I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
The first time I saw Anna Deavere Smith, I realized a new meaning had been given to the term "body politic." She was appearing in Fires in the Mirror, her show about the conflicts between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and that area's eruption into violence in 1991; and as she performed, a whole neighborhood seemed to congregate in her. One after another the people stepped in, many of them voicing mistrust, misunderstanding, fear, hatred; and yet these conflicting individuals had been brought together, if not harmonized, by residing in this one woman's flesh. How did she do it? Through a combination of sociological fieldwork and shamanism. First Smith interviews people by the hundreds and edits the material she's elicited. Then she learns to impersonate her subjects--literally to incorporate them--so that she may present them to the audience entirely in their own words, with their own inflections and mannerisms.
A year after the Crown Heights riots, she went to the other side of the country and began a new cycle in this process, developing a show about the police beating of Rodney King and its bloody aftermath. Now we have an expanded version of this play in Twilight: Los Angeles.
Shot on video by the incomparable Maryse Alberti and directed by Marc Levin, Twilight: Los Angeles features documentary footage about the Rodney King beating (including excerpts from the infamous, on-the-scene videotape) and newsreel scenes of the ensuing trial and riots. Another element in the collage is footage shot for this production in 1999, when Smith revisited some of the people she had interviewed. But the main reason for watching Twilight: Los Angeles is to see Smith's performance, which is re-created for the camera on modified stage sets--principally a looter's playground of furniture, cardboard boxes, odds and ends of clothing, ground smoke and flashing red lights. Over the course of eighty-five minutes, Smith populates this set with her portrayals of some thirty people who witnessed or participated in this horrendous civic rupture. The roster of characters is so wide-ranging that I'm tempted to call it comprehensive. About the only interested person who doesn't get to speak--either through Smith or through the documentary footage--is Rodney King himself.
That omission may well be the main point of Twilight: Los Angeles. Out of all these people, the only one to discuss King as a person is his aunt Angela. ("It took three plastic surgeries to get Rodney to look like Rodney again.") For everyone else whom Smith calls up, King is an occasion, an excuse, a justification or (very often) a blank. Why bother to think about a man who's had his head kicked in when you have your own claims of victimhood to assert?
I soon lost count of the self-described victims in Twilight: Los Angeles--although I can tell you that the main body of the picture begins with Smith's portrayal of one of them. Popping her eyes behind huge glasses and speaking in a heavily italicized singsong, Smith becomes Elaine Young, a real-estate agent in Beverly Hills. What is Young's account of the beating of Rodney King, the acquittal of the police officers who stomped him and the subsequent three days of riots? She never quite gets to that. Speaking without benefit of commas, Young concentrates instead on rattling off her résumé, with special emphasis on the cosmetic silicone implants that made her a victim for a year: "I almost died!"
Young serves to represent one extreme of social blindness in Twilight: Los Angeles, as localized in (but not confined to) Beverly Hills. Henry "Keith" Watson might be said to represent the South Central counterpart. To play this very young man, accused of tearing a truck driver from his cab during the riots and beating him half to death, Smith puts on a leather porkpie hat, a zippered jacket and a machine-gun laugh. Gleeful in destruction, her Watson sobers up only when speaking of how the mayhem he inflicted has hurt him: "I've been placed next to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. I mean, that's a lotta pressure, y'unnerstand?"
Between these poles are characters who can see more clearly; and some of their grievances tear the heart. With her hair pulled back in a bun and tears in her eyes, Smith gives us Mrs. Young-Soon Han, who lost her store in the riots. "We are nothing. Nothing," she says, speaking of the Korean merchants who saw their lives go up in smoke, while the police were busy cordoning off Brentwood and Beverly Hills. And then, pulling herself together, she expresses her happiness for the black people who had felt that they, too, were nothing, and who rejoiced when two police officers were at last found guilty of beating Rodney King. "I wish I could be part of their enjoyment," she says.
Here is author Ruben Martinez, who bubbles over with amused scorn when describing the petty, daily victimhood inflicted on Latinos by the police, who bust them for everything right down to jaywalking: "You're, you're, you're, you're, you're, you're--you're just not walking right." And here is Elvira Evers, a cashier by profession, who picked up some stray gunfire after 8,000 federal troops were sent to Los Angeles. She covered her wound with her gown so as not to alarm her children, drove to the hospital and had an emergency caesarean section, giving birth to a daughter born with a bullet lodged in her elbow--all of which she describes not as proof of victimhood but as evidence of having been blessed: "Open your eyes."
A word about the way in which Smith pauses in her portrayal of Elvira Evers, to wipe her hand across the plastic cloth covering a tiny kitchen table: Most of her impersonations are built around one such observed gesture. Smith is stingy with these moments, doling them out to convince you of the authenticity of the scene, but also making sure that this detail, though apparently circumstantial, sums up something about the character. With Elvira Evers, for example, you see both the modesty of her possessions and the care she takes with them. Angela King flips through a magazine while she speaks; you see a woman who has some contact with the world of ideas, and who is controlling her emotions through distraction. Sgt. Charles Duke of the LAPD shows you the correct way to beat someone into submission with the baton and decries the loss of the chokehold, then pauses in his demonstration to sip water and cough; you glimpse a sliver of vulnerability in a man who is damn well defended. As for Mrs. Young-Soon Han, nothing needs to be explained about the way she stutters over the word "incendiary."
I mention these naturalistic details to suggest how thoughtfully Smith constructs her portrayals but also to point out a curious feature of her talent. She is an astonishing mimic without being a transformative actress. By that, I mean that she always looks like Anna Deavere Smith; her wigs and costumes seem only to emphasize her features, not to disguise them, so that you're always aware of the oval face, deep eyes, rounded mouth, robust figure. This characteristic becomes most striking when she impersonates famous people, such as Cornel West, Jessye Norman, Charlton Heston, former LA police chief Daryl Gates. And because she's always revealing herself while she's portraying the character, Smith likes to start a scene broadly, almost caricaturing the subject and sometimes verging on ridicule, from which point she can tone down the performance while letting a deeper emotion come through. To let one example serve for many: She begins her portrayal of Cornel West by emphasizing his peacockery. For her one naturalistic gesture, she has him discuss the riots while enjoying a snifter of brandy. And then, sounding a lower note, she shows him pausing to say, "I don't think whites could bear to feel the sadness of black people."
Shortly after this moment comes an extraordinary segment of Marc Levin's recent documentary footage: a scene of a dinner in someone's home, where the guests at the table include Smith, Daryl Gates, Ruben Martinez, author and scholar Elaine Kim and Paul Parker (a black activist who describes the riots as a "revolution," and who organized a legal defense committee for the men who assaulted truckdriver Reginald Denny). As the conversation becomes heated, Smith intervenes: "Since we're talking," she says, "we should also listen." I can think of no better summary of her art, nor of the social and moral impulses at its core.
And if I were forced to sum up Anna Deavere Smith? I'd call her a clear-eyed, hard-working utopian. That's a tough combination to maintain; witness the recent closing of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue, which she'd been running at Harvard. Smith had hoped that the listening that goes into her work might be practiced by groups of people who would come together in the theater. Not having witnessed the events she mounted, I can only guess at why they didn't work; but I suppose that other people simply weren't as good as Smith at this kind of thing. But that doesn't mean the attempt was unworthy. As Twilight: Los Angeles so brilliantly demonstrates, listening (like art) is not just an ornament to society. It's the thing itself.
Screening Schedule: Nation readers who receive the Turner Classic Movies channel might want to know that Wednesdays and Thursdays in October will be devoted to a series called "Ideology and the Movies." Each Wednesday, TCM will show purportedly conservative films, selected and introduced by Spencer Warren, a writer for National Review and The American Spectator. On Thursdays are films of the left, selected and introduced by the film critic of The Nation. The leftist roster includes The Battleship Potemkin, Man with a Movie Camera, Grand Illusion, Citizen Kane, The Bicycle Thief and Dr. Strangelove--so obviously, we win.
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