(ed. note: This post was accidentally published at 1AM, instead of 1PM, so we're re-publishing it at the correct time.)
I've been thinking about the largely negative response to Wong Kar-wai's My Blueberry Nights (6 screens), a film I quite liked. As of today it's at 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, though it opens wider this weekend (including here in the Bay Area) and more reviews are surely coming in. Most critics I've spoken with around here likewise didn't think much of it. What are the reasons for all this disappointment? The main reason has to do with its weight. It's a lightweight movie, a trifle, flimsy, vapid, thin, etc. Wong is considered one of the world's greatest filmmakers, a maker of "weighty" works of art, and so this "lighter" film is beneath him. It's a letdown, a step backward.
Well, I say that's nonsense. Many great filmmakers dallied in lightweight, lesser trifles during their careers, and it didn't make them any less great. Martin Scorsese has made lots of them. After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986) may not pack the punch of Raging Bull, but they are quite enjoyable, and pure Scorsese. (His current Shine a Light, 277 screens, feels like a trifle.) Fritz Lang came to the United States from a position of great power and unlimited resources in Germany and found himself assigned cheap crime pictures. Yet few critics today would complain about the "lightness" of The Big Heat or Scarlet Street. Max Ophuls also made crime films in Hollywood (Caught and The Reckless Moment), and his reputation remains intact. Some consider John Ford the greatest American director of all time, and even though his goofball Donovan's Reef (1963) isn't counted among his classics, I love it just as much. It has moments of great beauty that reflect its maker's personality. My Blueberry Nights may not stand up to In the Mood for Love, but it's unquestionably a Wong Kar-wai film.
What constitutes lightness, then? For one thing, I would guess that it has something to do with the lack of subtitles. Many world filmmakers lost their power to impress when they came to Hollywood and began working in English. Lang and Ophuls are two examples, and we can also throw in John Woo, Rene Clair, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jean Renoir or Wim Wenders. Many foreign filmmakers tried one film in English, failed, and went back: Alain Resnais (I Want to Go Home), Luis Bunuel (The Young One), Chen Kaige (Killing Me Softly), Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451) and even Michael Haneke, whose English-language dud Funny Games is still showing on 19 screens. Especially in Wong's case, subtitles can add a layer of mystique to his lost, lonely characters. Moreover, a director working in a second language can lead to odd choices, such as hiring the hard-boiled crime writer Lawrence Block to add punchy dialogue to a picture about lost, lonely souls. (It still worked for me, anyway.)
Reading subtitles can also sometimes cover up for a bad performance. But English-speaking critics have quickly singled out the lack of talent and presence in the English-speaking star Norah Jones, and on that point I can't argue much. She's pretty, and perfectly adequate, but she doesn't stir the heartstrings, nor does she find an inner soul for her character. (She's as bland an actress as she is a singer.) Casting pop stars in major movie roles is standard practice in Hong Kong, and Wong probably didn't think about it much one way or the other. On the other hand, no critic has mentioned how warm and charming Jude Law is -- for a change -- running his coffee and pie shop and waiting for his beloved to return. Natalie Portman (an actress with a very potent presence) does a nice turn as a twangy gambler with stiff, frosty hair and perpetually jingling bracelets. And has David Strathairn ever given a bad performance? Even Rachel Weisz, who undeservedly won an Oscar for a mediocre performance in a bad film, has a very powerful monologue here.
I suppose the ultimate question is this: what makes lightness not as good as heaviness? It's a question artists have been dealing with since time indefinite. It's a conundrum that causes our great "light" artists to venture into "heaviness" in an attempt to garner the appreciation they crave and deserve. But why can't we simply appreciate "lightness" on the same grounds as "heaviness"?
My Blueberry Nights is made with far more skill, heart, atmosphere and intelligence than a highly acclaimed "heavy" film like The Counterfeiters (147 screens), which -- on a personal, artistic level -- is one of the worst films I've seen this year. The difference between the two films and their critical response rests solely on this "light" vs. "heavy" issue, which frankly doesn't exist. One of the things I love best about film is watching the personalities of great filmmakers grow over the years, like re-visiting old friends. Wong Kar-wai was there for me all the way through My Blueberry Nights. Maybe he seemed a little happier this time, or a little confused, but it was still him.