Friday, August 29, 2008
Recently down in Memphis I stopped in at the fabulous Arcade Restaurant, an always tantalizing spot known as the oldest still operating restaurant in the city. Many films have shot scenes there, including Jim Jarmusch's stunning Mystery Train and the equally enthralling 21 Grams. The particular booth we sat at on this visit had a pic of Rachel Weisz hanging above it, and I was reminded I had yet to sit down and watch My Blueberry Nights from acclaimed director Wong Kar-Wai that had been shot partially at the Arcade.
I rectified that a couple of nights ago with a viewing of the American DVD of the much maligned film that was indeed shot in Memphis, as well as New York and out West. I mention that it was the American DVD because I am aware that the film went under some heavy cutting from the version that first premiered at Cannes. Whether the additional footage would help or hurt the film I can’t say, and the DVD unfortunately doesn’t offer any of the missing footage as a supplement.
My time with My Blueberry Nights was odd to say the least. First of all the film is really stunning looking…I would actually go so far as to say that it is among the most visually striking productions of the decade. It is also clearly a Wong Kar-Wai movie, as his shooting and editing style is so identifiable, even to someone like me who has unfortunately only seen a couple of films.
As I said my time with the film was strange though, as I can’t remember a production in recent memory that beguiled me so much while watching it but then slipped away from me so quickly. The film is very much like a particularly good piece of Blueberry Pie, but unfortunately a good piece of pie needs some sort of compliment and My Blueberry Nights finally doesn’t offer one. There is something positively vacant about this stunning looking film from one of the key auteurs in modern cinema.
Many people have pointed to star Norah Jones as the heart of the film’s problem, due to her inexperience as an actor. I actually didn’t have any problems with Jones, who I found perfectly suitable as the film’s mysterious and deliberately undefined main character. Does her inexperience come across? Absolutely, but it’s easy to see why Wai built his film around her…or more specifically her face, which is one of the most charismatic and memorable of the decade.
Nor did I have any problem with the rest of the film's impressive cast, which includes a slew of Oscar winners and nominees including Rachel Weisz and David Stathairn in the Memphis section, Natalie Portman in the Western part and a scraggly looking Jude Law in the New York scenes. I found Weisz and Stathairn particularly good in the film, and one particular moment between Rachel and Norah outside of the Arcade restaurant at night being quite devastating.
The real problem with the film lies in its script by Wai (his first English language attempt) and novelist Lawrence Block. The script never rises above feeling like a trio of short stories cobbled together in an attempt to make a whole and the film can’t really recover from it, no matter how delightful looking it is. I was actually reminded as I was watching it of any number of flawed Wim Wenders productions from the past decade in just how simultaneously rewarding and frustrating it is….and of course the fact that this is very much a Wenders type road movie.
A couple of days after seeing My Blueberry Nights I must admit that my initial feelings of grudging admiration have diminished. There is something finally just unsatisfying about it…pity as it is such a gorgeous work made my an obvious master.
Despite my misgivings about the film, I don’t think it’s the disaster so many critics made it out to be. It has moments of undeniable power and I will revisit it again in the future. There is one sequence in particular involving Law and a surprisingly solid and sublime Chan Marshall (from Cat Power) that almost made me forgive the film all of its failings. It’s a raw moment that exposes the hurt of failed relationships and lost dreams in a truly powerful way. I wish the rest of the film could have possessed the kind of emotion Wai found with with Law and Marshall in this moment…as it is though My Blueberry Nights is just a bit too slight. For another recent look at the film, check out J.D.'s fair and well written look at Radiator Heaven, where he has some different problems than with the film than I did, but he felt the strong Wenders vibe as well.