room on a small laptop, the light of the screen like a beacon, is a profound experience, though I can only begin to imagine how extraordinary it would be to see it as intended, as a theatrical projection. The entire cinema becoming the portal for some fantastic journey, like Jules Verne, sans contraption.