Some years ago, I selected for my film-watching group (19 years old and still going strong) Michelangelo Antonioniâ€™s Zabriskie Point (1970), his first made-in-America production, shot in youthquake California. It was an utter disaster upon its release: unhip, out-of-touch,pretentious. Harry Medved consigned it to his infamous Fifty Worst Films of All Time book (1978), which I still have on my shelf.
Some years later, I caught up with it on laserdisc (I still have some of those on my shelf, too.) I was entranced. Yes, the sensibility was Martian, as if the great director was visiting student revolutionaries from another galaxy. But it was a genuinely sincere attempt at engagement, and Antonioniâ€™s attempt to get inside their mindset was valiant. As was customary, it was immaculately made, with an impeccable period score. The explosive climax, where our entire consumer culture blows up as Pink Floyd plays, was an unforgettably lunatic visionâ€”terrifying,ridiculous, and beautiful, all at once. I had prepared my group for the worst,underplaying the filmâ€™s unique qualities. I had overstated the case: The picture, which had aged into an invaluable cultural artifact, went down fine, flaws and all.
My Blueberry Nights bears some relation. The noted Hong Kong director, Wong Kar Wai, makes his English-language debut with an American-made film that glides from New York to Memphis to Reno. (Coincidentally, he and Antonioni, acclaimed visual stylists both, were bunkmates in the 2004 omnibus film Eros.) The stakes, however, are lower. Antonioni injected himself into our national muddle, and was crucified by the right and left for doing so. Wong has Fed-Exed his muse to the West. His description of the filmâ€”â€œSometimes the tangible distance between two persons can be quite small but the emotional one can be milesâ€¦I wanted to explore these expanses, both figuratively and literally, and the lengths it takes to overcome themâ€â€”pretty much applies to any of his acclaimed pictures.
Iâ€™m not his biggest acolyte. Certain audiences groove on the languorous pace and slowly-burning emotions of films like 2000â€™s In the Mood for Love and 2004â€™s 2046. Iâ€™m friends with some of these folks, and they donâ€™t understand why Iâ€™m not on board. Or, rather, why I left the boat: I enjoy earlier films, like 2004â€™squirky Chungking Express and 1997â€™s fraught gay romance Happy Together, just fine. They had a beating heart and pulse. Gradually, however, he drifted toward being an interior decorator. The human element receded into the background; the period furnishings and wallpaper communicated the stories, off altering relationships that play out in a few airless rooms. Some find this entrancing; I get restless.
The weaknesses of Wongâ€™s affectation are abundant in My Blueberry Nights. A crowd primed to appreciate his first picture in three years turned philistine at Cannes last May, and jeered. How quickly they turned, as if they, too, always suspected there was little of substance behind his lavish surfaces. The film (which The Weinstein Company opens today) has lost 21 of its original 111 minutes since its rocky debut, but such is his editing style, heavy on slow-motion cuts, ellipses, and texturing, that it feels much, much longer, with variations of the same image held for seconds.Most of these are of its star, Norah Jones, making her film debut.
In interviews Wong has said that he fell for her bluesy, jazzy, rootsy Norah-ness,and wanted to showcase that quality onscreen. Itâ€™s a drawâ€”given limited demand splaced on her talent, sheâ€™s not a hapless Mariah Carey in Glitter, nor, say, a powerhouse like Bette Midler in The Rose. She holds the screen, but only because Wong rarely moves the camera. The film begins in Soho, where Jonesâ€™ character, Elizabeth, is nursing a broken heart after a breakup. Dishing out slices of blueberry pie, with gooey sides of advice for the lovelorn, is cafÃ© owner Jeremy (Jude Law), who is singing the blues with his own tempestuous tootsie, Katya (â€œCat Powerâ€ Chan Marshall). Itâ€™s clear from the outset that Elizabeth and Jeremy are destined to hook up. But first Norahâ€”I mean,Elizabethâ€”has to explore those figurative and literal expanses Wong is going on about, so itâ€™s off to Memphis, where she gets a waitress job and witnesses the torment of hard-drinking cop Arnie (David Strathairn) and his hard-loving wife Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz), who is walking off the beat of their marriage. When that vignette wraps up Norah-as-Elizabeth (a proper character has not been created for her) high-tails it to Nevada. Working the tables is gambler Leslie (a blonde Natalie Portman, channeling Ashley Juddâ€™s Southern belles), who holds a grudge against her dissipated father. That storyline just sort of wanders to an end, too, so Norah (I feel OK about dropping the pretense) heads back to New York for her reunion with Jeremy, and fade-out voiceover to the effect thatâ€œsometimes you have to go a long way to find yourself.â€ No, just as far as the greeting card section of your local Walgreens.
The trite plotting is but one problem here. Another is Wongâ€™s insistence at having cinematographer Darius Khondji (who, with this and Funny Games to his credit, has done more than enough to assist immigrant auteurs arrived on our shores) shoot much of the film through glass,or smeary, filtered colors: In their scenes together, Norah and Jeremy are as distanced from us as a couple of zoo animals, framed through the stenciled lettering of the cafÃ©â€™s name (the wallpaper addiction, in a new form). Jonesâ€™ lack of pizzazz is understandable; Wong is more interested in bottling her empathetic nice-gal essence than giving her anything distinctive to do. To set the film off, however, he needed to lace the film with other firecracker performers. No dice: Straithairn and Weisz are too recessive to really shake things up, and Law, whose presence in a film is a reliable flop indicator, is as usual a bore as the sage Jeremy. (How did this one-time Next Big Thing get so small?) Only a brassier-than-usual Portman gives things a little kick, too late to matter.
As My Blueberry Nights wore on, accompanied by the twangs of Ry Cooderâ€™s score, I amused myself by imagining how it came to be. Antonioni employed Sam Shepard as his screenwriter/guide to the customs of the time. Wong inexplicably aligned himself with crime writer Lawrence Block,of the hard-as-nails Matthew Scudder novels. You can discern the vague outlines of that sensibility here, as if Block turned in a screenplay called, say, One Tough Cookie, with a more sensual and strident Norah engaging in hair-pulling fights with Cat Power over their man amidst noir-ish scrapes. (The latter scores two songs to Jonesâ€™ one original contribution, “The Story.”) How he must have felt at the premiere. â€œBlueberry Nightsâ€¦ah, Wong, Jesus, what the hellâ€¦what is this shit?â€ I can hear him muttering, before retreating to his battered Corona typewriter at the nearest bowery.
But,like I said, give it 30 years. Things mellow and change. Maybe My Blueberry Nights will yield something for future generations. For ours, color it raspberry, with that hope that its maker will soon return to give-a-damn filmmaking.