Archive for the 'Narrative strategies' Category
It is 1935. Mr. George Boxley is a prominent writer who has been brought to Hollywood. He is working with two other screenwriters on a story, but he feels angry and dissatisfied. His collaborators ruin his contributions, and when he writes solo he produces “interesting talk but nothing more.” He has come to the head of production to complain, and beneath his annoyance lies a mild contempt for the movie craft.
He has tried to adjust his standards to movies, he explains, by having his dialogue delivered while his characters are dueling. At the end of the scene one falls into a well and has to be hauled up again.
The studio chief, Monroe Stahr, asks if Mr. Boxley would include such a scene in a book of his own.
“You’d consider it too cheap.”
Boxley replies: “Movie standards are different.”
“Do you ever go to them?” Stahr asks.
“No,” confesses the parvenu screenwriter. “Almost never.” He explains, defensively, that movies are full of things like duels and falling down wells “and wearing strained facial expressions and talking incredible and unnatural dialogue.”
“Skip the dialogue for a minute,” said Stahr. “Granted your dialogue is more graceful than what these hacks can write—that’s why we brought you out here. But let’s imagine something that isn’t either bad dialogue or jumping down a well. Has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?”
“I think it has,” said Boxley stiffly, “—but I never use it.”
Mr. Boxley is about to get a tutorial in how to tell a movie story.
Behind the glitter
F. Scott Fitzgerald
There have been novels about Hollywood as long as the movie industry has been there. Most have been either straightforward wish-fulfillment (girl/boy from the sticks makes it big) or cautionary tales (boy/girl fails or becomes depraved). The more ambitious “Hollywood novel” has been more sour and sweeping. It presents itself as a harsh exposé that makes a broad social comment on picture-makers, their public, and the society that spawns both.
This serious Hollywood novel is largely a creature of the late 1930s. Wedding hard-boiled style to Depression-era realism, Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust (1938) and Horace McCoy’s I Should Have Stayed Home (1938) present stark, aggressively despairing accounts. In these books, Hollywood is America, only more so.
Both West’s and McCoy’s books fared poorly in the market. The triumph was Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941), which found in the rapacious Sammy Glick a prototype of the modern entertainment entrepreneur. Schulberg daringly emphasized the fact that Sammy was a Jew, creating a controversy that lasted for quite a while.
The booming movie market of the war years, along with the fact that more novelists found themselves involved with the studios, made the 1940s something of a golden age of the Hollywood novel. The movie kingdom became the setting for dozens of murder mysteries, veiled memoirs, and satires—some written by practicing screenwriters. (Among the most notable: Ben Hecht’s offhand but heartfelt I Hate Actors!, 1944). At a higher level of literary prestige, there were two 1948 titles from Englishmen, Evelyn Waugh’s caustic The Loved One and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence, a novel written as a pseudo-screenplay. But none of these finished works won the enduring fame of an incomplete story published in the same year that Schulberg introduced Sammy Glick.
Built on the grand scale
In 1939 F. Scott Fitzgerald had begun The Last Tycoon (perhaps intending to call it The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western). By then his brief screenwriting career was over, but he was fascinated by MGM’s boy wonder Irving Thalberg, “one of the half-dozen men I have known who were built on the grand scale.” Fitzgerald decided to center his plot on Monroe Stahr, a Thalberg-like producer.
Stahr is a shrewd, intellectually gifted workaholic who is an expert in manipulating what is coming to be a new system of moviemaking. Brisk and efficient in the office, Stahr is occasionally cold and arrogant, but his primary trait is a remarkable sensitivity to the emotional temperature of each situation. He gains our sympathy because in private Stahr is sunk in melancholy, longing for his dead wife and hoping to find another woman to love.
When Fitzgerald died in 1940, he had completed less than half of The Last Tycoon. His long-time friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, assembled an edition that was issued in 1941, with the finished portions supplemented by notes and a five-act outline. The book had a great impact. The New York Times reviewer commented:
Uncompleted though it is, one would be blind indeed not to see that it would have been Fitzgerald’s best novel and a very fine one. Even in this truncated form it not only makes absorbing reading; it is the best piece of creative writing that we have about one phase of American life—Hollywood and the movies.
Matthew J. Bruccoli, who has brought out the authoritative edition, remarks:
Even in its preliminary and incomplete condition, The Love of the Last Tycoon is regarded as the best novel written about the movies.
Reading the book for my research on the 1940s, I became fascinated by its understanding of what we might call the Hollywood aesthetic.
That understanding begins with a recognition of the production process. Most Hollywood novels mention actual stars and directors, but The Last Tycoon goes beyond name-dropping. It takes us into the offices, the editing rooms, and onto the set when Stahr must fire a director. These scenes have an authority that most novels lack, assisted by Fitzgerald’s effort to present his mogul not as a monster but as a man of genuine, if sometimes dictatorial, charm, tact, and taste.
Setting his novel in 1935, Fitzgerald also registers how studio organization shifted toward a central-producer system. Stahr deliberately avoids learning the details of camerawork, editing, and sound.
He could have understood easily enough—often he preferred not to, to preserve a sensual acceptance when he saw the scene unfold in the rushes. . . . His function was different from that of Griffith in the early days, who had been all things to every finished frame of film.
One of Fitzgerald’s most cryptic notes indicates his recognition of different studio styles.
The Warner Brothers narrative writing and the Metro dramatic, packed—cut back and forth writing from Stahr.
This might be a reference to Warners’ vivacious montage sequences, which were sometimes considered “narrative,” while fully enacted scenes were called “dramatic.” The use of “cut back and forth” here exemplifies Fitzgerald’s occasional use of movie slang in his notes, as when he gets his characters on the Super Chief passenger train:
In a very short transition or montage, I bring the whole party West on the chief.
Like many intellectuals of his time, Fitzgerald was fascinated by the movies as an artistic medium. The standard version of film history was articulated in many books of the period, most notably Lewis Jacobs’ Rise of the American Film (1938). Fitzgerald dots his novel with commonplaces about the history of cinema.
She was reputed to have been on the set the day Griffith invented the close-up!
[Stahr] prepared for the meeting [with the Writers Guild] by running off the Russian Revolutionary Films that he had in his film library at home. He also ran off “Doctor Caligari” and Salvador Dali’s “Un Chien Andalou,” possibly suspecting that they had a bearing on the matter.
Astonishingly, Fitzgerald even considered calling his novel The Lumière Man.
Most original, I think, is the episode I’ve started to present to you. It’s an exemplary scene, showing how good Stahr is at his job. He subtly steers Mr. Boxley, the East Coast littérateur, toward returning to the screenplay. But he also tutors Mr. Boxley, and us, in a deeper awareness of how classical Hollywood aimed to tell its stories.
Just making pictures
Imagine, Stahr tells Boxley, you’re sitting in your office, tired out.
A pretty stenographer that you’ve seen before comes into the room and you watch her—idly. She doesn’t see you although you’re very close to her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse, and dumps it out on the table.
Stahr continues. From her change, the young woman picks out a nickel and puts it on the desk. She picks up a matchbox and then takes her black gloves to the stove. She puts them inside the stove and starts to light it, when the phone suddenly rings.
The girl picks it up, says hello—listens—and says deliberately into the phone, “I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.
The stenographer hangs up and kneels by the stove again.
Just as she lights the match you glance around very suddenly and see that there’s another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes.
“Go on,” said Boxley smiling. What happens?”
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. “I was just making pictures.”
Boxley feels he’s been wrong-footed.
“It’s just melodrama,” he said.
“Not necessarily,” said Stahr. “In any case nobody has moved violently or talked cheap dialogue or had any facial expression at all. There was only one bad line, and a writer like you could improve it. But you were interested.”
Throughout the 1930s, critics like Otis Ferguson praised American studio pictures for their clean, straight storytelling. The primary concern of Fritz Lang, for instance, “is with the rightness and immediacy of each fragment as it appears to you, makes its impression, leads you along with each incident of the story, and projects the imagination beyond into things to come.” I think that Stahr’s tutorial helps us understand how that blend of immediacy and flow, vivid moments and keen anticipation, works.
For one thing, the gloves scene doesn’t fit certain clichés about Hollywood. It isn’t spectacular; it’s not a chase or a fight or a seduction or a slapstick episode. As Stahr points out, nobody is dueling or falling down a well.
We often say that Hollywood movies emphasize plot (lots of action) over character (stereotyped, at that). But this scene doesn’t have much action, and we don’t know anything about the character. (We can’t even be sure she’s lying; maybe these gloves aren’t hers.) What we have is plot and character fused in a situation. The scene creates, out of mundane materials, a crisis.
We say that Hollywood films grab us through emotion. Do we feel strong passions here? Well, not so much. We say that Hollywood films make us identify with the characters. Are we identifying with the young woman, or the magically unseen Boxley, or the man suddenly revealed watching the whole thing? Not really. The paramount emotion, as Stahr points out, is that diffuse, low-level one we call interest.
What does grab us, I think you’ll agree, are the questions that are implicit in the action. Why does the woman leave a nickel on the desk? Why does she start to burn the gloves? Why does she deny owning black gloves? Why is the man watching her? And what will happen next?
Noël Carroll has developed a theory of narrative he calls “erotetic.” Telling a story, he suggests, creates a controlled cascade of questions. Sometimes they pile up, as here; sometimes a question is answered but the answer raises another question. Stahr’s lesson supports Carroll’s idea that in any art, narration is a matter of asking, postponing, and answering questions. Erotetic principles, Stahr suggests, are more central to Hollywood storytelling than obvious appeals like spectacle and gags.
Another narrative theorist, Meir Sternberg, has proposed that the “master effects” aroused by stories are curiosity, surprise, and suspense. Curiosity is a matter of wondering about what led up to the actions we’re seeing now. What has impelled our stenographer to burn these gloves? Surprise comes from revealing a gap in the telling’s continuity. This occurs when Stahr’s “pan shot” (“you glance around very suddenly”) reveals a man in the office watching her efforts. If curiosity involves the past, and surprise punctuates the present, suspense points us forward: What will happen next? Stahr’s anecdote breaks off just as we learn that the man is watching. Will he prevent her from burning the gloves? More generally, how will he figure in the plot to come? Sternberg’s three cognitive attitudes, which he considers fundamental to narrative engagement, are neatly wrapped up in Stahr’s toy example.
Every writer knows that coming up with a grabby scene is easy. The problem is paying everything off. So admittedly, Stahr has dodged the work of figuring out the whole plot. Nonetheless, his example should clarify one notion of Hollywood storytelling. Relatively easy to shoot (Mr. Boxley, close to the woman but mysteriously unseen, is obviously the camera), but demanding skill in pacing and performance, the scene shows, I think, the unpretentious power of that clean storytelling that Ferguson and his peers celebrated.
The intellectuals who throughout the 1930s and 1940s derided Hollywood as simple-minded and uncreative didn’t really drill down into the specifics of how the storytelling system worked. Fitzgerald did, perhaps because as a novelist he could observe and appreciate the craft of it—even if he couldn’t actually succeed at it himself. The Last Tycoon is a nuanced tribute to Hollywood as an aggressive business that need not necessarily suffocate richness of personality. It’s also a modest tribute to the power of a storytelling model that is only apparently obvious.
“What was the nickel for?” asked Boxley evasively.
“I don’t know,” said Stahr. Suddenly he laughed. “Oh yes—the nickel was for the movies.”
I’ve drawn my quotations of Fitzgerald’s working drafts from both Edmund Wilson’s 1941 edition of The Last Tycoon and from Matthew J. Bruccoli’s 1993 edition of The Love of the Last Tycoon: The Authorized Text. Each version contains many intriguing jottings that aren’t included in the other one. Quotations from the main text come from Bruccoli’s edition, except that I’ve corrected Fitzgerald’s misspelling of “nickel.”
I’ve been guided by Anthony Slide’s excellent bibliographical survey, The Hollywood Novel: A Critical Guide to Over 1200 Works (McFarland, 1995). See also Budd Wilson Schuberg’s portmanteau review, “Literature of the Film: The Hollywood Novel,” Films 1, 2 (Spring 1940), 68-78.
Janet Staiger explains how Thalberg, a prototype of the central-producer system during the 1920s, was gradually embracing the newer division of labor, that of the producer-unit system, in the early 1930s. See her chapter 25 in the book she wrote with Kristin and me, The Classical Hollywood System: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960.
Noël Carroll’s theory of erotetic narration is explained in several of his publications; a convenient one is The Philosophy of Horror, chapter 3. For Meir Sternberg’s account of curiosity, suspense, and surprise, see his “Telling in Time” series in Poetics Today (Winter 1990, Fall 1992, and Spring 2006).
J. Donald Adams’ review of The Last Tycoon is in The New York Times (9 November 1941). My quotation from Otis Ferguson comes from “Fritz Lang and Company,” The Film Criticism of Otis Ferguson, ed. Robert Wilson (Temple University Press, 1971), 372.
An earlier entry on Ferguson further develops his ideas about the clean contours of Hollywood storytelling.
Elia Kazan’s film of The Last Tycoon includes the Boxley scene. Apart from adding unnecessary lines, it’s an exercise in ham, with other characters watching Boxley’s discomfiture and a smug Stahr (Robert De Niro) dashing about the room and pantomiming the action. Kazan’s Stahr burlesques the story situation he invokes, whereas I take the novel’s scene as a playful but sincere object lesson.
Stahr shows Boxley the black gloves in Kazan’s Last Tycoon.
There was no way to rely on anything we knew before this film. No character was like Stone, no film set was ever like these sets, not one member of this crew had ever done this before. We all were doing something that had never been done before.
Back in mid-September, on the verge of leaving Madison to attend the Vancouver International Film Festival, I mentioned that I had watched one of the trailers for Gravity and thought it looked like “the most exciting new piece of filmmaking this year.” I added that the trailer “called ‘Drifting’ reminded me of Michael Snow’s brilliant Central Region, but with narrative, with the earth and stars spinning past a close-up of Sandra Bullock as the marooned, panicky astronaut protagonist.”
At that point, I wondered whether the film as a whole could keep up that experimental feeling, with vertiginously wheeling actors combined with an untethered camera swooping around them. Or would the narrative gradually lead us into a more conventional style later in the film? It turns out that, to a remarkable extent, the highly unconventional treatment of unanchored space, where up, down, and sideways characters and background change with a breathless rapidity, extends through much of Gravity‘s length. For brief intervals Ryan enters space capsules and sits, right-side up, and the action calms down briefly. Yet these lead to further scenes in space with the same swooping camera. In short, the film turned out to be as remarkable a formal and stylistic achievement as I had hoped.
SPOILER ALERT. This is not a review but an analysis of the film. Gravity does depend crucially upon suspense and surprise, and I would suggest not reading further without having seen the film.
An experimental blockbuster
I am not the only one who was struck by Gravity‘s resemblance to an experimental film. After the film’s opening weekend in the USA, Variety‘s Scott Foundas published an article on the subject: “Why ‘Gravity’ Could Be the World’s Biggest Avant-Garde Movie.” He references the influence of Jordan Belson’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and speculates that the final shot of The Shining echoes the ending of Michael Snow’s Wavelength. More specifically he links Gravity to Central Region, shot in 1971 at in a Canadian mountain range; Foundas describes the robotic arm used to shoot the film and how it was controlled by instructions on magnetic tape. (I’ll have an illustration of the robotic arm in Part 2.) To Foundas, the avant-garde aspects of Gravity outweigh its narrative: “‘Gravity’ has more of a plot than ‘La Region Centrale,’ but only barely, and surely no one is telling their friends to see Cuaron’s film because of its great story. Rather, it’s the very absence of a dense narrative line that gives ‘Gravity’ its majesty.”
I think that to say Gravity has “only barely” more narrative than Snow’s purely abstract film is a considerable exaggeration. The film’s story is certainly simpler and more unconventional than other mainstream Hollywood films, but as we shall see, it contains goals, motifs, character traits, careful setups of upcoming action, and other traits of classical narratives.
In an October 11 blog entry, J. Hoberman also stresses the film’s modernism:
Depth and volume are illusory. Mass has no weight. In this 3-D spectacle, best seen on the outsized IMAX screen, Cuarón promotes sensory disorientation–or better, reorientation. [...] Gravity is something quite rare–a truly popular big-budget Hollywood movie with a rich aesthetic pay-off. Genuinely experimental, blatantly predicated on the formal possibilities of film, Gravity is a movie in a tradition that includes D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, as well as its most obvious precursor, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. Call it blockbuster modernism.
(Actually I’d say Gravity is better than some of these, notably Napoléon and 2001.)
Hoberman sees more of a balance between style and narrative than does Foundas. In fact, he considers that the film contains “a distracting surplus of backstory.” Presumably he would prefer to do without the references to the death of Stone’s daughter and her subsequent aimless car rides after work, listening to the radio. The space voyage does become an overly obvious extension of that drifting and listening, coming close to turning the film into a maternal melodrama. Presumably the filmmakers felt that simply sending Stone on a mission and having her struggle to return to earth was not enough. In interviews, the co-scriptwriters, Alfonso and his son Jonás Cuarón, emphasized that their basic idea was to create a character arc of her “rebirth” after despair. To some, this arc, with its religious overtones, will seem a bit, as Hoberman says, distracting and even contrived. To others it may be inspiring. At least it is not allowed to come forward very often.
Hoberman stresses the balance of plot and radical style. The film, “premised on the absence of up or down, is naturally abstract although it also has a streamlined and suspenseful narrative that, save for one or two ellipses, might almost be happening in real time.” In Variety, Justin Chang’s review highlights the same balance: “at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.”
David and I have often claimed that Hollywood cinema has a certain tolerance for novelty, innovation, and even experiment, but that such departures from convention are usually accompanied by a strong classical story to motivate the strangeness for popular audiences. (This assumption is central to our e-book on Christopher Nolan.) Gravity has such a story, though Cuarón is remarkably successful at minimizing its prominence. The film’s construction privileges excitement, suspense, rapid action, and the universally remarked-upon sense of immersion alongside the character in a situation of disorienting weightlessness and constant change.
That construction derives partly from techniques unique to this project. The weightless dance of characters and camera almost entirely does away with such widely applied spatial premises as the axis of action, eyeline directions, and the establishing of stable spatial relationships. And, as Cuarón pointed out in an interview for Wired, “After all, you learn how to draw based on two main elements: horizons and weight.” Those two factors are virtually gone as well.
The weightlessness and the long takes in the film have been given much attention in the press. Reports refer less often to the “Light Box, one of the film’s most extraordinary innovations. It is a giant inside-out LED monitor that allows the film’s own previs special effects to light the faces and bodies of the actors inside the box, making it possible for those shots to be integrated seamless into the effects shots. Basically, apart from the scenes inside space vehicles, traditional three-point lighting is jettisoned along with spatial relations.
Other technical aspects of the film are innovative. A bold new camera mount, the Isis, was devised to allow the camera to twist and whirl around the actors. The silence of space was respected by the filmmaker, leading them to substitute a eerie musical score to replace sound effects and convey emotions. The blocking and acting, of course, had to be vastly different from methods used in conventional films where the actors have the luxury of walking on a ground plane.
In short, it is hard to think of another mass-audience film in recent years that has so thoroughly departed from the current technological and stylistic conventions of mainstream filmmaking. Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings, to be sure; perhaps Avatar. Publications devoted to the techniques of cinema have recognized this. The Cinefex issue dealing with Gravity is not yet out, but on the journal’s blog, Don Shay’s remark is quoted: “Every once in a while, a film comes along that is a game-changer. This is one of those films.” Debra Kaufman, writing about the film’s 3D for Creative Cow, agrees: “Anyone who’s seen Gravity 3D will agree that the 3D was a game changer.” And unlike those earlier game-changers, Gravity has a strong experimental component to it that audiences gladly accept, since it is so well motivated by the story and situation.
In the next blog entry, I’ll survey the innovative aspects of Gravity‘s style and technique. Today, though, I’ll concentrate on the plot–in some ways conventional and in some ways quite strange–that holds it all together.
Who needs psychological depth in a crisis?
Arguably Cuarón had constructed nearly the most sparse narrative that can sustain the experimental style and motivate that style enough to hold the attention of a popular audience. Three characters, then two, then one, all with minimal backstories and simple goals.
Most Hollywood films have two parallel plotlines, usually one involving a romance. Here there is only one, and it primarily concerns an immediate situation, a cycle of deadly threats alternating with stages of Ryan’s progress toward safety. On balance, the focus is more on the suspense and terror of the situation than on the characters. Although there is a little mild flirtation between Stone and Kowalski, it’s more to generate humor and defuse the tension than to suggest any real possibility of mutual attraction.
One indication of the film’s minimal characterization is that fact that we never learn the nature of Stone’s experiment. That would be a logical initial goal for her character. Why has she set herself this particular task, which obviously involved not only scientific expertise in a complex field but also elaborate training to become an astronaut? Where does she work? What might her test achieve? Some reviews have referred to her as a medical expert. As far as I can tell, this is based on one line when she and Kowalski are working together to activate the communications device that is her focus of attention in the opening scene. During the calm before the debris collision, she remarks, “I’m used to a basement lab in a hospital where trays fall to the floor.” She also says that “It’s designed for hospital use.” That’s it. Normally a Hollywood film would redundantly give us information about her job. Here we don’t even get a sketch of it. And why is a medical experiment attached to the Hubble Space Telescope?
Incidentally, the Hubble is detached from the shuttle just before the debris cluster reaches it. We never learn whether it, too, is destroyed in the disaster. Might it have survived, with Stone’s experiment, perhaps activated during her brief delay before obeying the mission-abort command? Might she return to earth to find her experiment a success, with her initial goal miraculously achieved despite the tragic events in space. So little is the narrative concerned with the experiment as a significant goal that such questions are unlikely to occur to a spectator. They came to me only after three viewings.
Stone’s casual reference to working in a hospital lab typifies the limited sort of backstory we’ll get for the most part. Aside from Stone’s recollections of her daughter’s death and her aimless evenings of driving as her form of mourning, the moments of backstory are mere hints. In the opening we learn that Matt’s wife left him when he was in space on a mission. Might he be so obsessed with the beauties of space travel because he, too, is seeking to escape loneliness? We can’t know, since he treats the mention humorously, as if he has managed to shrug off his wife’s betrayal. Of the third character present on the spacewalk, Shariff, we learn that he has a wife and son, something revealed by a photo only after his death. This knowledge serves less to characterize him than to contrast this cheerful fellow with the wifeless Kowalski and childless, unattached Stone.
Stone’s mention of her home in Lake Zurich, Illinois and of her daughter’s death is the last piece of backstory that we get, and it comes slightly under half an hour into the film, during the calm interlude when she and Kowalski are slowly traveling toward the International Space Station (ISS). After this, I believe the only scrap of information from her past that we get is that Stone’s daughter had worried about a lost red shoe.
This lack of information about the characters is probably what led Foundas to say that the film has “barely” more of a plot than Central Region. In the same piece, he speculates, did the executives at Warner Bros. “wonder if they’d just gambled away $100 million on the most expensive avant-garde art movie ever made?”
Kevin Jagernauth reports on indiewire that the studio pushed for a more conventionally constructed film. Cuarón told him about some of the feedback he got from WB:
But at first, the studio suggested that [the Mission Control] team in Houston should get more face time. “…there area lot of ideas. People start suggesting other stuff. ‘You need to cut to House and see how the rescue mission goes.’”
And that’s not all. Part of the emotional journey of “Gravity” rests on Stone’s backstory, which includes a daughter she lost, but this is all effectively communicated without breaking the single location concept. However, Cuarón was advised to perhaps include some flashbacks in the film and even more. “A whole thing with … a romantic relationship with the Mission Control Commander, who is in love with her. All that kind of stuff. What else? To finish with a whole rescue helicopter, that would come and rescue her. Stuff like that,” he explained of some of the ideas that were floated his way.
There’s that conventional second romantic plotline, which in the wake of the film’s success seems such a ludicrous suggestion. The studio’s attitude demonstrates how very much Cuarón was able to get away with and how much of a struggle it must have been. Audience and critical enthusiasm suggests that he and his team managed to include just enough classical storytelling to make spectators identify with the characters even while knowing very little about them.
Why would a film need to establish psychological depth for characters when most of what they’re going to be doing is struggling frantically for their lives, cast adrift in space and bombarded by hurtling space debris? They must summon what skills and psychological strength they have and get on with it. Thoughtful conversations and subtle complexities are irrelevant for the most part. We need to care about these people to be engaged by the film, but that is part of the point of having Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as the leads, playing to the likeable personal qualities that we already associate with these stars.
Challenges and goals
There’s no question that the characters do have goals, but these are largely based on circumstances thrust upon them rather than on character traits. Before disaster strikes, the characters have short-term goals: Stone to solve the glitch with her equipment (and to avoid allowing nausea to cut short her attempt) and Kowalski to enjoy his final space walk and ideally break the record for duration of space walks. Both goals are cut short by the news of approaching debris and the mission-abort order. As we’ve seen, whether Stone achieves her original goal concerning her experiment is never revealed, nor are we encouraged to wonder even briefly as to whether the Hubble might carry it away from the destruction of the shuttle. Kowalski achieves his goal of breaking the record, in a sense, as he comments ironically while detached and drifting in space and awaiting his death. His space walk will last forever, but records are hardly intended to include corpses.
Once Stone spins off into space, alone, her goal is to re-establish contact with Mission Control and Kowalski. His is to rescue her. Once he finds her and tethers them together, their mutual goal is to get to the shuttle, with Kowalski adding the goal of retrieving Shariff’s body. Very quickly these goals are shattered, since the shuttle has been extensively damaged and its other crew members killed. A new short-term goal arises: reaching the relatively nearby ISS.
Kowalski fails to achieve this goal, since the fuel in his jetpack and his inability to grab anything on the ISS’s exterior send him floating off into space. Stone’s goal is now to get inside before she passes out from lack of oxygen. Once inside, her goal is to detach the remaining semi-functional Suyuz landing vehicle and use it to get as far as the Chinese space station, in turn using its landing pod to return to earth.
Discovering that the deployed parachute has become tangled in the ISS, she takes another space walk to detach it from the Soyuz. Another short-term goal that is soon accomplished. As she starts to remove the bolts anchoring the parachute, she states the short-term and long-term goals: “OK, we detach this, and we go home.”
Her purpose, however, seems to be thwarted when the fuel tank of the Soyuz vehicle proves to be empty. Here Stone loses hope, drifting into despair. She decides to turn off the oxygen supply and allow herself to die. Suddenly Kowalski appears and enters the pod, giving her a pep talk and telling her to use the soft-landing function of the Soyuz rather than its take-off capabilities. He disappears, and Stone, reinvigorated and determined, follows the instructions for landing the craft.
In traditional classical films, shifting goals often mark the turning point between large-scale sections of the plot, generally referred to as acts. Despite its unconventional aspects, Gravity’s plot does stick fairly closely to the well-balanced four-part structure that I have claimed is typical of Hollywood narrative conventions. Not counting titles or credits, the story runs approximately 83 minutes. Thus on average the acts would run about twenty-one minutes each.
At about 22 minutes in, Stone and Kowalski achieve their goal by reaching the shuttle, only to discover that it has been destroyed. At 23 minutes, Kowalski declares them the last survivors of the mission. I take this to be the first turning point, ending the setup and beginning the complicating action. Essential premises are reversed as the pair realize that they are stranded in space and they shift their goal, striving next to reach the ISS. Stone’s failed attempt to contact Kowalski by radio once she enters the ISS–she initially hopes to rescue him–and declaration of herself as the mission’s sole survivor happens at roughly 43 minutes. The third act, the development, begins, with Stone meeting numerous obstacles that threaten her new goal of getting back to earth in the Chinese landing vehicle. The last turning point, launching the climax, comes when Stone awakens from her dream about Kowalski and turns the oxygen flow back on, signaling her return to hope and determination to reach earth. That happens at about 66 minutes in, leaving seventeen minutes for her landing, including the brief epilogue of her floating, swimming ashore, and shakily standing up.
Motifs and causal motivation
As I mentioned, strongly innovative films in the Hollywood tradition need the support of classical conventions to keep the narrative clear and appealing. Two of Gravity‘s most traditional techniques are its motifs and its motivations. Motifs can quickly make the characters more vivid, even if they are not particularly rounded or complex. Motivations often involve planting an object or event in advance. In this film, several motifs trace the relationship between Stone and Kowalski.
In the opening, the motif of Kowalski’s wanting to break the space-walking record is introduced early on, stressing that this is his last mission and hinting that he loves his time in space. Similarly, his anecdotes, introduced with the “I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission” running gag, create irony but also suggest how Kowalski inspires Stone. Before setting out on her re-entry flight in the Chinese landing pod, she repeats this line with the same good humor that Kowalski had displayed. Another parallel is set up between the two when Stone detaches the clasp tethering her to the wildly spinning support in the opening scene, and later Kowalski does the same to separate himself from Stone when they are precariously suspended from the ISS (below). She comes back; he doesn’t.
In the early scene where the pair work to activate Stone’s equipment, he refers to her “beautiful blue eyes,” though she points out that hers are brown. Later, when Kowalski has set himself adrift in space, their radio conversation mentions his “beautiful blue eyes,” which are also brown. Though we see nothing of their earlier relationship, such motifs lend it depth, because we sense that the two have already developed a customary way of bantering with each other.
Similarly, in the opening scene, Kowalski tells an anecdote about how, during a previous mission, he had imagined his wife looking up into space and thinking about him, when in fact she had run off with another man. Later, as Kowalski moves toward the ISS dragging Stone tethered behind him, he asks her if anyone is looking up and thinking about her. This elicits her most intimate revelation, that she had had a daughter who died in a freak accident. There is also no Mr. Stone waiting at home for her. Thus although the two characters have different personalities, both are escaping loneliness by a retreat to the beauty and peace of space.
Finally, there is the last shot, with Stone seen from behind against the sky, covered by light clouds. It reverses the opening, when we were in the opposite position, looking down at the earth from space, with the clouds of a huge hurricane prominently visible. There Stone drifted in space, held in place by a large mechanical arm; here she struggles to regain her sense of balance after prolonged weightlessness and succeeds in walking a few steps, thanks to gravity.
Like motifs, careful motivation of action helps us navigate through the plot. Given the rapidity with which new information is thrown at us as the narrative progresses, the screenwriters are careful to set up major premises in advance so that we will quickly understand them when they arrive. In the opening scene, as Kowalski swoops cheerfully around the shuttle, Houston asks about the supply of fuel in his jetpack. He reports that it’s 30% down. Not a lot, but enough that we are prepared for the moment after the disaster when he says he’s running “on the fumes.”
During the opening, the messages from Mission Control thoroughly forewarn us of the rapidly approaching hail of space debris. After it passes, Kowalski has Stone set her watch for 90 minutes, since that is when they can expect the same debris to return–as it does at regular intervals to destroy the ISS and the Chinese station. Stone reminds us of this danger when she exits the Soyuz vehicle to detach its parachute, muttering, “Clear skies with a chance of satellite debris.” The presence of the deployed parachute also sets up the moment when the chutes of the Chinese pod deploy as it nears its splashdown in the final sequence.
As Stone struggles to get aboard the ISS, Kowalski converses with her via radio. They mention her training with landing vehicles. Her only experience has been with simulators, and in every case she crashed them. Still, as Kowalski points out, she knows something about them–a point which proves vital in the dream scene discussed above, where Stone’s mind summons up a memory about how launching and landing space vehicles are not all that different.
Apart from creating a brief scene of suspense, the fire in the ISS introduces the fire extinguisher and demonstrates how, in a situation of weightlessness, the extinguisher propels Stone through space. This prepares us for the crucial scene in which she uses it as Kowalski had used the jetpack, allowing her to reach the Chinese station despite being untethered in space.
Character motivation, fortuitous events, and religion
Throughout the film the cause-effect chain remains fairly straightforward, with one major exception that I’ll get to shortly. But because the characters are reacting to rapidly changing circumstances almost entirely beyond their control, the outcomes are often fortuitous rather than the result of character traits. This is not to say the film uses numerous coincidences. It is not coincidence that Stone manages time and again at the last possible moment to grab a pipe or handle on the outside of a space vehicle. She’s aiming to do that, so she manages it not by coincidence but by luck.
Some of the most crucial events in the film are partly a matter of character motivation, but the outcomes of Stone’s and Kowalski’s actions are fortuitous. Stone apologizes to Kowalski for not having immediately obeyed his order to stop trying to repair her equipment and head for the space shuttle. She presumably continued with the rebooting because she is a dedicated researcher, reluctant to abandon her important work even when in physical danger. Yet as it turns out, reaching the space shuttle interior would have been fatal. When Kowalski and Stone do reach the shuttle, they find it split open, its crew dead–just as the pair would be had they retreated inside immediately. Stone’s delay actually saved the pair, though neither character could know this at the time.
Less obviously, Kowalski accidentally dooms himself. We see him in the opening minutes, cheerfully circling the shuttle and Hubble, playing music, telling anecdotes, and apparently hoping to stay outside the shuttle long enough to set a record. Presumably he has already accomplished his task in the space walk, or perhaps as the most experienced member of the team, he is watching over the other two. He is also, however, wasting fuel–fuel that he doesn’t realize he may need. Later, when forced to travel through space to rescue Stone and then to make it from the shuttle to the ISS, his tank becomes empty just before they reach it. His inability to maneuver without endangering Stone leads to him detaching his tether and stranding himself in space forever.
There are other fortuitous events. Stone is lucky that her Chinese pod lands in a body of water but close enough to shore that she can survive the impact and get onto land easily. It is probably by chance that in entering the Soyuz craft, the weightless fire extinguisher blocks the door and that she pulls it into the craft rather than pushing it out. Later the extinguisher enables her to propel herself to the Chinese station. There are also obstacles fortuitously created, as when Stone discovers that the Soyuz vehicle has no fuel–presumably because its supply tank has been ruptured by flying debris.
There may be one major exception to this dependence on accidental causes and effects: the religious motif. This is a strange motif, since it doesn’t become significant to the plot until fairly late. Early in the complicating action, as Kowalski and Stone journey toward the ISS and he asks her about her life on earth, he’s playing a country song, “Angels Are Hard to Find.” It’s playing when Stone mentions her daughter’s death; Kowalski soon turns it off to pay more serious attention to her story. At the time, the song doesn’t seem relevant. About seventy-two minutes in, the religious motif returns and becomes more prominent. Stone discovers that the Soyuz fuel tank is empty. The vehicle drifts as sunset settles on the earth below. We see vast snow fields and fjords below, and frost forms on the window. (The cut to the frosty window is one of the film’s few apparent ellipses.) There is a brief shot of a Russian icon inside the Soyuz (Christ as a child carried by John the Baptist, I think).
Immediately after this, Stone makes contact with someone on earth. She tries to communicate her mayday call. Gradually she loses hope and begins woofing in echo of dogs she hears on the radio. She says she’s going to die. During this scene she talks of how there is no one on earth who will mourn or pray for her soul. She asks the man to “Say a prayer for me.” She adds, “I’ve never prayed in my life. Nobody ever taught me how. Nobody ever taught me how.” A baby is heard on the radio, and the man apparently sings a lullaby to it. Stone sadly comments, “I used to sing to my baby. I hope I see her soon.” At that point she dials down the oxygen inflow and says, “Sing me to sleep, and I’ll sleep.”
As she falls asleep, a knock on the door is heard off, and Kowalski enters the Soyuz. He drinks some of the hidden vodka, chats, and tells her to use the soft-landing device. Although he sympathizes with her desire to surrender to the eternal peace of space, he encourages her to save herself rather than giving up: “Ryan, it’s time to go home.” After his disappearance, Stone once again strives to save herself.
Once she has reached the Chinese landing pod, she struggles to cope with its instrument control-panel. As the countdown clock starts running, there is a tilt up to a little Budda figure, roughly in the spot where the icon had been on the Soyuz. As Stone works, she talks to Kowalski, asking him to find her daughter: “Tell her that she is my angel.”
Finally, back on earth, in the final shot Stone struggles to rise, muttering “Thank you,” before walking away from the camera, which tilts up to a low angle of her against the sky.
Though this motif appears late in the film, the narrative stresses it. Something is going on here, but what?
Most obviously, Stone seems to become somewhat religious, despite never having prayed before. Perhaps this is simply an emotional change that allows her to reconcile somewhat to her daughter’s death, to feel hope and enthusiasm for carrying on with her attempts to reach earth, and to accept her survival as a gift to her from some sort of deity.
Given that the startling visit of Kowalski, whom we assume to be dead, to the Soyuz and also his providing Stone with the one bit of information she needs in order to carry on, we might assume that this scene presents a sort of miracle. Kowalski’s visit makes him a quasi-angelic figure bringing divine intervention to Stone, perhaps, or simply a vision inspired by a divine power.
Yet his return is cued as a dream, with Stone falling into a sleep that she assumes will end in death. We all have had some sort of experience with a dream providing inspiration or the solution to a nagging problem. As Kowalski points out, Stone should know that taking off and landing are essentially the same thing; it was part of her training. The dream does not give her the knowledge but rather reminds her of it. Indeed, after she wakes up, she still has to struggle to remember what she learned about soft landings and also consults the manual.
Everything in the dream reflects things we already know about the two characters. Kowalski mentioned knowing where the vodka is kept. Earlier he had reminded her of things she knows about landing from her training with simulators. His words to her about the sorrow of losing her daughter and the temptation to surrender to the eternal peace of space recall her own line from the beginning when he asked her what she likes about space: “The silence. I could get used to it.” (Cuarón, in an interview with Anne Thompson, refers to Kowalski’s return as “a projection of herself in a dream.”)
Seemingly Stone gains some sort of religious belief or spiritual consolation. While working on the Chinese pod’s controls, she talks animatedly to the absent Kowalski, whom she apparently envisions meeting her daughter in an unspecified afterlife. The “Thank you” at the end I take to be the conclusion of this monologue in the pod, thanking Kowalski. In a truly classical film, a character mentioning never having learned to pray would surely say a prayer later in the film. Stone never does. I interpret the religious motif as signaling a transformation of her attitudes rather than implying some sort of divine intervention to rescue her. Either way, some viewers might take this motif to be heavy-handed or saccharine, but its ambiguities could prevent others from having such reactions.
It all worked
The combination of narrative techniques that I have just analyzed obviously appealed to many of the the people who have seen the film.
On November 1, Box Office Mojo summed up the film’s career since its October 4 release:
Through four weeks in theaters, Gravity earned $206.1 million, which accounted for just under a third of total domestic box office earnings in October. It’s already the highest-grossing movie ever to be released during the Fall (September or October) and will earn at least another $50 million before the end of its run.
Gravity‘s remarkable success can be attributed in part to Warner Bros.’s great marketing campaign, which helped the movie set an October opening weekend record ($55.8 million). From there, the movie had an unprecedented second weekend hold thanks to world-of-mouth that asserted the movie needed to be seen on the biggest screen possible (and preferably in 3D). Speaking of 3D–Gravity‘s box office has been pumped up by the fact that most people (around 80 percent) are choosing to pay an extra few bucks to see the movie in that premium-priced format.
According to Variety, “Imax contributed 21% of the opening-weekend domestic cume for the film.”
(Even I, no fan of 3D, have seen it in that format at two of my three viewings so far and would do so again.)
Abroad, the film has also done well. As of November 6, its foreign box-office gross is about $207 million, with the film still to open in several major markets, and its domestic take has risen to almost $220 million, expected to top out at $260 million.
[Nov. 10: Box Office Mojo is now estimating that Gravity will ultimately gross about $660 million worldwide. It opened this weekend in the United Kingdom, where 89% of its ticket sales were for 3D screenings.]
This is also one of those rare films people see in theaters repeatedly within a short period. By the end of its opening weekend, three percent of audience members said they had already seen it more than once. On October 21, the film’s official FaceBook page asked fans, “How many times have you seen the film in theaters?” One, two, or three times were common, but even by that date, two and a half weeks into its run, there were a few who had seen it four or five times. Many single and repeat viewers mentioned plans to see it again. Quite a few also specified which formats they saw it in at the different screenings. Dan Fellman, head of Warner Bros.’s domestic distribution, remarked, “This is a phenomenon where people are asking friends and family not only if they’ve seen the film, but where.”
Some moviegoers (and critics) have found the film boring. But those who love it really love it.
Our next entry will deal with the film’s style and how it was achieved.
Coincidences can play many roles in a film’s plot, as we discuss in this entry. You could take Gravity’s ambivalent gestures toward Stone’s spiritual redemption as another example of Hollywood’s strategic ambiguity about controversial themes.
Jason Mittell has written an essay, “Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits,” which nicely complements my analysis. He concentrates on the film’s relation to traditional genres, discussing how it departs from familiar conventions of science-fiction and survival narratives.
P. S. 9 November: After I linked to this entry on my Facebook page, Meraj Dhir commented that the song Shariff sings as he does his little weightless dance is from a famous number in Raj Kapoor’s 1955 musical Shree 420. Not exactly relevant to my analysis, but fun to know, so thanks, Meraj! You can see the number here.
NOTE: On November 8, after watching the film a fourth time, I revised this post, correcting a few errors and quoting some brief passages of dialogue that I was able to record on this go-through. I have not noted the changes with the usual strike-through lines, since it seemed too complicated and distracting to do so in this case.
Earlier I’ve described our site as a series of experiments in para-academic writing—a strategy for getting our ideas and research to film enthusiasts both inside and outside educational institutions. Once we had created the site and mounted essays and blog entries, we pushed on to other possibilities.
Could we create a print book out of blog entries? Thanks to the University of Chicago Press, we did.
Could I post as an e-book a revised version of a published book, with expanded text and color stills? You bet!
Could I post a new e-book based on blog entries? Done.
Today we launch another experiment. Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages is offered to you as an e-book. It revises, reorganizes, and expands on several earlier posts. What’s the new wrinkle? For the first time we offer film clips “baked into” the text. A version without extracts is also available. The cost for either one is $1.99.
You can acquire either here, along with more information. What follows provides a little background on the project.
Is Christopher Nolan a good filmmaker? A bad one? Good on some dimensions, bad on others? What about the faults and virtues of individual films?
These are questions people consider typical of film criticism—questions turning on evaluation. Then there are questions of personal taste. Even if his films are good, do you dislike them? Even if they’re bad, do you enjoy them? Most people don’t distinguish between evaluation and taste, but I’ve argued before that this is an important distinction.
Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages grants that along certain dimensions Nolan’s films can be faulted. By some criteria, his technique occasionally falters. Along other dimensions, the work is valuable. But the primary concern of the book isn’t to evaluate Nolan. Kristin and I want to analyze some ways in which his narratives have been innovative.
Innovation isn’t inherently a good thing, of course, but we think that Nolan has fruitfully explored some fresh options in cinematic storytelling. Contrary to common opinion, we don’t think that the Dark Knight trilogy is a significant part of this tendency. We concentrate on Following, Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige, and especially Inception. We see in these films a consistent inquiry into how multiple time frames and embedded plotlines can be orchestrated in fresh and engaging ways.
The key problem is comprehensible complexity: How do you build more elaborate structures and still not lose your audience? How do you design a labyrinth that contains enough linkages to guide your viewer toward a unified experience? This is a problem that confronts any filmmaker who tries for ambitious storytelling within the tradition of mainstream American cinema.
So if one of your criteria for a good film is adventurous novelty, then there is a case to be made for Nolan. But maybe you don’t accept that criterion, or you resist the claim that he’s doing something intelligent with classical plot structures, or maybe his work just isn’t to your liking. Nonetheless, we hope that our analyses will shed light on his films—and more generally, on other films.
One of the goals of all our research, online and off, is to trace out broad tendencies. We’re interested in disclosing creative options that are available to filmmakers working in different traditions and at different points in film history. Other directors or screenwriters can push Nolan’s experiments in other directions. And we can study all these options and pathways while suspending evaluation and personal taste.
Old rules, and new
Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages sticks to some of the rules I outlined with respect to Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies.
The original blog entries aren’t taken down. All the original blog entries will remain available online. To see them, click on the Nolan category on the right.
The book isn’t simply a blog sandwich. One reason I created this book was to revise and reorganize the somewhat diffuse blog posts into something tighter, with a smoother flow of ideas.
The book has substantial new material. Some points in the original posts are expanded, while we add some fresh ideas about Nolan’s significance.
It isn’t an academic book. It’s written in the conversational style of our blogs. Nonetheless, the text and a reference section in the back provide links to documents, interviews, sources, and sites of interest.
The book isn’t free… Again, I’ve had to pay for design and work on the video clips. So my hope is to recoup my expenses and even pay myself something for my effort.
…but it’s very, very cheap. Planet Hong Kong 2.0 runs $15, which I think is a fair price given the cost of designing a long book with hundreds of color pictures. Pandora is a lot simpler and has only a few stills, so it costs $3.99. The Nolan book, quite a bit shorter than Pandora but with many stills and several video extracts, is priced at $1.99.
And there will be video. One version of the book contains six short extracts from films that are analyzed. These are “baked in.” That is, you don’t have to be online to watch them.
So now, some specifics. These are also reviewed on the purchase page.
We offer a vanilla version of Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages that is a pdf file of 10 MB. It contains lots of stills but no clips. It will display well on any computer or tablet. It costs $1.99.
The audiovisual version of the book is a much fatter pdf file, nearly 300 MB. That one will take longer to download, of course, but it will enable you to play the clips anywhere, whether you’re online or not. It too costs $1.99.
All the clips play smoothly on laptops and desktops, whether PC or Mac. As far as we know, Android-based tablets will run the clips organically. Still, some operating systems on some devices may not natively display the videos. Most notably, the Adobe PDF Reader on the iPad will not run the clips. But there is at least one iOS-friendly application available, PDF Expert, that will play the clips. Probably other apps exist or will be developed. You may want to experiment for best results.
Payment procedure is via PayPal, funneled through PayHip. PayHip enables us to put a big e-book file on the Cloud. When you make your purchase, you will be directed back to the PayHip site to download the book. An email will also be sent to the address you provided, with a download link.
Once more, you can go here to order the book. On the same page you can examine the Table of Contents.
As I said back in 2012 when we introduced Pandora: If you decide to buy the book, we thank you. And again we quote Jack Ryan from the end of The Hunt for Red October: Welcome to the new world.
Thanks to our Web tsarina Meg Hamel, who did her usual superb job turning the Nolan blogs into this little book, and who has set up the payment process to be quick and easy. Thanks as well to Erik Gunneson for his work preparing the clips for our analyses.
All illustrations in this entry from The Prestige.
The summer has brought us two major films by the two leading Hong Kong directors. I’ve discussed Johnnie To’s fine Drug War earlier. Now it’s time for some ideas about The Grandmaster. Wong Kar-wai’s film displays, in fairly straightforward ways, some of his typical artistic and commercial strategies. Here he adapts his characteristic approach to style and form to a classic genre—and to the demands of the marketplace.
On kung-fu considered as one of the fine arts
Wing Chun is the best-known and most influential Chinese martial art in the world. It owes its renown to two women and two men. In the 1700s the Buddhist nun Ng Mui developed a style called Plum Flower Fist, and a young woman named Yim Wing Chun adapted it into something requiring less strength. Bruce Lee trained in the style, revised it according to his interests, and popularized it in films that reached millions of viewers. Lee’s teacher was Ip Man, a master who settled in Hong Kong after World War II and set up a school. Ip made public a Southern fighting technique that had previously been shared among families and friends.
As both a mainlander and a Hong Konger, Ip is a good symbol of the union of two Chinas. Given the stunning rise of China’s economic and cultural power since the 1980s, it’s not surprising that someone would come up with the idea of a film about him.
Wong Kar-wai claims to have had that idea in the late 1990s. In 2002, he announced that a film about Ip was on his agenda. After finishing 2046 (2004) and an episode for the portmanteau film Eros (2004), he seemed to move forward, slating Tony Leung Chiu-wai as the star and bringing Ip’s family aboard as consultants. But other activities intervened, notably an ill-fated three-picture deal with Fox Searchlight. Wong continued to occupy himself with his other businesses, including his lucrative talent-management firm and his advertising unit, which made commercials for Dior, Lacote, Motorola, and other companies. He also directed My Blueberry Nights (2007) and recast Ashes of Time (1994) as Ashes of Time Redux (2008).
In 2009 he got to work on the Ip Man film, eventually bringing in funding from many sources, including mainland Chinese companies, Fortissimo, The Weinstein Company, and Annapurna Pictures. Scheduled for a premiere in late 2010, then late 2012, it didn’t appear until January of 2013. It seems that he was still doing postproduction in Thailand hours before its first press screening in Beijing.
During the ten years that The Grandmaster took to reach the screen, other filmmakers had seized on the great man’s life. Two popular Donnie Yen vehicles, Ip Man (2008) and Ip Man 2 (2010), were followed by a prequel The Legend Is Born: Ip Man (2010), and this year, after Wong’s film was released, Ip Man: The Final Fight.
However much Wong fiddles with his movies, in this case he kept the title fixed: Yi Dai Zong Shi. It literally means “The Grandmaster of That Era,” or—since Chinese doesn’t mark plurals in the noun—“The Grandmasters of That Era.” It’s significant that in early publicity, the project was known as The Grandmasters. Wong says his son talked him out of that title. Now, in non-Chinese-speaking countries, it’s The Grandmaster.
The ambiguity about the title takes on special relevance because we have several Grandmasters. After the Beijing premiere, The Grandmaster was released throughout China and in Hong Kong. It did good business, earning over US $47 million in those territories. Wong made a shorter version for the European market, and that was apparently the one premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February. A still shorter version was prepared for the U.S., with The Weinstein Company as distributor. It opened in August, to mostly good reviews, and it has currently reaped about $6 million at the American box office. So far, the film’s worldwide gross is nearly $63 million, making it by far Wong’s most commercially successful theatrical release.
Will the real Grandmaster please…?
The three versions tell variants of a core story that starts in southern China in the 1930s. A curtain-raiser shows Ip defeating a rambunctious gang who attack him in a downpour. Although the scene’s place in the plot seems not to be specified, in part it serves as a flamboyant demonstration of Wing Chun’s ability to defeat the powerful leg-fighting techniques characteristic of Northern styles. We then get a prologue in which Ip, the son of a wealthy family, recounts his lifelong dedication to kung-fu. Comfortable with his wife and children in Foshan, he says that he lives in an eternal spring, harking back to the meaning of the name Wing Chun (“celebrate springtime in song and poetry”).
A Northeastern master, Gong Yutian, comes to Foshan looking for a major bout with a talented newcomer before he retires. Ip is picked to fight him, and after some testing by local experts who practice Gong’s signature styles, the match takes place. It’s a waltzing, sidling encounter that Ip wins through nuance, not brute force. Gong retires gracefully, but his daughter Gong Er considers her father disgraced and demands a match with Ip. She applies her father’s tough Bagua technique, with its dazzling handwork and spinning evasions, and defeats Ip. In the course of the match, he becomes fascinated with her. When Japan takes over China in 1937, their rematch is postponed, and they pursue their lives separately for several years.
Ip struggles to survive. He refuses to collaborate with the occupiers and feeds his family on what he can scrounge. Gong Er’s problem revolves around the renegade disciple Ma San, who kills her father in a duel and takes over the school and compound. Ip’s two daughters die, and after the war he migrates to Hong Kong, hoping his wife can join him. But after the Chinese revolution, the border is sealed and he never sees his wife again. Gong Er also winds up in Hong Kong; she managed to reclaim her father’s estate by defeating Ma San, but she has vowed never to marry or to teach kung-fu. She has become a doctor instead. When Ip meets her again, she is already in poor health, partly because of the fight with Ma, but also because of her opium addiction.
Other characters wind their way through the story, most notably Gong Yutian’s brother and Razor, a partisan during the Japanese occupation who quits the Kuomintang to become a barber in Hong Kong. By the end, Ip is the last of the era. As Gong passed the torch of martial arts to him, so he will pass it to many others. Apparently a passive character, especially compared with Gong Er, Ip illustrates the “horizontal/vertical” maxim he starts with: “Stay standing and you win.”
Without counting the credit sequences, the three versions have running times as follows: 124:26 for the China/Hong Kong release; 114:24 for the European release; and 100:52 for the U.S. release. Some American critics have objected to the third version’s radical compression, and indeed much of interest has been lost. Yet many of the changes we encounter in the U. S. version were already present in the European one. To complicate matters, versions two and three aren’t simple cutdowns of the long one. Some shots and sequences are rearranged, and both the second and third versions contain footage, indeed entire scenes, not present in the “original.”
In other words, the usual Wong drill. He is famous for showing up at a film festival just in time, the print moist from the lab, and then recutting it after its premiere. Sometimes the changes result from external pressures: the international cut of Ashes of Time begins and ends with staggering fight scenes added at the behest of its Taiwanese producers. But often Wong tinkers with his footage on his own. He trimmed 2046 by fifteen minutes after its Cannes bow. There are at least two versions of Chungking Express, and at least three of My Blueberry Nights. There are two versions of Days of Being Wild, one with a game-changing prologue. (I talk about that here.) And of course Wong redid Ashes of Time fourteen years after its initial appearance. (I consider the results here.) At one point he talked about issuing a vast DVD set including all the variants of all his films. The constant fiddling that drives him to make his films in postproduction doesn’t end with the premiere.
So I think we ought not to assume without more evidence that Wong was forced to change what was a definitive version. For him, I think, a film may never assume a final shape. This is the man who considered putting all the footage shot for Happy Together on the Internet for fans to cut together however they liked. It may have been a publicity ploy or a passing fancy, but the very fact he voiced it suggests an openness to endless revision.
According to a valuable piece by Justin Chang in Variety, Wong worked with Harvey Weinstein on both the European and the American versions. I don’t know the full story of this collaboration. But if Weinstein insisted on a still shorter version for America, Wong’s simplest course would have been to take the European cut and pare it down, adding even more expository titles to plug the gaps. The fact that he rearranged footage and added new material suggests that he took the new constraints as something of a challenge. He once suggested:
Why does Godard come up with the jump cut? He made the films too long, so he had to take out some of the shots randomly. So you have to be flexible. And sometimes those restrictions become your source of inspiration.
Told to make a movie shorter, Wong seems to seize the excuse to rework his footage one more time—to create reorderings, connections, and emphases that bring out different facets of the material. “Instead of doing a short version,” Wong has claimed. ”I wanted to do a new version. I wanted to tell the story in a different way.”
Not incidentally, coming of age as a director in the era of home video, Wong is also aware of some commercial benefits. There are plenty of people who will happily buy all three cuts of The Grandmaster on disc. They’ll enjoy picking out different scenes and juxtapositions while still hoping for a full cut in the years to come. A part of Wong’s fanbase has come to expect, and enjoy, his makeovers.
A Chinese kaleidoscope
Wong doesn’t finalize a script, overshoots vastly, and may return for more footage years after the crew and cast thought the scene was done. Once he gets a new idea he can scrap months of expensive work. A big set built for the future world of 2046 went unused. “Thank God,” sighs his former DP Christopher Doyle, “there is no one else in the world who works this way.”
All these tactics give him great flexibility in creating different versions, and so does his characteristic style. Wong’s techniques and his stories facilitate fleshing out parts, snipping out other parts, and recombining still others. This sort of reworking can’t be done so freely when narratives are more linear and the visuals and sounds are more tightly tied to the action. Since Wong makes his movies out of pieces that can be recombined in many ways, each film is like a kaleidoscope. Shake it, and the pieces reconfigure.
At the level of the action, he can achieve this fluency through flashbacks and, in particular, his strategy of multiple-protagonist plots. Most filmmakers are content to focus on one central character, or possibly two, such as a romantic couple or a pair of police investigators. Other characters are definitely subsidiary, and they get identified in relation to the causal actions driving our prime movers.
As Tears Go By, Wong’s first film, centers on one protagonist, while Happy Together concentrates on a couple. Other Wong films, though, exhibit more complicated narrative maneuvers. In the Mood for Love takes the familiar form of two romantic triangles (as in Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle). The husband of one couple is having an affair with the wife of the other. The innovation is that we almost never see their liaisons; in fact, we don’t see either of the adulterous spouses directly. The plot’s focus is entirely on the two wronged partners, who fall in love with each other. This is a good example of how restricted narration can reshape our sense of plot structure.
Sometimes we have parallel protagonists: two characters who aren’t embarked on the same enterprise (they may not even know each other) but who claim our interest equally. In Chungking Express, each of two policemen has broken up with one girlfriend and is in the process, vaguely, of finding a new one. Here Wong’s bold stroke is to avoid interweaving the two men’s stories. Instead, he simply spliced the end of one cop’s story to the beginning of the next, with a shared space, the Midnight Express fast-food joint, linking the two. Something similar happens in 2046, in which one protagonist is a novelist and the other dwells inside the writer’s fiction.
More drastic is the strategy of creating a central character as a point of intersection of other fates. Days of Being Wild puts the pouting, selfish Yuddy at its center, and other characters are his friends, relatives, and lovers. But Wong goes on to create significant plots around those characters too, giving us a sort of network narrative. The policeman Tide, for instance, is pulled into the action by meeting Li-Zhen, after she has been discarded by Yuddy. Tide will, by coincidence, eventually meet Yuddy in the Philippines. Even further away is the mysterious man played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai, who appears in an epilogue grooming himself to go out. This last-minute walk-on of a character with no apparent connection to the action remains a daring innovation. But one version of the film sets up a prologue in which the man is seen starting to dress up while his voice-over reflects on a man he knew—presumably Yuddy.
In similar fashion, the bounty-hunter agent Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time is at the center of a web of relationships. His friend Huang Yaoshi not only courts the woman Ouyang yearns for but also tries to seduce Peach Blossom, the wife of a blind swordsman who comes to Ouyang looking for work. A brother and sister, named Yin and Yang and played by the same actress, complicate the plot still further. Like Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, Ouyang Feng connects several characters and becomes for the most part the central consciousness of the film—the first among equals, we might say.
These patterns are, famously, not scripted in detail. They emerge from Wong carving into masses of footage and building his plots in postproduction. But this can lead to brutal surgery. An entire plotline involving pop diva Shirley Kwan was cut from Happy Together, and Maggie Cheung was startled to discover she barely appeared in 2046.
There’s some evidence that The Grandmaster was once planned to be something of a multiple-protagonist film, with Ip Man serving as the point of intersection in the manner of Yuddy and Ouyang Feng. Part of that evidence is internal to the film, chiefly involving the brusque introduction and departure of Razor in all versions. In addition, Wong has talked in an interview about modeling the four-hour version of his film on a traditional Chinese novel format, the zhanghui xiaoshuo.
What appeals to Wong in this “chaptered novel” genre is that it offers a set of linked, fairly developed stories concentrating first on one character, then on another. Major characters in one section could reappear as minor ones later.
A novel like this never follows any particular character. A main character in one chapter may just hurry away in another chapter. The author will continue by telling another story. I think that this structure is unique to the Chinese novel. Such is life. Suppose you meet a very good friend. Next time you meet him, he has moved to Chengdu. And five years later you meet him again. That’s the structure of the four-hour version.
However, this structure is too free for contemporary audiences to follow. Therefore, in the two-hour version, I chose to tell the story in a chronological way, from 1936 to the end of the story.
We have to remember that in interviews, Wong often tries to tie his films to the traditions of the culture he’s addressing. In the west he called his films with Chris Doyle “jam sessions,” and he compares their structure to the novels of Puig and Garcia Marquez. This isn’t bad faith, I think; it’s just that Wong is looking everywhere for analogies to the sort of decentered organization he favors. And his evocation of traditional novels like The Water Margin (ca. 1368) does capture some of the centrifugal organization of Days and Ashes.
In any case, it seems likely that that what was once called The Grandmasters might have become a panoramic survey in the manner Wong indicates, with Ip Man as a connecting thread. In the course of filming he doubtless expanded the roles of figures who became marginal. Perhaps the 130-minute version was already something of a compromise with this more sprawling structure.
Splits and mergers
Wong has carved somewhat different films out of his mass of material. For one thing, he has shifted some big blocks.
The Chinese and European versions of The Grandmaster follow Ip Man’s life up through the Japanese invasion. Then the plot follows Gong Er for about twenty minutes. On a train, she helps the wounded Razor (our first sight of him) as he avoids the Japanese. After the collaborator Ma kills her father, he installs himself in the household and blocks Gong Er from her rightful place. She consults with her father’s disciples and confronts Ma in the compound. There she warns him that she will take back the Gong legacy. She slips off her engagement ring and returns it to her fiancé. In a temple, where she seeks out permission from her father’s spirit, she vows chastity. She snips off a strand of hair, burns it in a candle flame, and encloses the ashes in a box. (In the European version, we see her cut it; in the Hong Kong version, we simply see her close the box, while a late flashback shows her cutting the hair.) At that point we leave Gong Er’s storyline unfinished. We move to 1950 Hong Kong, where Ip starts to establish himself as a teacher.
Only after we have followed Ip’s Hong Kong stay for some time do we learn the outcome of Gong Er’s struggle with Ma San. In a flashback apparently prompted by her encounter with Ip, we see her climactic meeting with Ma at the railway terminal in 1940. In that duel, she defeats him and takes back the Gong school, at the cost of serious injuries. Somewhat later we have Ip’s reflection that in Hong Kong Gong Er stopped seeing her patients and started smoking opium. Their final meeting takes place in a teahouse, followed by her drugged reverie recalling her happiest days, training in the snowy north. After their last encounter, a servant brings Ip the box bearing the ashes of her hair.
In these two versions Wong has followed the idea of chopping up his tale novelistically. Gong Er’s wartime experiences are split into two parts, creating some suspense through the middle portion of the film: Will she reclaim her legacy, and what made her come to Hong Kong? Moreover, the Chinese and European versions don’t give us a smooth pairing-up of Ip and Gong Er. Their meetings are broken up by other pieces of action. After Ip visits her, but before her flashback, we get a scene of Ip meeting Master Gong’s brother reminiscing about their lost world and the dark side of the kung-fu tradition. “Forget 64 Hands,” he warns Ip. Then, without any lead-in, we get Gong Er’s flashback to the fight with Ma. After that, instead of moving directly back to Ip’s story, we get a 1952 scene showing Razor in his barbershop thrashing a man seeking money for his mother’s funeral.
He’s so impressive that the victim wants to be his disciple, and Ip’s voice-over tells us that Razor founded his own school, bringing Baji boxing to Hong Kong. Only then do we return to Ip’s report on Gong Er’s decline.
A cynic would argue that some of these comparatively unrelated sequences had to be retained because Razor, played by Chang Chen, is a significant Taiwanese star and cutting him out would be bad for business. But we know from the U. S. version that Wong did have footage bringing Razor more firmly into Ip’s line of action. So Wong has kept to his model of digressive interruptions, wedging these “chapters” in among larger story arcs.
For the American version, Wong has ironed out some of the bumps. In that cut, we are with Ip Man from the start and mostly throughout. After the confrontation in the Gold Pavilion brothel and the exchange of letters, the narration doesn’t adhere to Gong Er until Ip meets her again in Hong Kong. In a longer version of their encounter, after he leaves her apartment she drifts onto the roof, musing in voice-over, “Mr. Ip, it was ten years ago….” Then we get in one long chunk Ma San’s takeover of the household and her eventual victory over him. The scene of Er’s meeting Razor on the train is gone, as is his barbershop fight in Hong Kong. Overall, the scenes bearing on the Ip/Gong Er phantom romance are joined in a smooth flow that ends with a version of her opium reverie. It’s as if Wong thinks that Americans want a more continuous plot than the zhanghui form provides.
Before we condemn this as dumbing down, we should consider that Wong has done something like it before. The embedded stories of Ashes of Time are treated as lengthy, mostly uninterrupted blocks centered on this or that character, flashbacks included. In several of his films, Wong follows a Hong Kong industry practice of organizing the overall plot reel by reel, with one or two reels devoted to each character’s embedded story. The effect of gathering the Hong Kong kung-fu scenes in one batch and the romance scenes in another keeps the focus on Ip. Even when Gong Er’s voice-over introduces the flashback his voice-over takes over after the end. Did she tell him this tale that we overhear as an inner monologue, or did he know by lovers’ telepathy?
In all, the U.S. version keeps the focus firmly on Ip, while building the film toward revelation of the love he might have shared with Gong Er. Here we get a line that comes at the start of the Chinese and European version:
I lived through dynastic times, the early republic, warlords, Japanese invasion, and civil war. Finally I came to Hong Kong. What kept me going was the martial arts code of honor.
Arriving at the end of the film, the line takes on a summarizing resonance. It places the episodes we’ve seen in that larger view Ip urges others to take. It comes as a lesson learned rather than a given truth that the film will illustrate.
A martial arts mosaic
Here’s another analogy. At the level of style, Wong is assembling each film out of bits that can be reconfigured on another occasion. Looked at shot by shot, The Grandmaster becomes a sort of mosaic.
By now everyone is familiar with Wong’s late decorative look: out-of-focus foregrounds partially blocking the action, trembling reflections in mirrors and water, wisps and curls of smoke, luxuriant costumes and sets, ripe chiaroscuro lighting. After experimenting with casual handheld shooting in Chungking Express and grotesque wide angles in Fallen Angels, he settled on something more traditionally sumptuous in Happy Together and subsequent films.
He could be our von Sternberg, were it not for his nervous pace, his habit of teasingly chopping off his pretty shots. Despite his mood-drenched frames, he betrays almost no interest in staging conversations in complex ways. Wong is, in sum, a very cutting-centered director.
The Grandmaster is virtually a textbook in constructive editing. Many scenes simply omit establishing shots and give us a volley of close-ups of characters speaking or looking from fixed positions.
The Golden Pavilion brothel is a warren of windows, which lets various characters peer out at the action from undefined areas. In the Hong Kong version, after Ip has defeated Master Gong, he looks to frame right. Cut to Gong Er, who has been watching the match from some unspecified point. She bolts out frame right, and then we cut to Jiang, her guardian. Initially he seems to be watching Ip, but he seems then to see Er leave, because he turns right to rush out. Then we cut back to Ip, who apparently follows their progression by shifting his glance.
At no point do we get shots that include all these characters, or even two of them, in the same frame.
Not only do we get lots of close-ups, but they’re frequently filmed from a slightly high angle. This gives the style a consistency across scenes; the fragmentation might be more jarring if people were shot from many different angles.
The intimate high-angle is given special poignancy when we see Gong Er upside down, drifting in her opium reverie and gradually covered by a dissolve to the snowy Northeast country of her childhood.
When we do get establishing shots, they are few and not always consistent, as in the scenes taking place in the Golden Pavilion brothel. Here scenes melt into one another, with little demarcation of separate points of time and often little sense that the fights are taking place in front of witnesses. Longer shots are so rare that Wong can save their impact for frozen tableaux, as in the ceremonial moments when Ip faces Master Gong (below) and, as a parallel, Gong Er (at top). And even these aren’t really establishing the place of all the onlookers.
Sometimes the establishing shots don’t establish. You have to look quick to see the “master” framing below as telling us much about the confrontation of Jiang and Gong Er after she has fled from her father’s bout with Ip.
Wong’s cutting pace has picked up as well. In the Mood for Love has fewer than 500 shots, but 2046 has nearly 900 and the U.S. theatrical cut of My Blueberry Nights has over 1200. The Grandmaster goes far beyond its predecessors, offering over 2500 shots in the long version and about 2000 in the U.S. release. This puts his average shot length into the 3-4 second range. Lest we think that the speedup is due to the action sequences, the swordplay-filled Ashes of Time Redux contains only about 850 shots.
The fragmentation of Wong’s visual style partly reflects his production methods. Complicated camera movements and ensemble staging would demand that he prepare scenes in detail and work out the staging. But the actors never see a script and don’t rehearse. Better, Wong evidently thinks, to position actors standing or sitting, grab lots of shots, and fit it all together after you’ve figured out a story line.
Given this approach, the transition between one shot and another doesn’t have to be very precise. Instead of “continuity” between shots, many Wong scenes have what you might call concealed discontinuity. He will cut from a momentarily blocked image (as the camera coasts around the set) to another part of the scene. He will insert a prop, or a shot that tilts up from an actor’s waist or hips. Snippets of shots can be dropped into a scene, and even if their exact story position is uncertain, we get the point on the fly. We become used to laconic storytelling: little scene-setting, brief sequences, and ellipses within the scenes.
Once scenes feature many skipped-over actions, Wong doesn’t need to shoot linking shots. To put it in fancy terms, we come to accept elliptical cutting as an intrinsic norm, not just between scenes but within them. It would be hard to tell if something is missing—especially if the soundtrack creates some cohesion. You can always use voice-over or music to stitch together a fairly disjointed stretch of shots.
More weirdly, a cutaway that is used in one scene can be recycled in a later one in the same set. For example, the old master Rui who tests Ip’s ability to handle Xangyi technique is seen peering through a window in the brothel when Ip confronts Master Gong. A very similar shot, though with different lighting, appears when he watches the revenge match between Ip and Gong Er.
The effect isn’t unlike that in some Soviet silent films, in which shots seen earlier are recruited for fresh duties in a new scene.
Again, an intrinsic norm kicks in, and we take pretty much what we’re given. For the same reason, I think, Wong doesn’t give us many over-the-shoulder shots, as they specify spatial relations a little more than he wants. Likewise, his decentered close-ups, which don’t let an actor’s glance fill the empty area of the frame, may enhance our sense of a loosely defined story space. Wong had experimented with this in his earlier films, but the wider anamorphic ratio of 2046 and My Blueberry Nights (below) seems to have made it more attractive to him. I think that the absence of master shots makes this off-balance framing especially prominent in The Grandmaster.
This mosaic patterning gives Wong’s films a distinctive texture, and it provides storytelling advantages. The laconic cutting can permit crisp, rapid narration; no need to waste time with establishing shots and images of people entering or leaving buildings. Scenes can be astonishingly short. Even in the “full” version of The Grandmaster, many scenes last less than a minute. At the same time, the fragmentation leads naturally to the lyrical music montages that Wong is fond of. A moment can be expanded through a string of shots, enhanced by slow motion or ramping.
What gives Wong flexibility in assembly also permits him to build different versions for different markets. Because every shot can be connected to others in a variety of ways, he has plenty of leeway for trimming or adding, throwing shots out or adding some in. This is indeed what we find in the various versions, where some scenes are reduced in their duration and others are extended. For example, in the U. S. version, Gong Er’s recollection of her challenge to Ma is introduced with several shots of her drifting across her apartment and onto the building’s flat rooftop. These aren’t in the other versions, but they are easy to add to a scene that already contains fairly vague spatial continuity. In all, Wong’s patchwork coverage of scenes gives him more freedom in reworking the film than conventional continuity would.
Those who can, teach
I argue in Planet Hong Kong that despite his references to intellectual topics, Wong is a filmmaker rooted in popular culture. He exploits star images, pop songs, and especially Hong Kong movie genres. He has appropriated the romantic comedy, the crime movie, the tragic-Triad gangster saga, the swordplay film, and above all the melodrama. Of course he revises the conventions he seizes upon, but his crossover inclinations make his films enjoyable to people who wouldn’t sit through Antonioni or Tarr. This is no less true of The Grandmaster, at once kung-fu movie, historical biopic, and muted love triangle.
Wong eagerly embraces the staples of the martial arts picture. The variations of speed, from slow-motion to ramping and jittery movement, were there in his earlier work, but now they join the great tradition of kinetic action. The variety of angles, the dust billowing when someone is whacked, the rapid track-ins to poised combat stances, the magnified whooshes and smacks, the fighters hurled through windows, the kicks that bash brick walls and loosen iron bolts, the fights in rain and snow recalling Kurosawa—we’ve been here before.
Admittedly, Wong rubs his characteristic gloss into the visuals. Classic kung-fu films of the 1970s were fast-cut, but they usually featured long shots from many angles, with occasional cut-ins to close views to accentuate certain moments. 1980s directors like Yuen Kwai broke down the action still further, but the inserts of hands, faces, feet, and props were instantly legible and spatially continuous. These fast shots disassembled the fight into crisp details. (Examples are here and here.)
In The Grandmaster, Wong steers a course between precise articulation of certain moments and a loose, sketchy piling up of gestures. Shallow-focus close-ups of hammering fists and pivoting bodies offer a fusillade of sensuous appeals. Some passages have a nearly abstract flow, but impressionistic blurs and smears are halted with a snap by a highly readable establishing shot, abrupt moments of stasis, or hypersharp slowed motion. To scrutinize the film’s distinctive style properly, we’d have to work with a 35mm print (the gauge in which most of it was shot) and go frame by frame.
Despite the polished surface, Wong’s core drama respects basic conventions. The plot rests upon the rivalry among schools, the demand to synthesize and reconcile warring combat styles, the calmness of true masters versus the heedless arrogance of street fighters, and the secret techniques that settle a fight. In the moment that Master Wong throws out Ma San as a renegade, his use of his supreme move, “The Old Monkey Hangs Up His Badge,” is barely glimpsed in the film’s most impressionistic fight. The power of this family legacy is reaffirmed when Gong Er applies it to win the fight with Ma San at the railway station.
As in classic kung-fu movies, combats are characterizing. The crushing-fist technique of Xingyi deployed by Ma San fits his personality, while Gong Er employs the graceful but deadly Bagua (usually transliterated as Pa Kua). Their styles encapsulate the two sides of old Gong’s legacy, for he was able to merge the two styles (as indeed they were merged by many practitioners). Wing Chun, by contrast, is chiefly a self-defense school. It favors deflecting an onslaught of blows with palm, fist, leg, and forearm movements that are also attacks; the fighter keeps blocking until a space opens up for a decisive punch or kick. The simplicity, resourcefulness, and modesty of Wing Chun defines Ip as a man.
More broadly, the combats contrast the sadistic fury of Ma San and Razor with the relaxed confidence of old Gong and Ip. The first two grandmasters are arrogant bullies, while Gong and Ip maintain the tradition of kung-fu as a repository of decency, dignity, and wisdom.
Gong Er is caught in the middle. She is from the start characterized as willful (part of Zhang Ziyi’s star persona since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and too conscious of the martial-arts hierarchy. Old Gong considers Ip’s victory over him an inevitable passing of authority to the young, but Gong Er is bent on regaining the clan’s status. Defeating Ip with the 64 Hands technique of Bagua confirms her in her narrow sense of tradition and honor. But when a skirmish with Ma San kills her father and he usurps her place in the household, she refuses to follow the path old Gong marked out for her: marriage, children, and medical career.
The drive for revenge and justice fueling many classic martial arts films is here focused around Gong Er’s tragic dilemma. To uphold the family’s repute, she must destroy the tradition that her father created. Her plot line, unusually for a Wong film, actually thrusts forward dynamically. Her desires and goals sharpen into a conflict between two forms of duty: to her father’s wishes and to his historic legacy. Had she been born a boy, she reflects, all would have been easier, presumably because she would have inherited the tradition that Ma seizes by force. As it is, they split the heritage: Ma San knows Xingyi, she knows Bagua. The battle on the train platform presents a clash of the two techniques that Master Gong so proudly synthesized. They will never be reunited.
There’s a satisfaction in seeing Gong Er use her father’s decisive strike to vanquish Ma San, and she keeps part of her pledge by fulfilling his request that she become a doctor. Yet it’s a hollow victory. Her decision to disobey her father in the name of righteousness eventually comes to nothing. History intervenes and she winds up fleeing to Hong Kong as Ip has. Sworn never to marry or teach kung-fu, Gong Er dies, and her father’s beautiful variant of the 64 Hands technique dies with her.
But not the tradition of honor and teaching her father represented. In a crucial passage early on, old Gong announces his pride in uniting Bagua and Xinyi, and he wishes he were able to bring Southern martial arts to China. Ip, however, reminds him that the world is bigger; why stop with China? When Gong Er’s Bagua defeats Ip’s Wing Chun, she upbraids him in similar terms: he needs to widen his vision to encompass what the 64 Hands can do.
Fleeing the civil war, Ip carries his experience to a martial arts culture quite different from Foshan’s. From the luxurious brothel where martial artists gather to spar and honor their elders, Ip is brought to Tai Nan Street in Hong Kong. There rows of schools beg for customers, lion dancers brawl, and ruffians splash out money for some quick lessons. Ip’s resolute purity of spirit sets him apart from this shabby milieu. By the end of the film, having encountered other schools and styles and incorporating some into his repertoire, Ip carries the entire tradition of Chinese kung-fu to the world. His grinning young pupil would be known as Bruce Lee.
The button and the box
“I was lucky to meet you in my prime,” Gong Er tells Ip during their last meeting in Hong Kong. Her remark points two ways, toward their trials in combat but also toward the love that might have been. To the kung-fu genre Wong brings his characteristic register of languorous melodrama with its missed opportunities and lingering reflection on what might have been.
As sometimes happens in Wong’s films, love tokens are on display. When the Japanese invasion prevents Ip from visiting Gong Er, he sells his heavy coat to get money to feed his family, but he tears off one button to keep as a reminder. In Hong Kong he obliges Er to take it. At their last meeting, she returns the button to him, but after her death she reciprocates his gift by giving him the gilded box that holds the ashes of her hair.
Significantly, the Chinese version ends not with Ip’s success as a teacher but with images of the Buddhist temple where Gong Er made her pledge. This epilogue is at once a recollection of her tragic choice and an echo of her father. Throughout the film, the martial arts tradition is identified with fire: Gong’s brother’s cookstove, his balletic offering of a match for Ip’s cigarette, Gong Er’s burning of her lock of hair (above). The motif becomes crucial when Gong Er takes the lamp flickering beneath the Buddha to be a sign of her father’s permission to pursue Ma San. Now, in the shots that conclude the film, many lamps and candles burn under many Buddhas. We’re reminded of the monastic source of Shaolin kung-fu and the fact that Ip is the man who, as old Gong urged, will “keep the light burning.”
The final temple shots aren’t in the later versions, and the U. S. cut drastically compresses the scene of her first visit to the temple, omitting the crucial details of the lamp as a sign. Other differences play up the romance element more strongly. In the Chinese version, Ip’s childhood is covered in the summary montage at the start, and Gong Er’s isn’t shown at all. The European and American versions build a stronger link between the two through parallels. In her opium flashback, Gong Er is shown learning the Bagua technique by spying on her father; soon he is training her. These glimpses of girlhood are intercut with her doing sets in the snow. Soon afterward, we get Ip’s flashback to his boyhood when he was accepted as a student by Master Chan Wah-shun. The two sequences create a sort of secret bond between the quasi-lovers.
More generally, the American version highlights the muffled romance between Ip and Gong Er. Their exchange of letters now includes fantasy inserts of him visiting her father’s compound and the two practicing in a parlor. It’s suggested that his wife is aware of his attraction to Er and gives him permission to embark on the visit that is blocked by the war. After the war and a string of scenes showing Ip and other martial artists marooned in Hong Kong, the romance returns. Ip visits Gong Er and catches up on her doings during last decade.
A new romance seems even likelier because of the way Wong has repositioned Ip’s realization that he and his wife won’t be reunited. In the Chinese and European releases, this comes very late, after Gong Er’s death. It marks his admission that he has no chance to return home, that he can only press forward. But the U.S. version slots in this sequence earlier, holding out the possibility of a romantic liaison between Ip and Er. This prospect is consonant with the version’s more prolonged lead-in to her flashback to 1940, which includes her bodyguard Jiang telling her that her father would approve of her marriage to Ip. She then goes out onto the terrace, clasping the button, and, as we see shots of Ip intercut with shots of her, we hear her narration: “Mr. Ip, it was ten years ago….” Is it a displaced passage of dialogue, shifted from her telling him the story earlier? Or is it an internal monologue addressed to him, as if by telepathy? This poetic ambivalence isn’t there in the earlier versions.
What is there in all versions is the reiterated parallel between martial artistry and affairs of the heart. After their bout in the brothel, seeing the 64 Hands again becomes Ip’s shorthand for seeing Gong Er again. Their quietly flirtatious exchange of letters sets up a rematch that’s also a rendezvous. Another link between love and kung-fu comes with Master Gong’s advice. “Better to go forward than stay in place” becomes Gong Er’s watchword in fighting for her patrimony and vowing to stay celibate. But she also recalls the admonition her father addressed to Ma San: “Kung fu isn’t just charging forward. Look behind you as well.” Ma San, who says he collaborated with the Japanese because good warriors adjust to the moment, failed to look back to Master Gong’s precepts of modesty and upright conduct. In Hong Kong, Gong Er discovers the emotional dimension of her father’s lesson. Having gone on as far as she can (“a road I won’t see to the end”), she can only look back at what might have been—her love for Ip Man.
In a fulfillment of her father’s advice to look beyond the mountains, she has “seen the world. Sadly, I can’t pass on what I know.” Ip can. As a teacher like old Gong, he advances resolutely into the future. Yet he still longs to see the 64 Hands technique one more time. The Old Monkey move, Master Gong says, involves “looking back in reflection.” Only Wong Kar-wai would turn advice about combat tactics into an admonition to preserve the memory of unconsummated love.
Thanks to Li Cheuk-to, Tony Rayns, Ben Brewster, Lea Jacobs, and Kristin for information and ideas about The Grandmaster. A special thanks to Zhang Junyi for his enthusiastic help with Chinese-language sources.
Both the European and American versions of The Grandmaster feature a credit cookie lasting about a minute in which Ip, on a stylized staircase, leads us through a flurry of fights and then cocks an eye at the camera: “What’s your style?” It’s probably too knowing a parallel between style-conscious Wong and Ip, but its break with the noble and poignant tone of the main ending is pretty typical of Hong Kong cinema’s insouciant storytelling.
A revealing glimpse into Wong’s working methods is provided by his cinematographer. Justin Chang’s Variety interview with Wong is likewise informative. Wong talks about shooting on film here, remarking that he knew it was time to wrap when Fuji couldn’t supply any more 35mm stock. There are many sharp reviews of the film, but the one by Kozo here is one of the most nuanced. He sees the film as opening up new paths in Wong’s development.
Arguing that the U. S. cut ruins the film, David Ehrlich provides a very helpful and detailed list of the differences between the Hong Kong Grandmaster and the U. S. release. The Chinese version (all-region, with good English subtitles) may be ordered from yesasia in either Blu-ray or standard DVD. The European version I worked from is the French one, available here as a typically flashy Wong package.
The other Ip Man films are quite different and heavily fictionalized, but at least the first three are worth watching as updates of long-standing martial-arts genre conventions. They include stirring sequences of GOFRBSKF (Good Old-Fashioned Righteous Butt-Stomping Kung-Fu). Herman Yau’s Ip Man: The Legend Is Born (2010) has a nifty secene in which an old man instructively thrashes the young Ip in a cramped pharmacy. The pharmacist is played by Ip Chun, son of the real Ip Man and president of the Hong Kong Wing Chun association. Yau’s film also contains a brief passage of sparring between legends Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. According to this story, the Ip Man cycle has led to booming enrollment in Wing Chun schools.
Back to Wong Kar-wai: The Hong Kong International Film Festival always runs a retrospective on one director or star, and this year the attention fell on Andrew Lau Wai-Kung. Known principally as the director of the Infernal Affairs trilogy, he began his career as a cinematographer. The long interview in the program’s book, Filmmaker in Focus: Andrew Lau, reveals a lot of material about Hong Kong industry practices from the 1980s onward. Wong fans will be especially interested in what he has to say about filming As Tears Go By. (It’s not usually mentioned that Lau also shot a great deal of Chungking Express before Chris Doyle replaced him.) Filmmaker in Focus: Andrew Lau is available from the publications page of HKIFF. Thanks to Li Cheuk-to for his assistance–and for his correction of a translation!
Some of the ideas I float in this entry are developed at greater length in the revised edition of Planet Hong Kong.
P.S. 23 September 2013, later: Today it was announced that The Grandmaster will be Hong Kong’s submission for the Academy Award for Foreign-Language Film. But which version?
P.P.S. 23 September 2013, still later: Li Cheuk-to writes to tell me that the version submitted for the Oscars is the U.S. version, which has played seven times in Hong Kong in order to qualify.
P.P.P.S 18 October: Harvey Weinstein talks about the changes in the US version. “At the end of the day, who gives a shit?”