Loathe as I am to draw attention from my colleague robbiefreeling's eloquent assessment of the imagistic impact of the horrors left in Katrina's wake (please do read it below), tonight is the night we'd planned on launching a new, recurring column on the Reverse Blog that's been long in the planning stages. Like most "real" film critics (I suppose we're not quite real inasmuch as the majority of us derive our income from sources other than writing) many Reverse Shotters regularly attend that ubiquitous ritual of film criticism: the press screening, which allows us the chance to see new movies well before the general public. Given that, and Reverse Shot's semi-quarterly nature, most articles dealing with recent releases featured there are the result of weeks, if not months in some cases, of thought and careful consideration of the work in question, not infrequently buttressed by a repeat viewing or two.
We like to think this perspective allows a more consistently considered response than the perilous task of reviewing weekly, and this may well be true, but on the flipside, since we've often taken time out to decry the ossification of opinion regularly found in the aftermath of a single shot afforded to wrangle with a movie, we thought we'd take further stabs at expanding, not so much the way we think about movies, but the situations in which we allow ourselves to write about them.
Thus we introduce "Sneak Previews," a new section built around brief snapshots of immediate reactions to upcoming films, hopefully taken as soon after initially screened as possible and followed later by a more rigorous analysis on the main Reverse Shot site. As befitting our original conception of the blog (which we may, admittedly, have strayed from somewhat), entries should be diaristic, informal, and perhaps largely freeform. Ideally, this first piece of writing and the later article should enter into dialogue, illuminating the progressions and regressions of a particular writer's thought process, and maybe, more practically, help give our readers some advance indication of upcoming films we find worthwhile.
Reverse Shot was started, and is maintained, by a groups of folks who believe that there are a host of different ways to write about film, many of which are often excluded from more traditional review/feature-based publications, regardless of their validity. (So, even though I did criticize the content of the NY Times' Cannes blog, in retrospect, I admit I'm finding it more a work-in-progress worth pursuing.) Here's our shot at trying to give one of them a little more ink.
I caught Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times a little over a week ago, so I've had a little time with it, but I think it's still fresh enough to fit the "Sneak Previews" bill. Seeing it only short time after 2046, and given the lovely swoon and 60s pop of its first chapter, I'd be tempted to think of this as something like Hou's stab at Wong Kar-wai if not for the fact that it's utterly, inimitably Hou, and feels almost like a summation given that so many of its tropes remind me of his earlier features.
Entitling each of his three sections "A Time for ________," brings to mind A Time to Live and a Time to Die which I watched with a Taiwanese friend whose comment "I liked that they started out speaking Chinese, but as the characters went on they ended speaking Taiwanese" completely exploded my reading of the film, and helped explain more to me about Taiwanese history in a few words than years of news articles with two-sentence boilerplates on Taiwan 1940-present.
The first section, "A Time for Love" set in the 1960s, feels more than a bit like Dust in the Wind, only this time the star-crossed lovers end with a bit of happiness, if only for a moment. Containing the film's most romantic shot—near unbelievably, of a railway timetable—it's the section that most leaves the impression of Wong, but probably more due to its setting and music than anything else. And I don't know if Wong would have the patience to create the opening shot, a true epic that follows Chang Chen as he plays snooker while Shu Qi watches.
Section two, "A Time for Freedom," relocates to a brothel in 1911. Shu Qi re-appears as a courtesan frequently visited by Chang Chen's young, liberal intellectual. The fades that end each shot recall the tactics of Flowers of Shanghai (one of my all-time ten best depending on the day), but Hou takes things even farther in his calculatedly half-assed attempt at duplicating silent film. So, we have intertitles, no dialogue, and a lush piano score, shot in color at normal speed with elaborately controlled camera movements, and potentially natural lighting. Terrific and ingenious without ever being clever.
"A Time for Youth" from 2005 closes, and hearkens back to the e-lectricity of Millennium Mambo. Shu's now an epileptic who fronts a rock band, and Chang is a photographer with whom she's having an affair. Their respective lovers have more of a role here and this smartly assists in connecting them to the peripheral played in the earlier segments. I'd call it the bleakest in outlook, if it didn't suggest that in all this heartbreak and wanderlust there's something essential, and necessary if it's truly to be called a time for youth.
As an overall formal project Three Timescomes closest to Good Men, Good Women's palimpsest nature. But somehow, in separating out his various strands and binding them through the use of the same actors creates a different kind of temporality—perhaps less forced, and certainly more legible. It's the kind of thing that Todd Solondz might have made out of Palindromes with intelligence and some sense of scope. Just like The Fall, Hou's vision of love and lovers is "Always the same, always different." That he manages to trace more than a little of the history of Taiwan around the edges (maybe I'll see this again and find that the whole point, but for now I'll luxuriate in his romances) is just one more reason to love it.