There Isn't That Much Ocean Between Boston and Taipei
314 · 1 February 01
Emm Gryner: Dead Relatives
I recognize that there is something irrational about the fact that I am willing to junk a speculatively purchased album after ten minutes, if I think I've heard sufficient evidence that it's not going to be to my tastes, yet I will not walk out of a movie before the final credit, no matter how certain I am, long before then, of its worthlessness. Economic and material factors, at the very least, argue for reversing this policy; a CD generally costs me about twice as much as a movie ticket, and due to another personality defect I am unable to part with CDs once I have bought them. So I sit through ordeals in which I have little invested, when I could so simply walk away and forget them forever, and then I go home to a space I continue to share (although as my CD-storage crisis slowly intensifies, the ones I don't care about get relegated to increasingly less-desirable real-estate) with records I instantly hated. The most obvious structural explanation, of course, is that movies are narrative art, and you can't fairly assess a story without hearing the ending. But I bail out of books if I can't stand how the story is told, and besides, I can think of lots of movies whose endings have flipped me from ambivalence to disgust, and barely any at all that seemed mediocre until transformed by a brilliant conclusion. (The Sixth Sense is probably the closest, but I was enjoying its eerie atmosphere even before the twist.) The real reason, I suspect, and admittedly there's something circular about this, is that I expect less from movies, so I'm less disappointed when they're bad. If I ranked all the movies and albums I've ever experienced in a combined list according to how much time they've spent in my thoughts, and how deeply they've altered my understanding of anything, I doubt there would be more than five movies in the top hundred. To take one especially tangible metric, it is absolutely routine for me to like an album so much I want to play it again the moment it ends, but in the past decade there have been exactly five movies that affected me so powerfully I felt compelled to go back and see them a second time during their theater run. The only movie I've ever seen three times during its first run was Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the third time deserves an asterisk, since it came during a trip to London when we discovered that all the other movies playing at the specific theater we were determined to experience were American crap. The middle three films were Chasing Amy, Henry Fool and Magnolia, although in Magnolia's case I confess that sitting through it the second time was in part an act of bravado, and there was a girl involved.
The new entrant in this list, which I saw for the first time last Sunday night and then fidgeted for about forty-eight hours until I could get back and see it again on Tuesday, is Taiwanese director Edward Yang's 2000 film Yi Yi, currently making its erratic way around the US no-real-distributor circuit. As an opportunity for cinema-going bravado, actually, Yi Yi makes Magnolia look like Toy Story. It is a muted three-hour family portrait conducted in a mixture of subtitled Chinese, unsubtitled Japanese, and a handful of scenes in hesitant English. There is virtually nothing I would describe as excitement, not much that qualifies as plot, no sex, almost no violence. There are three scenes that might produce suspense, and I liked all three so much better the second time around, when I knew their outcomes instead of just guessing that they'd end well, that I will disarm them for you by telling you ahead of time that the film contains no suicides or accidental deaths. There are no special effects to speak of, many scenes are shot in low light and linger far longer than strictly necessary, and both the setting (urban Taipei) and contexts (a girls' high school, a struggling technology company, a high-rise apartment building, a series of unremarkable restaurants and hotels) are so generically contemporary that the film hasn't even the edge of cultural frisson to distract Western audiences. If all actions imply their opposites, then Yi Yi is the anti-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
But this is also the most impressed and overwhelmed I've been by an artwork since 69 Love Songs, and by moving pictures since My So-Called Life. I'm rarely excited while I'm watching Yi Yi, but almost continuously gripped by rapture and awe. There's little plot, but a daunting intricacy of parallelisms and relationships I suspect I'd notice still more layers of in a third viewing. There's no sex, but love, attraction, romance, temptation and yearning swirl around almost every character, and there are three of the most haunting scenes of people not having sex that I can think of. With the possible exception of one time-lapse shot of wispy clouds moving across a blue sky, and a couple scenes that take place in parks, there is almost nothing that would qualify as cinematography in the steadicams-on-helicopters, Out-of-Africa-ish sense, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie in which the act of placing the camera was done with such evident deliberation, nor one in which, as a result, the camera and the spaces become as much characters as the people. Scenes are photographed through windows, in mirrors, in security cameras, from other rooms, in darkness. Shots begin long before characters enter them, end well after they've exited, or sometimes take place without their subjects making appearances at all, just flickers in the light from outside the frame indicating their movements. The sound, frequently recorded from a different perspective than the photography, is at times alarmingly intimate, to the extreme that in a couple key scenes I'm half convinced that the actors are wearing contact microphones. Although it's possible that I'm overestimating the understatedness of the performances because I can't follow the nuances of the dialog in any meaningful way, at one point in the middle of my first viewing I realized I had forgotten I was watching actors at all, and in my opinion Wu Nienjen, Ke Suyun, Kelly Lee and Yupang Chang (as the resigned father, NJ, his old childhood sweetheart, his timid and doubt-wracked daughter and her friend's cowed boyfriend, respectively) all deserve awards for body-language alone. An adorable eight-year-old son and an expansively philosophical Japanese software engineer (whose wide-ranging conversations with NJ are the parts in English) give audiences with low tolerances for reverie or subtitles just enough uncomplicated relief for there to be hope they'll stick it out to the end. For me, at least, Yi Yi manages, as do many albums but incredibly few films, to reset its own aesthetic scale so that within its boundaries it's possible to accomplish, with the tiniest of gestures, what it would normally require symphonies and coronations to convey. At one point there's a long, static tracking-shot out the window of an elevated train gliding through a rainy downtown dusk, office lights glowing nearly monochromatically, and excerpted it would be filler, but against all the film's bare lobbies, concrete underpasses and empty corridors, I find it breathtakingly gorgeous. A shot of NJ, standing in his own living room, hands clasped behind his back, holding a portable CD player to which he's listening on headphones, despite the fact that there's nobody else in the apartment to disturb and an expensive stereo system is visible on a shelf beside him, gives me a frightening chill of alienated recognition. There's a particularly deft scene in which Ting-Ting, the high-school-age daughter, prepares wordlessly for a date while Yang-Yang, the eight-year-old, practices holding his breath underwater by standing on the toilet seat and plunging his head into a filled sink (in his underwear; the film is not at all bashful about exploiting his cuteness), and for a second I wonder if the oblique John Hughes allusion is intentional. There are two scenes that revolve around hotel doorways, one after a door has closed and another after someone has departed through an open one, that I believe are now permanently burned into my mind. Music is a constant presence, but rarely in the usual obtuse soundtrack manner. NJ hums along with his headphones; Ota, the engineer, commandeers a karaoke bar; Ting-Ting plays a quiet song on the piano; her friend tunes her cello. People face themselves or try not to, intrude into each other's solitudes or fail to, reflect on paths taken and not, and cast about for redemption, aware that they don't even know what it would look like. Does the idea of a Koyaanisqatsi for humans make any sense? Instead of hours of infrastructure traffic compressed to seconds, Yi Yi renders minutes of real life at the pace they actually happen, not the faster one movies usually try to impose, and one of its chief brilliances, to me, lies in the realization that watching a single person do more or less nothing for thirty seconds can be far more revelatory than watching an entire impersonal ecosystem thrash for a week.
The film is only one of two reasons why my faith in human potential is at a recent high this week, though, and of the two it's the one I least expect to be able to share. It is complex, introverted art, and that's not what a lot of people mean by entertainment. I dragged friends with me both times I saw it, and neither one was anywhere near as entranced as I was. It's a long, slow, heavy, subtitled movie in which nothing much happens, any of which may be enough to ruin it for you. Even if you think it might not, as of last weekend the movie was only playing at ten theaters in the US, so unless you live near one of them, you may not get to find out. Whether it will eventually make it to cable or video, I have no idea. There were some other people there at the Capitol to see it, even thought it was a Tuesday-night showing that let out at midnight, but there weren't many. Then again, there weren't that many at my other faith-sustaining event, the previous Tuesday night, either, and although it took place at an out-of-the-way club that doesn't often host live music, it was Emm Gryner playing, and I cannot comprehend any other reason than lack of information why a person in their right mind would pass up the opportunity to attend, especially in what I assume is an incredibly short window of opportunity before she becomes a huge star and everything is different. This is the fourth time I've seen her. The first time was a short opening set for a nightclub gig by the Cardigans, just Emm and an electric piano or a guitar. The second and third times were living-room shows without even a microphone to sing into. This fourth time there was a microphone and a PA system, but I was still sitting on the floor, six feet from her. When she's a huge star, playing arenas with a nine-piece band behind her, I will miss these early shows dearly. I will miss watching her set up, watching her walk around behind her keyboard, plug in her damper pedal and kick it through to the other side. I will miss being able to follow her tiny costume changes (in between setting up and playing she changed shirts and took off a hat). I will miss being close enough to make requests when she asks for them. I will miss being able to see her private smiles in between songs as she decides what to play next. And I will miss, when her songs soar out over the ecstatic crowds they deserve, and seem destined for, the electrifying sensation of hearing them defy close walls. There is music that belongs in living rooms, quiet, delicate music that would be lost in large spaces. Emm's songs are not that music, they are sparkling, crystalline pop of the grandest, least reticent sort. She's an enthusiastic pianist and a functional guitarist ("All my guitar songs sound the same until I start singing", she admitted after a false start at one of them), but her singing voice is flawless, and her choruses are transcendent. She can sit in the corner of a small room and make me believe that distance and gravity have been dispelled. Although I know, intellectually, that these qualities aren't that much more objective or universal than Yi Yi's implacable patience and poetic grace, or any other detail of artistic style, my body insists that this is different. I can formulate no arguments while Emm is singing, and so temporarily forget that they're possible. At the most intense moments of Yi Yi, I feel the movie and I have reached a personal understanding, and I want other people to have that feeling, but I'm vividly aware that if they're going to, they have to reach their own understandings with the film, they can't share mine. Listening to Emm, I am taken out of myself, and as I surrender myself to this sensation, so do I surrender myself to the illusion that the sensation is all Emm's doing, and none of mine, and thus can be, must be, experienced by anybody else who comes close enough. I see, out of the corner of my eye, that some of the people who came to see Meghan Toohey's opening set are leaving during Emm's, but my system refuses to process this data. Walking away from Emm is Wrong, and as long as she's singing, Wrongness is banished. The world will be saved, and all I have to do is sit here and listen. Of course this misses the point. Emm isn't a spiritual leader, or even a leader at all. I said, after the two living-room shows, that in watching her I'd fallen in love with her, and there's certainly a visceral sense in which that's true, but it's not the sense that matters. There are a number of artists, both male and female, from whose music I derive an impression, whether accurate or not, that we share values and/or personality defects (if indeed the two are separable), and Emm isn't one of them. I do not, as I listen to her, construct theories about how she could fit into my life, or vice versa. I just listen. I disappear into her songs, effortlessly. She asks for requests, and I instantly plead for what I know to be my favorites, hoping desperation isn't audible in my voice, but the moment she starts playing something else I think "Oh god, that's the one I should have wanted to hear". I want everybody else in the room, in the city, to feel this helplessly transfixed, but the more still you hold, the more quickly the rest of the universe spins away from you. I want Emm's songs to save the world, but she knows, as do I when I'm not actually sitting in front of her, that art's task isn't to save the world, it's to remind the rest of us, to whom fall the daily responsibilities of salvage and reconstruction, why it's worth saving. We don't need leaders, especially not if we learn how to find truths in pop songs or movies instead of pilgrimages. Emm finishes, later, far too soon, her set barely a sixth of the time I've spent watching Yi Yi twice, but the essential effects of the two experiences are the same: I feel better about the world afterwards than before. I am cured of something I never diagnosed.
Emm's next album is underway, and judging from the several new songs in the set (and Emm is one of the only artists I know who can make me feel the same way by playing songs I've never heard before as she can by playing ones I've memorized, which is an indication of her songwriting ability but also of a relatively tight stylistic focus that produces new songs with close familial resemblances to the old ones) it will be wonderful, but for the time being the space between Science Fair and its successor is filled by Dead Relatives, last year's collection of studio experiments, old demos and other miscellany, which serves, if you take the time to reprogram it into chronological order, as a surprisingly precise and comprehensive summary of Emm's progress so far. In the oldest song, a sweet, slightly syrupy and unnervingly proficient (given that she was in her teens at the time) 1993 four-track recording called "A Little War", I can practically hear Sarah McLachlan's Fumbling Towards Ecstasy playing in the background. By the drum-machine-prodded 1995 meditation "Suffer" she reminds me more of Tanita Tikaram or Tasmin Archer. The hushed "Yellow", recorded the same year but with more help and technology, is halfway from Enya to Sade, and a crass agent might have been able to get it into one of the ballad slots on the last Spice Girls or NSync album, but a smarter one might have called Donna Lewis. Of the two 1996 songs, "Atlas" is dense and busily arranged, but at their highest arcs the choruses break free and start sounding like I want them to, and "Mary Jill"'s glassy, synth-backed piano timbre and cadence sound like they came straight from Kate Bush's "Candle in the Wind" cover, but again the chorus is heartfelt and timeless (and seems, when I think it says "Hey, don't give in, Mary Jill; / You know I know you will / And I know it's going to be alright", disconcertingly realistic and compassionate, but I see in the official lyrics that the middle line is actually "You know I know you well"). By 1997, though, Emm is on the way from Original Leap Year to Public, and the songs are clearly growing up. "Half Sorry" is a spare, uncluttered piano-and-voice performance in an ostensibly Tori-ish mode, but where Tori would implicate us in her obsessions, Emm sounds like she's granting pardons. The Transistor Sound & Lighting Co. production of "Summerlong", which was one of my favorite songs of 1998 in its straightforward rock-band implementation on "Public", is more textural and self-contained, but I think you could set Emm's vocal to the sound of asthmatic Prussians trampling an accordion factory and it would still sound like a pop idealization to me. The one 1998 recording, a piano-and-synth-pulse lullaby called "Daryn Song", would probably have been eclipsed by "Acid" if it had been on Public, but deserves this second chance. The buzzing, clanging arrangement of the 1999 track "Parting Song" seems like an odd attempt to distract from what, underneath, is an elegantly traditional ballad, but Emm sings "If a new kiss was on your lips, / If another pixie brought you bliss, / I wouldn't think to veto it", implying both that she imagines herself as a pixie (which explains some hairstyle decisions), and that she thinks she's in competition with other pixies, and the odd sound treatments thus take on metaphorical significance as part of an attempt to differentiate herself though disguise, which is understandable, but misguided and superfluous. "Lonely Boy" is a fragile, haunted cover of a song written by Vincent Gallo, but it doesn't lend itself to Emm's talents well enough to make me forget how much I loathed Gallo's film Buffalo '66.
The final pair, "Joan" and the short, unlisted twelfth track, "Today's Rock", are the newest (at least, "Joan" is from 2000, and "Today's Rock" is indexed as part of the same track so in my re-ordering it remains the conclusion) and the simplest, and on record both initially just sound sad to me, especially when the fluttery keyboards come in in "Today's Rock", but after hearing some of the other, brasher new songs in concert, this ending makes more sense to me as a half-stop, closing a quiet chapter to make way for a louder one. Sad endings are misleading. Yi Yi opens with a family together at a wedding, and closes with them pulled apart at a funeral, but they are far stronger, and much better prepared to make use of pain. "Rock and roll", Emm sighs, "Get on with things". Rock tries so hard to portray itself as a power source, as the engine for change, but of course, as often as not our triumphs and disasters are merely ratifying changes that began in moments of silent resolve. By the time Yang-Yang reads his wisdom-of-the-innocent letter, all the important things in the movie have already happened. In general, by the time we get a chance to write the speeches, the events are history. We have met our first loves again, and have not ended up starting over. We have assented to mistakes and then been spared them. We have missed births and deaths, yet somehow returned to play a role in lives. We have been separated from ourselves, and then reconciled. We have come to know things that probably can't be true. And we have resolved, maybe because we watched somebody surrender gracefully to an inevitability we'd been trying to fight, accepted a feeling we couldn't explain, granted ourselves a forgiveness we'd been asking from others, or just quit asking questions long enough to notice how many have been answered, that tomorrow, and even tonight, a moment after Emm sings us into a sleep we've resisted as long as we could stand it, the world will become both exquisitely, uncontrollably, terrifyingly beautiful, and exactly as it was.