My next door neighbor is the director of Blackfeet Studies out at Heart Butte and we had a brief conversation yesterday while I took my clothes off the clothesline and she indulged in a brief cigarette break on her back ramp. I mentioned “One Windy Day,” the story the seventh grade and I wrote in 1990 when I was teaching out there. I described how we sat around a table and figured out the plot among us, one chapter per week, not knowing exactly how it would go but putting ourselves into it as characters and then seeing where that took us. http://www.lulu.com/prairiemary if you are curious enough to buy the finished book. No publisher knows what to do with it because the authors are collaborators, multiple.
Last night I watched “My Blueberry Nights,” written and directed by Kar Wai Wong, and this evening I watched the interviews and short film about the “making.” It occurred to me that the process was quite similar in some ways: it was produced with a certain amount of collaboration. Somehow the film has gotten the reputation -- indeed, Wong himself has the reputation -- of not working from a script. To some minds this has meant that the film was paperless and directionless, that it wandered. But in fact, it is tightly structured, which is what allows improvisation. A diner is run by Jude Law, as appealing a role as I’ve ever seen him in and probably closer to his real personality. A girl enters, portrayed by Norah Jones, who in reality is a singing personality rather than an actress. This story is like three verses of the same song. Her boyfriend has just dumped her and she is stuck. Can’t give him up. We know that she is overlooking Jude Law, but she knows that the timing is just not right. She needs to explore the world. Until she does that, she can’t even see him. He can see HER, but he’s wise and he knows that thing about setting people free, and if they come back to you . . .
Second verse is Wong’s homage to Tennessee Williams. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Rachel Weitz, who is so pure and devoted in “The Constant Gardener,” is here an “anti-Southern Belle.” Raunchy and out-of-control, she is still loved by a cop who just can’t let her go. She will kill any guy waving a butterfly net and she does. She has to be free -- but when she is, that kills HER, too. Like a bee that dies without its stinger.
Third verse: Natalie Portman wonderfully playing a gambler who advises “take the risks but make sure you cut the cards.” Against type again (these actresses must have had a blast doing these roles!) she’s a calculator who doesn’t really trust herself and is so afraid of being captured by her father that she lets him die alone. She and Norah become good friends and set out on an American West road trip: “girls just wanna be free.” One of the snarky reviewers of “My Blueberry Nights” said, “Oh, the image of the American woman as wearing sunglasses and leaning against a convertible is SO out-of-date. It just shows that Wong is culturally insensitive.” I dunno where she lives, but the image still plays here in Montana, baby!
All through the film the colors were hot: dayglo, flourescent, primary, neon, but always in a dark brown context, almost varnished. I kept thinking “those are Chinese colors.” Red lanterns. Yellow satin robes. Lime and purple. The three encounters were shot in summer: hot. The emotions of Norah the watcher, by contrast, were delicate and shaded, maybe enervated. She watched. All three main women were near-Asian, petite brunettes. Law, of course, is totally unAsian but not American.
When the three stories had been filmed, Wong spent time editing them. After months, Norah and Law returned in wintertime to finish off the plot. By then it was clear that with her postcards, the Norah character had been keeping an attachment (untraceable) and in searching for her as she traveled, the Law character was waiting for her. A slice of blueberry pie with vanilla ice cream, and the loop was completed -- a Joe Campbell tale for a girl. Sealed with a kiss. Wong says, “Americans like sweet.” But with a tang.
The actors spoke about Wong’s directing as “fluid” or “trusting” and he talked about the clarity of where he wanted things to go, but his willingness to make discoveries along the way. They sounded like a choreographer and his dancers, playing the abstract pattern against the realities of actual people.
It is the very universality that is the key to this near-collaborative film. It flies in the face of auteur theory, in which a lonely inspired genius creates a masterpiece based on his own life. So did our little Heart Butte story, which is why people were at first interested and then decided that I had written it, that the class could not have collaborated or even contributed. In our culture, if there is not one central, solitary, privileged genius -- then it is assumed there is no one, that there was chaos and then luck. Luckily, Wong is from Hong Kong.
The thing about a solitary, intense genius creator is very, very -- did I say “very?” -- strong. The fact that he is usually male means that women are now devoted to that myth, trying to measure up to it, because they believe it will make them special and, well, RICH. But it is often a destructive myth, right out of Christian patriarchy. Why is it that God created lesser beings instead of finding a Goddess with whom he could collaborate? Is that what led Him into flirtation with his only equal, the Devil?
I’m just beginning to read Linda Karell’s study of Western literature writers who collaborate. She’s the head of the English department at Montana State University in Bozeman and though she’s using concepts from that inscrutable French philosopher stuff, she seems to be making sense of them. As she points out, there are many ways of collaborating and every writer must at least collaborate with the reader. The people who composed lit books for the Heart Butte seventh grade twenty years ago couldn’t do it. The book the seventh grade collaborated on was even read by the janitor.