This Week in Rankings

This week I wrote a thing on auteurism and created a bunch of They Shot Pictures-related lists in Letterboxd, ones for the directors we’ve discussed thus far (Josef von Sternberg, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Mikio Naruse) as well as ones for upcoming episodes (Johnnie To, Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, FW Murnau). I’ll keep these updated as I watch more films from these directors. The Johnnie To list has been in a constant state of flux as I watch more and more of his movies, which inevitably leads to re-evaluation of the previously seen ones (that’s auteurism at work).

Here are the movies I watched and rewatched this week and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. (Yes, they are all Johnnie To movies). I’ve linked to my full review of The Big Heat, the rest are linked to shorter reviews I wrote for each movie at Letterboxd.

The Big Heat – 13, 1988
The Heroic Trio – 23, 1993
Executioners – 24, 1993
Help!!! – 12, 2000

Turn Left, Turn Right – 10, 2003
Election – 5, 2005
Election 2 – 5, 2006
Triangle – 22, 2007
Linger – 29, 2008

On Some Objections to Auteurism

“You are at least watching here a filmmaker with a vision, with a style, making bold choices. I’d rather watch that any day of the week than something else that maybe hits more conventionally satisfying notes. ”

— Adam Kempenaar, Filmspotting #436 in 2013
Putting auteurism in a nutshell

“The second premise of the auteur theory is the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature. The way a film looks and moves should have some relationship to the way a director thinks and feels. This is an area where American directors are generally superior to foreign directors. Because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of material rather than through the literary content of the material.”

— Andrew Sarris, Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962

“Paradoxically, however, the personalities of modern directors are often more obscure than those of classical directors who were encumbered with all sorts of narrative and dramatic machinery. The classical cinema was more functional than the modern cinema. It knew its audience and their expectations, but it often provided something extra. This something extra is the concern of the auteur theory.”

— Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema in 1968

Criticisms of the Auteur Theory, or Auteurism, of which there are legion, tend to make a few simple mistakes, of which this is certainly not a complete list.

1. They get the causality backwards. For example, this formulation from the wikipedia entry:

Auteur theory holds that a director’s film reflects the director’s personal creative vision, as if they were the primary “auteur” (the French word for “author”). In spite of—and sometimes even because of—the production of the film as part of an industrial process, the auteur’s creative voice is distinct enough to shine through all kinds of studio interference and through the collective process.

The correct formulation should be: Auteur theory holds that if the director’s personal creative vision is distinct enough to shine through studio interference and the collective process, then that director can be considered an auteur.

This simple misunderstanding explains the logic behind the “what about screenwriters?” objection. Not only is auteurism not necessarily confined to directors, it quite often recognizes the work of producers (Selznik, Thalberg, Bruckheimer), screenwriters (Hecht, Goldman, Kauffman), actors (Lloyd, Marxes), even production designers (Menzies). Jonathan Rosenbaum even posits four different auteurs for Taxi Driver, the director, the screenwriter, the star and the film’s composer. The point is not that the director necessarily is the source of a given film’s creative vision, it’s that when a film does show evidence of a personal creative vision, often, but not always, the source of that vision will be the film’s director.

2. They assume the theory is a definitive statement.

Auteurism is an analytical approach to film history. It’s not the only one, and it’s not the only interesting or valuable one. Because an auteur’s personal creative vision can often be obscured by the collaborative process, commercial or generic demands, studio interference, or various other noise, the best way to find evidence of the presence of an auteur is to watch as many of their films as possible. Auteurism is inductive, always in search of more evidence and never satisfied.

To make a simplified example: An auteurist does not deductively assert “Johnnie To is an auteur. Johnnie To directed this set of movies. Therefore everything about these movies reflects the personal creative vision of Johnnie To.” Instead, an auteurist takes the set of movies and compares all the elements within them. Say there are nine films, all directed by Johnnie To. An auteurist would note that Set One is three films co-written with Wai Ka-fai, Set Two is three collaborations with director/choreographer Ching Siu-tung, and Set Three is three written and directed by To himself. Johnnie To’s personal creative vision would be found not just in Set Three, but in certain elements found in Set Three that also pop up in the films within Sets One and Two, whereas the stamps of the other two potential auteurs could be inferred from the absence of certain elements in the sets of films they were not involved in. If cartoonish stunt-work only appears in the Ching Siu-tung films, then that is evidence for Ching’s auteurist signature. If complex plot twists leading to a spiritual epiphany occur only in the Wai Ka-fai films, then that is evidence for Wai’s auteurist signature. And if character doubling, game-playing and images marked by bright white lights within dark shadowy spaces occur in all three films, then that might be evidence for Johnnie To’s personal creative vision.

3. They assert that the Theory commits the Intentional Fallacy.

This inductive approach is how Auteurism avoids the Intentional Fallacy. It proceeds first from the evidence of the film(s) to develop a theory of auteurial personality, not from a theory of auteurial personality to analysis of the film. It is impossible to truly know what is in the mind of anyone else, so intention is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why Kenji Mizoguchi uses so many long takes, why he thinks he uses so many long takes or why he says he uses so many long takes. It’s the role of the film critic to come up with a theory of what, if anything, Mizoguchi’s long takes mean, and what effect, if any, they have on the film and/or on the viewer. And it takes an auteurist to note that Mizoguchi uses a lot of long takes in the first place.

These studies can be exhaustive and exhausting. For an example of the kind of evidence that can be accumulated through studying an auteur’s career, check out the website maintained by Mike Grost. Here’s his page on Raoul Walsh. This is the raw material of auteurism, not speculative psychologizing of personal biography.

4. They say it amounts to snobbery. This is a two-pronged objection.

A. It elevates the art house above the mainstream.

Sometimes this may be the case, but this is hardly the necessary consequence of auteurism. It’s an easily refuted objection, given that the original auteurists were denigrated as “Hitchcocko-Hawksians” for their elevation of mainstream genre filmmakers like Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock to the status of great artists, to the same level, or higher, than prestige filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman or Stanley Kramer. This is how Vertigo, a film received, when it wasn’t panned outright, as a mainstream genre picture of little interest to “serious” filmgoers, over 50 years came to be recognized as one of the greatest films ever made (and is now enshrined as such for the next 10 years by the Sight & Sound poll). The purpose of the theory is to discover artistry within the mainstream or without, whether high-, middle- or low-brow. This is why the name of the recent movement Vulgar Auteurism strikes me as redundant. By seeking personal creative visions within the works of mainstream action and genre cinema, these critics aren’t creating a new, ‘vulgar’ form of the theory, they’re just being auteurists.

B. It is esoteric and obscurantist

It is true that an auteurist will often value the lesser well-known, less “successful” films of a auteur’s career. This is not necessarily out of belligerence, but rather because it is often in these lesser works that the auteur’s personal creative vision becomes more evident, and because autuerism takes it for granted that demonstrating a personal creative vision is a value in and of itself. Thus can a film fail to meet all the conventional standards of “success” and still have value if it shows that personal vision. Which is exactly the point that Mr. Kempenaar made at the beginning of this post.

On Johnnie To’s The Big Heat

Johnnie To’s first crime movie and his fifth feature, following a period action film made eight years earlier (The Enigmatic Case, 1980), several years of work in television and a trio of romantic comedies (Happy Ghost 3 (1986) (co-directed with Raymond Wong, I think, imdb credits it to Ringo Lam with To as assistant director) and Seven Years Itch (1987)). Produced by Tsui Hark (who has a funny cameo at the end as a “long-haired weirdo”), it feels more like one of his films than anything else, with super-graphic slow motion violence that’s less elegant and more shocking than anything To would do later in his career.

The film was apparently a very troubled production, going through a number of directors (see this interview with its screenwriter, Gordon Chan, who wrote and directed one of Jet Li’s greatest films, Fist of Legend, in 1994. Thanks to They Shot Pictures‘s Seema for the link) But there are certain visual touches that distinguish the film from the other crime movies of its time (Ringo Lam’s City on Fire or the Hark-produced John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow or The Killer) and point to what would prove to be one of To’s unique qualities as an auteur. Most obviously, there’s shootout between cops suffused in fire engine-red light, alternating with deep blue in reverse shots (much like the blue in the opening of To’s 1999 film Where a Good Man Goes), which abstracts the action into pure the image that Tsui’s graphic violence works so hard to make nauseatingly ‘realistic’. Later, there’s a magical bit of release as the cops, rejecting a bribe from the film’s villain, throw piles of cash into the air, watching it blow in the breeze, that recalls moments of childlike freedom snatched from darker realities in Throw Down (as when the plot is temporarily suspended so the three main characters can collaborate to free a red balloon from a tree) or the whole of Sparrow or the Running Out of Time films, which take what are ostensibly dark and violent gangster movie settings and turn them into spaces for play and possibility. Given the film’s convoluted production history, it’s impossible for me to say whether or not To was actually involved in the shooting of these scenes. But they’re nonetheless evocative of his later work, as is the characterization of the film’s hero.

Waise Lee, the heel from A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head, plays the lead, a cop with nerve damage in his hand who is on the verge of retirement, but who must solve one last case, the murder of his old partner (shades of Beverly Hills Cop). Lee is yet another To hero with a disability, see also: Throw Down, Mad Detective, Running on Karma, Running Out of Time, Vengeance, Yesterday Once More, Love on a Diet, Wu Yen, and if being dead counts as a handicap, A Hero Never Dies and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts. But where most of those other films use the disability as a launching point for the character’s transcendence of physical limitations, either spiritually or through an existential stand in the name of honor, loyalty, friendship, and/or love, The Big Heat remains thoroughly materialist, grounded in the world of Hong Kong’s cops and gangsters before the fall. The sense of vague dread, of millennial fatalism that hangs over much of To’s later work is present here, but it’s given a more explicit and specific, and (therefore) rather less interesting, name: the gangsters openly discuss their plans to cash in while they can before the ’97 handover of Hong Kong to China. The end is a plot motivation, rather than a mood. The result of these compromises is a very solid action movie that at times seems like its going to burst free of its genre, but is missing that last little twist that would become the hallmark of To’s Milkway Image films beginning a decade later.

Watch for Philip Kwok playing one of Lee’s partners. Kwok has done just about everything you can do in movies: direct, star, write (he was one of the writers on Once Upon a Time in China and America, the sixth(!) in the series started by Jet Li (who took the fourth and fifth films off) and Tsui Hark and the one which was ripped off by Jackie Chan for the big international hit Shanghai Noon (AKA, the kung fu movie that my mom likes)), choreograph, produce, he even has an art direction credit (for Wilson Yip’s 2004 film Leaving Me, Loving You, starring Leon Lai and Faye Wong and which I now desperately want to see). He was one of Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms (he was the lizard), but is probably most recognizable as the bad guy with the eye patch in Hard-Boiled. He gets a fun, meaty part here as part of the team of cops (which also includes a callow rookie and an aviator-shades-wearing Malaysian detective).

This Week in Rankings

They Shot Pictures research continued this week, as I watched a half dozen more Johnnie To and/or Wai Ka-fai movies. I’ve a list of the 32 movies I’ve seen of theirs so far over at letterboxd, keeping in mind that ranking these movies is even more difficult tan usual for me. The order of much of that list changes every time I update it. Suffice it to say that To and Wai are responsible for an abnormally large number of really good movies.

In addition to watching these this week, I also handed out a bunch of fake awards (for the years 1932, 1964, 1957 and 1994) and reviewed Everybody in Our Family, a film I saw at the Vancouver International Film Festival last October. I have three more VIFF reviews to write (Emperor Visits the Hell, Amour & The Unlikely Girl) and I hope to get them done in the next couple of weeks, before baby #2 arrives.

These are the movies I’ve watched or rewatched in the last week or so, and where they place in my year-by-year rankings. I’ve linked to my brief comments about them on letterboxd where applicable.

Stage Door – 9, 1937
Bullet in the Head – 7, 1990
Peace Hotel – 33, 1995

Wu Yen – 15, 2001
Love on a Diet – 22, 2001
Fat Choi Spirit – 10, 2002
My Left Eye Sees Ghosts – 14, 2002

VIFF 2012: Everybody in Our Family

Maybe this is just one of the many strange things about me, but I happen to think that every Romanian film I’ve ever seen is a hilarious black comedy. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, about a dying man shuttled from hospital to hospital by an indefatigable nurse struggling against an absurd bureaucracy, Roger Ebert compares to the Dardenne Brothers and United 93, and has generally been perceived as both a trenchant attack on health care bureaucracy and a tedious slog (though some reviewers (eg J. Hoberman) did pick up on its peculiar humor). 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. . ., about a woman who helps her friend get an abortion despite the communist ban on the procedure, is a textbook suspense-horror film (think the prolonged dinner sequence and the classical “Lewton bus” late in the film) capped by a brilliant, audacious joke in its final scene. But in the US, commentary about the film revolved around the issue of abortion, and the film’s deadpan realism was perceived as a political statement (“The frigid stoicism. . . barely contains the filmmaker’s fury.” – David Edelstein). Even The Rest is Silence, a generally genial period film about the production of the first Romanian feature film, climaxes with a moment of comic horror, as a malfunctioning stage leads to an incineration.

This may be a facet of the American reception of Eastern European film in general. The least ironic of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue, the episode about the death penalty that was expended into A Short Film About Killing, seems to be the most popular one here. Similarly the expansively humanist Red is the most popular of the Three Colors films over the darker, more twisted Blue and White. As well, the Hungarian Béla Tarr is much-noted for the austerity and extreme length of his films, while the comedy (which Sátántangó, a satire of life under collectivism, most definitely qualifies as) is often missed or at least de-emphasized. It seems to me that these film’s comic aspects are overlooked in favor of discussion of their subjects, which just happen to be vitally important political issues in the United States. Thus Lazarescu is viewed through the same lens as Michael Moore’s Sicko (a much less funny film from an ostensibly comic filmmaker) and 4 Months becomes “the Romanian abortion movie”  through which we can learn (ie teach people who don’t agree with us) about the dangers of making abortion illegal. The hot-button subject matter distorts our view of the film, preventing the appreciation of its true, comical, nature. This is a subject for further study. I haven’t seen nearly enough Romanian or Eastern European film to generalize about them, or American reactions to them. But it does seem, thus far, to be a bit of a trend.

Which brings me to Everybody in Our Family, a film by Radu Jude, about a degenerate man with anger issues who takes his ex-wife’s family hostage so that he can kidnap their daughter. The film hasn’t had much of a release yet in this country, so I’m not sure everyone else sees it as the comedy I do, or if this will prove to be another case of the subject of the film trumping its actual content. I guess time will tell. Anyway, it is, like those other Romanian films, shot in a dead-pan, realist style with hand-held camera-work and improvisational-seeming acting. But rather than follow the horror film template of 4 Months, the film is a classic example of comic escalation, a film form that dates back to Laurel & Hardy and beyond. Şerban Pavlu plays the father, Marius, and he looks a bit like a pudgier Robert Benigni. Disheveled and slovenly, he first visits his parents, who berate him for generally being a failure. Then he goes to pick up his daughter for a planned trip to the seaside. Opposed in sequence by his ex-mother-in-law, his ex-wife’s new husband and his ex-wife, he grows increasingly exasperated and violent as the day progresses, eventually beating up the guy and tying everyone up so they’ll be quiet and pretend no one is home when the police are finally called. Pavlu, followed by Jude’s camera, stalks through the overstuffed apartment like a caged animal, but more hamster than bear: his ferocity is mitigated by his and the family’s hyper-verbosity: everybody in this family talks way too much, too loud and all at the same time (some favorite lines of dialogue: Marius to his daughter Sofia, played by Sofia Nicolaescu, who in her wild, unpredictable swings from loving to frightened to playing cheerfully perfectly captures the capriciousness of small children: “I love you my beloved seal”; Marius to Sophia again, a bit later: “Listen carefully. . . Your mom is a bloody whore”; a neighbor lady to Marius as he makes his escape: “May the devil fuck with your lungs.”)

In the film’s most radical move, the stand-off ends not with a bang, but a whimper as Marius gives up and sneaks away, evading the cops and setting out in search of first aid for a bloody cut, the only real injury anyone suffers over the course of the day (at least physically). Jude spends the run of the film slowly escalating the tension to more and more absurd heights, but rather than deliver the punch-line, the final house falling on Buster, he simply lets the tension dissipate into the air as Marius dissolves back into the city streets and the world moves on.

1994 Endy Awards

These are the 1994 Endy Awards, wherein I pretend to give out maneki-neko statues to the best in that year in film. Awards for many other years can be found in the Endy Awards Index. Eligibility is determined by imdb date and by whether or not I’ve seen the movie in question. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order and the winners are bolded. And the Endy goes to. . .

Best Picture:

1. Ashes of Time
2. Chungking Express
3. Drunken Master II
4. Ed Wood
5. The Hudsucker Proxy
6. In the Heat of the Sun
7. Pom Poko
8. Pulp Fiction
9. Sátántangó
10. Three Colors: Red

Best Director:

1. Wong Kar-wai, Ashes of Time
2. Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express
3. Jiang Wen, In the Heat of the Sun
4. Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction
5. Béla Tarr, Sátántangó

Best Actor:

1. Tony Leung, Chungking Express
2. Jackie Chan, Drunken Master II
3. Johnny Depp, Ed Wood
4. Xia Yu, In the Heat of the Sun
5. Sam Neill, In the Mouth of Madness

Best Actress:

1. Faye Wong, Chungking Express
2. Anita Yuen, He’s a Woman, She’s a Man
3. Linda Fiorentino, The Last Seduction
4. Juliet Aubrey, Middlemarch
5. Rena Owen, Once Were Warriors

Supporting Actor:

1. Takashi Kaneshiro, Chungking Express
2. John Hannah, Four Weddings and a Funeral
3. Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction
4. Paul Scofield, Quiz Show
5. Kevin Spacey, Swimming with Sharks

Supporting Actress:

1. Brigitte Lin, Chungking Express
2. Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hudsucker Proxy
3. Ning Jing, In the Heat of the Sun
4. Kirsten Dunst, Interview with a Vampire
5. Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction

Jennifer Jason Leigh might be deserving of a nomination this year for playing Dorothy Parker in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, but I’ve never managed to stay awake all the way through that movie (I haven’t tried in 15 years though). She’s great as Rosalind Russell/Glenda Farrell in Hudsucker.


Original Screenplay:

1. Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express
2. The Coen Brothers & Sam Raimi, The Hudsucker Proxy
3. Michael de Luca, In the Mouth of Madness
4. Isao Takahata, Pom Poko
5. Quentin Tarantino, Pulp Fiction

Adapted Screenplay:

1. Wong Kar-wai, Ashes of Time
2. Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, Ed Wood
3. Jiang Wen, In the Heat of the Sun
4. Paul Attanasio, Quiz Show
5. László Krasznahorkai & Béla Tarr, Sátántangó

Non-English Language Film:

1. Ashes of Time
2. Chungking Express
3. Drunken Master II
4. In the Heat of the Sun
5. Sátántangó

Non-Fiction Film:

1. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff)
2. Hoop Dreams (Steve James)
3. That’s Entertainment III (Bud Friedgen & Michael J. Sheridan)

Animated Film:

1. Pom Poko (Isao Takahata)

Unseen Film:

1. Amateur (Hal Hartley)
2. Queen Margot (Patrice Chéreau)
3. Serial Mom (John Waters)
4. Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami)
5. Vive l’amour (Tsai Ming-liang)

I thought I had this year pretty well covered, but of the 88 movies I’ve seen, a lot of them are just terrible. Five great looking movies for me to watch here.

Cinematography:

1. Ashes of Time
2. Chungking Express
3. In the Heat of the Sun
4. Sátántangó
5. Three Colors: Red

Film Editing:

1. Ashes of Time
2. Chungking Express
3. Drunken Master II
4. Hoop Dreams
5. Pulp Fiction

Original Score:

1. Ed Wood
2. Exotica
3. The Hudsucker Proxy
4. Sátántangó
5. Three Colors: Red

Adapted Score:

1. Chungking Express
2. The Crow
3. Natural Born Killers
4. Pulp Fiction
5. Reality Bites

A fantastic year for compiled soundtracks, I had to leave out Forrest Gump, PCU, Above the Rim, Immortal Beloved and Clerks.


Art Direction:

1. Ashes of Time
2. The Crow
3. Ed Wood
4. The Hudsucker Proxy
5. Sátántangó

Costume Design:

1. Ashes of Time
2. Ed Wood
3. The Hudsucker Proxy
4. Little Women
5. Quiz Show

Make-up:

1. The Crow
2. Ed Wood
3. Natural Born Killers
4. Speed
5. Wolf

Sound Design:

1. Ashes of Time
2. Chungking Express
3. Natural Born Killers
4. Pulp Fiction
5. Sátántangó

Sound Editing:

1. Natural Born Killers
2. Pulp Fiction
3. Speed
4. Star Trek: Generations
5. True Lies

Visual Effects:

1. Cabin Boy
2. Forrest Gump
3. The Mask
4. Star Trek: Generations
5. Wolf

Ashes-of-Time-1994-Chinese-Movie-Poster-One