The Look Back: In the Mood for Love is a Thing of Beauty

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

Fourteen years ago, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love premiered at Cannes. In the Mood for Love did not go on to win the Palme d’Or, as that honor went to Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark. It’s interesting that the film wasn’t awarded the festival’s most prestigious honor, because today, if you seek out a credible list ranking the best films of the 21st century, In the Mood for Love will be at its top. I don’t consider myself a slave to lists like Sight & Sound or TSPDT, but I would be very much inclined to agree with their placement of the film. (The only other option? Mulholland Drive, obviously.) This is because In the Mood for Love is clearly a thing of beauty.

In the Mood for Love is set in 1962 Hong Kong and focuses on the budding relationship between Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung, who did manage to win Cannes’ Best Actor award) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Both Chow and Su are married and live in neighboring apartments, which causes them to only interact in the day-to-day sense.

These everyday interactions (passing by each other in hallways, going out to get noodles) might seem mundane or unnecessary, but they are absolutely essential in In the Mood for Love. Exquisitely shot by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Ping Bing Lee (who, along with editor William Chang won Cannes’ Technical Grand Prize), the sequences luxuriate every fleeting moment Chow and Su share together. In reality, they’re just scenes of characters walking, but in In the Mood for Love, the scenes are visually sumptuous filmmaking.

Working as writer and director, Wong puts so much emphasis on the little time Chow and Su share together for a reason. Wong often obscures our view when the characters share moments together, and in result we, the audience function more as a secret observer rather than a viewer. The camera is telling us something that the characters are not.

Once Chow and Su do spend actual time together talking, it’s under the worst of circumstances. They have realized that their spouses are cheating on them, with each other. Chow and Su are left on their own, and Su tells Chow “On your own, you are free to do lots of things.” Left to themselves Chow and Su recognize an attraction that they share for each other, but they soon realize they would be no better than their cheating spouses. So the camera explores their romance for them.

In the Mood for Love’s visual language speaks multitudes to Chow and Su’s romance. The sequences of the two together are often filmed in slow-motion, and they soon become a rumination on the nature of human connection. This also instills a sense of longing that neither Chow nor Su can express to each other. When they aren’t together, Chow and Su are in their cramped apartments and workplaces. When they are together, Chow and Su are in wide open places, and their time together becomes something of a separate, freeing reality.

Other formal elements of the film also inform Chow and Su’s romance. When together, almost every frame is flooded with color. Most often it’s red, the color of love and passion, and this warm, lush emotionality elevates every moment Chow and Su share together. There’s also the expressive, impactful use of music. The film’s score (by Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi) is yearning and aching, and the film also makes great use of Nat King Cole’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” and “Aquellos Ojos Verdes.” It’s incredibly powerful, and perhaps the most successful use of music since Casablanca.

All of these formal elements bring Chow and Su together, even when as characters they explicitly do not. Every shot holds meaning, and the impact is never lost on the viewer thanks to Wong Kar-Wai’s evocative aesthetic artistry. In the Mood for Love is an emotionally expressive film in the grandest sense, and is entirely successful through pure filmmaking. That’s why it’s not only the greatest film of the 21st century, but is a thing of beauty.

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The Look Back: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is Experiential Filmmaking at its Finest

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In The Look Back I will be looking at movies and television series/episodes with fairly recent anniversaries and writing about why I love them so. Basically it’s a desperate attempt to write about things that would normally have very little relevance at all.

The highest praise any given film can receive is that it’s an “experience.” When a film surpasses the ordinary expectations of storytelling what is remembered is not the experience of watching the film, but the actual experience the film becomes.

Thirteen years ago, when it premiered at Cannes, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive exhibited how pure of an experience a film could really be. Everything about the film works towards crafting a wholly unique experience that can only be described as Mulholland Drive.

The two characters who guide us through the film are “Rita,” an amnesiac, and Betty, a Hollywood newcomer who knows nothing about show business. At the film’s core is a mystery. “Rita” isn’t Rita, so Betty decides to help her find out who she really is.

What’s even more of mystery though, is how the film’s narrative develops. The film is a “mystery,” but rather than being a traditionally told one, the film’s plot functions more as a series of surreal events told through fragmented pieces. This adds a dreamlike quality to the film. Hollywood is where dreams come true, but in Mulholland Drive is it really just a dream?

On the outside, Hollywood is a place where up-and-coming actresses like Betty come and give auditions and sing doo-wop songs, but what lies beneath is much more darker than it seems. As Rita and Betty venture deeper into the mystery that encompasses their lives, more layers are peeled back, revealing things like terrifying dumpster monsters, secretive and controlling organizations, contract killers, dead women, deception, betrayal, heartbreak, and suicide. None of this is ever outright explained, and what becomes most mystifying is the unknown.

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Because Lynch ventures so deep into the unknown, the audience doesn’t really ever understand what the “known” is. Our guides through the film’s world are blank slates, and experiencing everything they do is perplexing for even the most prepared viewer. We’re even faced with what Rita and Betty encounter on a literal level, through Lynch’s liberal use of hand-held and P.O.V. camera work. The audience is put in the place of the film’s characters constantly, and we can make as much sense of their incomprehensible world as they can.

Through Lynch’s experiential filmmaking, we become Rita and Betty. And just like Rita and Betty, we are so often confronted with the unknown, and it becomes the most terrifying thing you can think of. What’s scarier than not knowing your name, your world, and yourself?

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But as the unknown becomes known for Rita, but mainly Betty, it still remains unclear for the audience. Was Rita and Betty’s time together (spoiler alert for a 13 year old movie) really a dream? What does Diane’s transformation into Betty say about herself? What does it say about good and evil? What about truth and deception? What really is reality, and what are dreams?

Because this film leaves the audience with so much to think about, there’s no other way to describe Mulholland Drive than as an experience. But, being an experience, was the entirety of Mulholland Drive the audience’s own escape from reality?

Just listen to what the band leader of club Silencio says in the film’s most pivotal scene:

No hay banda. There is no band. Il n’est pas de orchestra. No hay banda. And yet we hear a band. It is an illusion.

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Mulholland Drive is as much as an escape for Diane to become Betty as it is for the audience to become an active participant in the experience. Through David Lynch’s experiential filmmaking, Mulholland Drive is the most fully formed escape cinema has to offer.

No hay película. There is no film. Il n’est pas de film. No hay película. And yet we see a film. Mulholland Drive is an illusion.

The Age of Louie

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It takes a lot to start a new wave of television. You have to be expressive, influential, and most importantly, hold meaning and relevance for those watching. Our most recent wave of great TV has been the “golden age” of cable dramas with antiheroes at their forefront. However, the age of the antihero is over. Or at least is getting there. Instead of clinging to the past, it’s time for TV to move forward. And it already has.

FX’s Louie has sparked the next wave of great television. This might sound like a surprise because based on its description alone (Louis C.K. plays a fictional version of himself in this series that follows the comedian through the lows of being an awkward single dad in New York.), Louie sounds like a “normal” show. And it is! Louis C.K. is an ordinary everyman telling everyday stories in ways that are unusual for television. Because, at its core, Louie isn’t about plot, characters, or even being funny, but is instead about the nature of being human.

Humanity is an incredibly hard thing to explore in any medium, but Louie does it with thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Through its transformative ways of storytelling, Louie strips down everything we know about regular storytelling, and offers a revealing look at what it’s like to be human. In Louie you can find the raw truths about life, the bizarre experiences of being human, our fears of rejection, humiliation, and loneliness, what personal victories, fulfillment, and self-discovery feel like, and what human connection really is. All of this in one 21 minute episode of television.

That’s the thing about Louie. One five-minute segment can be the most loving and profound scene you’ve seen all year, and the next as strange as a David Lynch filmLouie has been transcending normal storytelling for years in a very low-key way. The show takes its time to explore the small ideas that really matter, and the end result is unbelievably meaningful television. This is our new wave of great television: Low Key-TV.

The most obvious example of Louie’s influence on TV is HBO’s new era of dramedies. Picking up Girls and having Lena Dunham in a creatively auteur-ish position (she writes most episodes but has a writing staff, also directs occasionally) was an obvious response to Louis C.K.’s creative control over Louie (he writes and directs every episode, has edited most, and sits in with the musicians). Each episode of Enlightened, HBO’s best (albeit cancelled) dramedy was written by creator Mike White. And HBO’s new dramedies, the so-so Getting On and the wonderful Looking, are creator driven shows that have distinct visions. More importantly, each of these shows embody Louie’s low-key type of storytelling. They all tell small stories that end up having big impact emotionally, and are all incredibly resonant.

But low-key TV isn’t just half hour shows. Orange is the New Black takes a step back in every episode to examine how humanity binds each character together in their community. Sundance’s first original series Rectify is a thoughtful examination of how we view our lives and why they matter to us. And Showtime’s Masters of Sex is, ironically, the most intimate show on TV outside of Louie, telling very small stories.

However, the argument can be made that low-key storytelling has been present in television for years. Mad Men has always been a short story show disguised as an anti-hero one. Showtime’s network defining dramedies have always been blurring the lines of genre and storytelling. Even Freaks and Geeks employed a certain type of storytelling that was small, yet emotionally rich.

Still, this type of storytelling has been crystalized by Louie. It’s the main reason Louie’s the most ambitious and distinctive show on TV. You won’t find any other show on television that devotes 21 minutes to a conversation between two friends, with one who says he’s going to kill himself. There will never be a show that has its protagonist unknowingly bring a duckling into Afghanistan. Or any other episode that details a man’s escape from depression which ends with him connecting with a random family in China.

Thanks to Louie’s sheer ambition and expressiveness we have our next great wave of television. And hopefully we’ll be able to feel thankful for years to come.

Review is the Funniest–and Saddest–Show on TV

1617596_651970931526044_1102797902_oEver since The Sopranos premiered cable television has been the home of dark and grim stories. The word “dark” has been the defining trait of cable television for years now, and it’s usually been associated with those ever-present antihero shows. However, the darkest show on television is indeed on (basic) cable and features a male lead, but it’s actually, in the strictest sense, a comedy. I am speaking of Comedy Central’s new series Review starring Andy Daly, which has featured some of the darkest and saddest television to air in years.

Every episode of Review starts with Forrest MacNeil, a man who reviews not movies, books, or food, but life experiences for his show within the show, stating, “Life, it’s literally all we have. But is it any good?” This quote embodies everything Review stands for. It frames Forrest as a hopelessly inquisitive man yearning to find out if life has any meaning at all. Yet Forrest almost answers his question himself, in that he acknowledges it’s really all we have. The meaning of life is what we make of it.

And what does Forrest make of life? Well, because of his current employment situation Forrest can’t really make any decisions whatsoever, and instead has to react to the situations that are forced upon him. And because Review (the show within the show) is supposed to be an informative television program, Forrest is expected to learn about his life.

A perfect example of this is the “Racist” segment from Review‘s second episode. (NOTE: ALL OF Review‘s FIRST SEASON IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE TO STREAM FOR FREE ON YOUTUBE, LINKED HERE. YOU NOW HAVE NO EXCUSE TO HAVE NOT WATCHED 2014’S BEST NEW SHOW.) At face value the segment serves as an incredibly hilarious take on contemporary racism, but it also shows how reviewing life experiences will come to affect Forrest’s personal life. After being a racist in daily life (putting up “White” and “Colored” signs in the office, bonding with a white supremacist) Forrest brings his work home with him, where his neighbors, one of whom is Black, are gathered. Forrest sees fit to shout the N-word at his neighbor, but he doesn’t seem too surprised by Forrest’s behavior. Instead, he’s more taken aback by Forrest’s decision to become an “overt racist.”

This is Review at its best. As Forrest’s work gets personal, his wife becomes embarrassed, and his neighbors grow more disillusioned by his behavior. (It’s worth nothing that everyone in Forrest’s life is unable to tell what he is doing for the show, and what Forrest is doing for himself). Best of all Forrest realizes that he was a racist all along. By making his work extremely personal, Review just barely scratches the surface of the deep dark depths it will take Forrest in its 9 episode run.

And yet the darkest episode of television in years airs the following week. It is the glorious “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes.” The episode is one of the most devastating pieces of television I have ever seen. First, Forrest sets out to see what it’s like to eat 15 pancakes. Then, he experiences what going through divorce is like. Finally, Forrest returns to the circumstances his first review, except in a wildly different state of mind. It’s a brilliant piece of storytelling, and you should see why:

The ramifications of this review are immediately recognized. Forrest has to end a 14 year marriage, the most successful in MacNeil family history, without any reason whatsoever. Forrest also has to somehow break it to his still unaware wife Suzanne, and their young son. Forrest has to do it for the show, because his Producer Grant (played brilliantly by James Urbaniak) reminds Forrest that he has to “commit to the standard” that he set for himself.

What plays out is outstanding cringe comedy. After a brutal initial argument, Suzanne meets with Forrest again only to tell him that his request of a divorce was right. Again, Forrest learns more about his life in the worst possible way, but he still views this realization as “a plus.” In the end, Forrest isn’t able to assign “Divorce” a star rating. This is coming from the man who gave being a racist half a star. The show has completely destroyed Forrest, but it isn’t done yet.

When returning to eat 30 more pancakes, Forrest is only able to feel a “vast, empty numbness.” When starting the challenge, courage eventually turns into nihilism. Forrest connects with the darkest corner of his soul and remarks, “Perhaps I simply understood that these pancakes couldn’t kill me. Because I was already dead.”

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Instead of connecting with the profundity of life, Forrest continues to only learn about the worst. Forrest’s dark journey turns incredibly sad, and ultimately devastating. A man’s job has driven him to become addicted to cocaine, divorce his wife, kill a man through road rage, be institutionalized, and many other terribly sad things. This is what television was made for. Week to week we check in with Forrest, only to find his life even more devastating than the week before. And the worst/best part is that it’s incredibly funny.

Review makes us laugh at the most devastating aspects of Forrest’s life. We’re watching, and sometimes even enjoying, the slow disintegration of a seemingly normal man’s life. The show’s mockumentary style of filming makes us even complicit in doing so. By doing this, Review is pushing the medium of the television sitcom to its limits.

And thankfully, no other show on TV is doing anything like what Review is doing. The direction of Forrest’s character arc is something completely idiosyncratic to Review, and it’s utterly audacious television. There’s nothing darker, sadder, and funnier on TV right now other than Review. So, the only thing to say is 5 Stars!