"I think it's one of the great films," a screenwriter of my acquaintance said to me last week, at our first in-person meeting, of Edward Yang's 1991 A Brighter Summer Day. His choice of words was, as always, entirely deliberate: "one of the great films," not "one of the great Taiwan films," not "one of the great films of its time," not "one of the great Edward Yang films." No, my friend's estimation was extremely straightforward, and I suspect, entirely correct.
How to describe Yang's four-hour film, which Yang spun out of a real-life story that occured in Taipei when the director was in his early teens? It's on one level a family drama, on another a sort of social history, thoroughly steeped in issues of identity and national pride and culture. On still another level it's a story of personal torment, informed by intimations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Its narrative flow, such as it is, is unlike anything I've seen in any other film ever, including Yang's similarly sprawling but considerably less angry final film Yi-Yi. The fluidity of the storytelling makes the sometimes shocking, appalling incidents conveyed therein (one of the film's concerns is rival youth gangs, and it's all vaguely unsettling threats and pushes until things spin out of anyone's real control with pretty much the snap of the fingers) extra-resonant. The finale pulls all the thematic strings together in a way that makes one want to rewind the film in its entirety, and not just for reasons of enhanced comprehension; it's a picture in which the thing you most deeply wish not to happen, happens.
Anyway, I loved it, but I need to see it once, twice more before I begin to think about writing about it, and I don't necessarily mean that in the (precise) way Charles Taylor seems to find so deplorable in that Dissent piece that people were admiring/getting irritated about a while back (which is now available on the free-online tip if'n you're still interested); it's not that I didn't get it but I really believe I need some more background on the film, and some actual notes, to write about it properly. The screening I attended last week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Howard Gilman Theater was a pleasure trip foremost. Although I was aware that this engagement represented the first U.S. theatrical run of the film, which meant, as far as my own personal rule was concerned, the film would be eligible for a spot on one of my year's-best list.
Because I agree with my screenwriter friend: I think it is one of the great films. It's really kind of unbelievably good, and unusual, and pleasurable, and painful. I think as many people as humanly possible should see it. But there's only so much I can do.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center has been doing a good deal to up its profile, and the afternoon screening of Brighter Summer Day I attended was not exactly poorly attended. For all that, I wished that the engagement of this World Cinema Foundation restoration of the film had been attended by more hoopla. All my life as a critic I've made it a point to bang the drum for stuff I love/believe in and would like to see a larger audience share; my earliest pieces of published criticism were advocacy essays on records by the likes of Peter Blegvad and Robert Wyatt, and I would play quite the earnest little maroon at events like the New Music Seminar, waylaying the likes of Bob Guccione, Jr., and haranguing him about WHY DOESN'T HE COVER THESE GREAT ARTISTS? I remember Jon Pareles approaching me and shaking his head wryly and saying words to the effect of "I was once like you, Grasshopper." But anyway, I digress. The thing is, back then, writing about records, it was theoretically possible for the reader to go out and buy the records I was flogging. But as of right now, there's likely no way for you to see this restoration of Brighter Summer Day (the World Cinema Foundation's website has a screening schedule of their restorations, which helps, when the film is in fact screening...)
In 2006, when I was at Premiere, I put Jean-Pierre Melville's 1968-made Army of Shadows on my year's best list—at the TOP of my year's best list, in fact!—and I quoted Robert Christgau's review of Dylan/The Band's The Basement Tapes, which had been recorded in the latter '60s but not released officially until the mid-'70s: "We needn't bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967 too." That went for Army at the time, I thought, and it goes maybe even double for Yang's film. Still. In 2006 Army of Shadows got a relatively high-profile arthouse rerelease courtesy of Rialto Films. It was highly publicized; an event more or less. A place on a critic's ten best list that motivated new viewers into seeking the film out would not necessarily led to something like a dead end.
In a post below, I link to a piece about a critics' movement to raise awareness about Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, a film with a difficult post-production history, a film that many of its champions believe is the victim of some form of corporate neglect on the part of its partial production/distribution entity, Fox Searchlight. I admire Margaret a good deal, but quite frankly, a not-insubstantial part of why I'm contemplating giving it a space on my own ten-best-of-the-year list, which will be part of the MSN Movies critics' roundup, has to do with the question of what material good my advocacy of it can achieve; if the "#teammargaret" campaign does what it's meant to (and it appears to have been working to an extent), the film may get something resembling a re-release, and hoped-for critical mass, such as it is, will help convince some people to go out, and fill seats in theaters. Right now, as it happens, my advocacy of A Brighter Summer Day occurs in something of a vacuum, one that I and/or other critics can't do much to effect. This is not to say that Yang's film is in any way a victim of neglect in this particular case: that is, the film WAS restored (in 2009, as it happened), and beautifully at that; but its very status as a restored film under this aegis defines, at the moment, the circumstances under which it can be seen. Which is to say that my putting it on a "Best of 2011" list is possibly the equivalent of talking to the wall, whereas putting Margaret, which is maybe not one of THE great films but is an entirely noteworthy and provocative/involving/engrossing one, on such a list might not only result in more people seeing and enjoying the film, not to mention maybe securing a DVD (or even Blu-ray!) release of the picture.
Given the situation of A Brighter Summer Day, I have to assume that there are forces at work securing such a release for that film; it's a natural for Criterion. When/if that release comes, I'll have a lot more to say about the picture. And what the hell, I haven't actually composed my best-of-the-year list yet, so who knows how I'll think about all this tomorrow. Just thought maybe some of you would be interested in engaging with respect to the continual, never-ending, mental torment of being a film critic, drum-beater, what have you...