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Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor on Criterion

Language is only one factor in the film’s negotiation of East and West.

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Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor on Criterion

Before the average person could afford to travel by air, movies were the most viable form of transportation. Audiences were stunned by how this new medium could convince the eye it was having an intimate encounter with a corner of the world previously inaccessible. It is dismaying, then, to realize that a certain stock of images have always dominated cinema history, and that the art form so rarely lives up to its capacity for introducing new sights and sounds to our worldview. In the 1980s, when the Chinese government granted Bernardo Bertolucci unprecedented access to the Forbidden City, an entire nation that had been ignored in popular world cinema suddenly became a new frontier for Western viewers. The promise of the project must have seemed overwhelming: at a time when good old camp like The Good Earth and Shanghai Express were still Hollywood’s paradigmatic depictions of the country, here was the most sensual of European masters taking on the role of a modern-day Marco Polo. He would come back to share with us treasures that had never appeared before on a movie screen. When the resulting achievement, The Last Emperor, became an international hit and a whirlwind success at the Academy Awards, it was a breakthrough for Chinese images in Western cinema. But behind the silk veils and looming structures of Bertolucci’s biggest blockbuster remains one of the strangest mainstream epics imaginable, a film that wears its compromises of style and perspective on its sleeve.

Following the life of Pu Yi, who ascended the throne at the age of three, the film’s structure shifts back and forth from his early days as a purely symbolic ruler to his gradual movement away from the palace and later imprisonment in a Communist reeducation center. Doted on since infancy by eunuch servants who obey his every command, Pu Yi learns to live a life of seemingly unlimited privileges, but realizes he is trapped when he cannot even leave the grounds to mourn his biological mother who has died beyond the palace walls. Having never been instilled as a youth with any values other than that of his own (ultimately hollow) importance, he grows into little more than a marker of the times, a vessel for the ideologies he assumes in order to stay in power at least in name. He eventually falls prey to Japan, which establishes him as ruler of the puppet-state Manchuria.

The challenge of the film is to dramatize the struggle of a man who has little courage or wisdom to impress an audience, a man who was revered in his own cocoon-like remnant of China’s dying feudalist system, and who had only ever possessed the mere image of authority. Bertolucci doesn’t paint a portrait of a sympathetic or passionate person, so he is lucky to have chosen John Lone as the leading man. Playing Pu Yi from young adulthood to old age, and aided by some expert and subtle makeup work, Lone delivers the film’s most emotionally resonant performance by making variations on an unwavering emotional monotone. With more resignation than externalized despair, he manages to shape a character of compelling humanity and compromised dignity, communicating through perfectly maneuvered facial expressions (wounded but never pitiable).

The title character is a cipher, but the restrained elegance of Lone’s interpretation helps anchor a film that insists on virtuosity on every sensory level. From the moment it enters the Forbidden City, the film dares us to take in all the beauty Bertolucci has laid out for us. It is as if he believes these long-storied palaces and courtyards were constructed for the sole purpose of being filmed by him. But The Last Emperor is not only a magnificent example of location shooting; it also counts as one of the great collaborations of cinematographer, art director, and costume designer, that relationship which has always been holy in the tradition of epic filmmaking. This is lavishness that doesn’t normalize; there is always something new to be awed by, which may be compensation for the absence of other traditional epic tropes that hook a viewer. There is no sweeping romance to speak of here, and the sex in the film is a collection of recycled gestures from The Conformist. Nor is there any suspense to relish in the film’s political intrigue, nor the epic’s usual expansive sense of space in the sets’ imprisoning enclosures.

Banking on keeping the audience’s attention with the newness of its images, The Last Emperor is caught in the awkward position of having to reconcile its orientalist curiosity with its historical reverence, its markedly Western perspective with its desire to immerse audiences in authentic details of an insular world. What results from Bertolucci grafting his European sensibilities onto these Chinese landscapes? First off, it’s important to discuss the disorienting effect of having a predominantly Chinese cast deliver dialogue almost exclusively in English—an issue that is easier to raise now that a number of recent, popular American movies have been made in foreign languages (Letters from Iwo Jima, The Kite Runner). This choice emphasizes the alien quality that Bertolucci surrounds his characters in; for instance, the youngest versions of Pu Yi that we encounter in the film sound downright supernatural when they open their mouths and deliver the script’s stilted lines in vaguely Chinese-American accents. The strategy is full of pitfalls, and the wheels seem to come off completely when the emperor’s Scottish tutor arrives and, suddenly, the adolescent Pu Yi’s English becomes shakier as if to remind us that this is not his native language. But where a film like Memoirs of a Geisha was offensive for its substitution of Japanese with broken English, The Last Emperor is uncomfortable with a purpose, as it constantly keeps us aware that this interpretation of history is being translated through an outsider’s lens. At the same time, though, this reading of the film reveals one of the deepest flaws in screenwriter Mark Peploe’s writing: rarely escaping the caricatured cadence of their speech, all his characters remain merely conceptual and almost indistinguishable from each other in personality.

Language is only one factor in the film’s negotiation of East and West. That struggle is embedded in Bertolucci’s exoticizing gaze, which never fails to relish the details of palace customs, such as a turtle swimming in a bowl of soup or a dance by Tibetan lamas. It is not Bertolucci’s goal to get us acclimated to our surroundings; at times, the Forbidden City is shot like a busily designed sci-fi/fantasy set, turning foreign style into gaudy artifice. But this is a film that makes a case for the exoticizing gaze as a mode native to the movie camera, and for exoticism as a natural interest of the cinema, insofar as the act of filmmaking is tied to the creation of spectacle. In its position in the chronology of film history (predating Zhang Yimou’s 1990 Ju Dou, the first mainland Chinese film to be nominated for a foreign-language Oscar), there is no way for The Last Emperor to dissociate from notions of the “exotic.” But the perspective from which it regards the Forbidden City seems accurate not only to the way foreigners would view it, but also to the way Chinese people are encouraged to view their own history—as a tourist attraction or amusement park—in the wake of headlong modernization. The changes that have occurred in twentieth-century China have occurred at such a speed that it is impossible for the splendors of the past to appear anything but alien to the contemporary experience. In the end, it is a double-edged sword that the film keeps the beast of Chinese history (rather than East-West relations) at the center of its attention. While this focus is a rare achievement for Western cinema, it also seems to have struck fear in the screenwriter, who seems intimidated by his own material, or by all the visual magicians bringing it to life along with him. Instead of offering us some much-needed characterization, Peploe substitutes the kind of existential numbness he brought to Antonioni’s The Passenger.

The Last Emperor stands alongside Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as a hugely popular ‘80s film by a Western director in awe of Asia. Both of these biopics (and their runaway Oscar success) constituted a new kind of prestige picture, one that stroked the viewer’s self-regard by having him re-embrace the outside world but that also encouraged an aloof reaction with an enigmatic figure at its center. That Bertolucci’s film has always been the superior work is not only due to the visual genius on display in every frame. It is also because, in the end, it claims no authority over the history and culture it shares with us. Skimming the surface of the mind-boggling complexities of Chinese history, The Last Emperor can be both criticized and praised for the dissatisfaction it leaves in its audience. This is a film that seeks to engage that suspension of belief required by the most radical social upheavals, to inhabit that liminal space of historical transition. So perhaps it is right that Bertolucci would plant us behind a gauzy curtain rather than on the solid ground of the straightforward epic—even when such honorable distance is at times the film’s undoing.

Image/Sound/Extras: It would be hard to imagine a more satisfying treat for a Last Emperor and/or Bertolucci fan than Criterion’s new four-disc package. The company has outdone itself with a level of meticulousness and generosity rarely lavished on a single movie, and it’s difficult to think of a film more appropriate for such a comprehensive treatment. Despite being deeply flawed, Bertolucci’s most widely seen film deserves our continued attention and fascination for the ways in which it foregrounds almost every element of old-fashioned movie magic. Encountering the film in this beautiful edition, one is left with little question as to how it swept all the technical Oscars of its year.

Two major issues surround this release. Disc 1 presents the 165-minute cut seen in theaters in 1987, while Disc 2 offers the television version (which is 53 minutes longer). In a statement on the Criterion blog, the DVD’s producer, Kim Hendrickson, corrects the assumption that the TV version is the “director’s cut” (as it has been promoted on the previous Artisan DVD) and shares a correspondence with the director in which he admits to finding the longer cut “not much different from the other one, just a little more boring.” The TV version was originally completed to fulfill a contractual obligation, but Bertolucci has always considered the theatrical release as definitive. Evaluating the two versions side by side, though, reveals what several critics (including myself) have felt: that the longer cut is the richer experience. While it doesn’t add much in terms of narrative (except for additional prison scenes and one minor character) or historical depth, it smoothes out many of the transitions that seem jerky in the theatrical version, and makes certain scenes more resonant simply by extending them.

The more controversial point that must be raised about this DVD regards the involvement of Storaro, who overlooked and approved the transfer. As has been discussed in detail already on a number of DVD review sites, the cinematographer has tried to unify the aspect ratios of his films with the 2.00:1 format Univision, which he devised in 1998 out of fear that his images would be compromised on TV screens. I have not been able to compare Last Emperor’s original 2.35:1 frame with this cropped version, nor do I consider myself a strict purist, but—as many film enthusiasts have noted—home viewing has changed a lot in the decade since Storaro raised his concerns. That this legendary cinematographer (certainly one of the cinema’s great living visual stylists) would retroactively mutilate his own compositions is not a choice easily sympathized with, even if his Univision format once seemed a practical solution to a real problem. However, according to Criterion’s most recent statement on the issue, the original aspect ratio was wider than intended, and 2:1 was always Storaro’s ideal. The cropping isn’t likely to distract most viewers, though, since the image quality on Disc 1 seems to me almost flawless (though it is considerably grainier on Disc 2), and the transfer is a vast improvement on the abysmal Artisan release that has circulated since 1999.

The last two discs compile an overwhelming array of supplemental material, which together work to dramatize the process of epic filmmaking to greater effect than almost any other set of DVD features I can think of. Four lengthy featurettes cover a wide terrain. “The Italian Traveler” engages Bertolucci the visionary, featuring him philosophizing on the voiceover, and chronicling his movement East after his proposed adaptation of Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest fell through. Two other hour-long documentaries (one produced by BBC) follow the making of the film and offer some incredible behind-the-scenes moments, including footage of Gabriella Cristiana discussing editing choices with Bertolucci. The most recent of the four featurettes is a new collection of interviews with the film’s cinematographer, art director, costume designer, and editor, reminiscing in great detail on their Oscar-winning labors. Rounding out the set is a preproduction video of Chinese locations, which gives viewers a portrait of the country as it looked in the late ‘80s, and a handful of interviews that provide insight into the historical background and the artistic process behind the film.

One of the treasures of this set is a commentary featuring Bertolucci, Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. Running the entire length of the theatrical version, the talk could easily have become boring, but the reminiscences from all participants are instead uniformly entertaining. Another gem in the box is an elegant 96-page booklet, with David Thomson’s astute appreciation of the film as exemplary “tourist cinema,” a brief but deeply felt Film Comment article written by Bertolucci, interviews with Ferdinando Scarfiotti and actor Ying Ruocheng, and a piece by Bertolucci’s personal assistant, followed by his shooting diary. What is extraordinary about Criterion’s work here is that the wealth of extras does not overwhelm or overstate the value of The Last Emperor. Instead, it elaborates on what is indisputably brilliant and interesting in the movie (its visual splendor; its reflection of a certain historical and aesthetic moment), and offers a balanced portrait of a kind of filmmaking that is both auteur-driven and highly collaborative.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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