In Defense of Non-Masterpieces

From the April 17, 1998 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Eighteen Springs

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Ann Hui

Written by John Chan

With Leon Lai, Wu Chien-lien, Anita Mui, Ge You, Annie Wu, and Huang Lei.

I don’t know exactly what I think about Ann Hui’s 12th feature, playing twice this weekend at the Film Center. At this point I don’t think it’s a masterpiece — though that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t see it. Arriving at these two conclusions is something of a professional necessity for me, because whenever I write a long review for this paper I have to assign the film a certain number of stars; if you look at the box headed “film ratings” the meaning of those ratings is spelled out, from “masterpiece” (four stars) to “worthless” (none). But sometimes this necessity presents me with a dilemma, because my better instincts tell me that it’s often impossible to know immediately after seeing a film whether it’s a masterpiece or not. And while I’m at it, let me confess to another doubt, one that relates to the general inflation of rankings that infects my profession, whether critics are reviewing a Hollywood blockbuster or a Hong Kong art movie: I fear that if I tell people that Ann Hui’s Eighteen Springs (or the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski) is only “worth seeing,” a lot of them won’t bother to go — even if maybe some of them should, for their benefit, not mine. This means that this review is likely to be shot through with contradictions, so don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Eighteen Springs opened half a year ago in Hong Kong, where I’m told it did only fair business; but then just about everything in Hong Kong these days, apart from Titanic and a few other Hollywood monoliths, does only fair business. A few years ago a film like this would have taken two or three years to reach Chicago; if it had been made back in the 60s it probably would have taken a quarter of a century. Yet it’s reached Chicago as quickly as it has not because of any distributor (it hasn’t got one), but because of Barbara Scharres, the Film Center’s director (and because it’s playing at the Film Center, it will show only twice).

Why do movies — the way they’re made, the way they’re distributed, the way they’re shown and regarded   — keep changing? Does Eighteen Springs lack a distributor because it isn’t a masterpiece, and is Scharres showing it anyway because she thinks it is one? Does everyone in Hong Kong think that Titanic is a better movie? These are nonsensical questions, but the current film culture makes them almost sound logical, because the standard line now is that it isn’t worth hiring a baby-sitter or traveling 20 miles unless it’s to see something that will knock your socks off. The problem is, if you’re looking for something that will knock your socks off — at either a commercial house or an alternative venue — you’ll probably feel cheated.

Many movie executives — producers and distributors — say they’re simply giving the public what it wants, but this is a half lie at best. If a man’s dying of thirst and you offer him a choice of liquid soap or shoe polish, would it be fair to say his choice is what he likes? When I recently went back to my hometown in Alabama, which has nine mall movie screens, I discovered that anyone who wanted to see Sling Blade had to drive an hour and a half — even though one of the actors is apparently from the town and a good many locals had called the distributor and asked for a booking. I’m sure every American community has similar stories to tell. Michael Moore’s The Big One shows the same corporate principles applied to jobs, plants, services, and government grants. And the media keep saying they too are only giving the public what it wants, and even though that public is on record saying, for example, that it couldn’t care less who might have given Clinton a blow job, you can find that brand of shoe polish for sale every night of the week. For that matter, most movie critics still blame the public rather than the corporations for the movies we wind up seeing.

Eighteen Springs is the fifth film or video by Ann Hui that I’ve seen, all of which I’ve liked and none of which I consider a masterpiece. Offhand I’d say she’s comparable in her craft and in her work with actors to William Wyler, and I don’t regard anything I’ve seen by him as a masterpiece either. [2010 postscript: I now consider Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives a masterpiece, and I suspect he directed others as well.] I could of course be wrong. What constitutes a masterpiece in terms of Chinese cinema might include a good many elements I can’t pretend to master, such as Chinese history and aesthetics and an understanding of the language. But why should a film have to be a masterpiece in order to be worth seeing? Masterpieces often place a heavy burden on viewers, whereas good, ordinary movies — which are rare enough these days — give you plenty of breathing space. (I haven’t yet caught up with The Full Monty, but the main thing that makes me want to is that I’ve never heard anyone call it a masterpiece.)

I do regard as masterpieces two other Chinese “soap operas” of recent years, Li Shaohong’s Blush, a mainland feature about the fate of two prostitutes in postrevolutionary China, and Stanley Kwan’s Actress, a Hong Kong biopic set in Shanghai during the 30s. But I also feel more confident about what these films are up to. I don’t mean that Hui’s film is difficult to follow; its plot is crystal clear, and most of its social meanings are immediately communicated. But the overall mesh of the story, acting, and mise en scene, which kept me absorbed throughout, didn’t seem all of a piece; I was affected by many moments, but less moved by their cumulative impact.

Is this a crime? I don’t think so. In fact, there are all kinds of things in the picture that thrilled me: parts of the story, the lighting throughout, most of the actors and settings — even an aspect of the subtitles I’ve never seen in any other picture. The film is shot in wide-screen, and the parallel lines of Chinese and English dialogue create an unusually handsome border on the lower side of the frames. The frames are also wide enough to accommodate two lines of dialogue — often a statement and a response, such as “Let’s eat” “Okay” — on the left and right sides of that border, with a lot of space in between. In fact, what thrilled me most about the film was its lucidity, and the form and impact of those subtitles were an integral part of that lucidity.

Eighteen Springs, based on a novel by Eileen Chang, is a bittersweet love story set mainly in Shanghai during the 30s and 40s. One of the three central characters is a prostitute named Manlu (Anita Mui) who becomes a “hostess” to support her formerly well-to-do family; the other two are her kid sister, Manjing (Wu Chien-lien), who initially works at a factory, and a businessman named Shujun (Leon Lai), the son of a wealthy merchant. At the start of the movie Manjing and Shujun are introduced by the latter’s cousin, have tea together, and almost immediately fall in love. Over the next 18 years their romance is repeatedly thwarted, chiefly by Manlu’s reputation; the fact that Shujun’s father was once a client makes things even worse.

Another thrilling aspect of the film is the way it’s periodically narrated by Manjing and Shujun. Unlike the multiple offscreen narrators used by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, who tend to pass the story to one another in a series of relays, Manjing and Shujun divide the story between them as if they were playing a game of catch. Aware of both of their viewpoints, we experience the fluctuations in their relationship a lot more deeply and understand some of their problems better than either of them does. (The film’s Chinese title translates literally as “Half-life Fate,” which I suspect refers in part to this unusual narrative structure.)

Near the end of the picture the two run into each other by chance after many years apart and go to a somberly lit cafe, and it’s both powerful and appropriate that their sudden embrace is shot through a dirty window and that they’re then glimpsed together through a half-open door. It’s a hallmark of Asian melodrama that emotional climaxes tend to come in long shots rather than close-ups, so that they’re seen as part of the wider world; part of Hui’s uncommon skill as a director is to make this wider world seem both squalid and decorous. I suppose this could sound like a backhanded compliment, but I probably haven’t seen a movie this year with lovelier yellows. And even though most of the bigger moments are in long shot, the beautiful Wu Chien-lien handles each of her close-ups with delicate emotional shadings, which Hui knows how to orchestrate perfectly. There’s one such close-up that even recalls The Magnificent Ambersons: Manjing hiding in her upstairs room while Shujun, having been told she isn’t there, is seen through a window behind her in long shot as he departs across the front lawn.

We keep hearing these days that we’re living through cinematically barren times compared to the 60s and 70s, when we couldn’t see any Chinese films at all, so I don’t imagine that the arrival of this beautifully shot, intelligently directed period film from the other side of the world will be seen as cause for celebration. It’s much more fashionable to bemoan, as David Denby does in the April 6 issue of the New Yorker, the death of cinema as an art form and of cinephilia as a passionate activity.

Denby’s article called “Mourning the Movies,” epitomizes the contemporary refusal to deal coherently –that is, historically or politically — with the context that makes filmgoing in the 60s and 70s different from filmgoing today. He does deal intelligently with the increasingly inflated hype about movies since the 60s, but that’s about the only thing he gets right. Of course he doesn’t have to be right, because he’s preaching to the converted. (Imagine how eager the New Yorker would be to publish a declaration that we’re living through a period of ordinary filmmaking or an article that celebrated any of the better films being made today in other countries.) His is far from the only recent mainstream lament about movies that refers nostalgically to the “golden age” of the 60s and 70s; others have been written by Susan Sontag, in the New York Times; James Wolcott, in Vanity Fair; and David Thomson, in Esquire. But they and Denby have elided the same basic facts.

During the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s people in this country and many other countries went to movies the way they watch television today — not looking for masterpieces or special events but looking for something to do. It was an everyday and unexceptional activity. I suspect that seeing Blonde Crazy, a James Cagney vehicle, when it came out in 1931 wasn’t anything special beyond the fact that Cagney himself was something special. There are actors today who offer something special as well — John Travolta, for instance, or Anita Mui (whose popularity in Hong Kong, at least until Titanic came to town, may have been comparable to Cagney’s in this country in the 30s). We might complain that Travolta isn’t as gifted as Cagney, but it seems far more relevant to complain that we have to work our way through half a mile of sludge — ad and infotainment material up to our necks — to reach the place where we can enjoy Travolta the way a 30s audience enjoyed Cagney (or the way an 80s Hong Kong audience enjoyed Mui). Contemplating going to a Travolta movie is a big deal nowadays; for starters, you have to worry about whether it’s a good Travolta movie before you can even think of going. Thirties audiences just went.

Some flickers of this attitude remained in the 60s, when the routine fare being offered was interspersed with signs of renewal and reinvigoration. Most of these signs came in the form of exciting new features from abroad — most of which received a minimum of support in the mainstream press. That didn’t matter if you lived in a large city with independent art houses and revival houses (by the late 60s there were more than 1,000 nationwide), not to mention film archives and film societies. But a decade later video came along, and then the Reagan administration began refusing to enforce the antitrust laws. The survival of most independent theaters became impossible, and the survival of movies as a commercial enterprise became dependent not on people attending an ordinary event but on going to movies because they were something special. And that’s when the hype machines began to take over. Now just about any ad a film distributor can afford insists that the movie it’s touting is hot. Magazine and newspaper editors and critics seemed happy to go along with the pretense, and only the public wound up getting snookered.

Heralding and championing the new state of affairs was Pauline Kael, Denby’s mentor, who was exciting to many people precisely because she “knew” whether a film was hot the moment it appeared and never deigned to revise her judgment afterward. The problem with such a position, even when it makes for “hot” and brilliant reading — and much of it did — is that everything we know about movies and about the world is in a constant state of flux and revision. What was great about Italian neorealism and the French New Wave was contingent on the fact that we saw those movies during the periods when they were made. What was great about Japanese cinema during the 30s, however, had to wait 40 years to be discovered, until Noel Burch’s To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema was published in 1979, because no Japanese films were released in the West before the 50s, and then only a few contemporary features. Consequently, what was and is great about Yasujiro Ozu’s The Only Son [see below] and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Story of the Last Chrysanthemums still isn’t known to anyone in the West apart from a few specialists; most people never had a chance to see the Mizoguchi film until the 80s, and then usually on faded videos, and the Ozu picture still can’t be seen here in any form. The same could be said about films made throughout film history in all countries. The taste of the audience has little or nothing to do with this impasse; it’s strictly a matter of product flow — what’s around and visible and what’s not.

Kael came into her own in the late 60s and early 70s, when there was an enormous need to reconfigure film history and aesthetics in consumerist terms, in terms of what was available: what was happening here, not what was happening elsewhere. Andrew Sarris, who was delivering auteurist criticism to the American public around the same time, provided an alternative consumerist model, greatly facilitated by the number of older Hollywood movies then available on TV. But if you wanted to keep discovering what was going on without easy consumerist classifications, by reading criticism that taught you how to think rather than what to see, you would have been better off following Manny Farber during the same period. The expanded edition of his collection Negative Space, which has just appeared, includes eight previously uncollected pieces from the 70s, and you won’t find any declarations about what’s a masterpiece and what’s not — just a lot of exciting exploration of new discoveries, a never-ending process.

The minute you start deciding what’s irrevocably valuable or worthless in a movie or a national cinema or a period in film history, you’re no longer an explorer but a tipster — someone who knows the odds, not the goods. And tipsters seem to be all that’s wanted in and by the mainstream media nowadays. I say “seem” because Farber, who stopped writing criticism in the 70s, didn’t represent the end of wanderlust moviegoing and criticism. Such spirits remain, though the reluctance of the mainstream media to recognize them has grown astronomically since the 80s. Denby seems to imply that these spirits no longer exist, but I suspect that’s only because he’s been hanging out with the wrong crowd.

A few days ago a local film academic told me she felt “burned” because she’d gone to see The Newton Boys on my recommendation — but she’d read only my capsule review and was using me as a tipster. Knowing that she’s about as interested in film as art as I’m interested in movies as simple diversion, I admitted that my affection for the movie had little to do with its storytelling, which led her to conclude that I thought it was an avant-garde film. It’s these kinds of mutually exclusive categories — as predominant in academia as in the New Yorker — that prevent people nowadays from cherishing everyday pleasures in the movies that have nothing to do with either storytelling or the avant-garde, and sometimes wind up turning critics like me into hype machines. In effect, what I often want to write is “Hey, this is fun,” whether it’s The Big Lebowski or The Newton Boys, or even Eighteen Springs. But because I feel I’m competing with reviewers who like to call things the “best of all time” — writing off the indefinite future, the bottomless past, and the rest of the globe to rationalize their taste for shoe polish or liquid soap — I’m just as prone to wind up as shrill and over-the-top as the rest of them.

All this hyping is certainly something to be lamented, but it needn’t condemn us to seeing either hot movies or no movies at all. Confusing this state of affairs with the overall state of the art is a big temptation for critics, because it makes their work much easier if there’s nothing much to write about beyond a few high-visibility items. They sometimes even wind up blaming the audience, as Denby does: “It is perhaps too late to lament the disappearance of the foreign film from a major place in our culture. After many depressing conversations, I have found that younger moviegoers, reared on little but American movies, imagine that mourners for the foreign cinema are talking about some fool’s paradise of zinc counters and cappuccino, a pretentious refuge for bearded losers and solemn girls in black. ‘Cineastes’ –isn’t that what they used to call them? It is worse than useless to tell such moviegoers that Bergman and Kurosawa, Antonioni and Fellini, Godard and Truffaut — to name just the most obvious figures — defined our moods in late adolescence, enlarged our sense of romance and freedom and passionate melancholy as well as the expressive possibilities of movies, and that their influence was so pervasive that Bonnie and Clyde as well as the careers of Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, and a host of other American directors would not have been possible without them.

“One must quickly add that the current French, Italian, German, and Japanese cinemas are but a remnant of their former selves, and that the new movies from China, Russia, Finland, and Iran, however fascinating, cannot replace the old masterworks in excitement and glamour. ‘Where are the great foreign films now?’ a friend asks, by which he means that he refuses to feel guilty about not going when there are no masterpieces to see. He has a point, but even when a good French movie opens here (like Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie, in 1996), it’s hard to scare up much of an audience for it.”

Turn next to Denby’s dismissive review of Taste of Cherry — the first film of Abbas Kiarostami he’s bothered to see — which appeared in New York magazine the same day as his New Yorker essay, and you find a duplicate of most New York reviews of films by Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Kurosawa, and Truffaut when they opened in the 60s: he shows just as much skepticism and just as little enthusiasm. How could it be otherwise, when “new” masterpieces are obliged by definition to evoke and conform to old ones? When Denby complains that it was “hard to scare up much of an audience for” La Cérémonie in 1996, the implication is that audiences in the 60s were storming theaters to see L’avventura, Shoot the Piano Player, Shame, Fellini Satyricon, High and Low, and La chinoise, which clearly wasn’t the case. (La chinoise‘s first run in New York lasted one week.) So it’s only logical that Denby has to measure Kiarostami, who made films throughout the 70s without Denby’s support or awareness, against a 60s reading of Vittorio De Sica or Satyajit Ray rather than against a 90s reading of anything.

How much can we ever know about a national cinema or a period in film history, including the present, beyond the taste of a few programmers and distributors? You might assume, for instance, that given the hundreds of films and videos shown by the Chicago Latino Film Festival over the past three years it might be possible for a Chicagoan to evaluate what’s happening in the cinema of, say, Central America. But the most pleasurable Central American movie I’ve ever seen, the late Joseph P. Vasquez’s Manhattan Meringue — a joyful musical from the Dominican Republic that I caught in Cannes in 1995 — has never turned up here in any venue. [2010: it’s now available here on DVD.] Over the years I’ve seen a good many wonderful pictures from all over the world that to this day have never crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific, which suggests to me that it’s presumptuous to pretend that we can evaluate the artistic output of any country or period based on a handful of samples selected by other people. But Denby, who as a rule doesn’t even attend film festivals, seems to find this as natural as breathing. As a tipster, he knows that it’s a lot more consoling to simply tell his audience that they’re not missing anything worth seeing.

If you’re looking for remnants of the past in the present and want to “replace” old masterpieces with new ones, you’re bound to be unhappy, because the movies that matter nowadays are just as unruly and uncategorizable as those 60s movies were when they first appeared — and I include pictures like Eighteen Springs as well as Taste of Cherry. Maybe this means that “there are no masterpieces to see,” because it always takes time and exploration to define and judge any work. Could it have been all those instant Hollywood “classics” of the 70s that Kael and Denby championed so strenuously — The Godfather and its sequel; Nashville; the works of De Palma and Allen and Scorsese and Mazursky — that taught Denby to expect immediate legibility and gratification in movies and to give up on everything else? If so, that’s his loss. Some of these movies certainly carry a charge, but if that were the only kind of thing I went looking for, my sense of the century and the planet would be a lot poorer.

I’m not even sure Eighteen Springs is as good as Blonde Crazy, but I think it could stand with some of the other Cagney pictures — though I hasten to add that if Denby were back in the 30s looking for a “timeless” masterpiece in every Cagney picture that came out of Warners he would have been plenty disappointed then too. Hui’s movie certainly tells me as much about China as most of those Warner quickies tell me about the 30s, and that’s plenty to start with. But the reason I can’t tell you whether it’s worth hiring a baby-sitter — even if you’re Chinese and living in Hong Kong — is that what you get out of it has a lot to do with what you invest in it, not in terms of money but in terms of imagination and curiosity (and maybe even a desire simply to be at the movies).

Hui’s movie may not be great, though I expect to be thinking about it much longer than any Mazursky movie. But then maybe I should be more tolerant of Mazursky’s films — and Denby more tolerant of foreign movies he hasn’t seen. If we could learn to respect non-masterpieces for a change — some of which are potential masterpieces that we’re still trying to understand — we might both be able to chill out.

This entry was posted in Featured Texts. Bookmark the permalink.