Wednesday, September 29, 2004

September Song

This is mostly for me, for later reference. Been looking for a nice, painterly piece of artwork with an autumnal theme—something hyper-rendered but also fantastical—and Maxfield Parrish was failing me. And then, out of this discussion of aesthetics in the service of ideology, a scene slid up sideways and all out of context...

A spectacular birch forest in Mongolia, its leaves a perfect yellow for only one week out of the year. Youth fighting experience. Spirits fighting gravity. All of us fighting inevitability.

In the memory, the sequence lingers as a series of vistas, a widescreen panorama; for all the billowing scarlet silk and steely clash of Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi at the foreground, the landscape is the real star. But in looking at the stills, we find that the wide shots are few and brief. The memory of the whole is stitched together from fragmented glimpses. That's the power of the montage—this sleight-of-eye, this capacity to make you see what you don't actually see. The most famous example (I just mistyped most as moist—wholly appropriate, actually) is the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho. If you've read anything about the film, you know that we never see the knife stab Janet Leigh.

But we feel it. There are twenty-eight edits in those twenty seconds, and they hit with an almost physical force. This is—to pull out a debased and oft-misused word—kinetic filmmaking; not just fast, but conveying an actual sense of motion. Screenwriters sometimes use the term "smash cut" for this kind of edit. It's a brutal term, almost desperate—flailing for a way to convey, in words, the feeling of impact that you can get from image and sound.

I'm not sure what you'd call Zhang Yimou's technique of using many shots of a limited field of view to imply a much larger arena, this building up a picture of the whole from numbers of smaller bits—aggregatory editing, perhaps? But there's a recursive element at play here, as well; that is, the complete picture can be extrapolated from each of the pieces. Every shot of Flying Snow's ruined beauty, or the above shot of Moon's terrified bravado, contains within itself the whole story. And it's the story of autumn. The story of Autumn Leaves.

Would Edith Piaf have understood the ferocity brought to bear here against the evidence of time and the loss of love? Maybe not. But Cannonball Adderly? One hundred per-fucking-cent.

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