Hearts Club: Movies 2004
by John Demetry
"‘Tis a social disease when I cry / As you head for the door" - Erasure, "All This Time Still Falling Out of Love"
There are too many broken hearts in this world. Bad movies exploit that pain. Good movies help to heal. As Erasure makes plain (and felt): we live in a broken-hearted culture. It extends from individual disappointment to post-9/11, election-year strife – the desecration of the body politic due to the dismissal of a spiritual ideal as foundation for social structures (from personal relationships to movie culture to political involvement). Movies 2004 respond to the culture’s broken-hearted call. Metaphors express emotions, thus offering catharsis to the broken-hearted. In Movies 2004, that very process – in film after film! – forms the foundation for social healing through faith in symbols. It is the quality that distinguishes movies that matter in 2004 from those that do not matter.
addressing the broken-hearted audience, Movies 2004 bear out three
heralded the U.S. release of four film masterpieces). Through the
of these Truths, Movies 2004 extend an invitation to join The Broken
Truth #1: Feelings are a political act.
Moments Out of Time: In James Toback’s "When Will I Be Loved", femme fatale Neve Campbell performs a private, emotive, erotic dance on a couch – expressing the feelings the men in her life attempt to contain. Before the Liberation, Emmanuelle Beart conveys liberating emotion with a smile following the (anal-sex) consummation of a new family vision – civilization under attack – in Andre Téchiné’s WWII-set "Strayed". Tom Hanks and Irma P. Hall reveal an American truth by expressing personal responses to Edgar Allen Poe’s "Helen" in the Coen Brothers’ "The Ladykillers". A quartet of lovers juggle love and gratitude and trust through the exchange of rings (offered as gifts) in the comic resolution of Michael Radford’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s "The Merchant of Venice". A mother’s moan in Ousmane Sembene’s "Moolaade" communicates primal pain to the community – which responds with a healing gesture.
Exploitative movies encourage an escapist, solipsistic relationship to heartbreak. Thus, they reduce the spectator to consumer and respond to the spectator’s spiritual need (signified by the ticket purchase) with insufficient product (the broken-hearted keep returning for more, but leave with less). The contemporary movie audience must resist this assault on its humanity (the spiritual ramifications of which are made felt and understood in Mike Leigh’s melodramatic masterpiece "Vera Drake").
A broken heart can make one more sensitive and more compassionate. That’s the theme of Julian Hernandez’s poetically titled "A Thousand Clouds of Peace". In that film, a beautiful young gay man, Gerardo, searches Mexico City and his memory for a way to resolve his first heartbreak. During the grandly presented journey (and his interactions with members of his community), he comes to recognize his position in the world.
An awesome 360-degree pan closes "A Thousand Clouds of Peace". The camera circles from Gerardo to take in the whole wide world he has just traversed, then returns to Gerardo (walking away from the camera) who collapses in tears. Every moment of the film can be read as a component in that emotional release: what tears are made of. With that, Gerardo is ready to participate in the world that desire and pain have revealed to him. Through the experience of a gay youth’s sexual and emotional awakening, director Hernandez illuminates the genesis of all human interaction – emotions shared through recognizable gestures.
Through their marginalized protagonists, the best of Movies 2004 provide an emotional release. That catharsis takes the spectator, like Gerardo on his quest, beyond heartbreak to an understanding of longing’s social consequences: potentially destructive or creative. Resistance occurs every time a person extends his/her pain into compassion through an imaginative connection with cinema. Such movie phenomenon restores generosity to the spectator’s coopted feelings. It is, now, the nature of subversiveness.
In the visionary first-feature "Torque", music-video director Joseph Kahn comes up with the perfect pop metaphor (SPEED) for the way contemporary audiences must negotiate pop, media, and consumer codes in order to resist authority and contend with the race/sex confusions of the culture. The spectator experiences the film – a pop-art gallery in action-movie motion – as an exercise in liberation. The process binds the audience in a new form of brotherhood (mirrored in the film’s tentative B-movie bond between two bikers, the white Martin Henderson and the black Ice Cube).
Jared Hess understands the emotional investment people place on pop as progression toward social participation in "Napoleon Dynamite" (a title taken from the name of Elvis Costello’s "Blood & Chocolate" id alter ego, dealing with personal and political distress mid-1980s). Consequently, Hess creates a fantasy world out of his characters’ unique expressions of longing (1980s costumes and hair, "that’s-the-one" glamour-shot compositions). That world provides the context for Napoleon’s sequence-by-sequence maturation (instigated by friendship, compassion, and black-pop inspiration). Movies 2004 got no more euphoric than the resolution to Pedro’s school-election promise (and summary of Hess’ aesthetic): "If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true." That’s a challenge to express emotions – and it’s the essence of democracy. The "skit" following Pedro’s speech in "Napoleon Dynamite" synchs with the unbridled communal release of Takeshi Kitano’s "Zatoichi" and the hot - with a capital T - battles in Chris Stokes’ "You Got Served".
In the climax of Wes Anderson’s "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", all of his characters’ wildest dreams – symbolized by the spectacle of a stop-motion Leopard Shark – come true. Confronted with this shared representation of the characters’ desires, the sublime occurs: Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou sheds his tears and his loyal band apart bear his pain with their touch. "The Life Aquatic", like some other movies this year, ends with a resurrection that signifies a new conception of social possibility.
Truth #2: The hug is the cornerstone of civilization.
Moments Out of Time: A brother signifies his compassion – the truth of their bond, the sensation of flesh – by massaging his ailing brother’s tormented body in Patrice Chéreau’s momentous masterpiece "Son frère". A nephew hugs his gay Uncle in bed (a secret sign of brave, nurturing intent) in Luis Miguel Albaladejo’s AIDS-era gesture "Bear Cub". A mentally and physically disabled son offers his (HOT) father "cuddles" – and his father promptly falls through the crack between their beds in Gianni Amelio’s "The Keys to the House". In one of the many hilarious – and beautiful – gags in Jeffrey Lau’s spoof "A Chinese Odyssey 2002", Tony Leung (movie Star! of the year) and Faye Wong (in drag) hug each other goodbye for days on end, negotiating their confusion of fraternal and romantic love.
The hug is the basic response to primal pain (as that shared by a mother and child). It is the essential form of communication – understood by both hugger and huggee – from which all other communication is borne. It is the physical manifestation of the spiritual – every gesture is an act of faith. Religion and politics and art are an extension of the hug. These modes of human interaction promise to, quote Zhang Yimou’s sublime masterpiece "Hero": "embrace all."
To "embrace all" is the profound vision of Catholicism, as understood by Mel Gibson in "The Passion of the Christ". Read the film. Gibson cross-cuts the last-supper genesis of the Eucharist with Jesus nailed to the cross (blood/body). He cross-cuts Mary’s run to comfort Jesus after a collapse during the Stations with Mary’s nurturing hug during Jesus’ fall in childhood: "See, Mother, I make all things new." Gibson offers relief (in the aesthetic sense) from the debate between imperialist Rome and tribal Jerusalem with Jesus’ point-of-view shot of a cgi dove – the symbol of the Holy Spirit – in slow-motion. He offers a dual eye-line match, glances of recognition, between Jesus and an African slave: a shared sensitivity – the basis of a theology of liberation – amidst the mise-en-scene of mockery in Herod’s court. Gibson ends the film’s final shot with an audacious – and inspired – close-up of Jesus’ resurrected hand: with a hole in it (the signification of ultimate DIFFERENCE). Resurrection: the divine manifest in flesh, symbol, and a radical community of faith. It begins with "the hug."
To deny the film’s veracity (and artistry) is to denounce human progress – and to deny release to the broken-hearted. Many films of 2004 recognized this revolution in human social possibility as present in sub-cult perseverance – the genesis of pop culture.
Star and writer Nia Vardalos follows her successful "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" with an expansion of her (special) humanist form of comedy with "Connie and Carla". She extends the earlier film’s humor and heart (based on the phenomenon of ethnically-specific behavior, codes, and humor) to a gay-camp meeting of self-actualization and communal warmth. That’s what makes its drag-queen musical sequences so fun, moving, and . . . catholic (the denizens of a gay cabaret simultaneously break into song: "Papa, can you hear me?").
Stephen Chow’s ebullient "Shaolin Soccer" allows for fantastical representations of individual anxieties along with a hopeful, pop amelioration (as its outsider heroes spread the word on the Shaolin martial arts through. . . soccer!). The sign is born: a fiery symbol of the characters’ specialness that unifies them. Even the most delirious pop can reflect genuine striving, while fulfilling the need for joy.
Oliver Stone reaches for high art, profundity, and mass audiences with "Alexander". He recognizes geopolitical ambition – and the allure of charisma (male lover and comrade Hephaistion marvels/mocks at Alexander’s posing, head "cocked") – as a manifestation of racial/sexual anxieties and impulses. An Oedipal revelation: the young (locks, sun-bleached) Alexander (played with awesome gravity by Connor Paolo) tames a WHITE horse afraid of its own shadow. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s light-and-shadow compositions achieve poetry. Such evocative symbolism exemplifies Stone’s popular impulse to address the simultaneously sophisticated and benighted public. Example: Angelina Jolie creates a mythically powerful characterization as Alexander’s mother. Mythic: Jolie embodies the primal anxieties driving Alexander, conveyed through the kind of wildly expressive/stylized characterization that pop gloriously affords. Such liberty permeates the pure pop utopian vision (and embrace) of "Shaolin Soccer", Danny Leiner’s "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle", and John Moore’s "The Flight of the Phoenix".
Direct (primal and profound) emotion distinguishes James L. Brooks’ "Spanglish". "I am my mother’s daughter," Cristina concludes the Yale-entrance essay that (ingeniously) narrates the story of "Spanglish". The line is devastating. An address to common experience and an invitation to shared emotional release, the conclusion lashes a totem of privilege with a pronouncement of essential truth. Read over the image of a mother-daughter embrace, the line concretizes the heart-mending potential – the psychosocial and spiritual impetus – of the new-world nation: played out in the film’s multi-culti, class-conscious dynamics of desire and family, ambition and hope.
Alireza Raisian’s "Deserted Station" expands the national and spiritual implications of motherhood. In the film, a privileged woman’s desire for a child finds communion with downtrodden children’s need and CAPACITY for hope. The spiritual is the political: transforming the hug into metaphorical iconography provides the basis for the movie’s (and the year’s) emotional epiphany. The moment even synchronizes with the gesture that marks the ecstatic romantic highpoint in the screwball "Breakin’ All the Rules", in which Jamie Foxx and Gabrielle Union reach for each others’ hands at a concert. Raisian’s exhilarating staging of the climax – children following the stops-and-starts of a jeep – features a gift offering that simultaneously references: 1. Michelangelo’s The Sistine Chapel; 2. Godard’s creation of the cinema’s quintessential image (see "Nouvelle Vague"); and 3. a young student’s fascination with hands that signify an unrealized potential to nurture.
The critical, distribution, and exhibition aspects of film culture failed to fulfill their responsibility to nurture. In New York City, the Quad Cinemas – sans warning to paying customers – presented "Deserted Station" (the year’s fifth masterpiece? who knows?) in an all but indecipherable video projection, courtesy of distributor First Run Features – effectively transforming Raisian’s work of film art into a Kiarostami video. An embrace: denied.
Truth #3: Armond White is the towering figure in contemporary American film criticism.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s "The Dreamers" appropriately kicked off Movies 2004: connecting movie love to politics. It’s the connection most film critics got all wrong in 2004 – it amounts to a cultural disaster.
For one brief Moment In Time: audiences resisted. Bertolucci visualizes Michael Pitt’s embarrassment over morning wood with an insert cut to Greta Garbo in "Queen Christina" stroking a phallic bedpost. The audience – all the three times I saw the film – cracked up. They got it! – applying film semiotics to common experience and back again. The response justified Bertolucci’s hope in film as a unifying art form (see his last decade-and-a-half: the towering "The Sheltering Sky" and "Little Buddha"; the intimate "Stealing Beauty" and "Besieged").
This is the
hope contemporary critics fail to appreciate – in which they fail
They don’t believe in the aesthetic and metaphysical debate Pitt
Garrel’s characters engage in over Buster Keaton vs. Charlie
don’t believe in Bertolucci’s psychosexual imagery as
abstract game for a film critical elite to play. They don’t
evocations of desire as an understanding of how people: really watch
experience heartbreak, and hope for a social-political life that
their dreams. They don’t believe in Bertolucci’s evocation
of the past
fundamental instruction for looking at the present through the lens of
future: the basis of progressive action – and of faith. All of
they don’t believe in the worth of the audience.
The Resistance: American film critic Armond White shares Bertolucci’s hope. He applies that hope to every film he reviews (currently for such publications as "The New York Press", "Black Voices", and "First of the Month"). That makes White a beacon to the broken-hearted movie audience. He is the only regularly published film critic in America who matters.
Ironically: this also makes White the object of contemporary film critics’ anxiety of influence. White extols feeling, beauty, and an entrenched relationship to film aesthetics and history. No longer aping or negating Pauline Kael (constituting the previous era’s inferiority-complex spectacle), film critics today – both young and established – justify their positions by marginalizing (but NEVER repressing) White. Consequently, necessarily, they disregard those three basic tenets of film criticism/appreciation: feeling, beauty, and film aesthetics/history. White applies his sophisticated understanding of film theory (and thorough, individual approach to the medium’s legacy) to illuminate the essential issue of film spectatorship. He begins at the base (and basis) of the culture – recognizing and applying, through a formal aesthetic grounding, the process by which, for example, marginalized groups such as blacks and gays approach movies (that is: really live) in America (see White’s collection of essays "The Resistance"). This is why Armond White is always one step ahead. Feeling left behind, American film critics in the 21st Century pervert White’s visionary political approach by turning it topsy-turvy (exchanging White’s aesthetic rigor, honesty, and compassion for received wisdom about politics and art). As in the media’s divisive (and imaginary) red-state/blue-state distinctions – to which they eagerly ascribe – contemporary critics make of the world and cinema in the image of their own broken hearts.
Movies 2004 proved this: even as the divisive discourse drags the culture down, film artists (inside and outside the mainstream) have heard White’s call, or, at least, remained equally attuned to the cultural wind – taking flight. Either way: it proves the existence of Resistance.
The heart of Resistance – and the anxieties generated by social-political madness – gets revealed in Jonathan Demme’s remake of "The Manchurian Candidate" (about which White exclaimed: "He [Demme] had to transform an entertainment into a work of art"). The phrase "had to" proves revealing: when artists take up the responsibility of understanding the times, they inevitably bring something new and true to the screen (that is: "art"). It is the critic’s job to enthuse and, then, elucidate, as White did in his critique of the film:
"The surprised look a stenographer gives at [Denzel Washington] Marco's military inquest is just a citizen registering natural political shock. A debilitated platoon buddy, Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright) confronts Marco like a street bum, but they exchange feeling across the wide gap of their contrasting fortunes (it is the homeless encounter that rattles all our security). Instead of soliciting the audience's fantasies, Demme asks for compassion."
Break it down! Demme’s signature direct eye-line compositions provide the form for the film’s (and the country’s) essential – never-before-seen-in-a-Hollywood-movie – confrontations, first essayed in terms of relations among black Americans and, then, cross-racially: 1. Washington and Wright’s distinct struggles to hold onto sanity – and to communicate to each other – after a shared trauma (Gulf War Syndrome as metaphor for American racial-political stress); 2. Washington and Kimberly Elise’s meeting on a train (in which a black woman recognizes the signs of duress suffered by a black man); 3. Washington and Elise, again, now tearfully bearing and sharing the pain of her friend; 4. Washington and a Senator’s son played by white Liev Schreiber negotiate the difference between friend and fellow citizen, betrayal and compassion (Oh, tears again! - emotional revelation!! - Democracy!!!). Washington to Schreiber: "We’re connected – and they can’t take that away from us."
Demme connects the film’s climax to the astonishing cuts of the stenographer’s reaction (a black woman, repeating Elise’s initial shock of recognition) during the interrogation of Washington. Demme primarily shot Washington’s perspective in that sequence over the shoulder through the distorting lens of Washington’s glasses. Later, Washington and Schreiber communicate through the scope of a rifle. The consequent actions on the part of Washington and Schreiber’s characters constitute a metaphor, through the collective anxiety symbolized by assassination, for Resistance that occurs in the daily experience of Americans – the vernacular truths of compassion, sacrifice, communication, and imagination. (The year’s giddiest expression of this phenomenon: Kumar Pallana’s Gupta halting an airplane with his beloved mop in Steven Spielberg’s revelatory masterpiece "The Terminal".)
Only Armond White has the guts and the understanding to recognize art achievement in popular filmmaking – particularly when, like "The Manchurian Candidate", said pop artworks bring the experience of African-Americans to the big screen. "The Manchurian Candidate" received some acclaim (if little explication) because Demme is generally accepted as an artist. Who other than Armond White, however, would have the inspired notion to connect the concurrent releases of Babette Mangolte's "The Models of ‘Pickpocket’" and Charles Stone III’s direction of Bernie Mac’s performance (as fictional pro-baseball player Stan Ross) in "Mr. 3000"? At the time, White wrote:
"Comic-turned-actor Mac intuitively and instructively reveals a mutual sensitivity to the dilemma of a public figure fighting for his place in history. With ‘Pickpocket’, [Robert] Bresson gave its principal actors Pierre Leymarie, Marika Green and Martin Lasalle a form of immortality."
"A place in history" and "a form of immortality": phrases that delineate the achievement of movie actors conveying truth through imaginative gestures – intuitive or formalized. The surprise of recognition – of "mutual sensitivity" – evinced by the actors’ performances vivify political and spiritual experience.
The critical community can only salvage itself by taking up the challenge of White’s inspiration – to bravely recognize the achievement of "Mr. 3000" by drawing upon cinema’s past. This is how I described "Mr. 3000" – and my enthusiasm for it – to friends: "Imagine a Frank Capra movie directed by Luchino Visconti." Certain to ruffle some (chicken) feathers, I attribute the concerns of a classical Hollywood filmmaker and the approach of a European art-film aesthete to a contemporary (almost universally dismissed) pop work by a contemporary African-American filmmaker in Hollywood.
Like Capra before him in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town", and "Meet John Doe", Stone III queries the burden of social responsibility on an American citizen within a mass-audience milieu. Stone III updates the milieu to – and specifies it with – the pro-baseball arena of Black athletes. As with the walls-of-Jericho screwball of Capra’s "It Happened One Night", "Mr. 3000" parlays Mac’s/Stan Ross’ ethical quandary (and egotistic grandstanding) through a romantic tête-à-tête (with a fierce and sexy journalist – à la Capra’s films – played by Angela Bassett). "It Happened One Night" achieved great insight because the romantic-ethical resolution relies on the rediscovery of the vernacular basis of American living, an insight now progressed by Stone III from Capra’s Depression-era class interest to the specifics of African-American experience. Need I say more than: "Mr. Softee!"
Mr. Softee, indeed: "Mr. 3000" is essentially a feature-length viagra commercial (dig the jokes surrounding the hot-dog mascot). While the sexual-anxiety-spun screwball of "Mr. 3000" also relates to Hawks’ "Bringing Up Baby", Stone III’s approach is best illuminated by a comparison with Visconti. In such films as "The Leopard" and "Senso", Visconti provided an extravagantly queered perspective on sociopolitical phenomenon and on human interaction. He pushed movie sexual allure past the boundary of even gay-lust, confronting racial and sexual anxiety through the homo desire of the racial Other in "The Stranger". Visconti’s lush pansexual eroticism could make the earth tremble. That is the special pleasure and liberating aesthetic Stone III – peppering the exquisitely fluid and expressive mise-en-scene with hotties – now brings to Hollywood’s conventionally white-hetero sports and romantic-comedy genres. Some sizzling examples: The many confrontations between Mac and Brian White (the sexiest new actor in American movies), the locker room scenes (Brian White sure knows how to wear a towel!), the moments of two teammates – buddies – engaging in male-bonding pissing contests. "La terra trema", indeed!
The Capra-by-way-of-Visconti accomplishment of Stone III gives Mac’s/Stan Ross’ climactic sacrifice the full impact of the film’s social and sexual significance. Mac’s portrayal of this moment (the summation of his expert, exhilarating communication of conflicted motivations) earns Armond White’s quoting of Bresson: "A look caught with surprise can be sublime." The look on Mac’s face signifies a man’s moral gambit – an instant’s choice of social good over personal glory, the surprise of benevolence. Rising to the occasion – of true immortality – Mac’s expression (and bat-wielding action) manifests itself as symbolic erection: generated by the return of Mr.-Softee Love to lust.
That progression signifies one of the great achievements of Armond White’s film criticism – an understanding of movies that is, well, world-shaking. His epochal "Film Comment" essay (reprinted in "The Resistance") on the film "Swoon" deserves to be the most highly regarded – studied and appreciated – work regarding what some film/Queer theorists refer to as "gay coding." He departed from the conventional (academic) discourse by issuing a challenge to film critics and movie audiences in the title of the piece: "Deconstruction or Sympathy." What he recognized in certain (idiosyncratically defined, yet socially grounded) codes denoting gayness in, particularly, 1950s and early 1960s Hollywood cinema revealed an alternative (i.e. radical, i.e. Resistance) history/theory. The academic program (the film-critical hegemony) reads closeted gay codes as directed at a benighted audience to sustain a homophobic, closeted, exploitative pop culture. Instead, Armond White proposed that the signs of gay sensitivity (as realized in the day-to-day recognition of gestures signifying common experience) in that era’s films were enacted WITHIN the films’ dramatic situations (through stylistic choices and the expressiveness of actors) and extended to the audience’s eager appreciation and (perhaps unarticulated) sophistication. This occurred in pop culture in the deliberately speeding 1950s: artist’s subversive impulses – aligned with the glamour and allure of the Hollywood apparatus – brought the codes (the signs of vitality) of a marginalized group into the mainstream. This represented progress: a more open-hearted – and consequently swoon-worthy – representation of "human desire" in the popular cinema for all in the audience. It also defines the most essential aesthetic understanding to engage (and enjoy) Movies 2004. The challenge, then, to contemporary filmmakers (and critics) is clear: to bring these codes out of the closet, to allow their rich significance – social, political, spiritual, erotic – to be portrayed explicitly in gay terms or applied to any manifestation of "human desire."
Some filmmakers have risen to the challenge (while others reach, well, far from heaven). White drew upon this understanding of movie-spectator phenomenon to illuminate the strange delight of Aleksandr Sokurov’s "Father and Son". Quote White (notably referencing Visconti):
"Some of Sokurov's beefcake poses recall that ecstatic shot of Alain Delon in [Visconti’s] ‘Rocco and His Brothers’ that Mark Rappaport pointed out as a pinnacle of gay (human) desire in ‘The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender’. To accept Sokurov's images without fear or limitation – to think love not smut – points lust in the direction of progress."
This represents how White erases conventional demarcations of art and pop. Look: The physical displays of homoerotic interaction and "beefcake poses" (a 1950s object of gay sexual release) in "Father and Son" reveal the source of "gay (human) desire." Desire originates in the flesh/spirit dynamics of parent and child and – yes, capital "F" and "S" – Father and Son. Thus, Sukurov (and White) identify grace – physically manifested and generated – in the quest to fulfill and express desire. Sokurov does so by the revelatory means of connecting gay signification of lust with the human yearning for Love. Only by pushing the boundaries of imaginative connection can the broken-hearted audience heal.
Chris Evans’ dancer’s athleticism and body language in David R. Ellis’ "Cellular" makes pushing the boundaries of imaginative connection . . . especially fun. After his ex-girlfriend rebuffs him – a shirtless beach-bum – for his selfishness, Evans moves through Ellis’ politically-charged mise-en-scene with a gracefulness – scored to the dance-floor call of a Nina Simone remix – that signifies newly-discovered purpose. Those qualities (plus, the fact of his desirable form) provide the elements of the queered sensitivity Evans’ character shares with Kim Basinger’s damsel in distress, registered through the actors’ special expressiveness (inflicting a mortal wound, Basinger begs of her captor: "I’m so sorry"). It synchs with Movies 2004 spectacles of sensual sensitivity – the shared specialness – between social outsiders played by Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Tom Jane in Jonathan Hensleigh’s "The Punisher"; Leslie Cheung and Karena Lam in Chi-Leung Law’s "Inner Senses"; and John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, and Gabriel Macht in Shainee Gabel’s "A Love Song For Bobby Long".
In "Cellular", however, Evans and Basinger’s characters do not meet until the movie’s concluding (physical) gesture of Love. Instead, the characters relate psychically (awareness morphing into responsibility) through the "Broken-Blossoms" cross-cutting and the structuring gimmick of a cell phone (linking it to the cross-racial male sensitivity dramatized in screenwriter Larry Cohen’s "Phone Booth"). The film’s post-Rodney-King plot twist is no gimmick. The revelation connects social awareness to visual literacy, a recognition of oppression that forms the characters’ shared sensitivity. The failure to make that connection – the preference for escapism – is the political-aesthetic crisis signified by the Rodney King trial that Armond White addressed in the "Film Comment" (and "The Resistance") essay "Simi Valley Aesthetics." The cross-cutting of "Cellular" must be read as something other than a mere suspense tactic which is an element of escapist entertainment that reinforces the capitulation to authority evident in viewing habits after the outcome of the Rodney King trial. The protagonists of "Cellular" extend their shared sensitivity (a liberating sociological truth) to a compassionate acceptance of social responsibility. Evans’ character gets over his broken heart – by applying the vernacular truths that form the basis of Armond White’s aesthetic philosophy to a record of a political outrage and to the signs of the (hyperbolically presented) life and times.
Other critics condemn the broken-hearted movie audience to a "Continuous Hell" – the Buddhist metaphor fueling Andrew Lau and Sui Fai Mak’s staggering "Infernal Affairs" Trilogy.
Truth #1: Feelings are a political act. The first "Infernal Affairs" film’s narrative proper begins with the trilogy’s primal scene: the meeting of its two protagonists. Andy Lau, as double-dealing cop Lau, shops for a stereo system – an emblem of his desire for comfort and stability – at a store where Tony Leung, as undercover cop Chan, works while he awaits assignments from the Hong Kong mafia. The shifting mise-en-scene, labyrinthine cross-cutting, and stygian palette locates these characters’ slipping sense of self (and morality) amidst an increasingly insurmountable corruption and paranoia ("Everyone is a cop!"). The exaggerated expressions of the film’s statuary convey their anguish. Their first meeting signifies their connection and their desperate need for emotional expression, spiritual release. During a stereo-system test run, they sit back as the camera scans the sizzling actors’ conveyance of musical appreciation – and of their keen sensitivity to sound (a thrilling set-piece establishes Morse code – like the cell phone in "Cellular" – as the trilogy’s metaphor for the characters’ bonds). This moment prepares for the trilogy’s spectacles of liberating emotional excess – as when Chan’s mentor is murdered and Leung opens up his cool face to grief.
Truth #2: The hug is the cornerstone of civilization. "Infernal Affairs 2" takes place during Lau and Chen’s youth. It reveals the sources of their motivations. Chen (Shawn Yue doing an uncanny impersonation of Leung), the brother of a mafia kingpin, declares: "I want to be a good person." Lau (Edison Chen conveying the character’s desperation) projects his unrequited love for the wife of a gangster onto his stereo-system fetishism. Lau gets placed in the police academy as a double agent for the mob after committing the murder that sets the three films’ epic of vengeance into motion, while the police enlist Chen to infiltrate his own brother’s gang. Directors Lau and Sui here construct a baroque, operatic canvas – with debts paid to "The Godfather" Trilogy, embroidered into the psychological anxieties of the series – upon which the mob’s violent restructuring and the police department’s corruption parallel the Hong Kong handover with a haunting sense of dread. National/moral tumult leaves unaddressed the two leads’ internal/infernal struggles: threatening them to suffer in a "Continuous Hell." (The American title recalls Dante’s "Divine Comedy" of a soul and a Church in need of repentance.)
Truth #3: Armond White is the towering figure in contemporary film criticism. "Cleaved like a broken heart" – that’s how Armond White described the composition of Tony Leung’s Chan and Andy Lau’s Lau in an analyst session in "Infernal Affairs 3". The image conflates time/space – and souls in torment. The sequence – the series’ awe-inspiring, moving pinnacle – provides the culmination of the movie’s time-jumping, soul-singing cross-cutting technique (one life meeting with fate, the other tortured by guilt – a "shared sensitivity" signified by the sutures). As a symbol, the composition transcends the dramatization of psychoanalysis (proved to be WAY insufficient). The broken-heart visual resolves the spiritual and political implications of the trilogy. Directors Lau and Sui identify the saga’s kernel of truth: the broken hearts of the protagonists and the broken-hearted city of Hong Kong. The shot provides the unarticulated emotional release for the characters. It answers the need for a unifying symbol – fulfilling the social possibility signified by the characters "shared sensitivity." Armond White wrote of Michel Gondry’s "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" that it "closely matches the direct eloquence of a pop song." That standard of art appreciation is, finally, what distinguishes White. His criticism insists on the value of imaginative symbols – "the direct eloquence of a pop song." It constitutes a necessary faith in a unifying pop culture. This is a radical post-9/11 stance – the circumstances of which the "Infernal Affairs" Trilogy’s Hong-Kong specific concerns address.
The "Infernal Affairs" Trilogy ends (before circling back to the stereo-store meeting of Lau and Chan) with Daoming Chen (the Emperor from "Hero"!) offering healing advice – a way out of "Continuous Hell" – to a character in mourning. He recalls a declaration from a classic film that also collapsed national anxiety/historical crises with individual ambition/spiritual turmoil – a broken country with a broken heart. Daoming reiterates the great mantra of The Broken Hearts Club: "Tomorrow is another day."
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