Saturday, June 12, 2010

The 25: Part 12: The Road Home

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

I tend to think of The Road Home as the last great screening of my cinematic unconscious. It was not Zhang’s technique that entranced me, but the simple human emotion projected on the screen and the lyricism of his images.

Its fitting as The Road Home is precisely the type of film that too much analysis destroys. Like a butterfly killed with chloroform and mounted before being judged a mediocre specimen.

The Road Home is a flawed film, considered a minor entry in Yimou’s oeuvre, by even the director’s most ardent admirers. It contains one of the most singularly intrusive voice overs I’ve ever heard. Perhaps sixty percent of its run time is taken up with shots of Zhang Ziyi running about in sun dappled slow motion. It reduces the Cultural Revolution to an minor inconvenience in a way best described as unseemly (Like a film where the biggest problem with The Holocaust is that it keeps making people late for dinner). Its characters are kind of flat, and not much happens (A brief summary, two people meet. Fall in love. He goes away. She Waits. Eventually he comes back.)

This is all stuff I know should disengage me from the film. But they never strike deeper then intellectually. The Road Home remains a bracingly lovely film. And one of my favorite on screen romances.

Briefly, I feel I should mention as this is a column about my development as a filmgoer I should note that San Luis Obispo was pretty much a perfect place for a film goer to develop. There’s a lot wrong with my deeply neurotic hometown, but the its damn near a wild life preserve for outdated modes of watching movies. I’ve written about The Insomniac before, and the great unmolested genuine film palace before, but there’s a Drive In here as well. And a art house, which allowed me to watch films like The Road Home on a big(gish) screen.

With the advent of home theater and the decline of the multiplex, one of the things that surprises me is just how giddy so many cinephiles seem to give up the theater. Now I’m in full support of watching a film by any means necessary. And I have no delusions about the sanctity of the theater, a lot of them are pits, and its not just a multiplex problem. The worst screening I ever went to was a revival of Blue Velvet with an audience of hipster douchebag’s so jaded that they howled with laughter through the scenes of sexual abuse. If there is ever an experience to make you reevaluate the merits of Ebert’s review of the film…

But I don’t feel for a second that the ideal experience will ever be anything but the theater. The theater experience is as much about reaction as the film. The audience is harmonics, and nothing will ever compare to the feeling of hundreds of people experiencing a film as one. my feelings about the theater are much like my feelings for the church. It may be flawed, perhaps irrevocably, but it is my home. And I would rather try to defend it and build it then abandon it.

The Road Home may be a simple story, told in a simple way (Though there is a quiet wit to the film. It’s as much about the cultural shift in China as it is about the romance. The way Yimou sneaks Titanic posters into the background to comment on both is very well done). And yet the emotion it provokes, both by Zhang Ziyi’s natural pure performance and Yimou’s natural mise en scene and Malackian golden light.

It’s the simplicity that gives the film its power. The film’s greatest scene (and incident) involves Ziyi attempting to catch her lover as she runs through the woods. A scene I will never forget as long as the movies occupy any fraction of my headspace.

In my time at the movies I’ve seen wave after faceless wave of people killed in the most horrific ways. I’ve seen tragedies reproduced on sound stages, and even watched the Earth turned into a cinder a time or two. And yet I don’t believe that anything I have ever seen on screen has moved me quite so deeply, so primally as that simple combination of the sound of breaking pottery, and a few dumplings rolling down the hill side, juxtaposed with the sight of that weeping girl. Then I understood what film was in a way that none of the theories and techniques I’ve learned about film have ever come close to matching. Film is empathy. Empathy trapped in light.

Through study I’ve learned more sophisticated ways of saying that, in fact I probably wouldn’t have been able to even phrase my reaction that way on first viewing. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if all this analysis and dissection is really just a means of covering up what I already know. If I’ve lost more then I’ve gained.

No comments: