Still Life

Not rated yet!
Director
Jia Zhangke
Runtime
1 h 48 min
Release Date
5 September 2006
Genres
Drama
Overview
A town in Fengjie county is gradually being demolished and flooded to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. A man and woman visit the town to locate their estranged spouses, and become witness to the societal changes.
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VJ Morton3
Right Wing Film Geek



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  • Toronto – capsules – Day 6

    Toronto – capsules – Day 6

    THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY [Wedding Daze] (Michael Ian Black, USA, 2)

    Crass Stupidity, Part I. I understand that the guidebook for a film festival needs to make every film sound appetizing, so I know better than to blame the Toronto Festival’s writers if a movie turns out to be bad. But there still is an implicit moral contract of a certain amount of truth-in-advertising. I knew this was a commercial comedy going in. I was not prepared for how utterly crass and juvenile THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY was — pace these explicit words of Noah Cowan: “Black’s timing and rhythm is unerringly precise. He takes a sophisticated, adult approach to situations that might otherwise yield cheap laughs.” THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a yarmulke-wearing character who designs such toys as “Jew-nicorns” (get it) and “Jew-la hoops” in the shape of the Star of David (get it … “Jew-la” … rhymes with “hula”). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a father talks to his newly-engaged son about marriage and what he needs to know about the facts of life. But now Dad can pass down to Son his favorite cock ring, for when he needs extra endurance (it did not help that the son is played by Jason Biggs, who starred in a great but identical-in-premise scene in AMERICAN PIE opposite “father” Eugene Levy). THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY has a scene in which a newly-engaged couple on a bus put their ears up against a woman’s bulging belly. This is the exchange close as I can recall: “I feel it kicking … I can hear a heartbeat … When is the baby due? … I’m not pregnant.” Yes, that’s the sophisticated, adult approach that doesn’t go far cheap laughs. Now, my complaint is not that I did not laugh and I found THE PLEASURE OF YOUR COMPANY unbearably crass and nihilistic (though I did … and I could rant all day about this film’s worldview and understanding of love). What I find funny is not Cowan’s or TIFF’s responsibility. Nor is it my point that I never enjoy cheap laughs and/or the turning off of adult sophistication — I still rather like PORKY’S, 25 years later. But there is noway, nohow, no two opinions on whether PLEASURE’s approach to humor is “cheap” or “sophisticated,” and thus the festival’s description is a lie. Noway otherwise. Nohow.

    COEURS [Private Fears in Public Places] (Alain Resnais, France, 9)

    This film may be profitting by the dogs surrounding it, but I rather doubt it. Even the people who don’t embrace COEURS as full-on-great like I do — like “Lee Walker,” Michael Sicinski (pan down to the 14th) and Theo acknowledge that Resnais’ direction and Eric Gauthier’s cinematography are nothing short of flawless and there is much to like in this movie, even if they don’t think it quite comes together, as I do. It’s a very English film, with a strong resemblance to BRIEF ENCOUNTER — covering a lot of the same emotional ground, within the same reserved emotional register and a similar “life goes on as we endure unhappily” ending. Stylewise, COEURS is simply an unimpeachable treat — loading up on the unnaturally dazzling and color-saturated images, but with light schemes like the fluorescent light tubes at bars, the glass-with-Macs look at an office, etc., which give that dazzling look a reality.

    As for content, I’m not ready to make the “Alain Resnais has found religion” speech (though I have some notes for a rough draft), but there’s no doubt that mortality casts its shadow over everything in this film by this 84-year-old Master. COUERS is filled with snow … all the fades between scenes are of fades to falling snow rather than the usual black (with IS used to great contrasting effect to mark the divisions among acts). It’s an image of winter, a memento mori, and an annual reminder that everything in this world ends, and not always on the terms we’d like. There is a scene between Charlotte and Lionel (brilliantly played by Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi) in which the two discuss religion and Hell, which suddenly blinks from a familiar interior set to a snow-bound one. Charlotte is a rare figure in contemporary movies — a conventionally religious woman, a Catholic, who is never made a mockery of or the object of satire therein. She has a past, which is used to some comic effect, but … trying to vague … her sin doesn’t work as planned and it’s clearly shown as a one-off. But in this gentle snowbound exchange on the existence of Hell, she plainly has the upper hand as COEURS presents it. It’s a lovely scene but the one where I welled up the most was one in which Lionel described to Charlotte why he’s taking care of this comic tyrant of an old father. It’s unostentatious, dutiful and quietly moving in a way that middle-class middlebrow tragedy. Charlotte says at another point that “God blesses us with trials,” and neither COUERS nor the Toronto audience took it as a laugh line.

    I obviously did not find NOT ON THE LIPS to be off-puttingly stylized to the point of aggravation or alienation. But some did, and you can rest easy on that front (you might not like COEURS obviously, but *that* should not be a problem). There’s no mugging, no fourth-wall breaking, no rhyming couplets or songs, though there’s some very stylized lighting and Resnais keeps the seven principal characters within about a half-dozen settings, and within what-I-take-to-be Alan Ayckbourne’s structure. And I see I’ve written a lot about this film without mentioning the brilliant performance by Lambert Wilson, who goes from depressed to jaunty without changing a thing or overdoing it; the way the film does a Hong Song-soo by recapitulating romantic relationships (admittedly among an ensemble) from one act to the next; or the way the three videotapes Charlotte loans to Thierry (Andre Dussolier — another brilliant performance) change both in meaning and in content, for her, for him and his girlfriend. There’s just that much to love.

    OUTSOURCED (John Jeffcoat, USA, 2)

    Crass Stupidity, Part II. Despite its title, this movie just uses the phenomenon of shipping service jobs abroad as an excuse to get The Innocent Abroad for a culture-clash romantic comedy, of a very rote pedigree. But Jeffcoat is not Mark Twain, though. We get the driver assuring the American arriving in India, to train his call-service office’s replacements, that “our town is very clean.” Cut to man peeing against the wall. Ho ho ho. The hero’s name is “Todd,” but the Indians call him “Mr. Toad” (there’s a lot more in this vein. Apu on THE SIMPSONS speaks better English than most of these Indians, thankyouvirrymuch). We get jokes about having to rent the Kama Sutra Suite at the hotel, misunderstandings over what hand to use to eat versus to wipe your ass (I saw another movie with that same joke earlier today), and attempts to explain the differences between rubbers, erasers and condoms. Yuk yuk yuk. And it wouldn’t be a movie about India without a failed attempt to get beef or The Innocent Abroad wondering why there is a cow wandering about someplace incongruous. If any of this description sounds funny to you, by all means rush out and see OUTSOURCED. There is one scene that works, in which the romantic leads, Josh Hamilton (not a bad match for Ron Livingston in OFFICE SPACE) and Ayesha Dharker (best remembered by me for the great Tamil film THE TERRORIST) are on a ferry trip. They recite each’s stereotypes of the other in the other’s accents. Dharker’s American English is near-perfect and Hamilton’s Indian English is at least broad enough and self-aware to be funny. They’re an attractive couple, and the scene works because it crackles with wit and spontaneity rather than 100 bad standup routines.

    STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 3)

    I capped off a wildly uneven day with this film, which was hastily-added for two days after its surprising win at Venice, where it took the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion. STILL LIFE has a scene where a rotating fan starts to move from right to left, but the fan blades don’t start to turn for a couple of seconds. Those couple of seconds sum up this snoozefest — lots of panning, but feeling nothing because the engine is dead. Some friends were convinced there were some video/color-correction issues. But obviously the film had arresting images of the effects of China’s plan to dam up the Yangtze River, flooding large areas in the resulting artificial lakes. Thus requiring a lot of demolition workers, the milieu through which the principal “character” moves in a quest to find his lost family from long ago (METAPHOR ALERT!!!!). And I enjoyed some of the images of buildings being demolished, and Jia’s framing of one demolition through the ripped hole in another building’s wall. Plus the sheer wtf-ness of a building suddenly blasting off into space. In other words, Jia has made a movie that would be really interesting if it weren’t boring as ass. To quote Mike D’Angelo apropos another film: “there are no human beings in [this] movie” (actually, there is one: the young man who tries to act like Chow Yun-fat. He disappears from the movie in its only moment of emotional heft). Everyone else mopes through this movie like a brain-damaged zombie on Ritalin. Double-dose. It’s as if Jia thinks that landscapes can create character. They cannot. And after a while, his attempts to substitute landscapes for things like incisive dialogue and psychology — both absent from these depressive undead/lumps of dead air — gets irritating. Impressive though it was, the dialogue when the central couple finally meet and discuss a divorce is so thumpingly banal that the (admittedly interesting in concept) way that the background changes as the camera tracks/pans around them didn’t impress me. It just aggravated me. At least, it was better than the top-prize winner at Cannes. But not as good as Berlin (TC).

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    September 15, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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  • Toronto – Days 6 and 7 – grades
    (”Still Life” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    Toronto – Days 6 and 7 – grades

    The Pleasure of Your Company (Michael Ian Black, USA, 2)
    Coeurs (Alain Resnais, France, 9)
    Outsourced (John Jeffcoat, USA, 2)
    Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 3)

    The Dixie Chicks – Shut Up and Sing (Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, USA, 6)¹
    Mon Meilleur Ami (Patrice Leconte, France, 8)
    Little Children (Todd Field, USA, 6)
    Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul aka “Joe,” Thailand, 7)
    Grbavica (Jasmila Zbanic, Bosnia, 5)

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    September 13, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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  • 2-on-1 tag team
    (”Still Life” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    2-on-1 tag team

    I’ve been tagged by two different friends — Dale Price and Steve Skojec — for the same meme  — the “Top-Five Critically-Lauded Movies I Simply Detest.”

    Since I generally only see movies that have at least some critical acclaim, I could probably do this for any given year. For example, in 2006, none of the films that won the world’s three top juried festivals were IMHO worth recommending — GRBAVICA (Berlin, 5), THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Cannes, 2) and STILL LIFE (Venice, 3).

    Since Dale and Steve are both papistbuds who have named some truly detestable films, and often on grounds I’d choose (see Dale on CHOCOLAT and DEAD POETS SOCIETY), I’m gonna restrict myself to “Religious or Moral/Spiritual Films” that are widely liked in St. Blogs; several are on the Arts and Faith listing of 100 Spiritually Significant Films. Some of these films would not be considered critically praised in some of the FilmSnob circles I hang around, but well …

    (1) A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (Fred Zinneman, USA, 1966) — This is the sort of film that causes many religious people to confuse the subject matter with the movie. Thomas More is a saint; this movie is a sin. It’s all respectable and britcostumey and sincere and stiffupperlippy, a lengthy episode of Masterpiece Theatuh (I can’t decide whether Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey is brilliant or just a kitchen sink gesture, SOUTLAND TALES avant la lettre). Robert Bolt never found a way to make this play into a film. And while I have a high tolerance for lengthy intellectual debates, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS just bogs down in them because that’s all there is once the basic situation is set up — there isn’t any real drama until the trial, just a lot of talk, staking out positions. And when we get to the trial, Paul Scofield’s performance is far too voicy and Zinneman’s direction far too stagy.

    (2) PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson, France, 1959) — Just about any Bresson, the cinematic Jansenist, would do here (COUNTRY PRIEST, JOAN OF ARC, BALTHAZAR, L’ARGENT) — the same somnambulent, inexpressive and unpsychological style that the uncharitable heathen (that would be me) insists on seeing as just plain empty tedium — events without drama, behavior without character. The acting would disgrace a middle-school play, even one about zombies, which is how Bresson deliberately gets his “models” to “perform.” For example, the police catch our so-called Dostoyevskian hero in a crime (imagine Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov as an obscurely interior mumbler for a sense of how bad this is), but then immediately drop the charges **in the next scene.** He escapes a police crackdown at another point by going abroad and making a fortune and losing it all on gambling and women — we learn all that in a voiceover introducing the very next shot after he leaves Paris, which is of him returning to Paris. He doesn’t act (sic) any differently or make any reference to his foreign sojourn — so wtf is the point of our learning of it?

    (3) LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (Peter Jackson, USA/New Zealand, 2001-3) — Neither Tolkien nor swords-and-sorcery fantasy are things I’ve ever been able to get into — never had either a Dungeons and Dragons or a comic-fanboy phase as a boy. Yeah … I’ve been a stuffed shirt for 35 years, all right. I’ve tried to read the Middle Earth novels, but not gotten past 40 or 50 pages because Tolkien is too in love with coining names and inventing creatures and laboriously laying out a whole universe, as if the real one isn’t good enough, so the artist-god has to create ex nihilo, that my mind’s and eye’s reaction — film and book — was just to let it pass through me like prune juice. The first film was eye-popping, but spectacle doesn’t last in my mind, and the symbology felt childishly obvious, and without a “reality” to anchor it, it could only function as symbology. The second was just “ehhh.” I couldn’t even drag myself to see the third.

    (4) WINTER LIGHT (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1963) — Homer nods — maybe if I could believe a depressive collapse into suicide because China has the bomb, I could halfway credit this overschematicized whinge (though typically brilliantly made and acted). The faithlessness of Gunnar Bjornstrand’s pastor isn’t convincingly dramatized — if it’s ever shown how he got that way, I’ve forgotten it (plus GB usually played a skeptic in Bergman’s movies and so his ever being a priest didn’t convince me). With some notable bravura exceptions — Ingrid Thulin’s teacher reading her note to the camera being the most obvious example — the film feels cinematically static as though this material would work better as a play or novella.

    (5) SONG OF BERNADETTE (Henry King, USA, 1943) — Typifies everything wrong with Hollywood studio-era religious movies, offensive in its calculated inoffensiveness — full of what Flannery O’Connor called “the pious voice” and what St. Josemaria Escriva derided as plaster saints. Also see above re A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and subject matter — as long as neither holiness nor sainthood is imputed through a camera lens, subject-matter per se will never impress me. Seeing this movie is not a pilgrimage to Lourdes and the notion that it is, or relatedly, that a work of art can be judged on the basis of its subject matter is one I frankly find morally offensive. Add to that the typical dramatic shapelessness of the biopic, which gets deadly at 160 minutes, and a 25-year-old woman playing a 14-year-old girl (though that is actually kinda funny)

    I tag James Frazier, Adam Villani, Donna Bowman, Barbara Nicolosi, and Peter Chattaway.

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    My Dinner with StanleyIn "Memes"

    Lamest. Oscar. Noms. Ever.In "Oscars"

    Ha-haIn "Michael Haneke"

    April 1, 2008 - Posted by | Memes

    7 Comments »

    1. Thanks for trashing a couple of my favorite movies. I’m hoping that’s just an April Fool’s joke on your part. Probably not.

      😉

      You might enjoy the post on IFC at my blog today.

      Comment by Jay Anderson | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    2. Oh, and thanks for trashing my favorite author, to boot.

      Comment by Jay Anderson | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    3. I like this topic, but I think it’s tiresome how often it degenerates into an anti-Hollywood Left bitch fest (see the liberty thread). A movie’s not bad just because you don’t like its message.

      Even though I wasn’t tagged, I will impertinently offer my choices here nontheless:

      1) Natural Born Killers — an evil movie that glorifies serial killers (after all, at least they’re not repressed like middle Americans), except when they kill an American Indian man– that’s just over the line!!

      2) American Beauty– repression is bad, homosexuality is good, religious/military men are closet Nazi homosexuals, teenage fornication is good, blah blah blah etc etc etc.

      3) Titanic- it took me nearly a decade to forgive Kate Winslet after seeing her in this. The biggest movie of all time? Peopla are indeed stupid. Don’t blame the elitist leftist critics for everything.

      4) Funny Games– evil, sadistic and pretentious.

      5) Dances With Wolves– PC to the max and boring to boot.

      Comment by Andy Nowicki | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    4. Jay:

      It’s not an April Fool’s joke at all, but I didn’t realize you were such a fan of WINTER LIGHT and PICKPOCKET.

      And actually I’ve never had IFC … all the cable systems I’ve ever been on have gone with the Sundance Network.

      Andy:

      Yes, that thread at Liberty Film Fest was depressing, which is part of why I deliberately restricted myself to a different type of films, without a single reference to PC liberal Hollywoof.

      And BEAUTY is not just “teenage fornication is good,” it’s “dirty old man slobbering over daughter’s teen friends is good.” BTW … isn’t it interesting [sic] how Hollywoof always sees homosexuality as good except when conservatives do it?

      And what prompted you to forgive Kate? LITTLE CHILDREN? (which was a good movie, and she was brilliant in it, but I kinda doubt it)

      Comment by vjmorton | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    5. “Hollywoof?” Is this an inside joke or a typo?

      Yes, quite right: homosexuality is bad when conservatives do it– hence no gay rights group leapt to the defense of Larry Craig (R) after his public restroom shenanigans.

      I think it was ENIGMA that enabled me to like Miss Winslet again. So, not quite a decade later, but close. I thought she was good in LITTLE CHILDREN (with a flawless American accent), but found the movie quite dull.

      Comment by Andy Nowicki | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    6. The faithlessness of Gunnar Bjornstrand’s pastor isn’t convincingly dramatized — if it’s ever shown how he got that way, I’ve forgotten it

      I’ve seen the film recently and I felt the same way at first — that the moment of rupture is not sufficiently explained, though Bergman makes the moment very clear (it’s at the point when the sun shines through the window, and the pastor throws himself on the floor in front of the altar, and the teacher holds him, kisses and caresses him, softening the existential impact of losing the faith). However, I’ve changed my mind. The point is that the pastor’s faith has never had anything to do with reality — he believed in an idol that only ruled over an imagined world. Recall his story of living at the margins of the Spanish Civil War, and not doing anything to help; also his disgust at the teacher’s bleeding hands, how ineffectual and weak his faith was before the cold face of reality. That is the point that Bergman is making, and it’s a point that is subtle enough that most people have not noticed it, and today we are stuck with sociological analyses of the causes and effects of contemporary European secularization, when Bergman was already warning us about it 50 years ago. If the faith doesn’t help me live in the real world, then we may as well shirk it off.

      You’re right that *dramatically*, there is no one event that causes the pastor to lose his faith. But there are reasons for it, reasons that are in the past and that are related in two monologues (the pastor’s reminiscing about Portugal, the teacher’s letter). There is also the suicide, which is a dramatic event that is caused by the faithlessness. But the mundane, anticlimactic way that the pastor experiences the loss of faith, the dread with which he goes through the loss, and the lack of any feeling of “liberation” which supposedly accompanies the atheist, are all keen insights on the part of Bergman. Insights that I wish Christopher Hitchens would absorb, but I have a feeling that he wouldn’t be able to appreciate this movie.

      The China thing was *supposed* to be somewhat silly — without faith, we have no moorings, we are pathetic, we can’t deal with our fears, petty or real.

      Comment by Santiago | April 2, 2008 | Reply

    7. […] Morton calls it one of the “critically-lauded” religious films he hates. I don’t entirely […]

      Pingback by It’s a Horrible Life? | The American Conservative | August 16, 2012 | Reply


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