Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he travels along America’s byways with Wong Kar Wai and his first English-language feature, My Blueberry Nights:
As an act of full journalistic disclosure, I should mention at the start of this installment of VHS or Beta that in the bitterly cold winter of early 2007, I performed one day’s work on the production of My Blueberry Nights, the first English-language feature from world-renowned Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai (after two decades of acclaimed films like Chungking Express, So Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love).
I day-played for the mere sake of being able to boast in cocktail chatter that I worked on a Kar Wai film, and apparently I wasn’t alone in wanting to have such a topic for polite conversation. Marquee names like Norah Jones, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn, and, uh, Cat Power, no doubt felt a similar urge to imbibe Wong Kar Wai’s secondhand-smoke brand of cool, too.
For if anything, Kar Wai is cool. Always in sunglasses, a smoke perpetually in hand, he absorbs and namechecks Western culture expertly. For those who asked me to sum up the man in a single sentiment, I explained, “He’s the Haruki Murakami of cinema.” Kar Wai’s soundtracks are infused with choice selections, as meticulously pondered as the color palettes, costumes, and lingering shots of curlicues of protagonist smoke in his films. When first sitting through In the Mood for Love, how could you not be swept up by those FO-NET-ick-lee sung Portuguese numbers from Nat King Cole? (It’s strangely fitting that Shigeru Umebayashi, whose music also appeared in that film, reappears here with a harmonica-led version of that lingering melody.)
One suspects that the opportunity to shoot in the states might also give the man a chance to fully indulge his love of American music (and hit more than a few record stores along the way). And the soundtrack for My Blueberry Nights namechecks Otis Redding, Ruth Brown, and, uh, Cat Power. Most of the interludes come courtesy of Ry Cooder, who since his soundtrack slide guitar work on 1968′s Performance has shown he can conjure bottleneck incidental music in his sleep. And here, he really does. He also pads out the proceedings with two of his producer efforts (for Mavis Staples and Hello Stranger). Standout is Cassandra Wilson’s ambient take on Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”
Alas, Ry Cooder’s not the only sleepwalker during said Nights. “Living Proof” and “The Greatest,” from Chan Marshall’s most somnambulant album, The Greatest, get deployed throughout the film. As for her first on-screen appearance, in the liner notes, Kar Wai talks about Marshall visiting the set: “We got along great, and immediately fell to joking about how she could play… a part that then did not even exist. Come winter 2006, Chan re-visited the set, this time in front of the camera playing that very role we once laughed about.” True, as it is pretty laughable to have the stilted Chan Marshall portray a Russian émigré ingénue, but this passage also gives the impression that Kar Wai came over to rub elbows with ‘cool’ celebrities himself.
For the most part, though, the secondary characters give the film its wee bit of gravity. These characters (played by Strathairn, Portman, and Weisz) are addictive personalities: drunks, card sharks, the lovelorn. In their brief time onscreen, they far outstrip the Law and Jones, whose passion is about as torrid as room-temperature vanilla ice cream. There are many other structural problems to the film, the most glaring being the naturally arising question: “What sort of road movie has only two stops on it?”
Throughout, it feels as if Wong Kar Wai is caught up in the veneer of the American myth, his camera merely capturing–yet ultimately unable to penetrate–the shiny surfaces. But what gives with that diner’s perpetually uneaten blueberry pie? Given that Jones always passes out after eating a bite of it (it’s when she’s passed out that Law slips her the tongue), perhaps these blueberries are really just roofies.