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September 01, 2002

DVD Journal: "Blue Crush," "Fallen Angels"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I recently watched the chicks-surf-too movie "Blue Crush," and then a few days later watched (on DVD) Wong Kar-Wai's "Fallen Angels." Worlds apart, of course, but also similar in a few ways that I take to be important, or at least interesting.

Neither one's a movie in the sense I mean when I think "movie" -- i.e., neither uses classical movie language. Instead, they're long-form audiovisual vehicles that use the elements of TV and publicity as building blocks. They're jumbles, ragbags strung out linearly in the case of "Blue Crush" with a Simpson/Bruckheimeresque, love-or-trophies, you-go-girl storyline, strung together in the case of Wong Kar-Wai with downtown-style rawness and edge.

When you and I were art-and-movie-struck kids imagining the movies we'd make, what we pictured (is it fair to say?) was bouncing our ideas and experiences off movie history, leaning on painting, poetry and lit, and setting it all to pop music.

What many of the current movies seem to reflect is an idea of movies as, basically, big-screen TV. It used to be that TV tried to be like movies. These days all the effort seems to be going into making movies like TV and computers. In Hollywood's mind, a movie is TV made larger and louder; Wong Kar-Wai is doing something more collage-y and poetic. "Blue Crush" is for mall teens and 20somethings; "Fallen Angels" is for kids going into the arts.

blue crush 2.jpg

Even the Bikinis Disappoint

Years ago I took a course in how to use the computer video-editing program Premiere. During the very first class something became evident to me. In Premiere, you can organize conventional footage in a conventional way; you can use the program as an aid to achieving traditional goals. But Premiere allows you to do much else: to process the images, to mess with wild effects, and to Cuisinart your supercharged elements together. It was clear, both from the jammin' way I found myself using the program and from the evidence of the much-younger people I was taking the course with, how computer-video editing was going to be used in the future. (Hint: not to make the classical thing more elegant.)

Yikes, thought this lover of traditional movie language.

A year or two later, reporting a piece about how the people who put together feature films had begun to edit them on computers, I visited with professional film editors. They were delighted with the new Avid systems. When I asked what impact the computers would have on movies themselves, the editors said, Oh, none at all. Sure you can mess around, but you just have to learn the craft and some self-discipline. Then I asked them if they really, really, really thought that young people coming along will do that take the time to study the art and learn the language before cutting loose. Wasn't it just a teensy bit more likely that kids would simply grab the technology and rock out? The editors all gave me the same horror-struck look, which I took to mean: They'd thought about it too, and hadn't liked the conclusions they'd come to. There goes the traditional craft hierarchy.

Yikes again.

Museum-going, book-reading, DVD-watching creature that I am, I forget how big a role TV plays in many people's lives. Maybe for someone whose central media/art/entertainment experience is TV, movies like "Blue Crush" and "Fallen Angels" might have some resonance. For me, the experience of watching them is flat and dead. There's no vertical relationship to anything -- no relationship to history, no depth of characterization. They're hopped-up bits and pieces presented with little in the way of preparation, payoff, or development, and with the whole point being impact, impact, impact. ("Blue Crush" and "Fallen Angels" want to have very different kinds of impact, of course; what's similar is the importance, even inescapability, of "impact" as the only esthetic goal.)

Bertolucci, talking to some film magazine about the way depth and history had vanished from the movie scene, put it beautifully: Moviemaking and moviegoing have become an Eternal Present. He didn't seem too pleased about it, though he did tip his hat to Wong Kar-Wai as the first filmmaker to come up with a distinctive new film (as opposed to TV) rhythm. (Bertolucci lifted a few of Wong's tricks in "Besieged.")

fallen angels 2.jpg

Corridors, Cigarettes and Wide-Angle Lenses

In earlier postings, writing about the new "Star Wars" movie, I was struggling to say something very simple and not quite getting there. So here it is: video and computers seem to contribute to turning movies into great big TV. They don't have to, but they tend strongly to. The values presented stop being movie values and start being TV values.

A few years ago, I spent a day getting from British Columbia back into Washington State. In B.C. I gave a lift to a couple of teens. They were as inane as teens usually are, but when they spoke what came out was something close to English: words chosen with some care and combining with each other to make sentences, which in turn conveyed some kind of information and sense to another's mind.

A few hours later I was on a ferry in Washington State listening to some American teens. What they spoke seemed to come not from English but instead from packaging and ads: "Yeah, go for it!" "She so hot!" "Oh, yeah, check it out!" Words weren't being used to convey information, let alone formulate thoughts; they were excuses for emotive vocalizations. The kids might as well have been saying, Bam, and Shazaam, or making that explosion-followed-by-tinkling-glass sound Dolbyized theaters seem so fond of.

The TV-and-ad-derived current movie language seems to me similar to what those American kids were speaking -- impoverished, emotive, and all about kapow rather than sense. The specific elements of the language are modular and none too numerous. Element one: handheld, or implicitly handheld, camera -- a reality-TV, caught-footage approach -- for the dramatic passages. Element two: rock-video-style editing flurries for excitement, action and movement. On the one hand the signifiers of "reality," on the other the signifiers of packaging and selling.

That's it. Everything else (image processing, camera angles, use of sound, acting styles) seems to me to be a subset of these two larger sets. What both approaches have in common is that they exist entirely in the here and now, burning themselves up as they go along. What's being sold is the experience of expectation, demand, and satiation, of being wiped out and then semi-exhaustedly/semi-excitedly rushing off to the next amped-up blast, even while suffering from jadedness and fatigue about the whole cycle. (One thing that can be said for all these ad-language movies is that they're perfect raw material for trailers.)

Skip "Blue Crush," by the way. I went to see it only semi-ironically, hoping for an enjoyably souped-up, postfeminists-lookin'-good version of an AIP beach picture. (I'd been happily surprised by "The Fast and the Furious" last year, an excitingly souped-up version of an AIP teens-and-hotrods movie.) But my spirits sank about five minutes into the film and never rallied despite the bikinis (though a few big waves did make me gasp), probably because the whole movie was about nothing but being worked-over and slapped around. It's almost completely silliness-free, though the over-engineered story was worth a few giggles; you felt that you weren't involved in a story so much as sitting in on the committee meetings where the story was being hammered out. (OK, she's troubled and conflicted! But likable! And attractive!) And, heavens above, the acting: There wasn't a conventionally delivered line in the film. The dramatic scenes were nothing but on-the-run giggles and gabble, overlapping explosions of laughter, and photogenic milling about, all of it "real" and "caught."

Wong Kar-Wai is much more interesting. The downside is that he seems to know nothing about storytelling. His idea of a movie is a media-based tone poem (rather like, though with a different feel, Sofia Coppola's "The Virgin Suicides"). The film is like a talented student's reverie -- all montages (some of them amazingly moody), hurry-up wide-angle tracking shots, chippity-chop action, extreme "pushed" colors, actors posing moodily, and arbitrary-seeming hijinks with film stock. (And lots of cigarettes, eye makeup and haircuts.)

The approach seems to be: generate a lot of charged, pumpy footage, go berserk in the editing room, then trowel on voice-over where necessary. Everything in "Fallen Angels" relates to youth, video and speed, and to ad-derived images of sex, violence and romance. And nothing coheres -- that's what gives it its coherence.

fallen_angels 1.jpg

Going Nowhere, But Going There Cyberfast

But I can see how a plausible case could be made that Wong is the action-poet bard of today's youth. Unlike the Hollywood people, he's trying to take these elements and make from them something serious, dirty, edgy and melancholy -- something like Beat poetry. "Blue Crush" and "Attack of the Clones" are packages trying to do nothing but bust out at ya -- and sell themselves. In his mood-music, mostly-non-narrative way, Wong Kar-Wai is about being young, and about being sexed-up on the media, on action fantasies, and on your own body.

You could also say (and I suspect some critics have) that Wong is doing something about feeling lost in a media-addled, fragmented psychic universe, and about what that absence of perspective does to a soul, that he's celebrating the energy while mourning the loneliness and insubstantiality. You could say (and I guess I am saying) that his grab-bag, channel-surfing, little-bit-of-this/little-bit-of-that approach makes a perfect kind of non-sense sense for young people who feel both helplessly self-expressive and completely insubstantial, like walking collages mixed and matched from elements on a menu and suffering from zero impulse control -- who feel that they're more holograms of themselves than actual people. It's like an art version of a sexed-up clothing catalogue -- one breathlessly striking self-conscious passage after another.

Wong's brilliant and his movies are fascinating. They also make me feel like one very old fart. I'd be curious to hear how you react to them. They're so today, dude.

Best, if feeling mighty superannuated,


posted by Michael at September 1, 2002


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