Uncertified Copies: The Year in Pirated Chinese DVDs

If anything, lists — which were already beginning to matter in the ’50s and ’60s (via Sarris’s The American Cinema, for example) — are even more important today because of the widening of many choices (as well as the narrowing of certain others, such as the choices made today by Turner Classic Movies and the various studio divisions who release box sets devoted to Old Hollywood versus the wealth of what used to be shown on network TV, albeit with commercial interruptions and other nuisances that may or may not be operative now).
— Jonathan Rosenbaum

As the title suggests, I didn’t get out to the theaters much this year, in large part because there seemed to be so few worthwhile movies playing in Hangzhou — especially when you compared what was shown in multiplexes with what you could get on video. To be sure, there were a couple exceptions, but even as much as I enjoyed The Grandmaster and Gravity, neither film was as interesting to me as my ten clandestine favorites listed below. (I haven’t seen the state-sanitized version of Django Unchained that opened here in the spring shortly after the integral version became available on DVD, and I’ve yet to catch up with Cloud Atlas in any form.) To make matters worse, on those rare occasions when I did venture outside of my apartment to see a movie, it was almost invariably a video projection rather than a 35mm print.

Two notable exceptions were Loin du Vietnam (1967) and Sans soleil (1983), which I saw at the Hong Kong Arts Center in May during their Chris Marker retrospective. But as wonderful as those films are, the single most euphoric moviegoing experience I had all year — and one that’s more representative of the times we live in — was seeing Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) the same week at the Hong Kong Film Archives, where it was projected digitally. Having previously seen the film several times on DVD, I already knew that there was a lot of humor in it, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie with a large, engaged audience that I realized just how funny it really is. None of the new films I saw this year were as pleasurable as that great movie, but there was still plenty to see if you were willing to compromise. Indeed, there are still a great many films that I haven’t had time to watch, though I don’t think this fact in any way diminishes the stature of my ten favorites, all of which I can recommend without reservation.

1 Modest Reception (Mani Haghighi) A pair of affluent Tehranis drive through a war zone handing out bags of cash to the impoverished locals, though it’s hard to say whether this is charity or a cruel joke. As the movie only gradually reveals who the characters really are and what they’re up to (they tell a different story to everyone they meet), we have to constantly reassess how we feel about them.

2 Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) Freud said that we go to the movies to watch our parents have sex but it’s even more fun when they get into an argument about how Mom is subtly being oppressed by Dad. In the 18 years since Before Sunrise (1995), Linklater has evolved from an amiable independent with a causal approach to story construction into a first-rate dramatist.

3 Beyond the Hill (Emin Alper) A kind of Turkish Western about a divided family coming together to fight a common enemy, this could almost be a film by John Ford or Anthony Mann except for the terse, elliptical storytelling that takes its time revealing information about the characters and leaves a slew of unanswered questions.

4 Tabu (Miguel Gomes) Taking its title from F.W. Murnau’s tale of the South Seas, this three-part narrative about the legacy of European colonialism is more than just a tribute to a great film. Each of its stories is fascinating in its own right, but taken together, they add up to something more than the sum of their parts.

5 Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas) The experience of watching this movie, which consists of a series of loosely related, non-sequential vignettes, is a bit like trying to assemble an Ikea furniture set without the instructions. Some people may find this frustrating, but personally I was excited by the challenge.

6 Betrayal (Kirill Sebrennikov) An ordinary man learns that his wife is having an affair and the shock seems to throw the entire universe out of whack. While most narrative films give one the comforting impression that everything happens for a reason, this enigmatic marital drama is disquieting precisely because its plot doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

7 La Cinquième saison (Peter Brosen and Jessica Woodworth) Unsettling and hilarious in roughly equal measure, this apocalyptic parable about the unraveling of a tightly knit farming community is so spare and economical that it’s an implicit rebuke of the flabbiness of most features.

8 The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson) Anderson’s next film is to be an adaptation of Inherent Vice (2009), but after this monumental curiosity about a weirdo sailor getting wasted on darkroom chemicals and cavorting with an orgy-loving prophet, an official Thomas Pynchon adaptation seems rather superfluous.

9 Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu) Based on actual events documented in two nonfiction books and shot in a dispassionate long take style, this absorbing convent drama purports to be an impartial account, thereby obscuring how artfully Mungiu has shaped the facts of the case into a coherent narrative.

10 Here, Then (Mao Mao) More than most films, this inscrutable Chinese art movie contrasting the lives of disenfranchised hick teenagers and bored yuppies feels like the work of a director consciously testing the limits of how much information he can withhold from viewers without alienating them completely.

Some other movies I can recommend — nearly all of which I’ve written about on this blog already — are Behind the Candelabra, 5 Broken Cameras, La Folie Almayer, Holy Motors, Keep the Lights On, Mud, Neighboring Sounds, No, Paradise: Love, Searching for Sugar Man, Silver Linings Playbook, Starlet, To the Wonder, Voice of My Father, and Wreck-It Ralph.


Unsolved Mysteries (The Master)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) is a curious piece of work. The story is about an alcoholic sailor, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who gets out of the navy and then struggles to find a place in postwar American society before getting involved with a kind of religious movement called the Cause whose leader, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), claims that people’s personal problems stem from traumas in their past lives (sometimes dating back trillions of years) and can be alleviated through a form of past life regression he calls Processing.¹ But while the plot is fairly straightforward (at least, for the most part), the film’s meanings are obscure enough to accommodate a wide range of interpretations.

As David Bordwell has already pointed out, the movie is primarily a character study², and its portrayal of Freddie as a drunken misfit helps to unify the episodic plot. When the Surrender of Japan is announced, Freddie celebrates by getting wasted on torpedo fuel, and after leaving the navy, he lands a job as a portrait photographer in a department store where he makes moonshine in the darkroom. Freddie’s boozing ultimately proves fatal to his relationship with a salesgirl (Amy Ferguson) who drops him after he passes out during a dinner date, and he subsequently loses his job for freaking out in the middle of the store. He then goes to work on a farm picking vegetables but has to leave suddenly in the middle of the night when an old farmhand dies after drinking one of his concoctions. And when he’s discovered aboard Lancaster’s ship, Freddie ingratiates himself to the big man by fixing him a drink from whatever ingredients are on hand (including a splash of paint thinner).

But while the plot isn’t particularly complicated, the movie presents some events in a deliberately elliptical manner. At a party, Lancaster is confronted by a skeptic (Christopher Even Welch) who challenges him on some of his claims — notably, that Processing can cure certain types of leukemia — and later that evening, Freddie forces his way into the man’s apartment and assaults him. However, as the attack takes place offscreen, when Freddie reports back to Lancaster that he doesn’t need to worry about the man asking any more questions, it’s not clear if Freddie’s killed him or not. Consequently, it’s impossible to gauge the appropriateness of Lancaster’s reaction. (Although he scolds Freddie for being a naughty boy, he doesn’t seem to think that his actions are all that serious.)

At times, it’s even unclear if certain events are really happening or if Freddie is imagining them. In one particularly puzzling sequence, Lancaster sings for his followers accompanied by a woman performing on a bass fiddle.

As Lancaster moves into an adjoining room, the camera tracks right to reveal his pregnant wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), sitting in a chair.

The film then cuts to Freddie sitting alone in a corner, looking vaguely hammered. However, as we don’t see him drinking anything, it’s not clear if he’s inebriated.

In the next shot, Lancaster continues to sing and dance but now all the women in the room are suddenly nude.

As it seems unlikely that the women could have all disrobed in a matter of seconds (especially Peggy and the woman at the bass fiddle, despite a brief pause in the music), and as their clothes seem to have vanished into thin air, it’s reasonable to infer that Freddie is imagining this. However, rather than making this point unequivocally by presenting Freddie’s erotic reverie in an expressionistic manner, the movie’s poker-faced treatment of this scene leaves open the more intriguing possibility that this is all really happening.³

As these two sequences suggest, the film’s treatment of Lancaster — and by extension the Cause — is deeply ambivalent. In the scene where he’s confronted by the skeptic, Lancaster’s explosion of rage might be taken as evidence of his having an authoritarian personality. However, in view of the man’s aggressive and persistent line of questioning, it’s not hard to empathize with Lancaster’s exasperation. Furthermore, although Lancaster’s own son (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie that his father is making it up as he goes along, at no point does Lancaster drop the facade; he’s always in character, even in private. Eventually, Freddie becomes disenchanted with Lancaster when the latter is arrested for embezzlement, but when Peggy asks him to sever ties with Freddie, Lancaster replies that, if he were to do that, it would be who had failed Freddie and not the other way around, suggesting he’s sincere about wanting to cure Freddie’s alcoholism. In other words, one can’t say definitively if Lancaster truly believes in his own claims or if he’s primarily interested in money and power, especially as the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Accordingly, the film is open to numerous interpretations. At the end of the movie, after breaking decisively with Lancaster, Freddie picks up a woman in a pub, and while having sex, he asks her the same questions that Lancaster posed to him in his first Processing session — during which Freddie recalled how, after coming home from the war, he abruptly broke off his relationship with his sweetheart (Madison Beaty) without giving her any explanation. The film’s final shot is a brief flashback to Freddie lying on a beach in the South Pacific, implicitly comparing the sequence with the woman from the pub with the movie’s opening scenes, which show Freddie and his fellow seamen going out of their minds with sexual frustration. (At one point, they mould a statue out of sand in the shape of a woman and Freddie mimes having sex with it.) There’s an obvious pattern of development here, moving from impotence to consummation, but if Freddie has in fact conquered his personal demons, thus making it possible for him to have intercourse with a woman (verbally as well as physically), then what brought about this sudden transformation: Was it Lancaster’s treatment or Freddie’s decision to leave the Cause? The more I think about the movie, the less I know.

1. In case you haven’t heard, Lancaster is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

2. Bordwell’s blog entry addressing the film can be found on his website.

3. In a rave review of the film in Cinema-Scope no. 52, Gabe Klinger takes this sequence at face value (“It’s the suggestions of Dodd’s influence on his environment in certain enigmatic scenes that reverberate chillingly. An orgy hosted by Master […] is something like the salacious height of [the film’s] abstruse portrayal of the Cause”), while in a mixed review for the Chicago Sun-Times, the late Roger Ebert wrote, “Freddie drifts in and out of reality, imagining rooms where the women have suddenly become unclothed.” Personally, I think they’re both right.

Traité de bave et d’éternité (There Will Be Blood)

Perhaps an American director would not have seen greed as a vice.—From a review of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) in Picture-Play (March 25, 1925)¹

Negativity is rare in American cinema, and those films that are strongly critical of society are seldom received favorably by the public—one obvious example being Charles Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which was panned by reviewers, flopped at the box office, and led to Chaplin having to leave the United States.² So I was rather bemused when one conservative commentator cited Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), along with The Muppets (James Bobin, 2011), as yet another Hollywood movie attacking the oil industry:

They’ve been doing it for decades. Hollywood, the left, the media—they hate the oil industry. They hate corporate America. And so you’ll see all these movies attacking it, whether it was Cars 2 [John Lasseter, 2011], which was another kids’ movie, the George Clooney movie Syriana [Stephen Gaghan, 2005], There Will Be Blood—all these movies attacking the oil industry, none of them reminding people what oil means to most people: Fuel to light a hospital, heat your home, fuel an ambulance to get you to the hospital if you need that. And they don’t want to tell that story.³

To be sure, Anderson’s film isn’t an unambiguous affirmation of the oil industry’s positive influence on American life, but it doesn’t precisely criticize it either. In the course of the story, several characters are killed or disabled in accidents on an oil rig, but in every instance, this is due to some freak occurrence that couldn’t be prevented, such as a sudden explosion—not, as with the BP oil spill off the Gulf Coast, because a company was cutting corners at the expense of safety in order to maximize profits.⁴ Ultimately, the movie isn’t about the oil industry per se, but a character who becomes rich by drilling for oil. The impression that the film is disparaging the oil business is a result of its ambivalent attitude towards its protagonist.

Set in California in the early part of the twentieth century, the story centers on a ruthless oil prospector, Daniel Plainview, and three people who become, for a time, his adopted family. Early in the film, when one of his workers is killed in an accident on the rig, Daniel decides to adopt the man’s infant son, H.W. (Herbert Walker?) Nine years later, after getting a tip about there being oil under the ground, Daniel proceeds to buy up almost all the land around the religious community of Little Boston, where he finds himself at odds with the town’s preacher, Eli Sunday. However, sixteen years later, H.W. marries Eli’s younger sister, Mary, and in the final scene, as Daniel chases him around his bowling alley throwing wooden pins at his head, Eli shrieks, “We’re brothers!” The other important character is a man who turns up in Little Boston one day claiming to be Daniel’s half-brother, Henry. By the end of the film, Daniel will have either permanently alienated or murdered all of them.

The film’s characterization of Daniel, by its starkness, invites allegorical readings. His unchecked desire for wealth is already fully in place when the story begins, and is seemingly inborn as the movie doesn’t provide him with a backstory to explain how he got this way. (Daniel himself suggests that it’s hereditary when he remarks to Henry, “If it’s in me, it’s in you.”⁵) Nor does the film reveal the source of his deep antipathy towards religion. In order to convince the Sunday family to sell him their property, Daniel promises Eli that he’ll donate some money to his church, but after the well begins to produce, Daniel repeatedly snubs him. It’s only when he needs to build a pipeline through the one piece of property in Little Boston which he doesn’t own that Daniel goes to church and allows himself to be baptized. He isn’t a psychologically rounded character but the embodiment of American capitalism.

Although the opening scenes establish Daniel as a self-made man who builds his oil business single-handedly, as the story progresses, he becomes increasingly unsympathetic. When H.W. is injured in an explosion on the oil rig, rather than stay with him, Daniel spends the entire night staring at the oil fire. As the fire rages, he remarks to an associate, “What are you looking so miserable about? There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet!” When his associate inquires if H.W. is okay, Daniel replies matter-of-factly that he isn’t. He isn’t indifferent to H.W.’s well being, but ultimately the oil is more important to him than his son. From there, Daniel’s relationship with H.W. rapidly deteriorates and he becomes increasingly unhinged. When a representative from Union Oil suggests that he sell his holdings in Little Boston and spend more time with his son, Daniel takes it the wrong way and threatens to cut the man’s throat. At one point, he confides in Henry that he wants to make enough money to get away from everyone, and the final scenes portray him as a Howard Hughes-like recluse, drinking to the point of unconsciousness in his cavernous mansion.

However, the film doesn’t simply condemn Daniel as a monster, but views him with a combination of horror and fascination. In contrast with Anderson’s earlier Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), which were both sprawling ensemble pieces, There Will Be Blood is single-minded in its focus on Daniel, who appears in nearly every scene. The other characters, including H.W. and Eli, are only important to the plot insofar as they serve Daniel’s plans or weakly attempt to resist them. For instance, Daniel uses H.W. as a sort of prop in his business dealings to show people that he runs a family company, but after the explosion, H.W. becomes more trouble to him than he’s worth, so Daniel has him sent away. After Daniel’s baptism, H.W. returns, but we never find out what happened to him while he was away. Years later, H.W.’s decision to start his own company in Mexico leads to the immediate termination of his relationship with his adopted father (“That makes you my competition”), after which he permanently disappears from the film. Tellingly, after H.W. leaves, the movie stays with Daniel and there’s a brief flashback to happier times in Little Boston. This is the only time that the film gives us access to Daniel’s subjective memories, and clearly the purpose of this flashback is to show us how much he’s lost by contrasting his bond with H.W. in the past with his solitude in the present. In other words, the dissolution of their relationship is only important to the story in terms of what it means to Daniel rather than H.W.

As this example indicates, the film allies our sympathies with Daniel more than the other characters.⁶ Although some viewers might see Daniel’s atheism as a negative character trait, the story thoroughly stacks the deck against religion.⁷ Early in the film, Daniel learns from H.W. that Mary’s father beats her if she doesn’t pray, and sees to it that it never happens again. Furthermore, Eli isn’t truly a man of god but a charlatan who performs faith healings. After the explosion, Eli confronts Daniel about the money he promised to the church, and he responds by slapping him around while shouting, “Aren’t you a healer and a vessel for the holy spirt? When are you coming over and make my son hear again?!” Because of Daniel’s obvious sarcasm, the effect of this scene is largely comic. (By way of contrast, there’s no such irony in the subsequent sequence, in which Eli berates his father in a somewhat similar fashion.) In the film’s final scene, the humorousness of Daniel’s caustic remarks as he chases Eli around his bowling alley (“Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you? I am the third revelation! I am who the lord has chosen!”) makes it that much more shocking when he finally bludgeons Eli to death.

Eli’s murder is made brutal and disturbing by the foley effects suggesting the impact of the bowling pin on Eli’s skull. The only other noise on the soundtrack is Daniel’s labored breathing, and by keeping the camera on him rather than Eli, the movie emphasizes the physical exertion required to literally bash some one’s brains out. However, it’s indicative of Anderson’s desire to confound viewers that this horrific act of violence is immediately followed by a joke. Daniel’s butler comes downstairs and asks if everything is alright. Cut to a long shot of Daniel sitting next to Eli’s corpse that corresponds to the butler’s optical point of view. In response to the butler’s query, Daniel cheerfully calls out, “I’m finished!” Triumphant classical music rises on the soundtrack, and the film ends. Are we supposed to be appalled by Eli’s murder or amused? Both responses seem valid. Likewise, the film doesn’t yield an unambiguous message, but can be interpreted either as an ambivalent critique of unbridled greed or as a backhanded celebration of American capitalism as a pitiless Darwinian testing ground in which only the strong survive.

1. I came across this quote in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s monograph on Greed, which was published by the British Film Institute in 1993 as part of its “Film Classics” series.

2. A 2008 article by J. Hoberman on the reception of Monsieur Verdoux can be found on the New York Times‘ website.

Some other critical films that fared poorly with reviewers and audiences include Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), and Olivier Assayas’ demonlover (2002).

On his website, Watkins writes this about his film’s reception in the United States: “Punishment Park was released in the Murray Hill Cinema in an out-of-the-way part of Manhattan, New York City, and it was already apparent that the US distributor was not going to properly handle the film… [The movie] was withdrawn from the cinema after only four days. Since then, Punishment Park has rarely been shown in the US, and never on TV. A representative of a main Hollywood studio which could have released Punishment Park was quoted as saying something to the effect that, ‘We could never show this film, we would have the Sheriff’s office […] on our necks in five minutes.’ Participants at a seminar for TV producers from 24 Public Broadcasting System (PBS) stations across the US all swore that they could never, and would never, show a film like this on American TV. And so they haven’t.”

3. This quote comes from Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center, who was speaking on Fox News. (Miss Piggy’s response can be found here.)

According to its website, the goal of the Media Research Center is to “not only prove—through sound scientific research—that liberal bias in the media does exist and undermines traditional American values, but also to neutralize its impact on the American political scene.”

Of Syriana, Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian, “What complicates the plot is writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s reluctance to criticize America too much. Instead of complexity, there is a blank, uncompelling tangle, which conceals a kind of complacent political correctness. […] However tricky the details, the mystery has already been solved. The petro-political complex is to blame, but Gaghan does not care to state it so baldly, perhaps fearful of unsophistication or anti-Americanism or just taking a clear position. […] Gaghan is careful to endorse only free-market liberalism as the acceptable side of Arab nationalism in the Middle East.”

Incidentally, one movie Gainor doesn’t mention is Avatar (2009), even though the film’s director, James Cameron, has been an outspoken critic of the oil industry (particularly, the Alberta Tarr Sands). Maybe this is because Avatar was distributed by 20th Century Fox, which is owned by the same conglomerate as Fox News.

4. From Wikipedia: “On January 5, 2011, the White House oil spill commission released a final report detailing faults by the companies that led to the spill. The panel found that BP, Haliburton, and Transocean had attempted to work more cheaply and thus helped to trigger the explosion and the ensuing leakage. The report states: ‘Whether purposeful or not, many of the decisions that BP, Haliburton, and Transocean made that increased the risk of the Macondo blowout clearly saved those companies significant time (and money)’.”

5. This line recalls Frank Norris’ description of “the foul stream of hereditary evil” in his novel McTeague (1897), which was the basis for Greed.

6. A 2011 blog entry on alignment and allegiance can be found on David Bordwell’s website. In writing this blog entry, I also drew considerably on Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s analysis of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) in the fourth edition of Film Art: An Introduction (1993).

7. I don’t know what Anderson’s own religious beliefs are, but it’s worth remembering that Magnolia portrays a Catholic police officer in a wholly sympathetic light. And while it makes no explicit reference to Catholicism, Hard Eight (1996) is essentially the story of an old sinner looking for redemption.