Despite their reputations, some films and filmmakers just don't do it for us. This series, Second Chances, follows our attempts to find greatness where we've previously failed to see it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which we currently have a distaste (or feel indifference.) We'll give cult favorites like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer another shot and dig deep in the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal baffles us (like Federico Fellini) - and with a little luck, maybe we'll even end up as newly-minted fans...
The Subject: My Blueberry Nights
There actually wasn't so much of a resistance to revisit this as I just flat-out forgot it existed over time. It wasn't until last year that I discovered a friend and bandmate of mine was a huge Wong Kar-wai fan. After a nice discussion about his films, he mentioned that he still hadn't seen Wong's last film. At first I honestly thought he was talking about 2046 from back in 2004. I found it a lil' strange that such a Wong Kar-wai fan hadn't seen something of his that most people considered to be so great. I didn't think too much of it because I've had worse encounters with people in the past who claimed to be diehard fans of a particular filmmaker then come to find out they were just posers. I once met a friend of a friend who swore up and down he was a Cronenberg fan yet he'd only seen A History Of Violence and Eastern Promises (I swear to god.) Likewise, I once met someone who claimed to be a huge David Lynch fan, yet she had only seen Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.
Eventually it hit me that my friend was talking about My Blueberry Nights and not 2046. It was seriously that forgettable. I quickly remembered all the things I didn't like about Wong's last film – Norah Jones' performance, the pointlessness of the second story with Natalie Portman, how empty andhollow it all felt, etc. I went on to profess to my friend about how awful My Blueberry Nights was and if he was a Wong Kar-wai fan he should stay away so as not to tarnish the image he had of such a great director. But in the back of my head I was thinking about how long ago it had been since I'd actually seen it. Maybe it wasn't as bad as I remembered?
My Blueberry Nights was released during this 2-3 year period were so many great indie/art house filmmakers were putting out some of their worst work. Hal Hartley (Fay Grim), Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn), Wim Wenders (Don't Come Knocking), Aki Kaurismaki (Lights In The Dusk)...I guess I quickly grouped Wong in with that bunch and suppressed all memories I had of My Blueberry Nights over time. Perhaps I was too harsh the first time around because I didn't get the masterpiece I was expecting. I do that a lot these days - I put way too many expectations on a film and when it doesn't deliver the disappointment is heightened. I need to learn that it's ok for a film to be simply enjoyable or, dare I say, decent. Maybe I was too blinded by my desire to be blown away that I unfairly labeled a decent film as bad.
Reason for reassessment:
My reasons for liking Wong Kar-wai's films aren't that much different than anyone else's, I imagine: they're moody and atmospheric, sexy without showing much skin or sex, his music selection is great and his regular troop of actors are excellent. My personal reason for liking his work has to do with the fact that he opened my mind up to the world of romance, sensuality and sensitivity in film from a male point of view. Before discovering his work I considered almost any film centered on romance to be corny and/or sappy. It's no big mystery that the large majority of films about romance are geared towards women. It's nice to see a non-misogynistic male point of view on the subject of love and romance every once in a while, which is what Wong Kar-wai is so great at.
It's my personal opinion that Wong hadn't made a bad film until My Blueberry Nights. Sure some of his stuff is better than others, but up until 2008 everything he did was at least solid. That counts for something. When Fallen Angels and As Tears Go By are considered your most "flawed" works, you've done a pretty good job as a filmmaker so far. Someone with his reputation deserves a second chance, so I gave My Blueberry Nights another viewing for the first time in almost five years. Had it not been for second chances in the past, I wouldn't be the enlightened human being that I am today courtesy of films like Ghost Dog, Dear Wendy, Old Joy, Soderbergh's Solaris and a few more. I hated every one of those at one point in my life, but they all eventually went on to teach me something about myself, life, cinema, etc. Not to plug my own site, but a large majority of the misunderstood and boring masterpieces on Pinnland Empire were second chances. Sometimes you need to mature a little in order to appreciate a great film. When I first saw Ghost Dog at age 18, I didn't catch all the racial commentary and clever references to older stuff like Le Samourai and Tokyo Drifter. Now it's one of my favorite movies of all time. When I first saw Soderbergh's Solaris as a senior in college, I was in an uppity phase where just the thought of remaking a classic Tarkovsky film sounded blasphemous to me. These days I watch Soderbergh's version more than I watch Tarkovsky's original. In 2006, I thought the Von Trier-scripted Dear Wendy was both pretentious and heavy-handed, but now I see that it was actually ahead of its time. Every time I turn on the news, pick up a newspaper or scroll through facebook these days I see more shootouts, shooting sprees and other gun crazy-related deaths involving youth in America. I had this gut feeling I'd have the same change of heart with My Blueberry Nights now that I'm older.
Unfortunately it was still pretty disappointing the second time around...
This wasn't Wong's first time brushing shoulders with or making his name known among American movie audiences. For years he had been slowly testing the waters going from music video to short film to feature film. In 2002 he directed the video for DJ Shadow's "Six Days," and in 2004 he was billed next to Steven Soderbergh in the joint film Eros. Something I've always loved about Wong is his appreciation for and use of both classic and modern music. Had this directing thing never worked out for him, he would have been one hell of a DJ. He has this ability to make me appreciate music I either don't listen to or don't like. Seriously, I have "California Dreaming" on my iPod because of Chungking Express and I don't even like the Beach Boys. It makes sense that he'd be right at home directing a music video. Wong and DJ Shadow are kind of a match made in heaven: both have styles that are slow and moody; I'm sure Shadow's albums would sync up perfectly with quite a few of Wong's films if someone took the time to do one of those Pink Floyd/Wizard Of Oz experiments. I also find it interesting that both Shadow and WKW started to fall off creatively around the same time in their respective arts. The last great thing Wong directed turned out to be a video for one of the last great songs DJ Shadow produced. With Eros, I should have seen signs of Wong's descent but no one really saw or remembered Eros, so who cares? And even though 2046 took fucking forever to end, it was still a really good film overall.
My Blueberry Nights would be an introduction to the cinema of Wong Kar-wai for some Americans. Maybe this was part of the reason he made it such a simple, non-threatening film: to introduce himself to those unfamiliar with his work without coming off too artsy. It's not like he made it for a paycheck. He doesn't seem like the kind of filmmaker motivated by money, and My Blueberry Nights isn't the kind of movie that would make a ton of money in the first place. This was an opportunity for him to reach a wider audience. His films aren't the most difficult to come by and he isn't some unknown, but you don't really hear the average American name-dropping Days of Being Wild or Happy Together. It's not like My Blueberry Nights played at an AMC/LOEWS or had the promotion of a big Hollywood blockbuster and I'm almost positive the average movie goer went to see My Blueberry Nights for Jude Law, Natalie Portman and the rest of the "A-list" cast (all previous Academy Award nominees by the way.) There's this unspoken cynicism among most movie snobs at the first sign of a foreign, arthouse or indie director getting any type of mainstream recognition - I'm guilty of it myself. We've seen some odd and unexpected collaborations between the mainstream world and the arthouse world in the past: Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Bertolucci's casting of DeNiro (1900) and Brando (Last Tango In Paris), Godard's collaborations with Jane Fonda, Gerard Depardieu in My Father the Hero, etc. But in the last 5-10 years there's been a serious influx of that. Since 2002, Olivier Assayas has been working with actors like Nick Nolte and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and he eventually went on to get nominated for a Golden Globe for Carlos. Since the Funny Games remake, Michael Haneke has been slowly becoming more of a recognized name in mainstream film thanks to The White Ribbon, Amour and his fake twitter account. Even a film like Paris J'Taime (2006), which is very very bad, had directors like the Coens and Wes Craven billed alongside filmmakers from all over the world who are essentially nobodies outside of the film festival circuit. But Wong Kar-wai in America actually made sense to me. It's a shame it didn't work out.
My Blueberry Nights is the story of Elizabeth (Norah Jones), a young woman living in New York city who hits the road after she discovers she's been cheated on by the love of her life. Before she leaves New York, she becomes friends with a Soho cafe owner named Jeremy (Jude Law) and checks in with him from time to time during her travels across America.
Arnie: Where ya goin'?
Elizabeth: No specific destination in mind. Just gonna go until I run outta places to go.
First Elizabeth finds herself in Memphis working as a barmaid where she befriends an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) whose wife (Rachel Weisz) left him. Next, she suddenly winds up in a random town in Nevada working as a waitress in a casino. There she becomes friends/"business partners" with a poker hustler (Natalie Portman) trying to come to terms with her terminally ill father. Eventually Elizabeth makes her way back to New York City having grown from her experiences on the road and she falls in love with Jeremy. My Blueberry Nights followed the same formula as so many great road movies I love where we find someone who's been hurt in some way so they take to the open road to try and put the past behind them: Roadside Prophets, The Brown Bunny, Morvern Callar, I Travel Because I Have To I Come Back Because I Love You, etc. But what all those films have that My Blueberry Nights doesn't are interesting characters we meet along the way, fun road stories and, most importantly, an interesting main character. Elizabeth is one of the most uninteresting main characters to base a film around and this is partially due to Norah Jones' acting. Before I saw My Blueberry Nights, I was a bit skeptical of her as an actress and my instincts were right. Jones' performance is stiff and wooden. I found myself cringing at certain moments when she would deliver some of her lines. I guess as the movie progresses her acting gets a little better (or maybe it's because she's so damn cute I get distracted and no longer care about her acting) but I kept imagining another actress in her place. Apparently Wong Kar-wai saw it another way:
She's a very spontaneous woman and I like the confidence of her. The character of Elizabeth, in fact, is based on Norah's spirit and personality. - WKW
There's not much chemistry between the actors in My Blueberry Nights, which leads me to believe there may not have been much chemistry between the director and the actors as well. Was the language barrier really that much of an issue? Maybe he just felt lost without his regular cast. Wong has been working with slight variations of the same group of actors for 25 years, then he suddenly has this new ensemble cast of people he isn't familiar with. Chemistry problems are bound to arise in a situation like that. Something I think that might have saved this film and possibly made it pretty good would have been if Wong made changes to the story so that he could have incorporated both Chinese and American/English actors. This way he could have made a better transition. Or maybe not, who knows? The absence of Elizabeth's ex bothered me a lot. We're supposed to believe that she was so in love with him and so deeply hurt when he cheated on her, but we get no glimpse in to their past as a couple. No flashbacks into their love life. Her ex's presence is never felt once. What made him so great? We deserve that kind of information. And it didn't need to be completely spelled out either. Wong is a master of the unspoken and conveying something through just a look. What made films like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love so great were the little flashbacks and quick glimpses inside the main characters' love lives so we understood their pain when they were dumped or betrayed. When Cop 223 bumps in to his ex towards the end of the first story in Chungking Express, their past is written all over her face in the way she smirks at him and in her flirty body language. We never actually see either Su's husband or Chow's wife in In the Mood for Love, but we still hear stories about them, hear their voices, see them partially off-camera or in a picture in the background. It would have been nice to have a moment like that between Elizabeth and her ex in My Blueberry Nights.
As disappointing as the movie is, Blueberry Nights isn't without a few positive aspects that I didn't catch the first time around. It should be noted that this was Wong's first film shot by someone other than Christopher Doyle since his debut and he still maintained that signature look found in all his work. Although Doyle is a staple in the cinema of Wong Kar-wai, gaining cinematographer Darius Khondji isn't exactly a downgrade. Prior to working with Wong, he shot stuff like Se7en and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's early work (he's since gone on to work with Michael Haneke on Funny Games and Amour.) There's a lot of great standalone images in My Blueberry Nights, and Wong and Khondji play heavily with the idea of shooting a lot of scenes from far away through a window which I thought was pretty cool.
Wong tips his hat to Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas in more ways than one without trying to totally rip it off: besides the fact that both films are road movies that feature music by Ry Cooder, the relationship between David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz is very similar to the relationship between Harry Dean Stanton and Nastassja Kinski - an older jealous insecure husband who can't handle the relationship with his younger, attractive, free-spirit estranged wife. Acting-wise, Strathairn and Jude Law are the film's only saving graces. Neither performance is groundbreaking, but both are worthy of some recognition. Law gives a charming performance in one of the only roles where I didn't imagine another actor playing his part. Every scene he has is shared with a not-so-good and/or inexperienced actress (Norah Jones, Cat Power) yet he makes these scenes work. I do have to give credit to Cat Power for holding her own with an actual actor...it would have been interesting to see her in the lead role instead of Norah Jones.
One thing that makes Wong's films so great is his portrayal of men. We see a sensitive yet aggressive side to males in his work that isn't really seen anywhere else these days. To my knowledge, David Strathairn may be the second male actor in history to break down and weep in a Wong Kar-wai movie (the first being Tony Leung in Happy Together.) We often find men (both gay and straight) getting their hearts broken over and over again in Wong's universe (Chungking Express, Happy Together, 2046 and In the Mood for Love) yet they either bottle it in or deal with it in a way where they don't have to cry. Even though Strathairn's character is cliché as hell (the alcoholic cop whose wife left him) I appreciate the aggressive yet sensitive performance.
No matter how different the plots may be or what time period the stories take place, just about all of Wong's films are connected in some way. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels exist in the same universe and Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046 are a loose trilogy. On paper, you'd think My Blueberry Nights would blend in perfectly with the rest of Wong's body of work. It has the same structure as Chungking Express: two separate stories that share some of the same characters, plus Jude Law pretty much serves the same role as Faye Wong in the previous film. That exploration into the world of break-ups, heartbreak, infidelity and the pain it all causes (Happy Together, In the Mood for Love and 2046) along with the repetitive use of the same few songs are continued in My Blueberry Nights as well. This was also Wong's second international road movie, Happy Together being set and shot in Argentina. Even Rachel Weisz's character, Su, shares the same name as Maggie Cheung's character in Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love. Visually, My Blueberry Nights fits in just fine with everything else he's done, but at the same time it was like a collage of recycled moments from his previous films with different actors instead of a new original film. That's what really fucked my head up the second time around. I felt like I was watching Wong Kar-wai doing an imitation of himself. If not that, it felt like something made by a young director who just watched a lot of his movies and wanted to emulate his style.
It's a shame that after all these years of solid work, Wong Kar-wai suddenly made a piece of fluff. The material is very thin and bland. Sure it's pretty to look at, but that's about it. Everything feels rushed and there isn't enough time to latch onto or feel any type of connection to the characters. Then again, the characters aren't very interesting to begin with, so what's the point? My Blueberry Nights also holds a little more weight than usual because it's the last thing Wong has done in quite some time. Did the experience of making his first English language film break him to some extent? There were plans for a second English language film starring Nicole Kidman, but after My Blueberry Nights did so poorly those plans quickly disappeared. Until the teaser for his latest film surfaced last year, he seemed to be lying pretty low.
I still have love for Wong Kar-wai. This was just one slip-up. No matter how bad My Blueberry Nights was, he walked away without being labeled a sellout. Before the film even came out, there were rumblings on the movie forums about him selling out simply because he was coming over to America but he actually didn't compromise his style. The movie just isn't good. My Blueberry Nights is a case of a 2 out of 5 star film that looks even worse because it's on a filmography next to a bunch of 4 and 5 star films. Perhaps Wong fans needed this disappointment in order to appreciate his great work even more.
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