Wong's films are structured around images of characters in repose, of interactions weighted with desire, and of individual memory and fantasy.
In the most developed consumer cultures, individuals with the means and know-how can see films virtually whenever and wherever they want. The widening options for viewing "wherever" has lead some to fear for the “future of cinema”, and to take refuge in the thought that people will at least still need theaters for big films, films that are events, that traffic in spectacle, and that are built from visual effects and images that can only be appreciated on a big screen in the dark. Such films will preserve theater-going. If people want to see little films on their computers, on their TVs, on their iPods, well, that's okay. Regrettable, maybe, but okay.
Fortunately, there are filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai, whose work exposes the flaws in this line of argument. Wong's movies, the latest of which, My Blueberry Nights, has recently been released on DVD, are clearly composed for the big screen even though they are, by and large, not constructed as big spectacles, but are intimate explorations of character and romantic love (and even those that are spectacular, the wuxia epic Ashes of Time (1994 and 2008), and the science fiction-tinged 2046 (2004), are nonetheless grounded in those “smaller” purposes). His movies are best appreciated on the big screen, but because they are also character-driven and personal, they translate effectively to smaller screens, even revealing nuances that may be harder to note on a larger scale.
My Blueberry Nights follows Elizabeth (Norah Jones) from New York to Las Vegas and back again as she works out a few things in the aftermath of a failed relationship. She gets an initial boost of solace and confidence from Jeremy (Jude Law), the owner and operator of a cafe near where her cheating ex lives. They begin a nightly ritual of sharing thoughts on love and life over blueberry pie for her and other leftovers for him. Along the way, Jeremy clearly becomes smitten with Elizabeth, but she simply stops showing up one night and hits the road. She writes him, thus maintaining their connection and buoying his hopes for a future relationship.
Anyone who thinks of film as primarily a narrative art, will likely always have problems with Wong's work. He doesn't tell stories so much as explore how characters react and cope with particular situations, particularly those relating to love and romance. While it's possible to trace a narrative spine to most of his movies, because the kinds of themes he explores don't resolve themselves neatly, or finally, or in a middle-beginning-end type structure, his narratives tend to fragment and grow offshoots that travel in loops rather than lines. His films are structured around images of characters in repose, of interactions weighted with desire, and of individual memory and fantasy. It is because Wong seeks to visualize, to show and not simply tell these personal and interior moments, that his films find their fullest artistic expression on the big screen. However, that is not the same as suggesting that his movies aren't worth seeing at other scales.
Consider, for example, the extreme close-ups of Norah Jones' face in My Blueberry Nights. Both, one near the end of the first act, and one as a prelude to the final shot of the film, are of Elizabeth resting her head on the cafe counter, seemingly dozing. Her face, from her eyes to her chin, fills the frame.
In the theater, this is an image that is both profoundly personal and overwhelming to look at. It does not approximate everyday vision in any respect. It is a perspective that is primarily experienced through cinema (and maybe still photography, but I would argue that it is more powerful when contextualized with sound and movement). When downscaled to a television, these shots become less special, less resonant, both artistically and emotionally.
On the other hand, because the image can now be taken in with a glance, it becomes easier to appreciate the details in Jones' expression, the set of her eyes, the slight movement of her mouth into a smile. Ironically, the smaller scale creates more distance between audience and actor, her face no longer fully occupies the viewer's eyes, but in allowing that distance, it makes the shot as a whole easier to comprehend. As clearly meant for the theater as they are, these close-ups are still meaningful on other screens.
What's worth noting here is that these images are made up of nothing more than a human face. No wide landscapes. No big battles between huge armies or super beings. Just a face. But no less cinematic for being so. My Blueberry Nights may be a small movie as compared to, say, The Dark Knight, but it was still made for the big screen.
One quality that facilitates appreciating the movie on DVD is that it has the shape of a road film. This gives My Blueberry Nights more of a recognizable narrative architecture than is typical of Wong's movies. At the same time, that shape is more implied than it is actually followed.
For starters, Wong and co-writer Lawrence Block choose to focus on Elizabeth's destinations rather than her traveling. In one moment she makes a decision to leave New York and in the next she's waiting tables in Memphis. The only indication of “the road” is a title card displaying the number of days since her breakup and how many miles she is from New York.
The distance between Memphis and the unnamed small town in Nevada where Elizabeth falls in with Leslie (Natalie Portman) is bridged with a montage of different places, but the accent remains on stops rather than movement. When she heads to Las Vegas with Leslie, the movie finally takes on the look and feel of a conventional road film. The two women share a hotel room, eat road food together, and ride the highways of Nevada in a Jaguar convertible. The travel itself is signified by strings of snappy shots of the open road and high desert set to bluesy rock. Finally, by the end of her journey, Elizabeth gets her own car, but as with her initial jump from New York to Memphis, the return journey is merely pointed at rather than shown.
In road movies physical travel generally serves as a metaphor for personal change. And so it is with My Blueberry Nights, but what lessons are learned here is not spelled out in any straightforward fashion. It's easy enough to infer from her actions that Elizabeth's time away helped her to get right with her breakup and to like herself again, but the how and why of her transformation is left largely to the imagination.
One example of how Elizabeth's personal journey is indicated more by gesture than by dialogue or scripted morals to the story is the device of having her change her name at different stops. In Memphis she goes by “Lizzie”. In Nevada she's “Beth”. At one point in between, she appears to have been “Betty”. These various name tags are clearly markers of change, but to what end? She does not appear to act any different as “Beth” than she does as “Lizzie” or “Elizabeth”. And why choose variations on the same name rather than entirely different ones? Who knows. Norah Jones enacts the changes in Elizabeth more than she announces them.
She does write to Jeremy about “learning not to trust people” during her time with the hardened, cynical, and likely manipulative Leslie, but that seems to be more about her specific interactions with the other woman than it is about any bigger picture. The Nevada episode is certainly not of a piece with Elizabeth's sojourn in Memphis, where she is largely an innocent by-stander to events between the unhappily married Arnie (David Strathairn) and Sue Lynne (Rachel Weisz).
What transpires between Sue Lynne and Arnie seems as much for the audience as for Elizabeth. What we see of their crumbling marriage is a reminder that, almost by definition, there are two sides to the story of every couple, and not only do we have only the barest bones of Elizabeth's story, we know nothing of how her boyfriend sees things.
There's no straight line to connect this reminder to Elizabeth's musings on trust when she's with Leslie. Is her “gullibility” to blame for her failed relationship? Would she have been less vulnerable if she trusted less? Maybe. Maybe not. In either case, she decides she'd rather be a trusting person than a doubting one. She doesn't “toughen up”, but chooses to remain as she is. Wise? Not wise? As above, who knows.
Even with the prefab structure provided by “the road movie”, it should be clear that My Blueberry Nights is more fragmentary and episodic than it is clearly linear. Much rides on Jones' performance as Elizabeth, and by being convincingly reflective and sympathetic, she allows viewers who want to believe in her personal transformation to do just that. Those who want more will be left unsatisfied by the whole, but individual parts, whether images, music, or performances, may still have their appeal.
As implied above, the film is exquisitely shot by Darius Khondji, but retains many of the hallmarks of Wong's work with Christopher Doyle: rich colors, slow moving tracking shots, the use of slow shutter speeds to accentuate both movement and stillness. The movie is scored by Ry Cooder and the soundtrack includes a new song by Jones, and two from Cat Power, who makes a brief appearance as Jeremy's ex.
The script, ironically, gives the supporting actors more to say and do than it does the lead. Elizabeth is a quiet presence, and Jones occupies that role with aplomb, but she has neither the star power of Portman, Weisz, and Law, nor the skills of David Strathairn. And yet I doubt that the film would have the same charm with anyone else in her role.
It was widely circulated at the time of its festival run that Wong made My Blueberry Nights in no small measure because he imagined Jones as the lead. This story is largely affirmed by the two significant extra features on the DVD, a “Making of” short and a live interview with Wong at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York.
“Making My Blueberry Nights” is the kind of feature that seems more designed to introduce and promote a film than to offer insight after viewing, but here the interviews, as expository as they are, are relatively thoughtful and revealing about the creative process for the movie. All of the key actors and Wong are included, with Jones and the director getting the most time to speak. The interview segments are intercut with footage from the production and from the film.
The interview at the Museum of the Moving Image is an interesting document to have, especially for Wong Kar Wai fans and others interested in learning more about how the famously mercurial auteur works. Questions are posed both by an on-stage interviewer and by members of the audience, and range across Wong's filmography. The other extras are a theatrical trailer and a pair of stills galleries.
The US release of My Blueberry Nights was staggered and quiet, almost secretive. There's a good chance that American filmgoers wanting to see the film in theaters did not get a chance to do so or missed it when it came. The DVD release partly makes up for the lackluster theatrical run, but anyone who knows Wong's work will have a pretty good idea of what they've missed in not seeing it on the big screen first. Others will have less of an idea of how the movie would have looked in the theater, but the vibrance and creativity behind the film is hard to suppress.
As with all of Wong's films, My Blueberry Nights is dedicated to its characters and pretty pictures, between which one will find narrative gaps, things unrevealed and unspoken. If you can live with such blanks, the movie bears watching, but would be better appreciated in the context of Wong's earlier works. Regardless of where and how you see My Blueberry Nights for the first time, it's a film that reminds us that, in cinema, even “small” can be “big”.