Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Houzhe (To Live) 1994

What makes a masterpiece? What moves us in a work to elicit almost a religious fervor in our very souls? Watching Zhang Yimou’s Houzhe (To Live) it never ceases to amaze me how much more I discover within the work. The film is neither wholly dramatic, comic, propaganda, nor documentary; it inhabits all these worlds and yet judging Houzhe (To Live) by old standards can’t get to the heart of why the work is so special. During my first viewing of the film, many years ago, I was drawn to the epic nature of the film. Yet after repeated viewings one comes to realize that although the movie covers the span of several decades it is a familiar story about simple down to earth people trying to live simple quiet lives. Important historical events pass by on the screen, but Zhang contextualizes them. He avoids expressing static truths of what the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution was about by populating Houzhe (To Live) with real characters not just mouthpieces to spout well-worn ideologies or simplistic hero/villain roles that reduces events into cliché plot contrivances.

The film tracks the lives of Xu Fugui (Ge You) and his wife Jiazhen (Gong Li) at the start of the 1940’s, just as the rumblings of Communism were about to spill over into Civil War, all the way through the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution. At the start of the film Xu Fugui is the son of a rich landowner, but his appetite for gambling soon leaves him homeless and without his wife and children. Left alone he must make a living selling wares like a common street vendor and this existence quickly humbles him. Jiazhen soon returns to him, mainly out of love but also pity for what has become of her once arrogant husband, and he makes a simple promise to her; never to gamble again and to offer her the simple quiet life she wants. With his family back to him though Fugui must now find a way to support all of them and he comes begging to Long’er, the man who won all of Fugui’s money and mansion, for a loan. Long’er, smug and relishing the power he holds over a man like Fugui, denies him the money he wants and instead loans him the puppets from the shadow puppet troupe he ran before becoming a wealthy landowner. Assembling his own troupe Fugui travels the countryside playing for whatever audience he can attract, but through sheer bad luck is captured and conscripted into the Kuomintang army. Throughout the film Fugui and Jiazhen are allowed brief moments of genuine happiness, but this happiness is always tempered with the sad facts of life. Those we love inevitably die, friends betray us, and the world is indifferent to the sorrows of common folk.

It is a well-worn fact that Houzhe (To Live) was banned in China during its initial release and the director, Zhang Yimou, was himself banned from filmmaking for 2 years. The film’s critical eye towards the policies of the Communist regime doesn’t make the film a typical run of the mill Anti-Communist propaganda. Communism is at the heart of the narrative structure. One can’t watch a single frame of the film without noticing Mao’s face, Communist Party propaganda and imagery, and even the color red is present in every shot of Houzhe (To Live). Yet instead of taking a hindsight approach to his characters; e.g. looking down upon them for being clueless as to the end results of their allegiance to the Communists, Zhang focuses on his characters; their lives, motivations; in short he allows us a peek into their souls. Fugui and Jiazhen initially follow the Communists not so much because of a diehard belief in their rhetoric and policies, but because they promised them a better life. Those caught up in the winds of important historical events are never aware of the great changes that will follow. No one thinks in such a grand scale; the common man is concerned with the simple necessities in life that will allow him to continue living on for another day. Zhang paints Communism’s attraction not as some holy crusade to wash away the dirt of Capitalism, but as a stepping-stone in China’s history towards better more promising times. Whether it be a Communist regime or Capitalist rule Fugui and Jiazhen will be faced with the same hardships. No ideology can offer anyone blanket security.

Gong Li, Zhang’s muse, embodies the pragmatism that many Chinese had once the Communists took power. Her character, Jiazhen, understands better even than her husband that blind allegiance to any party is a sign of hubris. Time and again she sees clearly while all the other people around her, mostly men, are too blind to see; ideology is spoiled through human practice. The price for China’s progress costs her the life of her only son and daughter. She weeps for them, but it is only after the fact that her husband finally loses his enthusiasm for all the empty promises Communism was supposed to bring. In the film we watch Gong’s face go from sweet and lovely to maturing into a grey-haired matronly grandmother; she has lost none of her beauty but wisdom from experience has taught her to not expect much from this life.

Ge You, who rightfully won the Best Actor prize for the 1994 Cannes Film festival, is not merely a cipher for the plot. Although he is supposed to embody the everyman who is living and witnessing the great upheavals in China’s past, the scenes he’s in have a freshness, a of-the-moment quality, and his understated performance lends the film a documentary feeling. Fugui’s humbling and reformation from a gambling louse to devoted family man is believable not because of melodramatic plot machinations but because Ge plays Fugui as a man who is a victim of mob mentality. His wife begs him to keep his promise to not gamble but instead of listening to her he continues playing, not wanting to lose face to the other players in the gambling den. He humiliates his young son, Youqing, at the community canteen and is directly responsible for his later death because he is afraid the town will ostracize and label them as reactionaries and enemies of the state. And finally his daughter, Fengxia, is a victim of Fugui’s passivity; she is fated to die because no one is willing to question the Red Guards extremist policies. As Fengxia bleeds to death, the color red that up to that point in the film represented Communism’s Great Leap Forward into the 21st century now comes to be a metaphor for what China’s lost as it pushes its people into the future.

With all this said though Houzhe (To Live) is not a completely dour dramatic exercise. Zhang peppers the film with subtle comic moments, like when the village chief recounts how his family home had been set ablaze and burned for several days because Fugui’s house was constructed from first-rate timber. Or when Long’er, Fugui’s opponent from his gambling days, is sentenced to death. We are not privy to the actual execution but are instead given a scene of Fugui scrambling around the back alleys looking for a place to pee; the sound of gun shots from the firing squad are juxtaposed with an image of Fugui, his back turned to us, literally pissing himself, as if the bullets were really piercing him. What could have been a moment of divine justice is played for laughs; the great irony being that if not for Fugui’s bad luck it would have been him facing the firing squad and not Long’er.

Besides the prevalence of Mao imagery and Communist paraphernalia the other visual motif used throughout the film are the shadow puppets. They represent different things at various times in the film but overall I believe that ultimately they represent vitality and hope. The shadow puppets allow Fugui a way to make a living and support his family. The puppet troupe plays to the steel workers and the town makes their quota for the month. There is a genuine look of satisfaction and enjoyment in Fugui’s face as he performs for people. Although the Communist party may look at the puppets as representative of the old guard, what they really mean to the townsfolk and Fugui’s family specifically is that they are vestigial reminders of a once happier time.

Houzhe (To Live) in my humble opinion is a masterpiece because although the film does offer audiences a positive message, to continue living and not let the many tragedies in your life cripple you, it does this honestly through its characters. Zhang Yimou never forgets that history is not something that is already dead and can be studied like a corpse; the past is alive and if we are to learn from it we must turn to the people who went through it and not just to textbooks which relay mostly just static truths and broad general perspectives. Ultimately what makes me return to Houzhe (To Live) is that it paints life as not something wholly wonderful or wholly tragic it merely just is; to survive we must take the bitter with the sweet.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Social Network (2010)

It’s not easy coming up with the next big thing. To have one’s pulse on what will capture everyone’s attention is a Sisyphean task and most of the time those responsible for unleashing those generation defining moments or icons can never truly predict what they will unleash onto the world once they lift open the lid to Pandora’s box. David Fincher’s The Social Network isn’t just a film about how Facebook began, but really the fallout after its birth, not just for the people involved in its creation but also for those who depend on it to connect and define their lives.
Fincher’s film is not your average paint-by-numbers biopic though, it borrows liberally from the crime genre, utilizes the tropes of the courtroom drama, feels like a period picture, and, at times, plays like a comedy. Facebook maybe the subject of the story but the film plays more like a Greek tragedy, a retelling of the story of King Midas in a contemporary setting. As I watched this film unfold I couldn’t help making parallels with another tragic rise-and-fall narrative, Citizen Kane. Now I don’t mean to state that both films are on equal footing with one another; only time and cinematic history can pass final judgment on The Social Network, but both films are based on real people and real events. Citizen Kane being a thinly veiled examination of the life of William Randolph Hearst and The Social Network being a dissection into the psyche of Facebook’s brainchild, Mark Zuckerberg. Both Charles Foster Kane and Mark Zuckerberg are men who’ve made a name for themselves in the media industry, both suffer from massive egos, and both have an almost pathological disregard for the feelings of anyone who gets in the way of their progress. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Fincher structures the story not as one mega-narrative but as a series of mini-stories told from multiple conflicting perspectives. In Citizen Kane, Welles uses the narrative device of the inquisitive news reporter, played by William Alland, to frame all the discordant stories together, whereas Fincher frames his film as a series of depositions from a variety of characters during 2 concurrent lawsuits being filed against the main protagonist.
And Fincher even grants Zuckerberg his own Rosebud in the form of a woman, Erica Albright, who we first meet in the opening scene as she emotionally eviscerates Zuckerberg for his arrogance and complete lack of tact. Like the sled in Citizen Kane we don’t really get to know much about Erica Albright; in fact the total amount of screentime she has probably doesn’t amount to more than 10 minutes; but her presence in the film can be felt in every scene. The humiliation Mark feels after Erica dumps him at the start of the film sends him on a drunken stupor that propels him to develop “Face Mash”, a progenitor to Facebook. Her second appearance occurs right after Mark’s sexual encounter with a “groupie”. While waiting for his date to finish freshening up in the bathroom he spots Erica at a table with some friends. Mark approaches in an attempt to try to talk to her, she rebuffs him for obvious reasons, but instead of offering some sort of apology for what he’s done he asks her if she’s heard about Facebook. Erica could care less about his creation and Mark leaves dejected and determined to expand Facebook till he gets the acknowledgement that he so longs for from her. Erica’s acknowledgement plays such a large role in motivating Mark to expand into more and more territory that we feel a pang of sadness for him in the very last scene of the film, alone, waiting for Erica to respond to his friend request; hitting refresh every few seconds to mark the passage of time.
Zuckerberg’s non-relationship with Erica and his desire to be connected to her in some way is exactly why Facebook caught on so quickly with Generation Y. We all crave attention, love, and acknowledgement. Facebook offers all that join a quick fix to that gnawing sense of loneliness. It is a community to belong to, and it allows us to quantify a person’s worth through the number of friends they have, experiences they document, likes and interests, and in short it reduces the individual to a few static truths. We are allowed a window into someone else’s life without having to get involved in the messy details of a real friendship. The philosophical riddle is no longer “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Now it has evolved into: “Are the experiences we don’t tweet, blog about, or put on our Facebook Wall any less important just because we don’t share them with an audience?”
Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg echoes other borderline misanthropic geniuses found in TV shows like House and The Big Bang Theory, in fact just like those TV characters Zuckerberg also exhibits signs of Asperger’s syndrome. The main difference though is that whereas those characters rely primarily on simple motor tics to convey comedy or pathos Eisenberg’s performance is so nuanced that one can’t always tell what the character is thinking or feeling. This is not necessarily a bad thing. By allowing the viewer to transplant his or her own impressions of what could be going on in Zuckerberg’s brain the audience is forced to pay attention to all the other more emotionally expressive characters around him. In a way Zuckerberg is literally Facebook personified; we know only as much as what other people tell us about him, but we never get to know his true self. The only time we see a real crack in Zuckerberg’s façade is towards the end when he finally realizes that he’s irreparably damaged the one real friendship he does have in the non-virtual world. His friendship with Eduardo Saverin was fated to end badly as soon as they became business partners and I don’t think it’s such a leap to state that the relationship between Zuckerberg and Saverin was like a romance that soured after the introduction of success and power.
As brilliant as Jesse Eisenberg’s performance is a majority of the credit must be given to David Fincher’s direction; he builds on the films he’s directed previously and gives us a cinematic masterpiece that straddles a panoply of genres. The first half of the film seems almost like a crime picture, and one is reminded of an earlier Fincher film, Zodiac, in the meticulous and unobtrusive way that Fincher presents all the evidence in the case. Zuckerberg and his team of code programmers are elevated to the level of master criminals; thumbing there noses at the Elite of Harvard. In fact, Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires, paints Zuckerberg and co. as a much more benign version of “Project Mayhem”, the anti- corporate terrorist group in Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club. Just like “Project Mayhem” Zuckerberg and his friends are out to topple the established social class system, but whereas “Project Mayhem” planned to accomplish this by destroying the facilities that housed everyone’s records; offering everyone a clean slate from which to build an entire new life from. Facebook attempts to accomplish the same thing by giving the user the ability to edit and control one’s own persona; in short “Project Mayhem” believed the destruction of information led to empowerment whereas in The Social Network it is all about having control of the information/image that you convey to the outside/virtual world that matters. The invention of Facebook was so revolutionary because it gave, practically overnight, every wallflower and milquetoast a platform to stand tall on; for once the cool kids didn’t hold all the power.
The second half of the film begins with the introduction of Sean Parker, played by Justin Timberlake. Parker stands as the complete antithesis of Zuckerberg. Parker revels in the bad-boy reputation that he’s cultivated and becomes Zuckerberg’s de-facto mentor; a Gordon Gekko to Zuckerberg’s Bud Fox. And it’s important to note that although Parker’s paranoia may seem like the ranting's of a mad man they are not completely unfounded. Although we are never a hundred percent sure if anyone is really out to get him, it is no stretch of the imagination for the audience to believe that Parker could be a target for surveillance or subterfuge with the way he so easily makes enemies. In fact, his fears are rather quite prescient. With the advent of Facebook came a flood of other sites and applications that make accounting for a person’s every movement as easy as clicking on a mouse pad.
The Social Network is ultimately a film about how mechanical communication has become. Generation Y has been categorized as a generation of spoiled, apathetic, and self-important kids who are still grasping for some meaning and cause to galvanize us as a group. Yet David Fincher’s film accurately shows that the collective does not exist anymore. Just as previous generations before us could not be judged by the standards of the older generation; Generation Y cannot be measured against the flaws and accomplishments of our parent’s generation. Facebook may have trivialized the concept of friendship but whose to say that the connections we make there aren’t any more valid then the ones we make through random encounters on the street or in a café. It is quite ironic that the last shot of the film is of Mark Zuckerberg, the man responsible for creating the most successful social networking site, alone and without a real friend to call his own preoccupied with getting a single friend confirmation. That is the great tragedy in the story; Facebook was supposed to help us feel loved and welcomed into a special group, but instead it created an even bigger gaping hole in our lives. Creating real friendships takes time and a lot of hard work but they can be demolished in an instant through neglect and petty jealousies. The Social Network is a parable for anyone who has ever spent a restless night online waiting and hoping to make some sort of contact, no matter how transitory, with somebody that we care about.