Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Foreign flavor (My Blueberry Nights)

My Blueberry Nights [PG-13]
Grade: B

Many first-rate directors dream of sailing the seas and setting an artistic foot in a culture other than their own.

Ultimately, this is more than a cinematic vacation in the sun. It’s a test of not only the artist but the idea of cinema. Is film truly a universal medium, as it likes to believe? Is there a common baseline of human experience that it can relate? Or does storytelling arise peculiarly from a certain place and certain people?

Certainly, there is plenty of evidence to torch film’s lofty claim. Think, for instance, of Alejandro Gonzalez Inirritu’s command in his Mexican settings, as opposed to the strain he shows in America and elsewhere. Yet cinematic travel is always an interesting experiment and sometimes a magnificent breakthrough, bringing perspective to a culture lost on its inhabitants.

Often when moving to America, this brings us to riding along somewhere in the southwestern desert, where like John Ford the filmmaker hopes to stand astride the American myth. Such a trip happens in Wong Kar-Wai’s debut in American spaces, My Blueberry Nights. The film also pays a visit to the bluesy New York streets of Martin Scorsese, a valued inspiration to many an Asian filmmaker.

A move from the crowded confines of Wong’s native Hong Kong makes sense. Certainly with the sci-fi passages of 2046, he was dreaming of new worlds to conquer with his art. In Blueberry, he places his human poetry in the wanderings of Elizabeth (the singer Norah Jones), a young New Yorker on the edge of a breakup with her boyfriend. Awash in heartbreak, she finds comfort in the kind ear of a British restaurant minder (Jude Law), as he quietly woos her with late-night blueberry pies.

To put things at a distance, she will oh-so-metaphorically move to other cities, living under different names at each stop. This is an oh-so-metaphorical way to place distance from the memory of her sour past. In doing so, she only manages to run into the sour pasts of others. In Memphis, she will befriend an alcoholic police officer (David Strathairn) who cannot move on from his ex-wife (a great Rachel Weisz). In Nevada, she will learn lessons from a shady gambler (Natalie Portman) with a foggy relationship with her father and the truth.

While the physical settings may be new, the thematic ones are less so. Wong is still discussing the themes of love, loss, time, and memory that have become his terra firma. One interesting wrinkle is the extension of memory into the concept of trust. With sad humor, Portman’s hustler refuses to believe that her father is really on his deathbed. It is, after all, a lie he has told her in the past.

More illustratively, Law records all of his activity on the restaurant’s security cameras. He keeps the ones he’d like to remember, to hold forever the moment. That habit will become a motif. Wong creates a cinematic language of distance – shooting through windows, in exaggerated colors, or with a security camera’s fuzziness. It does more than make us feel like we're looking into the past. It makes real the loss of the present to time.

In the most pivotal scene, for my money, a man pulls a gun on a woman. He tells her not to walk out the door or he’ll shoot. Her three-word response instead shoots a hole in his theory. “And then what?” This throw-away line evolves into a thesis. The disappearance of her physical presence will not relieve him of living knee-deep in her memory. It will simply drag more misery into his wallowing. This point will be made soon thereafter, in a way that you might not expect.

The film’s greatest weakness (besides Portman’s blonde dye job) is the underdevelopment of its main character. Jones does not impose herself on the film. That’s fine. She’s only meant to observe and digest the actions of others. But when late in the film she makes an epiphany about her trusting nature, the film has not established her as a trusting soul. It comes from the ether, and makes you recognize what little sense you have of the character’s being and growth.

A thorny question remains. Can a foreign artist make a film about memory set in a culture famed for its amnesia? Or is such a piece of art destined to fall short? I’m not sure that My Blueberry Nights works as a convincing piece of Americana. But using America as a mythic playland for Wong’s ideas, it finds a decent recipe.


Craig Kennedy said...

At last, I finished my own review and was able to read yours.

Nicely done.

I think you're right about Jones. I was more forgiving, perhaps becuase my expectations were so low, but a atronger performance would've given more weight to her story arc and improved the film.

Oh well, there was enough about it I liked to make it a lovely surprise.

K. Bowen said...

Hey Craig,

As I said over on LiC, I think we are very similar in our opinions about it. It's not so much a problem with Jones, as, aside from trusting Portman the money, I cn't think of anything she had done that was particularly trusting, to the point it was a standout character trait. Even that act had a certain element of calculated risk that did not strike me as particularly gullible.

Indie_dinosaur said...

The movie was alright - I enjoyed all the cinematic imagery, but I esp. loved the music in the film. I just bought the soundtrack and I can't stop listening to it - really great!