“When two things happen simultaneously, pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention.”-Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Dale Cooper
Delineation of time is perhaps the most fundamental problem of cinema, to which all films, temporal by nature, are a proposed solution. I recently curated Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (2015) for myself in a back-to-back viewing (both were on sale at Target on my quest for paper towels), and providence drew my attention to cinematic time. Both Anderson and Hou develop distinct narrative-integrated devices to differentiate time/space. Their clarity and coincidence in doing so through varied aspect ratios and coloration joins them in a dialogue.
When the shape of the frame is changed (as the seemingly more adventurous filmmakers of long ago would swipe, vignette, overlay and even mask) it tends to break the 4th wall. It calls attention to the “thingness” of the film. However, in this age where diy combinatory media is so prevalent, the viewing populous has acclimated to sudden visual shifts, and the scattering of content across numerous platforms in what can only be described as an informational cubism. Where cinema differs as a medium is the self-selected depravation of all things besides the screen, not the interactive integration of the screen into ones reality. What prevents us from from catapulting out of the unique and tenuous rapture of a cinematic experience is if the changing shape of that screen has something more to say.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a marvelous Russian doll, whose lovingly composed layers reveal the story of a story of a story with a singularly handmade quality. Anderson bears such reverence for the “objectness” of a book (something he demonstrates in The Royal Tennenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom) that he emulates it cinematically in total, and one cannot help but relish TGBH in the same way that the young girl in its opening sequence cherishes the pages and binding of the titular novel, so beloved that she sits and reads it. The story of The Grand Budapest delves into an intrigue involving the eccentric, effeminate and philandering Concierge, Monsieur Gustav H. (Ralph Finnes), a dead elderly widow (Tilda Swinton), the widow’s sociopathic greedy son (Adrien Brody), and the inheritance of a particular painting, all poised at the rumblings of an impending war in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka. But that whole universe of intersections and idiosyncrasies is enveloped in the unexpected experience of an author receiving that story from its source, and even that is enveloped in the delight of a person reading the resultant work. And so all else besides the opening and closing frames might be the images refracted in a girl’s mind’s eye, reading her favorite book.
Anderson manipulates the shape of the frame throughout TGBH to “tell time” as it were, between three ostensible periods. The film begins in the 1980’s, the presumptive “present” in which a young girl visits the memorial of “the Author” of The Grand Budapest Hotel novel, a snow-covered scene shot in muted pastels, in 1:85 aspect. 1:85 remains as we cut to the living author (Tom Wilkinson) seated at a desk who recites the introduction of his novel. TGBH expands to 2:35 for the autumnally colored middle-tense of the film (1965) in which the young writer (Jude Law) visits the then defunct Grand Budapest Hotel for a respite. Here he learns of its glory day from Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the owner and former lobby boy. The film narrows to full-frame 1:37 for the pink, lavender, gray and cool blue saturated sequences of the 1930’s, where most of the film unfolds. Note that widest framing is used for the telling of the story by Mr. Mustafa to the Young Writer. It is here that the details and ideas must expand to fill a space, absorbed by the writer, and then consolidated into a novel which is by definition finite. Such is why the medium 1:85, which splits the difference between 1:37 and 2:35, is used for the latter time periods. 1:37 is a fantastic format because of its ability to suggest the past, and because its squared confinement, like the polaroid image, denotes an inherent nostalgia. These scenes are highly concentrated in their qualities of mood, character and detail, such that the 1:37 serves to further distill the information.
It is a thrill to see such accessibly linguistic use of the frame, and indeed the shape of the film itself, which is symmetrical in a way that even Anderson had yet to achieve. Here, it elevates to serve the story. And yet, when presented with Anderson’s microscopic control of form and function, we are still moved and stirred by the inhabitants that world. Japanese master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu was able to hone this very same tension, and Anderson seems to bear kinship to that master on numerous levels, not least of which is their pictorials and frequent implementation of visual humor. In fact the rhythm and bookended symmetry of TGBH is altogether evocative of Ozu’s staple ABCBA sequence formula writ large, as is the “free radical” quality of emotional beings moving about in a fixed linear ballet of composed shots and customs. (pictured here are Moonrise Kingdom 2012 and Good Morning 1959)
After watching TGBH, I delved even further back into time with Hou Hsiao Hsien’s 8th Century Wu Xia drama The Assassin. If there were any vector between the divergent cinema’s of Anderson and Hou it would be Ozu, emphatically. Where Anderson evokes the Japanese master’s structural and compositional rigidity, Hou’s long elliptical takes of mostly domestic dramas evoke a persons floating gaze, not far from how Ozu’s camera was positioned as a patient bystander in seated position. And like Ozu, both Anderson and Hou are fascinated by the fracturing and reforming of families, inherited and found.
Never has familial drama reached such heights in Hou’s career as with The Assassin, a rarefied and mystifying mood/period piece. The story, both sparse and wildly complicated, is set during the Tang Dynasty, wherein the outlying territories (like Weibo), once militarized branches of the central Chinese court, have begun to assert autonomy from the Emperor. In keeping with Hou’s tendency toward obliquity and interiority, The Assassin defies expectations as a reputed “Martial Arts” film.
Hou’s is a particularly watchful cinema that nearly dissolves the screen through its patience, but in The Assassin Hou acknowledges that very screen by changing its shape and coloration. The judiciousness of these changes enhances our understanding of the material. Nie Yinniang (played by an especially enigmatic Shu Qi, donning all black) is an assassin, trained from youth by the Princess-Nun Jiaxin, charged to execute corrupt politicians in her nun master’s quest to destabilize the central court. When Yinniang falters in her duty to execute a governor, the nun sends her on a mission to squash that offending sentimentality. This, the “prologue” of the film is shot in the primary 1:85 aspect ratio, and despite the monochrome it breathes, fluidly and succinctly suggesting the cold logic and focus in Yinniang’s training. She develops martial skills that are unmatched, even understatedly mythic, but her conscience is nuisance. To reflect the interior storm that complicates Yinniang’s view, the film swells from a fade-to-black into a full color landscape as she returns home to Weibo on a mission to kill none other than her Military Governor cousin Tian Ji’an (Chang Chen), to whom as a child she was once promised. In Weibo, the tangled history of characters’ relations are revealed, and Yinniang must confront her past, whilst swaying between presence and non-presence, attack and retreat. She lives like dark matter, detectable only in how she displaces the world around her.
While ostensibly chronological, The Assassin behaves with an implied non-linearity through characters that exposit memories regarding Yinniang’s childhood expulsion from Weibo. These moments of recollection are so unblinkingly observed that they become as potent as flashbacks. In them, all action ceases because the telling is all.
Hou changes the shape of his film but once, to the 2:35 aspect ratio. He visualizes a memory possessed by Yinniang of her mother playing the zither and telling the impactful story of a captive bluebird. The color of her memory is desturated, but the frame is ever wider, the implication being a reverence for memory, but also an acknowledgement of its distortion.
Although the period detail and language (even Chinese audiences required subtitles due to the film’s use of classical Chinese) are as rich in handmade detail as any frame of TGBH, The Assassin is ultimately more space than matter, due in part to the elliptical and distanced behavior of the camera (Mark Lee Ping Bing). The Assassin’s physical reality is convincing in an almost subliminal way. In this, we (as well as the characters) have much occasion to ponder and much encouragement to revisit. We must work to connect the dots, to tease out the details and make inferences of implications, or to be at piece with not knowing everything. This embrace of ambiguities helps us understand the conflict of Yinniang’s conscience, and it helps the viewer to own their experience.
I am transported by the plein air intimacy of Hou’s works, which is proportional to my adoration of Anderson’s seeming excess, in which all the dots are connected, but with such an idiosyncratic flourish that it becomes its own emphatic language. Such suggests that the vitality of cinema resides more in the how, than the what, in the same way that our words are subservient to an orchestra of nonverbal queues.